Frankly … social How much have we forgotten?

What does it smell like in the U-Bahn? What has changed on the motorway? – After a year of living with the coronavirus, we’ve forgotten a lot. Maximilian Buddenbohm tries to remember.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

Cars in the dark and rain on a motorway Road works, traffic jams and lorries – “situation normal” on the motorway – or is something missing? | Photo (detail): Christian Charisius; © picture alliance/Christian Charisius/dpa
Several articles I’ve read recently said that after a year we’re gradually beginning to forget what things were like before the coronavirus. I shook my head doubtfully at first: I hadn’t noticed that I’d forgotten anything, in fact I hadn't even considered the possibility. After all, the pre-pandemic world was my world, too. I could still reconstruct it, describe it in every detail. Or so I thought. Then I saw a tweet from a journalist, Mareice Kaiser (@Mareicares): "I can’t remember what the U-Bahn smells like anymore," she wrote.
I sat there at my computer, thinking maybe there’s something to that after all, maybe we really are forgetting. Anxiously, I turned my thoughts to the U-Bahn, but I could still recall what it smells like on an underground train. I mean how it used to smell back then when we all used to take the U-Bahn all the time, when it was still packed. And it was packed all the time… in that other world. I could even remember the smell in S-Bahn suburban commuter trains, which was different from the smell in the U-Bahn, much worse, actually, because the cleanser they use at night to wash it down reeks of vinegar

Wet clothes, wet dogs

I could still picture it all. A packed U-Bahn train on a hot day, perspiring passengers with failing deodorant, that pungent sweaty stench as in the locker room at a gym. Or the smell of a crowded U-Bahn on a rainy day: wet clothes, wet dogs, little puddles on the floor. I can't think about smells without images: the misted-up windows immediately rose up in my mind’s eye, the raindrops cutting across them as we lumbered on – I could smell it, see it, it was all still there. Or a late-night U-Bahn with drunk passengers, bottles rolling around and clattering under the seats, some puke on the floor somewhere. Turns out I remembered a lot more than I’d bargained for. Or bellowing football fans waving their garish scarves, the sound of beer cans cracking open and the smell of beer wafting through the train. Or people with amazing amounts of luggage on their way to the airport early in the morning, peering at their watches and feeling for their tickets in their jackets for the tenth time. Brushing past them, you could catch a whiff of how freshly showered and groomed they were for their trip. Naturally, I could also remember what it was like when someone got on the train eating chips or kebab, how the scent filled the whole carriage in no time and made you either hungry or nauseous, as the case may be. I sat at my desk thinking I could still remember everything. And so vividly that I could have written whole novels about it.

Driving through yesteryear on the motorway 

The next day I went for a drive. I hadn't been on the motorway for a long time, it’s been many months since we got to travel. It was a little break from the pandemic for me: you don't see a single trace of the current situation on the motorway, not a thing. There was plenty of traffic as usual, some driving like maniacs as usual too, there were road works and road constrictions, bottlenecks and police cars racing by on the left. The forests and fields by the side of the road looked the same as ever. No one was wearing a mask in any of the cars, everything looked the way it always had. The usual cars, the usual signs with the names of towns I had no desire to see. It was a drive across a land of yesteryear, it was an hour, at long last, without any lasting reminders of the effects of the virus.

Soon as I got back home, I heard on the radio that long-haul coach service would be starting up again soon. Funny, I hadn't noticed, during my relaxing hour on the motorway, that there were no busses on the road. How often had I overtaken them before? Had I simply taken their presence for granted in the past? Lorries and coaches in the right lane, an awful lot of them: that was the way it was supposed to be, that’s how it normally looked on the motorway. I hadn’t noticed what was missing: I’d simply forgotten about the coaches.
And who knows what else.

“Frankly …”

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