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Heading into the Eye of the Storm: What it’s Like Traveling When COVID-19 Begins to Spread

We were traveling in Europe just a week before a pandemic was declared. Here's a glimpse into what we experienced -- and how dramatically it changed in such a short time.

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I’m a chronic worrier with a type A personality. When embarking on any kind of trip – whether it’s local or abroad, I routinely research the travel destination and plan out every detail of the itinerary well in advance. But there are some events you can’t anticipate. And the Coronavirus is one of them. It had been six months since my husband and I had last seen our daughter, who was teaching English in Lyon, France as a Fulbright Scholar – the longest we had ever gone without a visit. In July, 2019, while on a weekend getaway with my daughter and my sister in Arizona, I found a great deal for a nonstop roundtrip flight on Delta to Paris for $500. I booked the trip for February 28th, 2020 to coincide with the spring break at the University of Michigan, where I co-teach a journalism class. We planned to fly into Paris, then head with our daughter to Barcelona, followed by a few days in Lyon and then return to Paris before flying home.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to leave, the first case of the Coronavirus was reported in China. I was unconcerned, as we had no plans to be near there in our travels. But the virus began to spread into Europe as our travel date grew closer; cases were reported in nearby Italy just a week before we left. 

          Still, it never occurred to my husband and me to forego a chance to visit our daughter. We missed her too much and cherished the chance to be with her in three attractive European cities. We also experienced a devastating event that shaped our priorities and put this situation into perspective. In 2017, our son passed away. Since that time, my husband and I have tried to move forward in the face of this tragedy by staying strong for our two daughters and ensuring that we can forge happy memories with them. My younger daughter couldn’t have understood why we would even contemplate cancelling to safeguard against the virus. “Mom, the worst has already happened to us,” she said, trying to provide reassurance. While I often find myself trapped in a cycle of anxiety over even routine setbacks, I vowed not to let panic ruin this long planned getaway and we decided to stick with our original itinerary. In doing so, I felt a newfound sense of freedom.

Armed with Purell, I nonetheless experienced a brief moment of trepidation as we boarded the plane and saw it only half full – with several passengers wearing masks. Once we hit the ground, we did our best to protect ourselves. I tried to turn my face away from others in crowds and washed my hands constantly. We didn’t touch escalator railings and subway handles, even though it was impossible to avoid the crowds that surrounded us in close quarters in the cramped trains.

As our trip progressed, so did the incidences of the virus. My husband regularly recited the uptick of numbers that began to grow throughout Europe during our stay. Despite an increasing climate of fear, I stood firm in my commitment not to let this virus dampen my spirits. We were three undaunted souls, taking in the splendor of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, eating tapas at shared tables and standing among hundreds witnessing the awe of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, then feasting on the finest French cuisine in Lyon.

Except for a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Barcelona who greeted us with a bottle of Purell, for the most part, the world seemed to keep on turning as it had been wherever we went. We met three of my daughters’ friends in Lyon, none of whom seem troubled with the news of the virus. In Paris, large groups of boisterous young people lingered at tables outside, smoking cigarettes and sipping wine well into the night, seemingly unaware of the impending pandemic that would soon shut down every café and business.

          Once back in Paris, I had planned a visit to my 96-year-old Parisian great aunt who lives 40 minutes outside the city. Realistically, I knew it would likely be the last time I would see her, as we won’t be returning to Paris soon. I first met my Aunt Therese was when I was a 17-year-old exchange student. I kept in touch with her over the years and adore her. Naturally, as the virus began to advance, we needed to decide whether it would be prudent to visit. I emailed her daughter and this was her response:

“Mom and I are ok. I don’t kiss her in case I have something because she is in the sensitive population. No shaking hands either.

Some retiring homes are now forbidding visitors but not hers.

The fear of virus has become the virus of fear !!!

See you soon

With her approval, we decided to proceed, making sure to keep our distance as best as possible. It was a highlight of the trip for me. My aunt’s mind remains incredibly sharp and we spent two hours munching on pastries and drinking coffee while listening to her reminisce about how she met her husband, my grandfather’s brother – a romantic story I never tire of hearing. During World War II, my great uncle was involved in the liberation and met my aunt while on furlough in France. He was smitten. They married, had two daughters — one of whom was with us — and opened a perfume shop in Paris that they ran for over 40 years. It was a special day being with my great aunt, my cousin and my daughter and a wonderful intergenerational experience.   

The next day, we boarded the plane for the journey home. On our flight, we ran into a friend and his daughter who was leaving her study abroad program prematurely due to fear of contracting the virus. Judging from the many other young people on the flight, I suspect she was joined by others in the same situation. It was another brush with reality that the virus was spreading and closing in around us. Only on the plane ride home did I start to grow concerned about whether my exhaustion and slight cough was indication of something serious. 

Within a week, this became a pandemic and the situation changed dramatically. I couldn’t have imagined charting the same course had this been the case when we left for our trip. Our daughter returned home a week later, after the State Department recommended everyone on the Fulbright program leave the country where they were working.

I was grateful we were able to get there in the nick of time, before the situation became dangerous and have our incredible eight-day inter-generational adventure. I of course pray that we didn’t expose my aunt to a virus that we unknowingly harbored. When I start to worry about whether we put her at risk, I think of my daughter’s words about the worst already having happened. I hope that turns out to be true.    

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