What a difference a week makes. Just days ago we were seemingly all set to ride out the COVID-19 storm in beautiful Cascais Portugal. Today we are still healthy but starting a 14-day self-quarantine, at the advice of the CDC, in Cambridge Massachusetts.
We are not looking at this as the end of our adventure. We prefer to call it our next phase. This post covers the past week, how and why our plans shifted. and some first hand observations of what it is like to travel during this historic time,
The tipping point was a Friday evening "dinner party" - via ZOOM - with our daughters Laura and Bridget, and their spouses Mark and Rachael. All day Nancy was eagerly looking forward to the video-call that, for us, would start at 10;00 pm. We made a nice dinner, set some "Motown Ballads" mood music on Spotify, and got dressed up for the occasion.
After exchanging some pleasantries, the conversation moved to the elephant in the chat room. The two with the most access to the real data models were delivering a simple message - pack your bags and get back. Travel restrictions to the US will be tightened further and could extend well beyond the 4-6 months that we had been assuming. And European countries were closing borders among themselves. What if we were stuck in Portugal for 9, 12, or 18 months and could not see our family and friends for a lot longer than we had planned? With shuttered museums, concert halls, and restaurants what would we do? By the end of the call we promised to give it some serious thought and arrange a follow-up call.
That night Nancy found it impossible to sleep and instead spent hours scanning the CDC and WHO websites. By dawn it was decided - we'd follow the advice and head back as soon as we could. We booked plane tickets at a crazy price, cancelled the remainder of our AirBnB reservation, and replaced it with a new one through April in an apartment in Porter Square Cambridge. We spent the rest of Saturday packing, cleaning up, and figuring out how to best use up all the food we had in the refrigerator.
Sunday morning we awoke to bird songs outside our window and prepared a Spanish "omelet" (which is really more like a frittata) incorporating a slew of leftovers - diced pork, potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, and cheese. We took one last walk and bid a fond "we'll-be-back" farewell to the blue skies, sunshine, and rocky Atlantic shores of Cascais.
A quick Uber ride took us to the eerily quiet Lisbon Airport where we easily checked our bags and passed through security. At the passport control desk, though, we finally learned the truth about the Schengen Area visa rules. Nancy's Irish passport afforded her unlimited travel in Europe, but not so for Richard, even though he had a marriage certificate proving he was the spouse of an EU citizen. He had overstayed his 90-day travel visa and, in normal times, would have to pay a 500 euro fine. The border control agent laughingly reminded us that if we were Europeans trying that in the US we'd be taken away in handcuffs. But these weren't normal times - the agent stamped our passports and let us through with just a warning not to try to come back for at least 90 days.
The airport lounges that had made waiting for flights tolerable in the past were all closed. So instead we found a spot at a cafe far from other patrons - there were few, so that was easy. The spot triggered a memory - it was the very same cafe we had sat in back in October when we missed our connecting flight from Lisbon to Genoa. It's somehow fitting that we started and ended the first phase of our "MeetUsAnywhere" adventure in Lisbon.
The flight from Lisbon to Newark had only 50 passengers for over 230 seats. As we checked in at the gate they changed our seats "to even the weight distribution". We ended up assigned seats all the way in the back - but so were most of the other passengers in economy. Everyone was a bit freaked out and the flight attendant in her gloves and mask quickly told everyone to scatter ourselves with a good distance between. She whispered to us to go to the "red" section - there's more legroom - where we found a spot all by ourselves breathing clean air and a sigh of relief.
When we arrived at Newark Airport we were asked to stay in our seats while a representative from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made an announcement about the "health declaration" forms we needed to fill out and the procedures we would go through as we disembarked. Several CDC staff members greeted us in face shields, masks, and other protective gear. They took everyone's temperature with a laser thermometer and we received pamphlets that advised us to self quarantine for the next 14 days, take our temperature twice a day, and report any symptoms to local health authorities. They actually did a nice job with all of it and it wasn't apparent that anyone on the flight was detained.
Even though we had a connecting flight to Boston, we needed to claim our luggage, pass through US Customs and Border Control, re-check our bags, and go through airport security all over again. We were thankful we had chosen the connecting flight with over 2 hours layover. Because the passenger volume was so low, TSA security had been reduced to a single line. In spite of the signs to keep our distance in the line, we felt very uncomfortable as people got too close to us. Nancy practically lost it with a TSA agent at one point when he told her she couldn't use an idle conveyor belt to fill her bins away from the crowd.
The flight to Boston was so short we couldn't get a much-needed glass of wine to calm us down. Landing in Boston was comforting, though. It had been a long and stressful day and it was nice to be in a familiar place. Logan airport was a ghost town - terminals and parking lots practically empty. A quick UBER ride brought us to our AirBnB in Porter Square Cambridge where we settled in, connected with family and friends, and slept soundly. Phase 2 is officially underway - what will it bring?
We still have a number of posts to write about our final weeks in Europe, so we will relive together some happier memories in the coming weeks. What comes after that? Stay tuned!
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Nancy McCabe &