I have recently returned from a big adventure, an international trip to Italy. It involved long flights across Canada and the Atlantic, several interactions with immigration officials from various countries, including my own. In the pandemic nations are trying to insulate themselves from visitors who might bring more covid related problems to their populace.
While I was travelling in Italy for more than a month, I had to learn the new rules of social engagement, interacting with people in a country that was not mine, in which I did not speak the language or know the new mores of post-covid human interaction.
Needless to say, It was a serious decision, unlike others I had taken before with layers upon layers of potential risk, a multiplication of complex factors and a level of anxiety new to foreign travel.
I’ve been walking parts of the Via Francigena since the summer of 2017. It starts in Canterbury. That year Kristen and I finished in Reims. In 2018, my friend, John, and I started there, he walked with me through rural France then ditched me for the bright lights of Paris. I walked into Switzerland, Blair picked me up in Lausanne and walked me over the Great Saint Bernard Pass and down into Italy. We ended in a small city called Ivrea, between Milan and Turin.
Life and covid suspended any further progress towards Rome – 800 kilometers away from where we left off in Ivrea. For the past three years, I’ve carried a burning desire to finish my pilgrimage to Rome – and I’m a certified agnostic!
My desire is to git-her-done.
It’s about breaking out of the covid lockdown without being stupid.
It’s about measuring my years and wanting to make the most of the limited time left for these adventures.
It’s about testing myself and seeing if I’ve got the capacity to do this.
It’s about finishing my walk.
Fun Fact. Sigeric, the bishop of Canterbury, travelled to Rome in the late 10th century to be officially elevated to Cardinal. On his way home, an aide kept a list of all the places they stopped along the way, 83 altogether.
From that one page list we now have a full blown pilgrimage, a defined route where every twist and turn has been marked and way marked, where I now have an app that tells me where to go. Needless to say, with a thousand years between Sigeric’s journey and now, we’ve made a few adjustments, taken a few liberties with a thin set of facts. Like most Catholic beliefs, one needs to remember that while there may be some core facts, much of the rest is storytelling embellishment – myth. That awareness allows me to plan and to take the occasional shortcut and ride the train now and then.
After much internal debate, discussion with family and friends, I decided last spring to do it – Autumn, 2021 – enough time to train, enough time for mass vaccinations to take effect, enough time, hopefully for the risk to be minimized.
I booked the flight well in advance. Weather would be fine, school would have started in Italy, the tourists (if there were any) would have largely gone home – all calibrated to lower the risk. I checked the immunization progress in Italy and throughout the EU, watched the regulations for tourists entering the country, watched my own country’s rules for re-entry. I wanted to avoid being quarantined; that was a deal-breaker, why spend weeks in an Italian airport hotel looking out the window?
As the date approached, it all seemed more hopeful. I gathered my gear and packed my bag carefully – many times – judging every item by a weight/need/price ratio. For several months I’ve been walking everywhere. I’ve monitored the Italian/EU situation – my assumption from the beginning was that getting into Italy, then getting back into Canada were the greatest risks outside my control.
On the morning of September 2, I gathered my wits and my gear and Kristen drove me to the airport.
Check-in at YVR was the first test, Air Canada in Vancouver cleared me through Montreal and on to Rome. My boarding pass to Rome in hand, the vital test, I boarded the plane for my first big post-Covid adventure.
Rule #1, never relax. As I boarded the plane in Montreal, I was given a form asking to confirm my covid antigen test for the trip.
Well. That was a surprise. I had read the Italian regs. There was no requirement for a rapid antigen test.
Unfortunately, the Italians changed the rules starting Aug 30 – two days before I got on my plane. They now required a negative covid test. And they didn’t send me the memo!
I had not taken the test and I decided to take responsibility for my mistake and eat my humble pie while it was hot. I disembarked; not that I had any choice in the matter but doing it willingly made a difference.
With the help of Nadia and Celia, two of the nicest Air Canada agents I have ever met, we built plan B. In about two hours.
We recovered my bag. I got a negative covid antigen test. I got a hotel room. Most importantly, Nadia rebooked my flight to Milan, better than flying into Rome!
I lost a day, thankfully a planned rest day. But the rest of the trip plans survived.
I even managed to spend my day of Montreal penance with my friend John. Not a bad purgatory.
I am exceedingly grateful to Nadia and Celia for helping me build plan B.
Nadia, the flight services agent who stepped in to help me solve the crisis showed remarkable wisdom and kindness in the process.
Celia, her colleague, had started that morning at 6 am yet she stayed with me to get me out of immigration, gather my bag, point me to the covid test site and hold my hand, figuratively of course – it is still necessary to adhere to covid protocols – until all the pieces of my journey had been put back together. (All this after a 12 hour day!)
In small chats with them that night, I came to understand how much they have been through since the before times. Yet, they continued to be kind, cheerful, thoughtful and thoroughly professional.
There are acts of kindness that I like to call ‘tender mercies’. We should honour them; they are the antidote to fear, anxiety and negativism. These small tender mercies reinforce my belief in the essential goodness of people. They are everywhere, they need to be recognized, appreciated, acknowledged and celebrated.
I did make it to Italy, in arriving Milan a day later than expected.
Over five weeks in Italy, I felt safer than if I were in Canada. Why? First, their vaccination rate is better than Canada’s. Second, they take masking seriously. I saw more people masked up in all the appropriate places than I have seen in Canada. Third, I was wandering around the countryside, my only contact with people was limited. I saw people when I checked into hotels or B&B’s, in outdoor patios of restaurants where we all practised some strategic social distancing, and everyone in grocery stores had to pass a thermo/temperature test before being allowed inside. Hand sanitizer was widely available and used by all.
But the primary reason I felt safer was the Italian Green Card – proof of both vaccinations – it was required for any person to enter a public place, museums, restaurants, hotels, stores, trains, buses. The Green Card was checked assiduously. There is no fooling around with nut-bars who think their individual right to choose to be vaccinated is infringed. Go home, you’re not welcome in public places was the rule. It is so obvious that we should isolate the anti-vaxxers and forbid them from participation in public life. No compromises. All it takes is a lot more political spine.
My exit from Italy and return to Canada was much easier. The ArrivCan app was downloaded. My Via Francigena Facebook friends showed me the approved list of providers of PCR tests needed for re-entry to Canada. I found one five minutes walk from my hotel in Rome, booked an appointment on line, showed up, had a swab taken in 5 minutes, payed my 60 Euros, and got the results back in about 12 hours. My hotel printed out the test results, I filed my paperwork with ArrivCan, got my confirmation code and made it through the Air Canada pre-screen in no time. When I arrived in Canada, I moved through the re-entry process in good time. I was home!
So, for those of you who are thinking about international travel in the foreseeable future this was my experience.
Here’s a few observations:
- Read the entry and exit rules and take them seriously, you can’t negotiate yourself out of following the rules.
- Ask people who have just done what you’re thinking of doing. My friend Norm went to Germany a week or so before I went to Italy. He had practical, common sense advice based on real-life experience and it helped.
- Take every precaution that you would at home then be even more cautious.
- Be polite, observe the local customs, ask for help and be polite. Did I mention be polite?
- Make sure you have lots of band-width on your phone, tickets for everything must be ordered in advance; web based ticketing provides data for contact tracing and manages crowd sizes in interior locations.
- Make sure all your insurance coverage is adequate and up-to-date.
I’m not a big fan of the idea that travel can profoundly change my life. I walk a lot of pilgrim miles, I don’t don’t believe in epiphanies. I do however believe that these adventures, by exposing us at our most vulnerable, allow us to see things we might miss or ignore. In more than five weeks of wandering Italy and being a tourist, I was shown more kindness than I had ever expected. The tender mercies of one person being kind to another, with no expectation of return or reciprocity were overwhelming.
If I have a thought to leave with others, it is this. Humans continue to show kindness, civility, interest and empathy with others. The Pandemic has not changed that. The pandemic may change the way we see the world but I don’t think it will stop us from having adventures, nor will it change our capacity for goodness.