Published March 17th, 2020 at 1:06 PM
It’s now day six of my mandatory 14-day quarantine since returning from Europe.
Before that, my husband Polo and I traipsed through the tiny stone streets of Lisbon, Portugal for a week, snapped endless photos of the pink, blue and yellow buildings and drank gallons of its wine. It was vacation time – at least to us.
When we left for Portugal, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was in the headlines more than our lives. When we landed in Portugal on March 5, there were only five confirmed cases in Portugal.
But during vacation, the virus was on everyone’s minds. Our barista’s, Uber drivers’ and waiters’.
I’ll never forget how calm, yet increasingly cautious, our new barista friend, Evy Marconi, became. Every morning for six days, Polo and I walked to the corner of Rua da Rosa to Fábrica Coffee Roasters for our morning coffee – after a shot of espresso at a mom-and-pop shop in Bairro Alto.
The more coffee we drank, the more we conversed with Marconi, who we later learned is a lead barista at Fábrica. She worried that the shop’s acclaim would attract travelers from affected areas and spread to her staff and clients. Their work, she explained, depended on social interaction and almost direct contact with customers. (Since then, they began to encourage to-go orders, coffee deliveries and stricter guidelines for those who drink coffee in their space.)
For most folks, life went on as usual so that’s what we did too. We danced in tiny Bairro Alto clubs, ate tapas at a restaurant – also very tiny – and traded hugs and cheek-kisses with our new friends.
But when we left on March 11, the number of cases had jumped to almost 60 in Portugal. Today there are 331 confirmed cases.
The severity of how rapidly this virus was spreading didn’t hit me until it was time to board the plane back to the U.S. “Group 3 for United Airlines,” rang from the intercom. To be sure, I glanced at my phone to check the boarding pass.
“OK, we’ll travel from Lisbon to Newark then hang for six hours until we head to Kansas City,” I told Polo.
Like clockwork, fellow travelers flapped open their passports for inspection. Then, one by one we were funneled into what looked like another TSA checkpoint. Immigration officials checked everyone, two at a time, and asked us a series of questions. They repeated: “What was the purpose of travel? Are you bringing back any meats or cheeses? Where else did you travel?”
Frankly, I was running on an hour of sleep, so it felt like the “Twilight Zone” and their questions just melded together. At one point, I had zero energy to respond.
Then it was our turn to get checked. We set our bags down on metal tables labeled “No. 1” and “No. 2.” An official swabbed both hands and asked that I remove my shoes, “to swab feet too,” she said. The machine beeped, we were cleared and headed back in line to board the plane.
That was the first of three checkpoints and each one made my heart pound, sweaty and nervous. I’ve traveled abroad before and this amount of red tape to return home was new. To me, it felt like an added precaution due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in Spain and Italy.
As we stood in the Immigration and Customs line in Newark, I observed one family routinely passed around hand sanitizer, a hard-to-come-by commodity we had to hunt down in Lisbon at a small shop near our Airbnb. Shops in U.S. airports were completely out. Another family wore masks and stayed two steps behind us. To some degree, there was a level of distrust – everyone was wary of the people around them.
That brings us back to being quarantined.
During my six-hour layover in Newark on March 11, I received a text from my managing editor. “Gotta hunch there’s about to be more remote work the next couple of months,” it read.
My mind was racing. I checked my work email and saw a note from HR, the subject line: “Your Travel Abroad.” Since Portugal was designated a high-risk country, I was to work from home for 14 days upon my return in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Two days after being home, most employees at Kansas City PBS were told to work from home, communicating solely through text, email and Google Hangout. It’s clear we miss each other.
Here I sit in my home office where I can only see the five houses on my cul-de-sac. No opera singers serenading or communal dance parties from the porch as isolated folks have done in Italy. Simply shut-in. All I hear are the bells on my cats’ collars bouncing, my dog’s pitter-patter as she paces to and from the front door and my husband typing away at his computer.
For someone who thrives on social interaction while also being socially anxious, this whole isolation/quarantine thing is confusing. It disrupts the daily flow of “life as usual” and the very human part of us, which is socializing. Having experienced a wealth of human connections in Lisbon, I pine for that now in Lawrence and Kansas City.
So, in part, this pandemic drives me to connect and communicate with friends, family and coworkers even more. As I reminisce about the streets of Lisbon, I have also begun to reach out to friends to plan virtual dinners, movie nights and happy hours.
Anxieties related to the coronavirus outbreak are higher these days. Whereas introverts might be OK with long periods of isolation, extroverts will be the most affected, says Anne Wagner, a professional counselor and licensed RN in Kansas City. (Full disclosure: Wagner is my therapist, so I asked her to offer insight to what impact this pandemic will have.) So, what to do?
“It’s not enough to watch Twitter or Facebook, it’s about the interactions,” Wagner said. “So FaceTime, Zoom, Doxy, etcetera are better.”
She added: “Everyone says this pandemic will change our world, and I agree. Not sure exactly how it will change, but perhaps we will learn to value human interactions more than we have in the past.”
It may only be quarantine day six, but I’m determined to build a stronger network through this time of community and self-care via self-isolation. We can do it, one day at a time.