Travel In The Time Of Science
This is a true story.
A US-based Italian friend of mine decided to travel to Europe this spring. Vaccinated and full of confidence as he would only traverse countries whose governments follow the science, he planned the adventure and set out.
The planning itself was a cliff-hanger: the purchase of tickets followed by a nerve-wrecking daily check of fast-changing travel rules. Italy, his destination country, had established a complex system of restrictions based on a 5-tier ranking of countries of departure, reason for travel, nationality, occupation, length of stay and more. The restrictions could include any combination of showing a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival, quarantines ranging from 5 to 14 days, and post-quarantine Covid tests.
The rules were – and still are - so complex that a helpful information website illustrates them with concrete examples like the following (I am not making this up): “A South African citizen who resides in the US and flies to Italy from the US for a 4-day work visit can enter without a negative Covid test and will not be subject to quarantine”; whereas… “An Italian citizen who lives in and comes from Mexico via France for a work visit longer than 120 hours will need to show a negative Covid test, then quarantine for 5 days, then take another test.”
Science, as we know, can be complex.
After careful study, my friend concluded he did not need a pre-travel Covid test, but would need to quarantine for two weeks after arrival. The US airline he was booked on did not ask him to bring a negative Covid test for boarding either. But being of a cautious nature, he decided to take a test anyway the day before traveling.
The first leg was an overcrowded domestic flight to New York. Masks strictly enforced, social distancing strictly impossible.
At the gate for the flight to Italy, another passenger was engaged in a heated debate with the airline representative at the counter. The airline rep insisted the passenger would not be allowed to board unless he showed a negative Covid test. The passenger protested that the airline had never told him he needed a Covid test, and that Italy’s own rules did not require it either. The passenger, somehow, was eventually allowed to board.
Science, as we know, can be surprising.
Upon landing in Milan, my friend retrieved his bag from the overhead bin and prepared himself for fourteen days of isolation. And then the captain announced, matter of fact, that since they were an official “covid-tested” flight, all passengers would be tested at the airport and, if the result was negative, would be free to go and exempt from quarantine. My friend had heard of these flights, yet his intensive research had yielded no indication that the flight he had booked was one of those. But you don’t look a gifted horse in the mouth, so he happily followed the signs to the testing area.
As he reached the testing tents, a throng of journalists and TV reporters, dutifully masked, surrounded him within an inch of his nose to ask him if he felt safer for having travelled on a “covid-tested” flight (it was the first such flight, hence the media interest). He nodded and tried to regain some breathing space.
He found Italy in full lockdown. Italians were walking and running in the hills fully masked, because the government that can’t get you a 2-Euro vaccine will fine you 400 euros if it catches you unmasked alone in the open air.
Science, as we know, can be lucrative.
One day he accompanied a friend to a department store. They chose an iron, then turned to the ironing boards in the next aisle. The sales representative stopped them with a sad shake of the head.
“We can’t sell you those.”
“They fall in a product category whose sale is banned while the region is categorized as a ‘red zone’.”
“So you can sell me an iron but you cannot sell me an ironing board?”
“Science, I suppose.”
Science, as we know, can be mysterious.
All considered, my friend’s Italy visit was enjoyable, including the illicit thrill of violating the 10pm curfew (Covid-19, like all monsters, gets hyperactive at night) driving back through an eerily deserted city after an underground dinner with friends.
Science, as we know, can be exhilarating.
The time came to return to the US. At the gate for his Milan-London flight, they announced that for everyone’s safety boarding would proceed by row numbers. Rows were called as follows:
“Rows 45 to 55; passengers in rows 45 to 50 shall board from the front of the plane, those in rows 51 to 55 from the back of the plane.”
“Rows 40 to 44 and 51 to 55; passengers in rows 40 to 44 will board from the front, those in rows 51 to 55 from the back.”
And so on and so forth, to rows 1 to 5 (from the front) and 96 to 100 (from the back). In his mind, my friend admired the simple elegance of this routine, which would allow passengers to reach their seats minimizing dangerous proximity.
Called in this rigorous order, all passengers squeezed into the same overcrowded bus, which later discharged them to an indecorous free-for-all rush to the plane on the tarmac.
Science, as we know, can be amusing.
Passing immigration in London for an overnight layover, my friend approached the first available officer.
“Do you have all the required documentation?”
“All and more” said my friend, an unrepentant optimist
“I really doubt it” replied the officer with a knowing smile
“Well, here is my passport, the negative Covid test taken yesterday, copy of the online Passenger Locator Form…”
“…and my vaccination card”
The officer burst out laughing
“Vaccinations don’t count, I’m afraid”
“But the Passenger Locator Form looks good, you might be one of the very few people who got it almost right”
“Nobody gets it right”
“Ah. But I followed all the official instructions”
“Ha. Precisely. See, here you said you do not have to quarantine”
“I understood that I don’t have to quarantine as I am in transit”
“Right. But you should have entered that you do have to quarantine”
“Even though I do not have to quarantine?” “Precisely. That way it would have allowed you to enter the address where you will spend the night. You will be staying at a hotel?”
“Yes, airport hotel.”
“Good. Anyway, good effort, I’m not going to make you redo all the form again, off you go, safe travels.”
Science can bring us together.
My friend is already looking forward to his next trip. He is optimistic that many of these new science-based rules and restrictions will remain in place in some form or other, for a very long time.