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My wife’s phone call yanked me out of a deep sleep at 2:30 a.m. I was in a studio apartment in Warsaw, Poland.
Halfway around the globe, President Trump was announcing a travel ban on people coming from Europe into the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had about 18 hours to get back stateside.
As a U.S. permanent resident and a spouse of a U.S. citizen, I was technically exempt from the ban. But the question quickly became not who could get back, but how to get back. Airlines were canceling flights and those that remained available were spiking in price.
You never expect to experience anything like a scene from a Hollywood movie: the dreaded call in the middle of the night, hectic packing, hasty ride to the airport and the uncertainty of what’s next.
Pandemic. The “enemy” is invisible and everyone is a suspect. If there’s one unifying element in the experience of this outbreak, it must be the sensation of confusion.
I had gone to Poland for a routine visit with my family, who live outside Warsaw. I bought a bargain ticket months ago, long before the coronavirus was in the news. When I flew out March 5, it seemed prudent, but things were changing quickly. I arrived on Friday, March 6, just in time to catch the Polish prime minister calming the nation, telling us we’re all fine. By the time I was self-evacuating the next Thursday, March 12, the U.S. travel ban was about to go into effect, people were buying out food in panic and rumors of city-wide quarantine were rampant.
Someone said they saw tanks deployed at the city limits (later on, one of the government ministers held a press conference to dispel the rumors).
My folks are in the highest risk group, both in their 60s and close to retirement. Dad is a forester with a national park, and Mom works at one of the largest government agencies in the country. And my 97-year-old grandpa, although still going strong, a veteran activist and organizer, is no spring chicken either. At this point, it would probably be easier for him to kick another Nazi ass than to beat pneumonia.
It’s hard to think my family is out there, while I’m a literal ocean away.
I was in Poland because I miss family and friends and because my mom was going to teach me how to make sauerkraut and bake an old Polish Christmas gingerbread (the dough needs to rest in a clay pot for a month!). My dad was going to talk to me about mushroom foraging, and I was going to record all of it for a podcast on pickling.
We managed to set the kraut but not much more.
I called my parents at about 3 a.m., just after my wife woke me during the president’s travel-ban announcement. It’s a blessing to have an older generation to look to for some peace of mind. They lived through three years of martial law under the communist regime in the early 1980s and don’t get fazed easily. We strategized and decided they’d both pick me up and take me to the airport to say our goodbyes.
So they did. I made it on time, and I boarded my flight. Poland shut down two days later, now admitting only Polish citizens back in and suspending all international flights– in or out.
But before I left, my mom handed me two loaves of gingerbread she baked in the middle of that chaotic night.
The rest seemed very much unlike a Hollywood movie. Except for a couple of people wearing masks, and me compulsively sanitizing my hands, all went smoothly. I felt exhausted, mostly by the stress of it all.
I got back into Washington, D.C. right under the wire. I missed the crowds of Americans returning home and the “enhanced screenings” at the airports. My screening consisted of two questions: “Have you traveled to China recently?” and “How are your folks doing?”
In six days, the combination of flawed health policies, politics, and a public-health emergency upended almost everything I took for granted about my day-to-day reality. It’s true for life in both countries.
Since my return, everyone back home in Poland is self-isolating. My friends working in the service industry are out of work, my friends writing about arts and culture, too. Others feel suspended in the unknown, and some had their employers switch them to remote work.
Washington, D.C., appears torn between caution and defiance. One of the trending hashtags is #shutusdown, a plea by local businesses to the government to act. Meanwhile, businesses are closing down on their own, but whatever’s left open remains filled with people. Spring is lovely and cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Jan Pytalski is associate editor of the Daily Yonder.