LAST July, my husband, Larry, and I landed in Los Angeles where I was to take a position as principal at a Jewish day school in Beverly Hills. I embarked on learning a new system and getting to know American children. We found LA intoxicating; the miraculous weather, distant muted mountains, endless fast-food restaurants, billboards and miles of freeways lined with homeless encampments.
But at the beginning of March this year, Larry decided to come back to Sydney to be with our children during the pandemic. I was left alone, but I did not feel lonely. I was proud to be one of the “essential workers” running our eLearning platform from my apartment and I was thrilled at what we were achieving and how much I was learning. LA had strict stay-at-home orders and I was complying; going out once a week for groceries in a mask. Larry’s visa would not allow him to return and I was receiving consulate updates urging us to return home as soon as possible, which I promptly ignored.
Before I could get complacent, LA levelled up and threw in an even more complicated event. Riots, protests, curfew and the National Guard. Riot season had begun, and I hadn’t even taken down my coronavirus decorations.
Eventually the signs became hard to ignore. I needed to re-examine my priorities. After three months alone, without knowing when I would see my family again, I decided to come home for good. A simple journey to Australia had now become a logistical nightmare. I had missed the two waves of repatriation flights and would have to fly through New Zealand.
The strange journey started at the airport. LAX was deserted. I checked in and went through security. In the whole terminal, there was only one Starbucks open and a row of travellers in full hazmat gear. I was wearing an N95 mask.
The plane was empty, and we landed in New Zealand uneventfully. We had a four-hour transit time in Auckland with nothing open.
When we arrived in Sydney, border security officers boarded our plane. They did not spray the plane with pesticide as they normally do. Clearly the virus trumps imported fire ants and the fruit fly. We were given strict instructions not to take any photographs. Everyone was silent. We filled in several forms, our temperatures were taken and then we were told to go collect our suitcases. It wasn’t long before everyone had cleared immigration and we were escorted to the bus. Everyone compliantly packed their suitcases in the luggage hold and finally our bus of about 20 masked avengers was ready to leave.
When we arrived at the Sofitel, we were all relieved, actually thrilled. The police and army were there to escort us to our rooms. We were presented with a brochure that said, “You may not leave your room unless instructed to do so.” We were not given a key.
On the first day I had this optimistic idea of wanting to start a fitness regime. However, I quickly realised that five minutes of physical exertion by me feels pretty much like the same symptoms you’re supposed to call 000 for, and the shortness of breath could get confused with COVID. So rather I’m watching Netflix, Stan and SBS.
Our meals are prepared by a catering company and are delivered to the room in brown paper bags. The food is like that found in a child’s lunch box circa 1990 – a child with a slightly neglectful mother. There is a security guard on our floor. Tonight, I made my bed and put a chocolate on the pillow. It’s these little luxuries that make it a five-star experience. (Tomorrow I’m going to use YouTube to fold my hand towel into a swan.)
We are not allowed out of our rooms at all. I do have a gorgeous view and natural light. I get a phone call a day enquiring whether I have caught the virus and about my mental health. I am warding off anxiety by focusing on how adventurous my last year was. I do not wish to seem frivolous about the real cost of this pandemic (the loss of human life and the economic devastation) but I can only set my own story down which is one of resilience, optimism and gratitude.
There is a meme that says, “No one answered the question correctly in 2016. Where do you see yourself in five years?” I didn’t think I would be isolated from my family in a strange country for three months and then trapped in a room for two weeks amid a global pandemic. Cabin fever has set in but it’s certainly better than fever fever – so I’m happy to do my part and stay isolated from the Australian public.
Mostly I am so grateful that I am returning to our safe and fair-minded society, our beautiful city with its radiant views, and our impressive country with its inclusive and diverse values. I am happy to be coming home to the miracle of Australia – and the miracle that is my family.
Tracey Schreier was principal of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, the first school to close in Los Angeles due to COVID. She is the former head of primary school, Moriah College.