As some of you may know, our intrepid Marketing & Operations Associate, Steve, has been living and studying in Bordeaux, France for the past nine months. But just as finals were coming to a close, COVID-19 hit Europe in full force. After observing the rapid expansion of the virus in Italy and France–where he had been organizing to tour over the summer, visiting Volio’s producers throughout the two countries–he had to make the game time decision to catch a last minute flight back to the US. Read on for his account of that taxing and uncertain journey home.
Thursday, March 12
I woke up at 6am to start a great day. I would visit Domaine de la Charbonnière then spend the rest of the week exploring the region with another local wine producer friend.
I rolled over to turn off my alarm and saw six missed calls and a dozen text messages. President Trump had announced a travel ban from 26 European countries, including France, to go into effect on Saturday
(Image by ABC News)
After trying to process the situation and clear my mind I realized that the ban did not apply to US citizens. Nonetheless, I thought it would be best to move my flight to Friday (tomorrow), thinking that the situation was only going to get worse before it got better.
So, I headed off to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to work and visit Domaine de la Charbonnière. I tried my best to focus my mind during the 50-minute drive. Over the course of the next 4+ hours, I had a tremendous visit with Véronique and Caroline Maret.
1:15pm. There wasn’t any time to waste, I departed Châteauneuf and drove to Beaune to leave some of my belongings with a friend. As I was leaving, I marveled at the beauty of the area. It pained me to be leaving after such a short time, but I promised myself I would come back.
5pm. I arrived in Burgundy and began to repack my bags in preparation for flying out the following day–luckily, my life fits into three manageable pieces of luggage these days.
6:15pm. After a quick hello and a bite to eat, I started the four-hour drive to Charles de Gaulle airport to return the rental car. I just needed to get there before they closed at midnight.
And then I ran out of gas…
At this point in the day, I had gone through a wild range of emotions, had hardly eaten anything, and already driven for five hours. To pass the time in the car and to keep myself awake, I started making phone calls. I hadn’t stopped on my drive from Châteauneuf to Burgundy and I didn’t feel like stopping on my way to drop off the rental car. I just wanted to get there. But when you have this sort of day, exhaustion starts to creep in, and you can only focus on how much you want it to be over, that is when you make mistakes.
7:20pm. I was on the phone with a friend and I happened to glance down at the dashboard. Something caught my eye as I checked my speed. It was a little orange light–the low fuel light. It hit me like a wall. I had been so time-oriented and focused on getting places to accomplish objectives that I hadn’t filled up with gas since yesterday morning. “Hey, I am going to have to call you back.”
The range until empty said 7 kilometers. As I slowed down to conserve fuel, my headlights started to bring a blue road sign into focus. There was going to be a rest area in 800 meters, but it didn’t have fuel. I didn’t know what to do. I passed the exit ramp. Then time slowed down and over the next 10 seconds I felt my brain processing all of the options. Just as I was coming up to pass the on ramp from the rest area, I decided I should pull over since I definitely would not be able to make it to any other sort of exit or service area on the toll road. I reversed up the on ramp, parked, turned off the car, and just sat there in silence. How embarrassing. How could I forget one of the most basic elements of driving? It had been a day. But there wasn’t time to dwell on how or why. I needed to figure out how to get fuel so I could still make it to the airport before midnight to drop off the car.
It was dark now but the rest area was well lit in certain areas. I called the rental car company. They told me that since I was on a toll road, they could not help, and I would have to call the police using my phone or the orange SOS call box at the rest area.
Not really wanting to call the police, I decided to ask a truck driver who had his cab light on for help. I didn’t know what I was going to ask for. I couldn’t mix diesel fuel with gasoline. So, in my best emergency situation French, I explained my situation and asked if he could help. In the end, no luck.
There was one other motorist at the rest area. Again, I explained my situation and asked if he could drive me to the next fuel station and bring me back, but again, no luck.
Hmmm. It appeared that my only other option was to call the police through the SOS call box.
They told me that a mechanic would arrive in 45 minutes or less. I tried to explain again and say that I didn’t need a mechanic, just fuel. But he told me that’s how it worked.
So I waited. And sure enough, in 30 minutes, someone arrived. Only, it was not what I was expecting. It was a tow truck. Again, I tried to say that I just needed fuel. But I obviously did not know how things worked. I was getting towed.
8:40pm. After going back the wrong direction, about an hour and a half and 195 Euros later, I was back on the road with a full tank of fuel. Now I had two and half hours to go and I needed to be sure to return the car with a full tank.
Finally, after some late-night Paris traffic, finding a gas station to fill up the tank, and going around in a big circle at Charles de Gaulle, I found the rental car drop-off.
11:40pm. I handed over the keys–finally I was done with driving. Now, how do I get to the airport hotel where I had a room for the night before my flight in the morning?
Dear Charles de Gaulle airport, you are just too darn big.
(Image by NASA – public domain)
12:40am. I finally made it into the hotel room.
Friday the 13th proved unlucky
6am. I didn’t sleep very well. As I was walking through the terminal over to the United check-in, there were people everywhere. It seemed more than normal. The energy in the airport was strange. People were on edge. I avoided touching anything, used disinfectant wipes religiously, and kept a wide berth with other people.
11:10am. We were scheduled to begin boarding at any time. I couldn’t wait to get out of the airport, get to DC, and have this week be over.
11:30am. 1-hour delay due to maintenance of a cockpit light. Ugh.
12:50pm. Flight canceled. That was the announcement. No explanation. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry for the inconvenience, but flight UA914 with service to Washington-Dulles has been canceled.”
Oh, this week was just unbelievable. I was in a state of disbelief and fatigue. There was nothing I could do except laugh and go off to hopefully get on another flight. The lesson of this week was: just keep moving forward.
There weren’t any other flights out that day, so I rebooked a seat for the same flight the next day. Live to fly another day.
I checked into another hotel room and crashed face down onto the bed. After napping/passing out for 2 hours it was still only 4pm. I decided to go for a run to clear my head.
Have you ever tried going for a run outside at an airport hotel? Turns out, you can’t go very far…
8:20pm. President Trump made another live address declaring a national emergency. There weren’t any changes to travel announced so I went off to sleep. That night the travel ban and airport restrictions for arriving passengers would officially go into effect.
Saturday, March 14 – Back to the US of A
6am. I woke up to find that the inbound plane for my flight was going to land 2 hours late. United had already issued a 2-hour delay notice and were allowing people to select alternative flights. I took this as a bad sign and decided to go ahead and book an earlier flight. The downside was that I would have to go through Chicago O’Hare and then connect to Washington-Dulles. But some progress was better than no progress!
11am. We were really leaving. I was relieved, though I also knew the journey back to DC wasn’t over yet.
2:30pm. Nine and a half hours later, I made it to Chicago. As we exited the plane, four CDC workers were in the jet bridge observing all passengers. We made our way toward customs where we were faced with enormous lines and general uncertainty. Being packed in with thousands of other passengers from Europe did not feel like the best situation for avoiding the virus though. Even more, I didn’t feel like I could leave my place in line to use the toilet for risk of going all the way back to the ever-growing back of the line.
5:45pm. After being questioned by two US customs agents and a CDC worker, where I had my temperature taken, I was through and officially back on US soil. Later, I came to find out I was one of the luckier ones who only had to wait 3+ hours as some people were in line for more than five or even seven hours.
(Image by BBC News)
10:05pm. My delayed flight to Washington finally takes off. I am still vigorously wiping down everything at my seat with disinfectant wipes. I must have gone through over 200 wipes in the last couple days and even more for the whole week. Thankfully, I had stocked up before I left Bordeaux.
During the flight, I can’t bring myself to focus enough to read, listen to podcasts, or anything beyond stare out at the night sky with a scrambled mind. I can’t wait for this day and week to be over.
1:15am. Finally. I can fall asleep and end one of the wildest weeks of my life. Tomorrow I begin my 14-day self-quarantine as directed by the CDC. Wow.
Having gone through all of this, I personally feel for everyone travelling during this difficult time. Thank you to all of the customs and CDC workers for doing the best they could. I truly hope that everyone travelling back from outbreak areas will undergo a 14-day self-quarantine in earnest. My fear is that the actual percentage of people doing so will be low.
All the best and stay safe.
P.S. Upon finishing this post, I checked the status of the United flights that I was on from Paris to Washington and Paris to Chicago for the week. Sunday, March 15 were the last flights to leave. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’s flights were canceled. I’m certainly thankful that I was able to make it back to the US when I did since my original flight for Tuesday would not have gone. Hoping for the best going forward.