Photo of a village in Europe.

Europe During COVID-19: What To Do When Everything’s Closed

Although traveling abroad during the pandemic has been a double-edged sword, here are a few takeaways from my recent trip that may guide your own travels.
January 24, 2022
10 mins read

Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic has been painstaking, international trips more so than local ones. Between piles of paperwork and more COVID-19 tests than you thought possible, seeing family or taking a break has become more difficult than ever. Fortunately, “difficult” is not synonymous with “impossible,” and if you grit your teeth hard enough, you’ll get there and back again. My visit to Europe to see family is certainly a testimony to this, as I traveled to the Netherlands, England and Italy over the month of December, just as the omicron variant hit.

However, I can’t take all the credit and do in fact owe thanks to a few things: Firstly, European citizenship and a passport go a long way when traveling in Europe (especially when borders are officially closed to tourists). Also, having family to stay with and be of good guidance is another — especially when they are willing to help out with transport money and other tedious tourist costs. Without that help, I wouldn’t have gotten to see and do half the things I did during my trip abroad.

Be that as it may, here is a recounting of my interesting holiday in Europe and a lesson in how things hardly ever go according to plan:

My voyage to the Netherlands was not without a hitch; during the 10-hour plane ride, the elderly Portuguese man who sat next to me perhaps had a little too much red wine and started kissing my hand after supper. I felt a bit uneasy and didn’t sleep much on that flight or the shorter connecting flight to Schiphol Airport. But, once safe with family, I felt rejuvenated and eager to start my trip. Alas, as COVID-19 has done for the past two years, the effects of the pandemic stepped in at the wrong time: When you arrive in Holland, a mandatory five-day quarantine followed by a negative PCR test needs to be fulfilled. And, just as I finished that quarantine, the Dutch government put the country into a hard lockdown for fear of the omicron variant, so all shops and museums closed posthaste.

Just my luck! But, in the age of online shopping, this certainly didn’t stop me from browsing the vastness of Zalando’s winter sales during my stay in Europe and purchasing two unnecessary dresses, as well as a new pair of headphones because tech is surprisingly affordable in the Netherlands. Shortly after, following in the steps of many other Dutch folks, my family and I decided to venture to London for a few days and escape the increasingly lackluster festive season — as beautiful as the Amsterdam canals are, they are unfortunately not so beautiful that they can keep a nation entertained for several weeks.

So off we went via the Eurostar train, staying in the smart and eco-friendly Point A Hotel in Shoreditch for a few days and visiting Royal Albert Hall to watch their beautiful Carols show. The concert hosted an abundance of talent, including emcee Greg Beardsell, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Choral Society, the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, a brief appearance of the British Imperial Military Band and famous soloist Zara McFarlane. It was a truly incredible show and was made particularly special since the Royal Albert was concurrently celebrating its 150th anniversary! Walking around the city was a marvel in and of itself as well, with an inspiring culmination of both modern and historical architecture. From St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Shard, London certainly makes an inviting impression with its interesting history and construction.

Unfortunately, the story takes a turn at this point, because we all arrived back in the Netherlands just in time for our planned Christmas party, but only after contracting COVID-19 — the omicron variant, to be exact. After dodging infection for nearly two years, one by one we all started to test positive. Luckily, symptoms didn’t get the better of us: We didn’t lose our taste or smell or suffer an awful cough or difficulty breathing. Perhaps we owe this to omicron being an apparently less severe coronavirus variant, or because we are all vaccinated.

Nevertheless, we spent the next week sleeping our vacation in Europe away and taking more lozenges than I ever thought possible. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, we were all a bit dreary and keeping to ourselves, until a common enemy brought two more people into the house for a tiny COVID-themed New Year’s party: Two of my uncle’s friends called and said they were also positive, and the two husbands gladly partook in our beef curry dinner and midnight champagne. We danced, sang and watched the fireworks, all in all ending 2021 in good spirits and good company.

Not long after that, we gradually started testing negative, so we rented a car and drove to Zaanse Schans to see some windmills and eat chocolate waffles, and later went to Giethoorn. What a beautiful, quiet little space, a place that somehow embodies a serene 2014 Tumblr post with the hashtags #CottageLife and #Fairytopia. We had to make a few pit stops though because our rental car was electric and we kept running out of juice. Because of this, we drove home in segments, punctuated by stops at charging stations with little snacks to keep us satisfied. For the last segment, we drove over the Afsluitdijk — the largest Dijk in the Netherlands, with a width of an astounding 90 meters (or 295 feet) and an impressive length of 32 kilometers (or roughly 20 miles). We oohed and aahed, and discussed the egotistical essence of man forcing back the sea, concluding the discussion by agreeing, “Who am I to hold back the waters?”

A few days later, we said goodbye to my grandparents and saw them to the airport for their flight back home. The Netherlands was still in a hard lockdown, so my uncle suggested I go visit my mother’s family in Italy. I eagerly got on that plane, excited to visit family I hadn’t seen in 12 years. With the help of my cousins and their parents, I was whisked through most of Rome in a few days: San Pietro, Palatino, Foro Romano, the Vittoriano and many, many more historical sites. Once again, I would like to emphasize the value of having family to stay with and be of guidance because without that help, I wouldn’t have seen half the things I got to see.

That brings me to the end of my stay in Europe (for now), as I wait back in the Netherlands for my flight back home. Luckily, shops have opened back up, but museums, restaurants and other cultural sites remained closed, so unfortunately I won’t get to experience the awe of the Rijks or the van Gogh museums this time around. Instead, it’s become remarkably easy to find joy in smaller, simpler things, like the strange joy of taking the Metro, watching people ride their bikes over the canal bridges, and even enjoying bitterballen from the pub down the street from take-out containers. There are certainly more quiet and delicate ways to find joy on a touristic holiday in Europe. To quote the impactful words of Hannah Montana: “Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock.”

Isabella Savides, University of Pretoria

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Isabella Savides

University of Pretoria
Human Physiology and Pharmacology

A young, South African BSc student with a wide range of interests and a chaotic sense of humour. Loves plot twists, cats and the ontological essence of life.

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