Goodbye Berlin – Hello to a world forever changed

by Apr 2, 2020Essays

On March 1, I was flying into Berlin for a travel conference. Coronavirus infections were just starting to explode in Italy. By March 18, Europe had become the new hot spot for COVID-19 infections and deaths, and I said goodbye to Berlin. I was in a race to get home as flights were being canceled and borders being closed. From Tegel airport to London Heathrow to Los Angeles and then Sacramento, each airport provided a sometimes shocking glimpse into world turned upside down.

A thin layer of fog shrouded Berlin as our plane climbed steeply away from Tegel airport. The TV Tower, standing like a sentinel above the early morning mist, watched over our departure from below. Therese and I held hands and stared out the airplane window. It was goodbye Berlin and hello to an uncertain future in a world forever changed.

Just 17 days prior, on March 1, Therese Iknoian, my wife and business partner, and I arrived in Berlin, eager for five weeks of adventure and exploration. While I was fully aware that COVID-19 was spreading globally, I felt fairly confident that we would be able to stay safe and infection-free. True, the World Health Organization (WHO) was now very concerned about the spread of the virus with infections growing exponentially in Italy, Iran and South Korea. However, the WHO was not yet sounding a global red alarm.

Keeping an eye on Italy

On March 3, Italy announced the death toll in the country had reached 77, equaling the total deaths in Iran, which now stood at 77. We were just beginning our first week in Berlin, and in place of a canceled travel trade show and other events we were supposed to attend, pop-up gatherings and travel industry meetups appeared. We eschewed hugs and handshakes for fist bumps and jazz hand greetings in order to network with new travel friends from around the globe.

We continued to explore Berlin, albeit with one eye on the news as the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Italy began to explode. It still felt safe where we were. Sure, there were infections in Germany, including 28 in Berlin, but nowhere near the level Italy was experiencing. We photographed Berlin under a full moon, a worm moon. We climbed the amazing gasometer and experienced a one-of-a-kind adventure there. And we enjoyed attending a Craft Spirits Festival, tasting delicious gins, liqueurs, and whiskey from small craft brewers all over Germany as well as Croatia and a few other European countries.

On March 7, we learned COVID-19 had infected 102,000 people in 90 countries. 3,500 deaths were now reported.

Berlin on edge and so was I

We were getting ready for bed on March 9 when we learned that the U.S. stock market had crashed with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing more than 2,000 points in what was described by news reports as the biggest single-day fall in one-day trading. Circuit breakers designed to stop panic selling were triggered. Globally, international stock markets also plummeted. All due to coronavirus fears.

On March 10, Italy closed its borders, putting 60 million people on lockdown in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Both Iran and Italy reported the highest one-day death tolls for either nation from COVID-19. In Iran, 54 people died. In Italy, there were 168 fatalities. I began to feel more and more unsettled. Not unsafe. Just unsettled. Perhaps a bit anxious. There was no desire to try to return home early, though. At least not yet.

Wednesday, March 11, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic. We headed out from Berlin to stay with dear friends who lived in a small village near the border between Germany and Poland. I was looking forward to a visit the next day to Poland’s Crooked Forest.

Up early Thursday morning, March 12, I stared incredulously at a text message from our daughter, “Are you stuck in Germany for the next month? Trump just suspended all flights from Europe.” Once Therese and I clarified that U.S. citizens were not blocked from returning home, we decided we’d stay put in Germany – for now at least. We were going to be as safe here as anywhere, it seemed, despite the fact that the global death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 4,600 with more than 126,100 confirmed infection cases now worldwide. And so, we headed off to Poland, trying to enjoy the day while keeping one eye on the never-ending updates from Twitter, Facebook and network news alerts. It was, frankly, hard to put down my smartphone.

Friday, March 13, as we watched the evening news reports on German television, more European Union borders began to close around us – Poland, Denmark, Austria, Czech Republic. Panic buying settled into Germany, like what was happening already in other parts of the globe. More restrictions in Germany and other countries appeared imminent.

Waiting In Line With Toilet Paper in Berlin

Time to find a way home

Therese and I finally agreed, it was time to go home. We called American Airlines Saturday morning, March 14. For us, there was no long wait on hold, a reason to be grateful for the status of being a very frequent flyer. We were able to change our departure from April 7 to March 20, which would give us ample time to try to enjoy a last week in Berlin and avoid the crowds of other Americans now panicking to get home.

The next day, Sunday, March 15, as Therese was rechecking our newly booked return tickets, she was stunned to see “canceled” suddenly appear in red letters below our London Heathrow-to-Los Angeles leg as she moved between browser windows. We immediately jumped on the phone and were rebooked for a return, now on Wednesday, March 18. The agent warned us to keep an eye on things now though as flights were being canceled hourly. News reports stated that Spain was now a new hotspot, with nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 infections and more than 100 deaths confirmed in the last 24 hours. That raised the death toll in Spain to 288 with more than 7,700 people infected.

A visit to a grocery store on Monday morning to buy some candy and other items to take home with us was eye-opening. There was actually a line just to get into the grocery store because the store was limiting the number of people inside at any one time. After about a 20-minute wait, a group of us were granted entry and a mad scramble ensued as people raced to grab carts and find what they needed. Shelves that once contained toilet paper, dry soups, pasta, shelf-stable milk and more were nearly or completely empty.

On March 17 the death toll climbed to 2,503 in Italy, and the total number of individuals infected with the COVID-19 virus was reported at 31,506.

One day later, on March 18, the Australian Prime Minister declared a “human biosecurity emergency” and issued its highest travel advisory instructing Australian citizens not to travel abroad. In Germany, Berlin announced a special 1,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients which the city set up in cooperation with the military. The Robert Koch Institute raised the health risk level for people in Germany from moderate to high. The walls were closing in around us.

Goodbye Berlin. Reality sets in.

On Wednesday, March 18, we departed for Berlin’s Tegel airport in the early morning. It was 5 a.m., in a city that normally never sleeps, but it was eerily quiet. No one on the streets. Only a few people in each car on the subway. Inside the airport bus from the main train station, there were only a few traveling. The front of the bus was blocked off with police tape, to ensure passengers kept their distance from the driver … mandated social distancing.

Tegel Airport Bus Berlin Tape Barrier

No taxis. Only a few cars. A couple of buses. I’d never seen Tegel airport so desolate, and frankly, so beautiful, in the early dawn. Inside, people talked mostly in whispers. The corridors and check-in gates were nearly empty, save for the few that were checking in passengers. A glance at the schedule board revealed as many cancelations as there were existing flights.

Once through security, we were packed into a bus that would take us to board our British Airways flight to London Heathrow. In the confined space, I, like most other passengers, struggled to not touch or be touched by anyone. It proved to be an interesting lurching and swaying dance as the bus accelerated and braked along a winding route to the plane. After I got off the bus, I found Therese, who had been at the back, and raised my eyebrows.… Silently, she returned my glance with a puzzled, tight-lipped look and a head shake that spoke volumes. This was going to be a long journey – one faced with numerous opportunities to become a victim of COVID-19.

We both knew that for the next 24 hours, until we got home, we’d be at war with an unseen assailant that could be lurking on any surface or in the air after every cough or sneeze. In addition to frequent handwashing anytime we could find a sink with soap — on every flight, in every airport lounge and waiting area, and in every public bathroom — we would deploy weapons from our arsenal – sanitizing wipes, sanitizing spray, and hand sanitizer — to try to kill whatever nasty virus might be lying in wait. I was determined, as I know Therese was, to stay healthy.

Once on board the plane, both Therese and I gave our seat areas a thorough cleansing – head rests, arm rests, tray tables, lights, seat belt buckles, air vents, tv screens, remotes, and anything else we might touch during the flight. My hands still dripping with sanitizing fluid, I glanced across the aisle at another gentleman who had just taken his seat, and the same ritual was being performed. I am quite certain planes have never been this clean.

On the day this day, the German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, in a rare public address to the nation, would tell Germans that the current COVID-19 crisis is the biggest challenge to the country since World War II and that it was imperative for all Germans to adhere to the rules and keep social distance at all times.

Hello London and a taste of things to come

We landed in Heathrow where it was also eerily quiet. In normal times, it takes well over an hour to make it from Terminal 5 through checkpoints, bus transfers and to a connecting flight, even with Fast Track status. On this morning, we made the entire journey in just over 20 minutes. In fact, we nearly had the security hallway in Terminal 3 all to ourselves.

Flight Cancelations Heathrow Airport

In the American Airlines lounge, more changes: Instead of hot and cold buffets and a selection of desserts and snacks, every food item was individually wrapped and packaged. No food was put out on trays or in bowls or dishes. Utensils were also packaged plastic. The number of employees outnumbered the guests. For the most part, other than a woman who decided it was a good time to have an animated FaceTime conversation with a daughter back in the United States that everyone could hear, people were quiet and maintaining distance from each other.

Packaged Food Admirals Club Lounge Heathrow Airport

At our gate, waiting to board our flight home, I watched as a flight to Hong Kong announced it was ready for boarding. Within the space of a few minutes, as passengers rose from their seats all around me, I became an extra in what easily could have been mistaken for a movie about a global pandemic – except this was real. Many passengers lining up to board wore a white hazmat-style suit with face mask, goggles and gloves. Some, who clearly could not find a suitable protective garment, opted for plastic rain ponchos. I suppose that was better than nothing, but it had to be very uncomfortable and hot. I wondered what each of them felt. Fear, anxiety, perhaps relief? I could only imagine.

Hazmat Style Suits Heathrow Airport A World Forever Changed

We checked the American Airlines website before takeoffs and learned it had announced a 75 percent reduction in international flights that began phasing in on March 16 and would continue through at least May 6. The airline stated it would continue to operate one flight a day from Dallas Fort Worth to London Heathrow, and Miami to Heathrow. It would also fly from Dallas Fort Worth to Tokyo three times a week — all other remaining flights to Asia were suspended. Once on board our flight, from Heathrow to LAX, we learned it was the last one American would make on this route until further notice.

What little anxiety I was still feeling washed away, replaced with a sense of relief once our plane lifted off the ground from Heathrow, heading toward Los Angeles. At least Therese and I would soon be a step closer to home, though we’d still have to face one more unknown upon landing at LAX — the CDC health screening for arrivals. I’d seen the horrible images in newspapers and social media of what appeared to be thousands of passengers packed together for hours in Chicago and other airports awaiting a health screening before being allowed to enter the country. Therese and I hoped, and frankly anticipated, that since we were arriving nearly one week after the initial crush of U.S. citizens rushing home, things would be dramatically different. We also hoped our four-hour connection time would be sufficient.

Therese And Michael Champagne Toast Heathrow Airport Goodbye Berlin

Back in the United States

Our plane pulled up to the gate at LAX, and the purser announced that CDC agents would be meeting us at the door of the airplane and taking us off in groups of 10. We were to have our health declarations filled out and passports in hand. They estimated it would take up to three hours to get everyone off the plane. If there was ever a time to be VERY glad we had been upgraded to business class, this was it. Looking back over my shoulder into the economy cabin, I could feel the frustration and resignation from several hundred fellow passengers, standing in the aisles with nothing to do but return to their seats and wait. So close, yet so far.

I stood near the front exit to the plane and watched a man, who had apparently been sitting in first class, get whisked off the plane in the first group, wearing a mask and bundled up. I overheard the flight attendant at the door tell the CDC agent that the man had been ill during the flight but was trying to hide it. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. It was not the day to be sick with a cold — if that were all it was. At the same time, I admit I also felt a bit anxious that someone who might be infected with COVID-19 had been on the same plane, near the cabin I was sitting in, perhaps using the same bathrooms, breathing the same air. I gave my hands another slather of hand sanitizer for good measure, not that it would make any difference now.

United States Traveler Health Declaration for COVID-19

As luck would have it, Therese and I exited the plane in the third group to run the CDC gauntlet. It felt a bit strange to be standing in front of a man dressed in a hazmat-style suit, facemask and vinyl gloves, and holding a clipboard. He took my health declaration and went through it with me. Yes, I had been in Germany and Poland. No, I had not been in Italy or China. I was not feeling ill. I had not been in the immediate vicinity of anyone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Yes, I was going home. I’m pretty sure he smiled behind the mask when he handed me a card with instructions to self-quarantine for the next 14 days and said, “Welcome home, stay healthy.” I most certainly planned to.

And, with that, it was off to passport control and then to the Admirals Club lounge to await our next flight which would whisk us toward home outside Sacramento in about three hours. It felt like we had entered a very exclusive club as we put our bags down inside the lounge. Empty tables and chairs everywhere, and only one other couple. The food selection was meager, and, just as it had been in Heathrow, individually wrapped. Even as a few other passengers trickled into the lounge, employees far outnumbered the customers. I watched as a young man, perhaps in his late 20s, started his bartending shift and stood hopefully behind the bar, dancing to some music that was playing while he moved bottles around here and there to pass the time. No passengers approached, but he kept looking up, moving bottles, swaying to the music. A lonely job on this day. And then I wondered how many more days it would be until most of these folks no longer had a job to go to.

It was morning now in Berlin, March 19. Therese read in the German news that the speed with which the number of infected people in Germany rose overnight was mind boggling – 3,000 new cases in 24 hours despite all the measures Berlin and the federal government had put in place. Europe replaced China as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Italy overtook China as the country with the most COVID-19-related deaths, registering 3,405 dead. In Germany, the number of infections rose by 2,958 to 13,957 and in Spain, the number of deaths jumped to 1,002. The U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory for all international travel and warned all U.S. citizens who were abroad to come home immediately while they could. I began to feel as if we had really dodged a bullet.

Our flight home to Sacramento was uneventful. The plane, surprisingly, was quite full. A driver picked us up at the airport, thankfully, and we all donned masks for the drive. By 11 p.m., we were standing in our home. I suddenly felt very tired. And sad. And relieved. My hands were dry, and my knuckles cracked, red and sore since they’d never been washed so often or slathered in so much hand sanitizer in their lives. I hoped I had done all I could to keep myself safe, and Therese too.

Trying to make sense of a world forever changed

As I stood in our bathroom, getting ready for bed, my mind replayed the past few days and tried to make sense of what was to come. I thought about the economy, about this pandemic, about the lives already lost and the many more yet to die. And I arrived at this single truth: No matter what the future holds, we were all in this together, from every corner of the globe. We were in a collective fight to defeat an unseen assailant that requires uncommon courage to face and overcome. On the front lines are our healthcare workers and first responders. And if we are not on the front line, our only job is to stay safe, and keep those we love safe and healthy by not traveling, and by isolating at home. We cannot return to a semblance of normalcy until we stop the spread of this virus.

With the lights out, I lay there in bed working to quiet my addled brain. I found some comfort in the belief that we will come out from this dark tunnel to the light soon enough. By the summer, we would look back at this and be collectively stronger, collectively more grateful for each other, I thought.

Molecule Men Spree River Worm Moon Moonlight

It was the morning of April 1, and I was not in a joking mood. The news reports were stating that the U.S. has become the nation with the most COVID-19 infections in the world. In another dismal report, the International Air Transportation Association stated it believed air traffic would not return to normal until at least 2021. Over breakfast, as I scrolled through photos I had taken only a few weeks before, I began to feel a wave of sadness. I stared at a photo of the Molecule Men, a structure in the middle of the Spree River, and I realized I had no idea at all when I would be able to again stand on the banks of the river with my wife.

I was home and safe, but that unsettled feeling had returned. Goodbye Berlin. I’m beginning to wonder when I’ll see you again.

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About The Author

Michael Hodgson

Adventurer, curious traveler, photojournalist, and lover of gin. Winner of multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals from NATJA for travel writing & photography excellence -- earning medals every year since 2018. Gold medal winner 2021 to 2023 in the IFWTWA Travel Photography Awards, Best in Show award winner in the 2023 photography awards, and winner of the Excellence in Journalism award in 2022. Winner of a Juror's Award and Best in Show in the 2023 California State Fair photography competition. Still searching for the perfect gin and tonic.