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It’s 10:30pm. I’m at the restaurant in Catania, Sicily, in the south of Italy. We’re a big group, about 30 people, the food is delicious, the alcohol is flowing in abundance… We could hear bursts of laughter in the room. The atmosphere is relaxed, we’re having a great time, and damn we eat so well! Our host, who’s working for the Sicily tourism board left the table for a few minutes to have a phone call. When he came back, his face wasn’t the same. He announced “My friends, Italy will be on lockdown from tomorrow. You can either stay here, which means being stuck at least 14 days in your hotel room. Or -and I strongly recommend to do this- you leave the country ASAP! Tomorrow if possible!“
Here’s how I almost got stuck in Italy because of the coronavirus. I already had the opportunity to tell this story to my friends and relatives. Some of them said I deserved it, but most people understood my choices and supported me. The most important thing? I went back to Paris safe and sound. Because a few days later, Italy was completely shut down. Stores closed, hotels too, almost no flights… I would have been stuck, moreover I wouldn’t have had a place to stay! What happened? How did I get by? Let me tell you!
Trip planned in Sicily
This two-weeks trip in Sicily, in the south of Italy, was planned for more than six months. Actually, I was going to a travel blogging event, and more than 500 people were supposed to be there. Bloggers from the US, the UK, Italy of course, France, Australia, India… Bloggers were coming from all over the world! This trip was the first of one numerous trips to come in 2020 : Sicily, but also Edinburgh, an all-expenses-paid trip to Austria, the US westcoast, Brighton in the UK… Sicily was just the first one!
The virus arrived in Europe
In January, a virus in China started making headlines. From Europe, it looked so far away, and no one knew what was about to come. But slowly, over time, the virus started to spread all over the world, especially in Europe, mainly in Italy! The epicenter was in Milan, north of Italy. An area where the number of coronavirus cases and deaths was skyrocketing exponentially.
The event is still on
The event was scheduled early March and until then, the virus seemed contained in the north of Italy only. The organizers were trying to reassure us, and the event was still on. I’m not gonna lie, knowing we were going to the most impacted country in Europe we were all watching the news daily, hoping everything would end well. Everything was evolving so quickly!
The organizers were claiming nothing changed in Sicily. A few bloggers who went to Sicily about 10 days before the event were saying the same thing. They were even sending us photos to prove their point. Anyway, we were all trying to stay positive!
There was a long debate between the future attendees of the event. Should we do it? Cancel it? Postpone it? Some people were categorical “We have to postpone!“. Others stand their grounds, and claimed they would go to Sicily no matter what happens! Many of them had non-refundable flights and hotels, they didn’t want to lose the money. It looks ludicrous now, but at the time, nobody anticipated the turn of events. And many people thought things would work out quickly.
So there were people who didn’t want to lose the money they spent months before to book flights and accommodation. Today, we all now getting a refund wasn’t difficult to the exceptional situation. We didn’t know at the time.
There were other people who we were scared to be put under quarantine when going home after the professional event. A stressful situation, and we had to make decisions. Some governments started advising its citizens not to go to Italy. That meant the travel insurance wouldn’t be valid in case of emergency.
Event finally postponed
Finally, a difficult decision was made. They postponed the event BUT they created an entire week of free event for the bloggers who still decided to go to Sicily (food tours, boat trip, hiking trip to mount Etna, shows…). I thought for a long time. My flights and accommodation were not refundable. From Paris, Milan, the epicenter, is 850km (530 miles) away. Sicily is 1300km (800 miles) away. At the time, there was 10 times more cases in Paris and its area, than in Sicily. Knowing Sicily is twice bigger than the Paris area, and two times less populated. That meant statistically, I was more in danger and risking getting the virus staying in Paris, than going to Sicily. Call me dumb, but I decided to go. Yeah, let’s go to Sicily!
Let’s go to Sicily
At the Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, everything seemed normal. There wasn’t less people than usual. No panic. However, there weren’t many people in the airplane. It was the same when we arrived at the Catania airport. They just took people’s temperatures. I made it to the hotel early in the afternoon, and I decided to have a walk in the city. Once again, everything was… as usual! People wandering the streets, having a drink at the terrace of a bar… Someone not watching the news wouldn’t notice anything abnormal.
The museums were closed but that was it. And our schedule was often changing, with activities modified or sometimes cancelled. I spent a good afternoon, walking in the streets of Catania. Then everything went super fast. Not only the museums, but also the schools, the cinemas, people started talking about social distancing in bars and restaurants…
I had to be at the restaurant with other bloggers at 8:30pm. Everything went fine until the announcement during our dinner… Our host made it clear we had to leave the country ASAP! Because Italy was about to close its borders! When traveling, I already had to make stressful decisions with a sense of urgency (remember this story?). But having to leave a country from one day to the next… No it never happened before! And we heard the news at 10:30pm!
What a relief, we found out a few minutes later that foreigners would be able to leave the country! The Italians only were about to be stuck in their country. But we had to leave! Moreover, the neighboring countries were probably about to close their borders too!!! We had to leave the country, no matter the destination! Everyone was stressing out, smartphone in hand, frantically looking for flight to leave Italy!
So I was in Catania and I looked for flights to Paris the day after. There was no direct flights, all the flights were making a stopover in Rome or Milan… They told us “All the flights leaving Italy tomorrow morning are still on, but the ones in the evening will probably be cancelled“. I didn’t want to be stuck during my stopover. Definitely not in Rome or Milan, places a lot more infected than Sicily!
I thought about going to another city in Europe, and from there go to Paris. I saw 25€ flights to Brussels, 30€ flights to Budapest, 50€ flights to Vienna, 60€ flights to Amsterdam… I thought about going to Brussels, it was the cheapest one, and it’s close to Paris. But I really wanted to go straight to Paris… I thought for a minute. I looked for the flights leaving from Palermo, another city in Sicily! BOOM! I found a direct flight to Paris at 10am! Yay! This flight will save my life!
There was a problem! Palermo is 3 hours away by bus or train from Catania, and I have to be at the airport two hours before takeoff! I looked on the internet and I found a train leaving Catania to go to Palermo at 4:30am! All right, so here’s the plan. Getting up at 3am, have a shower, pack my stuff, go to the train station by foot (it was far), and get to the train station at 4. It would give me time to find the right platform, the right train…
Once I arrive at the Palermo train station, rush to the airport to take my flight to Paris! I was still at the restaurant and it was already 11pm… I was about to pull an all-nighter… We all left the restaurant, gutted we already had to leave Italy. A few people didn’t have flights to go home, so they went elsewhere in Europe before going home. It happened to bloggers coming from America mostly.
After saying goodbye, I went back to the hotel and after a short nap, I went back to Paris… Some bloggers decided to stay in Sicily. They couldn’t do much since everything was closed. Three days after the start of the Italian lockdown, everybody had finally left Italy.
Back to square one
The pandemic made us realize we often take for granted travel. It took a few weeks only. Covid-19 changed the daily routine of billions of people. I was very lucky, I was able to go home without a hitch. But I’m thinking about all those people stuck in foreign countries, stranded on cruise ships…
It’s easy today to say “I would have done this” “I would have done that“. No one saw it coming, no one knew the situation would evolve this way. When we all left Italy, I realized how lucky we are to have powerful passports. We were able to leave Italy easily, to flee from an invisible (but mortal!) virus. What about all those people living in war zones? Suffering because of famine? Who want to flee from the bombs to save their lives? Are they able to leave their country if they want to with their weak passports? It gives pause for thought…
Back in Paris, many countries in the were put under lockdown, more and more people got infected, more and more people died because of the virus… Obviously, we don’t know when all of this will be over. Do I regret my trip to Italy? Not at all. I made the decisions I had to make.
Some people lost their lives, or got sick. I know some people who have businesses and they went bankrupt. It didn’t happen to me (although I lost a lot of money because of the lockdown). I cannot complain. But I can’t deny it, it’s very difficult, a real blow to my morale…
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