Your social media feed has probably been blowing up with news about the spread of the Coronavirus, particularly in Europe (you know that infamous map marking the spread of the virus? It’s giving off a lot of doomsday vibes!). But I can actually speak about it from personal experience.
I just flew back from Europe where I witnessed the spread of the Coronavirus first hand—from border closings, to restaurants shutting down, to empty streets. I want to give you Evie readers an insider’s look at the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Europe but with a hopeful twist—a call to courageously seek truth and find beauty in every person during this time of fear and uncertainty.
It Was Supposed To Be a 6-week Trip to Europe
I flew to London recently for what was intended to be a six-week-long stay in Europe and the UK. I had a few meetings and tours of graduate programs scheduled in the UK, but I was also planning on visiting my friends in Saarbrücken, Germany, where I lived and studied last year, and attending my God-brother’s wedding in England at the end of April—and a small trip to Dublin, because why not?
However, as my tour of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland was cancelled due to the spread of the virus, my time in Europe was kicked off by an early start to a planned European vacation with my friends from high school. Our jam-packed schedule was crazy enough, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! News about the virus at the time reassured everyone that the virus was contained in Italy. Boy, were we in for a surprise!
News about the virus at the time reassured everyone that the virus was contained in Italy.
Our trip took us from London to Budapest, to Vienna, to Salzburg, to Munich, and back to London. But before my friends arrived, I spent a day by myself in London and flew on a day trip to Vienna, Austria to help out with an event for an organization that I interned with in the past—Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. I mention this only to note that I saw both of these cities twice—before and after the rapid spread of the virus.
I spent my first evening in London at Covent Gardens, drinking a glass (or several) of wine with my new, spontaneous, Norwegian friends while watching the notorious Covent Gardens performers. It’s a tradition of mine that I highly recommend to all of you! When I flew to Vienna, the streets were bustling, the museums and schools were open, and our event had over 600 attendees in one auditorium! This beautiful liveliness was promising for an enriching—and quite normal— tour across Europe. Though our trip ended up not being normal in the least bit, it was still definitely enriching beyond anything we could have predicted!
Then Things Started To Change
My friends and I started our trip in Budapest, and everything was seamless. We toured the Parliament Building, explored medieval castles, and ate lots of yummy goulash soup. Chatting with a few of the waiters, they informed us that the first cases of Coronavirus had broken out in Hungary that day, but nothing extreme enough to cause concern. But things changed quite quickly.
The next day, we took the bus to Vienna, and, ironically, I met a group of Hungarian students at our hostel. I spent the evening with them playing foosball (and having a lovely cigar—my guilty pleasure). During our conversation, I was surprised to hear that they were cutting their vacation short and heading immediately back to Hungary. One of the students had a friend in the Hungarian army, and they advised their fellow Hungarians to return home immediately as there was word that the government was going to shut the border within the next couple of days. I couldn’t believe what they were saying, as we were just in Hungary that morning, and we were reassured that the virus was contained in Italy. But, sure enough, when we woke up the next day, Hungary had closed its border.
They advised their fellow Hungarians to return home immediately as there was word that the government was going to shut the border within the next couple of days.
But things didn’t stop there. When we went outside to tour the city, we discovered that all of the museums had closed down indefinitely that very morning. That is when the severity of the virus started to sink in.
Everything Started To Close
As we spent the next two days in Vienna, we saw the city become increasingly barren. Schools were cancelled, shops and restaurants were almost empty, and talkative waiters expressed their growing fear of losing their jobs. It was not the same city that I had seen the week before. However, the reality of COVID-19 was about to become a lot more real for us Americans.
Our second morning in Vienna, my friends and I woke up to our iPhones exploding with messages from worried friends and family back home. When we checked the news on our phones, we saw that the U.S. had just issued a travel ban across Europe, excluding the UK and Ireland. At that moment, we could definitely feel the weight of this crisis and that the world around us was changing very rapidly. Thankfully, the next day we were heading to Salzburg for one night before taking a bus to Munich to fly back to London. At least we would be in the one region in Europe that wasn’t affected by the travel ban—the UK.
We Were Stopped and Screened at a German Border Patrol.
Our journey wasn’t without more obstacles. After a quick overnight in Salzburg—which was completely empty— we caught our early 5am bus to Munich where we would fly back to London. We were fast asleep on the bus when, all of a sudden, our bus came to a stop, and to our surprise, we saw German police officers boarding our bus. We were at the German-Austrian border.
As my eyes adjusted, I looked out my window and noticed that we were at a makeshift border patrol station (this was a bit shocking as one of the fundamental precepts of the E.U. is the free exchange of goods and people across borders. I had never seen one during any of my travels in the E.U.)! Thankfully, I speak German, and I understood the police officers telling the bus driver that we needed to exit the bus and line up for a passport and health screening. This is when it became real.
Individuals who were from countries that had experienced major outbreaks of Coronavirus were pulled aside for a future health screening.
We were checked for our passports after we lined up outside of the bus. Individuals who were from countries that had experienced major outbreaks of Coronavirus were pulled aside for a future health screening. Since I speak German, I began conversing with one of the officers. I asked if the border patrol was erected because Austria was closing its border. After looking over his shoulder, he answered very quietly, “Yes.” Then I asked if Germany was closing its border soon. He answered, “I can’t say yes or no, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing that you are leaving Germany today.” I couldn’t believe that we were literally some of the last foreigners to leave Austria and Germany before their borders closed!
Travel Bans, Flight Cancellations, and the Hard Decision To Fly Home
Hours later, after a much-needed breakfast in Munich, we were on our way to London. Once we landed in Heathrow, we were greeted by a bunch of masked personnel directing us to our baggage claim. When we turned our phones off airplane mode, we got the alert that the U.S. travel ban now included the UK and Ireland. The second alert was that almost 75% of international flights were being cancelled. It was then that we realized that we should try to fly back home as quickly as possible.
The last evening that we spent in London was an eerie and sobering experience. I went to Covent Gardens again, and it wasn’t nearly as lively as it was the week before. While chatting with one of the shop owners at Covent Gardens, he said that many of the long-standing shops might be forced to close down since nobody is allowed in large, crowded areas. There was a somber spirit over the whole town.
Once we landed in Heathrow, we were greeted by a bunch of masked personnel directing us to our baggage claim.
Later that evening, I confirmed my seat on one of the last flights back to the U.S. In a blink of an eye, I drove to Heathrow at 2:30am, and I was on my way home to Los Angeles. Since coming back, all of my previously scheduled flights, trains, and hostel bookings have been cancelled, and my God-brother even had to reschedule his wedding. A planned 6-week stay in Europe turned into a 10-day eye-opening experience of the global impact of the Coronavirus.
My TSA Health Screening
For those of you wondering, my TSA and health screening was actually a breeze! We had to sign a CDC form disclosing the countries that we had visited within the past 14 days, any symptoms that we had experienced, and any persons infected by the coronavirus that we had knowingly come into contact with. Before collecting our luggage, we were screened by EMT officers, which consisted of taking our temperature, and then we proceeded to regular passport control. Everything took about 30-40 minutes in total, unlike the horror stories that I’ve heard from other airports. LAX was extremely efficient, and the personnel were so welcoming and kind! Everyone was wearing protective masks, goggles, and suits, so I felt a bit like an infected lab rat, but everyone was making their best effort to make us feel welcome.
This was an eye-opening experience to say the least, and never did I feel like I was witnessing first-hand such a historical cultural moment. We saw many tragic things, from chatting with native Europeans of Asian descent who were spit on because of their ethnicity, to streets and shops closing down, to the many workers who feared for their jobs. However, we also saw the human spirit shine at its best, in the street performers in Munich playing in the empty streets to bring life to the city, in the waiters in Vienna who assured us that they would serve everyone with 5-star treatment (even if they were the only ones in the restaurant), and in the members of Reality London Church who spent an hour praying over their city and every country’s protection.
These acts of light and hope in a time of darkness and fear do wonders of refreshment for the human soul. Witnessing this first-hand in Europe struck me with our unique cultural moment - that the whole world is going through a common tragedy, perhaps for the first time in the modern era, and, consequently, we have the opportunity to love our neighbor, local and global, in the most unprecedented and profound way.
The whole world is going through a common tragedy, and we have the opportunity to love our neighbor, local and global.
We can either be consumed by fear, or we can face our common struggle head-on with determination. We can develop a prejudice against a people-group that has experienced the full force of the virus, or we can courageously affirm the inherent value and dignity of every human person. We can binge-watch Netflix while “social distancing” (guilty as charged), or we can innovate creative ways to help our neighbor, to donate to food pantries, to send aid to those countries who are most affected.
I’ve seen the best and the worst of the human spirit emerge during this crisis, and people will be remembered by how they reacted during this season. I encourage all of us to aspire to the good, to embody the best in the human spirit, to face fear with determination, and, most of all, to love courageously.
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