I returned to the office for the first time in seven months the other day, hoping to find the place virtually unchanged.
A colleague who had just done the same said he found his office still covered with newspapers from the days before the building was emptied in mid-March, plus a parched office. Ready sandwich from the same period. “It’s like Pompeii,” he told me.
He was right. My desk was exactly as I left it. In my mailbox was a copy of The Economist from the end of March, with a cover photo of planet Earth behind a sign saying “Closed.”
The rest of the office looked a lot like what I remembered, except for the lavish supplies of hand sanitizer and face masks.
Yet it was also profoundly different. Not exactly ghostly, but moderate, with only a handful of the normal number of people, many working quietly on their own. It was a reminder of one of the great peculiarities of pandemic life: So many things seem so normal, until you realize they don’t.
A bus passing on a city street looks like it’s used to, until you see it only has one lonely masked passenger. A favorite store seems to be the same as ever until you get close enough to look inside and see that it has closed.
A desk still looks like a desk, even though it’s a pale version of what it once was.
Why anyone would want to listen to the distant roar of a photocopier, let alone the excruciating sound of a colleague chewing, is beyond me, but now it is possible.
Likewise, the buzz of a cafe is just a click away on websites offering the ‘busy buzz’ of a coffee shop in Texas or the ‘sweet chatter’ of a Danish restaurant. I have no interest in that sort of thing either.
But since my visit to the office, I have a better understanding of the urge to regain a sense of normalcy in such abnormal times – to a point.
I still find it amazing that people in Singapore rushed to pay up to $ 474 to eat in an A380 superjumbo parked at Changi airport that Singapore Airlines has transformed into a temporary restaurant.
I shouldn’t have, having grown up in Australia, where dozens of my countrymen paid up $ 2,734 for a Qantas ‘Flight to Nowhere’ sightseeing trip that took off from Sydney last weekend and landed there seven hours later.
It’s almost as shocking as the reports of frustrated travelers who bought aerial food to recreate the lost thrill of flight. Of all we’ve lost this year, one of the least cried should be a watery omelet that tastes more like rubber than cheese.
The truth is, the longer the pandemic lasts, the clearer it is that much of what was considered normal life should have been bin years earlier.
Waiting in line on a winter morning outside my local doctor’s office for a same day appointment, while I’m sick, is almost high on my list now that I’ve had a video appointment.
Conversely, having just seen how an orderly queue can turn the Ikea shopping experience into something that approaches a calm order, I’d be happy to see these in-store entry limits made permanent.
I would also bid a permanent farewell to the streets crowded with crowds of tourists, although I realize that cafe and hotel owners will not agree.
Each of us will have our own list, but most will surely contain what I hope will be the biggest victim of the pandemic: the daily commute.
Having tasted life without her, 87 percent of workers want to be free to choose to work from home or the office once Covid restrictions ease, according to a survey last week of 10,000 people in Europe and the Middle East. Before the pandemic, when only 5% worked mainly from home, it would have seemed odd. Now it is quite normal and it will stay a long time.