How harrowing was it? I was reminded of a thriller I read when I was nineteen. This young woman is walking home from choir practice, alone, in the dark, knowing there is a vicious killer around preying on people her age. Obviously anyone with any sense would have clung to a pillar of the church — literally or in the person of the priest — and demanded sanctuary, or at least a ride home. But this intrepid idiot walks the whole way, past the graveyard and the old quarry, wondering if each snapping twig is just an animal and whether those are footsteps behind her or simply wind rustling the leaves.
My point is, I was a bit jittery. In fact, I leapt out of my skin if anyone coughed, even if it was me.
Our journey began Sunday with a walk to the railway station, our luggage stuffed with hand sanitizer, face masks, latex gloves, moist towelettes, three kinds of spray disinfectant, blankets, inflatable pillows, and enough Oatmeal Raisin Spelt Cookies to sustain life for days. I’d made a donation at the shrine of San Pancracio, the patron saint of health. My bases were covered. It was all systems go.
Seville's railway station set the tone for the trip; it was as dimly lit as the set from an apocalyptic movie, with a few silent, masked figures skulking in the distance. On the nearly empty train, I sprayed our seats, arm rests, and tray tables with antiseptic before settling in.
“Did you see that?” Rich later whispered to me. Actually, he was practically shouting, but his voice was so muffled by the mask and shield I had to lean in and listen hard.
“That skinny, nervous guy who got on in Cordoba? He just left his seat and went to join another guy. They don’t seem to know each other. And now they’re sharing a bottle of water." Wow, talk about living on the edge.
In Madrid our chatty cab driver gestured so much with his hands that I figured he must be steering with his knees, giving me something fresh to worry about for the short ride to the hotel.
Rich had requested a room stripped of all pillows, blankets, and duvets, which we’d read are potential germ vectors; our boxy little room was very bare. As the team member in charge of hygiene protocols, I insisted our masks and shields stay on until we’d sanitized the room.
“Saturate everything,” I said, handing Rich the extra-powerful disinfectant spray I’d ordered online.
I headed into the bathroom with some household disinfectant, grabbed a hand towel, and got to work. I was swabbing the sink when a great cloud of noxious fumes rolled through the door, a hideous, a mix of cockroach spray, tear gas, and brimstone.
“What the hell?” Coughing and choking, I dashed into the bedroom. Rich was wrestling with the spray can, which was spewing great geysers of chemical fog in all directions.
“I can’t shut this thing off!” he yelled, arms flailing wildly, like the famous “Danger: Vacuum” scene in Airplane II.
Gasping, eyes watering, lungs on fire, I croaked,“I have to leave. Now.” I tore open the door and sprinted out into the corridor. The fumes followed. I rounded a corner. Still couldn’t get my breath. Turning again, I finally found breathable air. As I collapsed against a wall, wheezing and coughing, I noticed maids poking their heads out of doorways, eyeing me with alarm.
Meanwhile, Rich struggled manfully to subdue the spray can. Personally, I’d have been tempted to chuck it out the window, like a live hand grenade, but he was right not to risk the loss of life below.
“I managed to get the cap on,” he told me afterwards, “but then it was spouting out the sides in all directions. Finally I turned it upside down, and eventually, it stopped.” Setting the can down very carefully on its cap, Rich flung wide the window and flapped the door until the air quality was such that I could return.
“You said ‘saturate everything,’” he said.
“I didn’t mean the lining of my lungs.”
We laid out our blankets and inflatable pillows and eventually slept. The next morning we had a couple of the cookies for breakfast and donned the shields we’d be wearing continuously for the next 24 hours, masks we’d swap out occasionally, and gloves we’d re-sanitize incessantly.
The Madrid-Barajas Airport, which ordinarily serves sixty million passengers a year, was deserted. Nothing was open, not even a coffee stand. Our Boeing 788, designed for 180+ passengers, had perhaps thirty, spaced widely apart. And yet, inexplicably, they’d placed someone directly behind us. Rich and I hurridly switched to a more remote seat. The staff fed us as quickly as possible, then darkened the windows and turned off all the lights. I slept for much of the ten hours to Dallas.
Before landing, we were handed a form: Did we have any COVID-19 symptoms? Had we been with anyone who had the virus? CDC personnel met our plane and repeated the questions, but it seemed surprisingly perfunctory. We were through health screening, immigration, and customs in less than 15 minutes.
DFW’s main concourse was jumping; the fast food joints were open and there were plenty of passengers, many brushing past us with unmasked faces. When I learned our flight was 80% full, my horrified expression must have been visible even through the mask and shield because the woman at the desk kindly arranged to keep the third seat in our row empty. Arriving in San Francisco, Rich and I zipped through a nearly deserted terminal to meet the Uber driver who transported us to San Anselmo, making record time over empty freeways.
We’re in quarantine for fourteen days to make sure we didn’t pick up the virus en route. It’s an honor system, and we intend to honor it fully. My sister Kate and her husband stocked the house with enough groceries for the duration, plus homemade bread, soup, and hummus. They left us two bottles from Sonoma Brothers Distilling: their signature gin and a gallon of hand sanitizer. This public-spirited company has risen to the occasion by retooling their factories to provide both essential products to a grateful nation.
Now I know what you’ve been wondering. Whatever happened to that young woman in the thriller? Did she make it home safely? Well, she finally got frightened enough to run the last block; fumbling open her front door, she dashed inside and bolted the door. Had the danger, she wondered, only existed in her imagination? The last line read: “And then someone behind her cleared his throat.”
Here’s hoping that COVID-19 isn’t going to provide us with that kind of shocker ending. So far we feel fine, our temperatures (checked twice a day as instructed) are normal, and we're grateful the long, unnerving journey is behind us. Yesterday, clearing out a cupboard to create more storage to accommodate all that food, I ran across this towel inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s good advice, and I plan to keep on taking it.
Special thanks to all those who wished us luck on the journey. And bless you, San Pancracio, for doing your bit to watch over us along the way.
More Pandemic Perspectives & Humor
International Travel — In a Pandemic? Are We Nuts?
Coming Soon: Nostalgia for Quarantine?
Scofflaws, Naysayers & Coronavirus Myths
In the Pandemic: Desperate Situations, Ingenious Solutions
Why We All Feel Hopelessly Unproductive in Quarantine
Quarantined? Take Mini-Vacations. For Betty White's Sake
Months of Quarantine? OK, If That's What It Takes
Yes, You CAN Stay (Relatively) Sane During Lockdown
"Stranded" in Seville's Pandemic Lockdown
5/21/2020 04:10:21 pm
Whew! Glad you made it, if a little worse for wear. Another harrowing tale for the archives. May it make the look-back-and -laugh file! And I'm glad you're well equipped for May 25th, aka Towel Day, honoring Douglas Adams. This year I'm going to carry my towel as a talisman that we all will have many more stellar, if not interstellar adventures!
5/21/2020 06:08:21 pm
Mary, I had no idea there was a Towel Day in honor of the late, great, wacky author Douglas Adams. And with the official date just around the corner on Monday, I think Rich and I will have to plan a stellar celebration. Thanks for this hot tip!
5/21/2020 04:23:06 pm
I thought you lived in Sevilla, why did you return to California in the midst of the Pandemic?
5/21/2020 06:13:28 pm
A good question, Rosa! Rich and I divide our time between Seville and my native San Francisco. We consider Seville our home, but we have personal, professional, medical, and financial interests in the US that are important to us, and for various reasons were put off to give us more time in Europe. Those interests became pressing, and we felt this was likely the best window of opportunity we'd have for returning to the US this year. For more, see last week's post: https://www.enjoylivingabroad.com/my-blog/international-travel-in-a-pandemic-are-we-nuts
5/21/2020 04:25:26 pm
Good to read that, despite the horrendous journey, you are back home safely, fever-free.
5/21/2020 06:15:30 pm
Thanks, Sandra! We miss you guys and look forward to hearing about all your adventures this summer, starting with some beach time soon, I hope. Stay cool, amiga, and much love to you, TC, and the girls.
5/21/2020 04:36:53 pm
I’m so glad to hear you made it to the US safely! Enjoy Marin....I’m dreaming of the drive down Sir Francis Drake right now!
5/21/2020 06:18:36 pm
Marin is as beautiful as ever, Nicole, although the whole area seems strangely quiet and deserted with everyone sheltering in place. The up side is that driving down Sir Francis Drake — or just about anywhere — is a breeze these days with virtually no traffic. Once we're out of quarantine and cope with our car's dead battery we look forward to hitting the local roads and enjoying the scenery.
5/21/2020 04:46:42 pm
Glad you got back to the US safely. Hope it was worth the awful journey. More travels soon for you both, I hope.
5/21/2020 06:23:38 pm
Thanks, Joan! Much as I love travel, I have to admit that I'm looking forward to two peaceful weeks at home to catch my breath. I'll need that time to figure out all of CA's regulations and recommendations, which are quite different from Spain's. And to cope with the ant invasion in the kitchen and other domestic chores. Beyond that, I do look forward to more travel under less hysterical conditions!
5/21/2020 05:05:57 pm
I am so happy you both arrived safely, Karen.
5/22/2020 01:18:34 am
Yes, there was a sort of Hitchcock atmosphere to the journey, Tricia; I can see why you read it that way. Feel free to write to me at email@example.com if you want to discuss expat life. Portugal is a great choice; I hope you're enjoying it, despite the crazy circumstances we're all living in these days.
5/21/2020 05:13:10 pm
I am glad you and Rich arrived safely,in the US and hopefully without catching the virus at Dallas airport. Now you can enjoy your cozy home in San Anselmo. It brings me such good memories. You are quiet a trooper. Never a dull moment hahaha. The scene of the Danger Can made me chuckle. Hopefully we can visit our cousins from CA in the near future. Stay strong, safe, healthy and with lots of patience. Un beso y abrazo gigantes!!!!!
5/22/2020 01:24:47 am
Now that we're back in the same country, it would be great to see you, Pia! We'll make it happen as soon as possible, although of course, there is no telling when that will be. Hope you, Steve, and the kids continue to be OK. It was lovely getting back to the house and garden; Rich is enjoying puttering around pruning and raking up leaves and so on. And after such a crazy trip, we are both happy to hunker down quietly for a couple of weeks. Hugs to all the northern McCanns!
5/21/2020 05:39:28 pm
Whew!....glad you guys made it through that harrowing experience with spray can. Hope your lungs are okay...!
5/22/2020 01:27:00 am
I love that clip of Rich doing his jig; glad you liked it too, Faye. As for the spray can incident, I try not to think of the effect it probably had on my poor lungs. But hey, we survived and lived to travel another day. Grateful for that.
5/21/2020 05:43:03 pm
So happy to see that you made it back to San Anselmo! Here's to a smooth and healthy quarantine! The time will fly by. It's almost two months back for us, and we're still displaying the "Welcome Home" sign that our grandson hung when they stocked our kitchen. Looks like you took all the right precautions. And I learned about "Towel Day" from one of your followers...who knew that was a thing!
5/22/2020 01:33:49 am
Towel day is a new one for me, Denise. I'm so charmed that Mary knew about it and mentioned it in these comments. Apparently you celebrate it by carrying a towel around all day. Why? As the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy points out, "A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value -- you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-tohand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you -- daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough." That's a pretty handy thing to carry around all day! For more seetowelday.org.
5/21/2020 05:54:01 pm
Glad your back. See you in 14 days I hope.
5/22/2020 01:34:25 am
My well-sanitized fingers are crossed we can make that happen, Phil!
5/21/2020 06:51:03 pm
Welcome back to Marin. I have been sheltering at home for the last 10 weeks but have enjoyed planting my victory garden. The coved 19 figures are relatively low in Marin so you are in the right place to be. That was very brave of you to make such a long journey. Welcome home to San Anselmo. Our beautiful wonderful town. Hopefully one day we can meet for coffee.
5/22/2020 01:38:16 am
Thanks, Barbara. It's great to be back in San Anselmo, and Rich and I are looking forward to hunkering down at home until quarantine is up and then enjoying all the town still has to offer. As for meeting up for coffee ... what a lovely thought. I will look forward to that when circumstances permit.
Linda Wright Reilly
5/21/2020 07:44:43 pm
Cheers! Welcome back to the States. Thanks for allowing me to live vicariously through your trip. All mine, including a ten day trip to Oberammergau, have of couse been cancelled.
5/22/2020 01:41:43 am
Thanks for your kind words, Linda! Sad to think your travel plans, and so many other people's, have had to be cancelled. Everyone's lives have been disrupted on so many levels! Luckily there is still good food, wine, and fresh air to enjoy. That's something to be very grateful for.
5/21/2020 08:03:19 pm
So glad you made it home safe. How unnerving! Especially that last flight. 😬 Stay sage and healthy!
5/22/2020 01:43:32 am
It was pretty unnerving, Shéa. I am SO glad that trip is over. Now we're just enjoying the peace and quiet of our cottage in California.
5/21/2020 08:10:30 pm
You have been on my mind. Thanks for letting us know how the trip went and that you arrived in one piece.
5/22/2020 01:44:29 am
It was some crazy adventure, Catherine, and I'm thrilled to be here in one piece.
5/21/2020 08:29:10 pm
You can't drink the hand sanitizer but they did a study in Singapore where the vodka worked better on the hands than the sanitizer. I know you will drink the gin before that happens. Welcome back! Do you think the planes or the airports are safer? Of course, you made your trip home seem funny. Cheers!
5/22/2020 01:47:31 am
The airlines and airports seem to be working very hard to improve their safety protocols, Kitty. I'm glad I traveled this month and not, as some friends did, just before Spain went into lockdown. They traveled with no protection except a little bit of hand sanitizer, and sat on crowded planes the whole way, with no masks or social distancing at all. So yes, I feel it was safer than that. However, I'd rather not repeat the experience any time soon (possibly ever).
Esther del Rosario
5/21/2020 08:48:42 pm
Welcome back! I don't remember how I came across your site/blog/Facebook page, but I'm happy I did and have been following you for some time. Reading this last entry about your journey back to the States, I find out we're practically neighbours! I live in Larkspur. Maybe when it's safe to gather again we can meet some day. Stay healthy!
5/22/2020 01:48:59 am
Gosh yes, Esther. Larkspur is just up the road from us. So good to connect with an almost neighbor! Keep in touch, and let's hope the world gets safe enough to meet up one day.
5/22/2020 07:46:50 am
Glad you made it safe and sound, hopefully healthy as well. Thought of you yesterday as we took our first road trip after the lockdown on cross prefecture travel was lifted and we chose Gythio as our destination. As we walked along the waterfront we were pondering your whereabouts ~
5/30/2020 03:44:35 am
So funny! Y'all had such a great attitude. Happy you're home safe. I'll link your post to my blog this week. We are going the opposite direction in a month, pray for us!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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