It’s hard not to think about the coronavirus these days. The news about its spread seems to intensify by each day that passes and the messaging about what we can expect, and what we should and should not be doing is unclear at best and misleading at worst. In the US, news outlets appear to want to sensationalize and reassure at the same time — not ideal when the topic at hand has to do with public health and its consequences on society at large.

During a recent two-week trip to Europe (long in the making), which took me on airplanes and trains to London, Paris, Stockholm, and Gothenburg, I kept looking for signs among the public that matched what I was seeing on the news. I kept expecting people to be hesitant and fearful in their movements and interactions. I thought there would be an edginess to officials at airports, a gruffness from locals, and a fear factor from most everyone. That’s not what I found.

Sure, people were talking about the coronavirus, and of course, people were washing hands and covering coughs and being generally aware. But still, mostly what I encountered felt like business as usual, friendly hellos and offers of help whenever I asked for it.

At every airport and train station, I expected there would be some kind of check, some inquiry as to where I was coming from and why I thought I needed to go to where I was going — no such thing. As a matter of fact, I think the entry into the UK was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced, they just waved me through. Granted, my travel plans didn’t include Northern Italy which is probably the hardest-hit part of Europe so far, and where daily life has been severely impacted.

On the train between Gothenburg and Stockholm, I kept looking around the car. Every seat was taken. People were playing cards, reading, talking, going to the café to buy coffee. The four-seater across the aisle from me was occupied by a group of youngsters on their way to some event. They had brought the makings for Mimosas and were happily imbibing, getting increasingly louder the closer we got to our destination. It was a scene that was somehow reassuring. Perhaps because it seems a right-of-passage for all youngsters in Sweden to have a pre-party on a train on their way to a fun event. I certainly remember doing just that — things were as they had always been. Things were, by the looks of it, normal.

Had it been some other time (i.e. not coronavirus-time) perhaps my middle aged-self would have gotten annoyed with these youngsters and the fact that they were getting louder and louder as the journey went on. If I’m going to armchair-psychology myself, I’m guessing my need for signs of normalcy has much to do with the knowledge that these aren’t “normal” times, but rather times of uncertainty and a sense of unease.

A friend of mine said the other day that what she fears most in this kind of panic is that civil society starts falling apart. That we forget common courtesies and collective responsibilities. That we put ourselves first at the expense of others. And I think that notion is part of my need for reassurance that things are “normal” as well. My trip was oddly successful in providing those reassurances, in spite of the daily news reports of new cases and new protective measures being put in place, in Europe, and around the world.

As my return to the US neared, I selfishly thought about how disruptive it would be if I was put in quarantine (there had been a number of cases reported in both Stockholm and Gothenburg just before I left). At the very least, I thought there would be lots of questioning and screening before being let back into the country. I was asked if I’d been to China and that was it.

The biggest hurdle coming back was the broken-down passport scanning machines for the Global Entry-holders — it took forever to get to a functioning machine. As I was waiting, I was looking around the arrival hall at my fellow travelers, tired from long international flights, eager to get through immigration, many chatting about where they had been or where they were going, and most everyone getting very frustrated by the non-functioning machines — all was as it should be, I guess.

By: Felicia Shermis

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