I made another step into society this week with a visit to Edinburgh. It was my first time in the city since the day I entered my long period of COVID19 shielding (way, way back in March 2020) and it was… weird. But it also felt good to get into the city and experience The Real World a little more.
The visit was “forced” on me because I had to attend a biometrics appointment for my new work visa. So, I decided that I would use the appointment as an excuse to check out the city and to “acclimatise” myself to The Real World a bit more. I had a simple plan that went as expected: Take a taxi to St Andrew’s Square for my appointment then walk across the city to Morningside before getting a taxi home again. Easy, peasy.
Even though I had a plan, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially as August in Edinburgh generally means throngs of people packed into the city making movement nearly impossible. But we’re still in a COVID19 world, so I felt secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be too busy. (And I was right!)
I arrived in the city with 20 minutes to spare, so I walked around St Andrew’s Square to acclimatise myself to the crowds. There were not nearly as many people in the square as I would have expected, especially given the nice weather. That made it easier to wander around – both in a physical sense and on an emotional level. I was also pleased to see that there were plenty of signs around reminding people to give others a little space.
After my appointment, I made my way through the Princes Street Garden for an ice cream cone. I was initially taken by the noise in the gardens, which was more disconcerting than the crowds (which weren’t that crowded). I was very aware of the trains idling in Waverley Station and how they created a constant humming sound that blended in with the traffic to drown out the sounds of nature. I tried to think about how aware I was of the noise pre-pandemic, but I imagine I was just used to it after so many years.
When I arrived at the ice cream van, I was pleased to see that the queue wasn’t too long. I also noticed that I didn’t feel crowded as I queued. In pre-pandemic times, people stood too close to me (and in turn, I had to stand too close to others). But there was plenty of space between people as I waited to order my frozen treat. And when it was my turn to order, there wasn’t someone standing directly behind me, which made me feel more relaxed and at ease.
After enjoying my ice cream, I made my way through (or rather “across”) the Old Town towards the Meadows. I had thought about wandering down the Royal Mile, possibly stopping into the Clam Shell for a portion of chips, but I felt that it was too crowded with festival-goers watching street performances so I just continued along through the Grassmarket, through the Meadows, and into Morningside (where I collected two geocaches), taking in the city as I went.
There were several changes to the shops and cafes along the route. Of course, that is normal for Edinburgh so that was expected. But because of my long absence, it was more noticeable – especially the volume of shuttered shops along Princes Street, many of which have moved to the newly reopened St James Quarter. There were also several changes in and around Morningside, which is my “base” of sorts when I’m in town as that’s where my office was/is*.
Another noticeable change was that the pubs, restaurants, and cafes have expanded (or created) outdoor eating spaces. Some have even built little “pods” of sorts that extend into the road taking over parking spaces or even roadways themselves, where the streets have been closed to traffic. There have also been changes to road layouts to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Many of these changes were put in early on during the lockdowns when people were encouraged to have greater levels of social distancing.
Overall, I found the outing to be less fraught than I prepared myself for. Indeed, in some ways, it was a lot nicer than previous walking journeys through the city. That’s because, in the pre-pandemic world, I often found myself frustrated by the lack of attention people gave others as they walked. (Too) many people just took a course and continued, almost demanding that others move for them rather than sharing the “burden” of negotiating space. But on this outing, I felt that there was more of an awareness of others and the space that everyone was occupying – as well as a shared responsibility for giving space. People would pause or move to the side to allow others to pass narrow spaces with a small buffer, sometimes with a nod or smile as if to acknowledge the situation.
Witnessing this little dance throughout my visit made me feel a little more confident about being around others as there was an unspoken understanding about sharing our shared space. However, I am also aware that COVID19 is still out there and still poses a risk to me. And that means that I will continue to avoid crowds and indoor spaces/meetings for a while longer.
I don’t have any plans to return to the city centre in the upcoming weeks, but I imagine this trip will mean that my next trip will be a little less stressful. I am also hopeful that it will make me feel a little more confident about my (slow) re-entry to The Real World in general terms.
I would be interested in hearing from others who’ve experienced “re-entry” into society after extended periods of isolation. Or even experiences related to seeing first-hand the changes over the course of the pandemic. So, if you’re up for sharing, please do comment below!
* I live in the countryside outside the city limits, but Morningside is the easiest part of the city to access. It’s also where I did my PhD and where I will begin working as a lecturer in about a month.