After being gripped by the second wave of COVID-19, Melbourne went into one of the world’s most strict and the longest lockdowns. Having successfully suppressed the spread, Melburniuns emerged today, after 112 days to return to a semblance of pre-COVID life. Based in Melbourne, Samai writes about finding pleasure in the smallest of things
I never thought I would be writing about my local shopping centre with the same unfettered zeal I wield while writing about far flung lands. But I suppose this pandemic has steered us towards many an unlikely situation. After over three months of hard lockdown in Melbourne, what should have been a mundane trip to the shops felt as exhilarating as traipsing across South America. Upon reflection, the lockdown has actually helped bolster my community spirit and I can easily draw parallels with travelling and the novelty it affords us.
I noted a significant spring in my step this morning as I made for the shops. A familiar feeling of nervous excitement that comes with discovering something new. Accustomed to shuttered storefronts and an eerily empty mall, my senses were in for a shock. The doors to every single establishment were thrown open, the lights blinding. A buzz of conversation reverberated around the once hushed halls, loud and cacophonous. The smell of freshly baked sausage rolls wafted up from the food court, tantalizing. There was so much to absorb. I felt the same feeling of sensory overload as I had standing at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. I stood there for what must’ve been ages, taking it all in, relishing in the moment, surrounded by life.
“Oh my! He’s grown! I can’t believe it!” A voice interrupted my reverie. I turned to face the masseuse from the massage parlour tucked behind the entrance. He was now cooing at my six-month-old in the carrier. The hands that had so expertly kneaded my pre-natal tension to oblivion stopped short of picking him up. “Oh, it’s SO good to see you! I can’t believe your little man is here already,” he gushed.
I smiled behind my mask as the waitress at the noodle shop waved me over. She wanted to whip me up my favourite - X.O. fried rice. I was only happy to oblige. It didn’t matter that it was 9 a.m. and we were deep in the underbelly of a suburban shopping centre. The clang of the woks, the oil sizzling over flames and the delicious pungent aroma of fish sauce transported me back to the back alleys of Asia. I was touched that she remembered.
As I walked past, the ladies from the beauty salon rushed out, only to stop at a discreet distance. My hello was drowned out by their exuberant proclamation, “We’ve missed you!” Likewise. My eyebrows, especially, had sorely missed their tender ministrations. The sushi chef leaned over his pristine counter to ask after my eldest, while simultaneously handing me his favoured salmon avocado hand roll.
Amidst exchanging pleasantries, I realised similar scenes were unfolding all around me. A hairdresser fondly asked after a veteran’s wellbeing. A barista reached across the counter to serve a regular his favourite drink. A frazzled mum and her toddler stomped into a book shop, their faces lighting up as they waved to the store person. I felt a profound sense of community.
I don’t think I realized just how much I’d missed being a part of the community; or the simple pleasure of being amongst people, engaging in the occasional banter. It felt like an enormous revelation and I found myself falling back to a favourite pastime while travelling -- people watching. As folks went about their ways, greeting each other, it felt oddly reminiscent of the final scenes from the Lord of the Rings. After the dark days of battling evil, the Hobbits return to their beautiful, sunny Shire and all is right with the world. Let’s just hope it’s the same for us.
Samai Haider is an economist by profession and a writer by passion. She is the author of Tilmund’s Travel Tales, a picture book that aims to instil wanderlust amongst young children.Read about the fables of her foibles at:http://samaihaider.com/