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In my last update, I wrote about my experience traveling to to Sicily & the Netherlands in early March. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend reading that first before you read this post.
Life in Leiden
I ended up living in Leiden, Netherlands for a little over a month. I rented a nice apartment that I was able to work from while having a decent amount of space. Aside from necessary trips out for shopping & a couple of walks to get some exercise & fresh air, I didn’t go outside.
I arrived in Leiden a couple of days before the Netherlands instituted nationwide lockdown policies. Everyone knew the rules would be coming soon, but even when I went to the grocery store to get supplies, the supermarket was busy, but not chaotic. Most items were in stock, and staff members were quickly replenishing supplies. This was the case each of the subsequent times I shopped. It’s an interesting contrast to the United States, where long lines, diminished availability, and difficult-to-schedule delivery windows have made obtaining food & other items much more difficult. At no point did it ever feel like there was any panic in Leiden, with the possible exception of the long queue to buy weed at the local coffeeshop across the street just as the lockdown was announced. This mild panic by the locals ended up being unnecessary, as rules were adapted to allow the shops to stay open.
There was a great local beer bottle shop called De Bierwinkel Leiden that remained open. I bought a nice variety of local beers to drink in my apartment.
Not having spent much time in Leiden prior to everything closing, it was difficult to tell if the city was any quieter. When I would look out my windows, I would see a fair amount of people. While most were clearly doing errands or getting exercise, others were sitting on benches drinking. Few people wore masks, even inside supermarkets.
I could see a bit of wildlife in the canal outside.
Early during my visit, I went for a couple of walks around the city center to get some exercise. While the city was pretty, it was a bit busier than I would have liked, so social distancing was sometimes difficult, as not everyone cared.
Twice, I went on longer walks heading north outside of Leiden. These routes had much more space and followed local trails & bike paths, with a few segments through neighborhoods. The nicest section circled the perimeter of a golf course. The path passed a windmill, then followed canals. Every hundred meters or so, a reminder to keep 1.5 meters from other people was spray painted on the ground.
Nearly everyone was doing a good job of maintaining this distance from other people, with the few exceptions almost always being joggers. This was the frustrating part about going outside. I would have liked to have gone for an isolated walk more often, but the joggers brushing past people while panting heavily were a deterrent. If you can’t adjust your exercise routine to be respectful of everyone else around you right now, then you don’t deserve to be outside.
For the most part though, people were good, giving knowing nods to each other as we passed on the opposite edges of paths, telepathically saying “Look at us! we are outside & socially distancing well!”
Getting sick in the Netherlands
About 2.5 weeks into my stay in Leiden, I woke up one morning not feeling great. I had what felt like heartburn. Having had a strong beer & some cheese while on a Zoom call with friends late the previous night, I figured maybe it was due to that. I was also a bit tired & had some aches & pains. I took the day off work & just stayed in bed. During the afternoon, I had an upset stomach, along with a fever. While it’s inevitable to immediately think the worst if you feel even slightly off during a pandemic, it was only after I saw a Facebook post from a friend who had specifically mentioned that their chest pains felt like bad heartburn that I really started to wonder. By the next morning, my fever was gone, and within another day or two, the chest burning had subsided. I stayed inside my apartment for two straight weeks during this period & had no contact with anyone. In the Netherlands, testing is limited to cases where they believe it would alter the course of treatment or if people are especially at risk. As a result, I never got tested. All I know is that despite my best efforts to avoid other people & practice good hygiene, I still managed to catch something. Whether it was at the store or from someone who passed by too close, I will never know.
Getting back to San Francisco
In mid-March, new travel restrictions were announced, limiting travel from Europe to the United States mostly to U.S. citizens. Thanks to my flexibility, I opted to stay in the Netherlands. The scenes of packed flights & airports made me glad I’d made that call. The same goes again for the announcement that U.S. citizens should return home immediately or be prepared to stay out of the country indefinitely. Again, I avoided chaos. But as time went on, it became very clear that this is all going to go on for a very long time. California has handled everything well thus far. While I could have stayed longer in the Netherlands, I started to look into flights back home. Flight availability had stabilized, and I figured that most people who had needed to return immediately (and had thus packed on to flights) had already done so. I found an award flight on Aer Lingus & United in business class, figuring that it would give me the most space to distance myself from others. As it would turn out, this wasn’t necessary, as all of the flights were almost empty. Having already been sick with something, I knew that there is always risk with any outside interaction. I didn’t fly until I’d had no symptoms of anything for almost 3 weeks. But finally, it was time to head home.
My route home took me from Amsterdam to Dublin to Chicago to San Francisco. Ideally, I would have had just one or two flights to get home, but there were no direct flights available. That said, I had very short layovers in each airport, which helped keep the trip from taking a ridiculous amount of time. Since my first flight was at 9:30am, I stayed at the Hilton Schiphol Airport the night before, clearing out some HHonors points I had. All guests seemed to be staying on the same floor, which made interactions a bit more frequent than you’d expect given the general quiet. The hotel did have masks & gloves available, along with hand sanitizer. My last meal in Amsterdam ended up being Burger King & ice cream from the food court at the airport train station. Nothing else was open.
The Aer Lingus flight from Amsterdam to Dublin had about 20 people on it. I had a seat near the front, which was good given the 90 minutes or so I would have to make my connection in Dublin. Even with quiet airports, I still didn’t want to take any chances. Nobody else was sitting within about 6 rows of me.
The Dublin airport was the quietest one I visited all day. As the first person off of the plane, I followed the sign pointing toward connecting flights. At the end of the long hallway, there was a sign up saying that this route was closed. Not only would I have to actually go through immigration to enter Ireland, I would also now be at the end of the queue.
Luckily, a helpful staff member guided me & another person who was connecting on the same flight toward a separate window. The immigration officer processed everything quickly, thus beginning my 5 minute stay in Ireland. I then had to go through security again, which was fine, aside from being annoying. Had I been able to connect normally, this would not have been necessary. Dublin has a preclearance facility for entering the United States, so my connection process was still not done. I went through security yet again, then had my passport checked. Global Entry was not running, but it wasn’t an issue since I was the only person passing through at that moment. The only quirk was that it’s been forever since I’ve actually talked to an officer & had any questions asked. But everyone was friendly. I did get asked if I felt ok, but that was the full extent of any checks I had to do before I left Europe. I made it to my gate about 5 minutes before my Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Chicago was about to board.
There were a grand total of 7 passengers on this flight. On an A330. This is the closest I will ever come to flying on my own private jet.
One other passenger was in business class, while everyone else had all the room they wanted further back. With the flight so empty, it was no issue having seat 5K, one of the throne seats in Aer Lingus business class. Had I known how empty the flight was going to be, I could have saved some miles, but after a hectic month and a half of travel, then staying inside, including a brief period of time of illness, business class was my treat to myself. Plus, it’s not like I will be traveling again any time soon.
Despite the lack of passengers & overall situation, the level of service was still great. The two flight attendants in business class were both friendly. Predeparture, they came around with orange juice & champagne, which I of course turned into two mimosas.
With catering & other services disrupted, I didn’t expect to be getting the full onboard experience, but for the most part, I did. No headphones had been loaded onto the plane, so I had to use my own earbuds. Other than that, everything was normal-ish. The meals were similar to what I would expect on a regular flight.
I ate while watching the second series of Fleabag. Service started with crudites, followed by a basket of snacks. There was a nice smoked salmon appetizer. For my main course, I had chicken with chili sauce & noodles. Then it was time to eat a ridiculous amount of dessert. First, there was cheesecake, then they came around with ice cream. At the flight attendant’s insistence, I took a second ice cream. Someone had taken the time to load ice cream onto the plane, and I didn’t want that person’s hard work to be for nothing.
Prior to landing, we were given a special health declaration to fill out.
Upon landing in Chicago, we were greeted by a CBP officer who got on the airplane’s PA system and let us know what the entry process would be. His colleague would be waiting at the end of the jetway. We were to keep ourselves spread out, which was easy to do when there are just 7 of you. The other CBP officer then lead us all to the baggage claim area like we were ducklings. There, Chicago Fire paramedics & other medical workers were doing health screenings. First, my temperature was taken to make sure I did not have a fever. They also asked me a few questions about how I was feeling and if I’d had any possible symptoms in the past 14 days, which I did not. After that, the paramedics reminded me to self-quarantine for 14 days once I reached my final destination, and that was that. I was off through yet another empty airport.
I still had one more leg of my trip, a flight from Chicago to San Francisco on United. Thanks to a last minute aircraft swap to a 777-300ER, the cabin had Polaris business class seats rather than an awful 2-4-2 layout. This was good, as the flight was more crowded than I expected, and many people had been given upgrades. By no means was the flight full, but there were around 50 people on board, with nearly half of them in the thankfully spacious business class. The flight was uneventful, and this view of Mono Lake & Yosemite welcomed me home.
My final thoughts
Thank you to everyone who is still out there working right now. In addition to those who are providing us with health care, the world’s grocery store workers & others in the supply chain help keep us fed, and the airport & airline employees help us get home.
I am now home in San Francisco, 12 days into my two weeks of self-quarantine. Once that’s done, I’ll still be staying inside for the most part, just as I did in the Netherlands. I’ll support my favorite local businesses once I’m going out, plus I’ll be getting more deliveries. One perk to being home is that I’ll be able to order beer for pick-up from my favorite local breweries!
Until antibody tests are available, I will have no idea if I am now immune. Perhaps someday I can breathe a sigh of relief, but in the meantime I will continue to be careful & stay home.
I was planning on being in Japan right now. Last year, I won a trip to Kyushu, and I’d been hoping to go in April or May. Of course, that trip is now postponed indefinitely.
For now, I will use this time to catch up on posts I’ve been meaning to write. Perhaps revisiting these past trips will sufficiently feed that travel bug for a long time.
Or perhaps this time off will make those future trips all the more special, now that we’ve all learned just how fragile the ability to see the world can be.
Stay safe, everyone.
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