Italy Bound! The Trials and Tribulations of Pandemic Globetrotting
By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Prescott, Ariz.
Remember when travel was easy? Friends and family could walk you to the gate, and you could pack as many liquids in your carry-on as your heart desired. After the Twin Towers fell, though, travel changed quite dramatically. There was the new hassle of taking off shoes to go through security and trying to cram as many three-ounce bottles of liquid into a tiny Ziploc bag as possible, hoping the bag wouldn't burst apart on the way through the moving security scanner belt.
In the good old days, I always traveled with a little key ring that held tiny travel utensils, a mini spoon, a fork and a knife that was less sharp than even an average butter knife. It took a while to remember to stop packing one in my carry-on. I now have several key rings with single, tiny, lonely spoons because security confiscated every fork and knife that I forgot to take off the ring before going to the airport.
I didn’t realize that it could become more stressful or exhausting to travel until the Covid-19 pandemic hit two years ago. Travel not only became more difficult, it became impossible. My husband and I were living in Belgium at the time, and we had to cancel our move back to the United States because we had three cats and a dog and the airlines stopped allowing travel with animals. Borders closed, and a special form was required just to cross the border into France when we moved just across the border from Belgium for my husband to work on a postdoc for a year at a university.
When we managed to return the to the United States this past spring, I just about lost my mind with the stress of logistics. There was a PCR test three days in advance and hoping against hope I would get negative results so I could fly from Paris to Seattle. There were flight reservations for me and the animals and procuring the necessary health documents. Finding the right size cardboard box for my mandolin strangely proved to one of the most challenging (in the end, I ordered a bicycle box, which my husband refashioned into a more compact carrying case). The list goes on. Thank the travel gods, I made it in one piece and with my luggage, mandolin, and entourage of cats and a dog intact.
After the stress of our return, I vowed to stay put in our home in Arizona for a good long while. For most people, six months might not fit that description, but that seems to me how I roll. Within a couple of months, I was flying up to Seattle with my dog to help my mother-in-law after her back surgery to repair a smashed vertebrae after a bad fall. While I would have preferred to not get on an airplane, flying with just one animal and one suitcase was mercifully smooth sailing.
Back in Arizona after two weeks, I was once again far too exhausted to even consider taking any kind of big trip. My husband and I had traded places, and he flew to Seattle for two weeks before returning home. He was home for two weeks before heading back up to Seattle for my mother-in-law’s second surgery (do not even get my started on the state of health “care” in this country right now). Just one week into his visit, and my life as a nomad jumped back into gear with an incredibly opportunity to return to Europe.
My husband and I went to Europe in the fall 2016 so he could study for his doctorate. While he learned about the philosophy of technology over the course of four years, I volunteered at a refugee center to write music with people from their migration stories. I worked with Sarah Reader Harris, a poet I met there, who was originally from Scotland and had been living in Belgium for the past several decades after marrying a Belgian. We had applied for an arts participation award for our project back in May through an organization called Amateo. A week ago, my friend texted me that we were on their website as one of five finalists. The winner would be announced at the award ceremony in Milan, Italy at the end of October.
Since returning to the United States in June, I have been straddling the fence between this country and Europe. Part of me has been thrilled to reconnect with friends in our community we haven’t seen since we moved to Brussels. I love the little corner of Prescott where we live, surrounded by granite rock formations and beautiful desert scenery. Another part of me pines to reconnect with my European community and to find a way back to the land of socialized medicine and affordable healthcare. With this award announcement, it was like the mother ship was calling me home.
Answering the call has proved more than a little challenging or what my husband likes to refer to as the gods wanting to have some fun by giving me exactly what I have been asking for.
Even knowing my sanity would once again be put to the test, I desperately wanted to be able to meet my friend Sarah for the conference and award ceremony in Italy. There is a tendency for history to repeat itself, and clearly my own life is no exception with regard to travel. With no end in sight for the COVID pandemic, I have found that it is no longer just the experience of travel that is stressful and exhausting. I went through an entire week of full-on anxiety and panic attacks, trying to figure out all of the would have to check before I could get on a plane and if I would be able to manage to get through the list in time.
There’s the usual stuff. Finding flights and places to stay. One benefit of the pandemic is that you can cancel and/or change flights SO much more easily than before. You don’t even have to pick up a phone. Need to cancel? No problem. Your miles have been placed back into your account. Sweet!
The rest is far from pleasant. I took multiple covid tests in France, and I knew the system. I knew I would get results within 24 hours no problem. In the states, it was all new and I did not want to get to the day of travel without a negative test in hand.
Even though I am fully vaccinated, I still need to have a negative Covid test to leave the country, and it couldn’t be more than 72 hours (three days) in advance of my flight. The problem that I started running into where I live in Arizona was that every pharmacy and lab I contacted told me it would take three to five days to get results, possibly sooner but no guarantee . In an email from the airline, I was informed that the rapid antigen testes were now being accepted in addition to the three-day PCR. I was thrilled, but my relief was short-lived when the only place I could find that conducted rapid tests was more than a two-hour drive from my home. Not sustainable.
What boggles my mind is that two years into a pandemic, a negative test is still required within a time frame that testing facilities cannot guarantee. Where does that leave those of us attempting to cultivate to some kind of new “normal” and leave the country from time to time?
Back to the metaphorical drawing board. I read the airline email more closely a second time and noticed with delight that European countries had approved the rapid antigen test, as well as the at-home antigen tests.
Huzzah! Wonder of wonders. Miracle, miracle.
I called both American and British Air on Friday to ask about their policy on at-home antigen tests. For each, I waited at least 40 minutes on hold and had the music in my head for ages after. For each, the staff told me they only had access to the same sites that I was looking at and they would have to put me on hold (more music) to ask someone.
Both came back and said an at-home test was completely acceptable.
I took the antigen test Friday night for my Monday night flight. I followed the instructions, which were actually very accessible. Having done a test at my local Walgreens earlier in the afternoon the same day, I was familiar with the process and felt more confident I could do it myself.
Result in 10 minutes = one blue line for negative!
Of course, almost immediately after seeing the single blue line on the test strip, it occurred to me that there was no way that I could upload a certificate showing the negative result the result. In addition, there was no way to prove that it was indeed my test and not someone else’s. Damn it. I was so close! I didn’t feel comfortable bringing my little test strip with me to the airport, but I also was nervous that any PCR tests I might take would not come back in time. The latest appointments in the day were 4:45pm, and my flight was 7:15pm.
Rather than leaving everything to a single test, I decided to do a bit of a pandemic gambling and booked one appointment Saturday morning at Walgreens and another a half an hour later at CVS. My hope was that one would come through in time, but I was still nervous.
My mom suggested looking to see if the airport happened to do rapid antigen tests. As a rule for most of my childhood and adult life I have rolled my eyes at most of my mom’s suggestions. I think it is just part of the mother-daughter dynamic, but this time she was spot-on. I made an appointment at the rapid test center, which was conveniently located in the same terminal as my departing flight. The rapid test less conveniently came with the exorbitant price tag of $250, but I was desperate.
Let the games begin!
Saturday morning at 11:15am at Walgreens then 10:45am at CVS. Each pharmacy had a completely different set of instructions for the test, as well as different disposal policies. This did not build confidence.
I was looking at an evening flight because my husband would just barely be able to make it home in time for a changing of the guard watching our animals. He had been up in Seattle for the two weeks on this most recent trip, caring for his mom after a bad fall which required two surgeries. I had already canceled my morning flight when his brother went off the rails and said he would not go up to “pick up the pieces” if my husband left and mom still needed help. We had all been putting our lives on hold to take turns helping out, and we were all exhausted. Add the emotional toll and fatigue from nearly two years of life in a global pandemic, and the exhaustion goes up many notches. Throw in two months of trying to figure out healthcare for an elderly woman when hospitals are completely overwhelmed on top of that, and you get family members on the brink of psychological/emotional meltdowns.
This pandemic leaves no one unscathed.
After taking my two tests, there was nothing more I to do on that front but wait. In an attempt to alleviate some of my stress, I did a thorough cleaning of the couch, which involved removing all of the cushions and vacuuming everything the hose attachment would reach. Then I did several loads of laundry and cleaned the bathroom.
My first email check Sunday morning revealed that CVS had won the race! I clicked on the link provided in the email to view my results with anxious anticipation.
My husband managed to drive from Seattle to Prescott in under 24 hours (he didn’t even stop to sleep), so he could take charge of the homestead and drive me to the airport shuttle.
Arrivederci! Italy, here I come!
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recently recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, three cats, and a big white husky in Prescott, Arizona.