In March, Annemarie, a pianist and colleague from my early Berlin years as a professional musician whom I met in 1987, sat across from me. She’d just played for me the pieces on her upcoming piano recital, and we were rounding off the evening over a glass of wine in an almost empty Italian restaurant. Before I knew what was happening, she was raising her voice emphatically, “It has been scientifically proven that masks don’t help! That doctor who’s speaking up about the millions of people with bad side effects from vaccinations — he’s being muzzled!” She was convinced that her family members refused to see her over Christmas because she “brought COVID into the family.” The incident, she said, reminded her of the worst ostracizing in Nazi Germany.
We’ve read about families divided into rival camps due to irreconcilable political differences, about young people despairing that their parents, not as internet-savvy as themselves, have fallen down Facebook-driven conspiracy theory rabbit holes. But what if it’s your friends who, in the course of the pandemic, seem to have wandered over to the irrational side? Can you find your way back to common ground? Do you even want to?
My friendships in Berlin are particularly important to me. Friendships are where I show myself. I aspire to be an actively listening, accepting friend, remembering the incidents and patterns in people’s lives, offering advice if requested.
My hairdresser, Katja, is always murmuring about something: After the first lockdown it was that “they” have plans to roll out the military and the police and force us all back into our homes, breaking the backs of small businesses. Last month, she insisted in a low voice that I’d better be stockpiling cash — hadn’t I heard about the upcoming bank crash?
But maintaining a friendly disposition is harder with Joseph, the Nigerian economist I met in a writing group, whose memoir I’ve read twice in draft, whose writing I encourage as a coach. He’s not getting vaccinated, he tells me: “In Nigeria we’ve been through much worse than a virus.” Silke, whom I met at a voice workshop for aspiring actors, whose sideline performing folk tales I’ve long supported, also refuses the vaccination, though she got COVID-19 twice, both cases physically quite challenging.
I’ve always enjoyed my exchanges with all three. But now they seem to have lost themselves in impenetrable thickets of faulty argumentation.
They were among a number of individuals I met for socially distanced walks in Berlin’s parks in the first lockdown months. We were all feeling so confused and overwhelmed. Amid the rampant uncertainty, I cherished the spontaneous interchanges that only happen when two people talk in person.
Over time, however, these three friends have argued with great passion that COVID was a hoax (Bill Gates, George Soros, Big Pharma mentioned as explanations), the measures taken by the German government exaggerated. That the state was seizing the opportunities provided with “track and trace” to collect data on all its citizens. Joseph claims that the way German citizens acquiescently complied with state intrusions in their personal lives showed that when Germans “act in fear,” the results “aren’t pretty.”
“The only possible explanation,” Annemarie asserted in the restaurant, “is that people are scared of me. And I test myself every day. I’m sure I don’t have COVID.” But this version of Annemarie — with a loud voice, when she all but dared me to contradict her, which I did gently, hesitantly — well, I’m not sure I want to see her again.
Silke, the storyteller, sat on our couch this March too, stressing that if she were “forced” to get vaccinated because of “compulsory vaccination” (this policy is no longer on the table in Germany), she’d resist with every ounce of strength in her body: “I’ve always had stronger reactions to shots than other people!” The implacability in her voice, her certainty that she has tapped into better sources, truer sources than we have … well, I just don’t see how we’re going to make it back to a relaxed, casual friendship where we enjoy occasional walks or breakfasts, exchanging feedback on our writing and storytelling endeavors. There will always be the ghost of her bursting with self-righteous vehemence, convinced she’s been reading better information, that my husband and I have been duped by larger forces.
Will I ever trust these friends again, confide in them, feel relaxed around them?
When we tally our COVID losses, let us also count the lost friendships — those still living, but lost to us.