Feeling like Pac-Man traveling in the age of coronavirus
When COVID-19 exploded globally, U.S. citizens were warned to travel back to the United States as soon as possible. Closing European borders, canceled flights, and tightening social distancing rules transformed our return from Germany in this age of coronavirus into a mad-dash.
The bus pulled away from the Berlin airport terminal taking us to our plane leaving Germany. I stood facing the windows, watching the terminal disappear in the distance. And my eyes welled with tears. The coronavirus had upended the entire travel world seemingly in days. We felt like evacuees – not that I really know what that feels like – but here I was being forced to leave somewhere I didn’t want to. In just the prior seven days, I began to feel like Pac-Man with Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde in hot pursuit.
Sure, we knew the COVID-19 virus had spread rampantly throughout China in February and had seen a quickly growing number of infections across Italy by early March, but we had re-adjusted our European travel plans and felt basically safe – until the morning of March 12.
The text message that morning from my sister in California slapped me awake: “Holy cow, did you see the new travel ban?” I sat up and stared at my phone. What was she taking about? We knew the world was starting to really swirl in the last 24 hours due to the coronavirus, but what had happened overnight while we slept in Germany?
I am a professional, savvy traveler. I can go with the flow, change plans, make lemonade when needed, and in the end travel adventures inevitably turn out great – in fact, sometimes better than planned. We had already re-adjusted our travels and expectations for this European trip: Just the night before our Feb. 29 departure from California, we found out the world’s largest travel show, where we were to spend our first week in Berlin, was abruptly canceled due to the risk of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Then, immediately after our arrival, the plug was pulled on a travel blogger gathering in Sicily to follow as Italy’s case numbers soared. THEN, the next day, a consumer travel show and blogger forum in Berlin was also pulled out from under us when it was discovered a team member was exposed to coronavirus, mandating the show to abort.
Finding travel possibilities in the age of coronavirus
At first, I felt like someone had socked me in the gut, but I straightened up, took a deep breath and, along with my traveling partner and husband, Michael Hodgson, just decided to spend more time exploring the city of Berlin, the country of Germany, and the surrounding area for our travel stories and photography. We were in fact thrilled with three weeks of travel time that had been fully booked and were now open. We could now fill our days with other spur-of-the-moment adventures. Head to the Netherlands? Explore Poland? Take a trip to the asparagus-growing regions of Germany? The possibilities seemed endless.
Then came that March 12 text from my sister just 11 days into a nearly six-week trip. A quick search for details revealed the travel ban from Europe to the United States announced while we slept did not apply to U.S. citizens. I mean, they can’t tell us we can’t come home…right?? So, we made the decision to stay put, enjoy other plans, and just keep a watchful eye out. Off we went on a day outing from eastern Germany to Poland to explore the Crooked Forest.
Pac-Man travel in the age of coronavirus, Day 1
The next evening the acceleration of change kicked into high gear. The day after we’d happily visited Poland, that country announced – on Friday the 13th, ironically – it too was shutting its borders. If you are in, you stay in, and if you are out, you stay out. Like Pac-Man – or should I say Ms. Pac-Man – we had barely dodged the four hungry Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde ghosts.
The countries of the world as I knew it were starting to pull up their drawbridges, fill the moats and shut borders. The freedoms I knew and loved all my life were getting the kibosh. How could this be happening? And with such speed that my head was spinning and my stomach churning. Somebody kept tightening that steel band around my chest. We both developed a nervous addiction to online news feeds and email alerts.
The next day, Saturday, March 14, Berlin announced that as of midnight it was closing all pubs, clubs and bars (oh, and bordellos, for whatever that’s worth), moving that closure up four days from the previously announced date since the coronavirus was spreading even more rapidly. Russia closed its borders, with Austria, France, Switzerland, Romania and others doing the same. Public transportation, including local subways and buses and well as long-distance and regional trains, was also going to be limited. Venues, such as museums and other sights, were being shuttered.
OK, so maybe it was time to relent and head back to the United States, particularly if we could not DO anything or GO anywhere. Re-adjusting is one thing but if everything is closed, there is nothing to re-adjust to. We also heard rumblings that airlines were going to start limiting flights, particularly between countries. Our itinerary went from Berlin to London then on to the United States – would London put up a “No Entry” sign, turning us into prisoners in the city of Berlin, a city we love that normally feels like our little safe haven in Europe?
COVID-19 turns travel into Pac-Man adventures, Day 2
We thus made a quick call to our airline on March 14 and moved our return up nearly three weeks to Friday, March 20. We’d still have time to comfortably see a few friends, do a little shopping, enjoy a couple of things, pack, and leave.
Sunday morning March 15, “all hell broke loose,” as a flight attendant later told me. I was still nervously checking flights and borders so of course I went online to check on our new itinerary. There it was. Whew, still good. I turned to talk to Michael for a minute about some plans, and then glanced back at the web page. My chin dropped and I had to blink hard to see if what I saw were real. In that short minute, there were suddenly bold red letters under our flight from London to Los Angeles: “CANCELED.” Canceled? Wait, what? No emails or calls or text? Just like that? And what if I hadn’t looked? Back on the phone with our airline. We rebooked for March 18, now two day earlier than our prior rebooking. We had dodged the hungry ghosts, again.
That evening, we went out to dinner. A blueness had settled deep into my soul, and its grip still gave my heart a squeeze now and again. A long walk and a peaceful dinner out seemed like a good distraction. The restaurant was nearly empty, and the server had sad eyes. We had a lovely evening out, although we talked way too much about this sudden and discombobulating turn in events.
Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde back on my tail, Day 3
The next morning, Monday March 16, we awoke to the news that Berlin was going to shut down all restaurants after 6 p.m., effective immediately. For the third time, we had dodged another chomp from those four ravenous ghosts. We had unwittingly enjoyed our relaxing dinner just before the doors slammed shut. I headed out for a run along a beautiful greenway I have come to know and love, past a pond with swans, ducks and heron, and down to a canal popular with walkers. I stopped and watched the swans doing their goony take-off, smiled, but felt like crying again. This was supposed to be a fun adventure, filled with exploring and spontaneous photography outings to places I’d meant to go for a while. How could the world disintegrate so quickly? How could a place of freedoms – freedom to go, see, do, be – evaporate in just days?
Since our time in Berlin was running out, we took a quick run to IKEA that afternoon for a few things. IKEA, if you can believe it, was nearly empty. One could have set up a bowling alley in the walkways and not hit a soul.
Pac-Man adventures, travel in the time of coronavirus, Day 4
Was I a jinx? The next morning, Tuesday March 17, IKEA announced it was closing all of its stories, also effective immediately. Once again, we had cut, dodged and dashed before the ghosts nibbled at our heels. To make matters worse, Berlin announced all malls and stores would also be shutting as of Wednesday. Plus, restaurants would now only be open for take-out. Our world was getting smaller, the walls closing in, and the hungry Pac-Man-chasing ghosts were still on our heels. It was indeed unfortunately time to go. We continued to check on flights obsessively, unsure if the world would change again before we were safely on our way the next day.
A blueness in my soul
By now, a true melancholy was my constant companion. At random times, its grip would tighten and take my breath. Berlin – our European base camp for travels — is a place where I feel at home, comfortable, surrounded by friends, history, culture and adventures. There is a comfort in the smell emanating from German bakeries of the fresh bread I adore, and a happiness I feel watching birds swoop and sing their sunset songs around the landmark TV Tower piercing the sky at Alexander Platz.
The decision to abandon our long-anticipated European travel adventure was not an easy one. Instead of eagerly anticipating the days ahead and what kind of travel adventures they could hold, however, we were now breathless to actually get on our flight and escape Germany — before those nasty little Blinky and Clyde ghosts actually caught us. Escape … never a word I thought I’d use in connection with traveling in Europe. But it was time to do just that.
Escaping Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde
Wednesday March 18, before the sun rose, we were on the train that connected to the express bus that connected to the airport. We also found out while on Berlin’s express airport bus that it was also changing to a limited schedule — the next day — as was local public transportation. The airport itself was desolate, as if it were about to close.
Schadenfreude is the only word I can really use to describe how I felt. I was glad to be going home to California, but my heart still ached … because, in fact, I WAS going home to California. But with a home in a Sierra Nevada small town, our garden and hills were the best place to ride out this storm.
And so there I was, standing at the window of the airport terminal bus, watching Berlin slip away, squeezing my eyes to hold back the tears.
Blinky almost had the last word, though: The flight we were on from London to Los Angeles was in fact our carrier’s last. CHOMP.