“The year has passed by so fast”, or, things I’ll miss about 2020

Already I know that one day we will miss this.

Already, now, six months after the circuit breaker we could not wait to end, it feels impossible that I stayed home for two months straight, writing and interviewing and sleeping and eating drinking socialising and living, all in the same room – or that some days, when my Google calendar resembles a multicoloured box of crayons backed against each other, I quietly miss the smallness of that world.

It feels wrong, like a guilty secret, to wish us back into a time when so many struggled. Physically, economically, when Covid-19 cases climbed and businesses hurt and healthcare workers urged us to stay home. But when I think back on the first half of 2020, it’s hard edges have yielded, the drudgery reshaped into something soft, cocooning.

There was a simplicity to that life, a whittling down of needs and expectations, excluding everything but the most pressing. My social interactions, be it through Zoom, Discord or prolonged, hyper-focused bouts of texting, were limited to people truly important. Friends I missed. In adulthood, where agendas have come to underpin friendships, just talking cock for no reason has become so rare. 

I think back fondly upon the months when my credit card bill was the lowest in years, containing little more than groceries. Some Fridays, I wish it was still the norm to loll about the house all weekend. Remember when virtually the whole world binged on Tiger King at the same time and then dissected the train wreck over Zoom afterwards? Or when the dry spell on Too Hot to Handle mirrored that of couples living apart?

Photo: Pixioo

As a non-essential worker with no kids, sheltering in place with a partner, I know these memories are very privileged. Still, these days when I meet friends for drinks, the topic inevitably comes up – 2020 is passing so fast.  Perhaps this year’s warp speed is our minds’ coping mechanism as we hold out for better days. Yet why do we say that unless we concede there was something good in the year, something precious amid the utter upheaval?

It is human nature to want more. When the pandemic was at its worst, we craved dining out, fitness classes, dates, birthday parties. Then the circuit breaker lifted and we ventured out, masked up and cautious. My first time back at East Coast Park, the beaches were a shadow of their former selves, cordoned off with angry orange barriers. I passed a woman talking to her friends languidly, no mask, and held my breath behind mine.

When I went back last week, campers and fishermen were back in full force. Some had colonised pavilions and barbecue pits, barriers be damned, and that sight lifted my heart a little. There is hope for our economy. We ought to be thrilled. Yet even as the country recovers, we’ve set our sights further. It is no longer enough to be allowed beyond our front doors – now we’re looking past the nation’s borders, waiting for the green light to travel again. Every time ST reports on the merest hint of  a new travel bubble, you can be sure that story is going to top that day’s charts.

I’ve lost count of the number of travel throwbacks I’ve seen on social media and even posted a couple of my own. In my head I’ve already planned my own post-Covid destinations.

And yet. 

There is still a simplicity to 2020, knowing that even as our schedules fill up, I can text a friend and more or less know they will be free for dinner next week rather than jetting off on a weekend getaway as people here are wont to do.

It is fun unearthing nooks and crannies of the island and watching people do the same on social media, knowing that if I spot a new restaurant or cool dessert spot that the location tag will be in Singapore rather than, say, Seminyak. I’ve explored Jalan Besar, Little India, Sentosa, Yishun, Geylang Serai, more intimately than ever. The more I discover, the more I’m convinced I’ll never have time to see it all. Tiny Singapore! My own country!

Park 22 Hotel Little India

Recently, on an assignment to review hotels under $100 per night (TL;DR found some gems at pretty damn good value), I spent the night with a friend at one of the Ibis budget branches here. We’d travelled together to Hohhot in 2016 and every year we’ve said we’d do another trip; this staycation was the closest we’ve come since. 

That evening we ate at China Tastes, a BBQ joint in Jalan Besar that got their spiced seasoning mix so on point, we were transported back to the Mongolian restaurant with over-the-top decor we dined at multiple times in downtown Hohhot. 

At Ibis, we spend the night eating snacks and talking about everything from boys to sex, swapping stories and secrets, like we are 15 again at a sleepover. Only now, as adults, we fully appreciate how fleeting and treasured nights like that are.

Teen friendships were easy – they thrived because of the sheer amount of time we could afford to invest in them. Now, maintaining a friendship means dinner every quarter, and even that is no mean feat. But to enrich it takes time, which 2020 gave us in spades. In the past two months we’ve gone kayaking, bungee jumping, urban farming, and fell over 10000 times at inflatable floating playground Hydrodash. Dozens of new memories; not quite travelling but just as precious.

Most spontaneous friend. Photo: Ong Wee Jin

I don’t mean to appear like my year has been all rosy. For all that 2020 has accorded, it has taken and taken and taken. Relentlessly, without warning or mercy. In January, Dean and I hung a new calendar on our wall, a souvenir from Helsinki with scenes from a city we both love. The year held so much promise – new opportunities and adventures, all since derailed.

Now, already, the Christmas decorations are up and 11/11 sales have come and gone. I will be glad when we’ve turned the corner, not just when we’ve sung auld lang syne on new year’s eve but when it truly feels like the world moved on from this horrendous pandemic. Surely the future must hold better things. 

When restlessness sets in, I remind myself that change is around the corner. It is only a matter of time before international travel returns. The HK-SG travel bubble is a week away from taking off, even as Finland now welcomes people from Singapore (yas).

Still, my excitement is bittersweet. I think of the train ride out of North Korea, leaving behind this strange place of utter scarcity and no mobile connectivity, heading for the developed world. Or the last day of a gruelling trek, the mountains at my back, dragging my weary body to civilisation and a hot shower. Better things lie ahead. One does not miss hardship.

When the world recovers, it is inconceivable that we would seek to recreate the circumstances of today. But when the Covid-19 vaccine has been found  – already Pfizer is close! Dare we hope? – and we can laugh in the face of a pandemic that has long become a distant memory, I am pretty sure there will be days I find myself wistful for this odd, misshapen, memorable year.

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