My packing was half done. The suitcase was wide open in the middle of the room as if I expected it to suck in all of my vital stuff at once and rid me of that eternal problem – what to pack? The suitcase was laying on the floor for days. I just couldn’t be bothered to pack. The feeling of being torn apart was distracting, overwhelming and more palpable than the excitement of going on a long journey. My usual pattern of everyday life was disrupted in favour of making a big, long-awaited change: I quit my job, moved out of my flat, searched for a new tenant. In parallel, I was sorting paperwork for my new job, searching for a new place to live, arranging a way of getting there.
Things were rapidly changing over the course of a single week. This time the circumstances were not working in my favour. My UK visa was delayed and I had to miss my flight, which meant I missed my first day at work; which meant my contract needed to be revised; which meant a number of additional emails needed to be sent. Alongside making new arrangements with work, accommodation and flights, I was following the news. Things were getting serious. The deadly virus started raging across Europe. In Serbia the state of emergency was announced. More new cases were being confirmed every day. Schools and universities were shut down. The movement of old people was limited. The hard borders were closed. Most flights were suspended. And I had a ticket to go.
The night before my scheduled departure, I had spent some time thinking of the reasons of my leaving. In the back of my mind there was this rosy picture of me starting a new post at the University and re-joining academia after many months of continuous trial and failure. Of all the hard work, time and devotion I had put in what is emotionally and intellectually fulfilling me. Of me eventually succeeding and being chosen. Of me disentangling, not entirely though, from my life in Novi Sad, and embracing something new. Of me fulfilling my childhood dream to live in London. Now this picture, instead of being completely clear as new life was supposed to be just around the corner, was somewhat dim, distorted, broken into pieces if you like. I could no more get excited about it, knowing, or envisaging, what awaits.
I remember the times when we were in war. I reminisced of the feeling of not being able to distinguish between a good decision and a bad decision. Should I go for a walk when the sirens could any minute announce the start of an air strike, or should I stay at home, sheltered. I shivered as the familar feeling creeped deep into my bones. Should I leave home and family and set off to the emerging viral destination, not knowing what awaits once I am there? Or should I delay the start of my new post for when everything is behind us? I didn’t know the answer. I simply didn’t know. The imagined siren was howling in my head. I was sitting on the sofa, staring at the suitcase, deliberating whether to empty it, or keep packing. I allowed all sorts of thoughts to twist and bend my mind, picturing potential scenarios in front of my eyes, each of which was descending upon me like the gloomiest nightmare, pressing me even harder onto the sofa, and suggesting not to go.
At that one particular moment, I felt as if someone injected a giant jab of optimism straight into my flesh. I made my decision. I swiftly layered in the suitcase a mix of vital and necessary things: a small selection of clothes, jackets, two pairs of Oxford shoes, trainers, various gadgets and chargers, medication and medical reports (as an evidence of being a high risk individual daring enough to keep packing!), jewellery, thermos, umbrella, make up, notebook, pens and couple of books (one of which was 1984, the classic of dystopian literature and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia). In haste, I forgot to pack my favourite Highland mug, my photo camera and my new Van Gogh sunflower notebook for scribbling my thoughts. I zipped the bag, put the travel documents on pile and exhaled in relief. The decision was made. I was packed. So that’s it done. Being aware of what this might bring with itself, I felt both liberating contentment and existential fear. But there was no turning back.
The following morning of March the 18th I was checking departures every hour. Most flights were cancelled. The airport building was frequently shown in the news and looked spooky with no travellers around. On top of everything, there was a high probability that Belgrade airport would completely close for international travel. I waited in uncertainty. The last update from the airport came suggesting that the flight was still active, but could be cancelled by the time I arrive at the airport. I still took my chance.
My brother and my daughter lifted me to Belgrade. En route to the airport we stopped at parents to hug them goodbye. Instead of fruit, sandwiches or chocolate, this time they prepared some disinfectants, hygienic gloves and a couple of masks for me to take along. We heard these new accessories were mandatory at the airports and on flights. It will be as they please. The goodbye (that I would normally try to avoid) was interrupted by the sight of a neighbour walking towards us in full anti-viral gear: gloves covering his hands, mask filtering his breath and the motorbike helmet protecting his head! From what, we wondered, an asteroid? While laughing, we greeted him, he greeted us, we waved at parents, parents waved back, and we set off.
I was impatient to arrive at the airport, as I knew that a massive burden would come off my back only by checking the scheduled flights. Whilst rushing to the departure lounge, I was fitting the mask on my face and searching for the board. I fixed my eyes on the screen and waited. Cancelled, cancelled, cancelled… on time, cancelled. Air Serbia’s flight to London showed as cancelled. Wizz Air was still on! I ran to the check-in desk and parked myself in the surprisingly long line. I was unusually calm as this was now certain – I fly in an hour.
Whilst queuing I was looking around through the glasses that were fogging from my breath. Only then, I guess, I came to grips with the reality. The whole place was pulsating in a strange rhythm. Something was very obviously not right. The building was nearly free of people, and seemed much larger than it normally is. The scenes from all these apocalyptic TV series and movies were equal to the sight around me, neither more, nor less. Only a few souls were walking past our line. A woman with a stripy bag was asking if anyone could take some herbal mixture for her ill brother who lives in London, for this may be her last chance as the next flight to London may be cancelled. I was constantly making sure I was keeping at least the prescribed one metre distance from everybody and was as alert as if something cataclysmic was going to happen. Everything looked surreal and reminded of Gilead street scenes in Handmaid’s tale. The police were patrolling and the ladies at check in desks were wearing masks with vents. When checking in people had to remove their masks to be identified. Finally it was my turn. I was issued a boarding card, had my passport stamped, and joined a long line for security check at gate A2.
The passengers assembled in a confined room. We were sitting together, waiting together, breathing together. It was strange to look at people and hear their voices but not see their faces. We were now turning away from each other, some of us very obviously avoiding contact and keeping the distance by trying to occupy space close to windows and in corners. It was weird to see how the new situation changed the ways we behave and how we think and express concern about our existence. So many strange thoughts appeared in my mind, but I was too distracted to keep any of them in focus for too long. I knew I would leave the big burden on the Serbian grounds however I was not entirely convinced it would be that smooth once I arrive in the UK. I became impatient to whizz through the airspace and, upon touch down, face new challenges.
I finally landed in Luton. The officer stamped my passport and I manically rushed through the empty corridors as if I urgently needed oxygen. Low hanging rainy clouds, wind and drizzle, as well as the familiar view of the buses lined up ready to depart to Oxford and London, reminded me – there I was, officially within the UK as a Tier 2 immigrant.
A (card-only) Starbucks coffee, thorough hand wash and several deep inhale-exhales were very much needed to briefly consolidate before I heard more not-so-exciting news.
The Wizzair flight number W94001 which brought me to the UK was the last flight to London just before the Serbian border closed the following day, so there is no way of returning home. University staff had just started working remotely, so there was no need for me to go to University in person. London was to be locked down in the following few days, so there was no point in going to my rented room in Greenwich. My only question was – now what?
The position in which I found myself needed immediate rethinking. In situations like these, when we feel we are losing grounds and our world seems to be falling apart, I guess there is nothing else to do but take a few deep breaths, count to ten and try to distill the good in all the evil. In the world which has suddenly become overwhelmed by panic, hysteria and all sorts of anxieties caused by the deadly virus spread, social distancing may be the word. London simply needed to be put on hold and rural England seemed like the only reasonable and responsible solution. It would be a good space for escape from madness as well as keeping myself away from the masses. Having made that decision, a new saga started…