Eine Brot-und-Butter Quarantäne

I quarantined for five days after traveling from New York to Munich, Germany. This is a personal narrative of my time in isolation, spent in a small apartment at the Internat (boarding school) I’ve been attending since last September.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Zoe Buff

Day 1: Sunday, Feb 28th

There’s a pounding in my ears, and I can barely register what the dormitory caregiver is saying. Did I sleep enough on the flight? Definitely not. I landed in Germany at 4 a.m. EST, but in Munich, it’s already mid-morning. The nice lady tells me to expect lunch at one o’clock. I stand in the doorway of the apartment until she waves goodbye. For five days I am not to step over the threshold. I shut the door. My quarantine begins.

Most Germans don’t use wallpaper. The apartment is decorated with white plaster, except for the kitchen and the bathroom. I was expecting a room the size of my dorm, which is about 70 square feet. I got something more than twice as big.

There’s a quaint little area for watching TV with a black couch, a dining table with two chairs—funny, ‘cause who am I going to share it with?—a bedroom with two beds, a tiny closet attached to it, a small bathroom with a colorful shower curtain, and a kitchen about the same size. All three windows are large and square, framed by beautiful red curtains.

At first, I didn’t know what to do. I’d never gone five days without being in the same space as a human before. Luckily, remote learning will keep me busy, but there are still so many hours left this Sunday. For now, though, everyone I know is sleeping in the city that never sleeps.

Day 2: Monday, March 1st

I wake up around seven to my alarm. I’ve always been really good at adjusting to jet lag with six-hour time differences. It takes me a few moments to remember that I am in Germany. By myself. With no one to turn to if I need help.

I get to speak with my parents over FaceTime for 10 minutes before they go to sleep. Our call is cut short by the caregiver, who asks what I want for breakfast. For every meal I have in quarantine—except lunch, which is just the same one dish for everyone—the caregiver will have to assemble a tray for me according to what I want to eat. Except usually the only option for dinner is bread, so I don’t have much of a choice to make. They leave the tray on a table outside. I take it, and when I’m done I leave it out again for them to take away.

I put on some comfortable clothes and seat myself at the white table with my laptop, keeping it connected to an outlet. Video calls have a tendency to rapidly run down my battery. I take a variety of courses, all of which are required: economics, ethics, geography, and even physics—a class that most of my classmates have been taking for at least three years already.

By the time my last class finishes, my legs feel like jelly, and my mind feels like lead. In the few minutes I have between class meetings, I run around the tiny apartment, hoping it will compensate for my lack of exercise. In the fall, during the three months of complete in-person school in Munich, I went out for walks every single day and sometimes even went jogging in the park. I miss that freedom as I sit by myself, surrounded by white plaster walls.

Day 3: Tuesday, March 2nd

The middle day. I think I’m starting to feel the effects of true isolation. I have been unbelievably lazy these past two days. My head is heavy whenever I close my eyes. I’ve lost all sense of time. I make elaborate plans of what I want to do and then I completely forget them.

The caregivers—there’s a different one every day of the week—are very nice, and they try their best to look out for me. When they bring me food, I stand behind the threshold with my mask on so we can talk a little bit. They always ask me if it’s boring for me, staying in the apartment all by myself. My answer is yes, but I say no.

Whenever I receive my food tray or place it outside my door, I catch a glimpse of the world outside my apartment. The hallways of the Internat—the German word for boarding school—feel eerie and ghostlike. When the school shut down in mid-December last year, the dorms followed suit, sending all the boarding kids home and me back to New York. Not until a week prior to my arrival back in Germany in late February did the boarding school open its doors again, and only 12th graders and international students were allowed to return. The courses are still online, but within two weeks the school is planning on switching to hybrid learning.

I remember the days before I started at the boarding school, the days I pondered and pondered, wondering if I should move to Germany for a year. The option of attending boarding school was first brought up by my mother, in August. We’d gotten wind of the word that Stuyvesant was most likely going to offer only remote classes, even in a hybrid learning setup. If I chose to go to boarding school, I would be attending a Gymnasium, the German term for a school that students attend from 5th to 12th grade in order to prepare for university education. It only took me one weekend to decide I wanted to stay in Germany. On Friday we were touring the school, and by Tuesday I was moving in. Even though the decision cost me an extra year of high school, I could not be happier with where I am now, after spending three months in a classroom instead of a computer at home.

Day 4: Wednesday, March 3rd

I wake up this morning and reflect on what an unproductive day Tuesday was. I had so much planned, but I ended up doing less than half of it. I promise myself that today will be different. Once school is over, I intend to get things done. My head feels clear for the first time since I entered quarantine.

By the end of the day, I’m pretty satisfied. With plenty of tasks behind me, I have time to think. I find myself remembering what life was like a year ago, before the coronavirus hit, and I think about how much I’ve changed. I don’t think pre-lockdown me would’ve ever willingly quarantined solo in a foreign country in the middle of a pandemic.

Bread for dinner, the fourth night in a row. I don’t mean to complain, and, yes, I am fully aware that bread is a staple of German culture—our breadbox in New York is constantly stocked because my dad can’t live without it—but this is simply too much bread for me. For breakfast, there are usually other options, such as cereal and yogurt, and lunch is always a warm dish, but dinner is only bread. Bread. Butter. Cheese. Ham. Every. Single. Night. I used to like bread, but I don’t think I do anymore.

Day 5: Thursday, March 4th

Since yesterday was a good day, I’m in a pretty good mood today. I’m scheduled to take a COVID test tomorrow, at a doctor’s office that’s a 10-minute walk away from campus. It’s a rapid test, which means the result will come within half an hour after I take it. If it’s negative, I’ll be free to move back to my room! I’ve never looked forward to going outside so much. Luckily, the quarantine was only five days, because I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to handle two weeks.

My classes end shortly before one o’clock today. Three solid doubles. Social studies, chemistry, French. In terms of subject matter, school was pretty light today, but sitting in front of a computer screen for six hours straight is enough to knock the wind out of anyone’s sail.

After class ends, I’m still in a really good mood. I turn on some music and do a little workout. The sky was white all morning, but in the early afternoon the sun came streaming through the windows, lighting up the entire living room. For the first time since I came into quarantine, I smile like I mean it. I think I’m probably just happy that tonight will be the last night of plain old bread. Tomorrow night I’m planning on buying myself a small dinner somewhere.

These five days in quarantine definitely went by faster than I thought they would. Every time I have a completely new experience, I ask myself if I’ve learned anything. I guess this time I learned what it was like to completely have my own space. I’m not used to surfing solo. It wasn’t too bad, though. I think I had fun riding the current.