Guest columnist Marietta Pritchard: How I stayed (semi) sane during the pandemic


Published: 06-27-2023 2:16 PM

What did you do during the pandemic? Maybe the question is too optimistic. Is the pandemic over? I’ll leave the answer to the experts, but it definitely feels less ominous all around. S

till, I think we can all recall those months of isolation and anxiety starting in the spring of 2020. How would we stay healthy? Would there be enough toilet paper? Enough flour? Enough contact with other people? What kind of masks did we need? Did we need to scrub the groceries? For those of us who survived two-plus years of being extra careful, those worries now seem historic and even a bit quaint.

No question, the illness, the deaths and the attendant anxiety were real, and many people who were lucky enough to be able to work at home — or to be stuck there — discovered activities they hadn’t usually taken part in. Some of these were necessities — learning to homeschool children, for example.

Some were chores that had been put off. Houses got cleaned and fixed up. In fact, so many excess items were disposed of that the Salvation Army was overwhelmed. People did a lot more home cooking. Some people did a lot of baking and Zoom was a new possibility. One friend combined these activities, making desserts via Zoom with a distant friend. They would choose a recipe, then complete it together, chatting all the time as they broke the eggs, beat the batter and awaited the result. It was not like being face to face, but it was better than nothing.

My pandemic discovery was Duolingo, an online language teaching app. According to a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, I was not alone. In March, 2020, downloads of Duolingo doubled. For most of two years I became engrossed in this clever teaching experience with its cute animated characters including Duo, the bright green owl.

The language I signed up for was Hungarian, my father’s native tongue. (A joke about the language goes like this: Why is Hungarian the language of heaven? Answer: Because it takes an eternity to learn it.) Some years ago I had tried to become minimally competent in the language my parents had spoken with each other but not with my sister and me.

As an adult I worked for a number of years with my mother, and felt that I had gained a linguistic acquaintance, although far from mastery. After my mother died in 2003, that study stopped, and although I have spent time in Hungary in the past — the best way to acquire a language — I do not expect to return to a country that has sadly become a bastion of autocracy.

Still, the language itself exerted a pull, and so I dove into Duolingo. It was both challenging and satisfying. Cleverly designed to keep the learner working, the app would prod me daily if I fell behind in my practice.

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In addition, there were competitive challenges, rankings known as leagues, named for various stones. I struggled to reach and then keep my status in the top diamond league. There were strategies available for gaining extra XPs (I never learned what that stood for). Around 7 p.m., you could double any XPs you earned during a 15-minute period. So after dinner, I would remove myself from conversation and ferociously attend to Hungarian.

After more than a year, I realized that although I had made some progress in retrieving some of the semi-fluency I’d lost, I was not now gaining ground. I was, in fact, stuck, and mostly just competing for XPs and high ranking. The pandemic was receding and if I was going to be obsessed by a competitive activity, I needed to find another one. Though it wasn’t easy, I quit, cold turkey (Teljesen hirtelen abbahagytam).

Nothing has quite filled the gap left by that obsessive activity — nevertheless, please don’t bother me first thing in the morning when I am launching my day with Wordle and The New York Times’ Spelling Bee.

Marietta Pritchard lives in Amherst. Except first thing in the morning, she can be reached at