When does a chapter end, when does a new one begin? With a decision, the last turning of a key in a former apartment door, with boarding an airplane? My memory clearly points to a much more tender moment. It was January 30th, 2021, around 19CET/2SCT, the location an A350 somewhere over Afghanistan, Pakistan, or India. A bubble in time and space, between tiredness and being awake, being alone and connected, Europe and Asia.
I don’t know whether I floated on the surface between sleep and consciousness for minutes or hours, but I was awake then. Anna lay peacefully next to me, wrapped in the turbines’ muffled roar, a wool blanket, and darkness. Only the mask over her mouth reflected some light. I looked out the window, in calm reverie. The foothills of the Himalayas were probably floating past at the other side of the plane. Here, a band of cities and streets stretched towards the horizon, from where it grew into the night sky as an imaginary line between Sirius, Orion and their ethereal compatriots. A silver borderline between my old life and my new one. Four hours later we would land in Taipei.
It was Anna’s career that carried us from Germany to Taiwan. For a good year we had spun, planned, waited, and trembled together, realigned ourselves again and again, even married. Then, at that moment in the airplane, a thousand kilometers above the ground, somewhere between Kabul and Kanpur, I finally realized: This adventure of ours, it begins at last. For me, it was a new beginning.
The last weeks in Berlin had been marked by a farewell to familiar everyday life, home, and friends. A goodbye was not always possible, certainly not easy, which made each of these rare moments all the more precious. A second farewell accompanied me for months, a farewell to ideas, dreams, habits, fears, identities, and beliefs, awakened with the desire for the Orient, multiple times buried or raised again by the cruel whims and slow grind of the pandemic. The minutes under the band of stars then marked the third farewell, a farewell to the chaos of the last year, to farewell itself. The next chapter was about to be called Arrival! Of course, little did I know how long it would take…
Taiwan and The Rona
A few hours later. The early morning airport in Taipei had something surreal about it, as if from a Charlie Kaufman movie. In the empty, much too large halls, scurrying travelers showed the way to the next checkpoint. Officials with masks, plastic gloves, and full-body epidemic suits smiled at us in a friendly manner, handed us passes with strange characters, and wordlessly collected them again (“countly without swine fever”). Passing checkpoints became guessing games: ticket? visa? PCR test? the-health-document-for-which-I-had-to-get-to-the-copy-shop-on-my-last-day-in-Berlin? Using my hands and feet, I tried to explain to an official why my name in the health document has an “ue”; grinning clownishly, I kept pointing to the ü dashes, “weird language, IT problem, IT problem”. He nudged his glasses into place, laughed – and set me free.
Then, in a tunnel with a lonely kiosk, we were ambushed by a group of young women (students in a vacation job? their English was remarkable!) to sell us SIM cards (8€ for unlined LTE use, 5G if my phone could do that). From now on, the health department would always know where we were.
Finally, at the exit, a horde of cab drivers pounced on us, two snatching the far too many suitcases from our hands, two more spraying us from top to bottom with disinfectant (not without a brief moment of hesitation, pointing at my leather bag), while a fifth pushed us towards a cab. Irritated, I accepted the circus as a PR measure – after 30 hours on my feet, the airborne virus would certainly not hide in my jacket collar. Then we roared down an empty highway between 20-, 30- and 40-story concrete high-rises, rusty cars, and creatively winding bridges, cranes and construction work everywhere. Strange trees scurred by, pretty Taiwanese women winked at us from advertising posters, the taximeter ringed every few seconds, while mountains were peeling out of the smog in the distance.
Arriving at the hotel, after a few irritated circles around the block, we were greeted by a suit-wearing Asian (of course it’s an Asian! I was still getting used to it…), who pointed to what seemed like a crack in the wall. Behind the shallow door were a kind of equipment room, folding chairs, cleaning supplies, an unused swing gate. Handles, seats, even the walls were partially covered with plastic bags. In a neighboring room, a security guard behind some old screens gave off the charm of a parking garage, the young man in the ABC suit that of a school chemistry lab. With excited friendliness and without much warning, he pushed us one after the other into the elevator. He, too, didn’t quite know how to bridge the chasm between the four star hotel we booked and the prison we were about to enter. I just so managed to slip Anna a gift, a gesture that had helped me to deal with my own nervousness ahead of all this. And thus our honeymoon began, without a kiss, motto: Solitary confinement.
From a Western perspective, two weeks of quarantine certainly sounded barbaric. But once here, it seemed a fair deal, made possible by Taiwan’s excellent handling of the pandemic: A very quick and effective response, rigid controls, and its nature as an island nation had made the country virtually Corona-free for a long time. In 2021, the total of less than 1000 cases almost exclusively involved entrants, and with its 9 Corona deaths, Taiwan was still the country with the fewest victims as late as mid-2021, along with St. Vincent and the Grenadines (the Caribbean island nation, not an indie band). This was made possible by rigid entry restrictions (we needed a special permit), numerous tests (a maximum 72-hour-old PCR test, a maximum 4-hour-old antibody test at departure, temperature checks at every corner), the two-week/15-night quarantine, three weeks of monitoring by SIM card, two weeks of daily temperature readings, control text messages from the health department (“if you have none of the following symptoms, answer 1…. “), and small facts like that the enormous masses of garbage generated by eating at the hotel were treated as a bio-hazard. All this nevertheless a small price for an almost normal life in the midst of a roaring global pandemic. A price I was prepared to pay gladly. (Nevertheless, most people wore masks outside, the tourism industry would also have felt the crisis, and the struggle for vaccines played a not unimportant supporting role in the media for the first months after our arrival). And thus, shopping, restaurant visits, yoga classes, concerts, and going out were restricted only a few weeks in spring 2021 and the poisoned discourse in the Western media seemed like an hysteric imbecility.
Alone-time, so much of it
But first: Quarantine, my room door a closed gate to another world. (I hardly dared to push my foot over the threshold when opening the door for food, after reading the story of a traveler who paid several thousand euros in fines for putting something in front of his travel companion’s room door.) On this side, my thoughts cascaded between memories, stories, metaphors, and meta-spheres, entwining day by day more and more into uncontrollable tendrils.
Thus our wedding a month before lived on, kept alive by my play with the increasingly familiar ring on my finger, a photo on the desk, and the stamp in my passport that let me here. In thougths, I visited the small town of our civil wedding ceremony, to climb the slopes of the village to the almost completely weathered ruin of its castle, now an open-air theater for children-summer-joy. Imagining myself standing in front of the renovated keep, the image of the Münsterland below me – crisscrossed by rows of trees and dotted with small farms – freezed into a picture of Constable, melted into a Pollock, until remembering the wind turbines brought me back to the 21st century. In good weather, you can see as far as Münster in the distance from there. Once recognizable by the towers of the cathedral and St. Lamberti, it is now the teeth of the university hospital towers that first peel out of the haze.
In my dream journey, I fraternized with the farmers, merchants, and journeymen carpenters as they had walked from here to Münster centuries ago. For two or three days, they must have traveled along the roads that we now speed along in less than a single hour by car. I wonder what they thought, with their destination so close at hand. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were on their journey for a good three days, the moon always dangling outside their window. I, too, was living in a space capsule for a whole fifteen days, the city below me a virus-free terrarium, the familiar Münsterland two continents away, my wife in the very room below me.
The time bubble was not entirely unwelcome. It separated the months of organizing and muddling through from “life thereafter,” sent a clear invitation to fears, hopes, questions, and answers – and gave me permission to indulge them without regard for Anna or to let them go at will. Certainly, faced with a choice, I would not have booked two weeks of “jail time” (to quote my father). But once there, I hoped to know how to make the best of it. Don’t others pay money for two weeks of solitude and silence? Hotel room instead of monastery chamber, bathtub instead of laundry tub, a good night’s sleep instead of morning prayers plus fast WLAN and a long list of creative ideas gave me a familiar environment to gather energy and to make a first cagey experiences with Taiwan from a safe distance.
And yet, maybe what the two weeks had actually asked of me was not acts of creativity but destruction, as it was probably through those two weeks that some of the ideas, assumptions, and dreams were fortified that I one by one had to kill in the months following, to make space for whatever this place would really make possible – or not.
My quarantine room perched regally on the 20th floor above Xinyi, the financial district in eastern Taipei. On a narrow ledge behind my bathtub, I built a reading nest with surplus towels and pillows. From there, pressed tightly enough against the window, I was just able to peek at the nearby Taipei 101. The pagoda-like skyscraper had been the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 2004 and since then towers over the city as a landmark and its main sight.
Taipei today has about 2.7 million inhabitants, about one million less than Berlin, but at 270 square kilometers occupies less than a third of the area of the German capital. And even these figures are only correct on paper. Rather than separating Taipei from New Taipei, the Tamsui River by now connects the twin cities, and as the metropolis creeps up the slopes of the surrounding mountains to the north, east and south, it likewise follows the river to the west almost to the Taiwan Strait.
Nevertheless, Taipei is very different from other Asian mega-metropolises like Bangkok. Its colorful Chinese-Portuguese-Japanese heritage adds variety to the rigid checkerboard pattern, the surrounding peaks give direction and tranquility to the view; traffic flows comparatively calmly through the well-developed streets, even the sluggish buses stand beepingly at most in each other’s way; wind and rain regularly drive the smog out of the green basin, and those who have nevertheless had enough of the hustle and bustle can reach (sub-)tropical beaches or alpine nature reserves in an hour by bus or high-speed trains, where almost four thousand meters of mountains invite cyclists, hikers and climbers to exercise, temples and sulfur springs the exhausted to rest.
Yet, of all this my guidebooks revealed more than the view out the window. Outside, the picture followed the slow play of clouds, the breath of the city slowed and quieted over Chinese New Year. Only the sun plunged pitiless from the sky at the same hour every evening, setting the skyscrapers aglow for a precious quarter of an hour.
Thus, food was – besides my windows – the only connection to the outside world during those two weeks. As a small ritual of passage, one of our last restaurant visits in Berlin had been to Lon Men’s Noodle House, an inconspicuous diner like the ones that are hot in Berlin and you can find on every corner here. On closely spaced folding tables we had ordered typical Taiwanese 小吃 (xiǎochī, literally “small food”) and got in the mood for the island with rice noodles, tofu, and dumplings. (We had saved pork tongue, chicken feet, and duck blood sausage for later…) The food in Taipei thus promised to be very varied, healthy, and delicious – yet, the unsalted airplane food at the hotel wanted to have none of that. Among the top three dishes were a fruit smoothie and fresh croissants Anna ordered me as a surprise. (Number three was tomato soup with shrimp, which tasted delightfully familiar regardless the bitter gourd and muddy rice).
Finally, the last day of quarantine had arrived – as so often, time had crawled by at first, but no sooner that the first half was over the remaining days tumbled by. I didn’t learn 1000 new vocabulary words or studied my guidebooks from cover to cover, nor did I turn night into day or lost myself in TV series or social networks. Instead, I had found time to work, write, read, do yoga, meditate, clean up inside, and to my greatest delight, play with my new camera
During quarantine, the hotel room had become a space capsule, and leaving it after 15 nights was a bit like landing on an alien, Kafkaesque space station. Instead of the side entrance, which had been converted into an epidemic wanna-be air lock, the exit opened into the cathedral-like hotel lobby, where the check-out process was ritually re-enacted. Yes, my stay was “good,” incomparable in a way. In view of an alcohol ban, the question about the minibar was superfluous, neither did I have any questions – dutifully I had left the soft bathrobe I so much enjoyed. Covert glances at the waiting Anna, a thankful nod towards the staff, suddenly together, and already we pushed our herd of unruly suitcases towards the elevator. Still irritated by the sudden encroachment of public life, we saved the longed-for reunion kiss – thanks to our masks, it would have been more reminiscent of Magritte’s Lovers then Klimt’s Kiss anyway.
Outside, spring embraced us as expected, a heavy sultriness pressing down on the sweaters and jackets that were once so appropriate in Berlin’s snow. Cars honked, scooters rattled, birds sang, flowers shared their fragrance, passers-by hustled around us, sunrays faned themselves through some shivering leaves after their zigzag between reflecting skyscrapers. Hectically, my mind tried to connect all this into a coherent picture. Limousines in front of the hotel (move aside!), cyclists on the sidewalk (one more step!), pedestrians (wait, do we not have to keep our social distance here?). A green traffic light counted the seconds, jumped to red once it reached 0. The same moment, the crosswalk disappeared under the wide tires of dozens of scooter drivers. Did the helmet there actually have cat ears?
Our hotel was located in the center of Xinyi, the dazzling banking district in the eastern center of Taipei. Skyscrapers, wide sidewalks, men and women in suits and dresses, trees, fountains, and SUVs from Japan and Germany made it clear that people here were confidently trying to close ranks with Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, New York, Paris, and Frankfurt – the 101 above us a steely, mirroring ambassador of this idea. Our apartment for the first few weeks was only about a 10-minute walk north – 15 if you had a half-dozen suitcases to herd in front of you.
We followed the dotted line on our cell phones across an eight-lane street, beyond which the houses were half that height at 5, 10, 15 stories. Their walls washed-out concrete behind neon signs, convenience stores below, roof terraces above with huts from corrugated iron, inbetween frosted windows and rusted cage porches, crammed with air conditioners, clothes, trash, and lovingly nurtured shrubbery.
Our home for the next few weeks was in a darkly gleaming modern high-rise that jutted out of the jumble like an outpost of the new Taipei. Inside: a friendly Taiwanese man at the reception desk, then up 8 floors by elevator, where an enterprising Taiwanese woman explained the apartment to us half in broken English, half in Chinese. She apologized, rushed out to appear again within a few minutes with rubber slippers, a pan, and a cleaver just to disappear again. Then, we were finally alone, together, overwhelmed after only 15 minutes.