Anna Koestenbauer is an Austrian-Australian: born in Vienna, she has lived in six countries and now calls Canberra home. Anna loves the English language and looks forward to communicating with this global, new-media community about perspectives and our sense of place.
Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2018
I don’t know about you, but the world has never felt so small. From Bogotá to Berlin, we now speak the same language. The language of growth curves. Contact maps. Hand-washing videos. Self-isolation memes. The language of fear. The language of toilet paper. We are magnificently and terrifyingly unified by this common, tiny, natural enemy.
But it seems to me that not long ago, we weren’t posting inspo poems about our global togetherness. Only six weeks ago, weren’t we just comfortable, isolated, swaddled in our pity, tutting over ‘those’ people in China? Staring at our TV screens with a mixture of horror and awe as those ‘poor bastards’ were boarded up into their homes. We were us and they were them. We were different.
And then ‘them’ was ‘us’. Our airports suddenly looked like what they are – open arms for arrivals. Our ports, safe embraces for ships.
It is strange that this should be a surprise, this delayed realisation that there are bridges over our oceanic girt. Because ‘they’ have been ‘us’ for a while now. This disease, this pulsating fracture, is breaking us apart because we have never been so close together. In 2018, approximately 8.5 million tourists visited Australia from overseas. The same period saw 526,300 migrant arrivals . Globalisation has had its discontents, but my goodness we were not amongst them. Over a million of us go to New Zealand every year. And to Indonesia. And the USA. And another half million hit up the UK. We are amongst the most itinerant people in the world, and we’re proud of it.
Many of us are not just visitors to other places. We are migrants. I, just like many other Australians, had my first sense that this was personal not from here – but from there. In my case, Austria. Two weeks ago, my grandmother, in her nineties, was hospitalised with low blood pressure. The woman lived through the tearing apart of reality in World War II, the occupation of her zone by Soviet Forces, the formation of a Republic, the extension of franchise and opportunity and then the sure and steady reunification of her continent. She also suffers from dementia, and has now forgotten more than she ever remembered. She doesn’t now, perhaps mercifully, realise that those hallowed Schengen-zone borders are being closed. The schools are closed. The restaurants and cafés, too. She doesn’t go outside much anymore and she doesn’t have the virus. For now, she doesn’t see how scared people are. She is not scared. She’s been waiting to go home, to her God, for a while now.
But there’s also my mother, and the many people like her – with family and friends over there – who cannot go to be with them. With the sick and the elderly and the lonely. Spare a thought for them. My mother moved years ago to be with the man she loves and to keep her family together. To here, to Australia. The two homes have never seemed so far apart as they do now. Austria. Australia. We were only separated by a few letters then.
I’m here too, with the man I love. The man into whose compassionate eyes I look as we weigh up the decision over whether to call off our wedding. The wedding only made possible because we are so very good at coming together, because it’s so easy to become ‘us’ anywhere in the world. A few emails, some flights, some bank transfers and a helpful local celebrant. Love in a time of globalisation.
García Márquez wrote about love in a time of cholera. It is not a beautiful love story. Love is a sickness in the novel, an impairment. We might note here too that cólera, in Spanish, denotes not merely the illness but also the human condition – choleric. Full of rage. And well, we might rage. Gun sales are up in some places . Opinion pieces abound. Punches are being thrown over toilet paper . Perhaps that’s what loving our nearest means now. Fighting for them. And suffering while we stay far away.
Or we might choose hope, and grace and waiting. From my family and friends I have seen only care, empathy and good-natured videos of singing Italians. We, my one-day husband and I, have a new respect for this, our fragile inter-connectedness. We understand how unlikely it is that our heat-maps aligned at all, how statistically anomalous that we stayed in company long enough to each feel like the other is where we belong. We will wait, because we know we will have our love in our time again.
In Memory of Maria Köstenbauer
3 August 1924 – 2 April 2020
© Anna Koestenbauer, 2020