What I Learned Living One Month With a Stranger in Quarantine
I am living in Medellin Colombia and as this country experienced the realities of people becoming sick and dying from Coronavirus, it instituted strict restrictions to enforce social distancing on the people here.
The basic plan was this. For the first five days no one would be allowed to go outside their homes except for a medical emergency. After that, and what remains in place now after a month, people are only allowed to leave their homes twice a week (based on the last number of your government ID) to get groceries.
I rent a room in a 3 bedroom Airbnb apartment in a peaceful suburb of Medellin. As it became known that this generalized “quarantine” was going to be put into place, and with the uncertainty of how long it would last, my only roommate at the time decided he would go back to Bogota to be with his family.
I thought being alone might not be so bad. I would have the whole apartment to myself, and although I might get lonely, I work online and had plenty to keep me busy.
In my mind this didn’t seem so terrible.
Things changed however when, within 12 hours before the “quarantine” began, a new roommate showed up. I’ll call him Paul.
Paul is a young looking, single, 40 year old man from Poland. He had only recently arrived in Medellin when the quarantine went into effect.
I realized that I was now going to basically be locked up with Paul, a total stranger, for at least a month and maybe longer. Am I going to like this guy? Will we get along?
“Uuugh,” I thought as I considered the uncertainty and the forced proximity of the situation.
Look, I’m a nice guy, relatively social, and consider myself easy to get along with. I knew I could make this work, but would Paul have the same outlook or would living with a total stranger create some challenges too big to climb over?
Time would tell.
It Started Early
The first night in the apartment together Paul began to tell me that Coronavirus 19 was man-made. It was an intentional means of governments to control the people. I asked him what evidence he had, and he had none.
Although I am not interested in having these kinds of conversations I participated and, having a science background, tried to explain how viruses work and why this could be a complete result of nature taking advantage of susceptible hosts.
He told me he understood how viruses work, and it made no sense why this virus showed up now and not before.
“Not before what?,” I asked. Our recorded history of these events is only a few hundred years old. Viruses and their transmission have been happening for millennia. It finally got to the point in the conversation that we were just going to have to agree to disagree.
I went to bed that night wondering how long this quarantine was going to “feel like” never mind how long it was going to last.
Do You Like It?
As a general rule, I don’t cook. Living here in Colombia it is so easy and so cheap to eat out that it never made sense for me to cook. Obviously with the new rules in place, with all restaurants closed and not being able to eat out daily, eating out wasn’t going to be an option for me.
Paul offered to cook the next night, and it turns out, he is a good cook. Ok maybe being “locked up” with him won’t be so bad I thought.
As I took my first bite of the food he prepared I told him that it tasted really good. As we continued to eat the dinner he cooked, he asked me several times how I liked it. It was good, I said again. Maybe he didn’t hear me the first time.
It became apparent that he had heard me because after four more questions of how I like it, I was still telling him it was good. Of course I varied my response…”Great,” I said. “Delicious,” I said. “Nice flavor,” I said.
“Fuck,” I said in my head. What does this guy want me to say, “You are Anthony Bourdain incarnate!”?
I cooked the next night, and even though I don’t cook often anymore, I know my way around a kitchen. We sat down and began eating. We talked throughout dinner and he said nothing about liking my food. I know he liked it because he ate it all and went back for more.
Interesting I thought.
We began alternating cooking nights. When it was his turn to cook I would ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” He would say no and wave me away from the kitchen.
Ok cool, I thought. Easier for me.
When I was cooking he would ask me what I was making, scanning the scene. I happened to be prepping a salad when he looked at the cucumber I was peeling, and he then began to tell me how to slice it up.
“Really?,” I thought.
This type of uninvited instruction continued. The next one was him telling me how to slice off the open faced part of an onion that had been in the refrigerator. I looked at him and asked him how he thought it was possible that I am 57 years old and made it this far without understanding how to prep an onion for cooking?
The next night he cooked a chicken dish. It was moist and tender. I began eating it by cutting through the chicken using the edge of my fork. He looked over at me and said, “You have a knife to cut that with.”
I looked up at him and said, “Yes I do.,” as I cut through the chicken again with my fork.
No Time Like Like The Present
I decided it was time to address this behavior because although he might survive the Coronavirus, I might just kill him before it’s over. I asked him why he felt he needed to direct things that really weren’t his concern.
He said, “What do you mean? Do you think I am controlling?”
I went through a list of directives and instructions he had tried to give me over the past few days, then said, “Yes, I do.” I also found it interesting he knew exactly how to describe his behavior.
Maybe this isn’t the first time this has come up for him.
Fun and Games, or Not
Paul taught me how to play a popular card game in Poland. It requires thinking, strategizing, and remembering the cards played. Paul is good at it.
He could tell me what cards I have in my hand, how he would win, and by how much he would win before the first card was laid down.
What an arrogant ass I thought to myself. How insecure are you?
As a novice player, this was not an enjoyable experience. It is one thing to learn a new game and lose. It is quite another to lose consistently being told beforehand by how much you will lose.
We have played hundreds of hands representing about 20 games so far. In that time I have won only three games.
Know Thy Self
Living with a stranger without either person having the option to leave or change the situation is a strange feeling. What happens if you reach a point where you absolutely can’t stand each other? What happens if you just decide to stop speaking to one other?
We still shared a kitchen, the TV, the open living area outside our bedrooms. What would life be like in quarantine then? I couldn’t let it get to this point, at least for me.
My time with Paul has been challenging, but this story isn’t about Paul at all. It is about me. My thoughts, my reactions, my triggers. Guess what? Get locked up with the right stranger and it becomes a PhD course in “Know Thy Self”.
I quickly realized that Paul’s behaviors and actions were affecting me in a more than rational way. I had my opinions about him, sure. I had my own ideas of how he had been raised for him to manifest his behaviors.
Yet, what really mattered was how I was going to function in a peaceful and enjoyable way with him over the coming weeks with no end to the quarantine in sight.
Here Are The Steps
There are 5 clear steps you can take to do this with strangers, friends, and loved ones. Here they are.
1. State clearly to the person what you are having a problem with.
In this case, I did not want Paul telling me how to do things. It wasn’t his place or position to do so. If he wanted to eat my food, or not, it was his choice. That is what he controlled and no further.
2. Be clear with your boundaries.
I would not accept his direction and instruction unless I invited it. He was free to ask me if I would like his input, and I had the option to say yes or no. When I told him this I made clear the line he was not able to cross.
He understood what I would and would not accept from him.
3. Ask yourself where the feeling of the reaction you are having from the person is coming from?
When I was growing up, I lived under a lot of criticism about how I did things. When Paul’s unsolicited instructions were given, I was feeling the sting of those criticisms received growing up.
What I was feeling had nothing to do with Paul.
Today, I’m confident in my abilities and have power to decide what I do. No one’s comments change the reality of who I am.
4. Maintain awareness of who you are in the present and what is present.
In years past I would have stopped playing cards with Paul. Obviously it is no fun to lose, but it seems excruciating when the other person can’t stop talking about how good he is at the game, how well he plays.
At the end of every loss I could count on Paul saying something along those lines.
Initially I felt the sting from childhood of playing games with my friends who would create rules to their own advantage, or who would change the rules in the middle so they would win and I would lose. This wasn’t what Paul was doing.
Paul is a good player. I imagine he has been playing this game for at least 20 years. I have been playing this game for 20 days.
My reality is I’m smart, I can learn, and I get better at new things with practice. In fact I have gotten better at this game. Now I can give Paul a run for his money in most every game, even if I don’t win.
5. Look at the person through a lens of curiosity and compassion.
When we can remove the projections we place on others, there is space to invite curiosity and see them in new ways.
Paul is not my angry father or bullies from my childhood. He is just a man doing the best he can in the situation he finds himself.
When I stopped projecting my past onto him I could see he is actually generous in many ways.
If he makes a protein shake he is quick to ask if he can make me one too. When I ask him to explain his strategy in a hand of cards he patiently lays it out in front of me. He introduces me to songs that uplift my spirit, and Netflix series that make me laugh.
As far as a stranger goes, he seems pretty Ok.
6. Choose the best story.
We all create stories in our heads about people. Who they are, why they do what they do, what their motives are. These stories are so often created without facts or information. They are only held together by an observed event here, a feeling there, a comment made in passing.
I have chosen a more fitting story about Paul than the one I made during those early days.
As I have listened to Paul speak about his beliefs of the world, I suspect he has some fears about being controlled in his life. Probably because of past events. We haven’t got deep enough in our conversations to confirm if that is true or not. But this story allows me to be patient with him.
At 40 he is a single man who almost was in a permanent relationship, and she walked away. That I know. I suspect he carries sadness around that reality. With a story of love lost, one that most all of us have experienced in some form, I can find compassion for him.
See “The Other”
When I can allow myself to see “the other” as a person like myself who has hopes and dreams, struggles and tragedies, I can see my own humanity reflected back.
After a month, and with 2 more weeks to go, I’m not quarantined with a stranger. I am quarantined with a man who is a good cook, who wants to share what he knows to help, who likes to laugh, and who has doubts and fears brought on by the uncertainty of these times.
Really, Paul is just like me.
You may also like to read the first part – “Small Steps # 1”.