Frankly … social
Memory, disgust and habits – observations during lockdown

A girl touching her face in horror
Horror of horrors! Touching the face!!! | Photo (detail): Wolfgang Weinhäupl; © picture alliance/Westend61

How can a stair rail provoke revulsion? What’s remarkable about a traffic jam? Why is something that until recently would have been a comedy gag considered normal these days? – Day-to-day differences in corona times.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

A man’s going down some steps at the railway station to the platform. It’s immediately obvious that he’s intoxicated. Normally that doesn’t stand out particularly at a station, but normal has been in short supply lately, and where can you even find parties to get sloshed at? Was he drinking by himself? These days if you see drunks, you start asking questions that never would have occurred to you before. The man’s doing something that people no longer do these days – he’s holding onto the stair rail with his bare hand. Staggering precariously, he stumbles down the stairs and then stops for a rest, letting go of the rail and mopping his face with his hand. He wipes his nose and yawns, rubbing his eyes.

Touching his face – disgust alert

A few people on the platform are watching him. There isn’t much movement in the otherwise almost empty station, so you automatically look round to see who’s coming. It’s interesting to see what expressions you can spot these days. The thing is, the waiting passengers have clear signs of disgust and horror on their faces when they see that man touching his own face – with the same hand that just touched the stair rail. It’s understandable when you consider that these people have spent weeks trying their hardest to touch absolutely nothing at all if possible when they are outside – and certainly never their face, for Heaven’s sake. They chant on and on – whatever you do, don’t touch anything, take your hands away from your face. But because that’s quite difficult, people say it all the time, they say it to themselves and to others, again and again, especially to the children. And then someone’s standing there and getting it so wrong – it’s really painful even to watch and that’s why everyone stares. But it’s not long ago, just a few weeks, that the drunk would have had to puke up on the steps to trigger such a disgusted reaction. That’s how fast these things have shifted.

A broken-down bus

A minor event this morning. A bus has an engine problem and is blocking the street. It’s a road that used to be considered busy, in the days when lots of people were still going places all the time – to work, to university or going shopping. But the city’s become corona-quiet, hardly anyone’s still travelling around by car. They’re inevitably getting stuck behind the bus now, one after the other. A queue of cars is forming, and it’s getting longer all the time because the bus seems to have quite a problem. There’s a couple on the pavement watching, the man smiles and says to his partner: “Oh look, a traffic jam,” which sounds amusing but there’s a touch of wistfulness there too. Of course, the image of a traffic jam reminds them of times before the virus. This city used to be the congestion capital of Germany, you’d sometimes read about it in the papers, there was so much traffic here – too much for anyone. But even that seems infinitely long ago. It doesn’t take long for memories to become sweet. 

Elbow check

A different scene, in front of a police station. About ten police officers have congregated, probably at the start of their shift. Since people categorically don’t shake hands anymore since corona, they greet by bumping elbows, for which Germans are likely to repurpose the term “elbow check” (Ellenbogencheck). Presumably the police always used to greet each other by shaking hands before, in any case they aren’t doing the elbow bumps in a casual, by-your-leave way – they are doing it meticulously and quite purposefully with everyone, and absolutely seriously. There’s no trace of self-irony, they aren’t copying something they’ve seen on YouTube and making fun of it. No, this is the proper thing to do, so now everyone has to bump their right elbow once against everyone else’s right elbow. And although that might have looked like a comedy sketch a month ago, such a ridiculous-looking scene, these days lots of people are passing by without a second glance, taking no notice, not even turning to look. That’s how fast people get used to this kind of thing. 
That’s how fast people get used to almost anything.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Qin Liwen, Dominic Otiang’a and Gerasimos Bekas. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.