HOW I ESCAPED FROM A POTENTIAL LOCKDOWN
My taxi has arrived. A few minutes before 4am and ready to drive me to Catania Fontannarossa Airport. One last look at the mural of the city’s symbolic elephant on the hotel walls and time to go. This is where I am right now. Still struggling to come to terms with the situation that has unfolded in the past 48 hours. Salvatore, my driver, takes me past empty deserted streets typical of this hour. Except, this is also what the same streets now resemble in broad daylight too. As we arrive at the airport and see each other off, I thank him for his services and wish each other well. Determined I am to return to Catania in better circumstances. Defiant that life will soon return to how things were until about two weeks ago.
Entering the airport, an impossibly eerie silence greeted me. Apart from the janitor and one man about my age engrossed in whatever is playing on his bulky BOSE headphones, there is barely a soul. I’ve been on some early flights before but never seen an airport looking as bare as this. My immediate first thought is to walk nervously to the departure board. Dreading after the extreme stress of yesterday any ominous looking red text. Fearful of unexpected last minute disruptions, that which has been the unfolding story in the aviation industry this week. 07:00 Alitalia to Rome is still going ahead. Phew, I can breathe some relief! That’s at least some good news to start what is going to be a very long day.
However, about 80% of other flights have the dreaded sign next to them proclaiming “cancellato”. I can feel some sense of relief and a decrease in anxiety levels.
But how on Earth could it have all come to this, the very last thing I was ever expecting?
IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SO VERY DIFFERENT
Catching an early morning flight on Thursday 12th March 2020 was the last thing I could ever have imagined would be on my agenda for that day. The past six months I had imagined a far different set of events to occur at this hour. One more likely to resemble the excitement of the first day of TBEX talks and networking to be under way. After the hugely enjoyable events in Killarney and Ostrava, this was sure to be another event to look forward to. In addition, it is also the chance to see more of the host region and country. So much so I was travelling through Italy en route to the conference in Catania then afterwards rounding off in Rome for a week. I had been very ambitious on more content to post after I thoroughly loved my time in Verona and also Trento last year.
Instead, this is where I am. A tsunami of differing and contradicting emotions has engulfed me. Fear, sadness, anger, relief, isolation, doubt, uncertainty, solidarity. On the evening of Monday 9th March, Italy’s PM addressed the nation in a televised speech officially announcing that the whole of Italy is on a total lockdown to combat the ever growing coronavirus pandemic. North, South, Central and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia too. I had to fly home ASAP and could not afford to be stuck in a quarantine unsure if I can even find anywhere to stay after my proposed check-out day let alone wonder where to get my basic goods from.
Three days earlier it was only Lombardy that was locked down, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy. Now the entire country is locked down and all flights in and out set to cease on Saturday. In just three weeks, I had seen the mood change from one of optimism to despair and worry.
FIRST WARNING SIGNS OF LOCKDOWN TROUBLE
I was expecting by now to have published a wealth of articles on great itineraries and other attractions in various Italian cities. That and Lyon too. Starting in France’s second city then a pit stop in Turin before venturing through Florence, Naples and then ferrying over to Sicily. At the start of February the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic was solely limited to China it seemed. Not going to affect us anywhere else is it? Indeed was not registering as a pressing concern in Italy or any other European nations. A few cases had been reported later in the month in some small towns near Milan but rather naively neither I nor anybody else seemed to think this virus could spread like it eventually would causing the havoc and distress that it has.
After I arrived in Turin from Lyon on Monday 24th February I did start to become aware of the first warning signs. The cases in Lombardy had begun to rise sharply. Being in the province of Piedmont bordering to the west did alert me somewhat to the growing concerns. I had even heard of one case in Palermo. PALERMO? IN SICILY? Only once case and the person had been isolated from everyone else but reason to get jittery. Sicily, the island where I am heading to be in the company of many hundreds of people. So, who knows if there may be germs floating among us?
BUT LIKE TOM PETTY, I WON’T BACK DOWN
My family back home expressed concern in their messages but I was not going to quit and fly back immediately. I like having a routine and a schedule and sticking to it! I assured them that I am going to be travelling south away from the “red zone” anyway. Besides, it is just two weeks until the TBEX Europe 2020 conference. That which I had been psyching myself up for since August last year. It’s going to be a blast and nothing’s gonna stop us now!
Looking back, this particular week could be remembered as the denial period. A few hundred cases centred on a particular region but very little spread elsewhere in Italy or the rest of Europe. Of course everybody wants life to carry on as normal. Conferences, concerts, festivals, sporting events and general social get-togethers, we all have events we are interested in attending or following. It’ll be under control within a week, right? Normal service will be resumed in Lombardy in no time and it’s not going to have an impact on anywhere else in Europe or the Americas for that matter, is it? Keep calm and carry on and all that.
Although it has to be said taking a train to Florence that goes through Milan did raise my paranoia of coming into contact with a possible spreader. Such was my unfortunate timing that upon my arrival in Turin I had noticed that all museums (such as the Egyptian Museum) were closed until 1st March out of caution in accordance with health guidelines relating to the coronavirus cases that emerged. But only for a week and they will be back to normal after the 1st, likewise in Milan. And I have places to visit, things to do, people to see. Nobody wants any of their plans to be disrupted, do they?
KEEPING CALM AND CARRYING ON
Such was the volume of cases increasing that by Wednesday 26th, ten small towns near Milan had been officially quarantined. I would try not to think of any possibility things could spread and worsen. That day I was on my way from Turin to Florence and I did see a few people with facemasks. Not many but a few and it was a first clear sign that things could change. My hypochondriac instincts did get alert when at Milano Centrale a few passengers did board with face masks. Am I in the company of a potential spreader?
I jokingly said to the man that took his seat next to me “I take it you’re healthy and don’t have any fever?” to which he humorously brushed off as “it’s just like any normal flu, people are overdoing it.” Yes, “it’s just the flu”. The very words casually dismissed by people only to have it come back and haunt us weeks later.
Besides, like I said, I’m going away from the epicentre. No high volume of cases in Tuscany, Campania, Sicily so no worries. Got a big conference to go to. We’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. No further cases in Palermo since so everything is as per usual? Things are still open in Florence like normal so time to head to the next destination. Milan will reopen in about two weeks, won’t it? Time to finally explore and enjoy Florence, a city rich in history and culture that somewhat shockingly I have never visited before. So, everything is under control?
FALSE OPTIMISM ON LEAP DAY
February 29th only comes round every four years and 2020’s Leap Day episode was one of the most enjoyable. Still absorbing myself in the Renaissance charm of Florence and some wonderful locals and visitors alike, I had really been in my element. Especially so spending the afternoon in the tranquillity of the Boboli Gardens connected to the Palazzo Pitti. And to top things all off in the evening I hear Watford beat Liverpool 3-0! If something as extraordinary as that can happen then miracles are possible! Yet truth is told, this past week the first doubts about TBEX Europe going ahead did emerge and were not to be taken lightly.
I had been following our Facebook group since I first got my ticket last summer but lately I had been watching it more hawk-like than usual. The closer we got to the conference dates, the more frequent the news updates about things to expect and events and activities for us in Catania. Yet in the previous week I was detecting a change in tone. One of excitement from attendees was evolving more into one underlined by anxiety and trepidation. Posts about FAM trips were now playing a secondary role to those about the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Especially among those planning to fly in via Milan or Venice.
A number of would-be attendees, particularly from long-haul destinations, admitted they were cancelling and not wanting to risk the possibility of being stuck in quarantine unable to leave. Many were raising the health issues and no matter how much some of us would try to stay optimistic and assure others we wouldn’t be affected as not near an outbreak zone, hearing of some people pulling out was not a good sign either. This included several speakers.
FACING THE HARD TRUTHS
The ITB event in Berlin, probably the biggest travel fair in the world, was due to take place a few days before TBEX. Many were also planning to attend that too. With a growing global pandemic, going ahead with such a gargantuan exhibition attended by close to 100k people from so many different parts of the world would seem too much of a risk. After mutterings about whether it would go ahead or not came the dreaded announcement. ITB Berlin 2020 is cancelled. Yes, at less than a week’s notice. An enormous inconvenience to many and such terrible timing but unfortunately an unavoidable occurrence. Whilst I didn’t want to accept it, this highlighted the likelihood that of a similar fate befalling TBEX.
All in our FB group realised how serious things were getting. As February changed to March and I moved from Florence to the trash strewn streets of Naples, the original conference dates were getting closer and it seemed only a matter of time before the dreaded news none of us wanted to hear. So on Monday 2nd it was officially confirmed that TBEX Europe was to be postponed, but with some people already there the host organisers would still have some activities for us to take part in. Even if I’m only there for three days or five it would at least be a nice consolation, and I’m not going all this way for nothing.
My instinct was now telling me it may be a good idea to curtail my trip, the fear of being caught in a quarantine getting all the more realistic each day. Therefore, regrettably, I would have to scrap Rome from the agenda and so I booked a flight back from Catania for the 12th March instead.
ENTER THE #TBEXSURVIVORS
So, the TBEX Europe conference we had all been looking forward to since last August was to be postponed to a hopefully safer date. Although some had already arrived in Sicily in anticipation for the conference and others were only a matter of days away from arriving like myself. No conference but our hosts still wanted to keep some of the activities available for those who still attend and plan some social get-togethers. Thus, a hashtag was born, #TBEXSurvivors.
My decision to book an alternative flight home seemed a real gamble considering I had a Ryanair flight booked from Rome the following week but gut instinct told me it may be best to return early. Although Rome was not near the epicentre of the outbreak I was fearful that being a large city and major transit hub there would be a higher than likely chance of COVID spreading through here soon and being under some kind of quarantine. Alterations to flight schedules are starting to occur and I already fear further disruption, so it would not surprise me if that Rome flight gets cancelled anyways. I’ll get to visit the Eternal City another time.
All of us survivors were added to a special WhatsApp group to keep abreast of developments in Catania and any of the tours taking place. The pandemic is sweeping further across Lombardy and now that entire region has been placed under strict quarantine. No travel in or out, but I am on the night ferry to Palermo further away from this and again convinced it won’t spread any further.
I do love to travel by ferry as much as possible. A room to yourself and plenty of on-board amenities, so much better and more leisurely than the hassle of queuing up at an airport and waiting for hours to be in a plane surrounded by hundreds of other passengers.
After enduring five days in the acquired taste that is the urban jungle of Naples, the palm tree coasts of Palermo were ideal refreshment. Onwards and upwards. Here a first opportunity to get a taste of Sicily and the glorious arancini and cannoli.
Although Palermo is the fifth largest city in Italy, according to statistics, it felt so much more laid back than Naples. It was certainly still lively like anywhere else. I did not see any face masks worn here nor any sign of restrictions that I had already got a small taste of in Turin two weeks earlier. No quarantine, no stay-at-home orders in the slightest. Stark contrast with Lombardy that had been placed in official region-wide lockdown by now. Naïve to think, but with Milan the hotspot for the emerging pandemic but that is much closer in distance to London or Paris than Sicily.
There have been less than ten reported cases of COVID-19 on this island so it seems like nothing major to worry about yet? Honestly whilst I was in Palermo, a city that has in the past suffered at the hand of Mafia related corruption and knows a lot of things about overcoming adversity, I did not get any indication whatsoever of being wrapped up in any sort of major crisis getting out of control. Three days in Palermo then another three in Catania. Got to keep saying it, “I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine”.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
It had been good to hear from our WhatsApp group, all of whom seemed in good spirits. Yet looking back, I may have had a first warning today would not be a smooth ride. That I mean in more ways than one. The three-hour train trip that traversed one side of Sicily to the other was anything but smooth. Some very bendy and sharp turns almost more comparable to a rollercoaster ride. Hard to recall a train journey I wished would hurry up and reach the destination ASAP.
Then when I got to the destination and checked in to my hotel not too far away, something didn’t feel right. The area near the station isn’t one of the most desirable of the city anyway but I didn’t see many people about. I would just get a quick feel for the city and get my bearings right. I found the main area where the theatre is and it looked quiet compared with Palermo or any other cities I passed through this month. Can’t be because it’s Monday, it’s only usually museums closed on that day?
Some of the #TBEXSurvivors were having an evening dinner but I wanted to take it easy ready for tomorrow’s activities. Then around 21:00, the “Breaking News” notification updates came on my phone thick and fast all with different variations on the same story.
“PM Giuseppe Conte declares all of Italy is to be placed under lockdown as of now”. Naturally, my panic instincts reached high alert unsure of what happens next. And in the WhatApp group our organiser sent a very stark message to all of us declaring in the most drastic terms that all excursions and social events are cancelled and we must all book flights out of Italy NOW.
CATCHING UP WITH FELLOW #TBEXSURVIVORS ANYWAY
Undeterred and still scheduled to fly back on Thursday, I would make the most of the two days in Catania. Life here was carrying on valiantly and I still hardly saw anyone sporting a facemask. Through chat in the WhatsApp group most of us still agreed to meet in the centre for café and lunch and it was good to catch up with some familiar faces and get to know some new ones too.
Although that was great, there is no denying something felt a little off. Hugs and handshakes replaced with toe tapping emphasised the fear that was creeping in. It was not like the usual conferences and events characterised by the commotion of excitement.
Yet, other things occupy my mind too. I hear the latest news that various airlines are cancelling all their services to and from Italy by the weekend. Ryanair have made it clear they are cancelling from Saturday so at least the next three days are going ahead. Easyjet and others sound a bit ambiguous. No black and white answers like Ryanair but surely they will not cancel my Thursday flight. To do so at such short notice would be very bad form.
After a spontaneous meander and an opportunity for some nice photo moments in the Giardino Bellini, it’s time to head off as some have rearranged flights leaving this evening and in all honesty given the uncertain situation that isn’t conducive to socialising and hanging out as we know it I feel it’s best to return to my hotel and keep to myself in the evening. No special plans for Wednesday. Just one day to get through before home.
THE WORST POSSIBLE START
Checking my phone first thing in the morning is a very ingrained habit for me, like millions of others. I check the Easyjet app only to find the icon at the top indicating upcoming flights is not there. Alarmed, I check the “My Trips” section and see “DISRUPTED FLIGHT” written above my scheduled trip. I cannot describe how much stress, anger and worry got hold of me.
THEY HAVE CANCELLED MY FLIGHT AT LITTLE MORE THAN 24 HOURS NOTICE. I cannot concentrate on my breakfast. How on Earth am I going to get home? This kind of practice is disgraceful beyond words. In an almost knee-jerk response, I think of going to the airport to find out answers but after heading outside, I see the Catania train station is sealed off for deep cleaning in line with standard practices elsewhere in Italy. Should I take a bus to the airport and demand clear answers there?
STAY CALM, STAY CALM. NO MATTER HOW DIFFICULT IT MAY SEEM
I want to scream out loud but I better take deep breaths and go back inside and rationalise. Look, I think to myself, try Alitalia. If in doubt just go for the national airline of any country no matter what the cost. They must be most likely to offer some service. Although I know I will not find a cheap deal. I see they have a connecting flight to London Heathrow via Rome tomorrow that will set me back around £400 but there’s no option. I really must book this flight. 2 seats left apparently so the relief at booking eased some of the anxiety. But in this unpredictable climate of flights being cancelled at short notice, there is the fear of another cancellation incident and further meltdown on my part.
I cannot think of anything else all day. Repeatedly checking on my phone both the Alitalia website and that of Catania Airport. Checking that the flight is still scheduled to depart at 7am tomorrow morning. Constantly worried any minute some ominous red writing will appear.
COUNTING DOWN THE MINUTES
Most of the TBEX Survivors have departed now. But as for those still here, this is not the time to meet up. I cannot believe I am saying this and saddens me to but I just want to get out of here. All I want to do is get home to the UK tomorrow without any further issues. I need something to eat mid-afternoon and find somewhere that serves a nice ragu and arancini, not easy right now given more and more places are officially closed. Especially with a 6pm curfew.
The main piazza looks even more sparse and I see police cars casually driving around. It does turn out that as we get closer to 6pm, police are politely asking citizens to vacate the streets and the parks and go inside. This is not the environment I want to be stuck in.
Back to the hotel and every minute I still keep checking the flight info, dreading the worst. I arrange with the front desk a 4am cab to the airport, and the next few hours feel very lost. The hotel have handled everything impeccably in the midst of all this and I cannot thank them enough.
It is not easy to get any sleep when your mind is full of worry but somehow I need to as I set the alarm clock for 2am. YouTube is always at hand. First to rewatch nostalgic clips of TV shows that take me back to a more easy-going time and then after a night shower time to watch one of those “10 hours of relaxing music to help you sleep” type videos. Obviously I can’t watch the entire ten hours but after 20 minutes something really calmed me. I don’t know what but almost like a hypnotic feeling. A feeling that put me in a relaxed state to get some all important sleep. That worked!
THE LONELIEST DAY – PART TWO
A few minutes before 2am yet and I’m awake before my trusted alarm clock! Time for a VERY nervous check of the phone. Open the Safari browser and look up the Alitalia page I bookmarked. A deep breath and I’m digging my nails amidst the tension. Please God don’t do this to me. Less than five hours to go and I do NOT want another unexpected cancellation.
07:00 flight is still going ahead. No cancellations this time. I exhale the biggest sigh of relief. At least today can get off to a respectable start. Time to stretch and get washed and dressed. And now with less than five hours, absolutely NO WAY can there be a repeat of yesterday’s incident. I have all my bags packed last night except for the toiletries and the alarm clock. Time to take one sombre last look at the room that had been my shelter these past three difficult days. Half past three and I try to open my door and tiptoe quiet as a mouse to the elevator.
It must feel very surreal being the receptionist in the eerie darkness! But yes, he is aware of my early taxi booked and all I can do is wait. In complete silence. The taxi has arrived and all I am thankful. Salvatore is telling me in a mix of English and Italian how fortunate I am to get a flight arranged and avoid being stuck. We see each other off at the airport wishing a happy Easter over a month in advance. So much so because we cling on to the hope that by Easter the worst of this pandemic will pass. A resurrection of life, kind of similar to the symbolism of Easter itself. Such optimism is vital right now at this difficult time.
I have indeed arrived before even the first check in desks have opened. Still need to check the departure board still fearful of any cancellation God forbid. My 07:00 flight to Rome is still going ahead but unfortunately, it looks like almost 90% of other scheduled flights are not going ahead. As I stand first in line before check-in officially opens there is a group of over 30 German tourists arriving behind me, all of whom are called away from the queue by what looks to be their tour organiser. They were supposed to fly at 06:00, that flight was indeed cancelled, and I can overhear the man addressing them in a mix of German and English. This is yet another reminder of just how fortunate I am.
Before going through security, I have to fill in a form detailing my reason for travel, in line with procedures introduced two days previous. The nationwide curfew has really kicked in now, for you must have a legitimate reason to travel. The days of casual travel that all of us have taken for granted have now come to a sudden halt. The travel that I have passionately advocated since I was a small child, I do not know when we will ever get it back.
I notice the same group of German tourists have somehow managed to get transferred on to this flight as well, so I’m pleased for them. Returning home is all that’s on our minds.
NO TIME FOR SELF-PITY
All I am really focused on is getting back to London today. Sounds selfish but with further reports of borders being shut elsewhere in Europe each passing minute, it seems there could be further twists and turns in the tale of this pandemic. Yet, in spite of the oncoming adversity, everyone I see is keeping a happy face. The crew and passengers alike such as the older German couple sitting next to me.
Flight #1 has landed me in Rome all right. But now I have almost six hours. Rome Fiumicino, usually one of the busiest, is looking almost deserted. For here as I wander through to my terminal do I see glimpses of the new norms. Stores are all shuttered down with an ambiguous “BACK SOON” sign. But when is soon? How soon is now?
Only the cafes and snack houses are open and staff now sporting the facemasks. A glance at the departure board here also shows a shockingly high number of cancelled flights, but thankfully my flight to Heathrow is still on.
It is rather monotonous trying to find entertainment other than strolling around aimlessly. Disbelief and fascination at how full of wide-open space the airport is, when usually we’d be packed like sardines.
I would love to have a quick practice on the piano in the departure lounge but the COVID paranoia and doubts are taking over. Not irrational sounding to fear there may be a few traces of germs on the keys. I wish that wasn’t so, but with the severity of the pandemic escalating this is not the moment to take chances. I even see a couple of Asian passengers in the full HAZMAT suits. This stuff is real now.
GATHERING MY THOUGHTS
So I made it back alright. Touched down on the tarmac at Heathrow after the uncertainty of the past 24 hours. Some of the other #TBEXSURVIVORS still hanging on however in uncertainty. A few I hear from have been put on Easyjet rescue flights, arranged upon turning up at the airport. That’s great and I could have just waited and gone for that but honestly I didn’t want to gamble any more myself, and it is no secret that spontaneity is not how I roll. One or two others are just quietly waiting and hoping their flights back today or tomorrow are going ahead.
Another two attendees however, who have been documenting lockdown life daily have not been so fortunate and have been telling the story in their videos. Running out of options to fly back to New York and also with their AirBnB lease ending, less sure where to stay.
Thankfully they did manage to get something sorted very quickly and got back home in NYC safe and sound. Although it was rather unnerving to follow the YouTube live video diary recorded whilst thrust into the thick of lockdown a full day after I had returned home. Now you could really see a first hand view of what it is like to be stranded abroad with limits on your daily activities.
I’d had high hopes for 2020. Hopes this would be one of those legendary epic travel years but I have to delay them. We’ll get the chance to travel again soon, but when? Maybe there could be a silver lining to this. Life on hold for the next few months, but maybe time to reflect on all I’ve done right and wrong and work out what I need to change or not. Perhaps also discover and pursue other keen interests too. Looking for silver linings in lockdown may sound perverse but I have to try and view this as an opportunity to triumph over adversity.
It is June now as I post this and three months have passed since this whole ordeal. Within a few days of coming home almost every other country I could think of had closed its borders, suspending all travel deemed non-essential. Other travel bloggers too have recounted their race against time to avoid being stuck in quarantine far away from home. Of course it is difficult not to sound a bit selfish lamenting the loss of our travel plans. Though the ever growing uncertainty of what is happening next in the world will always play on our minds.
There is the issue of travel refunds and I have at least managed to get the Easyjet and Ryanair flights refunded as well as the cancelled Rome hotel. Although there are other expenses I am still waiting on recouping. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity straight away. Airlines and other travel companies have since become inundated with claims and thousands of others have not been so fortunate so far.
The aftermath of this will leave a legacy. Companies that have fobbed holidaymakers off in this may not be forgiven by customers, prompting them to avoid doing business with them in future. Boycotting indeed is a powerful tool.
The lockdown has not been all doom and gloom. I have in the interim been trading some rather valuable nostalgic goods on Ebay, so that has kept me going. The places I planned to visit will have to wait, but all the more time to prepare thoroughly. I’m in no hurry. For now.
It is difficult not to feel anger at what has been allowed to spread from Wuhan and ruin and destroy people’s livelihoods in the process but I must let it go. This shall soon pass. We will all be able to engage in some form of travel again. And the rest of the TBEX crowd will soon be able to Discover Catania after all.