‘Merry Christmas from Plague Island Britain’

Passengers waiting to leave London after a lockdown was announced on December 20. Keystone / Stefan Rousseau

For Swiss living in the UK, Switzerland remained within reach for holiday visits back home – until recently. A Swiss emigrant in London reflects on this year’s strange circumstances.

This content was published on December 23, 2020
Nicole Krättli, London

News from home reaches me. Did you make it out? Can we do something for you? Send you chocolate or wine? 

So it's come to this; colleagues at work want to send me care packages in London.

Saturday December 19, shortly after 4pm: London and southeastern England move to the highest Covid-19 risk level - lockdown - from midnight. Boom! Christmas is cancelled. Boom! A mutant virus up to 70% more contagious than the previous variant is raging right on our doorstep. Boom! Consternation. Confusion. What exactly just happened? Just a fortnight ago I was delighted to see the picture of 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in her blue penguin jumper, the first person in the UK to receive the new Pfizer vaccine. 

Author Nicole Krättli left the Swiss city of Chur for London.

Of course, I knew that Covid-19 was not over with, but somehow it felt like a departure, the beginning of the end. The end of an absurd year. A year that has cost so many people their lives, ruined livelihoods, divided families, friends and entire nations. During the first lockdown in March, many signs on closed shops read "See you again on the other side". “Penguin Maggie” was the hope that we were finally on our way to the other side. But I guess we didn't reckon with the host, or rather the virus hosts. 

"Just a fortnight ago I was delighted to see the picture of 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in her blue penguin jumper, the first person in the UK to receive the new Pfizer vaccine." Keystone / Jacob King

What if I am an asymptomatic mutant virus carrier? 

Saturday night, I try to distract myself with work, unsuccessfully. It feels like hitting a red number on the last square in Snakes and Ladders and having to go back to the beginning. But not everyone turns out to be a good loser. Videos of London’s St Pancras, one of the main railway stations in the British capital, are circulating on Twitter. They show crowds, all wanting to flee the city before it is cut off from midnight. 

Although it's always the same two or three videos that are shared, I can't stop watching this exodus. What is happening right now? Should I leave too? But where to? Just out of London, out of the lockdown zone? Off the island, back to Switzerland? And then what? Home to my mother? What if I'm an asymptomatic mutant virus carrier? I fall asleep, restless and with my mobile phone in my hand. 

Sunday December 20, the fourth of Advent. Fifteen hours have passed since Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the Netherlands is stopping flights from the UK. A pity, but I can do without Amsterdam, I think. Black humour. Because it's clear to me that it will go beyond the Netherlands. One push message after another follows. Belgium, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, France, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Ireland, Morocco ... and on Sunday at noon, Swiss politicians also demand a stop to flights to and from Britain. 

No longer part of the club

A sensitive topic. Those who emigrate say goodbye to their loved ones, their homeland. You know you're no longer there when your girlfriend needs a shoulder to cry on, when your best friends host a housewarming for their new flat, or when your godchild just wants to go to the swimming pool with you on a Wednesday afternoon. That's just the way it is. But if you live in the UK, you're spoiled. In normal times, there are several flights a day between the new and the old home. The flight from Zurich to London takes just about as long as the train journey from Zurich to Chur and often costs even less. Home is always within reach.  

Not anymore. For the first time these days I feel what it means to live on an island that is only 34 kilometres away from continental Europe, but no longer wants to belong to the club with the blue flag and the yellow stars. This is not a completely foreign concept for us Swiss either. But to feel the negative consequences of it in everyday life, that is new. When France also closes its borders to lorries from the UK and the local supermarkets announce a possible food shortage, I realise what it means to sit on an epidemic-ridden island rejected by Europe. 

So it's come to this, that they want to send me care packages. But indeed: the supermarket shelves are emptying - as they did in March - and the conversations in the WhatsApp group begin again: "There are still avocados at Waitrose in Greenwich." "At Sainsbury's New Cross Gate, the booze is running’d better get your New Year's supply now.”

It's conversations like this that bring me back to reality: if I can still figure out where to get steak and champagne for the holidays, I guess my situation isn't all that dramatic after all. So I try to take it in my stride and sign all my emails with "Merry Christmas and love from the Plague Island". 

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