At the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was heading back to the US from a trip to Europe. It was a couple of weeks before lockdowns were imposed in California where I live, and no one really knew much yet of what the coronavirus would come to mean. I for sure could not imagine the impact — how life would change and how devastating the pandemic would be for so many. If someone had told me then that some 18 months later we would still be living through it, I don’t think I would have believed it to be possible. Good thing too, because, if I had, I don’t think I would have coped well. 

Back then, the coronavirus was reported on heavily, but there were no mitigation measures in place yet in Europe or the US. Movement across borders was still unencumbered. In a piece I wrote about my trip back then, I said: “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.” 

This year, my experience of transatlantic travel is a little different. For starters, the eternal expat question of going back home for summer vacation has been fraught with all kinds of concerns. Is it safe? What are the rules — do I need to be vaccinated, take a test, quarantine? Are there flights to get to where I need to go? Will I be able to get back? What will it be like once I’m in place — can I see friends and family? What is open? These are all things I was asking myself when trying to decide whether to head to my home country or not. 

Ultimately, my daughter and I decided to take the trip, mostly on account of being fully vaccinated and having our own place to stay. Not that our vaccination status made the actual travel any easier — we still had to show negative covid tests and wear facemasks. No quarantining though — phew!

It wasn’t easy to get to where we wanted to go. Four flights and almost 24 hours later, we arrived — tired but relieved to have made it. At every layover, I was expecting we would be turned around and asked to board the next flight back. So confusing were the rules for transiting and arriving in different countries, I wasn’t certain we had gotten them right.

Flying from the US to Europe presented two vastly different worlds — the US, where airports were almost back to normal by the time we left, with full flights and most amenities open. The only big reminder was that everyone was wearing a facemask. Most everything else felt “normal”. Of course, things weren’t exactly normal — there were still signs everywhere to keep your distance and to wash your hands, for example. I guess I am so used to those exhortations by now, they don’t really register.

Very little felt normal once we boarded our transatlantic flight. This time of year, these planes are typically full — of tourists and returning expats. This one was almost empty. The only sign of normalcy was perhaps the crying baby a couple of rows in front of us. It happens pretty much every time, regardless of pandemic or not.

Once in Europe, Copenhagen airport was like a ghost town. Hardly any people, and pretty much everything closed. We were greeted at the far end of one of the terminals by people in face shields and masks offering corona tests. We already had negative tests to show so didn’t have to stop, but the visual greeting was stark. It felt like we were entering a post-apocalyptic world, straight out of a disaster movie. We had to walk through the entire airport to get to our connection. How that made sense, I’m still trying to figure out — why would they want us wandering from one end to the other when every single gate in between was open? In Stockholm, the same scenery. It was eerie. 

How to spend your vacation is, even in normal times, one of the biggest pieces in trying to make the expat life puzzle work. Often, when summer vacation rolls around, we are torn by the need to go home, the desire to see something new, or just to nest in our new location. We worry about whether we should cobble together stays in guestrooms to be near family, or opt for something more autonomous. We feel guilt over where we choose to spend our time — not enough in one place or too much in another. Those concerns have all but vanished these last couple of summers. The real concern has been if we’ll be able to see our near and dear at all, and if so, under what circumstances.

By: Felicia Shermis

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