How what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, smarter, and more compassionate
It was supposed to be a magical six-week journey to Italy, Croatia, and England. We had been planning this trip for months: Exploring Milan for the first time, TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) in Sicily’s stunning port city of Catania, and the press trips associated with the conference, acquainting ourselves with the region of Puglia, about which we had heard so much, visiting Croatia for the first time and a hosted trip to the island of Hvar, and finally, spending time with family in England, including a new great-niece and great-nephew to cuddle. Then came the specter of Coronavirus.
To me, Corona had always meant a chilled bottle in my hand, a lime wedge, and cold, refreshing liquid caressing my throat. Now, it represents major disruption, illness, and in some tragic cases, death. Here is how this worldwide pandemic affected our plans, our perspective, and our lives.
Simon and I had been following Coronavirus stories out of China for over a month. As our March 3 departure date approached, we were beginning to grow concerned. Our sons and friends were insisting we not go because the Coronavirus had reached Italy. At the time, 11 villages in the North had been affected and were on lockdown. Since the TBEX conference had not been canceled, we reasoned, it should be fine to travel to Italy.
Less than a week before we were due to fly out, TBEX was canceled. However, we were assured that local businesses and venues still wanted to host those who came to Catania and that the press trips would go on. So, after giving the situation some thought, we decided to go ahead with our trip as planned.
Simon, Splendid, and I left the U.S. as scheduled with no clue as to what awaited us at the other end. We were in good health, knew how to be flexible, and prepared to take sensible precautions. We would wash our hands even more frequently, use lots of hand sanitizer, and meticulously wipe down airplane and hotel room surfaces with disinfectants. What could go wrong?
Following an uneventful flight to London Gatwick, we transferred to an EasyJet plane that took us to Milan. When we landed was when things began to get weird. As we passed through the airport we were stopped for a temperature check.
Our hotel room was small but clean. Regardless, I disinfected everything: furniture, bathroom fixtures, light switches, electrical outlets, door handles, and anything else I could find. Meanwhile, Simon went out and returned with a scrumptious room picnic as only you can find in Italy: cheese, mortadella, crusty bread, and a sinful dessert. We were exhausted, but happy to be in Milan.
It rained the next day, so we took a wander through the Navigli neighborhoods and over the bridges that crossed the city’s canals. Venice it wasn’t, but charming just the same.
The following morning was sunny and a perfect day for a walking tour. Our guide, Marco, led our unusually small group through streets and past landmarks, all the while keeping up an interesting and humorous patter. It was through Marco that we began to comprehend the toll Coronavirus was taking on Milan. Tourism was down, and locals were staying home in unusual numbers.
The lesson hit home when we took Marco up on his recommendation to have lunch at Pasta d’Autore, a small restaurant that served freshly made pasta, flavorful sauces, and the best tiramisu we ever tasted. “Normally, there is a queue at the door,” owner, Enrica told us. But on that day, the restaurant was half empty. This was a family business run by three generations of hard-working Milanese. Times were hard and were about to get harder.
The next day, we were hosted by Fat Tire Tours on a tour that involved eating our way through the morning and visiting the Duomo di Milano in the afternoon. Although there were supposed to be others on the tour, our guide, Mirella ended up with just the three of us. Still, she was exceedingly gracious and did a masterful job of introducing us to the traditional delicacies of Milan and the sometimes macabre surprises to be found in the cathedral.
Transition to Catania
We had been in touch with the group called TBEX Survivors on WhatsApp, and the situation was in a constant state of flux. Tours were being canceled and rearranged. Mario Bucolo, the TBEX coordinator in Sicily was constantly scrambling to salvage what he could for those of us still coming to Catania, and his options were dwindling.
That evening, we received an email telling us that our Alitalia flight for the following morning had been canceled, but we had been rescheduled to fly out in the afternoon. We were looking forward to our time in Catania.
The scene greeting us at Milan’s Linate Airport was surreal; the airport was like a ghost town. We crossed our fingers and headed for our departure gate.
The weather when we landed in Catania was sunny and mild. Passing through the airport it was obvious that even in Sicily health concerns were increasing with white-suited health workers checking every passenger as they entered the arrival hall.
Our apartment arranged through Booking.com was spotless, spacious, and the bedroom window overlooked the Ionian Sea. We were looking forward to exploring Catania and other parts of Sicily. Little did we know how the evening would evolve.
Mario had organized a dinner at a local restaurant for 17 TBEX Survivors. We took a pleasant walk over and joined Mario and the rest of the group.
Soon after our arrival, Mario received word that the Prime Minister was about to declare the entire country a red zone in a press conference that was about to start. As course after course of delectable Sicilian dishes were brought to the tables – platters laden with cheeses, meats, and caponata, exquisite seafood, pasta with tomato and eggplant, chicken cutlets, sausages, and potatoes – Mario sat with his phone to his ear. When he finally put down his phone, he told us with a grim expression, “I suggest you leave Italy as soon as you can.”
Somewhere between the pasta and the meat and potatoes, Simon made reservations for us on a RyanAir flight to Amsterdam leaving early the next morning.
We arrived back at our apartment after midnight, packed what little we had unpacked, and managed a couple of hours of sleep. The taxi Mario had arranged for us and another TBEX Survivor arrived at 5:15 am to take us to the airport. Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Catania, we were leaving. If this is what jet-setting was all about, we wanted no part of it.
Our first day in Amsterdam was cold and rainy. Aside from a soggy trek in search of food, we spent the rest of the day in our hotel room, catching up on sleep and trying to figure out the best way to get to Croatia.
The following morning looked more promising, so we decided to take a walking tour. This turned out to be a good decision. Johnny, our guide, started us off in the red light district, where negligee-clad women plied their wares in windows lining the streets. Our group was larger than in Milan, and Coronavirus seemed to be having a hard time disrupting the laid-back Dutch population. Perhaps the weed factor had something to do with it?
After communicating with our hosts in Croatia, we decided to take the bus to Zagreb and work our way down to Split. From there, we would take the ferry to the island of Hvar, where our hosts had planned a fabulous itinerary for us.
Since the trip to Zagreb was going to be a long one, we decided to purchase tickets to Nuremberg in Germany and spend a couple of days there.
Simon and I have always considered ourselves to be flexible and ready for most situations. This trip definitely was putting us to the test, but we felt good about our decisions thus far. And so, we continued to enjoy Amsterdam, despite the unpredictable weather.
Transition to Nuremberg
On the morning we were to leave Amsterdam, we received an email from our Croatian hosts saying the borders were now closed to non-residents. At that point, we made the decision to return home after our planned three days in Nuremberg.
Although the travel ban in the U.S. didn’t apply to residents, we weren’t about to push our luck any further. So, we arranged our flight – in every sense of the word – and headed for Nuremberg and the end of our European odyssey. Our original plan was to make limoncello from the lemons Coronavirus handed us, but we were going to make beer instead.
Arriving in Nuremberg after midnight probably wasn’t the best way to begin our stay. Our hotel was supposed to be a five-minute walk from the bus station, but after fifteen minutes, we realized we were hopelessly lost. And after half an hour of trying to backtrack, we gave up and took a cab.
Our room was on the second floor of a building above a night club. We were expecting a rough night, but when we got to our room, we couldn’t hear a thing.
The next morning, we took our customary walking tour with Felix as our guide. As in Amsterdam, our group was a good size, but Felix told us that tourism in the city had seen a sharp drop-off in recent weeks.
In the afternoon, we visited the courthouse where the Nuremberg trials of some of the vilest Nazi criminals took place in 1945. This is an experience I will write about in a future post, but for now, let me say the exhibit was extremely intense and well presented.
Coronavirus Takes Hold
The following day was Sunday, and many venues were closed. I caught up on email and writing, while Simon took his camera and drone for a walk.
On Monday, we took the tram to the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds where the National Socialists held their rallies in the mid to late 1930s. When we arrived at the building housing the museum, we learned that all museums had been ordered closed.
The trip wasn’t a total loss, though. We walked the grounds of the coliseum and tested the acoustics. from certain points, you could hear a distinct echo. For some crazy reason, I chose to test it out by singing Amazing Grace, as if that might drive some of the evil from that place.
Coronavirus was definitely taking hold in Germany. Restaurants and hotels were barely hanging on, and we heard that on Wednesday, eateries were going to be limited to certain hours. Despite our enjoyment of Nuremberg, our hearts were breaking, as they had in Italy, for the families whose businesses might not survive Coronavirus.
On March 17, we took a three-hour bus ride from Nuremberg to Munich and flew out the next morning. We were going home: Munich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Atlanta, and Atlanta to New Bern. Upon arrival in Atlanta, we were told to stay in our seats while a team of Center for Disease Control techs boarded the plane and moved purposefully down the aisles. We had heard horror stories of eight-hour long line-ups for screening with people standing inches apart, but to our relief, we were off the plane in less than half an hour. We were given a flyer telling us to take our temperature twice a day, self-isolate as much as possible, and call the health department if any symptoms arose.
Arriving at our home exhausted late that evening, we went to bed almost immediately. There would be plenty of time to assess the new normal in the morning.
The Here and Now
At present, idiots are hoarding toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer, but most things are available in quantity at our supermarkets. Restaurants are offering take-out only menus, and small businesses are limiting hours of operations. Historic sites and art galleries are closed, and events have been canceled.
Everyone is practicing social distancing, at least to some degree. It’s surreal. All I can say is that I hope it works to neutralize Coronavirus.
No one really knows when things might begin to return to normal. I’m confident we will get through this, but what about the people in the tourist industry worldwide? We can only hope Coronavirus takes a hike sooner rather than later, and for now, we all have to stay cautious, creative and positive.
After 9/11, one of the ways we kept our spirits up was by emailing Taliban jokes. Now, it’s toilet paper jokes and humorous social distancing scenarios. That’s all well and good, but let’s not forget to support our local businesses as best we can, help elderly neighbors get their groceries, and find ways to stay in touch with friends and family.
Our parents and grandparents were asked to go to war. We’re just being asked to stay home. Surely, we can handle this.
How is your Coronavirus experience going? I’d love to hear about what you’re doing to adjust to this surreal situation. Please tell me about it in the comments.