Time Out: What Quarantine Can Teach Us

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After spending a day riding around an eerily quiet Amsterdam, photographer Lian van Leeuwen paused to reflect on the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 quarantine. Find her thoughts here, plus a gallery of hauntingly beautiful photos from Lian and her riding partner, Jelle Mul…

Words by Lian van Leeuwen, photos by Lian van Leeuwen and Jelle Mul

Quiet streets. Abandoned office buildings. A deserted subway station. And silence. Deafening silence, except for the chirping of countless birds. Anyone accustomed to storytelling will agree this sequence could read like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

And it is, actually. It’s the opening scene of I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, probably better known as the 2007 Will Smith blockbuster of the same title. It’s also the Amsterdam Dam Square at 7:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning in April 2020, under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

It’s quiet. No impatient honking of horns, no jingling of trams, no clicking of heels on pavement, no intoxicated tourists devouring their fast food meals, no rowdy vendors selling their goods. Smack in the middle of a city that never sleeps. Apart from the lack of invasive vegetation and Will Smith conversing with a mannequin in a deserted video store (the place to be before streaming, kids), the similarity between reality and the fictional version is striking. And a bit eerie.

Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

Don’t worry; this read won’t end up in doomsday prophecies. Quite the opposite, actually. But there’s a damn good reason to be tapping into science fiction when trying to make sense of times like these.

While sci-fi stories are often set in the distant future, many comment on society as we know it. A legendary example is the zombie-infested mall in Dawn of the Dead, in which the aimlessly wandering zombies mirror the faceless crowd of consumerism. Still very much on point, that one.

Great science fiction challenges our thinking. It envisions the unforeseeable future. It brings “what if?” scenarios to life. Usually filled with aliens or zombies, yes. But imagining a future we’d rather avoid also allows us to rethink the future we would like to see for ourselves instead. Now that the first smoke over this global COVID-19 pandemic is slowly beginning to clear, that’s exactly what we need to be doing.

  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

If ever we had a time to reflect on the society we live in, it would be now. Yes, it’s a time of insecurity, uncertainty, and apprehension. There might not be zombies chasing us, but the fear of the unknown–and invisible–leaves many of us anxious. Some of us are battling the virus on the frontlines. Others are forced to hit the pause button, literally stuck in place, while our screens are filled with nothing but the harsh reality of the outside world.

But many of us also experience a flip side to these quarantine times. We keep things simpler, slow down our pace. We value other aspects of life. And reassess what we might have taken for granted.

  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

This global time-out is the perfect moment to start asking the questions we rarely take time for. What is it that we really need? It’s a simple question for those currently in hospitals and the loved ones around them: being healthy is the ultimate goal for anyone. But what about all of us who aren’t battling disease? Is hitting the pause button really that bad? Were we making conscious choices in how we live, produce, consume? Or were we actually trapped in the treadmill before this pandemic, rather than being trapped now?

FOMO has taken on a whole different meaning in this time. Stripped back to its essence, it’s not about more, better, further. It’s quality over quantity. Love over stuff. There’s nothing new in trying to create simplicity in life, consuming less, spending more time with loved ones, slowing down life’s pace. What’s new is the unprecedented scale of things coming to a grinding halt. For once, we’re not part of the rat race, we can actually step back and review it.

  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

These quarantine times taught me, and I’m sure many of you, that being forced to stay (close to) home makes us appreciate being outside more than ever. Our backyard roads are rediscovered and revalued. Even that pocket of sun when working out on our balconies gives us joy. Riding these nearly abandoned Amsterdam streets and parks made us extremely grateful. The fact that we are still allowed to do so in the Netherlands, although limited and with a maximum of two people at a time, is a gift. And it’s humbling.

Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

Being outside, preferably on our bikes, is nothing less than essential. And yet we don’t take action in protecting that outside space when it comes to the stuff we actually can control. We humans aren’t invincible. We’re part of a delicately balanced ecosystem. Most of us recognize that, but we tend to forget. We can’t stop this pandemic, or the next. But we can take better care of our environment, of the places we love to ride, starting today.

What if we hold on to this momentum, even after restrictions have been lifted? We’ve all seen the positive effects on air quality worldwide, just from stepping back a little. We’ve also seen that we as a species are able to adapt to necessary changes far faster than we might expect. If we can flatten the COVID-19 curve in just over a few months, let’s work on flattening the climate crisis curve the same way.

  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
  • Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam
Lian van Leeuwen, Jelle Mul, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, on that quiet Thursday morning, was not only a bit eerie; it was also beautiful. Clear skies, crisp air, peaceful, friendly. The best way to truly ingrain something is to experience it. Let’s use these crazy times to our advantage. Spend your time on things that matter, spend your cash on businesses that care, use your vote. Stay healthy. And go watch your Sci-Fi.

We love where we ride. Let’s act accordingly.

Lian van Leeuwen

About Lian van Leeuwen

Lian van Leeuwen is a Rotterdam-based photographer and writer. She covers endurance bike races like Silk Road Mountain Race and the Transcontinental Race, which usually make her just want to ride her bike herself. She is also the founder of Shift Cycling Culture, which addresses the environmental impact of cycling. Follow along on Instagram @saltlake_lian and @shiftcyclingculture.

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