There is just too much that happened today that I don’t want to forget.
Yesterday, John and I took a walk in the morning to talk about all of the factors of our current situation without the kids around. At that point, we understood that Slovakia was going to be closing their borders. People who are Slovak nationals could leave the country, but upon return they would, under police surveillance, have to undergo a 14 day in-home quarantine no matter what. That means that if we were to leave the country for some reason (we live so close to the borders of Hungary and Austria), we would not be allowed back in at all. All of the airports, international trains and busses would also be shutting down. This started to get more concerning when we thought about the potential for Austria to also shut down their borders.
On top of the travel concerns, we had to evaluate the healthcare situation in Slovakia. We were hearing that they, although they were trying, would not have nearly the capacity to handle anything like what Italy (a short 5 hour drive) was enduring. Having diabetes sadly increased our anxiety about the slightly higher potential for me to need hospital support if I contract Covid-19.
Beyond the previously declared closures, Slovakia announced essentially every business would be closed (the pubs ha!) except for grocery stores. Schools closed indefinitely. We were trying to figure out what our place in Slovakia would be during a prolonged quarantine.
Then we got word from a trusted person from the US government that they were trying to get their family out. That was huge. We consulted our fellow American Fulbright family who were also teetering on pulling the trigger to get flights home.
Then came the email that the choice was no longer ours to make. We either had to get out of Slovakia with the help of the embassy or stay and know that the US government would not be able to help us. Wow.
We scrambled to look at flights, picked one out through Toronto, let our families know that we were coming home the next day and sat down to book it and….the flights were gone. Trump made two speeches and our lives were really starting to turn upside down.
Trying to sift through the restrictions and the travel options was really hard. We thought we could fly through Toronto and since we would be coming from Canada, we would be ok. So, we booked the flights for Sunday.
Our friends found flights for Saturday- somehow we missed those. We planned to see if we could change our flights to fly with them a day earlier. But, we had to put those logistics on hold while we packed and cleaned our flat. We shot off texts and emails to our friends in Bratislava and family in Uhersky Brod. The kids tearfully said goodbyes electronically to new friends. Veronica checked out a book from the school library under her friend’s library card. There was no way to return it.
The realization that we couldn’t even say goodbye in person was gut wrenching. So many people had been so good to us….the basketball and volleyball coaches, even the professional basketball players and coaches, the teachers, our tutor Zuzana and friends at the school, our absolutely favorite self-described “foreigner” kebab-making friend, Maro, from Palestine (the thought of him not knowing how we left makes me cry….).
But, we had to face the situation at hand. We realized that to get to our flights, we couldn’t take a train or bus. Then we realized that we couldn’t take an uber or taxi service because once the driver crossed the border, they wouldn’t be able to return if they aren’t a Slovak national and if they are a Slovak National, they would have to go into quarantine for 14 days likely unable to have income.
So I had the bright idea to rent a car! Smart. We could rent a car at the Bratislava airport, drive it to the Vienna airport and return it. We told our friends about the idea and they liked it as well and so we went to bed with plane tickets and van reservations.
We woke up ready to clean the apartment and pack. I had met an Argentinian mom friend in real life who started a special community on facebook for expat mothers living in Bratislava. Of all the things on the internet, that group has been the most helpful and honestly, the community of mothers circling around each other was completely heartwarming. V had overpacked and I hated to see anything go into the garbage so I asked in the group if anyone could use the clothes we would leave behind. Most of the responses to the post were fellow mothers empathizing with our situation and asking how they could help before we left. I only knew one of them IRL. My friend has a daughter just two years younger than V and was excited to come and get the clothes. As I was packing that up, I realized that I could offload many of the hardcover books the boys brought, some games that were weighing us down and then alllll of the surplus of food we had stocked up on for the quarantine. These weren’t even all the bags for her.
So we were packed and ready to go. In the meantime, Doug, our friend went to the airport to get their van since they planned to leave earlier than us. We got the text. The airport is completely closed. Deserted. Not a soul in sight. The idea of renting a van vanished.
I have to stop and say for a minute that the fact that we have another American family here is quite simply the buoy that keeps my head above water. We have 4 adult heads working together instead of two. All of us have lost sleep making all this decision-making even harder and so when one of us discovers an obstacle, another one comes up with a brilliant new idea. We haven’t even seen our friends in weeks because of various factors but feel incredibly close to them.
So Kristin figured out that we could hire a car service to meet us at the border of Austria and Slovakia. Therefore, we would just need to get to the border, our Slovak driver wouldn’t have to cross and we would walk across the border to meet our awaiting Austrian driver. In my head, I really started absorbing how insane the reality was. I shot off a few texts and friends and family tried to keep my spirits up and sent back some hilarious gifs.
As we finished packing, we got word that the McKechnies were about to start their journey across the border. We were holding our breath for them. Our landlord stopped by to fill out paperwork and take back the keys. She offered to have her driver with a giant van take us to the border. We were so grateful for this option.
Around this same time, we got word that the McKechnies safely crossed and found the Austrian driver. We exhaled.
It was time to go. I’m not going to lie. I cried a lot. This city has been so special to us and also without blame, has been the space of so much anxiety in an uncertain time.
On the way to the border, I got a call from our driver Georgi. I’m not kidding as I direct quote the instructions:
“Do not call me. Cross the border. There will be police. Go to the red house. Monaco. I will meet you there.”
The situation was so completely ridiculous that I texted my brother-in-law (who had earlier jokingly offered to wire any amount of bribe money needed) the direct quote. I do want to remember that we all couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity and the kids honestly approached this as an epic adventure. They were asking John and I if we could compare this situation to anything that has ever happened in our lives. Nope.
We arrived at the border and said goodbye and thank you to our landlord and driver. We unloaded the suitcases and ….. walked across.
On the other side, I called Georgi. There was an insane line of cars trying to get to the border and I thought we wouldn’t see him for hours. He clearly knew how to maneuver so he gave us some more instructions and we followed them as best as we could. We got to a spot where he magically appeared to out of an enormous line of cars. Other foreigners were trying to navigate the same situation as us and walking across. Some young adults were even hitchhiking.
Just a diabetes pause….as this all is happening my blood sugars were stable (God knows what can break me mentally and does only give me what I can handle). Hilariously, even though I was only 2 days (of a 7 day life) into my glucose sensor’s week, I had to calibrate twice. That was odd! But I did. And after the second calibration, the sensor said, “Calibration not accepted. Insert new sensor.” While crossing a closed border during a pandemic while being mandated to return to my home country. I don’t want to forget that part. Diabetes never lets you forget, even when it feels like the world is crumbling around you.
Our driver was so kind. He was likely in his late 50s or early 60s and as I took a deep breath, I realized that this man is literally possibly risking his life to take us to an airport. I keep pausing and thinking about that. There are so many brave people here willing to help others. The staff at the hospital have been on my mind since the beginning (read that account from the Italian MD when you can) but it was the first time that I really absorbed what these likely hourly earners are doing for us Americans. I decided that I would thank each one as much as I could- and give good tips.
We checked into our hotel- again, people working in order to help surely high risk carriers of Covid-19.
There is a grocery store on the campus of the airport (hilarious). We went there and much of the fruits and vegetables were gone but there was enough that everyone could find to eat (more milka- our favorite chocolate. It is a really great factor in our coping right now).
Our friends had flights out tomorrow (Saturday) and we got the idea that we should see if we could change our flights and get out a day earlier. Since we are at an airport hotel, I thought I would walk over and see if I could talk to someone at the Air Canada counter. (It’s a really funny thought now looking back on it). I avoided the tunnel and took a walk outside to the airport. Turns out there is no Air Canada desk. There is one desk for Austrian airlines and you take a ticket and get in the queue. One kind associate tol me it would be a minimum of 1.5 hours to talk to someone. So, back to the hotel I went.
We found flights online and were approaching the 24 hour mark of canceling our flights out on Sunday to get our money back. In very dramatic fashion (waiting for our credit card to text us so we could enter a validation code), we secured the flights out tomorrow through Toronto on Air Canada and successfully canceled our other flights with 3 minutes to spare. We again exhaled and announced to family back home and our kids here that we would be home in Pittsburgh tomorrow.
So- online check in! Ha! We found out that we were not allowed to fly because of the fact that we are Americans and have been in the Schengen region. We made emergency phone calls to our friend at the embassy and at the Fulbright commission. They were doing their very best to help us but said ” you will have a hard time getting back on your own.” They were reassuring though that they had a travel agent who would help. We never felt like we wouldn’t get back or get help.
We all tried to get some sleep.
14 March 2020
We woke up today early and since John and I were in different hotel rooms with some kids still sleeping, we shot some texts back and forth to each other.
Our friends also realized that they couldn’t fly out and were able to rebook with Lufthansa to go through Amsterdam to Chicago. We learned last night that we could only fly Austrian or Lufthansa airlines to one of the designated airports in the US. Chicago is one of them. (We had known this before but thought since we would enter from Canada we thought that we would be OK. And, of course the airlines didn’t tell us before we bought those other flights. We only found out when we went to check in.)
John found a direct flight to Chicago from Vienna for tomorrow. It was actually a small miracle. After we booked, we couldn’t find those flights again. Again exhale.
This whole experience shines our privilege right in front of our faces. We have moments of panic- for instance, we had fraud on one of our credit cards rendering it unusable. Our second credit card has a limit that with buying 10 urgent international flights, we were quickly approaching. Our endearing credit union won’t approve of giant charges from foreign nations without us talking to them and with the time zone difference and the urgency to when these tickets needed to be bought, we couldn’t get that to work. But, we knew we could call both of our parents and wake them up to ask for their credit cards (or my beloved bribe-offering BIL). We are privileged with plans A, B all the way to Z. And our kids see it. Veronica said she will not see the world the same after this. As I sit and worry about the trauma they may be enduring, I have hope that they are truly becoming more empathetic to those who don’t live with the privilege that we do.
So we are status quo in the Vienna airport hotel. We took an airport parking lot walk.
Our friends had flights today that were canceled and then rerouted to Brussels. In the midst of that, we were able to see them for a little bit. We were so happy to have a quick in-person goodbye.
In order to do that, we saw firsthand how empty the airport is. This is an airport that has 30 million people move through it per year (9.6 million for Pittsburgh).
There was an announcement that flights to the US would be ending in the near future (no date given).
We have all had our moments. We are seeing how each of our kids cope in a different way. Joe works on denial, like me, until it reaches a boiling point and he melts down about something seemingly unrelated to the current situation. Ryan and V have a lot of questions. I can’t even recall how many times they have asked if we are actually going home tomorrow. John needs to read information nearly constantly. That is his way of coping.
A good way for us all to cope was to have a really great dinner.
We wandered to another hotel for some €24 Weiner schnitzel and some outstanding salmon. Literally the last real European meal. We recounted the best and funniest times of the trip. We were honest with each other about the sadness of lost future memories and their honest fears about the virus.
On the way home, John ran down a pilot on the street and asked him if he thought we would get out of the country tomorrow and he reassured him that is was very likely.
We are showered and settled in for the night. Our flight will hopefully take off at 10 am tomorrow and we will be back on American soil.
I understand there is a press release about the first confirmed cases in Allegheny County. Sigh.
The communication from both at home and our new international family has been so heartwarming. We know people are praying for us, planning to help us with food and the much coveted toilet paper once we return during our quarantine. As this trip has shown us every step of the way, we are resilient because we have a huge support network.