So how close did we come to missing our transatlantic flight? We knew returning to Spain under pandemic conditions wouldn’t be easy. But of all the things I’d fretted about, I’d never anticipated a tardy Uber driver on the journey’s very first leg (which was so short it was more of a toe, really).
All Rich and I needed was a lift to the Airporter bus seven minutes away. We booked Uber in advance, confirmed, and re-confirmed. Standing on the sidewalk with our suitcases watching the minutes tick by — five … ten … fifteen … twenty … twenty-five — we began to wonder whether it would be faster to call a taxi, steal a car, or hitchhike.
Eventually the driver showed up, and when we explained the urgency of the mission, she put the pedal to the metal, achieving speeds of 80 miles an hour. Rich and I clung to one another, hoping we wouldn’t spend the rest of the trip dead. We made the Airporter with moments to spare, arrived at SFO’s international terminal on schedule (whew!), and rushed in toting sheaves of transit documents.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Covid-19 has complicated international travel paperwork enormously. And that went double for us, as the lack of direct flights between SFO and Spain meant a London stopover that added many hours, gallons of coffee, and handfuls of aspirin to the research and preparations.
We soon discovered the UK is very, very fussy about this stuff. Like many countries, it requires a Covid test within 72 hours of the flight. But not just any old Covid test. According to the official website, “The test must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. This could include tests such as a nucleic acid test, including a PCR test, a LAMP test, or an antigen test, such as an LFD (lateral flow device) test.” Pretending we knew what any of that meant, we contacted various clinics in an effort to secure the right tests at the right time and, if possible, for the right price. Fees went as high as $300 per person, but luckily our friend John tipped us off to a free pop-up test center in San Francisco, with results sent to your phone in just half an hour. Thanks for that one, John!
A comment on my blog gave us a heads-up about the UK’s other monster requirement. My friend Jackie (author of the lively blog TravelnWrite) said, “Good luck! We just returned to the States via London. In addition to that test, make sure you have filled out your PLF, passenger locator form. It is required even for the shortest of layovers — ours was two hours long and it took nearly that long to fill out the four-page form.”
I thought she was exaggerating — you know how we bloggers love a bit of drama — but if anything she was understating the case. Working online in the comfort of our dining room/transportation planning hub, Rich and I spent ages filling in our passport numbers, Covid history, travel details up to and including seat numbers on every flight, phone numbers, and more. What, no eye exam or letter from a priest?
For Spain, we needed a Documental Control QR code attesting to our vaccination status. This could only be completed 48 hours before our flight, at which time they would let us know about any additional entry requirements. I spent weeks fretting about what they might want — an essay in Spanish about why I wanted to go to Seville? An oath of loyalty? A whopping service fee? But in the end, they mostly wanted to know if we were vaxxed. ¡Sí, totalmente!
All the hours we put into the legwork and paperwork paid off. We breezed through check-in at SFO, producing document after document, including printouts of our Spanish QR codes, and in return we received boarding passes for both flights. We were on our way!
The late afternoon plane was about half full, and we expected to sleep much of the next ten and a half hours. Then a woman sat down nearby with an infant who had a set of lungs like Pavarotti and the staying power of an Olympic athlete. Hearing about it afterward, my friend Bob said, “Sorry you had to listen to the screaming baby. It conjures the old aphorism: ‘The plane to Spain can make one go insane!’" Amen to that, Bob.
Except for the baby, everyone was scrupulous about face masks — so scrupulous, in fact, that during the safety demonstration, the flight attended had to tell people, “Remove your face mask before you put on the oxygen mask.” Good advice, people!
Rich and I happen to loathe Heathrow’s insistent, jazzy marketing and endless crowds, so on arrival we splurged on a pay-to-use lounge called Club Aspire, which is open to anyone. Or at least, anyone who is willing to cough up $33 for the luxury of sitting on comfortable furniture in a quiet room, enjoying free coffee, scones, and clotted cream while plugging in a laptop and maybe dozing off now and then.
Five hours later, we boarded the plane to Málaga, Spain, the closest we could get to Seville from Heathrow. To make us feel at home, they’d seated us near another screaming baby, but by now, who cared? A few noisy hours later we stumbled off the flight, zipped through customs, checked into our hotel, and found a small backstreet tapas bar. As we sipped ice-cold Cruzcampo beer and nibbled thin slivers of jamon Iberico (the best Spanish ham), we kept exclaiming, “We’re back! We’re really here! We’re in Spain!” Much as I love my native California, and appreciated the safe haven it provided during the worst of the pandemic, I was thrilled to fall into the warm embrace of Andalucía’s vibrant street culture once again.
It was even more exciting the next day when we stepped off the train in Seville and walked back to our apartment. To my astonishment, surprisingly little seemed to have changed. Roaming the city over the next few days, I saw some stores, cafés, and restaurants had closed while others had opened — in fact, I noticed just about as many changes as I’d have expected after any absence of 16 months.
There’s more outside dining now, although many choose indoor seating. People are very matter-of-fact about wearing masks inside stores and other public places, donning them with no more fuss than pulling on a sweater when it turns cool or buckling a seatbelt getting into a car. With nearly 80% of the population fully vaxxed, herd immunity is a fact of life, and as my friend Charles put it, “People have moved on.”
And so have we. Rich and I are just about over our jet lag and are busy reconnecting with friends to find out what’s been happening while we were away. More on that in future posts. For now, we’re just rejoicing at being back in our beloved Seville.
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Today, my suitcase came down from the attic so I can start packing for Spain. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to type those words. But I feel compelled to follow them with ¡Ojala! — a Spanish term meaning roughly “God willing and the Covid don’t rise.” Not only do Rich and I have a thousand things to accomplish before we go, but to add to the suspense, the Spanish government won’t send us their final entry rules, pandemic regulations, and instructions until 48 hours before our flight.
“I don’t care if they want us to tattoo the Spanish flag on our foreheads,” I told Rich. “We’re doing whatever it takes to get on that plane.”
Rich didn’t answer because, as usual nowadays, he was staring off into the distance, running through mental checklists. Yesterday over lunch he told me he’d had the furnace, air conditioning, and hot-water-on-demand systems serviced and bought something called a battery tickler. I thought this sounded rather exciting, but it turned out to be merely a device to keep trickling energy into the car battery while we’re gone. He also bought a gas storage solution he’ll add to the car’s tank to keep the fuel fresh. What? Gasoline goes bad? I decided not to ask, as my eyes were already glazing over and I felt in imminent danger of dozing off…
I jerked wide awake when he mentioned the skunks.
Oh yes, they’re back. We’d ousted our skunks with non-stop talk radio, then blocked off their den under the shed and saturated the area with ammonia-doused rags, bowls of vinegar, and blood meal, which we’d heard would keep them at bay. But apparently our skunks are made of sterner stuff, because as soon I switched off the radio, they returned. On Saturday friends told us of a service that removed their skunks for $1200.
“Worth every penny!” they said.
“Hmmm,” said Rich. “I wonder how much it would cost to just keep the radio on?”
I looked it up. Running a radio for an hour takes 0.02 kWh, and while I don’t pretend to understand what that is, I quickly grasped the fact it translates to less than a penny an hour. Six months of non-stop radio would cost $43.83.
“I rest my case,” Rich said.
He continued reviewing our pre-launch checklist: the best place to get our Covid test (required by the UK to fly through Heathrow), logistics of transport to SFO (Uber to the shuttle), and weight restrictions on cabin baggage (to be researched). I reported I'd retouched the kitchen cupboards, a task that had been on the to-do list since the day we arrived back from Spain in May of 2020.
Focusing (OK, obsessing) on the details is one way Rich and I cope with the emotional fallout of departure. Going back and forth between California and Seville for 16 years, we've become used to the disruption, but the past 16 months in California are the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place. We’ve gotten pretty comfortable, if not downright set in our ways.
“I always find leaving home difficult, especially after so long,” Rich remarked, topping up our glasses of wine during Sunday lunch in the garden. “There are always some pangs of resistance. But I remind myself that once we close that door, the world will open up to us.”
I, for one, am more than ready to live in a larger world. There are many, many things I’ll miss about America, including family, friends, the astonishing efficiency of online ordering, and of course, take-out burritos. But I am exhausted by the emotional pitch of our nation these days.
For instance, the Republicans are pushing to recall our governor, Gavin Newsom, and replace him with an anti-mask, anti-vaccine, climate-change-denying talk show host from LA. So I’ve been standing at a busy intersection at rush hour, holding up signs urging people to vote against the recall. While most people wave and honk in support, even thank me with tears in their eyes, I always get a few hecklers. Last week, four youths pulled up in a car and began shouting, “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” Did they mean I’m a Nazi or they are? Another guy berated me for being “unconstitutional.” Hey, freedom of speech is literally guaranteed by the US Constitution, mister!
But while the messaging may be sloppy and ill-considered, it is delivered with full fury. Americans are terrified and they are lashing out. A major survey showed in 2014 American’s top fears were public speaking, heights, and bugs. Today we’re afraid we’re that last generation to inhabit a livable planet, the rest of our lives will be governed by runaway contagion, and democracy could come unglued on our watch. This is terrifying stuff. And if I’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s this: fear with a target becomes anger. That’s why people are shouting at me from car windows. And that’s what I won’t miss when I’m in Seville.
One of the things I love about Spain is watching people hotly debate political issues — often with a great deal of leaping up, gesticulating, and shouting — after which they sit down and say cheerfully, “So, another beer?” And chat about soccer and their kids. They consider it their God-given right to criticize the government; 36 years of Franco’s repressive dictatorship taught them the value of democracy and free speech.
Another delightful feature of life abroad is that on the very rare occasions when somebody does yell at me in the street, I can never quite catch what they’re saying. So I always assume they’re wishing me a long and happy life, and I wave back and go about my day smiling.
What else will I be glad to leave behind? My disaster preparedness go-kits. Between wildfires (which have already taken 2 million acres of my state this year, including 44 acres near me), recurring floods in my town, and earthquakes, I live in a constant state of readiness for biblical-level catastrophe. I’ve stocked the Apocalypse Chow Food Locker and packed go-kits with supplies ranging from spare spectacles to rain boots to a miner’s headlamp for digging through rubble at night. In Seville, I’m equipped for any likely scenario if I carry a few euros and a light sweater. A bit more relaxing.
So when Rich hauled the suitcases down today, my heart lightened. Next week I will be back in Seville, an ancient city that’s constantly reinventing itself while remaining true to its essential nature: a vibrant community where family and friends matter more than careers, people sing and dance in the street, and politcial arguments can end in cold beers and laughter. To get there, we’ll pass through London and land in Spain’s coastal city of Málaga, “the land of poets,” one of whom dubbed the city “a martini of the sea.” What does that mean? No idea, but I’m hoping to learn while we overnight there. The next morning we’ll take the train to Seville, stroll to our apartment, and (as we always do after a long absence) begin falling in love with the city all over again. Can’t wait.
Amigos: I won’t be posting in the next couple of weeks, as I’ll be in transit and then running around trying to get my wifi reconnected and my residency card renewed. When possible, I’ll post on my Facebook page, so check there for updates. Wish us luck!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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