Europe / Travel

Coronavirus, Europe, and “What the Hell Do We Do Now?”:


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.

Decision Time

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?

Milan

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 Main Canal in the Navigli District of Milan (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Main Canal in the Navigli District of Milan (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Touring Milan

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 Duomo and Piazza Duomo in Milan (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Duomo and Piazza Duomo in Milan (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

A Fabulous Dish of Pasta at Pasta d'Autore (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Fabulous Dish of Pasta at Pasta d’Autore (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Breakfast Treats - a Great Way to Start a Food Tour (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Breakfast Treats – a Great Way to Start a Food Tour (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Try to Pick Just Two Flavors with so Many Interesting Choices (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Try to Pick Just Two Flavors with so Many Interesting Choices (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Catania

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.

The View from Our Bedroom Window in Catania (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The View from Our Bedroom Window in Catania (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

The TBEX Survivor Group Enjoying Dinner Together Prior to Escaping Sicily as Italy was Shutting It's Doors (photograph graciously provided by Jason Rupp - one of the TBEX Survivors)
The TBEX Survivor Group Enjoying Dinner Together Prior to Escaping Sicily as Italy was Shutting It’s Doors (photograph graciously provided by Jason Rupp – one of the TBEX Survivors)

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.

Amsterdam

The Red Light District of Amsterdam - Each Window Represents the "Show Room" for a Legal Prostitute (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Red Light District of Amsterdam – Each Window Represents the “Show Room” for a Legal Prostitute (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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?

A Store Selling Pot - Euphemistically Called A Coffee Shop (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Store Selling Pot – Euphemistically Called A Coffee Shop (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Nuremberg

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.

The Weinstadel - Built in the 15th Century and Variously Serving as a House for Lepers, a Wine Store, a Workhouse, Spinnery and Now Used as Student Housing. Adjacent is the Hangman's Tower and Bridge (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Weinstadel – Built in the 15th Century and Variously Serving as a House for Lepers, a Wine Store, a Workhouse, Spinnery and Now Used as Student Housing. Adjacent is the Hangman’s Tower and Bridge (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

 

The Court Room Where the Nuremberg War-Crime Trial Took Place in 1946. The Area to the Right of the Door is Where the Nazi Monsters Sat During the Trial (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Court Room Where the Nuremberg War-Crime Trial Took Place in 1946. The Area to the Right of the Door is Where the Nazi Monsters Sat During the Trial (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Drone Shot Flying Over the Pegnitz River Just East of the Museum Bridge (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Drone Shot Flying Over the Pegnitz River Just East of the Museum Bridge (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

 

Drone Shot of Nuremberg Castle and the City Beyond (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Drone Shot of Nuremberg Castle and the City Beyond (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Exterior of the Nuremberg Coliseum Built by Hitler - Bigger than the One in Rome (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Exterior of the Nuremberg Coliseum Built by Hitler – Bigger than the One in Rome (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Interior of the Nuremberg Coliseum Built by Hitler - the Size was Overwhelming (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Interior of the Nuremberg Coliseum Built by Hitler – the Size was Overwhelming (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

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.

Home Again

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.

Our sincere thanks go out to Fat Tire Tours, who hosted us and treated us royally, even though we were the only ones to show up. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

8 Comments

  • avatar image

    Janet Lamb

    May 19, 2020

    Reply

    Penny, Thanks for sharing your experience and Simon the pictures are incredible! We are all so glad you were able to escape to home and have survived the quarantine period. I am finding staying home almost as delicious as a decadent chocolate dessert.....I am a closet "homebody". However, I did send an email to the governor last Thursday asking why I was allowed to go to Walmart amongst unmasked people but could not sit in a chair masked with my back to my masked hairdresser. Will let you know what he says when I hear.

    • avatar image

      Penny

      May 26, 2020

      Reply

      I feel your pain. My hair makes me look like a wild woman. Hope you got to the hairdresser. My appointment is June 2, and I can't wait! It'll be like the weight of the world will have been taken off my scalp.

  • avatar image

    Nadine Cresswell

    Apr 23, 2020

    Reply

    Glad you an Simon are safely home. I'm in Australia in Melbourne. The Australian government called this pandemic before the WHO declared it one. Hence our fatalities have been low compared to some other countries. There have been around 70 deaths in total with around a third of those relating to people arriving here on cruise ships and then going back to their home states. I've beeninside for around six weeks now and that means only going out for daily walks. New cases are becoming a rarity, but if and when restrictions are lifted it will happen slowly. I hope the US won't rush things. Singapore started opening up businesses again and has been hit with a second wave of cases. Hope to meet up at another T-BEX event some day. It has been a long time since Huntsville. Fond regards, Nadine

    • avatar image

      Penny

      May 26, 2020

      Reply

      So glad things are going so well in Australia. Your government got it right. Unfortunately, this country is being run by political hacks, and many have needlessly suffered and died as a result. I have my fingers crossed that we won't see a huge spike in Covid19 cases as we begin to open up, but I'm not very optimistic. Our governor in North Carolina is opening things back up in three phases. We're in Phase 2, which will last until the end of June. Ours is one of the more sensible plans. Now, let's hope people don't get stupid about being able to get out more. We still need to be careful.Any chance you'll be over here for TBEX in Lafayette? We're signed up, and barring a big uptick in Covid19 cases, it will be an absolute blast.Stay safe, and hope to see you soon.

  • avatar image

    susan Schongalla

    Mar 23, 2020

    Reply

    Hi Penny. Our story may resonate with you as I am sure many will. We were in St. George, UT house/dog sitting for friends after which we would fly to San Francisco to catch a plane to Singapore where we would begin a fantastic cruise which would take us from there to Dubai. As you might imagine the itinerary was to be quite exotic and we were very excited. Three days before our flight, the cruise was canceled. We decided to drive East, spend a few days with our son and his family and fly to Istanbul from Boston to continue our plan after disembarking. This agreed with us nicely because it meant we wouldn't have to fly back to Salt Lake to pick up our car and drive east! By the time we neared the northeast, the proverbial writing was on the wall. We would have to cancel those plans too. Getting our money back for all those cancellations took a lot of time and energy but we were mostly successful except for the RyanAir type short-haul flights. The relief we feel now at home in northern NY is palpable. We could be spending our days at this very moment closed in our lovely Ismir Airbnb apartment, paying for each additional night, ordering take-out on the Turkish phone system. IN TURKISH. Instead, we are spending woodstove-warmed days in our summer cottage on the St. Lawrence River. It is very peaceful with hardly anyone here. Mostly though, we feel so very lucky our grown children and their families understand how serious this situation is and we all have no underlying health issues requiring hospital or doctor visits. We are warm and have plenty of food to see us through 14 days of the sequester. There is nothing like home in times like these. Even for people like us who enjoy almost seven months of travel in a normal year. Happy to be able to be here. Istanbul will be just where it is on the map twelve months from now!

    • avatar image

      Penny Zibula

      Mar 23, 2020

      Reply

      Wow, Sue! Sounds like you had quite a time with all that. I'm glad you're safe and sound, and I love your attitude. Stay safe and healthy!

  • avatar image

    Evelyne

    Mar 23, 2020

    Reply

    Excellent article! Enjoyed reading about your amazing adventure, even though it was cut short. Love the way you put a slightly humorous spin to almost any situation. Glad you guys got home in time and safely!!

    • avatar image

      Penny Zibula

      Mar 23, 2020

      Reply

      It was quite an adventure, but it's great to been home!

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