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Flights in a Pandemic

Quarantine Diary 1

In early May 2020 airports started reopening in central Europe. A connection between Vienna and Seoul reopened.

Maybe I could actually make it on time?

See, I’m an alien. An officially registered alien in South Korea. With an ARC card and everything. Yes, I know that acronym breaks down to alien registration card card. It’s one of those acronyms.

Now, to stay officially registered in Korea I have to extend my stay once a year. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic many European countries shut their borders to control their outbreaks. Slovenia’s external borders were shut. The airports and seaports were all shut. Even the county borders were shut for non-essential travel.

Getting back the way I had come, via Venice, was going to be hard to pull off.

So the Vienna connection seemed like a possibility, but not promising. I’d have to arrange a friend to drive me to the border, cross the border on foot, take a taxi to nearest train station, then take a train to the airport. Then over day of flights and layovers.

I decided to wait a bit.

Over the next few days the connections slowly improved. Then Zagreb announced it was reopening. A fair bit closer than Vienna. The flight combos were a little shorter than 24 hours, too.

On Monday the 11th my brother-in-law checked and let me know that I’d get an automatic extension of my visa while I was in quarantine. Weeks late, nearly 3 months after landing in Venice a few days before Italy declared an emergency, I was ready to head home.

I checked in with the Croatian embassy in Slovenia to find out if I’d be able to cross the border. Confirmed, I checked with the Slovenian embassy in Croatia to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and to get the number of a reliable taxi service. Old school, phone-style. Everything seemed in order.

I went online to book tickets on Tuesday and the Friday flights had tripled in cost. Backup plan: Sunday. I was cutting it very close with my visa, though. According to the Korean embassy in Austria, so long as I got in before my visa expired, I’d be able to extend it.

36 hours. That should be fine, right? Hopefully. I was more nervous than I let on.

Friday came the news of long queues at the Slovenian-Croatian border as travel restrictions were loosened. Three hours. Four. Five.

Saturday was a lot of double-checking. Called my friend to move our departure time a few hours earlier. Printed out tickets. Checked in. Packed. Repacked. Packed again. If the luggage came in overweight, I’d just have to fork out the cash, not much I’d be able to do about it.

I spent the remains of the evening chatting with my mother on the terrace. Farewell conversation. Travel in the time of covid means I can’t know when I’ll see her again. Where will the next outbreaks come? What will happen with the attempts at a tourist season in Europe? How long will we have quarantines after international travel?

Sunday. Four o’clock wakeup, five o’clock depart. We hit the border just about on time, at 08:15. There were a handful of vehicles ahead of us. Half an hour the Croatian border police let us park just across the border, where we waited for the taxi.

08:55 the taxi arrived, five minutes early. Elbow bumps for farewell, mask time and off we went. Half an hour later we made the completely surreal Zagreb airport.

Empty. 2 for 1.

It was empty.

The electric door whooshed open and silence greeted me. No people. No sounds.

Where to go?

I walked a dozen steps to the right and nearly jumped. There! A person. Two. Two staff in the information booth.

I’d arrived early. There were three flights that day. There was another hour till the baggage drop would open. I could have a coffee in the café.

So I did.

There was one other traveler, alone, leafing through a newspaper in the café. I found the two waitresses around a corner, taking instagram photos or something. I ordered and paid across two tabletops placed to create a barrier between me and the bar.

Coffee in hand I went out onto the terrace next to the main airport drive. I sat down and something nagged at my consciousness.

Silence.

It was all empty. Empty roads. Empty parking lots. No people. Well, except the waitresses on a cigarette break in the middle of the drive.

Birdsong. Wind.

The only thing I heard was a gentle breeze in the trees overlaid with a loud cacophony of querulous birdsong.

It struck me that all the zombie apocalypse movies had got their soundtracks wrong. The soundtrack of an empty world wouldn’t be moans, groans, and ominous horror music. It’d be birdsong.

Finally, I checked my luggage. A pound under the limit, which surprised me. Then a bit of confusion before I realized I was supposed to take the luggage and put in on a waiting trolley myself. I did so. Then disinfected my hands. At every touchpoint, a disinfectant dispenser.

Security had been moved to a small side corridor, with additional disinfectant dispensers. Then document check. Then disinfectant. Then the empty concourse.

Stickered seats. Keep your distance, 2 metres minimum. Empty. One bar open, two customers. But I was early. It filled up over the next hour or two.

X marks where you should not be.

In Slovenia masks are required in all public indoor areas. This didn’t seem to be the case in Zagreb. In the concourse over half the passengers pulled their masks down so they could chat more fluidly with one another. There were a couple of huddles of unmasked men, and then others like myself, off around the edges, keeping our distance and masks. Still, Croatia Airlines required masks for the flight and everyone had a mask with them.

The flight from Zagreb to Frankfurt was unremarkable. An A319 with three seats either side of a lane. Empty middle seats the length of the plane. Maybe half full, maybe a little less. Disinfectant wipes available for everyone boarding.

A stretched hour later we were in Germany. Disembarking down the empty connecting corridors was a queer, ghostly feeling. Chairs with paper strips indicating a mandatory three half-metre safety distance everywhere. Speakers announcing everyone should stick to a social distance of 1.5 metres.

The middle seat is green venom.

But no mandatory masks. As we processed ourselves through the dark, empty halls of the airport, many passengers pulled their masks under their chins and off their faces with something like relief. Even many airport staff were maskless.

There were no disinfections stations anywhere. Even at the entrances of shops. Though the taps in the bathrooms had sensors, the soap dispensers hand pull-cranks. Still, I did the best I could, and replaced my used mask with a fresh KF94 one I’d been saving since my arrival from Korea.

No security required. Empty.

Unavoidable contact, and no disinfection. Part of the reason the infection curve is so much less flat in Germany than in Slovenia seems clear from the airport.

Still, I was in luck. The airport was nearly empty, anyway, and flying Asiana to Incheon most of the passengers were Koreans. Nearly every fellow traveler wore a mask. Relieving solidarity. And the staff helped me download the self-quarantine safety protection app [TM] right at Frankfurt airport.

Who knew the iPhone camera app now reads QR codes all by itself? I still remember when that required a special app.

We boarded. I reminded a European traveler to put their mask on in the plane. They did without comment. The plane was at maybe 20% occupancy. Most of us had whole rows to ourselves, which made sleep easier.

I couldn’t but be a little paranoid in an enclosed metal tube hurtling across the sky towards Korea. It’s not really paranoia when there actually is a deadly pandemic on the loose.

And a bit frustrated. The paperwork! I must have signed my name and address and phone number and personal information over to five different agencies in Korea to make sure I could be tracked on arrival. I sure hope I’ve memorized some more of those numbers by now thanks to all that repetition.

Disembarking in Korea was a different affair from Frankfurt. More people and more signs in more languages giving instructions on what to do. Where to stand. How to proceed.

Also empty.

Temperature camera. First papers collected. Thermometer check. Routed to foreign passport queue. Our small group of arrivals was dwarfed by the cathedral scale of Incheon airport. Korean CDC workers collected our information, contact details, checked we had our tracking apps, handed out instructions, and checked we filled our paperwork properly.

Did I say there was a lot of paperwork? There was more. Lots of agreements about data usage. Lots of statements about where I would be in quarantine.

Do I also work on a ship?

No, no. I live here. I’ve got a home.

Oh, apologies.

I guessed a lot of the Croats flying in from Zagreb were sailors off to man some ship or other of the Korean civilian fleet.

ID: CORONA

Then passport control and off to the carousel to pick up the luggage. Two carousels were working, 23 were still. Nothing to declare, into arrivals, and right into a series of travel assistance desks.

More paperwork checked. Where was I headed? Seoul city? Further along, on the left.

Going to Seoul city? Yes? Bus? No, taxi. Taxi? Ok, further along, on the left.

Walked to a taxi booth. The explanation. A taxi will be 70,000 won. The driver will first take you to your local testing station, then to your quarantine address. Is that ok? Yes? Ok.

The taxi driver comes up, wearing a full clean suit and mask. Takes my suitcase and leads the way. The back’s isolated with plastic sheeting, and in I go.

We get to my local -gu and the tents of the testing center. Folding chairs, set wide apart, in the open air. I take a ticket and sit down. More forms. I fill them in. Then a lady gives informs me in English about how the test would work and presents me with a summary, also in English.

Hardly time to read it, the next worker checks my name and presents me with a sample vial. I sit down next to the testing booth.

Hardly time to sit down, the door opens and three workers in full-body protective suits, with visors and masks invite me in.

One of them explains in flawless West Coast English which swab would go in my nose and which in my mouth. She warns that it’ll be uncomfortable. It is. A little. But entirely painless.

It seems likely that if somebody hurts you while doing the nasal swab, they’re just not very good at what they’re doing.

That done, I’m told I’ll get my results by sms in two days. I get waved back to my taxi, and with a few more directions, I get delivered to my apartment.

Every surface is covered by some kind of anti-viral plastic sheeting that mentions copper. Copper ions in the plastic to kill the virus? Unclear. Still, I use the knuckle of my little finger to unlock my front door and push the elevator button and rise up to our floor.

Home.

I tap in our home passcode. Angry beep. Warning. Whirring. My wife had changed the passcode while I was away.

If I wanted a cliffhanger, this would be it. After 24 hours of travel. Driving. Taxis. Planes. Testing. Wearing a mask all the way. This would be it. Stymied at my own door by a changed passcode.

Alas, there was no cliffhanger. She texted me the new passcode (great security) and I stumbled into our home.

Home again after three months.

But still at least two weeks till I see her again.

My quarantine had begun.


8 replies on “Flights in a Pandemic”

Glad to hear you made it home, and interesting to hear what the airports look like at the moment. May you traverse the quarantine with sanity and health intact 🙂

I’m glad you’re safe back in Korea, and good on you for reminding the passenger to put on their mask. Thanks for detailing your experience, I’ve heard detailing events and journaling is important during historical events like this.

That was a fascinating account of the travel process in time of CoVID19. I hope the isolation period passes quickly for you and you can rejoin your wife. Good luck.

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