Traveling in the Eye of the European COVID-19 Pandemic

Thank you to all our friends and family who have reached out to check on us while we spend the year in Europe. Here’s an overdue update.

What We’ve Been Experiencing

When Joy and I planned to spend all of 2020 in Europe, we expected it to be an exciting year, filled with all sorts of interesting, unusual experiences you don’t get during a two week holiday. Little did we know how unusual our adventure would be.

After a month on the French Riviera, Joy and I had planned to spend part of February and all of March in Italy, but the spread of Coronavirus in Italy caused us to “get outta Dodge” earlier than we had planned.

We passed through Northern Italy in mid-February, just as COVID-19 was beginning to hit Italy, and we’d moved on long before all hell broke lose there. We spent time on the Italian island of Sardinia and the last part of February in the Puglia region (the heel area), far away from Northern Italy. Both Sardinia and the Puglia are much less touristed than Italy’s northern areas, particularly during off season. In fact, Rick Steves, the travel guy, doesn’t even include Sardinia or Puglia in his “comprehensive” 10 pound, 35,000 page Italy guide book. So, even in a normal February, those areas of Italy don’t have any crowds because the tourist season doesn’t start until “beach season” in mid-March. Except for a coincidental encounter with a Carnevale festival in Sardinia we never saw crowds or large groups of tourists.

Highway Signs focused on COVID-19
Highway traffic signs in France, Andorra and Spain display COVID-19 messages

At the end of February we started to get nervous, so we zoomed up Italy’s Adriatic coast and headed for France. We figured we’d hide out in the Alps area for a bit. France felt much more normal. Restaurants were open, tourist attractions were still operating, but everyone was on edge.

After about a week in France we decided to bolt for Spain, even though we saw that Spain was starting to get hit hard. We decided we needed to be in a country where we are fluent in the language.

It is absolutely eerie to drive along a freeway and see no other cars in either direction. Sometimes we’d go 15-20 minutes without seeing another car. It’s one thing to experience something like this when you’re cycling along highway 50, which prides itself on being “The Loneliest Highway in America” and another when you’re driving along one of Spain’s major roads.

We went through a security gauntlet during our route from the French Alps to our apartment along Spain’s Costa Brava. It’s a LONG drive, and we decided we would need to stop for the night so we detoured through Andorra. (Who else do you know who’s visited that tiny Pyrenees country hidden between France and Spain?) A guard at the Andorra/Spain border questioned us extensively about why we were entering Spain. She let us in only after cautioning us that we would be house-bound. Then Customs wanted to know what we were doing and looked through our stuff. (Note: Andorra is not part of the EU, so you always have to go through border security and Customs). When we arrived in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, our destination town, we found police had cordoned off roads into the town. Only residents were allowed in. They grudgingly let us pass once we explained we had rented an apartment and we intended to go-to-ground for several weeks. The officer reminded us that we were not to leave our apartment. We nodded vigorously. I was so happy to be able to communicate fully and competently in Spanish with these officials.

Although we’ve not seen it, we’ve heard that police are patrolling, looking for anyone disobeying the National lock down.

Twice on our journey from France to our Spanish hideout we’ve spent the night in a hotel. In each case, the hotel opened the restaurant only for hotel guests who “can’t eat at home.” We were so appreciative.

Hotels and Restaurant messages about COVID
Hotels support the fight against COVID-19. Even McDonalds is involved.

Remember the first week after 9-11, when all air traffic was halted and if you heard a plane or helicopter you stopped to look? For me, it was a mix of emotions. A reminder that the Bay Area skies are normally filled with aircraft and that things weren’t normal. Unease about the aircraft (danger had come from the skies) so each time I heard something fly by, I raised anxious eyes toward that sound. It’s like that now. The streets are completely empty. If you hear a car drive by, you take note and focus on it. Why is that person out there? What are they doing? There are no voices coming from people walking by. No “holas” as friends pass on the street. No scooters. No bikes. No children’s’ voices. If you are out and about (walking the dog, for example), and you do see someone else, you stay on opposite sides of the street. I feel like there’s a mutual “I see you. I know you’re there. Let’s keep our distance and go do whatever it is each of us needs to do.” It feels complicit.

If you’ve ever seen the movie I Am Legend (a post-apocalyptic story about a scientist desperate to find even one other survivor of a humanity-destroying plague) you’ll get a sense of what it sometimes feels like.

Empty Places
Empty shopping areas, highways and cordoned off playgrounds.

Everything closed. Even churches! How hard that must be for the Italian and Spanish populations! Even McDonalds and playgrounds are cordoned off.

How Are We Doing and What Are We Doing?

We’re hunkered down in this lovely one bedroom apartment for several weeks. We have a patio that looks out onto the beach across the bay. We’re a five minute hike to a small beach and right along a walking trail (which we’ll use to walk the dog). We’d always wanted to live for a while in a European town. I guess we’re gonna get a face full of it now. Just no 10pm visits to restaurants for Tapas.

Our one bedroom apartment
Our one bedroom COVID-19 sanctuary comes with a great view

As you can see from the photos, everything is “efficient” when it comes to the kitchen. I placed a knife in the photos to give you a sense of size for our appliances. At least we’ll have an excuse to leave the apartment to go food shopping every few days!

Our tiny kitchen appliances
A knife shows how small our kitchen appliances are.

We bought a thermometer about two weeks ago and have been tracking our temperatures twice each day. Fortunately, the thermometer has an arrow that points at green/yellow/red to indicate what the temperature reading means. I appreciate that I don’t have to do complex calculations to figure out if I’m sick. It would suck to look at the Celsius reading, multiply it by 9/5 and then add 32. (T(°F) = T(°C) × 9/5 + 32). We are happy to report that so far, it’s always been in the green. I seem to bounce between 36.9 and 36.8.

We actively monitor the CDC and WHO sites. Before we left for Europe I registered with the US State department for each area we’d visit. They send me daily notices. Initially, they were messages like, “So and so French workers are demonstrating in this area of Paris, so stay away.” Now, the messages all about COVID-19. I guess that in an emergency, I’m willing to let the US government know where we are and what we’re doing!

For several years Joy and I have had a strict policy of using Purell after touching money when traveling. Instances of travel-related stomach problems and colds dropped considerably once we implemented that policy. Fortunately, in Europe, we rarely use cash, relying on credit cards for nearly every purchase. We try not to dip into our Purell supply, opting for washing our hands. BTW, one side benefit of all this vigorous hand washing: I think my iWatch is counting it as exercise. 20 seconds x 15 washings/day adds up!

It’s certainly a challenge for us. We have no personal infrastructure here – no friends we could call to say, “Could you buy something for us and leave it at the door?” We haven’t figured out if there’s online grocery ordering and delivery. There likely is in large Spanish cities, but we’re in a small resort town.

I’m most afraid that if Joy and I both get really sick and need to be hospitalized, what will we do with the dog?

We’ve got tons of ebooks on our iPhones, and decent WiFi so we can stream Netflix, HBO, HULU, and Amazon Prime. We have a deck of cards and Triominoes, and I brought my Nintendo Switch with four games. Feel free to WhatsApp or FaceTime us — just remember the time difference!

In the meantime, we’ve stocked up on Gin and Tonic as well as Cuba Libre supplies. When you’re confined to quarters, it’s important to keep your daily lime intake high enough to fend off scurvy.

Why Are We Still in Europe?

There are several reasons

It would be unconscionable for us to fly back to the US. It seems that there is more and evidence that people may be contagious even when not symptomatic. The chances that we’re infected are currently higher than for our US-based friends. It’s time to hunker down. As the Spanish highway says, “Frenem el Coronavirus #quedatacasa” (stop Coronavirus #stayathome).

If we’re not sick now, trying to get home would certainly make us so. We’ve been watching the horrific stories about thousands of passengers grouped together for as much 5 or 7 hour to get through security at airports. That’s just madness. It’s all about slowing the contagion curve. We don’t need to add to the spread.

Remember the dog? Getting Brighton from the US to Europe and back again is a complex process involving last minute vet visits and certifications. Those hoops are going to be even more complex to get through now. Plus, only Air France would allow us to fly with Brighton in baggage. We’d have to drive back to Paris to pick up his dog crate, deal with US restrictions on Air France, … ugh.

And, finally. we don’t have health insurance in the US . We opted out of ACA (Obamacare) in favor of much better (and cheaper) European healthcare as we didn’t expect to be back in the US until the end of 2020. We really can’t go home without risking huge medical bills if one or both of us get really sick when we’re in the US.

Some Random Thoughts

I would have titled this section “Final Thoughts” but that seems a bit morbid at the moment.

For the past three years, it’s sometimes been difficult to be an American abroad. This pandemic is certainly making that worse as it’s very publicly further exposing this administration’s shameful selfish side. In Europe we’re seeing countries rally around this threat. As a country, everyone’s doing their part. People are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. I look at the US, and I’m appalled that action is mostly at the local and individual company level. In the US, the administration has fired or discounted the scientists we need. Once, the US would have led the international charge to fight this pandemic Now, we’re fiddling while Rome burns.

To our family, friends, and blog readers: stay safe, stay healthy. We’re all in this together.


6 thoughts on “Traveling in the Eye of the European COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. Thanks for your post, Tony. Hoping you and Joy and Brighton stay well. Such a bizarre time, but definitely better safe than sorry.

    Best regards,

    Heather

    Heather Stoeckley General Manager Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural Trips, Inc. PO Box 2546 San Anselmo, CA 94979 USA

    Email: hstoeckley@farhorizons.com Tel.: (415) 482-8400 or 1 (800) 552-4575 Fax: (415) 482-8495 Website: http://www.farhorizons.com Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/far.horizons.trips Blog: http://www.farhorizons.com/blog/

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  2. Here in Ashland we are hiding under the bed barricaded by walls of toilet paper, the only proven barrier to the virus – a little known fact that Kimberly Clark accidentally leaked. We’ve cancelled our May Norway trip 😦

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tony. I had been thinking about you guys and wondering how it was going. Stay safe!

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  4. We’re so glad you’re safe & sound and tucked away in a good spot to hunker down. Hunker is suddenly a widely used vocabulary word. Como se dice “hunker” en espanol? We love your updates.

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