“Dispatch from a Pandemic: HaMerkaz, Israel” by Zhanna Slor

dispatch israel
Zhanna Slor

About six weeks ago, my husband and I embarked on our very first flight since our daughter was born. It was actually three flights: Chicago to London, London to Rome, then a three-day stopover in Rome before flying the rest of the way to Israel, where my in-laws all live. Alma was a wonderful traveler for an eleven-month old—other passengers on the planes stopped to tell us this constantly—but this was partially because she was still breastfeeding, and spent much of the eighteen hours, when she wasn’t happily waving to strangers, eating or sleeping on my lap. Not surprisingly, I was not very well-rested after any of these flights, and so barely noticed how our travel happened to coincide with the first wave of Corona-panic. It was February, and the disease had just started to migrate out of China, taking the world by storm. In every airport, people donned masks, like we were in a sci-fi movie, or an episode of Counterpart.

In Israel, where every television channel day and night focused on how many people had contracted Corona and where the infected had been, I had bigger problems than panicking over a disease that was still quite rare. For one thing, traffic was insane, and because we did not stay in Tel Aviv, we spent half our trip in the car, which Alma was not happy about. For another, because it was our first time overseas with her, we were not prepared for the horror of baby jet lag, or having to re-sleep-train in a house with so many obstacles for a light sleeper. My in-laws live in a very small town, and there is a lot of land surrounding the house. Starting around midnight and continuing every couple of hours until sunrise, a gang of wild jackals would start howling in the fields nearby; on top of that, on most nights rats would scurry across the clay roof just over our heads.

Even with a fan to drown them out, the unusual noises traveled directly into my brain; and when they did not, they went into Alma’s. We both woke up constantly. I finally switched rooms, but that only created new, different noise problems. I thought I’d finally managed to fix it by the end—I’d found a radiator to replace the creaky old heater that incessantly opened and closed its flaps—but then that night, a barrage of rockets from Gaza made the house shake, and my husband told me, after I’d finally gotten the baby to sleep at her actual bedtime, there was a good chance we’d all have to head to a bomb shelter later (luckily, the rockets subsided, but it took me a very long time to fall asleep that night).

The last Saturday before we left, my husband’s father inexplicably insisted we drive for several hours north to Tiberius for a hike. After eating a very bad meal at the only open restaurant on the boardwalk—nearly everything was closed for Shabbat—we were driving around looking for a place to walk off the food when we accidentally ended up at a Christian tourist site. I don’t remember what it was called, or what it was for; we were close to the sea of Galilee, so likely Jesus walked there or something. I’m a bad Jew and I never read the Bible. In any case, I was experiencing the worst car sickness of my life from sitting in the back seat while my father-in-law sped over some of the most winding hills imaginable for two hours, so I was in no position to pay attention to things, and didn’t realize where we were until until we were out of the car and standing in the middle of a giant crowd of tourists; there were monks in brown robes, Americans in funny hats, several large groups of Asians wearing masks. I spoke little Hebrew so I’d sort of forgotten about corona by then and the masks made me nervous. After a couple of minutes, I went into the car to feed Alma.

The next day, my husband read that several confirmed cases of Corona had been discovered in people who had been to that exact tourist attraction a week before, as well as the boardwalk where we’d eaten at a restaurant.

All night long I replayed the five minutes we had spent at this tourist attraction, trying to remember if I had gotten close to any strangers. I was pretty sure I hadn’t,  but I still didn’t love the odds. Eventually, because we had to pack up and get ready to fly again, I moved it to the back of my mind. Then I plain forgot about it. We flew home through Italy just before they began instituting travel bans and lock downs. By the time we got back to the States, it didn’t matter that I was sick of worrying about Corona; everyone else had just started. The panic was following us, feeding on itself, growing larger and larger the more people talked about it, just like the disease itself.

Despite my exhaustion and the frenzy that we’d come home to, I’ve never been happier to see my house. I’ll take quarantine over bringing a baby to a foreign country any day.  In Milwaukee, in my house where everything was walking distance and Alma slept all night long without a fuss and I had a supply of wine and friends who spoke the same language, if I didn’t want to hear about Corona I could just turn off the TV.

Maybe we should all turn off the TV.

–March 14, 2020

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Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the Midwest in the early 1990s. She has a master’s degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and has been published in many literary magazines, including Ninth LetterBellevue Literary ReviewTusculum ReviewMidwestern Gothic, and five times in Michigan Quarterly Review; one MQR piece was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2014. Though she spent the last ten years in Chicago, she and her husband recently relocated to Milwaukee, where, besides writing, she is raising her one-year-old daughter and working as a landlord and short-term rental manager.