flying during lockdown

Flying During Lockdown

While many of my planned trips this year evaporated in the Spring, there were still some trips I chose to take for business and personal reasons.  During a brief window in the summer when PCR tests weren’t required, I went to visit family and friends in the States.  Inside Europe I managed short trips to Croatia, Mallorca, and Andorra.  I did all this on my US passport, despite the alleged “American ban” in Europe, and even without my French Carte de Sejour.  But I still had a final business trip in the calendar for 2020: Salzburg in November.

As you do when traveling in Europe these days, I was checking the ReOpen EU site regularly, to see what new regulations were in place.  I don’t remember exactly when I found out I was going to need to take the dreaded PCR test, but when I did, I immediately made an appointment at a lab in the 11th.  In early October the appointments were at least 2 weeks out and I needed a test that was done fewer than 72 hours before my arrival in Austria, in early November.  I managed to get an appointment for the right day and time and I showed up to a virtually empty clinic.

Covid-19 Testing

This was to be my third Covid-19 test.  The first had been at my doctor’s request during lockdown, when I described the flu-like symptoms I had earlier in the year.  The second had been before a summer trip to Croatia, when I thought they might ask for a test even though I was coming from France, not the US.  But those had been blood tests.  The PCR test was “invasive,” I had heard, but I hadn’t really read much more about it.

When I came to the clinic I was ushered right to a receptionist who verified my appointment and asked for my Carte Vitale.  Since the summer the French government had started fully covering the cost of Covid testing so I wasn’t asked for any money out of pocket.  After a few minutes I was handed a printout and some stickers which would ostensibly go to the lab with my swab.

Personne suivante,” came a calm voice from behind a mostly closed door.  I came in and sat down in the chair that she beckoned me towards.  She told me I would need to remove my mask, which I did.  She then asked if I had done this before.  I shook my head and she told me to sit back and relax and that it would not take long.

I assumed the pose that I normally do at my dentist’s.  Relaxed, head back, remembering that the person who is doing this does this all the time, professionally, and is not interested in hurting me.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the PCR test, it involves sending a swab about three inches into your nose to grab some samples of upper respiratory mucus.  As you might guess, this is not a pleasant feeling.

This is not so much a question of pain as unpleasantness.  Your nerves in this area sound an alarm: what is this thing doing here?  When she had inserted the probe the entire way in she actually moved it around a bit, ostensibly to make sure she collected enough of a sample.  She saw me tighten up and after withdrawing it she waited a beat before asking if I was ready for the “next one.”

Then I realized she meant the other nostril.  Okay, I know what to expect this time.  I braced myself and a few moments later it was over.  I thanked her, got my stuff, and headed home.  I got the results by email the next day, which I then printed out so I could present it in Austria when I landed.

Arriving in Austria

As I said, the trip was originally planned for Salzburg, and had the trip occurred one week before that would have been fine.  But in the days leading up to the trip Austria announced a lockdown and this led to many hotels and airbnbs closing their doors (as the government promised to make them mostly whole if they complied).  Not wanting to take a risk of being in Salzburg without a place to stay, I decided to improvise and go to another location where I knew I could stay, outside Vienna, close to where my colleague on this trip actually lives.  But there was an additional wrinkle.  Austria had asked for a 10-day quarantine on visitors, even those with a negative test.  I decided to chance it.  My trip was scheduled for 7 days and if they made me stay an additional 3 days in Austria, I wouldn’t fight them.  Though, my business involved me working in the same room as my colleague, so if they actually planned to enforce this quarantine, my trip would be pointless.

The flight was about 80% full and during the flight we filled out contact tracing paperwork (which they collected) as well as an “Entry and Transit Declaration” (which they did not collect).  This document asked for:

  • Name, Nationality, Date and Country of Birth
  • Flight Details
  • Stays in the previous 10 days
  • Address in Austria for the next 10 days
  • Contact details

I was asked to sign and date this form, next to a declaration that said, “I hereby confirm that I will self-quarantine at home or in suitable accommodation for a period of ten days, that I will cover the costs of any such accommodation and that I will not leave home or this accommodation for the duration of the quarantine.”  The flight attendants said to keep this form on us and that we might be asked for it at anytime.  I considered that curious, as if the form were true, the only place I could be asked for it would be inside an isolated accommodation.

At the very bottom of the document it said, “The details provided here will be sent to the health authorities of the province where you will be staying for the next ten days and, at the end of this time, destroyed.”  So, this form was supposed to be turned into someone, not carried with me inside an isolated accommodation in case a police officer stopped by, who couldn’t possibly know I was staying there unless I had turned it in in the first place.

No matter, the main concern for the Austrians for those of us arriving was a valid PCR test.  They had military personnel, not customs agents, looking at our passport and PCR test.  Because of the perfunctory manner in which the soldier dealing with me looked at my paperwork, I realized he was looking for two things: a name match, and a valid 72-hour window.  That meant that anyone who wanted to forge up an official-looking test could easily do so.  There was no electronic scanner to verify that this was an actual lab which had administered an actual test.  It was a simple check of paperwork using the technology of 1920, not 2020.  He handed back my paperwork and my passport.

I then proceeded to the passport window.  Surely, I’ll be checked, I thought.  Vienna had just had a terrorist attack the previous week.  But no, the lady at the window was busy on her phone and just waved me through.  The Austrians didn’t care what my purpose was in their country or if I even had a valid purpose to be there.  They only worried if I had a valid PCR test, which I could easily have forged, it seems.  As has been the case for most of this year, I was watching biosecurity theater, and not even good theater at that.

“Lockdown” in Austria

A friend picked me up at the airport and we headed back to his place to have lunch.  As we walked into his apartment building I marveled at the people not wearing masks.  “Is there no mask mandate?” I queried.   “Not outdoors, that’s weird!” he said.  Indeed it is, I thought to myself, but felt like a kid on Christmas day just because I wouldn’t have to wear a mask outdoors all week.  We had had an outdoor mask mandate in France for some months now.

Later in the week I was walking around Vienna with another friend when I realized that pretty much all the shops were open and a lot of restaurants were offering takeaway service.  I tried to explain that in France “lockdown” meant I couldn’t leave my house without a permissible reason, that I could be stopped and asked to justify myself at any time, and all this was to take place within 1km of my house, outside of particular extenuating circumstances (although, just as in late Spring, the French were not taking this seriously at all).  He wrinkled his nose.  “We had something like this back in the Spring, but not now.”  While it seems that since my visit Austria has been put into a much stricter lockdown, I was happy to take the opportunity to, among other things, get my hair cut while I was there, as I didn’t know when I would have the opportunity again in France.

Coming Home

When I came back home to France I presented my passport at the border.  The agent scanned it and after some time my linked Carte de Sejour showed up digitally on his screen and he waved me through.  No tests, no quarantine, and not even any paperwork pretending to enforce either.

So, traveling during lockdown?  If you’re worried about how to do it, don’t (the authorities clearly have no idea what they’re doing).  Just have your paperwork in order and be ready to be patient and smile.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

The Covid Location Test

The arrival of Autumn last week was underlined by rain and punctuated by cold: summer is officially over in the City of Light.  It was, by all accounts, one of our quietest summers in recent history, as we were bereft of many of the non-European tourists that normally flock to our city.  But I had used that time to mull over an idea that had first occurred to me during lockdown: the Covid Location Test.

The test is simple.  Imagine that you were told that you could not leave your city (or if you’d like, country) for the next twelve months.  How would that make you feel?  Use those feelings to ponder the fundamental question: are you truly living the life you want to live?  If not, why not?

It certainly was a useful exercise for me.  While I was used to being location independent and sometimes having to work on an assignment for a client in the coffee shop du jour wherever I was in the world, I knew that remote work was a new and unwelcome experience for some of my friends, even the ones who had previously envied my ability to work from anywhere.  Hence, telling me that I could not leave Paris and would have to stay in my apartment didn’t qualify as punishment.  My home, after all, was designed as a refuge, a place for me to relax when I wasn’t working.  It fulfilled that purpose perfectly during March, April, and May of this year (even if it was also the place where I was working).

As for telling me that I couldn’t leave Paris, that wasn’t difficult to bear either.  I had perhaps traveled “too much” during my past seven years here, and some extended, unbroken time in Paris would be welcome.  Even if you told me I couldn’t leave for a year or more, it wouldn’t particularly trouble me: I was living in my dream city.

While I made a point to host a party at my house the very first week of deconfinement, I didn’t travel outside France until July.  I enjoyed my trips to the US, Croatia, Spain, and Andorra, despite the challenges of travel these days, but I took those trips not only opportunistically, because of work that presented itself, but because it was nice to travel around again and indicate by my actions that I refused to live my life in fear.

But something had changed.  In a world in which travel is a luxury, those who partake of it should feel quite privileged.  I very much felt fortunate to see places I had not previously been, and linger around some old haunts I knew well.  But for me the Covid Location Test was a reaffirmation of another privilege I feel fortunate to have in my life which I don’t take for granted: living where I want to live.

I encourage you to take the Covid Location Test yourself.  I suspect many of you have unwittingly taken it earlier in the year if you were locked down in any measure.  If you aren’t living the life you want to live now, why aren’t you?  What is holding you back?  We haven’t been promised that a similar situation won’t happen in the future and it’s folly to build a life assuming that history can’t repeat itself.  As I said in a previous article, at least as far as the EU is concerned, a residence permit = passport for freedom of movement, even in a pandemic, and that’s a powerful argument for those who felt trapped wherever they were.

Don’t be trapped.  Use the Covid Location Test to surface the feelings and sentiments you may have buried under the piles of routine and daily life.  Life the life you want to live now: you’re not promised tomorrow.

Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

the old normal in Paris

The Old Normal is Alive and Well in Paris

I’ve spent my entire life in countries with unrestricted freedom of movement.  Not only did those countries let me go where I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as I wasn’t breaking laws, the countries were indifferent to my location on a given day at a given time.  Insofar as my movement encouraged commerce and the support of local businesses, which in turn paid taxes, these governments might actually encourage me to get out and about.

I think it was because I’ve always taken freedom of movement for granted that I felt that energetic frisson in my bones and brain this last weekend, as our local parks opened and restaurants prepared to open their outdoor terraces here in Paris.  While there had been an energy and buzz in the air since the first days of deconfinement, this last weekend was different.  Normal service wasn’t quite restored, but it felt quite normal.  The streets and parks were packed (Buttes Chaumont, a very large park near my home, was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, and that was with its restaurants and bars closed).  The majority of the population across 6 arrondissements that I visited one day (specifically the 19th, 11th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd) were unmasked and not social distancing.  Witnessing this has been like watching a light turn on in a dark room: one moment there was coronavirus, the next moment it was summer.

It’s important to note that it is only in and around Paris, and only for the next few weeks that we will continue to see these restrictions, which include: schools reopening with capped class sizes so some students will continue to attend remotely; swimming pools, campsites, and theaters closed; gatherings in public places limited to groups of ten (enforced by roving police).  The rest of France, host to fewer cases and a lower infection rate, are “back to normal.”

The much-mooted “second wave” which the media seemed to almost hope for so they could continue to be one of the few “essential” workers hasn’t materialized, and the president of the Scientific Council advising the French government has said that even in a worst-case scenario a second lockdown would be unacceptable for a number of reasons.  Given that sunshine and fresh air are extremely effective (and free) deterrents against viruses of all kinds, not just the recent celebrity COVID-19, one wonders why we didn’t deconfine sooner.  We were, in part, witness to the worst tendency of science throughout the ages: stubborn adherence to old beliefs and measures taken when we had very little data and information, combined with a refusal to modify hypotheses when in receipt of new information.  This tendency continues on into the private lives of some of my friends and acquaintances who have been scared into a private “extended edition” confinement.  I try to respect the turbulent emotions some of them have felt in the past months, so I avoid asking them: “If masks work, why do we social distance?  If social distancing works, why do we wear masks?  If both work, why did we lock down?”

Some of the fearful ones do venture out, with all the protection you can imagine: gloves, masks, gel, sometimes even a visor as well. Some of the younger set, determined to be as fashionable as they are “safe,” have bought designer cotton masks–not necessarily helpful against viruses, but they certainly go well with their summer outfits.  This is an unsurprising historical (and humorous) echo for anyone who has visited the Museum of the Liberation of Paris, which has stills of models sporting gas masks as accessories for that season’s release of new fashions.

I’ve even been witness to a few exchanges in which the French have lectured each other, imitating the health and safety briefings of the weeks gone by.  On the first day of deconfinement I was on a bus, masked.  A young man entered the bus without one.  About half a minute later, two middle-aged adults gave muffled speech to complement their camouflaged disapproving looks.  “You need to wear a mask, sir,” she gently chided in French.  Her interlocutor, probably in his late 20s, gave her the typical gallic shrug.  “It’s not just for my protection, but yours too…” she droned on, and he listened politely, but in the vein of, “I’ve heard all the same stuff you have, lady, and I’ve decided to act otherwise.”

That’s the reality of a free country: you are continuously surrounded by others who differ from you in many ways.  In those first few days there was a tension of the “good” mask-wearers who wore them even though they weren’t required outside of public transportation or in certain stores in contrast to the “bad” mask-ignorers who only wore them when required to.  But as day passed on to day, and masks were optional in more and more shops and businesses, the French resumed their normal cultural attitudes, formed over centuries of living in this country.

No longer being legally required to stay home or forced to justify leaving them, the French interpret “optional” as “don’t bother.”  Mask wearing may have been hip two weeks ago, but as summer continues to come on, social pressure will work the other way, and it will take a deeply rooted moral conviction to remain masked, probably rooted in a Noah complex, that a flood is coming and we mask-ignorers are to be pitied for our ignorance.  I stopped predicting early on in this crisis, but I am willing to predict that we will have a summer this year, as long as we don’t conspire to ruin it for ourselves.

We’ll be harvesting lessons from the bad dream that was most of the last ten weeks for years, but it’s not too soon to draw a few now:

  • Given sufficient economic incentives, the French will obey the law.  Even the Yellow Vests, undeterred by Christmas, stayed home during the entire confinement.
  • Temporary natural crises do not make for permanent cultural changes.  Despite the claims of the “new normal” and “it will be a long road back” all appearances indicate that the current normal looks remarkably like the old normal.  In a few weeks (which seems rather short to those who were shut in for months) theaters will reopen and indoor service at restaurants will augment the outdoor service already happening.  Indeed, the biggest priority for many French, apart from standing in long lines to get back into IKEA, will be planning summer vacations, not just here in France, but in the greater EU.
  • Scientific theories ultimately come up against economic realities.  Now-leaked documents from both the German and Danish governments indicate that these authorities considered the reaction to the coronavirus to be overblown even as they implemented policies that directly contradicted these assessments.  France reopened not just because the number of sick were below a certain level, but because the money already committed to bailouts of the auto, tourism, and restaurant industries were mounting to unbelievable levels, and all those bailouts are premised on future tax dollars, which can only be generated by functional, not locked-down, economies.
  • Too many of us were willingly puppeted by the media.  As the slogans morphed from “stay home save lives” to “black lives matter” in the US and abroad, what was commonly prompted one week (avoid crowds, wear masks, social distance) immediately and seamlessly was opposed the following week (march in protest, gather in force, do what you want).  If such mass gatherings now don’t deliver a second wave, we may have the protestors to thank for volunteering to test a hypothesis: has COVID-19 disappeared or is at least in abeyance?

In the meantime, many of us are glad, after months of confinement, to get back to an important notion that should be taken for granted in a free society: the ability to make our own informed choices about what we do and how we conduct our lives.  No man is an island, and everything we do, even in the privacy of our homes, has an effect on our society as a whole, no matter how much those who deny the existence of the soul would tell us.  The states that slavishly imitated China’s extreme lockdown procedures would have us believe that they are so very different from the communist Chinese, but the past three months have shown us that the same lie that animates the Chinese government has spread and infected the West as well: the State knows best.  If those states were properly oriented toward the Permanent Things and eternity, perhaps we might believe them, but since they are manifestly not, we may not have to wait too long before they subject us to such a lockdown again…for our own good, of course.

Photo taken at Cafe de la Poste, in the Marais, where I wrote this piece and broke my fast of sitting on a Paris terrasse.

This piece originally appeared on Front Porch Republic.

Quarantined in the City of Light

While Paris started the year in the midst of a transportation strike that the strikers by and large lost in the end, there was only a brief respite for the hospitality industry as the specter of the global panic pandemic landed in Europe and then worked its way west.  It’s now our second week in a “lockdown” that seems to get progressively more stringent.

For those who follow the news you may be familiar with the attestation that now needs to be either written by hand or printed and filled out: it’s our “permission slip” we laughably sign ourselves and though I have not yet been asked for one, it will be the first time in my life someone other than a customs official has asked me for “my papers.”  It’s an unusual thought for someone who has spent most of his life in the West.  Out here in the 19th the instances of stopping by police (sometimes in plainclothes) are certainly less than what my friends who live in the Marais are seeing (5-10 stops per hour on one particular street).

Our permission slip states that we are outside (and asks us to check a box for) one of these reasons:

  • essential work that cannot be done from home – your work has to be on the “essential” list.  Restaurants are not considered “essential” but the most nimble of them have rapidly iterated to offer delivery and pickup service when they previously did not (like one of my faves, The Hood).
  • shopping for “essential” items – humorously tobacco shops are considered “essential” but wine shops are not, though to be fair, you can find alcohol in every single grocery store, which is an essential business where it looks and feels like, given the crowds, holiday shopping every single day.  I’ve only been shopping in there a few times in the last 10 days but it was amusing to see that when the French panic buy, it’s the yogurt, butter, and cheese that disappear, not the toilet paper and snack chips.  Even then, the very next day the shelves are restocked 100%.
  • non-routine and urgent medical appointments (all routine appointments were ordered cancelled some time ago) or for urgent care for the elderly (“visiting” family isn’t permitted – this is more like doing shopping for someone who is an invalid, etc.)
  • reporting for a court or police appointment
  • the most flouted one – physical exercise.  Apparently it is permitted for a maximum of one hour, within 1 km of your home.  But there is no way to see if you’ve already been “checked” for the day so you could ostensibly be stopped 6 times per day and as long as you have a newly dated and timed attestation, the same officer didn’t stop you previously, or you’re constantly wearing different disguises, you could pull it off.  There’s more than 100,000 fines that have been already been issued but that’s a minuscule number (think in terms of a country of 66 million, or even in a city of 2 million) who are willing to be caught without their permission slip or for insufficient cause.  Minimum fine is 135€.  No thanks, I’ll just stay in and continue to work on projects and read.

On the governmental side of things there’s been some help, but no explanation of what happens next.  EDF (Electricite de France, our electric provider) has announced there would not be a bill this month, but not what would happen to that payment.  URSSAF, who is the governmental body that handles social payments from small businesses like mine, has said there would not be a payment this month, but not whether we would owe it later.  Even the Ministry of Finance has told us we can instruct our banks to refuse the monthly debit, or go into the online system and stop it for this month.  There’s money promised for small businesses but it’s not entirely clear yet how we would apply and even what would be forthcoming, as there’s no “date of return to normal” that anyone in government would even consider saying to the press.

I’ve been checking in with local friends periodically by text message.  This is new for many of us.  Though many of us were here during the bombings and restaurant shootings in November 2015, we either went out the very next night, or, as I did, hosted a gathering where some of us could share our thoughts over some wine.  My regular slew of book clubs and even my film clubs have continued on in virtual format, and after some basic explanations to some who’ve never used Zoom or been in any kind of online meeting with more than two people, we have enjoyed a bit of normalcy (discussing thoughtful books or films) in what is otherwise best characterized as strange times.

I honestly did not think the French (or the Italians) could stay indoors this long.  They are quintessentially cafe and restaurant people.  It’s only when the streets are dead silent (and it’s not August) that you realize just what an integral part everyday contact with humans plays in a city, and in a city like Paris above all.  Even some of my introverted friends who originally ironically rejoiced at their new “dreamy normal” have started to find a new desire to connect.

It was just announced this week that this lockdown will continue until Easter Week, more than two weeks from now, at a minimum.  For now, it seems like, just as during the strike, many Parisians are taking this stoically.  I’ve even learned it’s actually possible for French people to stand in a queue for something other than a baguette!  But, in all seriousness, it’s generally quiet here and while there are plenty of people like me who consider this the most draconian out of multiple options we could have pursued, there aren’t really too many voices of protest in the sometimes land of revolution.  Many of us are settling down with a good long read.

My fondest hope for many who are taking what is perhaps the most unexpected of “vacations” is the examination of whether their “normal” is something they ever want to return to.  If one good thing can come from this time it might be the chance to reflect and count our blessings.  Even in “lockdown” many of us have access to food and shelter, and there are many others in the world who can count on neither in the most “normal” of circumstances.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash