For the last eight years, home has been a stable figure in my rapidly changing life.
Since 2012, I’ve ping-ponged from New York to Madison to the U.K., worked several jobs, attended college and graduate school, met new people at a break-neck pace, been proud of many achievements and embarrassed by many mistakes. Through it all, Eau Claire has been nice and predictable. Things change in the Chippewa Valley, of course, but the changes feel gradual and manageable in comparison.
The Goat and the Joynt haven’t gone anywhere. My favorite foods are always available on London Road. I can count on seeing some white squirrels in people’s front lawns.
This time, I could’ve really used the sure footing I’ve come to expect from Eau Claire.
I moved back from the U.K. last week after living there for a year and a half on a visa set to expire on Monday. My right to remain in the country was ending (and with it, my access to British healthcare). I had plans to fly home last Friday.
Suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world — I was a globetrotter trapped in a global emergency.
As the U.S. and the E.U. barred non-citizens from entering, it became clear that I should hurry home. In a whirlwind, I booked a new flight, said good-bye to loved ones still in the U.K., avoided public transportation (like everyone else, I felt a growing need to be cautious), shoved all my belongings into bags, threw on a mask and disposable gloves and rushed to Heathrow Airport.
Staff pulled me aside before boarding the plane for a quick interrogation — “How did you get to the airport?” “How long did it take?” “Can you name one of your graduate school professors?”— to make sure I wasn’t concealing any trips to China, Iran or Italy. On the flight, I wiped down my seat and avoided congregating outside the bathroom. I filled out a CDC-mandated questionnaire on where I’d been and how I was feeling.
Masked immigration officers and medical staff greeted me in Chicago with more questions, an infrared thermometer and a directive to stay isolated for two weeks in case symptoms appear.
I’d never traveled in circumstances like these. Flying internationally made it clear that chaos had taken hold of the world. Plans changed, and people changed with them — folks looked fearful, cautious, stressed out.
It was an uncertainty I’d never felt: how would this affect the professional meetings I’d planned? When would I be able to visit my relatives and friends in person?
I craved the small city’s nighttime stillness. I could’ve used a nostalgic wander downtown to admire the confluence and stop for an old favorite coffee, meeting some of the usual, smiley suspects I’ve known since childhood.
But I didn’t find that. For the first time, I arrived in an Eau Claire wildly different from the one I left behind.
Since getting home, I’ve avoided members of my own family and hardly seen anyone at all. I keep myself busy, but that often means sterilizing my belongings and obsessively checking my temperature.
On the drive into town, I was taken by the eerie midday emptiness of the Memorial High School parking lot.
Life in Eau Claire has changed rapidly, as it has nearly everywhere else. The surrealism and confusion that followed me on my move home met me here too. And that means the situation we find ourselves in really is a global emergency.
As the days slowly pass, though, I remind myself that our home isn’t really defined by the foods, drinks and gatherings that light up its charming downtown and university campus. Although the city suddenly looks like a dystopian film, that’s because we are taking the precautions that will allow us to manage the challenge at hand.
While I can’t visit her, neighbors call my grandma to keep her company, and teachers are posting stories online to educate — and reassure — their students from home.
Eau Claire hasn’t given me the break from the rest of the world I’ve come to expect. The Chippewa Valley is not removed from what’s happening globally. Still, there’s comfort to be taken in knowing that the people who make up the city will do what they can to steer it in the right direction.
The white squirrels are still around too.
Phelps is a 2012 graduate of Memorial High School.