BARCELONA: No doubt this has been an uncommon and unconventional summer, and with the second coronavirus disease (COVID-19) phase knocking at our doors, looking back at the short-lived break feels like a black and white memory.
It’s unclear if, in the history of the EU, borders have ever been shut the way they were forced to at the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19, though, is critical enough to allow this exception; the virus threatens hundreds of thousands of lives.
After the ease of the lockdown in early June coinciding with the summer holidays, Europeans started seeing light at the end of the tunnel. For those who usually pick international destinations, such choice was still largely impossible, and the question of mobility dawned on everyone. For an Arab who made the choice to live in Europe for the freedom of movement and openness, this became an even greater existential crisis.
The third week of June brought a wave of euphoria, and the thrill of weighing the anchor and sailing away after a long pause. Commercial airlines returned, trying to brush off the traumatizing period, and the new reality of reduced fleets and travel routes making air travel impractical. That did not discourage those who depend on bridging long distances, whether for work purposes or family, though others found the new experience daunting and scary, turning to national and local tourism by car; camper vans began to dot the continent’s highways.
Needing to travel as soon as the travel ban was lifted in June, my first trip was from Barcelona to Berlin. The usual commute to the airport to catch a flight felt like I was preparing to set off into space, getting ready physically and mentally for the most extreme conditions. Buses were rare, everything was wrapped in plastic. Masks, gloves, scared gazes, and an eerily empty El Prat airport all prompted nerves. The plane was mostly empty; everyone was required to keep masks on, disinfectants were offered at the entrance and no printed inflight material was made available.
QR code menus were the rule for all airlines, and inflight consumption was drastically reduced, with the aim to avoid at all cost the removal of masks and unnecessary contact with objects.
Arriving in Zurich for a stopover, something that wasn’t necessary before COVID-19, I was faced with another world, one that was careless and at ease; barely anyone was wearing masks in the airport, and flights were fully booked. The further north I went, the more sturdy and confident the system seemed to be.
The German success, as it became known, was one that was based on trust of science and pragmatism. Social distancing and prevention were not alien concepts, contrary to in the Mediterranean south, and the low death rate gave them an invincible feel. I was quickly swept away, trusting the system and happy to play along. The mask was only required in closed spaces and on public transport, and the majority of people obeyed, otherwise risking a fine as in the rest of Europe.
New systems were organized in public spaces, such as handing over personal details upon entering cafes and restaurants, that would be used for notification purposes in case of an outbreak of the virus to quickly identify and isolate the cluster. Traveling from one region to another remained open, and the Germans who would usually rush off to favorite destinations such as Mallorca or Northern Italy were rediscovering their own country. Coastal cities took on the role of Mediterranean rivieras, despite the cold waters and flat surroundings.
My second stop was Southern France, this time by car, from Barcelona. It was a seamless transition from a still traumatized city to a place enthralled by a joie de vivre; like at Zurich airport, most people were not wearing masks, markets and gatherings were back, events and concerts took place with minimal restrictions and the economy felt rebooted from within. Restrictions felt like a cover, and gave the feel that the French were COVID-19 skeptics.
Paris felt the same; public transport saw masks and social distancing, though no limit was set on numbers, though routes were diverted or canceled, especially around airports. Museums reopened with limited capacity, introducing online pre-booking, and long queues formed everywhere around the city. The Mona Lisa at the Louvre still received a throng of visitors, though in a more organized manner.
Picking Milan as the final summer destination felt like a very daring challenge. The images seen online of Europe’s worst affected city in spring still reverberated. Friends who defied that gave encouraging news and I was off again. Long tracking forms had to be filled out, and the PCR test became mandatory prior to every flight. The COVID-19 station at Malpensa Airport was signposted in giant letters, requesting travelers from risk areas, such as Spain, to take the free test prior to leaving the terminal. Milan and Northern Italy, where I stayed, seemed to have learnt from the virus not to underestimate its speed and impact. The mask was respected in all closed spaces, hygiene gels were provided at every door, and social distancing was more visible, to the point of making public beaches only accessible through prior booking and code sharing.
While I write this from Barcelona, now one of the most infected cities in the world, where hotels have not yet opened, masks are mandatory, cafés and restaurant capacities halved, fines distributed for hygiene failures, and medium and large events are canceled, the question on everyone’s mind is, what are we doing wrong? It seems that Spain initially reacted too late, and then relaxed its lockdown too early. What does the next phase hold for us? We will soon find out.