Till van Rahden:
Springtime for Pelé and Messi

Today is April 6. I am in Bad Homburg, just north of Frankfurt. I do what I usually do. I sit at home to read (sometimes) and write (rarely), procrastinate (mostly) and wonder (always) what I can cook for dinner.

It’s been 24 days since schools and universities, sport clubs and swimming pools, museums and libraries, ice cream parlors, snack bars, and even playgrounds and soccer fields closed on March 13. That makes for almost four weeks of quadruple home schooling and dual home office. It makes for well over twenty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and for countless snacks in between, mostly for the children, but sometimes for Pelé and Messi, our two guinea pigs.

It makes for long and busy days. We download school assignments for four children, try to make sense of the tasks and explain them to the kids who have every reason to remind us that we are not their teachers. Every minute there are questions to be answered and demands to be met. Every night is movie night. We all find ways to agree on something suitable for people between eight and 52 years old. Before the movie, the children take turns calling their grandparents who are at risk and a few hundred kilometers away. The children won’t be able to visit them during the Easter holidays, when the grandparents usually support us with childcare. For more than three weeks the children have not hung out with their friends, with whom they usually inhabit a strange world full of secrets and wonders from which adults are excluded. All that is left are long conversations over FaceTime. Sometimes the doors are closed, the voices hushed; sometimes we are forced to be privy to these conversations.

Weekends are great. There is no home schooling or home office. The days start late and are usually whiled away in pajamas. There is no need to explain why voices have to be kept down for thirty minutes during an important conference call or the study has to be avoided for three hours while I teach students who are almost six thousand kilometers away. Weekends offer rare moments of experiencing what the intellectual pundits are talking about: life is less busy, less hectic, slower, healthier perhaps. Every Monday, it is back to our accelerated routine.

Sometimes we join the children in playing table tennis. Sometimes the children join us in watching the news. This could be a great teaching moment: about exponential versus linear growth, about pandemics and public health, about politics, federalism, and democracy, about the Schengen agreement and the European Union generally, and, most importantly, about civil rights. Much of what they see on the news, however, is paternalistic and simplistic; even ten- and twelve-year-olds find it too predictable and boring—too childish, in short. We watch the PBS NewsHour as an antidote.

We are not far from Offenbach, a town of a hundred and forty thousand people just east of Frankfurt that has been struggling with debt and deindustrialization since the 1970s. It is extraordinary how much work it is to shut down a city. Offenbach is where my wife works. Among other things, she helps oversee the city’s public health office. Her (home) office days are longer than usual. For everyone working for the city, it is a time for sober, judicious, and most of all prudent action in these weeks if not months of calamity. What about the Circus Barus, which got stranded in the city but is based in Schlitz, a small town 150 kilometers northwest of Offenbach? What about domestic violence after weeks of confinement? What about neighborhoods in which almost all families live in crowded apartments now that playgrounds are closed? What about the homeless when shelters are shut? Can the city transform fire hydrants into basins in which the homeless can wash their hands?

On March 17, Offenbach’s public health office reported six confirmed cases; on March 22 there were eleven confirmed cases and the first death. On March 29 the office reported 24 confirmed cases, seven of whom were in the hospital. On April 6, there were 42 confirmed cases; eight people were hospitalized, four of them in critical condition; since March 22, there have been no further deaths from Corona. For German standards this is a city of young people. In 2016, the mortality rate in Offenbach was 8,3; during the last quarter of 2019, about three people died every day. Meetings of more than two people in public are prohibited; violations are punished by a fine of at least two hundred Euros. On March 12, the unemployment rate was at 5,3 percent. New numbers are due in a week.

We are lucky. We have a small garden, and it is spring. We have Pelé and Messi. We have a mountainous forest a five minute walk away. We have two weeks of Easter holidays. We are curious to see what happens next.

Till van Rahden teaches modern European history at the Université de Montréal where he held the Canada Research Chair in German and European Studies from 2006 to 2016. In 2016, he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM. He recently published: Demokratie: Eine gefährdete Lebensform (Campus, 2019).


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