Our release from mandatory quarantine was not exactly cinematic. We were tagged with wrist bands, our temperatures measured and in the morning we just opened the door of Room 3805 and stepped out of confinement, like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. We made our way down the long canal of the elevator with an entourage of baggage, emerging like newborns into the grey light of an overcast Sydney. In the hotel foyer, we maneuvered past police and soldiers and hotel staff, no longer just disembodied voices on a telephone.
Outside, I looked up at the sky, unframed by windows or walls as we loaded up the taxi and tried to absorb the moment. We drove through the Sydney roads in silence, trying to reacquaint ourselves with the city. Before too long, we pulled up at our Airbnb, an ageing federation home with pink and green stained-glass windows squeezed in between the grungy dilapidated buildings of Bondi Rd.
To our surprise when we walked into our new digs, we found the floor overrun with cockroaches, mouse poo on the bed and the fridge full of stinky food. A solitary milk bottle had swollen from fermentation and was threatening to explode. We resignedly cleaned up, sweeping up the dust and cockroaches and mouse poo (while the kids screeched), and contacted the hosts. No trumpets ringing out freedom for this exodus, just a dose of sobering reality. Banal as it was, the experience sent me into a downward spiral that countered the hopes of the moment. It hit me that like the Jews departing Egypt, our mini exodus was still into an unknown wilderness. It would still be a long while before we would really be settled, before we could claim a home of our own, find a community, and make a life.
In the afternoon, we set off for our first walk. And suddenly my senses, so long denied, came into overwhelming focus: so many greens, the sharp scent of fresh cut grass and jasmine, car fumes, the peal of a magpie, the cool tender softness of the breeze on my face- why had I never noticed how that feels before? – the solidity of the earth beneath my feet, the heat. We took shelter under the dappled light of Sydney’s most iconic tree, the Moreton Bay Fig. I stood in awe of its wide canopy of shiny green leaves, it’s huge elephantine banyan trunks and branches, roots growing serpentine in all directions. I put my hands on its ravaged body, cool to the touch and patient. This too shall pass, it whispered.
At Bronte Beach, that beautiful curve of the Pacific, the playgrounds were closed off and no one was allowed onto the beach, except for surfers. At a distance, we watched them huddle together like a pod of seals in shiny black wet suits waiting to catch a wave, swelling a sunlit bottle green, high as hills. We settled on a bench but before we could even catch our breath, a council worker approached, motioning to us to get up and “keep moving.”
After so many weeks inside, I just want to sit and watch the lift and fall of the sea for hours. I want to admire the surfers – their fearlessness, their balance, their joy, as they ride the most turbulent waves into shore. I wish I had their confidence. But we get up, though not without first asking why. She shrugs her shoulders, “Because of the Corona thing.” We keep on moving. That night we celebrate our first makeshift Shabbat dinner with ginger beer for wine and sliced bread for challah. It’s a start.
The next day, we make it to a small grassy outcrop overlooking Bondi Beach that doesn’t attract too much attention. Unlike the images that spread round the world a few weeks ago, there is not a soul on the beach today and that iconic expanse is astoundingly empty – as smooth and bare as a new day. The air is soft and clear and warm. A solitary sailing boat drifts across the deep blue. I allow myself to stop moving and settle into the moment. I drink in the wild beauty of ocean and cliff for the first time since we left the confines of the hotel room. I lie down on the tender grass and let myself be lulled by the endless murmur and rumble of waves breaking on the open shore.