A glass of rose wine with V-NO frosted on the glass.
This? This right here is probably the hardest-earned glass of wine I will ever drink.

I hadn’t been to the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore since January 2020. Bill collected me at the Brookshire Suites after the 2020 Borderlands Boot Camp was over, and we celebrated with a Fells Point day: lunch at BOP Pizza, wine overlooking the harbor at V-No Wine Bar, a trip to The Soundgarden, a coffee break, and then vegetarian sushi at Nanami Cafe.

Neither one of us had any idea this was one of the last times we’d do anything involving bars, restaurants, and other people in 2020. And I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me. Even for a speculative fiction writer like myself, and even though I was aware at that point that a very deadly virus was moving around the planet and headed our way, a year in isolation would have seemed beyond the pale.

Yeah. We know what happened next.

Fast forward to Easter this year. As we were driving back from Kaiser Permanente after my second shot, Bill said “Two weeks from now. Fells Point?”

Okay, we didn’t exactly wait the whole two weeks. We headed out there last Friday, two days before my two-week waiting period officially ended. We figured I was already pretty safe by that point, most of our activities there are outdoors, and Friday would be a less-crowded day to go.

I thought I’d be really excited to be back. I thought I might even cry from the sheer emotion of doing something normal and familiar again.

But it was just weird.

The area doesn’t actually look that different, but there were small notes that made things feel wrong. The neon Domino Sugars sign, a Baltimore landmark, was gone. Turns out it’s being redone from neon to LED and will be back, but still. Nothing says “The world has just been through something terrifying” like the absence of something that’s been shining beacon-bright over the harbor since your childhood field trips.

One of the pavilions at Inner Harbor appears to be almost completely empty and shuttered–except for the Hooters Restaurant. Of course. After everything else has gone out of business, there will still be a market for boobies.

Oh, and the aforementioned Brookshire Suites? It’s now a Comfort Inn. Doesn’t sound like it’s changed that much otherwise, but anyone planning the Boot Camp for next year should take note.

Several of the restaurant/bars in Fells Point have extended their outdoor seating, taking up more of the sidewalk and even parts of the street. Because the tables are much more spaced out than they used to be, this made for a much easier walk to V-No, but the plastic igloo-looking tents a couple of restaurants used to keep customers in their “bubbles” gave me that weird, surreal feeling again.

And paper menus and other items are apparently a relic of the Before Times, at least for now. Scannable QR codes that pop up a link to the menu on your phone have replaced them. And the Japanese restaurant we visited uses all paper tableware now.

We were able to do most things outside, which gave me a greater sense of security even though both of us are fully vaccinated. And I kept my mask on when asked to. I’ve already told people that I’m probably making masks a permanent part of my wardrobe after this. Even after COVID-19 has been wrestled to a draw, who knows when the next deadly virus might emerge?

So it was definitely nice to go do something normal and fun outside the house again. Great, even. And I’m so relieved and happy for the owners of our favorite places that they all seem to have weathered the last year.

But I do wonder how long it’s going to take for normal activities to stop feeling so damn weird.

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