I’m one of those people who has always wanted to spend a few months backpacking around Europe. The thought of a good, old-fashioned aimless wander from one place to whatever happens to strike me as a fun option next has always been appealing, and while I’ve never quite gotten the chance to make it happen, I’ve always tried to pad my international travel with a few side trips — three days in Dublin, a 24-hour stay in Lisbon — to achieve something of the same effect. And realizing that that isn’t possible is the first time I’ve felt demoralized by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re at something of a strange impasse as a global community. COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere and has in fact even evolved, grown stronger — but the world is once again reopening the borders it put in place back when we just weren’t sure what contracting the virus might mean. Life is trying desperately to go back to normal, for better or for worse.
And I’ve been going back to normal; already a homebody, I never actually had an office space to leave. I took a few months to work on a book. I took on a few new jobs. I traveled to Canada to visit my husband, and I started going on press trips as early as March of this year. I got vaccinated. For me, the main thing that’s changed about my day-to-day life is that I wear a mask when I’m out of my house. I’ve had the luxury of being insulated from the worst of COVID-19's impact, in part because everyone around me has insulated themselves as well.
International travel, though, has proved to be one hell of a trip. As I mentioned last week, I’m heading to Greenland for Extreme E. I have to attend via Extreme E’s chartered flight, which is leaving from London — which means I have to fly to London. I planned a few days’ stay in a hotel near the airport to make sure I’d have time for all my COVID-19 tests.
But as I was about to set off on my trip, the first bits of panic set in. I’d taken my mandatory COVID-19 test about as soon as I humanly could, but the evening before my trip, I still didn’t have my results, which would determine whether or not I would be allowed on my flight. Thankfully, they popped up just about an hour before I was due to leave for the airport. Crisis averted.
Until I actually got to the airport and sat down to double check my landing plans. I’d arrive in the country at seven in the morning. I’d allotted myself 90 minutes to collect baggage and go through customs before I’d be heading for my arrival COVID test at 8:30. I’d get on a shuttle, head to a different terminal at Heathrow, and collect the take-home kit I would need to pack for Greenland. Then, I’d get a train and a bus to Stansted airport, where I would be able to check in early enough to sit down and get some work done. And before I left, I had to fill out a passenger locator form that went through all my plans, down to the smallest detail, so that the government would be aware of where I was, what I was doing, and that I was complying to COVID-19 regulations. I had to do that on Delta’s travel website, on the UK government website, again when I arrived at the airport to depart, and one last time to the customs agent when I landed.
Looking at that schedule was fully horrifying. Everything was riding on everything else being on time, which, for me, is an extremely rare thing. I had no idea how long customs would take. I didn’t know how long it would take for me to get my bags. And looking at the public transit schedule, I was staring down the barrel of a 1.5 mile walk at one point while carting around my luggage. There was a whole lot of “dear God, I hope this actually works out.”
So, instead of international travel providing me the freedom that it had in the past, where it felt like my options were endless — if my flight was delayed, who really cares, because what hard-set plans did I have? That magic is gone, replaced instead by a demand that I be at a certain place at an exact time, in a situation where the outside forces acting on my timeline are ones I can’t control but that now have more serious repercussions.