We are on a long weekend away from Pittsburgh, safely vacationing on Lake Erie in Geneva Ohio. Last night, I sent this picture to my friend saying that it captures 2020.
I keep thinking that I am done writing in this blog but my mind drifts back to it and how someday, I’ll likely really enjoy reading back through our adventures. Alternatively, I think to myself that I don’t want to forget the intense fear, anxiety and sadness that I am feeling since we have been back. So. I want to write a little about it.
On May 25, 2020 during the continued stay-at-home orders, George Floyd was apprehended for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, resisted arrest out of fear and for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck while he pleaded for his life. He said, “I can’t breathe” and then died while 3 other officers and bystanders watched.
Shortly after, news also spread of the murder of Breonna Taylor, a decorated EMT who was shot to death in her bed during a “no knock” entry by police.
Across the US and the world, protests began along with the same debate that has been happening for hundreds of years- do Black Lives Matter?
I joined in the first big protest in Pittsburgh. It was a hard decision because I have felt so strongly about social distancing and a protest doesn’t afford much distance between people. In my mind, the risk to Black Lives every day and the importance of calling attention to that outweighed the risk of outdoor transmission of covid-19 with masked protestors.
We have always tried to talk about racism at home with our family. Each of our kids processes it differently. Veronica and Ryan seem to understand the complexity more now and what white privilege affords our family. We chose to participate in a family march in Morningside. Joe made his own sign which represents his understanding of racism.
I am trying to read, watch and listen to anti-racism content. I follow Black thought leaders on twitter. I have had hard conversations with my Black friends. Their honesty with me is incredibly valuable.
I have had some hard conversations with my white friends. I acknowledge that I have grown up in systems of white supremacy and racism. I have worked in a system that oppresses people of color and racism (not race) leads to health inequity, especially in Pittsburgh.
I am racist. It is my job to learn and grow and practice anti-racism.
It is heavy and complex.
I went back to work on June 15th. On my orientation to the Covid-19 changes, I caught my breath and shed a few tears in the exam room. The core of midwifery is connection. The masks, the 6 foot distance, the lack of partners for prenatal care…. it’s so hard.
Wearing a mask all day and the intensity of working during a pandemic sends me home with a headache nearly every day. I thought a little peppermint oil might help on this inside of my mask. Instead my eyes were burning for a few hours.
The cases in Pittsburgh have spiked, setting records. I now wear an N95 nearly all the time. Needless to say, it is stressful.
Taking care of people during a pandemic is hard. One of my first prenatal visits back was with a client having her third baby. She cried so much that her mask was really wet. She can’t imagine laboring in a mask. She can’t imagine having a newborn in a pandemic with very little help from her family and community. Another client is Canadian and since our borders are closed, her mother can’t come be with her for her first birth and to meet her very first grandchild. We have no idea when the borders will open again.
As if that isn’t enough, Black mothers must face birth and raising children in a world that doesn’t value their lives. I don’t have words to change that reality and it weighs heavily on me.
I have labored with several people but haven’t attended a birth since I’ve been back. I feel like I need to do that- to remember that life and hope go on.
Life at home has significantly improved with the addition of an above ground pool. I have worried about how disconnected my kids have been from our community. I have worried about their lack of physical activity. This pool has given a general lift in the mood of the Cordova McCarthys. We joke that it isn’t the water in Croatia like we had planned, but it is the same sun and moon.
Other things I want to remember:
Joe and John surprisingly had their outdoor pool birthday party like we had hoped. There was a few weeks where we were sure we would never get the pool installed.
Ryan had a root canal after 8 days of severe pain and sleepless nights. He handled it with his quiet strength and resilience but it was hard to watch. For one of his final school projects, Joe wrote that he wanted to be a dentist when he grows up so that he doesn’t have to see his family in pain.
Sarah’s family chose not to take their beach vacation because of the spike in cases. The kids were so disappointed. We decided to attempt to recreate their vacation with a day trip to Presque Isle. The kids loved it so much!
I completed a DTC challenge of running 100 miles in June. It was hard. After that ended, I needed to get on my bike to get ready to complete 81 miles for Melissa’s birthday (40 for her and 41 for me). We left our houses and rode all the way to Ohiopyle. Kara met us along the way. John and Tom met us in Ohiopyle and we had a serene and safe night at the Summit Inn.
I am so grateful to still see my friends outdoors. Most people in my circle have taken the virus seriously which enables me to see them. I feel so protective of the TMC clients and staff, my family and myself.
We hadn’t left our home since arriving back from Slovakia. We decided to take a couple of days to get a place on Lake Erie for a short vacation. It has given us time to laugh about some of the funniest memories from our trip. Veronica and I have talked about how she is preparing to cross the threshold into high school and how we will have a big decision to make about where she will go. And since she’s a big thinker, she loves to talk about college and traveling and life beyond. Her time as a kid has gone by so fast.
Ryan and Joe remain easily occupied by big waves and endless sand. I would love to bottle up this period in time.
We don’t know what the fall will bring yet- if schools will open in person or if the kids will play sports. I don’t know when I’ll see my parents and siblings or if I will attend my oldest niece’s wedding- the first of the next generation to marry. Part of the great anxiety with Covid-19 is the unknown.
In the meantime, we try to enjoy our time together. We are off to grab some take out schnitzel for old times sake!
We made it to Pittsburgh with only one major kid meltdown. For a journey that started abruptly 4 days ago, I’ll take it.
We mostly had a smooth drive. Due to important restrictions in Ohio, we could only do drive through fast food. So, we went 30 mins out of the way to get to a Culver’s.
We made it to our Airbnb in Pittsburgh which is fantastic. It gave us pause to explain to the owner why we needed it and she responded with wonderful compassion. She went out of her way to do an extra good cleaning for our arrival and brought over extra board games to keep the kids busy. We can get back into our house on Friday.
Shortly after arriving, my sister-in-law was over with a giant amount of groceries.
Then more friends came with loads of more food, supplies, a homemade lasagna and salad. Our hearts burst open with gratitude.
I hope this is my final sign off. We are home safely and truly believe all the prayers and thoughts helped.
I am grateful for John, my partner through this all. He worked for a year and half to have the experience we talked about for the entire 20 years we have known each other. He has handled everything we have faced so well.
After chatting with some friends about what an unprecedented time this is in modern history, I decided that I don’t want to forget what the stay at home orders were like and therefore want to document some memories for us later down the road.
We have officially been home 9 weeks- which is 2 weeks longer than the time we were in Slovakia. The time has gone so fast and yet so slow. We have watched so many movies- including the famous “Groundhog Day” which feels like the life we are living.
We are cooking all the time. I have mastered the homemade Scotch egg which is Ryan’s new favorite food.
We have made a lot of banana bread
We have had some social distance fun like neighborhood bingo.
We visited John’s 93 year-old Grandma from the ground floor while she sent love down to us from the 4th floor.
There have been many hikes to get the kids out and walking.
Easter 2020 was far from what we had planned. The Flemings were supposed to be in Bratislava and we had been so eager for that visit. Instead, we were home and watched mass online. John’s parents stopped by with ham and other goodies but we only said a social distance hello.
Out of sheer boredom, I bleached Veronica’s hair (with FaceTime guidance from my friend Jen). It turned out fairly lovely if I do say so myself!
After our experience of attempting to direct our childrens’ learning in Slovakia before their school started, we knew that we needed direction once we arrived home. We had always decided that our kids would attend PA cyber school if school in Slovakia didn’t work out. So, soon after our arrival home, I started the process of enrolling them. With the changing environment in PA due to coronaviurs, there was a delay in their admission to school but eventually they were officially PA cyber school students. We were floored at the amount of supplies that suddenly showed up at our door.
The first week was….brutal. We had to learn how to navigate their online teaching platform. Our kids haven’t spent much time on computers so they needed help every step of the way navigating around websites and we had to do a lot of scanning of assignments, etc. I did have one meltdown. However, we have kept at it and feel very acclimated to cyber school life. I’m very grateful to have John navigating this with me. Not surprisingly, he manages the arts- English, Social Studies, etc. I have the Math and Sciences. We have been so much more engaged in our kids learning than ever before. We are learning also that so far, all of our kids are gravitating to the liberal arts. They are doing well and although this isn’t a style of learning we ever thought we would engage with, they are successful- they just really miss their friends.
Living life mostly at home and masked when out and about is hard and bizarre. For me, the only time I have worn masks has been when I’m in the operating room. We have limited trips outside the house. We’ve fallen into a routine where I go grocery shopping during the hour of 6 am-7 am with the immunocompromised group. It works well because I’m a morning person. I’m also and extrovert and have enjoyed at least seeing people once a week. John will make any needed in-between trips. As above, we cook a lot more than we ever have and occasionally enjoy a take out dinner. I have gotten a skillet out and use it multiple times a day.
We have been out fishing to break up the boredom. We still play cards although the sibling rivalry has increased with the on-going continued limited exposure to anyone outside of our family.
Our neighbors offered up their backyard for campfires which has been a new-found favorite pastime for our family.
One particularly fun thing for me each week is the “Bocce Coffee Crew.” Some of my friends started meeting each Saturday at the Bocce courts behind St. Raphaels for social distance coffee. We have sat through sun, snow and rain and this has really helped to ease the pain of such minimal contact with others. Some of this crew also started up beachbody workouts and although that has never been my exercise of choice, I jumped on the bandwagon.
I also participated in a virtual running race with some of my friends from Diabetes Training Camp (https://www.diabetestrainingcamp.com/). That sparked my desire to keep running and therefore signed up for another virtual race with my good friends Debbie and Melissa. This has been such a light for me to get out and run with my friends, albeit virtually, yet feeling connected.
Mother’s day brought an announcement from our governor that we were just one week away from transitioning to the first stage of re-opening (aka “yellow”). The case numbers in Western PA remained low and although this virus is so unpredictable, we felt like we could visit with family for a little longer time. With everyone’s consent, we let the kids hug their grandparents with masks on. Those hugs were some of the sweetest you could ever imagine. Who knew how much we took hugging for granted.
During the week after Mother’s Day, we rented a car and drove to one of my favorite places, Ohiopyle. Although the trip was a little harder with the continued closures, it was literally a breath of fresh air.
This past Friday, we officially started in “yellow.” There continues to be between 6-25 new cases a day and we will see how the re-opening affects those case numbers. Sadly, the same day we progressed to yellow, the announcement was made that both the county and city pools would be closed for all of the summer. We are assuming that Kennywood and Sandcastle will also not open- along with all sports.
A group text between some mom friends of mine blew up with panic and pool purchases. I threw the idea out to John and showed him some blow up pool options. With these pool closure announcements, he was quickly on websites researching above ground pools. This is something we NEVER would have considered. Yet, there we were headed to Pool City for an in-person masked meeting about putting a pool in our backyard. And. We did it. We bought a pool. That led to all sorts of ideas….like converting our garage into a pool house/she shed, stone paths and electrical hookups for the outside. John jokes that this feels a little like us deciding to build a tree house….how will this actually turn out?! Well, we will know in about a month. We hope that this will be an avenue for exercise and a way to safely connect with friends.
I think this story will need to be continued. Pool pics to follow……
John continues to teach his Comenius students from our basement. He’s dedicated to them even though this has been difficult. I have been ready to return to work if needed, however thankfully our staff have remained healthy. I will go back in person on June 15th.
Joe learned to ride a bike! I’m glad to have the time to spend with all the kids. Even though we are quite sick of each other, I suspect I will look back lovingly on these days together.
We continue to be proud of Slovakia. They have kept their rates of coronavirus so low that they are really beginning to reopen. They have also received some well-deserved attention!
We are still mourning the trips we didn’t take and the time we lost out on in Europe. Today we would have been with friends in Barcelona. Instead, we are planning what movie to watch tonight in our basement.
We have heard from our teachers and friends in Bratislava who are all doing well. In fact, the country has managed to stay under 300 cases the last time I checked. We are really proud of how Slovakia has handled the epidemic so far.
We continue to be grateful to safely be home and are healthy. All the people we love are doing well so far also. I had a cold last week that wouldn’t relent so I was tested for Covid-19 and thankfully the results were negative.
My heart hurts for my colleagues who are going into battle everyday with an invisible enemy. I wish there was more I could do to help.
We will continue to pray and connect over technology.
In the midst of these weeks of quarantine, we have had some really nice moments.
We were even highlighted in a local newspaper. Real local celebrities now. 😆
There are more people than I can even count to thank. We have been shown what an amazing community of family and friends we have.
I very much enjoyed writing this blog. I loved having others read and come along on the journey. I look forward to the day when I can hug all my family and friends and then drag them out on more epic adventures.
Until then, Lord please protect the world and bring peace. 🙏🏼
I’m sitting on the airplane trying to think the healthiest thoughts and while all of my kids are engrossed in newly released movies, I have one of the first quiet moments to myself to process this experience.
Ryan was my only baby born in the birth center where I work. It was truly a beautiful experience that allowed me the opportunity to understand what the hundreds of birthing people I had already helped in the birth center felt. I was so grateful. In the moments after he was born, I had a few euphoric minutes where the world around him and me disappeared and I was enveloped in the miracle of bringing new life into the world.
*Now I will pause and say that I had complicated births with Veronica and Joe and love them equally and have nothing against epidurals or hospitals. I needed them both and am so grateful for them.*
When I tried to feed Ryan for the first time, one of the midwives heard a funny noise he was making and examined him. He had a hidden complete cleft palate. Knowing what I know, my world was completely turned upside down. We immediately felt panic that he had a heart defect or other unseen complications. He also had a strange rash which concerned the smart clinicians in my life. We went through weeks of uncertainty- one doctor told us that he had all of the characteristics of a genetic condition which meant he would have juvenile arthritis and would never be allowed to play contact sports among other complications such as hearing loss and vision problems. We waited 12 long weeks before that test miraculously came back negative. Feeding him was terrifying. He turned blue often even though he was stable. It was 2008. During our crisis on Cordova road, the stock market crashed.
My pediatrician asked me how my mood was. I had a difficult toddler (but now a really a mostly lovely teen) and a child with a challenging birth defect. I was keeping my head above water. He suggested I try therapy.
Since I am a midwife and recommend this to nearly everyone, it made perfect sense that I should enter into a therapeutic relationship.
I don’t remember much about therapy, except that I sure did need it. I do remember one specific thing the therapist made me do. She made me tell my birth story. And I told her about those euphoric moments. And the extra special thing about those euphoric moments was that a dear nurse friend of mine had dropped in the birth room right at the moment I was birthing. And without a plan, she snapped a picture of me and Ryan while I was in that sacred bubble. The incredible thing about this part of the story is that she is in her 60s and so it wasn’t like the rest of us who take a picture of every moment (see the 50 previous blog posts;). I feel like it was actually a small gift from God to me.
So. The therapist told me that in the turmoil of my life, I had to print that picture, frame it and look at it to bring me back to that moment of peace and euphoria. And that would help carry me through.
And it did. And he is healthy, and strong and smart and sees and hears well (maybe doesn’t always listen well) and I will say he is a great little basketball player who enjoys physical contact in sports and sometimes too much with his brother.
And although I don’t even know where that picture is today (I should find it), the therapist was right. It carried me. I mean so did John and our families and friends and faith- they all deserve credit too.
So that’s what I’m doing again. February 27. I was virtually training with my friend Melissa for my Bratislava half marathon. She gave me a goal of 19 miles for the week and I knew we were going to have an adventure-filled weekend so I needed to get a long run in.
I set out to see a new route and crossed the Danube. Once I crossed, I saw a path along the Danube in some woods. Sadly, anxiety occasionally grips me on runs and thoughts of being on a long run in the woods in a foreign country with virtually no other people around turned me to another path.
There are bike paths everywhere. You could live there without a car pretty easily and wow am I sad I didn’t get to explore on a bike. Anyways, I headed out on the bike path.
I went under the space ship bridge and thought about how we had plans to have a fancy dinner there sometime in May with our American friends to send off Bratislava in style.
As I started to really get away from the city, I noticed a cement building and a sign. I stopped and read about it. It was a 1937 bunker fortification to protect the Czechoslovakian border. Wow. That sunk in.
I kept running and then slowly realized, “ha, I’m probably in Austria now?” I thought that was so cool so I snapped a bunch of pictures and happily headed on thinking about how excited I would be to tell Melissa.
I remember thinking that the run even felt good (let’s be honest, most runs don’t feel GOOD). I was so infinitely grateful for the time with my family and all the things that were going well in this adventure. I had some moments of euphoria.
So. There it is. I can be my own therapist for now and print this picture off. (I do know I’ll need talk therapy at some point).
I don’t pretend to know for a second what it is like to flee a war but between all the history we learned and the actual experience of taking my kids on foot across borders, my heart aches for those who have.
And we have hard weeks ahead of us. I’m afraid that I will contract (or have already contracted) coronavirus. I’m afraid my kids or John will. I’m also afraid that anyone I know and love will also contract it.
So I hope to march, with that picture in hand, through the next 14 plus days. Using prayer and the unbelievable support and love from our community to carry us through. I’ll be grateful every day that we don’t have a fever or cough. I will be strong and brave if the symptoms come and have faith that we will endure.
I am pleading with those in my circle to practice strict social distancing. We have lived it in Europe and know what is definitely coming in the US. It will save the lives of those we love. (One of the first things I saw once my phone came back to life is that my friend, who also has Type 1, has been diagnosed with Covid-19. He’s doing well- but how scary).
For now, I am thanking every single flight attendant, all who are Austrian, for risking their health to get planes full of Americans home.
I’m grateful that there are so few passengers coughing (incredibly few for a normal March!). And I am enjoying Joe’s super loud giggles at the Angry birds movie (we aren’t in Slovakia anymore-he can be loud!)
Once we landed, we received texts from our friends that they had gotten through customs and health screenings about an hour earlier much easier than the stories from yesterday at O’Hare. We took another sigh of relief.
In Joe’s health screen, he told them that his passport has his middle name incorrect. 😶 But we all were fever-free and made it through.
We felt like the safest choice for us was to get out of the airport rather than to fly to Pgh. We made it to the car rental center and rented a giant SUV- hilarious since we haven’t driven since we left the states.
We are settled in a rural hotel tonight in Indiana, making sure to have nearly no contact with others. Everyone is exhausted. We plan to get to an Airbnb and self-quarantine in pgh tomorrow until we can get back into our house on Friday.
I want to remember that Ryan, during maybe the most stressful period on the re-entry to the US, asked me to bend down and told me quietly, “thanks mom for working so hard to get us home safely.” Later, V put her arm around me and said, “mom, you’re handling this stress well.”
Joe, who has been holding up as well as a 7 year old can, shot straight up from his sleep in the SUV and said, “Am I dead?” Lol. No son, we are in Indiana that’s all. ❤️
*I wrote this a few days ago and didn’t publish it because the decision to stay or go home was constantly being discussed. Now that the decision is made and we are holed up in Vienna for an uncertain amount of time, I want to make this post a part of the story so I don’t forget.
Looking back, this was not on the list of stories we expected to write about this trip. However here we are- and the quarantine isn’t so bad (yet).
We understand that there are still only 7 cases in the country but Slovakia is taking this crisis seriously and we appreciate that!
1. All public institutions are closed, students at all levels are staying at home and each institution has clear instruction for employees, public and cooperating institutions. We don’t know for how long… John is communicating with students online for now.
2. Public libraries, the zoo, museums, cinemas, theaters, swimming pools and other public venues are all closed we understand that the big soccer game between Slovakia and Ireland will be played with no fans. That game had sold out within 2 hours because we tried to get tickets.
3. My half marathon is moved to September. 😞 All public gatherings are banned.
4. We are asked to not leave Slovakia and “keep social life on low profile.”
5. There are checks at the borders and anyone returning from Italy, China, Iran and South Korea need to self-quarantine for 14 days.
6. We have been asked to stay off public transit even though they are pulling out the big cleaning guns.
7. The conference of bishops have canceled all worship services for all of Slovakia until March 23rd at the earliest.
8. All kids activities are canceled- no practices or competitions of any kind are allowed until further notice.
9. There is a ban on all visitation to hospitals or residential care facilities.
10. If a waste collection employee has worked in an area where covid-19 has been diagnosed, they will undergo a medical examination before being allowed to return to work.
11. Every person with a Slovak phone number received a text with prevention information.
12. They have repurposed 7,700 beds ready for patients and have a plan for an isolated site for 2,500 covid-19 patients if needed.
We believe that this is the safest place for our family right now. In fact, we wish similar restrictions were happening at home in the US.
In light of the circumstances, we are in good spirits. There is plenty of food and toilet paper in the grocery stores and we have been cooking a lot.
Since we arrived in Europe, our family has fallen in love with “Milka” chocolate. I bought a bunch of types that we haven’t tried yet and had a blindfolded “Milka tasting” event (mimicking the wine tasting we didn’t know we were going to…)
We play a lot of cards and need some new games. And everyone is reading. There is a lot to be thankful for in an uncertain time.
We are taking walks each day and the weather has been cooperative.
While life feels so strange, the difficult/funny foreign life details do continue. Here is just one story….
We received a notice in our mailbox that we couldn’t quite decipher but knew we had something waiting for us at the post office. Since I had a work phone call, John took the kids on an outing to the post office. There was excitement that maybe there was a package waiting? The first post office had an employee who spoke English but said that we needed to go to another counter. The next employee did not speak English but made it clear we were at the wrong post office. Since the right post office wasn’t far away and the weather was nice, they walked there. After more confusion, the “package” was given to John. It was a letter with two sentences saying that we needed to call the Slovak equivalent of UPS. We called twice. No answer. 😆 John called the next day and a nice person answered and said he would call and then stop over the next day with the package. That call or visit never happened.
Alas, we are taking life one day at a time. We appreciate the swift precautious measures that the Slovak government has taken. Seemingly, it is a great balance of safety, care of the people as a whole and a general lack of panic. And so far it seems to be working!
We miss our family and friends back home but again, we feel safe here.
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.
I knew this Fulbright adventure would have really great and really hard times but that we would have lasting memories of the 5 of us together, the “Cordova McCarthys”. (There are a lot of Pittsburgh McCarthys so our street Cordova is our identifier).
This weekend has been filed under really great times. Last night, after so much thoroughly happy time together, I asked everyone for a picture and they agreed.
Since we had two hotel rooms, John and I said our “goodnights“ over text and marveled at how much we all have enjoyed each other *and* how much we will miss this when we blink our eyes and they are adults living their own adventures.
But back to our adventure to Košice….
Košice’s train station was beautiful.
Each of our kids have taken on expert roles for these trips. Veronica is the best at figuring out the best deals for local transit (Košice was $1 euro for a whole family for an hour). Ryan knows how to find outlets wherever we go- trains, hotels, etc. Joe is the source of humor for us all. John sent a family text about how someone was likely unhappy to have a reservation in a car on the train with us and Joe read the text aloud for all to hear.
John is really an expert at finding great hotels close to old towns. Our hotel in Košice was beautiful. It was small and likely family-run. Every time we left the hotel, we turned our keys in so that they could keep track of their guests. Some might think that’s intrusive but I felt good knowing that someone is keeping an eye out for us.
Old Town was so much more beautiful than I imagined. I didn’t know much about Košice but I was quickly completely enamored by the city.
We stopped into a tourist center to get a idea of what to visit while in Košice. The following ensued…
We walked out with Slovakia t-shirts.
Ryan’s first favorite thing to do in each European city is to climb a church or clock tower. Košice was no exception and so the boys and I took to it.
We went into the Cathedral which was captivating.
We walked around old town and found some really fun stores and an American Diner to eat at.
We realized that we had enough time to see the medieval prison history museum. The place was fascinating….and disturbing.
The first building was put up in the 1200s! It was originally a residence before it turned into one of the entrances to the city and then eventually a torture chamber and prison.
The boys lightened the mood by coming up with an imaginative game of prison warden and prisoner.
After the museum, we decided to walk to a park right next to old town. Each street was so quaint!
Our walk back produced more beautiful night views of the city.
There was also a shopping mall close to our hotel. There are so many shopping malls in cities we have visited. It was chilly and the kids weren’t ready to go to the hotel for the night so we walked some more in the mall.
We all slept well and got up to enjoy our hotel breakfast before walking around just a little bit more.
We were sad to say goodbye to Košice and this wonderful weekend together. But we once again enjoyed a train ride across nearly the whole country.
I continue to be grateful for the great times. And during the hard times, because they pop up often too, I try to remind myself about blinking. I am watching them grow up before my eyes. And I know I will miss all of it.