Meditation on trans-Atlantic travel in the time of COVID-19
I flew internationally yesterday. I got into a tube with a bunch of other people against all of my self-preservation instincts. Why? Because I had to get home in order to #stayhome.
Home for me and my wife, Wendy, is Bulgaria. We left the town of my birth in Colorado four years ago, and transplanted ourselves in a country that we knew very little about, so that Wendy could take a job as a high school teacher, our youngest daughter could finish out high school in a more interesting setting, and I could freelance. We've since settled in to our house in Sofia, an interesting and historically rich city that sits at the base of a forested mountain.
I guess that makes us expats, though I don't really like the term. It implies some sort of glamour, evokes images of Hemingway scribbling away in a smoky Parisian cafe as he guzzles jugs of wine. But we just live here. We unglamorously work and unglamorously try to pay the bills, which is a bit easier here. Only then do we have a glass of wine or rakia. Fact is, we can't really afford to go back to the United States for now. There's not much glamour in that. So I guess we're economic exiles as much as we are expatriates.
I work from home as a freelancer. But most of my work and clients are based in the Western United States. So in February I made one of my biannual trips to the Four Corners Country to do some reporting and get reacquainted with the lands and communities that I cover. I soon discovered that one of the quirks of this virus is that it compresses time.
When I left, early on the morning of Feb. 24, COVID-19 was not yet considered a pandemic. There were only a few dozen confirmed cases in America. Europe's numbers were growing, but had yet to reach crisis levels. A few people on the plane wore masks, and I wiped down my seating area with wipes, but generally there was no panic. I was asked by an airline worker in Munich whether I'd been in China in the last two weeks. That was the only sort of health-screening or official COVID-19-prevention effort I encountered.
By the time I landed in Colorado hours later, the number of cases and fatalities in Italy had exploded, and the level of alarm everywhere had intensified. Still, most of America apparently felt immune. When I arrived, Colorado remained officially coronavirus-free and you could still buy toilet paper and hand-sanitizer at the grocery stores without going to fisticuffs with someone. Within days that was no longer true.
For a while, though, the epidemic seemed far away from the Four Corners Country, and I continued to go about my business: interviewing folks, compulsively washing my hands, doing research, visiting friends, compulsively washing my hands, and trying to diagnose and repair the malfunction that ailed my 31-year-old car -- which I also live out of when in the U.S. I've been socially distant since long before it was cool, so that part wasn't too difficult.
Back in those days -- three weeks ago -- a freelancer without a home of his own could still go to a coffee shop, hook into the free wi-fi, and set up his little office and crank out some words. When he saw an old friend he might even give him a hug or shake his hand, though he didn't dare touch his face afterwards. Ah, those were the days!
And then all that was over, and I found myself confined to my other office, the front seat of my little car (which my friend had helped me repair) in a windstorm in Utah's backcountry, getting weak internet signal off of my phone, with both gadgets plugged into the cigarette lighter. I had to remind myself to start the car from time to time, lest I drain the battery and have to deviate from extreme social distancing to flag someone down for a jump. That's assuming anyone came around, which they mostly didn't in the places I chose, since they lacked the recreational opportunities that tend to draw the masses.
I went back to town after a few days of camping to resupply at the supermarket. Everything had changed again. This time not only were the toilet paper and hand-sanitizers all gone, but so were the rice, beans, potatoes, flour, and pasta. Meanwhile, a lot of the other customers seemed to ignore -- even defy -- the social-distancing guidelines, crowding into aisles to snatch up the last cans of beans on the shelf, walking right next to me even when I tried to step aside to give them room. It made no sense. If people were worried enough to hoard food and toilet paper, shouldn't they be worried enough to stay as far away from others as possible?
Our daughters, both in college in the U.S., were told to vacate their dorms and go home. Meanwhile, Bulgaria had reported its first cases of coronavirus, and immediately implemented a partial lockdown, canceling cultural activities and other public gatherings. Travel restrictions soon would follow. Wendy and I frantically got our youngest daughter on a flight back to Bulgaria, the other one went to a friend's house in Arizona.
Yet I stubbornly remained. I was determined to save on rebooking fees and stay out my scheduled time so I could get some work done. As the virus spread, however, and meetings and events were cancelled, it became clear that I'd have to nix the remainder of my reporting engagements to reduce putting my sources at risk. The public lands that I had called home for much of my stay were being shut down to campers like me -- for good reason. The supermarket was running out of Ben & Jerry's. And my flight back through Germany was cancelled.
I panicked as I imagined riding out the pandemic far away from family while sleeping on generous friends' floors and couches, and had terrible visions of what that might look like if I were to get infected. Surprisingly there were still a few flights going into Bulgaria, via Dallas and London. I booked one, despite knowing that with the rapidly deteriorating situation I could end up getting stuck in the U.K. or, worse, Texas.
In the few days before my flight, Bulgaria banned everyone except residents from coming into the country. The U.S. State Department urged Americans not to travel internationally, because if they did they could get stranded indefinitely. Friends told me I was crazy to fly; reckless, even.
I said I had to get home.
The Durango airport was eerily quiet when I got there on a snowy morning in March. I felt both guilty and fortunate to be armed with an N-95 face mask, which I had used to help a friend clean out a dusty and hantavirusy shed near the beginning of my trip and had kept on hand for this very occasion. I also had a baggie full of homemade wipes (normal wipes soaked in rubbing alcohol), a fear of getting anywhere near another person, and high-potency hand-sanitizer I was able to purchase in Bulgaria before my trip. Still, I felt vulnerable and scared.
The airline people collectively raised their eyebrows when they saw where I was going. Yet none of them were wearing masks, or seemed too concerned about the virus. Thankfully, the flight was empty enough that everyone could sit next to a vacant seat. The Dallas airport was also relatively uncrowded, and only two outgoing international flights were still scheduled that day. Restaurants and shops were open, but were pretty bare, customer-wise. I felt terrible for the airport employees who were putting themselves at risk for a paycheck, and probably would be out of work soon. I left the waitress a huge tip as my meagre thanks.
While most people adhered to safe social distances, others seemed oblivious. When we boarded an almost full plane, it was the same. I was reassured when the person that shared a row with me (with two empty seats between us, hallelujah!) wipe down her seat with a fervency that matched mine. I donned the mask, but still cringed whenever I heard someone clear their throat or sneeze. There were very few Americans on the plane to London. The passengers were mostly Brits or Europeans who were going home. It felt like globalization was being reversed.
London-Heathrow was busy with folks of all nationalities, normal-seeming except for the numerous face masks and the closed Starbucks (most other eating establishments remained open). I saw on the news that the Centers for Disease Control were recommending that in light of the shortage of personal protective equipment, American health workers should re-use old surgical masks, use bandanas, or sew their own masks. Then I watched a group of travelers who looked to be between the ages of 18 and 22 open up packages and pull out and don tyvek "bunny" suits over their street clothes, along with N-95 masks, clear plastic goggles, and gloves. One even wore, in addition to the goggles, one of those full-face shields.
At first I thought they might be health workers gearing up to screen passengers before they boarded the plane. But no, they were just passengers. All dressed up, a gaggle of them went into the Louis Vuitton store to do some shopping.
Upon arrival in Sofia, we were confronted with an entirely different scene. The relatively small airport was pretty much free of other passengers. All but a few flights to or from anywhere had been canceled. Before proceeding to passport control we had to pass through a health-control gantlet. Here, everyone was wearing masks, and some of the officials were wearing tyvek suits, just like the kids in Heathrow.
We had to fill out forms agreeing to self-quarantine in our homes for the next two weeks, and provide other information so that officials could come find us if need be. Then we were checked for fever, reminded again to stay quarantined, and then allowed to go to passport control one at a time, keeping our distance from one another.
Outside of the airport, public gatherings and parks have been shut down, and the military has been enlisted to ensure compliance. Only essential city-to-city travel is allowed, and police have checkpoints along the highways to enforce the ban. No one under the age of 60 is allowed in grocery stores or pharmacies for a two-hour period every morning, to give the vulnerable population a chance to shop in less crowded, and less dangerous, spaces.
As an American, I instinctively bristle at such draconian measures. And yet, I also find them strangely reassuring. In the U.S., so many people seemed blasé about it all. Here the government, at least, is taking it seriously.
That's in part due to an acknowledgment that the Bulgarian health system is not equipped to handle a widespread epidemic, and perhaps also that Sofia residents are more vulnerable to COVID-19 symptoms due to the heavy air pollution on winter days. But then, the American health system isn't necessarily up to the task, either, and its cities have pollution, too. And at least Bulgarians don't have to worry about sickness-related health care bills forcing them into bankruptcy.
Bulgarians also don't have to worry about a toilet paper shortage, at least not yet. Wendy went shopping this morning -- I couldn't go because I'm in quarantine, tensely waiting out the incubation period -- and reported that the store was fully stocked. They've even got beans, potatoes, flour, pasta, and, yes, plenty of toilet paper.