My friend Elias’s apartment sits on a row of uniform sandstone buildings with red-tile roofs, on a rock-paved boulevard developed in the 18th century, in the dying days of the Holy Roman Empire. Up until 1806, that dominion had nominally held together much of the continent, kind of like the European Union of its day. Elias wasn’t actually there in his apartment, but I was. And it was in that apartment, in Bayreuth, in the little German town of 75,000 that was once an intellectual hub of the Holy Roman Empire, that I spent the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The road on which Elias’s apartment sits is called Friedrichstraße. (The funny B-shaped letter ß, in case you’re wondering, is pronounced like an S.) There’s probably a Friedrichstraße in every German city, Berlin’s being its major culture and shopping hub. They’re like the multitudes of Avenue Victor Hugo in France, except the specific Frederick after whom each is named—or the German spelling, Friedrich—isn’t always as clear. You’d think they’re all based on Frederick the Great, arguably the most famous Fred, but not so—there was just less of a selection of names back then.
Berlin’s street was actually named after the Great’s grandfather or great-grandfather, depending on which source you trust. Bayreuth’s Friedrichstraße was developed under the local ruler, the Great’s brother-in-law, also called Frederick, who once owned the address at which Elias lived (before the composer Mozart’s cousin moved in, by the way). Called a margrave, a bit like a prince, the local ruler had an uncle also called Frederick. The German Romantic writer Jean Paul, whose statue stands at the intersection of Bayreuth’s Friedrichstraße and Ludwigstraße, also had Fred somewhere in his name.
There was a certain familiarity I felt toward Bayreuth, even though, prior to this trip, I had never been to the town in my life. It was Germany, and that was enough. I live in Canada, but more than 20 years ago, I had grown up about five hours northwest of Bayreuth. Now in March, amid plague and lockdown, amid chaos, closed borders and cancelled plans, I was back in the country where I spent my most formative years. It was only half-planned, and I was half-stranded, being in Bayreuth only half-by-choice.
But back in Germany I was, living in limbo and gorging myself on the two favourite foods I had as a child: schweinskopfsülze, a vinegary meat jelly made with pig’s head (yes, I know how this sounds), eaten cold, and Hanuta, wafers with thick hazelnut cream between layers. Everything in Bayreuth was a source of comfort, even—or perhaps, particularly—the little things. Elias’s apartment had an old-style German toilet, one with a so-called “continental-shelf” construction in the white bowl. Out of politeness, I will refrain from over-describing, but it was the sort I hadn’t seen for years, and it brought an odd sense of nostalgia.
Experts say that during crises, our minds gravitate toward times we associated with peace and safety. Amid the pandemic, like everyone else, I was trying to grab onto something, yearning for the familiar amid the strange, the simple amid the complicated. Of course, eventually, I would find that none of the comfort to be derived from this quaint little town could shield or even distract me from what was going on in this country, this continent and the world.
Elias’s friend, a tall Swede called Ludvig, was going back to his home country and came to drop off some of his stuff at the apartment where I was staying. We didn’t shake hands, so as to observe physical distancing. Elias himself, a Canadian but also a Finn, was caught in COVID-19 lockdown mid-travel between his two countries. He eventually made it to Finland from Canada, but instead of returning to Germany as originally planned, Elias opted to just remain indefinitely in his Nordic country, near ancestral lands, farming and fishing like his forebears did, deriving, I imagine, some comfort from the past.
Nostalgia, in my view, is not necessarily a pining for your own past. It is a want for the past in general, the past of others you keep hearing about, the bygone days that have become simpler and rosier with each successive retelling. And that runs deep in Bayreuth, immeasurable and bottomless, beyond its pride in the composer Richard Wagner and the opera house he built 150 years ago—the town’s claim to fame.
Long before Wagner, Bayreuth’s local rulers, Margrave Frederick and his wife, Margravine Wilhelmine, had built the town into what was then a cultural centre of Western Europe, almost like a modern-day Cambridge. Its well-preserved architecture, for which Wilhelmine was almost singlehandedly responsible, emphasizes grandeur. Domes were common in its Rococo style, with interiors painted with angels and sculpted sunbeams. Stairways were prominent, grand, and used for dramatic effect. Visitors looked to the ceilings and saw the heavens. Walking around town, if you suspend disbelief for a moment, it’s almost as if you’re back centuries ago under the Holy Roman Empire.
I had earlier been in Beijing, in winter and in the beginning of the pandemic for Asia. It was the start of a long, pre-planned vacation, unexpectedly disrupted and punctuated by the virus. Now in Germany, my armor of nostalgia was fortified by the fact that long ago, I had left the European country when I was six, had never learned how to read the language properly and thus did not pay attention to local pandemic news. That armor was further fortified by the fact that, aside from another one of Elias’s friends, I did not have much company in Bayreuth. That was a pro and not a con. Being someone who likes solitude, I’ve never been bored by boredom. If I were at all religious and can endure celibacy, I would have seriously considered becoming a monk. Everything made me feel weirdly insulated from the pandemic. The world was imploding, but I wasn’t there—for a while, at least.
I walked in the gardens outside Margrave Frederick’s palace, now a museum, passing chestnut and oak trees, squirrels darting between. The canal water was still and green as the grass, the gravel grinding beneath the feet. They say much of the palace was personally designed by Frederick’s wife, formerly Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia, who had accepted the marriage only after being strong-armed by her father the king, also a Frederick—a most fascinating story, which also involved her brother Frederick the Great and his same-sex affair with a military officer. The Friedrichstraße that led to the palace was paved with rocks carved from the Fichtel Mountains to the east. Its watershed linked the North Sea and the Black, which I thought was also a neat fact.Sometimes, I wonder how healthy all of that mental escapism into the past is—both mine and everyone else’s, for every media organization had some sort of pandemic-nostalgia story.
Yet at the same time, I could not ignore the blue playground outside Frederick’s palace, sealed off by red-and-white tape due to physical distancing measures. The thought did cross my mind to disregard the barrier and have a walk through the playground, maybe even push myself off from the swings. Then I recalled the physical distancing “Decree” from the state of Bavaria—even if you do not read local news, you cannot miss it, with its scary capital D—saying police will “check compliance,” and decided to let thoughts remain just thoughts. Indeed, perhaps because fewer people were outside, I started noticing the cops more. The police-to-civilian ratio in Bayreuth was definitely getting higher.
One day, it snowed in spring, the ice crystals faintly falling upon the yellow-brown sandstone, on the red-tile roofs and the hard streets paved with mountain rock, and on the black-metal statue of Jean Paul, and the rushing Red Main River, and all that is Bayreuth. From the snow to the empty streets and the shuttered shops, everything reminded me vividly of China in January.
I had long thought the ubiquitous Euroshop was a souvenir chain emblematic of the continent. That belief was shattered by Elias when he told me to check out the chain. It turned out the “Euro” in the name refers not to the continent but the currency. Euroshop is simply a discount store where everything sells for one euro or thereabouts. Elias said it was full of funny little trinkets, and he once found whole bottles of wine there. I called upon one Euroshop only to find it closed, for it was not considered an essential business. I watched the crowds grow thinner in an increasingly desolate downtown.
Then I learned that Ludvig, who had deposited his stuff at the apartment where I was staying while he went back to Sweden, had tested positive for COVID-19. Many carriers show no symptoms, spreading the virus without realizing it. I wasn’t feeling anything myself, so I wasn’t too worried, but still, I wondered—when and where did he contract the virus? I looked at Ludvig’s cardboard boxes, thin mattress, ironing board, leather messenger bag, and his poster of the nineteenth-century German painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Casper David Friedrich, in which a man with his back to the viewer gazes ahead from atop a cliff, upon a misty, dreamy landscape—and a pale and tendril-like thought gripped me: could I have caught the plague?
Sometimes, I wonder how healthy all of that mental escapism into the past is—both mine and everyone else’s, for every media organization had some sort of pandemic-nostalgia story. In the animated comedy South Park, the character Butters, downtrodden but optimistic, says feeling sad makes him appreciate all the times he felt joy. If that is so, then the opposite must also be true. Climbing into the cocoon of the past makes the later, inevitable re-emergence all the worse.
My coronavirus scare, mild as it was, turned out to be a false alarm. I later found out Ludvig was infected by someone in his family upon returning home. He was fine when he left, when he and I breathed the same air. Yet all the same, never more sharply, I felt a seriousness piercing my sandstone walls and cobblestone streets. Death and pestilence, lockdown and economic meltdown—beneath my feet, amid the plague, my world was shifting, and it wasn’t shifting back. Nostalgia is useless, a false friend, and that is particularly so when you realize the past was never that attractive to begin with.
I left Germany to return to Canada after nearly two months in Bayreuth. You can read up a lot about a place in that time. You get to know its dark heart and dust under the carpet. Now when I think of the simpler past, I think also about how Bayreuth became an unfortunate centre of Nazi ideology in the 1930s, with Adolf Hitler’s being a big Wagner fan and the composer’s wife herself an anti-Semite. Moreover, though, I think about how Margravine Wilhelmine’s largesse in building Bayreuth had nearly bankrupted the local government. And by that time, the twilight of the Holy Roman Empire, the dominion was, in the famous words of the French philosopher Voltaire, who visited Bayreuth sometimes, “in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”—only a failed attempt to relive glory from classical antiquity. In a way, the illustrious past Bayreuth evokes is a bit hollow, itself an attempt to evoke an even more distant past. Sometimes, when you wipe away the frosting, beneath the bittersweet of longing lies only the bitter.
Adapted from Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended by Ethan Lou. Copyright © 2020. Available from Signal/McClelland and Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada.