March 1. The first case of COVID-19 appeared in Belgium on February 4, in Brussels. I live in Ghent, about fifty kilometres away. The pandemic begins today, however, when a bunch of Belgians return home from a skiing vacation in northern Italy. I think of Daniel Defoe, writing in 1722: “It matter’d not, from whence it come; but all agreed, [the plague] was come into Holland again.” There are now two known cases. I learn from a friend’s article in the New York Times that “quarantine” comes from the Venetian word for forty days, the period of isolation imposed on ships during times of plague. Thirty-nine days to go, I guess.
March 2. My wife and I return home from Barcelona after a blithely ignorant weekend away, built largely around seafood, cañas, and Gaudí architecture. The epicentre of the Spanish contagion is supposedly in Madrid, hundreds of kilometres away, on the other side of the Iberian mountains. Is this how they thought during the Black Death? In proximity and topography? As if the natural features of the landscape might protect us from our own lazy arrogance?
March 6. A Friday. I give a talk in the afternoon at the Legal History Institute. Beforehand, I go to lunch with a colleague at the law school and a visiting scholar from Brazil. Georges, my colleague, like all infuriatingly multilingual and yet humble Flemings, speaks Portuguese, a fact he has of course never mentioned to me, though he often fluently switches between Dutch, English, and French in a single conversation. The talk itself is an informal affair: we sit huddled around a table in a circle, a mixture of grad students, post‑docs, and professors. Afterwards, we celebrate a student’s birthday over slices of rich Belgian-chocolate tart and glasses of champagne. We hang around in the room into the early evening, chatting, before dispersing in good spirits and wishing one another a pleasant weekend.
March 9. The numbers tick upward, day after day, from two, to eight, to thirteen. Today we reach 200 known cases.
March 10. Students at a high school in Waregem, in West Flanders, pose with a sign that says “Corona Time.” They are dressed in “Asian” silk robes and hats. Two boys are dressed as pandas. One girl pulls at the corners of her eyes. Seventy-three kilometres away, in Brussels, the first COVID-19-related death occurs. It is a woman, aged ninety. The authorities do not release her name.
March 12. Gallows humour, they call it: a tweet goes out that the World Health Organization has confirmed that dogs cannot get coronavirus. The question is finally resolved, and always in fact contained its own answer: WHO let the dogs out.
March 13. Friday the Thirteenth. No benefits, let’s say, but perhaps silver linings? Our monthly department meeting — a sometimes gruelling three-hour affair conducted in a smattering of Dutch accents and Flemish dialects that I often have difficulty following — is cancelled. In its stead, I receive a three-page PDF from the department chair. Hands down, it’s the best meeting of the year.
In Merelbeke, just south of Ghent, a frituur, or fry shop, hands out glasses of champagne as customers, three at a time, wait outside in a tent for their frietjes.
The Belgian government orders the closure of schools, clubs, bars, and restaurants, and it cancels all public gatherings. The ban goes into effect at midnight. In Flemish fashion, most people politely observe the orders (a remarkable fact, since the federal government has failed to form a functioning coalition since the last election, almost ten months ago). The first night of self-isolation sees a few lockdown parties in the city centre, but they’re often nothing more than small groups of boorish men (it’s always men) congregating under the medieval belfry, yelling at seemingly nothing, reminding us that they’re still alive, invincible, drunk.
The next day the Flemish broadcaster VRT publishes a photo essay on the surreally empty streets of Ghent. It’s a ghoulish sight, one utterly incomprehensible when the city is drenched in unseasonable sunlight, as it is now. The weather is also a reminder, perhaps, that COVID-19 is nothing more than an unwelcome hiatus from the impending natural disaster of climate change — a vaguely distant nightmare that neo-liberal government after government claims is too economically disastrous to fight. Across the city, handwritten signs go up in shop windows: “Momenteel gesloten. Blijf veilig, zorg goed voor jezelf en voor elkaar” (Currently closed. Stay safe, and take care of yourself and each other).
March 14. Restaurants are closed to dine-in customers but open for take-away, so my wife and I bike in the light rain to pick up Ethiopian from our favourite restaurant. Two friends come over for dinner. They are the last people to enter our apartment until at least April.
March 15. A sunny Sunday. My wife and I take the train to the Ardennes to go biking. We dip south from Eupen, the German-speaking sliver of Wallonia, into Germany, and ride the Vennbahn, a disused railway turned bike path, back up. We see few people all day in the woods, except a German police car, stationed just before the border with Belgium.
The weekly conversation program De Zevende Dag discusses whether we are taking the government’s isolation measures seriously enough. “Altijd die spelletjes! Zijn wij zulke baarlijke duivels?” (Always fooling around! Are we such utter devils?), barks the head minister of the regional government, Jan Jambon. (He’s a detestable Flemish nationalist, whom every anglophone I meet in Belgium insists on calling John Hamm.)
March 16. I’ve found most strange the swift normality of the epidemic. No one here seems particularly panicked. Auden was right: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position: how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
We hold out hope that a trip to Mallorca, planned for early April, might still happen. A day later, even the thought seems foolish, perversely selfish.
I hear from family in Canada that the incomprehensible toilet-paper hoarding has started. No such stockpiling here so far. Flemings seem to have the good sense to know that, once the food runs out, you don’t need the toilet paper anymore. It also helps that everyone does their shopping by bike, precariously balancing their twelve rolls, along with everything else, atop a rickety backrack.
We come home from grocery shopping. As we’re closing our mailbox, our eighty-three-year-old neighbour and her adult son leave our apartment building. She lives by herself and is from a generation of Flemings who speak only French and Dutch, not a word of English. Last May, I left a note on her door, written in my shabby Dutch, inviting her to our spring party. She showed up at 7 p.m. with two bottles of rosé. We sat on my couch for half an hour and chatted about her life in Ghent before she returned downstairs, leaving the party to the “young people.” Now, she is experiencing a tightness in her chest, her son explains, so they are going to the hospital. Christiane nonetheless smiles as she leaves, wishing us goodbye.
March 17. I run into a Norwegian colleague, and we stand at an awkward distance from each other. She will stay in Ghent during the lockdown, rather than suffer a two-week quarantine back in Norway. We are surprised by how sore and dry our hands are from the constant washing.
Biking home, I see a man wearing a sleeping mask over his mouth. This is known as a “Belgian solution,” after a popular website and book that document the sometimes comical makeshift-ness of daily life here. In the evening, on the phone, a friend tells me Austrian public radio uses the phrase three times because Belgium has decided to keep certain businesses open: fry shops (necessary) and hair salons (inexplicable).
March 18. It might be the low tourism season, but coronavirus has still come at a rotten time. The city is currently celebrating the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. At the centre of it all is the Ghent Altarpiece, a magnificent polyptych known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (or Het Lam Gods), painted by Jan and his brother Hubert in the 1420s and ’30s and painstakingly restored over the last eight years. It’s housed in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in the city centre, and tourists in town for the celebrations have shuttled daily between the cathedral and the city’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten, which is hosting a massive van Eyck exhibit. A few days ago, a sign went up that the altarpiece display had been closed; then today, a new sign appeared at the cathedral, one that would not have been out of place when the Black Death began spreading across Europe in the mid-fourteenth century: “Geen bezoek! Enkel open voor gebed!” (“No visiting! Only open for prayer!”). The MSK announces that its exhibit will also be closed, at least until April 5. Now the museum sits empty as eighty artworks, on loan from every corner of the earth, go unobserved.
At 8 p.m., Belgians gather at their windows and balconies and cheer loudly in a small gesture of gratitude for the overtaxed health care workers.
March 19. Still no hysteria. Instead, sitting on hands, waiting, avoiding others. “Blijf thuis!” and “Blijf in uw kot!” are the constant refrains of the federal minister of health: Stay home! Don’t leave your apartment! Some skittishness is unavoidable, I suppose, though I can’t tell if I’m just concern-trolling or exhibiting self-interested anxiety. I go to work in my isolated office, inside a locked-up university building. Unexpectedly, a colleague in her mid-sixties knocks and opens my office door, using her shirt sleeve to touch the handle. She catches my downcast eye. I refuse to advance, standing awkwardly some two metres away from her, eating a clementine, as we briefly chat. “Enjoy your clementientje!” she says, slowly closing the door with her swaddled hand.
At my university, everyone is putting a cheery face on a lousy situation. Within a few days, we went from in-person classes to online classes to whatever you might accomplish in the remaining weeks. It was bad for teachers, of course, who scrambled to drag everything online; many often need help turning a Word file into a PDF. It was probably even worse for the students, the downstream victims of shock-doctrine edutech companies, which are probably already outfitting convocation coffins with VideoChatFunctionality™.
Still, business as usual. I receive my teaching evaluations for the first semester. One student reports that I have “een heel goed niveau van Engels” (a very high level of English). I’m reminded of a conversation I had last summer, during a large conference in Edinburgh, with a senior professor at Oxford:
Her: What’s your university?
Me: Ghent University, in Belgium.
Her: Well, your English is excellent.
Me: I’m actually from Canada.
Her: Let me start over.
Restless and bored, my wife and I go for a walk around the city. We stop at a Turkish bakery to buy lahmacun. My wife waits outside. There is only one other customer, a young mother with her toddler. The word plays on a loop in my head: vector. After, we ramble the quiet grounds of the Groot Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth. It’s one of Ghent’s three begijnhoven, or beguinages. These late-medieval building complexes housed lay religious women in the Low Countries and northern France until the early twentieth century. We wander home through the Visserij, where all of the streets are named after fishes (zalm, forel, karp), and pass two women, neighbours who sit at an unnatural distance from each other on the sidewalk, drinking their own bottles of wine. “Drie meter!” (Three metres!), one of them stage-whispers as we pass, her voice comically strained as she leans away, before we all nervously laugh.
Another cancellation email, this time for a conference near Bologna, in July.
March 20. We are still permitted to go out biking for exercise. In Spain and France, cycling is now banned; police officers have been sending offenders home — not for risk of infection, but lest the bikers hurt themselves, further taxing already overstrained health care systems. In Italy, cycling is also now forbidden, except among professionals, though misinformed motorists have been cursing out their windows at them as they pass by. This makes for a scene often unimaginable in Italy, where bike racers are national heroes, their faces frequently splashed across the front pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport and other newspapers. (Now they catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be a cyclist in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, all places where I have been yelled at for simply biking along, obstructing motorists who are racing to stop at red lights.)
My wife and I pull out our gravel bikes and hunt for single tracks through muddy farmers’ fields and along meandering forest paths. Seemingly anything in Flanders counts as a bos, or forest, even a cluster of three trees that have failed to respect social-distancing guidelines. The canopies of some trees, even among different species, will often not touch, creating vascular-like striations in the sky. It’s a phenomenon known as “crown shyness,” a lovely term. Coronavirus itself derives its name from the Latin word for crown, given its spiky, appendage-like surface. Maybe that’s a better term for social distancing: crown shyness.
At 3 p.m., the government closes its borders to non-essential travel. No doubt part of the shock of the entire event for Europeans is the re-securing of borders across the Schengen Area, a vast zone without passport checks covering much of continental Europe. Plans and trips continue to be cancelled, delayed, postponed till we’re back to normal, whenever and whatever that will be. At midnight, I receive another cancellation email, this one for a conference in May in Austin, Texas.
March 21. Across the city, Gentenaars hang white sheets from their windowsills, a gesture of solidarity for health care workers. Its meaning is not so evident at first glance, though, and to my eye it looks more like surrender.
March 22. We sit in our living room and listen to the carillon bells on the square outside. The concert happens every Sunday at 11 a.m., an hour-long performance from Ghent’s fourteenth-century belfry, atop which sits a plump, rather comical dragon — de Draak van Gent. One story goes that the dragon was stolen from Bruges in the Middle Ages. This is likely bunk, but it’s the kind of winking regional squabbling that builds communal solidarity. About ten people gather on the square for the concert, dozens of metres apart; they clap politely after each piece.
March 24. Spoke too soon on that toilet paper? Reports of shortages in Brussels and Germany. Perhaps overblown, based on my scan of supermarket shelves here in Ghent, but at least I learn the word for “hoard” in Dutch: hamsteren (literally, “to hamster”).
I go by my office at the university to pick up some books. There I see my department chair, a professor of Italian literature, who’s having a cigarette in our building’s courtyard. She stands across from an elevated Sansho‑En garden, a gift from the city of Kanazawa, Japan. In order to preserve the garden, no one is allowed to actually walk in it, and so students usually just circle its perimeter, smoking and chatting. I knock on the window to the yard, and Mara turns, a look of surprise on her face. I reflexively bring my hand to my mouth, unsure whether I’m mimicking a face mask or making the speak-no-evil sign.
My sister’s birthday, back in the GTA. Her husband organizes a thirty-person Zoom meeting to celebrate. It’s also the final day of his two-week quarantine. He does play-by-play for the Toronto Raptors and was in Salt Lake City for a game the day before a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus and the entire NBA shut down. At the end of my sister’s birthday gathering, I stay on the line with my father, who is on day seven of his own self-quarantine after returning from a golf trip in Florida. He is trapped in his basement; his partner, upstairs, leaves him platters of food by the door. A cruel paradox: suddenly everyone has the time to chat with far-flung family members who, by virtue of the exact same phenomenon, are also doing nothing and therefore have nothing to say. My father shows me his favourite corner in the basement. It’s like the world’s worst episode of Cribs, yet it’s the most attentive conversation we’ve had in maybe eighteen years.
March 25. I go grocery shopping and, in an Aesopian twist, arrive at the empty shelves where the toilet paper usually sits. I am the grasshopper!
The federal government finally orders the closure of hair salons. This had been a minor man-bites-dog news story since the government first announced that hairdressers would remain open (though no one explained how to cut someone’s hair from 1.5 metres away). I’ll miss the ongoing controversy, including the outraged daily statements by the Belgian professional organization for hairdressers, Coiffure.org.
I receive an auto-generated email from the university library: “The borrowing period of the book below has expired for some time. Your library account has been/will remain blocked.” It contains a helpful list of opening hours:
March 26. Yesterday we heard rustling downstairs. Our neighbour Christiane is back. We leave her a short note, offering any help she might need. This morning we wake up to a postcard being slid under our door — “Groetjes uit Gent” (Greetings from Ghent) is printed across an image of the city’s medieval grain market. On the other side: “Bedankt voor de vriendelijke brief en jullie diensten. Met mij gaat alles goed. Veel liefs, Christiane” (Thanks for your kind letter and your offer to help. Everything’s going well with me. With love, Christiane).
March 27. We pretend it’s just a regular Friday night: my wife and I pack a bottle of wine and a couple of books and go sit in the early evening sun by the Stadshal. Eventually a police car stops in front of us, and the officer, almost bashfully, apologizes before explaining that we’re no longer permitted to use public benches. We gather our wine and books and head back to our sofa at home, where I feel we’ve already been sitting for months. I check my phone to discover that the National Security Council is planning to extend the lockdown measures until April 19, possibly May 3. “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” Edna St. Vincent Millay asked in 1921. Good question, Edna: “Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. / It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”
March 29. A friend in Toronto and I chat by video. Throughout the call, he paces from room to room, futilely seeking quiet refuge from his two sons, ages three and six, who remain trapped indoors. The older one understands that some sort of slow-moving medical emergency is taking place but is not quite sure what it means or what the illness actually is. He spends some portion of each day walking around the house scratching his body and head, announcing, “I’ve got the corona!”
March 31. Today I was supposed to be in Aarhus, in Denmark, giving a lecture about trust. Instead, my wife and I sit in our living room, looking out the third-floor window of our apartment onto the normally bustling square in front of the cathedral. We sip tea and read, occasionally glancing up to see the streetcar glide past, illuminated and empty. One hour passes, and then another. We look again at the square. The streetcar passes. We see no one.