Sitting on a bench covered in Instagram handles scrawled in Sharpie pen (networking has taken a turn in 2021), I hear the most delightful sound. A toddler, dressed in a bright pink onesie with oversized, red-rimmed sunglasses, giggles wildly as she chases a frantic pigeon toward the park fountain. Her parents, stroller in tow, laugh along with her, clearly tickled baby pink to see their child so happy.
I am, in fact, surrounded by ecstatic babies and their relieved parents in this small park just off Bratislava’s city center. The sun is bright and unyielding, the tulips along the park perimeter are in full bloom. And the city seems to be successfully shaking off its lockdown hangover, though the crowds of sun-happy people in town surely have everyone secretly shaking in their boots.
With mass vaccination well underway, albeit slowly, and a decrease in the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations, scientists and health experts concur that Slovakia has finally ridden out the second wave. A lot of the anti-COVID measures that had been in place for what felt like an eternity have been lifted and this little dose of freedom has made a world of difference.
I am back at the office (though a lot of my colleagues have elected to stay home) and meeting a few friends here and there, always with a mask. I find my level of productivity has skyrocketed as a result while the world around me no longer seems out of reach. But unlike the delightful interactions a baby has with their brand-new surroundings, this reintroduction to semi-normality is actually quite difficult.
While I embrace my introverted nature, I’ve never thought of myself as a socially anxious person. I covet the time I spend with those I love as much as I revel in the luxuriousness of alone time. But while I’ve spent a lot of this pandemic missing my friends and family, there are times when the isolation has served me well. I have not had to worry about interacting with Slovaks who don’t speak English, nor have I felt the need to hide tiredness in friendliness. Admittedly, I took advantage of the mute button to silence myself on social video calls when I would much rather listen to someone else than dig deep for interesting subject matter.
So many of us have been twiddling our thumbs in a bubble for more than a year, praying for it to pop so we can return to normal. But regardless of how unbelievably liberating it is to step back into the world, the first few steps are tentative for some of us simply because it’s been so long.
It feels weird now to ask people about the weather, but it is the only non-pandemic thing I can think of when chatting with an old acquaintance I bump into on the street.
But when I think of that toddler with the fabulous sunglasses, and that gorgeous sunny Saturday in a city I finally get to rediscover, any social anxieties I may have seem much less important. Because I have finally been set free into Bratislava, which feels like a reborn version of the undiscovered city I met in 2017. Even the benches covered in millennial graffiti and the frantic pigeons have caught my interest.
Perhaps they would like to talk about the weather…