I’ve been traveling through Italy for the past week and I feel a bit disoriented and disconnected. I’ve been living in Portugal for almost a year and during that time have not traveled very much due to lockdowns and residency requirements. This trip to Italy is my first opportunity to take advantage of living in Europe, being able to travel to a nearby country with minimum fuss and expense.
Except, of course, travel these days, particularly air travel, involves extra steps and precautions. Traveling in the time of COVID is… different. Some things are easy, like filling out a passenger locator form for your flights. Some things are less easy and can wrack up costs—like a COVID test every time you fly. Last January, in order to fly into Portugal, I needed the pricier PCR test. (Get it? PCR: PriCierR.) It was $130 at the airport and I had to drive to the airport a couple of days before my flight and then hope that the results came in on time. When my flight was cancelled, I had to repeat the process, pay another $130, to get on my new flight.
This time around, it was a little easier. Leaving Portugal for Italy on November 29th, days before the new rules were instated, I merely had to show my vaccination certificate and fill out the passenger locator forms for my flights. When I entered Italy, there was no passport control; it’s part of the Schengen Area that allows free travel between 26 different countries.
Flying back to Portugal will involve taking the rapid results antigen test. What a difference a year makes. You can buy the tests online or in your local pharmacy or big box store. You do the swab yourself, then put it into an absorbent, chemically prepped cardboard blotter, set the timer and get your results. Take a picture with your cell phone and voila! Your results are certified and sent to you. No more hunting for a lab or driving to the airport to get your test done.
Every restaurant we go into in Italy asks to see our vaccine pass. Our Airbnb hosts require a photo of our passports and our vaccine passes. With the exception of shops, just about everywhere we go inside wants to see a vaccine pass. So far I haven’t seen anyone making a fuss or beating up a teenage clerk bitching about their rights.
Most people wear masks outdoors right now. I had gotten used to not masking outdoors while walking around my little village. Here there are more people, and in the tourist areas, large crowds. Being masked for large parts of the day feels strange and sometimes claustrophobic. But it also keeps my face warm in cold weather, so there’s that.
My area of Portugal is warmer than Italy and I have had no trouble sitting outside and enjoying a meal. Here it is much colder; we have had most of our meals inside. While the food here has been fantastic, I am not at all comfortable unmasking and sitting next to unmasked strangers in a restaurant, even though everyone is checked at the door. I wonder if it bothers them to be near us.
We had the option of extending our stay in Italy for a few (or more than a few) more days, but the longer I am out of Portugal, the more antsy I become. If I get COVID in Italy, I’ll have to quarantine for two weeks. That will be expensive and not fun. I know even less about the health system here than I do in Portugal. I have private insurance in Portugal; here I’d be at the mercy of the over-taxed Italian health system.
We are staying with our original plan to head for Lisbon for a few days. Once there, if anything untoward should happen, I am on home turf. I can get back to my apartment in three hours by train or by car.
Overall, I am glad I made the trip. Traveling in the time of COVID is not impossible and certainly not carefree, but definitely worthwhile. When we first started talking about going, the vaccines were being distributed and cases were going down. Then came the variants. The vaccine backlash. Friends and I knew that the Pandemic would be around for at least two years. Now we are heading into our third year and I think COVID will be with us, in some form, for the rest of our lives. We’ll get a yearly booster and it will be thought of much the same as the flu. Wearing a mask if we are feeling ill will become normalized in the Western world.
We live on a dangerous and wondrous planet. We cannot survive without other people and people are the greatest threat to our well-being. Friend or foe is a constant calculation, whether we are aware of it or not. You feel safer at home or in your home town because you know people, you have a network of friends, you know where to get help. It has taken less than a year for Portugal to become my safe haven.