Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Outrunning Covid-19

I am shocked to learn that it has been six years since I last posted on this blog. What have I been doing?  Well, that's probably the subject for another blog (coming soon) but I would be remiss if I didn't share this recounting of my second escape from Europe (the first being when we left by boat for Canada in 1949).

March 23, 2020 -- This morning Axel and I were counting our blessings.  What a saga it was fighting our way home, leaving European countries that slammed the door behind us as we left. 

Our winter escape began in Sitges, Spain where we arrived from Montreal on February 17 and was to extend until March 27. Behind us we had left a front yard with an accumulation of about four feet of snow and ahead lay four weeks looking at palm trees, strolling along beaches and partaking of Carnavale set to begin in three days’ time.

Sitges lays claim to being among the 10 biggest carnivals in the world. The thronged streets testified to the possibility that an estimated 250,000 people from all over Europe and beyond had descended on this normally quiet seaside resort with the intent to party. Hard. For most of the six days of carnival, we stood crushed in dense crowds and watched superbly-orchestrated and colourful parades, then jostled our way through the busy streets of the Old Town to the apartment we had rented for four weeks.

On March 3, we took a two-day trip up to Begur on the Costa Brava to visit an old friend of Axel’s and there, partook of a Catalan kitchen party where some 40-50 people ate, drank, sang, threw their arms around us, and danced for hours on end in a large farm kitchen.  I won’t say we were the youngest couple there but without a doubt, the percentage of folks were over 75.  I came back to Sitges with a bad case of the flu but after two days of sheer terror imagining death in a Spanish hospital, I was good. We were following the events in Italy’s struggle with Covid-19 but that was happening over a thousand kilometers northeast. 

We planned to spend the last two weeks of our European trip with German friends who have a home on Ile-de-Noirmoutier in the Pays-de-la-Loire. The isle is one of those spits of land where when the tide comes in the road disappears, like at Mont St-Michel, and the strip of land becomes an island. But about four days before we left Sitges to fly via Vueling airlines from Barcelona to Nantes, our friends called to say they were concerned with how quickly the virus was spreading in Europe and had decided to go home a week early. That necessitated us changing our flight. I was glad of that as we were scheduled to fly on Lufthansa and that meant flying home would be from Nantes to Barcelona and from there, to Montreal but via Munich. The thought of four flights in a row was beginning to sound scary and foolhardy.

On Sunday, March 8, a week before we headed to France, we had sauntered along Sitges’ Paseo Maritimo. It was a beautiful, warm day and the seaside was chock-a-block with out-of-towners and locals walking their dogs. (They all seem to have dogs, sometimes two or three.) The restaurants and bars on Playa San Sebastien were packed with people enjoying the sea, sun, snacks and drinks. By Wednesday, however, the grade school down the block from our apartment, like all the schools in Spain, had been shuttered. The streets were empty. All you heard were the sound of wheelies filled with groceries being dragged over the pavement. All stores except for markets, pharmacies and gas stations were closed. We tried reaching out to Lufthansa but it was no go, either by phone or online. I thought about panicking then calmed myself with the thought that if we got to Barcelona airport early, we could change our booking directly. I was getting good at delaying panic until it was really necessary.

Barcelona Airport was filled to bursting with people determined to get out of Spain as fast as possible. Almost every third person was African and I imagined many were the hawkers of sneakers, bags, and belts found along the Mediterranean beaches, all rushing home to safety. Everyone was on a cellphone. The anxiety was infectious.

We went to the counter and calmly explained what we wanted to do but the fellow serving us was overworked or overwrought, and after 15 minutes gave up and called his supervisor. Thankfully, the supervisor was calm and methodical and determined but it still took him 45 minutes to find us a way home sooner rather than later. First, he asked if we were prepared to leave immediately. After some dithering (and a withering look aimed at Axel), we said yes. But there were no flights to be had that day or any other until the following Friday and that from Paris, so we said: book it and we’ll visit with our friends until Friday, March 20. Apparently, all the Europeans who couldn’t fly directly to the US because of Trump’s ban had booked flights to Canada from which they could legally enter.

We were rebooked to fly Air France to Nantes and from there to Paris for an Air Canada flight to Montreal. We were kind of glad because that gave us one more week and two less flights. We hadn’t heard much about what was happening in France, so we were fine with that. Besides we were going to an island with a population of 14,000. Pretty isolated. What could happen in a week?

Well, first thing that happened was that Vueling lost my bag.  Not to worry, they said, you can spend 50 € per day until the bag is returned which maximum should take five days. Then I heard that Spain had shut down and Barcelona airport was closed on the day we left.  So, no flights out of Barcelona…or very, very few. Have you seen my bag? Neither have I. And all I managed to spend was 100€, nothing more because, well, everything on the island was closed as well.

The village of Barbâtre on Ile-de-Noirmoutier is quaint, quiet and steeped in maritime culture. There is a renowned seabird sanctuary and long stretches of mostly bare beaches. There are no big hotels on the shoreline and no buildings higher than three stories on the entire island but along the shore, oyster shacks abound. Best of all, at this time of year, the beaches are deserted. We had a couple of lovely, long walks and then, just like that, everything changed.

Like Spain, France was also experiencing exponential growth in COVID-19 cases. The decree came down for self-isolation and because there were no police on the island, suddenly the French army appeared. If you were going to the grocery store or even to walk your dog, you needed an Attestation, a piece of paper identifying where you were living and why you were out. Each outing required its own Attestation.

At this point, we were checking our flights every few hours fearing that we might be stranded. That’s how we learned that Air France had changed the time of the Nantes flight to an hour later. That made it impossible to catch our Air Canada flight at Charles de Gaulle. We thought we better rebook our flight for Thursday, the only other way to make the Friday flight. As we were doing that, we learned that the Friday flight had been cancelled, and that we were booked on the Thursday evening flight. We found an airport hotel nearby with free shuttle service. (This was our second booking because the first hotel we booked immediately advised us that the free shuttle service had been cancelled.)

On Wednesday, March 18, we learned that our friend could not drive us to Nantes, so we booked a taxi (for 150€ more than the cost of the return air from Nantes to Barcelona). But we had had a lovely five days, lots of sun and relaxation although we were ready to depart Noirmoutier by Thursday afternoon. Our driver, a woman named Paty, arrived almost two hours ahead of schedule because she had other fares which didn’t matter because we had basically been ready for hours. We headed to the airport but not before I Purelled the door handles, the head rest and the seat I was sitting on.

And then, Paty drove us to the train station in Nantes. When I protested that we had ordered a car for the airport, she tried to convince me that I had said gare. I insisted (a little loudly) that I had said aeroport which even with my lousy French accent sounds nothing like gare. Finally, she conceded that perhaps she had mixed me up with another client. She had six that day; three to the hospital. I sani wiped down the whole door on my side and the space between me and Axel again.

At Nantes Atlantique airport, our footsteps echoed through the hallways; it was that empty. The Air France ticket agent offered to check Axel’s bag through and he was ready to do it when I suddenly imagined being back home with only hand luggage after five weeks. We passed.

The flight from Nantes to Paris was in a near empty Airbus and took less than an hour. While we were in the airport, I received a text message from the CDG hotel we had booked informing us that the shuttle returning us to the airport was now going to charge 5€ per person. At this point, I no longer cared.

Our airport hotel was one of those that’s so small you can hit at least two walls if you turn around twice, the kind that provides only two towels and one bar of soap. The worst of it was that the hotel restaurant was shut tighter than paper on the wall and there were no vending machines to be found.  I consoled myself that in the midst of a plague, being hungry for 12 hours was not such a hardship. I awoke looking forward to a nice breakfast at Charles de Gaulle before our departure but there too, all the restaurants, all the shops, and all the duty free were closed. Just as well, considering how much the taxi, hotel and shuttle had cost yet a small price to escape safely home.

The only food available was at a convenience shop, a Relay, where they had pre-packaged sandwiches and — God bless the French — real coffee (multiple choices thereof) from a machine.

Here's the thing. From the time the shuttle dropped us at Terminal 2 and at the opposite end of from the Air Canada gates, we moved through CDG like a hot knife through butter.  We arrived at 10:15 AM and were checked in, had breakfast, went through security and were sitting at the gate (about a half km from security) by 11 AM. Basically, we went through everything from top to bottom in less than an hour — in one of the world's busiest airports. 🤨

One last thing. The Air Canada gates are at the tail end of CDG’s Terminal 2.  Walking through the glassed-in passageway to get to the gate, Axel stopped and said, “Look outside. What does that remind you of?”