Do foreigners in Slovenia feel more or less safe sitting out covid-19 here than in their home country, and what are their experiences? A new series on TSN, starting with the writer Andrew Anžur Clement from America, currently holed up in Ljubljana. All the stories in this series are here
Firstly, how are you? Tell us a little about your situation and sanity levels.
All things considered, I’m doing fine. I live in Slovenia full time; my relatives normally spend about half of the year here. Currently, I am alone as they have had to cancel their travel plans. I work from home, writing and selling a product that is bought online, so from that aspect my life hasn’t changed. I’m even having pretty good sales!
True, I’ve had to cancel some lunches. However, I grew up in the US and then moved around to different countries in Europe for my studies. Before moving to Ljubljana to write, I was a researcher in the context of a double PhD program in Belgium and the UK, with supervisors in both countries. While I think that telecommuting and video conferencing have been new or jarring to a lot of people, for me they were an essential part of life for years.
The downside of normally working from home is that I also have very few ‘excuses’ to leave my apartment, other than to run out to Hofer every few days. I underestimated the importance to my sanity – and to my creative juices -- of being able to do something to ‘just get out of the house,’ like taking a long walk when the weather is nice. All things considered, though, that is an annoyance at worst.
When did you realise that coronavirus was going to be a big issue?
I was unaware of the virus’s existence for a lot longer than most people. I was on a plane, flying back to Los Angeles for a visit in mid-February. There was an Asian gentleman with a cough within earshot and the flight attendant made him wear a mask, all the while insisting that he was sure the man wasn’t infected. I remember thinking ‘What is coronavirus?’
I flew back to Slovenia on March 5th. My mother was worried about me travelling because of the virus. I still didn’t think it was going to be a big issue outside of Asia. I attended the SNG’s performance of the opera Louisa Miller on March 6th. Within the next day or two large public gatherings were banned; I believe it was the last performance given by the Ljubljana opera to date.
I don’t think that I fully realized that this was going to affect me until President Trump banned all flights between the US and Europe. My family had been planning to come to Slovenia for three months starting in late March. We are now on different sides of the Atlantic for the foreseeable future.
What is your impression of the way Slovenia is dealing with the crisis? How safe do you feel?
Insofar as my personal concerns about actually catching the virus, I feel as safe as can be reasonably expected, given the circumstances and the measures that the government has implemented. I am more concerned about getting sick with something other than coronavirus and not being able to get treatment, given how general medical services have been scaled back. I also worry about needing to get something done and not being able to do it. I have to say that I am less concerned about the latter now, at least in the short term, as public services still seem to be functioning. I had a bit of a scare when my washing machine broke yesterday. The employees at Big Bang were characteristically helpful via online chat and a new one should be delivered to my apartment in a few days.
Still though, I have more general concerns regarding how long this state of affairs is going to persist, or how long it will continue to be sustainable. My business isn’t really that affected by the lockdown in the nearer term, but I have concerns about the longer-term macroeconomic implications of the lockdown. Despite the bailouts in both the US and Slovenia, these can only go so far. At what point will economic pressures make continuing the lockdown undesirable or even unviable? Especially in Slovenia, where the lockdown seems more comprehensive than the US, I also worry about what will happen when so called non-essential services start to become more necessary. For instance, what about when people start to need things like haircuts?
Don’t get me wrong, a number of people are going to die from the coronavirus pandemic. It is serious and that is sad. But part of me honestly wonders if we are kidding ourselves by thinking that we can beat the pandemic in this or any other manner, especially when the only response to the lockdown not working, thus far, has been forcing more lockdown. Where and when does it end? That is probably my biggest worry.
Now compare that to your home country and how they are handling it. What is Slovenia doing better/worse?
Judging by what I’ve heard from family and friends in the States, I would say that the reaction in Slovenia has been more orderly than the response in the US, both on the part of the government and the population. In Slovenia, the government seems to have taken more proactive and calm measures when the outbreak came. People, while somewhat recalcitrant to voluntarily socially distance at first – during the three days between when the epidemic was declared in Slovenia and the start of the lockdown the cafes along the Ljubljanica were completely full -- they calmly complied, with very little panic buying or hysteria once mandatory orders were put in place. In the US, especially during the earlier days of the outbreak, it sounds to me like the government’s measures followed a wave of public panic, in a process that fed on itself. We didn’t have this in Slovenia. My local grocery store has been great and the shelves are even better stocked than usual; my American friends find this shocking.
What about official communications from the authorities, compared to your home country?
I’ve been pleased with the communications from the Slovene authorities, which have seemed calm and orderly. TSN has also been great about proving me with a daily digest of updates.
I have not received anything from the US, but I am not registered with the embassy.
What's the one thing you wish you had taken with you into self-isolation?
A non-temporary internet connection! I am currently connected to the outside world by a phone line clamped to the side of my building with a C-clamp. This was meant to be a temporary fix following some renovations to my apartment and while my street got optical cable installed. If it snaps and everything is still locked down, how do I get it fixed? Can I even get it fixed? Especially during the windy weather last week, this was easily my biggest worry.
One thing you have learned about yourself, and one thing you have learned about others during this crisis.
Like I imagine many writers are, I am almost a total introvert. At first, I found staying at home all the time to actually be somewhat relaxing, if I chose to look at it that way. I enjoyed the peace and quiet along the Ljubljanica, which my apartment fronts on. As this drags on, though, I find the few interactions that I do have with actual humans, which once would have been totally normal, have become more ‘taxing.’ Sounds that I once wouldn’t have noticed outside have started to seem unbearably noisy. Seriously, if everyone is supposed to be on lockdown can someone turn off the hourly Puppet Theatre song? Maybe related to this is the constant ramp-up to social distancing and protective wear orders. After ‘suiting up’ in my ski mask and gloves to go the store today, I felt like a character in some post-apocalyptic, dystopian movie heading out to face mortal peril!
Before I was a writer, I was a migration researcher. I also have had to extensively research things like the siege of Sarajevo for my books. One key take-away from both is that attempting to keep people from moving, or creating a situation where moving is extremely hard and dangerous, will not completely keep people from moving. It will simply make them move differently. I think we are already seeing this borne out by the Coronavirus crisis and predict that the longer this goes on, the more of it there will be, for better or worse.
Anžur Clement is an American of Slovenian descent. Originally from the Los Angeles area, he’s been living in Europe for over ten years. For the past two of them, he’s have settled in Ljubljana’s city centre where he writes historical fiction, fantasy and alternative history novels. Two of his books are available for free here.