NOT YOUR AVERAGE TRAVEL COLUMN
Rabble Rouser founder, Francesca Palmacci, details her trip home during the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.
We’ve been here before. But we’ve never been seemingly so connected yet disconnected. You might think that having all the time in the world to sit and do nothing, to mindlessly scroll, would be a gift, hand delivered by the quarantine gods. But, in reality, it seems to have the opposite effect. Now many have come to realize that pushing forward with business as usual, social stalking, minimal thinking, isn’t a sustainable way to live. We’re isolated in our homes, toasting to friends, their voices garbled.
Did we ever think we’d find ourselves in the age of connection, so disconnected? We are alone. At first it didn’t seem like a big deal, someone ate a bat, I can’t buy toilet paper, my I am a germaphobe and a hypochondriac hand sanitizer stash finally has its 15 minutes of fame. But now I’m scared, we all are, Skype calls to high school friends bring a fleeting solace that fade in and out along with Wifi connection.
I’ll admit this, and hopefully it slips under the radar of environmentalists (Extinction Rebellion I’m sorry), I just took my 23rd trans-Atlantic flight. I’ve become one of those highly privileged millennial complainers and if there’s ever a time to not be sorry its now.
I managed to get a flight going home, I got up at the ungodly hour of 4AM and I think every cell in my body was confused, I, half asleep and full to the brim with self-pity threw myself into an Uber who later scammed me out of 68 pounds and also decided that, after discussing “the virus”, it was a good idea to spend the duration of our journey coughing up a lung in the front seat.
The terminal was eerie, I don’t even think Kurt Vonnegut would like it. I put on my mask for the first time prepared to breath in my own germs and my own passive aggressive travel mutterings for the next 17 hours. Making my way through the trenches, or rather the perfume department of the duty free I, for once, couldn’t smell a thing. I sat down, nitrate gloves on, palms sweaty, ibuprofen locked and loaded a few seats away from an inviting group suiting up in hazmat suits and goggles.
I decided to practice some mindfulness and take myself into a bathroom stall where I had my moment of zen watching vapid YouTube videos for a solid 45 minutes until I could go to my gate. I passed by some sushi place, you know the ones with the conveyor belt, and at 7:30 in the morning there were people eating sushi, airport sushi, which all in all might have been the strangest observation of my trip.
At the gate a woman is telling a seemingly empathetic bystander (who I would later see doing exercises in the aisles of the plane as flight attendants who won’t get paid for 8 weeks try to make their way by her) about how she doesn’t know when her daughter will be able to see her father again, as he can’t leave the U.K. due to the new restrictions. I looked to see the girl’s expression but the N95 mask covering her face obscured any view.
I conned myself a pair of small gloves from airport staff, they told me that scanning my hands for explosives would “burn off the germs” I laughed a pity laugh and walked onto the plane. Nothing to report from here - I sat, I stared, I watched some banal rom com, I made myself drink plane coffee (something my imaginary publicist has warned me about), I flinched whenever someone coughed and began to plan my own demise.
In New York one was taking things seriously. Behind me in the security line a group of people are crowding around a girl with a yappy chihuahua in a sling, eyes bulging who is bragging to the grouping of dog connoisseurs about how it’s her dog’s 12th flight. I’m the only one wearing a mask and gloves, which illicit some stares.
All this time my main motivator has been to go and get an obscenely large Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee to revive my soul and to conversely give me heart palpitations. I deal with the airport markup of $6 for a cup of ice and converse with the woman behind the counter. She tells me they only have her and one other woman working all day, using the pandemic as an excuse - they are bleary-eyed and overworked. The airport is still busy, people are still going on with their lives, and the cracks start to show that corporations will stretch their employees for all their worth and then bask in a $2 trillion bailout a few weeks later.
At the gate, for a flight with 80 empty seats, everyone is still sitting side-by-side. I, keeping a distance, strike up a conversation with the girl next to me. She has a pimple with white puss oozing out of it which immensely turns me off at first, but I try to ignore it, that was my new years resolution after all - to judge people less. But if I’m being honest at this point what we really need is a whole new year.
She tells me that she had to pack up all of her belongings after a year studying abroad at The London School of Economics within hours as U.S universities called for all study abroad students to return home immediately. She is a student at Clark University, an earthy crunchy New England school in Western Massachusetts. We continue our conversation as we make our way onto the plane, eventually parting ways as we both take our seats in rows void of human existence. I’m still thinking, in a sleep deprived daze, about our conversation. About the other university students forced to uproot their entire in the span of a few hours, no confirmation as to if they’ll be reimbursed for the rest of their accommodation fees, some with no families to go to or no means to eat without university aid. In approximately 32 minutes I am home.
Now I’m thinking about the complacent faces I saw in New York, the people huddled around the chihuahua as if they were performing some pagan ritual, the lack of masked faces, the absence of the scent of bleach wafting down the corridors. Now, I’m thinking about how, 10 days later in New York there are giant refrigerators parked up outside of hospitals to house the bodies of the dead so that the beds could be given to new patients - they all died alone. Now I’m thinking of the absence of fear in the airport on that Wednesday afternoon and the human refrigerators, the makeshift morgues, the nurses wearing Glad trash bags over their tired bodies. It’s The Lord of the Flies and we’re all Piggy. Donald Trump has put all of those New Yorkers into their body bags and signed them with a gold sharpie. This is America, this is who she is.