We all found ourselves confined by necessity during the various lockdowns, but the story of being thousands of miles away from home, sharing an over-priced and over-crowded house with complete strangers was also a common occurrence for many in Dublin. Amanda Magnani documented what happened when she found herself with ten strangers in a five bedroom house in Drumcondra.
“The place I only expected to go back to for eating, showering and sleeping, became my cloister. And a very expensive one, for that matter.”
Quarantine found me in very peculiar circumstances. I had just moved to Dublin after leaving Belo Horizonte, my hometown in Brazil, with no plans other than seeing what was out there. After almost a month of looking for the unicorn that is an affordable place relatively close to the city center, I got out of a cab with two backpacks I could barely carry on my own, and was met at the door by two unknown men who offered to help bring my things upstairs.
They were Alan and Eduardo, two of the ten strangers with whom I was suddenly trapped in a five bedroom house in Dublin 3 when lockdown started.
Like them and I, Beatriz, Everton, Jonathan, Diane, Pedro, Carla, Felipe and Jéssica, were also newly arrived immigrants in Ireland. Ten Brazilians and one Guatemalan who, for the most part, had had no previous contact with one another before setting foot in that house – and before being confined together.
Apart from Beatriz, Alan and I, everyone in the house moved to Dublin to study English, which seems to be the case for most Brazilians in town. For many of them, this opportunity was the realization of the dream of a lifetime. People spent years saving up. Some sold their car, others their furniture. Sacrifices that would be worth it once they arrived. But suddenly, a pandemic.
Once Covid-19 came upon us, we were no longer allowed to leave for anything other than going to the supermarket. The place I only expected to go back to for eating, showering and sleeping, became my cloister. And a very expensive one, for that matter.
Before moving to Dublin, I heard a lot about how easy it was to get a job. So did everyone else. When Brazilians move to study English in the Irish capital, it’s already implied that the 20 weekly work hours allowed by the visa will be the breadwinner granting the survival abroad.
But lockdown started before most of us got the chance to even find a job. And while income was arrested, the bills kept coming. The first couple of weeks of quarantine found most of us weeping and panicking, checking numbers and trying to negotiate with an irresponsive real estate agency.
The house was not ready to accommodate so many people. The sole table, used for eating, studying and working, was never empty – and never silent. There were only six chairs, even though we were eleven, because the agency guaranteed we would never all have meals at the same time.
Except for a few lucky days, we had to wait in line for cooking and taking a shower; and, in some very unlucky ones, we might even have to wait in line for using the toilet. Even though there was a rotating cleaning schedule for the three bathrooms, it is really not pleasing to take other people’s hair out of the drain. And when onsite classes got cancelled, there was traffic jam in the stairs, caused by people studying online, as the wifi only worked in the lower floors of the house. It felt like we were the subjects of a social experiment – except there was no one conducting it.
After years of living alone, it was annoying having a curfew to take a shower and turn off the lights. Beatriz and I had to take turns calling our families in our bedroom, so we wouldn’t disrupt each other. Not hearing other people’s phone calls – and not being heard – was not an option. At some point, I grabbed one of the chairs and went inside a small stall where bikes were kept in the backyard. It was dark and covered in dust and spiderwebs, but it worked. It was the only place I could talk to someone without being heard – and I really needed to vent. I couldn’t take it anymore.
It was suffocating. I expected life as an immigrant to have its challenges, but I never thought it would be that hard. No one tells you the lump in your throat becomes unbearable when you can’t even have the privacy to cry. And, then again, did I even have the right to complain? I was trapped in a house with strangers in the middle of a pandemic, it’s true, but I was in Dublin by choice. It was me who left everything behind to come to Europe – and you don’t get to complain if you are in Europe.
Being inside was tiring and frustrating, and so was being surrounded all the time. I craved for some air and solitude, but, at the same time, I felt so drained it was hard to leave the bedroom. Some days I just wanted to shrink, to disappear.
And then, on March 28th, the day after lockdown officially started, my grandfather passed away in Brazil. He had been hospitalized for the second time in two months, after a year of chemotherapy. Back home, I had been the one accompanying him to the clinic every week. We would grab lunch together and buy a new houseplant in the open air flower market across the street. Suddenly, he was gone. And I wasn’t there.
My grandfather’s passing was an announced death. The day before the predicted bad news arrived, Beatriz accompanied me to the supermarket. I bought chocolates, blueberries and apple cider. I needed some comfort food – and alcohol – as I awaited my grandfather’s death, which could happen any day. We laughed together at the absurdity of it all. And when he finally passed, she cooked me dinner. “You need to eat”. She made pasta al pesto and some sugar snaps. And while I sat and cried in the entrance hall, Everton approached me, grabbed my hand and asked for my permission to pray. For my grandfather and for me.
Social Psychology professor Josélia Barroso says that there is no sociability without contact. “The human subject only becomes such when in touch with others. There is no possibility of being human without co-existence”, she says. At 177 Clonliffe Road, we started out merely co-existing. But as the weeks of confinement went by, we went from sharing a house to living together.
When we arrived, the house didn’t have many appliances. But as time went by, we started furnishing it piece by piece. The new blender was used almost weekly for preparing carrot cakes – and everyone would pitch in with the ingredients they had. The cooking and frying pans Carla and Pedro bought for themselves, so they wouldn’t have to do the dishes immediately after cooking, were free for everyone to use. And once the weather improved a bit, someone bought a grill and barbecues in the yard became a thing.
On Easter morning, Eduardo and Everton got chocolates for everyone in the house. For birthdays, we created the tradition of getting people a cake and a card, signed by “your Irish-Brazilian family”. When June finally came, we didn’t skip the traditional Festa Junina: we improvised on costumes and decoration, but cooked up the typical food. We started sharing each other’s happiness. When Pedro surprised his mom back home with a new fridge and when Beatriz’s sister got pregnant, we all celebrated. And on almost every Sunday we would have lunch together, like any ordinary Brazilian family.
Although most of us have left the house, we do our best to stay in touch. We have a WhatsApp group with the original residents, and those who remained in Dublin still get together every now and then. As we recollect our time together, the shared memories, the ones we kept, are those of mutual respect and support.
When describing the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, the Argentinian anthropologist Rita Segato explains that, for the duration of their rites, the devotees are transported back to Africa. Through a process of religious transmutation, as they dance with their bare feet, they step on actual African soil.
In our confinement, as we danced and hugged and spoke Portuguese and ate our food we turned that little brick house into Brazil.
For a few weird months, although in Ireland, we stepped on actual Brazilian soil.
Words and Photos: Amanda Magnani
Amanda is currently in Aarhus, Denmark, studying for a masters degree in journalism, media and globalization under the Erasmus Mundus Journalism programme. When she last checked in Eduardo, Everton, Jonathan, Daiane, Pedro and Carla were still living in 177.