… but I never expected my first time on Irish soil to be on a government-chartered 767 en route to Moscow. As with most aspects of life in the time of COVID, expectations have flown right out the window.
After weeks of grappling with cancelled flights from New York to Moscow (not Aeroflot’s fault – they could only take repatriating Russians), my school scrambled to find an alternative. 88 of us needed to get back to Moscow before the start of school. After bumping the school year back by a week, the school informed us of a charter flight out of DC. I confirmed my intent to be on it and started making travel arrangements.
Initially hoping to enjoy a long weekend in my old city of residence, my plans were thwarted by a last minute decree by the Russian government that we could not enter the country without a COVID test… completed no more than 72 hours before arrival. I decided to stick around Massachusetts and search for a test, a task which quickly proved futile. Citing “greater need in other parts of the country”, there was absolutely not a rapid test to be found. With nothing that could guarantee that 72 hour window requirement, I was forced to push on with plans to fly to DC the day before the charter. Last minute (ie. two days before), the school found a testing sight in DC who could test us all as drive ups/walk ups. With my father’s help, I made a quick pivot and rented a car for the drive to DC instead. All this to say, there was a lot that went on before we were anywhere near the airport.
Driving down the I-95 corridor took me back to the many times I’d traversed that road during my DC years. I miss that city a lot and I still treasure that I was able to share my love of it with my god kids a few summers back. But this was not a time to leisurely enjoy a drive. Stopping only once (mask on, of course), I drove the 7 hours to make it to my COVID test on time.
Camping out at the Hyatt near Dulles, I spent the night in a hotel run by a skeleton crew. The front desk, which physically was barely recognizable with plexiglass protection and what amounted to a HS football snack bar stacked behind the counter due to a lack of room service, did their best. I caught up with some friends on FaceTime and tried to get some rest, hoping my test results would be waiting in my email upon touchdown in Moscow.
A strange check-in process awaited us at Dulles. We essentially checked in at baggage claim, the barks of dogs echoing through the corridor. Many animals joined us for the flight, flying with embassy families and teachers from our school. More notable were the incredible amount of children along for this ride – the youngest, to my knowledge – 4 months old. None of us were quite sure what was in store, but we knew this was our best shot. Everyone’s faces bore the look of frayed nerves, a look my parents knew probably too well after weeks of me dealing with this unknown exit.
Once checked in, we were loaded on buses and taken to a remote tarmac to meet our plane. We queued for nearly an hour on the bus as ground crew set up a security check point and stocked the plane with supplies. Would we be fed? Would there be flight attendants? Would we be turned back upon arrival due to COVID results? These questions danced in my mind. I had to delay expectations and not allow myself to do anything but putting one foot in front of the other. To get all that way, after all the weeks of build up, and be turned back would have been – I don’t use this word lightly – devastating.
They assigned families seats together at check-in. As the plane was about 70% full (it was not just teachers from my school), they were kind enough to give those of traveling alone our own set of two seats (another futile attempt at social distancing in a “germ bullet” ie. plane but whatever, I’ll take it).
Our plane was quite old and carried no entertainment consoles. It did occur to me after Hour 5 of staring out the window and only seeing mountains (not the Atlantic), that they could actually be taking us anywhere. It was an eerie feeling. Yes, it turns out that we did have flight attendants (don’t think a plane can fly without them for safety reasons) and yes, they did feed us two box meals (fairly decent).
We had been told that we would be refueling in Dublin, Ireland. However, aside from the location, we had not been told what plans there included, nor how long we’d be there, or basically anything about procedure for this flight. It was a true “guess we’ll see” scenario and we had to roll with it. It’s worth mentioning that I work with a lot of seasoned travelers (multiple of whom have been to all 7 continents) and everyone was on edge.
We flew 7.5 hours up over Greenland to the Emerald Isle. Though I’ve always wanted to visit, an actual trip I had planned was thwarted by visa issues in Moscow a few summers back. Never technically set foot off the plane so we’ll hold off on claiming that in my country count for now. Our crew disembarked (and seemed to have no idea where we were traveling on to), the plane refueled, and we cooled our heels for 1.5 hours.
Departing Dublin, we were entering hour 11 of travel (bus + plane + refuel). The captain announced a fairly quick hop to Moscow (3.5 hours), and we were off above the clouds once again, in the land of perpetual sunrise. It was smooth sailing, thankfully, as I don’t think our nerves could have taken it.
We flew into Moscow’s VKO airport, arriving around noon on the day after we departed DC. I’ve never flown so low over the city (planes are banned) and I could actually spot Moscow City (the arch of buildings on the horizon) from my window. My apartment lies a bit behind those buildings, off to the right. Never been so relieved to see the Soviet apartment buildings all stacked in rows.
Upon arrival, two Russian officials came on board to collect our medical papers. There were no test results in my Inbox. No bueno. An announcement told us that they would deplane us in groups of 7-10. Embassy folks earned the right to go first. We were the last and largest group. It took me 2 hours to get off the plane and I was one of the first. They ran us in plush vans to the terminal (we’d parked in the luxury terminal, so they are used to small private jets), and supposedly disinfected the vans in between each group. I have literally no idea how all the kids under the age of 8 didn’t lose their minds but they didn’t. Rockstar world travelers already. Their parents also deserve medals.
After customs, I was met by a kind US Embassy official who directed me to take another COVID test. This one was painless and quick. I walked out of the terminal towards my waiting bags and shuttle buses sent by our school. It was a glorious day, picture perfect skies and temperature. I found a patch of grass and took a breather. The kids ran in circles, delighted to be free and to see their friends after months away (some families left in March). It was a heart-warming sight.
Throughout the whole ordeal I had said that I would only believe I’d made it when my key turned the lock to my apartment. It finally happened, 18 hours after leaving DC. I was greeted by my cat who thankfully does not hold grudges. It was very good to be home.
For now, I am teaching from my apartment as our school is engaged in two weeks of distance learning. Those on the charter flight are under two weeks of self-isolation. I can take a walk before 9am, go to the grocery store, but generally am confined to home. No matter as I have so much to do to get my classes off the ground. It doesn’t even feel like confinement since it’s just a relief to be back.
I’m back where I should be and we’re just going to have to see how this school year/2020/pandemic unfolds. I hope you’re all doing well and taking care of yourself and others. I remain frustrated by the insane pressure of this back-to-school situation and it’s effect upon students, teachers, parents, etc. This pandemic is not something that was caused by these students but now they must learn a completely new way to get an education. Teachers are killing themselves to make it work.
This pandemic and it’s far-reaching grasp is the result of human beings not do the right thing and not practicing social distancing to make this virus go away. For those who say it’s not possible without a vaccine, it is. Look at Denmark, look at Vietnam, look at South Korea. Look around the world at what responsible governments and their citizens have done. I pray for my country. I’m praying for Russia. I’m praying for our world. Let us unite our collective brainpower to fight this war. We don’t have to live like this indefinitely. Please stay home, do not socialize in groups, and think of others. Shut. It. Down.