Two months after entering lockdown on Spain’s Costa Brava, we (Tony, Joy, and dog Brighton) returned to the US. This is the story of our trip home.
Lockdown in Spain
After having a great time traveling around France and Italy for almost two months, we decided around March 9 to hunker down in Spain. At that time we were in southwestern France. Italy had locked down the northern regions but not the entire country. News from the French Alps and parts of Spain were a bit worrisome. WHO had not yet declared it a global pandemic.
We spent a day thinking about where we wanted to go to ground for a month (as we imagined). Although we were in France, with French long-term visas, we quickly decided on Spain. Neither of us speaks French worth shit, while Tony is fluent in Spanish and Joy can get by. Spain was an easy choice. We wanted an apartment with a real kitchen, though at this time we didn’t realize we’d have to cook 100% of our meals. We wanted a washing machine. We wanted a view. We wanted interesting places to visit, not realizing we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.
We found a really nice small flat in Sant Feliu de Guíxol on Spain’s Costa Brava. It hit all our ticky boxes, and was not horribly expensive. It wasn’t available for a few days, so we visited Carcasonne (fab!) and Andorra, and showed up on March 14. Spain announced and implemented its lockdown that same day.
The US State Department advised immediate departure, unless we were willing to stay an indefinite period. We chose to remain, which was the right choice. The pictures of the crowded airports and flights in mid-March, no one wearing face masks… Yikes. Plus, we had the dog, and we had bicycling gear in storage near Paris as we’d planned to spend the summer cycle touring. It was just too complicated.
Spain’s lockdown was one of the strictest in the world, with outdoor access restricted to food shopping, medical care, and dog walks. Thank you, Brighton, thank you for being a dog. Need to go out 6 times a day to pee? Great! This lockdown wasn’t just theoretical; the cops continuously drove the streets of our small beach town, looking for people to stop and chastise.
Two weeks before we left, children were allowed outside for the first time in 1.5 months. Can you imagine? It was a beautiful sunny day and we loved watching the families on the beach far below us, enjoying their freedom (with ample physical distancing; it’s a big beach).
A week after that, adults were allowed to walk (within 1k of home), or bicycle. That first Saturday morning was wild. Tony and I walked around the bay, to the cape that we’d been staring at for 6 weeks. So many people were out, most with masks on and all looking happy. It was glorious.
Now in mid-May, bars and restaurants are beginning to open, and nearby France is loosening the rules even more. Italy is starting to welcome some tourism.
Why leave, just when it was getting better?
The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not half-over. There is completely understandable pressure to restart the world’s frozen economies, and some countries are doing better than others at having actionable plans in place to re-open without disaster. The US is not one of those countries; as far as we can tell, there is no fucking plan, and the past two months have been, if not wasted, then at best treading water. As I write this, at home in Ashland Oregon, I’m not certain that returning was the right choice.
Staying in Europe was certainly possible. Over the coming weeks, the rules will continue to loosen and we might be able to do a little tourism. If we lived in a big US city, or god forbid Texas, we’d have stayed. However Oregon is a spot of sanity in the US, and our largely rural county has had very low numbers. We live near good healthcare and infrastructure. So the biggest risk, we felt, was actually getting home. Once here, it’s more likely than not to be OK.
Tourism is problematic this year, not just for the tourists but also for the places they visit. Even if tourism is allowed, do I really want to go to a place where hundreds and thousands of others have been? Do those places want someone who’s been touring (on bikes or in a car), the way Tony and I like to do? No. The only kind of tourism that makes any kind of sense to me right now is hanging out in a resort. Much like we just spent 8 weeks doing, but hopefully with a bit more outdoor activity.
Planning the return
At the end of April we tentatively decided to head home. I say tentatively because we weren’t at first certain that we could do it. We had a long lists of items to research, notably:
- Can we get a flight? Including Brighton? For something resembling a reasonable amount of money?
- What are the rules for getting Brighton back into the US? Do we need to visit a veterinarian? Would that be possible?
- Can we drive to Paris, crossing the border from Spain?
- Can we get a hotel near the airport? Can we get something to eat?
- Can we return the car early?
The answers were yes: we made it home. France was scheduled to open up on Monday May 11, which included adding a few more international flights and loosening the border crossing rules. We couldn’t get a nonstop flight to San Francisco, which we really wanted because of the dog. So we booked on Air France, nonstop to LA on Thursday May 14. We decided to leave Spain on Monday May 11, overnight halfway, and get to Paris CDG on Tuesday May 12. Wednesday we’d do errands like get our bicycle stuff and Brighton’s crate, then return the car. We built in an extra day for contingencies.
France’s lockdown started poorly back in March, as French people really had trouble with social distancing. The government quickly instituted a rule that you had to have a form with you every time you left home. You could fill it out on your phone, it was easy, but you had to have a new form for each trip, justifying where you were going and why.
The day before we left Spain, I was filling out the French form for our drive to Paris. I stumbled across an informational page that said you were not allowed to drive across the border from Spain (or anywhere else) into France, even to catch a flight home from France–exactly our scenario. Panic ensued! We researched driving instead to Barcelona and flying to Paris, which without the dog we may have done. But I was somewhat optimistic (though still wound pretty tight) because: (a) the French lockdown rules were relaxing the next day, though the details were hazy, and (b) we have French long-term visas.
We took a deep breath and decided to tell the border guards that we were headed for Antibes, France, which was our first long term stay back in January and our official address in France. We talked through the story, getting the details straight. We filled out two of these travel forms, one for “going home to Antibes” and one for “going from Antibes to the airport in order to leave.” We talked about whether it was better for Tony to drive (his Spanish is infinitely better and surely the border guards speak Spanish), or Joy (playing the gender card). We did not want to lie to the authorities. We did not sleep well.
Getting to Paris
It’s a 10-hour drive to Paris, which we decided to do in two days. We were worried about how long the border crossing would take. The border was about 90 minutes from our starting point. Tony drove, and I clutched our passports open to the special visa page, refreshing my phone’s display of the French travel justification form. The untruthful one, that said we were going to Antibes.
Traffic was light. The border was approaching. For those of you who haven’t driven in Europe, most national borders are similar to state borders in the US, meaning there’s at most a sign saying welcome to France. We didn’t see that sign, but there was a toll plaza as the highway transitioned from Spain to France. There was a huge line of cars and trucks attempting to enter Spain, still on lockdown. On our side, heading into France, there were a few cops and cars pulled over just past the toll booths. But 99% of the traffic simply paid their tolls and continued on, so we did too.
OK, this must be the DMZ and we’ll find the French border control a kilometer or two down the road.
For the next ten minutes we debated whether that was it, or if the shoe was yet to drop. Nope, that was it. France’s opening of the borders on May 11 was truly an opening of the borders. So much anxiety, all for nothing.
It wasn’t a tremendously interesting drive, though we did narrowly escape serious injury just before we stopped for the night in Clermont-Ferrand. The wind knocked down a small tree right in front of us. Like, 3 seconds and it would have landed on top of us, which would not have been good. Luckily Tony managed to stop short of the tree laying completely across the two lanes of the road. He also managed to pull to the right so that the 18-wheeler directly behind us could take the left lane and avoid squishing us. It was pretty exciting.
We hopped out of the car, joined by 8-10 other people near the front of the stoppage. With hardly a word spoken, we pulled branches big and small to the side of the road. The menfolk together dragged the big tree trunk (it wasn’t all that big, but trees are heavy!) so one lane was clear. A little more tidying and we were ready to go. Altogether, it couldn’t have taken 5 minutes. I think the behavior in the US would have been similar, but it seemed somehow surreal.
The remainder of the trip to the Paris airport was almost entirely uneventful. The only exception was a piece of debris kicked up by the truck in front, which managed to smash the side mirror. Yes, the day before turning in the car. Oh well, that’s what insurance is for.
The airport hotel was fine, with arrows on the floor to identify the correct path through the lobby. Food was available, but it was truly the worst food in France. Though better than the worst food in the US, it wasn’t good. On Wednesday we picked up our stuff from the storage unit and dropped off the car. We stopped at a supermarket so we didn’t have to eat the same dreck again. When we first made arrangements we thought we’d have to visit a veterinarian on Wednesday as well, but flying a dog out of France to the US is much easier than the other direction. All we needed was proof of rabies vaccination, which we had already. We traveled with a printout of Brighton’s entire health history.
Fly away home
Our flight left Paris at 10:15a and arrived 12 hours later in LA, 1p local time. The airport was quite empty, and it was easy to maintain physical distancing. Masks were required at all times. In line at checkin, we noticed three other dog crates, which was a very high ratio of dogs-to-people compared to normal times. Brighton’s crate is pretty big so we didn’t assemble it until we were in line. We realized that the bolts that hold together the top and bottom were missing (probably dropped out at the storage place). We panicked for less than a minute before fetching out the zip-ties that we always travel with.
We definitely had excess baggage, but the agent didn’t charge us anything except for Brighton. The flight had only 26 passengers! We think it was primarily a plane to repatriate French nationals from the US; hopefully the flight back to Paris was a little bit more full.
The flight itself was fine. The captain decided all 6 of us in premium economy should be moved to business class. We were immensely grateful. We had to wear masks the entire time in both airports and for the whole flight: 16 hours. My ears still hurt just thinking about it.
Upon arrival in LA, our temperature was taken and we were given a brief lecture advising us to self-quarantine. Of course we are. Our luggage arrived after the usual wait, and about 30 minutes later Brighton was wheeled out to the oversize luggage area. The customs agent asked to see his rabies vaccination record, which was the sum total of dog-related paperwork. A few moments later we were outside, and Brighton peed a river after 15 hours in the crate. He was a total champ.
LA was a big milestone, but we weren’t home yet. Ashland is an 11 hour drive north. We drove three hours to Coalinga, where we had takeout Mexican for dinner. It was mediocre but a welcome change, and our first restaurant meal in two months.
Tony’s temperature Friday morning was in the red zone. He had an exciting 5 minutes of hysterification before re-measuring and getting his normal temperature. California’s Central Valley is a very boring drive, but we’ve developed good skills for coping with boredom.
We got home to Ashland around 1p on Friday May 15. I know many of our friends and family have been worried about us in Europe, as we have worried about all of you. It’s certainly nice to have a lot more room, not that our house is large. Let’s all think positive thoughts about the next phases of this pandemic. Out of the frying pan, into… ?