Just a couple of days ago, on Saturday morning, March 14, my husband and I and our dog Millie left Frankfurt, Germany, to return to the United States. We were relieved–so relieved!–to be on that morning flight, despite the fact that we were returning to the wrong airport and were facing many extra hours of driving to get to our home, where we would then seclude ourselves from all social interaction for the next two weeks.
Let me back up to the beginning. Late last year, my husband asked me to go with him on a trip to Europe to show our dog Millie at Crufts, the biggest dog show in the world, and certainly one of the most prestigious, which is held in Birmingham, England, each year. Although I have, over the past two years, developed a profound distaste for traveling, I said yes. This would be a chance, perhaps my last chance given my bad attitude, I told myself, to visit friends overseas and to indulge myself in two and a half days of museum immersion in London. Most of my career has been spent teaching English literature, and so I could not resist the lure of literary museum-hopping coupled with the chance to see friends we normally see once every three or four years. So on March 1, just two weeks ago, we packed several suitcases, our dog, and her large crate into our truck and headed downstate to the airport.
I knew about the Covid-19 outbreak, and to be honest, I was a little concerned. But it seemed that it was contained in China, and so despite my misgivings, we went anyway. I tend to be a bit hyper-aware, perhaps a little over-dramatic, so I’m sure my nervous jokes about getting stuck in Europe went largely unheeded by friends and family. In fact, I want to go on record here that my daughter, wise beyond her years, warned me we were taking a risk and that we could actually get stuck in Europe for a time. But I had a plan if we did, I said: we would rent a camper and hunker down in empty campgrounds. I brought extra prescription medication, and a good bit of knitting. I made sure I had good books to read on my Kindle app–but all of these things, I told myself, were just insurance against an outlying possibility of the virus ramping up and cutting off travel. I was not seriously preparing for a pandemic. I do remember saying at my last band practice before our departure, however, that I believed the coronavirus would change the way we live our lives in the future. I had no idea the future would be arriving so quickly.
Our trip proceeded well. We had purchased disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and I wiped down all surfaces I could–in hotels, airplanes, trains, everywhere I could think of. I washed my hands carefully and well. I used the sanitizer several times a day. I kept my distance from people. The museums I went to, with the exception of the British Museum, were not hugely popular (more on these in a later blog), and I did not attend too many crowded events, apart from one afternoon in a pub and Crufts itself. As the trip proceeded, we began to refrain from handshakes and hugs, nodding to our friends or laughingly bumping elbows with them when we greeted them. But I kept a wary eye on the figures coming out on the virus’s spread, and by the midpoint of my ten-day trip, I just wanted to get back home to my pets, my home, and my routine.
That’s when weird things started happening with our Lufthansa reservations. We kept getting notifications that our return flights were cancelled. By the time we reached our last destination, Bruges, Belgium, we’d been cancelled three times, and we had to spend a couple of hours on the phone to rebook our flight home. First we rebooked for Friday, March 13–and then that flight got cancelled. We rebooked for Saturday, heaved a sigh of relief, and went to bed. It had been a good, fun, and largely productive trip, but we would both be relieved when we got back to the States.
Some hours later, at three in the morning, I was wakened from sleep by a call from my sister, who often calls me accidentally. I didn’t answer the phone, but when it buzzed again, I picked it up. In a panicked voice, she told me about Trump’s speech and said I had to get home immediately. My daughter texted me next, and then both of my sons. We spent several panicked hours on the phone until I realized, along with the rest of the world, that American citizens would be allowed to return even after the travel ban began. We heaved a sigh of relief and went back to bed.
We spent a lovely last day in Bruges, even though I was somewhat on edge and just wanted to be on a plane home. But we would be leaving to spend the night at the airport hotel the next morning, I told myself, trying to be calm. We began to studiously avoid crowds, and bought groceries instead of going out to a restaurant for dinner. Then, at 6 pm, just as we were entering the sauna of our hotel in an attempt to relax, we received the text saying our Saturday morning flight to Detroit was cancelled. It is not too hyperbolic to say that at that point my head exploded, and I had a first-class meltdown, leaving me a pulsing mass of panic, worry, and angry impotence.
Let me say this: frustrating as it was to try to deal with Lufthansa over the phone, they were patient and helpful in getting us on a flight home when we talked to an agent in person. Because that’s what it took to get us passage home: a drive to the Frankfurt airport without any reservations, taking a number, waiting two hours in the lounge to talk to an agent, and then working through all possibilities. We had left out of Detroit: we would not be able to return there, because only a few cities were accepting European flights after the ban commenced. We gladly accepted a flight for the following day to Chicago–what’s a few hours of driving when you’re trying to get home, after all?–but there was no room for the dog we’d brought with us. We got on a flight for Sunday, which supposedly had room for the dog, but then it appeared that she would not be allowed to fly on that flight after all.
I now understand what marriage is all about. When my husband faced the very real possibility that his dog would not be allowed to come back to the States, he had a first-class meltdown. I calmed him down, and he would later reciprocate when I erupted in a furious, scathing, expletive-filled political diatribe in Chicago, when we were herded like cattle into enormous lines for Covid-19 screening, which seemed expressly designed not only to batter our souls, but to spread the disease easily and efficiently throughout a room filled with close-packed travelers. After more than 39 years of marriage, I have discovered the secret of a successful marriage, so newlyweds, pay heed: a good marriage consists of two people alternately calming the other down, talking him or her off an emotional cliff, and expressing a sometimes false optimism that everything will be okay.
We somehow got seats on the Saturday flight–I’m not sure how that happened, but bless the agent who tried one more time to get them for us and for Millie and found, I’m sure to her surprise, that she could. Cross your fingers and toes, I texted all my family and friends, that we would actually get on that flight and make it home.
The next morning, we got to the airport, and, amazingly, things begin to work out. I realized that we were actually going home. I thought I would feel relief, but instead, as I looked around and saw groups of young Americans, whom I recognized as teenage foreign exchange students returning to their homes in the States, I felt a wave of sadness rush over me. These students were being sent home, their overseas experience rudely truncated–just as their European counterparts in the USA were. The grand experiment of intercultural exchange, begun in the years after WWII, seemed to be over, cut off in the blink of an eye. My son had been a foreign exchange student in Germany, and we hosted an exchange student last year. I had to swallow hard and blink back my tears as I realized how lucky they both were to have the experiences they did.
Staring out the window as the plane took off (in the longest takeoff roll my husband, a former USMC pilot, has ever experienced–the 747 was loaded to the gills with Americans going home), I felt another tidal wave of sadness. Don’t get me wrong–I was ecstatic to be going home, it was all I wanted, and I was willing to put up with any amount of traveling to get there–but I knew I would not be coming back to Europe soon. In fact, there’s a real possibility I will never go back. Like the stock market, world travel is now experiencing a “correction.” It has been too easy and too cheap for too long. We have not been calculating the real costs of transatlantic travel–the economic, the environmental, and the public health costs of gallivanting about the globe–and its future will surely appear profoundly different from its past. Just as we look back to the glory days of commercial aviation, when one dressed up to travel, when seats were comfortable and spacious, when meals on board were tasty and the presentation of them mattered, we will shortly look back to the recent past as a time when international travel was as easy, and nearly as cheap, as trip across the state. Musing on this, I took a few photos from the plane, already nostalgic.
And so we landed in Chicago, only to stand in the long lines to get admitted to our own country, and then more long lines to get screened for coronavirus. We were told not to take pictures; if we did, our phones would be confiscated. (This is not the place for political discussion–this post is already too long–so suffice it to say that much more than the travel industry is being harmed by Trump’s ineffective and damaging reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.) Three hours passed as slowly as possible. My back began to hurt, and my shoulders ached from the straps of my bag. We fretted about our dog, who we knew would be out of drinking water after her long flight in her crate. Twice the crowded room broke into spontaneous song: the first time, “Sweet Caroline,” and the second, “Hallelujah.” It was a nice gesture, but the songs petered out fairly quickly. It’s hard to sing when you’re tired, worried, and sad.
The homeland security officers, WHO workers, and Public Health workers (whom I’ve rarely ever seen in uniform before) were working as hard as they could, but they were understaffed, slammed by a horde of travelers arriving, somewhat panic-stricken, all at the same time. To be honest, it was barely controlled chaos. We were lucky in that we arrived early in the day at O’Hare, and so were not crammed body-to-body, and we only had to wait in line three hours. But I really wouldn’t wish what we experienced on anyone, except perhaps Trump himself.
While I was waiting for my husband to get a rental car to take us, first to a hotel to get a few hours’ sleep and then to Detroit to pick up our car so we could return home (a four-hour drive that would be followed by another four-hour drive home), I experienced a trivial loss, but one which pushed me over the edge into tears. I am a devoted but not terribly accomplished knitter, knitting wherever I go because it helps me soothe my overactive nerves. On Saturday night, after 10 hours of flying and four hours of waiting and collecting baggage, loaded down with a large dog and two heaped luggage carts, I was pacing back and forth outside the terminal as snowflakes drifted down from a sullen night sky, when I suddenly realized that my knitting bag was missing. I tried not to cry, but the tears came–and I’m still choked up about it, to be honest.
It’s not just the bag, or even its contents: the sock I was in the midst of knitting, my cell phone charger, or my Go Navy water bottle (a gift from my daughter). It’s not even my unread copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. It’s the symbolism of the thing. I’d purchased the bag at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome four years ago, on my first trip to Italy to visit my daughter, who was then stationed there. Then I added buttons from each literary museum I went to: for example, from the Jane Austen museum (“I ♥ Knightley”), and many others, including a new one with a portrait of Charles Dickens that I’d just bought when I went to the Dickens House last week. I’d gotten one button from a former student, as well as a couple from my foreign exchange student. Inside the bag was a skein of yarn from Dresden that she had picked out and sent to me, which I was making into a sock using needles that my husband had bought for me from a knitting shop in England. In essence, my ragged little knitting bag was a hodge-podge of multiculturalism, a soon-to-be relic of a time when the world was small, and familiar, and comfortable. It’s fitting that I’d lose it at the very end of my trip, and I can appreciate the dramatic logic of such a loss, but I’d give anything to have it back again. It’s as if a part of my world, of everyone’s world, is represented by that small, ragged bag, which is now gone forever.
So that’s my story of my escape from Europe. I’m sleep deprived, highly emotional, and under house quarantine for two weeks, and committed to practicing social distancing for much longer than that, if necessary. But I have my cats and dogs, my books, my knitting (no knitter has only one project going at a time, after all), my classic movies, and — importantly– this blog, which I will be updating, I hope, two to three times a week. I can’t promise profound thoughts, but maybe that’s a good thing. In these times, one needn’t be profound. For now, let’s all just try to be present for each other in any way we can.