Running from the plague
So there we were, all our possessions with us, our beloved dog, plans all set through August 2020 and we started to hear about this Corona Virus. It didn’t seem like much, a strange outbreak, something to keep an eye on and avoid. We were in Rome, it was happening in China and that seemed worlds away. There were fewer Chinese tourists, the usual percentage of travelers wearing masks, nothing to really cause concern. I even got really sick in Rome, violent migraine, vomiting, chills, cough. It took me out completely for 4 days and then it was gone. Dan got it a little differently a few days later, less violently but longer lasting. Again, we didn’t think much of it at the time. We were so lucky to have 10 days in Rome, an abundance of time we realize most people don’t have and a very welcome luxury because it really is that amazing there. We were able to recover, see what we wanted to at a leisurely pace, get a real feel for the city and immerse ourselves in the sheer awe of being there. We got to meet a few locals too.
We continued on, feeling great. We went down to Naples for 3 weeks over Christmas and New Years Eve, another post for sure, on to Croatia to explore several cities there and then February 7 we were back up in Italy for Carnival in Venice. We had really looked forward to that week, it was the first plan we actually made when we started this whole journey. We figured if we were going to be in Europe we might as well try and time it to make Carnival part of the trip. Before we arrived we were told our hostess, who by all reviews on VRBO was very hospitable and involved with her guests, living on the same property, even sharing a front door, was extremely ill and she was going to have an assistant meet us at the vaporetto to show us how to get to the apartment and the peculiarities of the space. She was so ill that we didn’t even see her until the last day, a week after we arrived although she was in contact by messaging to help us and we did know her husband stayed home from work to care for her. It had been about 2 months since we first started hearing about Corona Virus, but it wasn’t being discussed as much of a threat outside of China yet. We were certainly concerned she was sick, careful not to linger in the foyer and hoped she recovered well, but I don’t recall thinking that she had this horrible virus that was just making the news. We had an amazing week in Venice. It was less crowded than usual, the locals told us that the virus was making a difference in tourism. No Chinese tourists, which is a large source of tourism money for them and people were starting to be reluctant to travel. Wait, what?
Time for us to start paying more attention, although we still didn’t think our host could have it, I don’t know why. It was actually really nice for us to have it less crowded, I was concerned it would be so crowded we wouldn’t have fun, when in fact it was very empty compared to pictures I have seen, and charming. A city I did not anticipate falling in love with completely stole my heart.
We reluctantly left after a week, wishing we were staying for more of the Carnival events happening later in Lent. Darn those 90 day limit EU visas! As we continued on our way we started to pay more attention to what was being called Corona Virus. About a week after we left Venice we heard that the rest of Carnival was cancelled and that the city was going into restricted movement because of an outbreak. That is when it finally hit us that our hostess probably had it. It had just gotten real for us. Very quickly regions of Northern Italy were closed off and residents told to shelter in place. We were in Croatia and Southern Italy at the time. We had a whole itinerary booked for Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Trieste and Cinque Terre, the latter half of that was especially on my bucket list. At this point we also had a trip booked to California to see my dad and sister, Dan’s mom and family, friends, some business and then a 10 day trip to Kauai so we have our path up through France booked all the way up to our flight back in to Charles de Gaulle airport in May. But this was mid February and things were starting to look weird and we had to juggle our EU visa and our Croatian visa so as to not overstay in one place or the other.
Right after leaving Venice we had picked up a car on a one year rental. Something that took hours and hours of research, negotiation and considerable funds to pull off, but traveling with Enzo it was going to be so much easier so we were really happy with that solution. We kept on, watching the news neurotically and hoping we wouldn’t have to change any plans.Yeah, that didn’t work long. With each passing day Italy put more communities in lockdown. It was disconcerting because they were places we had just visited four to six weeks prior, so that was kind of spooking us out. They were making assurances about not closing the border. Ummm, so like that is something that was actually on the table? We couldn’t believe that if they felt they needed to they wouldn’t close the border anyway and we also thought France might decide they didn’t want anyone from Italy crossing over. That lit a fire under us and we decided we needed to get a move on. We looked into taking different routes, but decided that those borders might close too so we should just get near Paris and wait for our flight. We were in Bologna at this point and just about to hit two of my top reasons for going to Italy, Florence and Cinque Terre. We had a leisurely couple days planned for each and we ripped that plan to shreds in order to get to France quickly in case things got worse. So, we made a beeline for Florence and did a sprinter’s marathon of one night there. Another post later on that, Dan was not too excited for Florence but in one short day fell in love with the city. Reluctantly we moved on and enjoyed a quick side trip to Pisa, which was way more interesting than I anticipated. That tower is incredibly improbable, especially in the winds we had that day! Then we headed straight to an adorable flat in La Spezia, which was going to be our home for a few days to leisurely explore Cinque Terre, but had become a one night sleep before motoring on to France. As we continued on this accelerated path, the news kept getting worse and we even started to worry we weren’t moving fast enough, but we stuck with the modified plan and made it with time to spare.
All this revising of plans kind of spur of the moment had us booking things on Airbnb that we didn’t really know much about, or have any real desire to go visit, but we needed somewhere to stay while we waited out time before our flight. That’s going to sound really awful when I then reveal that we first spent a week in Menton, France, the eastern most town on the French Riviera. This is the end of February so we aren’t under an umbrella on the beach sipping sparkling water from crystal glasses, but still, it isn’t too awful. It has been one of our blessings to arrive in places when unusual or fun events are happening and Menton was no different. Their claim to fame is a perfect climate for citrus and they hold a festival with a huge parade like the Rose Parade only the floats are decorated with citrus.
We arrived the weekend this was supposed to happen and all the floats were behind a fence where you could sort of peek at them. But somehow, when we crossed the border to France, we had crossed into a whole new philosophy on dealing with the virus. The parade and festival were canceled. The floats were left behind barriers locked up so that they wouldn’t draw crowds that could transmit the virus.
That worked only to some extent. French locals
and American travelers were able to work together to catch a few peeks at what was behind the fence! International cooperation at its finest!
Most restaurants were closed. There was a much greater sense of caution and level of seriousness about the consequences this virus was going to have on society in whole. We went over to Monte Carlo for a day, we were too close to not explore that iconic spot, and even spent some time in the casino. It was mid afternoon and almost completely vacant. We asked if that was normal. They told us it was usually filled with tourists during the day and ahem, real gamblers at night, but that now it is only at night that it is normal. Well, we enjoyed ourselves in the sumptuous environment, had a beautiful dinner, did some car ogling and made the terrifying drive back to Menton. After a few leisurely days exploring there and watching yet more news, we moved on to Saint-Tropez for another couple days. Except for the harbor right down by the yachts pretty much everything in town was closed. Either for the season or the virus. The harbor area was too expensive for us to enjoy, an Aperol spritzer costing 12 times what we had paid for it in Rome. Beer starting at what a good California cabernet should start at, and what we had been paying for a bottle of good local wine. No, these places were for the yachting crowd and designed to keep us riff raff out. Oh, those yachts!! All is well when you have your own floating city to escape on.
Done with San Tropez for now, anyone want to invite us back on a yacht?, and it was time to head off to one of our stops that was on the itinerary, the Fest d’Oie in Sarlat. Yup, Festival of the Goose in a tiny town in France. It was so small we couldn’t even find out if it was cancelled before we got there. And it was so small, it wasn’t cancelled! Yet another post eventually because it was priceless! We had the best time and being out in the countryside in France it was like the virus didn’t even exist. I hope it is still like that there for them. We kept busy, had fun and didn’t really think about the future much because we had a week booked in Auzances, an even more remote area in the countryside and then we would fly out, it flights were still going. I ended up in the ER in Sarlat and they didn’t seem to be in extra protective gear, didn’t ask about where I had been or any Coronavirus symptoms and most amazing to this American, would not take any money or insurance information. People were definitely gathering, doing the European kiss kiss greeting, dancing enthusiastically together seemingly without a care. Some tour groups we observed were kind of joking around about other ways of greeting each other, but didn’t seem real serious about maintaining it. We tried to be careful, but we gathered and were not wearing masks and ate at a street festival so…not real careful by lockdown standards.
After our time in Sarlat we headed even further out into the country to Auzances where we had rented a beautiful cottage in an area where all you could hear was cows, cowbells, birds, chickens and horses. It looked like you imagine the French countryside should look like. We spent most of our time trying to figure out if we should skip Epernay and Paris and buy a one way ticket to California, bring Enzo with us, get out of our one year contract for the car and just wait to see what happened with what would surely become a pandemic or if we should keep to our plan, board Enzo in Epernay, keep the car and trust that we would be able to come pick him up and continue on our journey. In hindsight it seems an easy choice, but at the time every country was treating the virus differently. tRump was convinced it wouldn’t affect the USA, Italy was closing up tight, it was getting harder and harder to find a route across Europe with open borders, but it could be done. Frankly, being trapped in that lovely cottage would have been quite nice. We were listening to Macron on TV every night outlining new rules for France and it even got to the point where you had to have a form filled out before you left your home explaining who you were, your health condition, where you were going and why and for how long and you had to sign it. If you were caught by the police (who were actively checking) it was a huge fine. It felt very serious even in this remote village. With heavy hearts we decided to get out while we could and take everything with us, not knowing when we could return.
It ended up being very difficult to change all our travel plans. We had made them through Expedia and everyone on the planet needed to talk with an Expedia agent urgently. It took days, but we got our airline ticket changed, the unused ones returned for future travel credit (optimistic), booked a timeshare we owned in Carlsbad, CA near my dad (because we had finally sold our home 3 weeks before this all went down!) got our stuff together and bugged out.
The flight was half full, which was nice.
A direct 12 hours. When we got to Los Angeles they gave us forms to fill out just asking if we had experienced a fever in the last 2 weeks or been around anyone who had or been tested etc… As we got off the plane there were about 12 people from the CDC and EMTs from around the country temporarily deployed there to talk to us. They were dressed head to toe to deal with an alien apocalypse. They took the form, asked us some questions, were very nice, didn’t take our temperature or give us a test and sent us on our way. We breezed through customs in about 5 minutes because LAX was virtually empty (very spooky) and were on our way. Back in the US after 6 months, but it was not the US we had left, this was Covid19 version and it was surreal.
Part of the decision to come back to one of the most expensive cities in the world was so that we could be with family and friends and catch up on everything. We could eat at our favorite places, help our aging parents, etc. Well, of course we can’t do any of that. We are holed up in our above budget downtown condo with everything closed around us unable to socialize with friends and family or enjoy any of the fun things downtown San Diego has to offer because nothing is open. Should have seen that coming. There are people so affected by this pandemic that we are truly grateful for where we are, what we have and how comfortably we can wait this out. It disrupted our retirement travels as they were happening, but we know that it is hurting other people as to when or if they can retire so we are definitely trying to keep the whining to a minimum!