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How nightly applause saved my sanity as an expat

Blane Bachelor
June 6, 2020

Blane Bachelor had just moved to Berlin when COVID-19 spread to Europe and the lockdown began. She and her family were stuck in their new home without a network of friends or knowledge of German. But they could clap.

People are seen standing on a balcony and applauding healthcare workers
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

A few weeks ago, a good friend posted on Facebook: "Down to that one stupid neighbor at 7 p.m. making a lot of racket."

I wonder how many people in my apartment building think the same about me and my family. Almost every night over the last two months, I, along with my husband, young son, and our neighbor across the courtyard, have been the scant few clapping and cheering, our little contribution to the now-fading global movement to express gratitude for healthcare and other front-line workers during the coronavirus crisis.

March 20 marked the start of this nightly ritual for us, two weeks after we relocated to Berlin from San Francisco for my husband's job. Just a few days earlier, we'd decided against returning to the States to ride out the pandemic. My parents' home in a small Florida Panhandle town, with a waterfront backyard, small patch of sand, kayaks, and a dock where 5 p.m. wine time is part of the daily routine when we visit, seemed far better suited to lockdown with a very active three-year-old than our top-floor apartment in a big, brand-new-to-us city.

A cyclist rides across an empty street past Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Like most places, Berlin grew quiet due to COVID-19Image: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

But getting there meant traveling through three international airports, and, once we arrived, possibly exposing my parents, both in their seventies. In addition, while Germany's cases were still climbing, the country's swift, coordinated response looked far superior to how the United States was handling the problem.

So we stayed put in a city where we didn't speak the language, didn't have any kind of social network, didn't have a clue how to navigate the healthcare system. My husband still had his job, thankfully, and with my writing assignments slowing to a trickle, I was able to focus on our kiddo and keeping everyone fed. But, even as gracious as I tried to be with myself and my boys in those early days, I was often a wreck: terrified about us or loved ones getting the virus, raging over my son's newfound screen addiction, devastated about my hard-earned freelance career swirling down the proverbial toilet.

Even a trip to the grocery store, which some friends back home were savoring as a cabin-fever salve, was stressful. I sweated bullets behind my mask as I backed up the checkout line once again with my slow, inefficient bagging, cashiers barking orders at me that I couldn't understand. Every time I saw a plane overhead or heard the wail of an ambulance, I wondered whether we made the right decision to stay in Berlin.

'Wir applaudieren'

Then, exactly two weeks after we arrived, I got a forwarded text message from an acquaintance with instructions that "wir applaudieren" the nurses, hospital staff, and other front-line workers from balconies and windows that night at 7 p.m. A few minutes prior, my family and I joined about a dozen neighbors clapping and cheering and whistling. This wasn't the sort of grand performance that made the rounds as a viral video: No one belted out an Italian aria or spirited Spanish ballad from the rooftops. Instead, it hummed with typical German efficiency: show up on time, do what's asked, then get back to the business of your lives. But the sense of community brought me to tears, a feeling of belonging that I had desperately missed since leaving home.

We did it the next night, and the next, and the next, for a week, two weeks, a month. But by that time, our group had dwindled drastically. It was usually just my family and one other faithful: a woman across the way with a riot of lush, colorful plants on her balcony. My son was the first to ask her name: Andrea.

A virtually deserted sidewalk on Berlin's Kurfürstendamm boulevard in March 2020
Berlin's Kurfürstendamm was a lively boulevard until the coronavirus reached the cityImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

As with many Berliners, her English was, thankfully, near perfect, with a beautiful British accent. We started chatting a bit more every night, our conversations deepening between our balconies across the courtyard some five stories up. Like me, Andrea was once a newspaper writer; she'd recently started a job with Oxfam. I confessed that with the way things were going in the media industry, I might be making a career change, too. She lamented the uncertain future of a beloved tango venue where she'd been dancing for 13 years. I shared the agony of watching my home country unravel from thousands of miles away. She promised to teach me to swear in German.

We agreed that as soon as we were allowed, and when we felt ready, we would host her for dinner. At some point, we began saying goodbye with the namaste gesture of placing our hands together at our hearts.

Then, one day while buying face masks with my son at the fabric store on our street, I heard someone call out "Blane!" It took a moment to register; I knew so few people in Berlin, and for weeks, I'd been answering almost exclusively to "Mama" and "Babe" at home. But there stood Andrea in line behind us. Even with a mask, my son recognized her right away, squealing with excitement and racing toward her until I grabbed him and reminded him not to get too close. I watched as my little extrovert, delighted to be socializing with someone other than his parents, showed off his balance bike and rhino horn, one of those heart-wrenching maternal moments when I could see just how much this isolation was affecting him, too.

Something to depend on

Germany recently began easing its lockdown restrictions, and Andrea and I decided that our final night of applause would be the Friday when restaurants reopened in Berlin. She was already on her balcony when I came out, and I tried to hold back the tears as we clapped, one last time, during this simple ritual that had become such a cherished part of my day. But we had some celebrating to do that night, too: My husband's official work permit, delayed in a coronavirus-clogged bureaucratic tangle, had just come through a few hours ago. We popped some champagne and I told Andrea to meet me in the courtyard so I could bring her a glass.

Blane Bachelor and her neighbor on their last night of clapping from their balconies in Berlin
Blane Bachelor and her neighbor on their last night of clapping from their balconies in BerlinImage: DW/B. Bachelor

I'll never forget what she said as I handed her the bubbles: "I just want to tell you how much it meant to me knowing I would see you every night during this difficult time. That every time, you would be there. There just aren't a lot of things you can depend on like that in the world. You don't know how much it helped me with the loneliness of all this."

She was crying. I was too.

Now, a couple of weeks later, we've invited Andrea to our apartment on Sunday for an early dinner. She's the first guest we'll have in our across-the-pond home, and I'm planning an elaborate menu, with blue-and-green dinosaur cake for dessert that my son and I will make together. After that, we all just might head outside to our balcony at 7 p.m. and make a lot of racket.

Quiet city: Berlin during the coronavirus pandemic