Homeward bound (part 1: Saturday, May 9- traveling in a pandemic)

[Note: I wrote the start of this on the plane on Saturday, 9 May on our trip from Frankfurt to Newark; I've written the later part today. I think I'll end up writing a few more posts: part 2 on what happened after we arrived in our rental and part 3 with reflections on our overall time in Sweden]. 

Saturday, May 9th, sometime in the later part of the flight to Newark. 

We’ve been chasing the sun for hours, blue tinted through the window. It’s the reverse of watching it set sooner and bounce back up, as it did when I traveled to Finland in the summer of 1991. The clouds are a tapestry of white over the ocean, the map shows we’re nearing Newfoundland. I can now see patches of snow in between the clouds.


It feels odd to leave Sweden just as spring came pouring out in utter abandon. It had mostly stopped snowing most days, and each morning, we woke to bright sunshine (now as early as 3:30 AM on a sleepless night). We certainly didn’t end our time abroad as planned- feeling like we were making a hasty retreat, although not as hasty as if we had left in March with the exodus of US citizens from many places. The trees are awash in blossoms and everything is green, green, green- I’m reminded of spring and summer in the mountains where once the snow clears and it warms up, the flowers bloom in abundant profusion.

The airports today were eerie, vacant. Large infrastructure bereft of the normally teeming throngs of people. Not like at night when things are quiet and people are sleeping on benches between flights. More like abandoned, lonely. Outside, lots of empty planes and equipment sitting in idled rows. Only a handful of flights from Arlanda, or from Frankfurt. Once in the airport, most (but not all) were wearing a mask. On our flights themselves, masks were required. It is amazing how much they impede functional communication.


We arrived at Arlanda plenty early- found the one line for all flights (under the banner marked "SAS" despite the fact that we were traveling on Lufthansa. We waited. And waited... trying to stay about 2 meters distance from others). Our massive pile of luggage: 8 checked bags, 4 musical instruments, 4 carry ons. We pushed our carts forward bit by bit. Then were jammed into a small space close to others for the actual check in (I didn't manage any photos). So much for keeping our distance.
We had 4 bags that we could check for free, but had to pay ~$100 for each additional bag. Should have paid online but got sent to the SAS service counter to pay- but they had to call United to get the luggage fee paid. Time passed. They started to press the United folks, saying we didn't have much time until departure. None of us like to be late to an airport, but Stephen in particular stresses- are we going to miss our flight? No, we'll be fine... (thinking internally, I hope). We get the fee paid, take the receipt, drop the bags (he doesn't even ask for the receipt). Work our way past security- our bags are packed with odd things like skateboard batteries. We unload everything, reload past security. Find our gate through the empty airport. Flight to Frankfurt is fairly busy- one of the few flights that day out of Arlanda, so I think it is what people are using to get elsewhere in Europe. 

We arrive in Frankfurt- offload onto a bus, detour around a fairly silent airport. Work our way into the terminal, follow signs to the Z terminal. Stop in customs- passports stamped for nearly the first time in our trip. The airport was odd... more large infrastructure sitting empty, unused. Lots of parked planes (with a backdrop of construction cranes- do airports continue to invest?). Marked off seats in an area with no people. 

Our flight from Frankfurt to Newark has about 20 people on it- perhaps more flight attendants than passengers. We’re in a section with 20 rows, 9 seats per row. There are maybe 9 of us in our section. We don't want to calculate our personal carbon footprint for this flight. 


 The 7.5 hour flight has been more exciting than we might wish- a passenger in our section- a man traveling alone- couldn’t sit still before take off- agitated beyond belief and needing to use the bathroom. Once airborne and past 10k feet, he headed to the bathroom- but came back still agitated. For 2 hours, he switched seats, rows, seats, rows- time and time again. The head flight attendant came back to check with him- the passenger just became increasingly agitated. He opened overhead luggage bins, moved bags around. Took his shoes off, put them on. Maybe after 3 or 4 hours into the flight- we don't know why or what happened to precipitate this- the flight attendants rallied the largish passengers for assistance and eventually subdued and handcuffed him- he was apparently schizophrenic and refusing to take his medicine. The head attendant noted this hadn’t happened to him in 30 years of flying. I feel for the passenger- agitated, upset, not liking his mask- and the set up is hard- a black man subdued on a flight by an all-white cast of irregulars.

We were just hoping for boring- as many movies as we might be able to stand watching. We still watched many movies. I supposed life is what happens while you are thinking about something else. I still don't know if we could have helped more- talking with him to calm him down before things escalated? Masks make everything harder. I don't like feeling helpless, not knowing what to do when you can see someone is not okay but you can't help.

[I wrote the part below on Monday, May 11th... a bit of time has elapsed]

Flight starts to descend through wild clouds and spotty snowstorms, empty baseball fields visible across the region. A county park bereft of any cars or boats in the lake. Turbulence tosses the plane. Elizabeth remarks she might be getting sick. We get out the vomit bags just in case. Stephen stares out the window, plane wings/flaps fluctuating wildly. Later he asks if this is normal. We skitter onto the runway, past the quiet port authority, stop near an IKEA.

We pull into the terminal. The plane was met by 8 cop cars on one side, 3 on the other, an ambulance. We waited to get off as our man in distress was taken off. Passengers interviewed by port authority officers. I felt so sad.

We eventually deplane, are met by a CDC official. He checks our 4 duplicate forms with our health symptoms- filled out. We navigate the airport past maybe 25-30 people: all wearing masks, some with plastic face shields. Temperatures taken- normal. (what happens if they are not? 2 people standing there looked ready to do something- just what, we didn't want to know). Found baggage claim- our bags are already making the rounds, bag after bag after bag.

2 luggage carts filled to the top, we navigate towards customs control. Any food? 8 bars of chocolate, granola bars. Cardamom rolls (of course). Not much else despite our mountain of luggage. They send about half our bags through the scanner; don't make us put the last 4 bags on for some reason.

We walk out into a deserted airport- stop to check internet using the wifi. Our phones are running a Swedish cell service- expensive in the US. Find instructions to our car, instructions from Newark to State College. Walk out to find parking, turn left to find our car.

Our key works- the car beeps, opens. Stuff our luggage in- not much spare room. Our realtor and her husband have driven our car and theirs over from State College- they left instructions with a note indicating that the check engine light had come on that morning, along with a note that "TRAC off" and "check AWD."  The wind lifts the instructions and sends them flying. Stephen grabs them, stuffs them in the car somewhere. They disappear into the mess by the time we realize that my phone has "forgotten" the directions. We are driving by this point but not knowing where to go- oops. I stop at a gas station while Chris turns his Swedish cell service on, generates instructions.

We start driving west. Cars feel weird (I've not driven much in 9 months). Our car is packed, visibility non-existent out the back window. New York & New Jersey drivers pass about 50 mph faster than we're driving. I feel like I did when I first had a kid in the car: I want a sign that says "back off, new driver." We navigate out, get on I-80 west. Chris turns off the cell service, tries to figure out how to transition our phones to a new google cell service (new SIM cards in the car thanks to the heroic efforts of friends + realtor to gather all the parts into one place).

Wind gusts blow the car sideways. The signs indicate potential snow squalls, white out conditions. We thought we'd left the snow in Sweden. Great day for the all wheel drive to maybe be functioning, or maybe not. I drive on. Chris puts the album on that is in the car: Lovelock to Winnemucca by our friend Justin Wells. We sing along, driving west. The kids fall asleep. At this point, they are seriously seasoned travelers. Despite the gustiness, the drive was fairly straightforward... it felt so odd to exit off I-80 towards Bellefonte, then navigate in the fading light towards our rental house.

Spring is later here than in Sweden-the trees still showing their branch structure, not yet leafed out. We'll apparently redo spring this year (we did fall 3 times last year). It felt good to stop driving, the rental house where we thought it would be.

Part 2 coming soon.