On a Famous Blue Raincoat

I hear that you’re building
Your little house deep in the desert
You’re living for nothing now
I hope you’re keeping some kind of record

Leonard Cohen – Famous Blue Raincoat

The early spring sun shone on Mikulov, a warmth in the air for the first time after a mild winter. Walking up to the castle, I knew things had changed, but how could one comprehend what it meant and how it would play out in daily life?

Mikulov, a picturesque town on the Czech-Austrian border, is typically packed to the gills with Austrian tourists, local Czechs, and busloads of foreigners. As I walked through the gate to the castle grounds, I began to process it all. The silence was profound; only the sound of some workers sawing in the castle courtyard and birds filled the air. I kept walking, taking in some mental respite after escaping Spain days prior and enjoying the warmth and the sun.

I reached the summit of the castle hill and paused to catch my breath and enjoy the view.

Everything looked normal in the distance – beautiful rolling hills and village life. The sun was shining; it’s all overblown, right??? As my pause turned into a short-standing daydream, the air was filled with a song coming from a window….. a familiar voice but a new song to me… Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. That moment, the feeling of the air, the vast emptiness, that song will forever define what will likely become the defining global event of my generation…..and to think we naively thought we were done with that when 9/11 came and passed.

How did I find myself here…

At the Southern reaches of the Czech border at the beginning of a global pandemic? On Sunday, March 8th, I flew to Malaga, Spain, for a worldwide summit for my company. While the “Wuhan Virus” (as we knew it then) dominated more and more of the news cycle – it felt a world away from Europe. The plane was packed with Czech holiday-makers eager to jump on a tan, and we touched down in buzzing Malaga, where unseasonably warm temperatures were forecast for the week.

The week started as planned – Monday and Tuesday were packed to the gills with long days and nights. As Wednesday dawned, several co-workers shared the news that the virus had exploded exponentially overnight in Madrid. Honestly, I felt they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Sure, Italy had a massive outbreak, but they stopped it in time. Plus – warm weather kills this thing, right? We should be just fine in the South of Spain!

By the close of Tuesday, global headlines had started to look a little scary…..

As the workday on Wednesday ended, I left to use the restroom before heading out of the office and back to the AirBNB for the night.

Returning from the bathroom into the conference room, it seemed the world had changed…..

A series of breaking news alerts had come out, and the group was rattled. Rumors were about borders closing, countries stopping flights, and planes turning around mid-air. I can’t overstate the change in the mood of the room. We all stood frantically tapping at our phones for the latest “confirmed” information.

The mood began to calm when our CEO suggested we all go to finish the discussions by the sea. A few of us made jokes that this was likely the last time we would see the sea for a long time if what we read was true.

Arriving at the beautiful boardwalk fronting Malaga’s beachfront, our discussions shifted quickly from the work topics to what we should all do. Consensus began to form that it made sense for us to end the event earlier than planned and fly back on Thursday vs. Friday. In my head, I would change my flight for the prior day, easy!

Several of us headed to a pizzeria around the corner from the Airbnb to finish our work discussions – if we were cutting a day or more out of the summit, there was much work to complete. We stayed long into the night and didn’t return to our apartment until nearly 01:00.

Before heading to sleep, my head raced with new thoughts…

Was it as simple as changing my direct SmartWings flight from Malaga to Prague from Friday night to Thursday night? Would the plane even leave Prague to come here? A quick scan of my news apps revealed that the action on the European continent had become fast and furious – Slovakia had sealed its borders with Austria, and non-Slovaks were turned around at the border! The gravity of the situation was beginning to take hold.

Before falling asleep after a very long night at a pizzeria discussing our website relaunch, I pulled up the SmartWings app, tried to change my flight, and quickly realized the new flight was only $15 while the change fee was $100. With a few clicks, I purchased a flight to return to Prague Thursday night – one day earlier. I tried to close my eyes and get some sleep, but it was nearly 2 am, and my heart was racing a bit…. at some point in the night, I drifted off only to be jolted awake by all sorts of notifications on my phone. My tired eyes opened and began to focus, and I saw news alerts from the Guardian, RT, and CNN, as well as text chains all with the same breaking news – “Trump announces ban on flights and arrivals from Europe.”

Thursday’s headline

Well…that was enough to wake me up even if I was exhausted. I quickly checked to see if anything had changed with Czech regarding flights, and it wasn’t clear. However, it was clear it was a significant topic in the news on iTunes.cz – my prime source of Czech news. Over breakfast, I chatted with a co-worker from Vienna, and she mentioned she had rebooked her flight on a late afternoon flight to Vienna that day on Wizzair. I quickly pulled that flight up on my phone and, after seeing it was about $20, bought that one, too. Nice…3 flights – I like those odds for one of them taking off.

We tried to put our minds at ease and go for a nice walk to the city center to get some coffee before our day meetings began. We planned to have some good sessions until around 4 pm and then head to the airport on our flights.

The day went quite normally until around 2 pm, with discussions on our sitemap for our website…..I don’t usually check my phone much during work meetings, but I noticed my screen lighting up constantly. I finally took a moment to review, and a long string from a friend back in the Czech told me I better get out of there as Czech was closing the borders to all non-Czechs at midnight…. wait WHAT?

The initial news did not mention EU passport holders or residents; it simply noted Czechs and said midnight. My mind started to race…..

At that point – I involuntarily blurted the latest news aloud and declared the meeting over. The frantic sense we all had the day before returned in the blink of an eye, and we agreed to go our separate ways. Everyone began to scramble with how they would return to their respective home and how to do it immediately.

I couldn’t focus on anything as I began to walk back with a co-worker to get our suitcases at the Airbnb after grabbing lunch. I called home in a panic as the reality sunk in that all the plans for my partner’s birthday would also fall apart. More than anything else at the moment, that felt crushingly bad and unfair – friends planning to come from North America to celebrate with her couldn’t even be allowed in – what was going on?

To the airport…

After a spirited walk to the Airbnb to collect our luggage, we drove to the airport in an Uber. The streets seemed strangely more empty than usual, while at the same time, all those who were out were moving purposefully. As we came close to the airport, the entire highway was closed by police, and we were controlled to ensure we had tickets to depart. As news spread about the potential for lockdowns and border closures, the worries that people would rush airports and train stations began. This started to feel real as all the words and stories we read on paper about what was going on began to come to life.

We hopped out of the Uber and entered the airport, and it was a madhouse at check-in. Enormous queues and people on phones everywhere. Thankfully, we paid for some priority status with Wizzair, enabling us to skip most of the line, and before I knew it, we were in the airport lounge. My travel partner/co-worker suggested we should get a lot of cash, which at the time seemed like a great idea – what if I needed to get transport unconventionally from Vienna airport to the Czech border? I took out nearly 4000 Euros, the most significant amount of cash I think I’ve carried, and we began to pack up in the lounge and head to the gates.

As we were waiting in line to board, the idea of all these people being so close to one another in a packed space started to freak me out for the first time. If this disease were as dangerous as the media was saying – what the hell were we doing? I remembered that I brought 3 N93 masks from the hardware store before the trip, just to be prepared. I offered one to my co-worker, who didn’t want it – she was told only by her doctor before leaving that only N95 mattered. This was one of the first examples of so many more during the pandemic when the incredible amount of information, misinformation, and rumors led people to act truly strangely. I decided to put mine on before boarding.

I was sitting in an exit row, and a stewardess was directly across, with an elderly Slovak man on the window seat. With Vienna so close to the Slovak border, Schwechat is a hub for the region. The stewardess offered the man a mask and suggested he might want to wear it – she had heard things were getting pretty bad, and the elderly were at the most significant risk. This was all evolving in real-time, and we were already seeing policy and people’s actions change.

The flight was eerily quiet. I can still remember the near lack of talking the entire flight. Many people didn’t want to eat, especially if they were wearing masks, and before we knew it, we were descending into a very dark Vienna airport. If I remember correctly, we arrived late, nearly 1100pm, so I quickly hurried out of the airport to the rental car counters. I had booked a one-way car for almost $500, literally one of the only options left, but I wasn’t even sure if there would be a car when I got there.

I was met by a friendly Serbian girl working at the AVIS counter – the only one still open. Surprisingly, she told me she had a car left for me. When I told her I was driving to Prague, though, her face looked worried – she made a few calls and said that several people earlier were turned around at the border, and she couldn’t promise anything. Furthermore, the car wasn’t set up for international rentals, it didn’t have a highway vignette, etc. I told her I should be OK since I have a residence permit and buy a highway vignette tomorrow. She wished me luck, and I was off.

The major highway was empty after driving entirely out of metro Vienna and closer to the Czech border. I had to run brights the entire time to see the road at some point, a positively bizarre experience in a populated area.

Reaching the Czech border was unlike anything I thought I’d see in my lifetime. Construction white lights illuminated the entire post, and as I got close, I realized the border guards and a few police at the border were dressed head to toe in white suits. If you want to envision what it looked like – remember the movie Contagion – it was exactly like that. I slowed the car to a stop and slowly rolled down the window. The guard quickly looked at my passport from a distance and waved me forward. I slowly accelerated forward and wondered to myself the next time I’d exit the borders of the Republic. Even as crazy as things felt at that moment, I don’t think I would have believed it if you told me it wasn’t for 3 months – the borders were sealed entirely.

I pulled into the closest hotel my partner booked to help me as I was driving. It was a nice-looking spot in Mikulov, a beautiful Moravian town near the border. As I parked, I heard crowds of kids and younger folks singing drinking songs and still packing bars – a bit odd considering the random day and time. I quickly realized this would be the last time for that in many months, and they were taking advantage. After some phone calls, I settled into sleep, only to awaken the next day to a beautiful sky and a deserted tourist city.

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