When Sandra Balzanelli was a fresh-faced marketing and communications student, the last thing she expected…
As one of humanity’s most trying years comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect.
Canberrans have fared through devastating bushfires, suffocating smoke, destructive hail and a global pandemic in 2020. So undoubtedly, we’ve learned some things.
This week, HerCanberra contributor Ashleigh Went shares how a year that started so promisingly with a fairytale wedding in Scotland and plans of working remotely around Europe ended with empty airports, hotel quarantine and loss of income.
Freelance writer, HerCanberra contributor and former HerCanberra ACTIVE Editor
What were your first impressions of COVID in early 2020?
My husband and I got married in January 2020, with plans of spending the year travelling the world and working remotely. Our first stop was Edinburgh, which is where we were when COVID first started to feel real.
What was your first memory of being materially affected by COVID?
We’d planned to spend four weeks honeymooning throughout Italy in March; sipping cocktails in Amalfi and learning to make burrata in Puglia. As the outbreak spread through northern Italy, it quickly became evident that our honeymoon wouldn’t be going ahead.
At the end of February, we headed to Copenhagen, where we’d organised to extend our stay until May when we’d be moving to Portugal for two months.
View this post on Instagram
We spent two weeks eating our way through Torvehallerne, sampling pastries and exploring the city before we started to feel unsafe.
I was working out in the gym near our apartment when I received an email from the gym, asking me to leave immediately and advising that they would be closing indefinitely.
In a matter of days, schools had closed, supermarkets were running short and there was a palpable sense of panic in the streets. One day, we decided that it was no longer safe, and booked a flight back to London the very next day.
The flight home was surreal. I vividly remember being two of the only travellers in the terminal, staring at the departure screen where every flight except two had been cancelled.
Luckily, ours went ahead as scheduled and we arrived (not quite) safe in London where we moved back in with my parents.
What were the low points of 2020?
Since January 2019, I’d been working as a freelance writer. I was lucky to have quite a few clients across the US and Australia, with plenty of work to keep me busy. A week or so after we arrived in London, that all changed.
The agency that I had worked for in NYC was forced to lay off their staff, and as a freelancer, I was first to go. Virtually all of my clients cancelled or pressed pause on their work and I lost about 80% of my work within a week.
At the same time, I was beginning to realise that our entire travel plans would have to be cancelled.
The most difficult thing was feeling as though I’d taken a huge step backwards. Here I was, hardly making any money and living back with my parents under lockdown.
I felt like a huge failure and while I was aware that it was because of circumstances outside of my control, I couldn’t shake the feeling and, even now, it’s taken a huge toll on my confidence.
Deciding to return home to Australia in July was also tough. By this point, I’d realised that we wouldn’t be able to travel, but a part of me didn’t feel ready to give up my dream.
One thing I’ve really struggled with is finding a balance between recognising how privileged we are and how lucky we’ve been, with acknowledging my feelings of sadness and loss.
I had my husband and family, we had our health, and we were able to make it home to Australia when lots of people weren’t.
I know we were lucky; I know that there were so many people who had it so much worse; but the truth is that even with that knowledge, I still felt a lot of grief. Frankly, I still feel it now.
It wasn’t just a holiday, it was a dream that I’d worked really hard to make happen and it was snatched from my grasp.
What were the high points of 2020?
As much as 2020 has been a difficult year, there have been so many meaningful and beautiful moments.
Our wedding in January was undoubtedly the highlight of my year. My husband James and I were married in an intimate ceremony in the spectacular Scottish highlands. It was a tiny ceremony with just seven guests and it was indescribably beautiful.
I’m very conscious of how many weddings were cancelled this year, and I will be forever grateful that we got to have our ceremony with our favourite people in our favourite part of the world.
View this post on Instagram
The travel that we did get to do at the beginning of the year is a time I’ll always remember. I was giddy with excitement, filled with wonder and utterly enchanted with Edinburgh and Copenhagen.
Strangely enough, leaving Copenhagen is both one of the highest and lowest moments of my year. I remember sitting in a cafe waiting to check-in, holding James’ hand, feeling like we’d completely lost control and everything was falling in around us.
We shared this weird mix of despondence and delirious jubilance, surrendering all of our plans but knowing that it would be ok as long as we were together.
We were really lucky to have a safe (and free) place to stay with my parents in their London apartment, where we spent some lovely time together as a family.
James and I took turns hosting elaborate date nights in lockdown. One of my favourites was when James recreated our holiday in Greece, complete with a beachy backdrop on the TV, ambient ocean sounds, and a garlicky fish dinner—finished with the obligatory glass of ouzo.
We also had an Italian night, with truffle pasta, tiramisu and wine, and a high tea (shipped from my favourite cake shop in London) on the balcony.
View this post on Instagram
Another high point for me was reconnecting with my former classmates from my primary school in New Delhi over a Zoom reunion.
Not only was it great to catch up on the last 20 years, but it was a wake-up moment to hear them refer to themselves as “third culture kids”. It helped me understand the part of myself that feels forever restless and unsettled, waiting for the next big adventure.
What’s the biggest positive change to your work or personal life that you’ll carry into the future?
A positive change for me has been working on my relationships and feeling closer to my friends than ever before.
Speaking about the silver livings of COVID in an interview with the BBC, my favourite philosopher, Alain de Botton, said:
“The way to make a friend is to reveal that you’re scared, that you’re broken inside, that you’re confused and don’t know where to go, and all of this is normally so hard because we’re supposed to be having a terrific life.”
This really resonated with me: I’d taken a risk in leaving my incredible job at HerCanberra and moving overseas, and as a result, I felt pressure to portray a life that was happy and successful.
But leaning into my vulnerability and honestly opening up to my close friends has made an enormous difference in my life this year. My friendships feel deeper, I feel more supported, and—perhaps best of all—I’ve been able to be a better friend in return, as my vulnerability has made it safe for my friends to share their struggles too.
What did you learn?
I learned that I’m more resilient than I ever realised.
I’ve learned that the world doesn’t end when you gain a few kilos; that there are much more worthwhile and meaningful health goals to pursue that don’t centre on how you look.
I’ve learned to savour the tiny moments that make a day beautiful; like sipping a hot coffee from my favourite mug, spotting a new leaf on an indoor plant; being woken up with a kiss from my husband, and reading a really good book.
I’ve learned that it can feel like everything is going wrong and life is splintering into a hundred different pieces, but the people that love you can help you pull it back together with a phonecall, cuddle or laugh.
I’ve learned that a marriage is so much more than just a beautiful wedding; it’s surviving hotel quarantine for two weeks, knowing when to step in and help and when to sit back and listen, and knowing precisely the right amount of time after my husband stumbles to ask “did you have a nice trip?”.
View this post on Instagram
How are you feeling about 2021?
I’m feeling hopeful about 2021. I’ve made the decision to stay in Canberra for the foreseeable future, and I’ve never been so grateful to live here.
I thought moving home would be at total odds with what I had planned; the antithesis to our exciting adventure. But that’s not true.
There are wild adventures with long-haul flights, days spent wandering new streets and meeting new people.
But there’s also an adventure in staying; in making a home and being surrounded by people and things that you love. By the time this goes to print, we’ll have picked up our mini schnauzer puppy, Winston, and I’m excited to take the first step in building a family together.
I’m looking forward to investing even more love and effort into my relationships and savouring each and every joyful moment that comes my way.