A happy birthday in lockdown

A happy birthday in lockdown

Gianfranco Chicco

For my birthdays, I like to bring together friends from different walks of (my) life to break bread (and drink wine!). This year eating together was not an option, as I found myself in lockdown like many, many others. I had been self-isolating for the previous two months without having any meaningful contact with other humans. I wasn’t really in the mood for too much of a fuss either, yet I yearned for connection. I decided to make a low effort proposition: I would open a live-video window in the afternoon, keep it up for four hours (unfortunately, it ended up being too late for those in Australia), and invite my friends to join at their own convenience, for as little or as long as they could or wanted to.

This is how the cake looked the third time we sang “happy birthday”.

I had been inspired to create this sort of video experience by a visit to a Fablab in Amsterdam 10 years prior, where they kept a constant live feed with their peers in Barcelona. I upgraded my Zoom account (a video conferencing platform that has become incredibly popular during the 2020 Covid19 pandemic), sent out an email invite, shared it privately on Facebook, on an Instagram story, and didn’t think too much about it.

On the day (May 17th in case you’re wondering), I prepared a matcha and almond sponge cake, lined up the ingredients for Spritz cocktails, and made sure good snacks were handy. When the time arrived, I just hit “Start” on Zoom.

“Happy birthday to you 🎶” in 2020 – Photo by Domitilla.

I could see that seven or eight people were already waiting to be admitted into the call. But something wasn’t right. Long story short, after multiple reboots and trying every possible solution, I found out that Zoom was down. Following a frantic look for alternatives, we moved onto Skype. The next challenge was to inform everybody about the change. I didn’t know who was planning to show up, so I sent the new link to those that had already tried to join the Zoom party, and to those that were reaching out through chats, emails, and phone calls to complain that they couldn’t get in. This was far from perfect, and unbeknownst to me a handful were left out.

In the end, the birthday call lasted for five hours, and almost thirty people joined at different times. Some of my earliest friends from kindergarten and primary school in Argentina were there, as well as other loved ones from Italy, Spain, Japan, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

We ate cake (well, I did), sang Happy Birthday multiple times (both lovely and cringeworthy), I shared old photos, and we engaged in friendly banter. The thrill was such that I forgot to prepare the Spritz, and didn’t take a toilet-break either!

I felt loved.

Superman showed up to light up the candles at my birthday in 1985.

Whenever I celebrate my birthday in person there’s a practical limit to the number of people that can take part. The norm is six to eight, with a few exceptions with just two of us or a dozen in Buenos Aires in 2005. As a child we hosted bigger parties with all my friends from school, and there were always surprises… like Superman showing up to light the candles on a kryptonite cake, or building a funfair in the garden featuring a pony.

I’m often bullish about how most digital events happening today, especially during lockdown, are dull and soulless, a mediocre attempt to emulate a physical gathering. My birthday in 2020 was not well planned, technology didn’t work out as expected, but it was a huge success, it felt second to none.

As Yúnmén Wényǎn, the legendary Chinese Zen master said “Everyday is a good day”. However beautiful my 2020 birthday was, I do hope the next one will be more of the ordinary kind, with friends once again reunited around good food.