Fri, 29 May 2020

Stay or Go An American Abroad Struggles with Sheltering in Place

Voice of America
02 Apr 2020, 16:05 GMT+10

First, I should have listened to my family weeks earlier when they asked me to come home.

Second, I needed to fly out ASAP.

In one week, I went from being an English teaching assistant living in northeastern France to fleeing the country amid the rapid spread of COVID-19.

My brother, Brett, and my mom had been pressuring me to return home for the previous two weeks, but I assured them that I was still safe and had a job to do.

Then, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the closure of all schools and universities. On Friday the 13th.

Again, my family advised me to return home. And again, I stubbornly insisted that I would be safer self-isolating in France than I would be traveling through crowded airports and packed flights where the virus could spread freely.

"Let me book you a flight home," my brother said over the phone. "I'd feel a lot better if you were here, and I don't want you getting stuck in France if the situation there gets worse."

I relented and let him book me a flight for the following weekend. We decided it would be best for me to stay with him in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, instead of with my parents, both in their 50s, in Macon, Georgia.

I wasn't entirely convinced I'd be returning home to the States within the week, but I went along with the plan.

I ended up flying out the next morning.

I was on the phone with my brother when a text arrived from a friend with the headline that President Macron was in talks with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU officials to close borders. A coworker texted and warned me that she heard that all air travel would soon be suspended.

I thanked my coworker for the heads up and started packing my suitcases.

That night, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France, along with the rest of the European Union, had elected to halt all air travel entering and departing from the Schengen free passage zone. The suspension was to go into effect the following day at noon. I searched for flights departing from Paris the following morning.

After several failed attempts, I managed to book a flight leaving 13 hours later. I made a cup of coffee and hurried to cram the rest of my clothes and books into my suitcases. At 3 a.m., I made more coffee: I couldn't risk falling asleep and missing my train. Finally, around 5:30 a.m., I dragged my two loaded suitcases, duffel bag, and backpack half a mile to the station to take the first train to Charles de Gaulle airport and thanked my hosts for everything. The farewells felt hollow.

"This doesn't feel real," my friend, whose family I had grown used to visiting every weekend, told me. I agreed with him. Even now, I am struggling to understand how things turned out like this.

The airport was chaos. Thousands of frantic travelers in masks were pinballing off one another as they raced through the terminal and seethed in sluggish lines. I rushed to print my boarding pass, fumbled through crowds with my unwieldy luggage and waited more than two hours to drop off my bags.

Another 45 minutes to pass through security. It became obvious that I was going to miss my flight, but I raced up escalators and down the long terminals to get to my gate as soon as possible. When I arrived, the woman working at the gate looked up at me with a pitying expression.

I was lucky, and she got me on one of the last flights out of France to the U.S.

Postscript: After a seemingly endless two days of stumbling through airports, finding out my baggage was sent to Los Angeles and waiting overnight in the atrium of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, to catch a 7 a.m. flight to New Orleans, I have arrived to an uncertain future.

I sit in self-quarantine at my brother's house and worry that the telltale symptoms will appear any day now. But for the moment, I can only be patient and hope for the best. If I do fall sick, I will be thankful to not have an ocean between my family and me.

American Luke Felty was an English teaching assistant living in northeastern France.

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