Bucket List, coronavirus, Travel Life

My Time in Europe with the Coronavirus Pandemic

I had to start this post over and over again. Every day, there were new developments announced in the news, and what I had previously saved in drafts was no longer applicable. But here’s what happened: I started what was supposed to be an extended European trip in late February.

Just a couple days before leaving, I heard that the coronavirus, which previously was only really an issue in China, was now infecting parts of Northern Italy, particularly the two cities I was going to visit: Milan and Venice. Thankfully, I was landing in Munich, where at the time there had only been a few cases that were already treated. I left on my trip, knowing that I would need to keep an eye on the news to see if I needed to rearrange my plans with Italy. But since my time in Northern Italy was a month away, I was hopeful that the coronavirus outbreak would be taken care of by then.

My first day in Munich was Ash Wednesday. No one seemed to mind crowding for a glimpse of the annual Fischbrunnen Wallet Washing!

I wasn’t even one week into my trip when I cancelled all my plans in Italy. The numbers kept on growing every day, with no sign of an end. But I was only going to be there for one full day, so it was easy to rearrange my plans

I continued traveling Bavaria, Germany. There were no signs of an epidemic there. No one was wearing gloves (other than winter gloves on cold days) and the only ones wearing masks were extra-cautious foreign travelers. But obviously they were still traveling, and so was I. I spent a week seeing so many of the open museums in Munich. Then I went to Fuessen, where I walked right up to the ticket counter and got tickets to see the famous Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. (It should have been a clue that the ticketing office was set up with really long queues, but I just figured that I arrived early and it was still off-season.) I went back to Munich for two more nights before heading to the Bavarian countryside near the little town of Eichstatt to volunteer with the Englischhausen language immersion program.

Some Englischhausen participants trying to navigate while on a quick excursion to Eichstatt.

Before the program, the director e-mailed us all asking if we had any of the common symptoms of coronavirus. During the program, we chose to bump elbows instead of hug or shake hands. But we weren’t really concerned with catching it from our small group or the staff at our hotel, so even though it was an intense immersion program, it was fairly relaxing compared to everything that was going on in the rest of the world that week.

Since the native English speakers’ job at Englischhausen was simply to speak English all day, we started the week out by talking about our jobs, our families, and topics like that. While the WiFi was spotty, I and much of the rest of the group made sure to read the news each day, and in the middle of the week we found out that the virus was now considered a global pandemic. By the end of the week, every conversation, no matter how many times we tried to change the subject, always went back to the coronavirus. When Trump announced that the US would close their borders to Europeans, I knew things were going to be different for the rest of this trip. However, since I am a US citizen and could still return for as long as planes kept flying, I thought I could still continue on my journey. I started making back-up plans; perhaps I could go to Eastern Europe or maybe even the UK if my original route didn’t work out.

On our last night there, someone announced that the Czech Republic closed their borders for a month. I was bummed; that meant I couldn’t visit the Prague Easter markets. I figured maybe I could extend my stay in Slovakia, or maybe go from Slovakia to Hungary instead. But with a Google search, I found out that Slovakia was no longer an option either. I didn’t know what to do for the rest of my trip, but my next stop of Salzburg, Austria was still open.

Arriving back to Munich seemed eerie, like it was just a shell of the city I’d seen six days prior. When I checked into the hostel, the receptionist recognized me from when I had stayed there two weeks ago. “Nothing is different,” he told me. While not much had changed within the hostel, the city definitely was different. People were still out and about, but none of the tourist attractions were open anymore. There were government notices on all the church doors saying that individual prayers and visits were okay, but services were discouraged. A couple chain stores were closed, and for the first time ever, I saw hand sanitizing stations in Europe. But no worries for me; I was headed to Austria and then Switzerland.

Going to Salzburg was actually the second time going into Austria on this trip. Since Fuessen is on the border of Germany and Austria, while I was there I enjoyed a lovely hike across the border. I saw where the border checkpoint used to be, and at the time thought how awesome it was that the European Union has such open borders between countries.

I found lots of Salzburg sites that were either featured in The Sound of Music or provided inspiration. This gazebo was used in the “16 Going on 17” number.

But as I headed to Salzburg, I got an email from the hostel there saying they could only host me for two nights instead of the original five. On Monday, all of the accommodations in their county had to close. I stressed out the entire bus trip there to figure out what to do after this shortened time in Salzburg, but I was determined to make the most of the time I had.

I have an upcoming special post that describes my adventure in escaping Salzburg much like the Von Trapps had to, but long story short, I ended up having to leave even earlier to avoid becoming a homeless refugee. But by this time, with all the countries that had announced border closures, in addition to all events cancelled and attractions closed, I knew it was time to start planning how to cut my trip short and go home early… if that was even possible.

I definitely didn’t expect half of this trip to be spent in Munich, but I ended up there yet again. I spent two nights there figuring out a game plan. I compared flights going out of both Munich and Frankfurt, and Frankfurt seemed to have more reasonable options. Through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connection, I contacted someone who lives in Frankfurt just to see what they recommended about traveling there. In turn, they offered to let me stay in their guest room for as long as I needed! While I had already cancelled all my bus trips out of frustration, I now had hundreds of dollars worth of FlixBus credit, and used some of that for a day-long trip to Frankfurt. Little did I know that the day I chose to take the bus ride was the last day that FlixBus would be operating in Germany.

My original schedule did take me through Frankfurt toward the end of my trip, but I wasn’t planning to spend too much time there. So I definitely didn’t know how I would spend several days there in the wake of the coronavirus. The recently-implemented laws in the state of Hesse definitely weren’t tourist friendly. Museums were closed. Stores and bars that didn’t sell food or other essentials were closed. Restaurants closed by 6 pm (that rule became even stricter the day I left). But I still enjoyed my time there seeing the architecture, going into the churches that were still open, and going on long walks and bike rides.

Finally, the day of my new flight arrived. I was impressed by the Frankfurt airport, except for at a security checkpoint they didn’t have a place for me to empty my reusable water bottle, and thus I had to chug the entire thing! I was trying Condor Airlines for the first time. This one-way ticket home cost me more than my original round-trip ticket with Delta. While the no-contact guidelines meant there was limited food and beverages, it still had the amenities of seatback entertainment screens and, the always hoped-for but especially appreciated when everyone’s concerned about a contagious virus, my own row with empty rows in front and back of me! I finally knew that I would make it home.

It only took a few minutes for all passengers to board the nearly-empty flight.

I had a six-hour layover in Seattle. I heard that the health screenings for European travelers the previous weekend took at least seven hours, but now with fewer travelers, I got through both the health screening and immigration in just minutes. The health screening seemed kind of like a joke. We just had to fill out a couple forms with our contact info and checking off where we’d been, and then someone asked me how I was feeling. They didn’t even take my temperature. So I had several hours to wait around in an airport where half the shops were closed until I could finally take my late-night flight home.

Now I’m approaching the middle of my two-week quarantine in what I call the plastic bubble, named so because there’s plastic sheeting separating my bedroom and bathroom from the rest of the house. I’m taking quarantine seriously. I even drove my own car home from the airport by myself. I went from being able to explore an entire continent to only being allowed in two rooms. But I have been keeping busy with a variety of things, including thinking about how I’ll finish my original itinerary when I get to go to Europe again!

I Didn’t Get to…. BUT

Remembering the positive moments of this trip

I didn’t get to see the 11 countries I came to see… but I got to see two countries that I hadn’t before.

I didn’t get to go to Milan and Venice… but I had a delicious authentic Italian pizza made by Italians at a restaurant in Fuessen. Plus, I’ve been to Italy in better times.

I didn’t get to see the Matterhorn… but I got to take nature walks among the German-Austrian Alps (Bucket List Accomplishment!)

I didn’t get to visit the famous Anne Frank house… but I got to see TWO of her houses from her early years in Frankfurt.

I didn’t get to see the Little Mermaid statue… but I still felt the Disney magic at Neuschwanstein Castle.

I didn’t get a week to enjoy the museums of Salzburg… but I had a super-eventful weekend there where I could tell the hills were alive with the sound of music!

I barely got to go to any museums… but I saw all the ones I wanted to see in Munich, and beyond that, I still enjoyed the local history through architecture, cathedrals, and the outdoors.

I didn’t get to take a Swiss chocolate-making class or go to Prague’s Easter markets… but I bought a lot of German chocolate that I will enjoy for Easter!

I didn’t get my “break week” in Bratislava, Slovakia… but I’m definitely getting a break now with a two-week quarantine!

I didn’t get the adventure I was planning for… but I got an incredibly unique adventure I’ll never forget!

What’s been your biggest struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share in the comments below, and maybe we can all support each other!

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