Thoughts on Coming Home from Spain in the Midst of the COVID19 Pandemic
I’ve been writing this on and off for the last very hectic 96 hours as we made our way from not being sure we’d get out of Spain to finally making it to the US and then getting back to Canada yesterday afternoon after a lot of extremely stressful travel. We’re currently feeling perfectly fine but obviously will be in self-isolation for the next two weeks. Here’s a bit of stream-of-consciousness from before we took off for the US, from on the plane, and from where we are now. The main point? The situation in the world is serious, and if you think there’s an overreaction happening, I assure you that there isn’t.
This isn’t my normal kind of blog post, but it’s one that I feel compelled to write. And I say it in here later, but I can’t say it enough: Thank you so much to the people who reached out to help us when we thought we may be stuck in Spain, the people who reached out to check in, and the amazing people in town who’ve already been around to help us now that we’re home in self-isolation, including our downstairs neighbor who barely knows us, but who showed up with two massive bags of fresh veggies for us this morning. The generosity of people amazes and humbles me.
Last note: If you’re a teacher who’s been tasked with continuing classes online, if you want any kind of lecture or Q&A from an author, hit me up—happy to help give teachers any break I can. You’re all superheroes.
I wanted to write this because I know a lot of people are joking about toilet paper and making playdates because of closed schools, and I understand that completely and I know that life absolutely has to go on. Keep joking, keep making memes—but understand the severity of the situation at the same time. As I sit re-reading some of the notes that I made in the last few days in Spain, I feel like a lot of the feelings of terror—not the front-line hospital ones that we are seeing in some papers, but just the panic and scariness that’s happening in the cities in Europe—aren’t getting through.
We’re in Spain, as a lot of you probably know from reading this, following my Instagram or listening to the Consummate Athlete Podcast. And I’m not going to lie, it’s terrifying. Until three days ago, things seemed normal—a little high alert, but all the government sites were saying that being here was OK, and low risk. Wash your hands and you’re fine.
On Tuesday the 10th, I shifted our flight home to Sunday from Monday—a small change, but we wanted to have an extra day with my family as the news started to seem scarier. Still, though, I had a talk at an elementary school scheduled for the 19th, and there was no sign of them cancelling. But I had this sinking feeling when United offered to waive change fees and thought, ‘Well, this is easier for my dad to pick us up if we get in on Sunday instead of Monday, and I miss my family.’ So I made the change.
Then, we went to bed on Wednesday as the official ‘pandemic’ label was announced. It seemed scary, but still, not like anything would change. And as we were responsible for a camp of amazing women, we stayed calm because stressing wouldn’t help the situation.
Thursday, the world shifted drastically. Suddenly, the borders of the US were set to close, and misinformation was running rampant. Tons of people booked flights home in a panic—understandably, and I admit I likely would have had we not been responsible for the women at our camp. Still, my flight was Sunday, and life in Girona was business as usual. No one was doing anything differently, though there was a slight drop in tourists on the street… But not a shocking drop, and we were leaving soon. Within a couple hours of waking up, the official proclamation explained that US citizens and their spouses could still get home. We were going to be OK.
Friday was quiet as we moved into what can only be described as a ghost hotel in Barcelona as we waited anxiously for our flight. Thursday in Girona, streets were busy. In Barcelona, no one was out and about. We ended up eating in our room, feeling unsettled, but there was no news or information about what to do, and United’s site wasn’t allowing for any rebooking to earlier flights.
Saturday morning, the woman who was working at the B&B we were staying at was in a panic. In tears, she got breakfast ready while actually wringing her hands. The hotels in the city were closing, she said, and she didn’t know what to do. The hotel owner wasn’t answering the phone. That’s fine, we said—get us a taxi to the airport and we’ll get an airport hotel. We weren’t going to be going out anyway, so it didn’t matter. I booked one online and it seemed fine.
We got to the airport hotel just in time for them to say they were closing and so were all of the other hotels in the area.
The taxi sped off, but luckily, the last run of the hotel shuttle was able to take our stuff and us to the airport, a full 24 hours before our flight. Inside, it was chaos. Online, not a lot of information was to be had.
Barcelona’s airport is weird: There is a single info desk but it’s more to point out where bathrooms are, not to answer flight questions. There aren’t specific help desks for airlines. You can’t book tickets with gate agents. Basically, if you have a problem, there isn’t anyone to talk to about it.
The president of the Catalan region was locking down towns around Barcelona, the airport was set to close, Spain was about to go on full lockdown that afternoon. There was no information to be had at the airport, no hotels open, embassies for Canada and the US not answering their phones.
Twitter was actually the only source of information, and there wasn’t much available even there.
The info desk people at the airport told me not to try to book a flight out that night, that the airport was going to close any minute. The waiting was awful. We were in a weird limbo of not knowing if we’d get home, and I had the thought that wouldn’t get out of my brain that this could last for a long time. I didn’t want to not see my family again for months, and there was an aura of uncertainty about what would happen if we were stuck. Where would we go? How much longer would travel insurance cover us? What about our lack of visas for staying in Europe beyond the time we’d already been there? How would I file taxes? What would we do if we got sick? What would we do if family back home was sick?
I rented a van so that we would have a plan B if the airport closed, so we would at least be mobile. The Enterprise people were the kindest, nicest humans, and didn’t care that we basically camped in their parking garage overnight as we waited for news. I tweeted out asking if anyone had a place we could stay in Barcelona if we couldn’t get back to Girona, and we asked a couple people in Girona if they had any ideas.
Even thinking about it now, I get choked up and my eyes well up with the number of responses from people offering to help, or just checking in, or retweeting my question.
Anytime I feel even the least bit of ennui about the cycling scene, some moment like this happens and reminds me of why I love this damn sport so much. I feel so lucky to have had so many people reach out to offer support.
The announcement, set to happen at 2pm on Saturday, didn’t come until 10PM that night, and said that the country would lock down Monday at 8AM. The info desk at the airport, at 11:30PM on Saturday, told us they thought it would be open the next morning. The fear, of course, was that the airport would close and we’d be stuck in a lockdown and unable to get to Girona or even into Barcelona, and there was zero information about what non-Spanish residents should do. It’s the most confused and scared I’ve been—and it made me so, so grateful to have a partner like Peter who was calm.
We made it to Sunday morning (now), and our flight was on schedule. The morning, after sleeping in the airport, was tense. The cafes at the airport were closed and there was a feeling in the air that at any minute, they would announce that no more flights would leave. But somehow, the flight remained on schedule. We went to check in.
If you don’t have the same last name as your spouse or child, I urge you to immediately store a photo of a marriage or birth certificate. Because of the US’s policy right now, Peter wasn’t going to be allowed to fly to the US as a foreign national who’d been in Spain. Immediate family of citizens were allowed to come to the US, according to DHS—but we don’t have the same last name and there was a slight language barrier with us and the airline employees. For a terrifying few minutes, they told us Peter couldn’t fly. But I had downloaded our marriage certificate, and once I was able to show them, they made a call and let us through. (The woman at United who told us he couldn’t fly actually found us at the gate later and apologized for the misunderstanding. It was the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me.)
I don’t think my heart rate went below 150 until we had gotten on the plane, waited the terrifying hour of delays and finally taxied down the runway. In the air, it was hard to believe that the last 72 hours had happened. Watching movies, eating the terrible plane food, writing drafts of articles… It feels so blissfully normal.
I’m writing this part on the plane knowing that what we’re about to walk into in Newark is also a terrifying unknown. I realize that the world has changed since we left in late December, and I’m scared to get home. I’m nervous about being in self-quarantine for two weeks. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future in general, and I know everyone is feeling that same anxiety.
I’ve never been in a city that felt like a ghost town, in a country that had walls rapidly going up around it, in a place I love but don’t know, far from home and in a position of not knowing the right thing to do. I know there are some people who would advocate for not getting on a plane, for staying where we were, but the fact is, from insurance to housing to food to medical care, we had no idea of how to handle that overseas, versus getting home and getting isolated.
Shockingly, the airport in Newark was efficient. We got in and out after getting our temperatures checked and going through customs. Our bags made it through. We kept waiting for something to go wrong, but it didn’t.
However, as we waited on the curb for my dad and sister to drop us our van and leave in their SUV, in order to avoid them being exposed to anything, we watched dozens of people stream out of the airport off our flight from Barcelona and, after being told to self-quarantine, after wearing masks for the entire flight, rip off their masks and hug the people who’d come to pick them up.
Clearly, the self-isolation reminder did not get through. I understand how this could happen: On the flight, once the plane took off, reality seemed to disappear. Suddenly, we were back to bad plane food, tons of movies and TV shows to watch, and without access to Twitter and the news, life felt blissfully normal. The CDC guy who boarded the plane when we landed to give us instructions mentioned isolating for 2 weeks, but didn’t stress the importance. He was in a hurry. Again, understandable, but I worry that his casual attitude made it seem like we were being tested for the sake of form, not because it truly matters to public health.
We camped out in our van to avoid any exposure to my family, but didn’t drive straight back to Canada because we were too damn tired, having not really slept for the past few nights and definitely not Saturday night at all. Monday, we headed back to Canada. At the border, we were again asked the same health questions, and the border guard reminded us to self-isolate, which we assured him we would.
To be honest, while I hate the idea of anything Big Brother-ish, I wouldn’t be offended by being put in some kind of tracked system that insured I was following the isolation protocol, because it seems like too many people are just completely ignoring it. I feel like we did things as well as we could: We’re completely asymptomatic, but haven’t come in contact with another person since landing. I didn’t hug my parents goodbye. I didn’t pet the family dog. I stood several feet away from them, told them I loved them, burst into tears, and we drove to Canada, only stopping for gas, and we used a sanitizer wipe on the pump handle. It was hard. My parents and sister were great. They stocked our van with my favorite snacks, my coziest sweatpants and sweater, scotch for Peter (for when we got home, obviously), a bracelet my mom got me that says daughter in Gaelic. They made us feel so loved, despite not being able to spend more than a few moments with them.
And the one good thing that came from it was the fact that it helped them understand the seriousness of the situation in a way many Americans don’t yet. My friend Colin who was in Spain at the same time wrote this great piece for older parents explaining the importance of self-isolating or at least social distancing, for your own protection. I think it’s worth the read, and after seeing how careless people seem to be as soon as they get back to feeling safe, it’s important to start isolating as much as possible now.
In some ways, being home makes me feel like life is returning to normal. I know it isn’t. I know it could be a while before it does. I know that staying calm and continuing to do what I do—write, podcast, train (as appropriate) is what I need to be doing. It feels hard to concentrate on that, but I also realize that if things are ever to get back to normal, there are two parts to that puzzle: 1) acting appropriately now with social distancing and isolation as much as possible, but b) continuing to support as many businesses as possible and working as usual is going to be a huge factor in how well things can bounce back. It’s going to be hard, but it’s a delicate balance that needs to happen.
PS: This is unrelated, but for those with races and events that are cancelled, consider not asking for a refund if you can avoid it. Trust me when I say that no promoter wanted this to happen, and refunding everyone their race fees will result in most of those races not being able to continue in the future.
PPS: If you’re calling an airline to ask for credit/cancellation/refund for a flight that isn’t this week, please stop calling them. A big part of the reason so many people were left confused and stranded this weekend and continue to be is because the airlines are being inundated with non-critical calls and can’t answer the ones that could be the difference between a mother getting home to her kids, a husband getting home to his pregnant wife, etc.