This Month’s Featured Article

Summer 2021-To Europe – and Back?

By Published On: August 28th, 2021

Our trip to France was planned for late March 2020. My younger brother, Michael, and I needed to get over to see our mother in the Maison de Retraite that she had been transported to the previous December because her cognitive deterioration made it impossible for her to live on her own any more. She had moved to France on her own over 20 years earlier to live in the small but charming house that her mother had built in the French Pyrenees. It seemed an idyllic situation at first. But as she and her circle of friends there aged, things became increasingly difficult. Her doctor had told us there was nothing we could do until it was clear she would need to be hospitalized, at which time she would be admitted to an appropriate facility. That had finally happened. Now, all we knew about where our mother was and how she was being cared for was the name of the facility, the minimal information the place had on its website, a telephone number, and the assurance from the French government representative overseeing her case that “tout va bien.”

The pandemic nixed the travel for March. Optimistically, we rescheduled for June. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, either. With our tickets fully refunded and the prospect of travel to anywhere – much less Europe – a remote possibility for 2020, we waited and wondered, like the rest of the world. We called the Maison de Retraite frequently, both of us relating to each other that we were always pleasantly and efficiently connected to our mother. If something untoward was happening there, it was impossible for us to know. We also had to trust that her small house was being checked on occasionally by her Basque neighbors with whom we exchanged cryptic emails.

We understood very well that while this was unfortunate and sad, it was a far better situation than many experienced with their elderly family members in 2020. One of our friends needed to put on protective gear from head-to-toe so she could come to her mother’s bedside to hold her hand in her final hours. There were so many heartbreaking accounts of people dying alone, and they made having to wait to get to France feel like a petty inconvenience. (Tell that to our hearts).

Making plans

Fast forward to spring of 2021. Fully vaccinated and with restrictions lifting, my brother and I talked seriously about getting to France. Our older brother, Robin, wasn’t able to join us, but he agreed it was a good time to go. As places around the country and the world started to open up, we were ready. We were both fully vaccinated, so that wasn’t an issue. We didn’t want to quarantine when we arrived there, and we hoped to not have to do it upon our return, so we waited until the mandatory quarantining in France was lifted. Our objectives with our time there were to go visit our mother as frequently as possible, and also to go through her house to salvage what we could and decide what to do with the rest.

Researching flights, we decided the option to go through Spain was more affordable and involved less travel time overall, so that’s what we chose. We would be renting a car at the airport in Bilbao, our final destination, and spending nine of our ten days in France. We didn’t find anything around COVID restrictions for Spain, so we felt comfortable with our choice. We booked tickets to leave in late July and return at the beginning of August.

About two weeks after making the reservation, I got an email from the airline letting me know that one of our scheduled flights had been cancelled and we needed to confirm an alternative. I got on the phone as soon as I could and the agent was very helpful. Fortunately, the new flight left around the same time but had a much shorter layover in Madrid, which was a bonus. Michael found an Airbnb for us with plenty of room and lots of charm, and secured the rental car. I made phone calls and emails to the people we would need to see to line up appointments.

Rules and regulations

When I emailed to say we were coming, we received more information from the Maison de Retraite in early July than we had in the past year. Throughout 2020, France had imposed very strict regulations for people, and while things like needing an official document in order to be out of your home between 10pm and 8am, or not being able to travel farther than ten kilometers from your home were no longer being enforced, the situation was still being taken seriously. We were sent a document detailing strict visiting hours, the requirement of full vaccination plus a negative test within 72 hours before the visit, and the need for additional negative tests while continuing to visit for any extended time. The interim tests could be performed at pharmacies. Wow. We assured the directrice that we would follow the rules.

A week or so before our flight, we received an email alerting us to complete an online health form in order to travel to or through Spain. As we had done when making our flight reservations, we set up a time to call each other, pulled up the emails, clicked on the link for the form, and went through each question while on the phone together to ensure we were providing the same information. When completed and approved, we were sent emails with QR codes that we would need to be presented at the airports in Madrid and then in Bilbao. We both printed them out so that we would have hard copies as well as electronic versions.

Last but not least, we had tests done within 72 hours of our travel date to confirm that we were negative for COVID. We felt confident since we were both fully vaccinated and neither of us had been sick, but with so much on the line, awaiting those results was nerve wracking. When a coworker said “I hope you fail” – which is the result you want – my first reaction was dread and disbelief at the prospect of testing positive and/or not getting the results in time. Fortunately, we both tested negative. Sigh of relief.

Bon voyage!

With passports, vaccination cards, boarding passes, the email with the negative test result, the QR codes for Spain, and our small carry-ons packed and ready, we were on our way. Our flight was leaving from JFK on a Thursday night. We made sure to arrive in plenty of time. The airport was busy, but not overly crowded. Everyone in the terminal was required to wear a mask unless eating or drinking. While showing boarding passes and passports was required to go through security and to get on the plane, we were only asked for our vax cards and proof of the negative test to go through security. The flight was full.

Michael let me know we would need to hustle our way through the airport in Madrid to make our connection since the terminals were connected by a train and we would need to get through customs, too. I didn’t know he could walk so fast! The Spanish were all over the QR codes generated through the online health form, and we had to show them at several security checkpoints. This connector flight was also full. People were traveling.

Once in Bilbao, things were more relaxed. We made our way to the rental car check-in, Michael took care of the paperwork, we found the car, got in, programmed our destination into Google maps, and headed northwest into the French Pyrenees. We worried about being stopped at the border, but there were no security checks between France and Spain at any of the times or places that we drove between the two countries.

Finally, the Maison de Retraite

We had made the requisite reservations for visiting hours at the nursing home, which were 15h a 16:30h (3 to 4:30 pm). We arrived a bit early on our first visit, thinking we would be met by someone who would review our documents before letting us in. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday (one of the few sunny days we’d have). Just as towns in the US have fairs in the summer with rides and games and music, so do towns in France, but on a much simpler scale. We were there during this town’s fête. At the Maison de Retraite that afternoon, there was a group of musicians in blue and white folk costumes playing for the residents, many of whom were seated outside to see them.

Our mother was in a secure wing of the home, so we didn’t expect she would be among those sitting outside, and she wasn’t. Still, the anticipation of seeing her finally after so long and so much had our nerves on full alert. The front doors slid open automatically and, to our astonishment, there was no one there to check documents. On a small table was a sign-in sheet and a large dispenser of hand sanitizer, both of which we dutifully utilized. We asked the first person dressed in a uniform where to find our mother’s unit, and she pointed us down a hall. I had spoken with one of the aides before we left to confirm that we were signed up to visit every day, and he had given me the code to enter the area for the patients who, like our mother, couldn’t be trusted to be on their own. We pressed it into the key pad and walked in.

OK, we figured, it was a Saturday. Again on Sunday there was no one at the front door to greet or check our vaccination status. Ditto for Monday and every day thereafter. We didn’t try to hide or avoid anyone, either. We became friendly with all the staff in the special unit where our mother lived with about a dozen others. We met a nurse. We had a special appointment to meet and speak with the doctor. We talked to the secretary (all in French, of course). Everyone working at the retraite was masked, but the residents were not. They had all received Pfizer shots as soon as they were available. We wore our masks while speaking with staff, but took them off when alone with our mother.

If you’ve read this far you are surely interested in my impressions of the French health care system. That could be a whole separate article. Suffice to say that Michael and I both agree that even though we wish it was easier to visit, we are so happy our mother is in France. There is a pervasive sense of kindness and dignity in the care given by the French.

Don’t leave France without it

We were relieved to not have to get multiple rapid tests during our visit, but an awareness of COVID restrictions and requirements was always with us. We turned down an invitation to have dinner with the Basque neighbors even though it was quite an honor because they had said they weren’t vaccinated. The chances were extremely slim, but what if doing that resulted in a positive test within 72 hours of our return flight? We wouldn’t be able to return to the US until we’d quarantined and been retested. This was out of the question.

We made sure to get to the only lab that was doing rapid testing on the only day and time we could – a Friday morning between 11am and 1pm. Our flight was Sunday morning. There was already a line and things were moving very slowly. Everyone had to take a ticket to be admitted into the building to register for the test. Families could go in together, fortunately, but each individual was registered separately, of course. Masks were required. Results would come via text. “Dans les 24 heures, vraiement?” I asked? “Mais oui, sûrement,” I was assured. But what could we do but trust that this was so?

Paperwork in hand, we went outside the building to join the socially distanced line awaiting turns to have the testing done. What an experience! There was a tent set up with a long table of tools to be used by a single nurse, who was dressed in full protective gear. People getting tested were asked to sit in a chair and lower their masks just below the nose. There were two young girls in line in front of us, and both were clearly pained by the procedure, the younger one starting to cry after the first nostril. I was amazed that she calmed down quickly (with hand-holding and reassurance from her mother) and allowed for the second nostril to be done. Her older sister’s seeming bravery evaporated when it was her turn.

So what was worse, getting this clearly painful procedure or not getting back home? I didn’t need to think twice about that. I’m a wimp about shots and things and I knew I would be rattled by this, as well. Michael seemed stoic. I told myself that when I was in the chair I would think about the ocean, and the mountains, and my cats – anything to take my mind somewhere calming. It took great resolve and nerves of steel. The nurse sent the long pipette way up each nostril and counted to ten, swabbing all the while. I was proud of myself for not moving during the procedure. Michael got through it, but barely. His way to describe it was that she was reaching for neck hairs. Is this what being able to move about in the world had come to?

Bien sûr, we got texts in less than 24 hours, directing us to a website with a link in which we had to enter the number assigned to us at the lab to access the results. NEGATIVE. We saved the form as a pdf and sent it to ourselves so access to it would be easier at the airport.

Homeward bound

We were flying out of Bilbao with a connection in Madrid. We got to the airport at 6:30am to board the flight leaving at 9:30. We were the second and third people in the check-in line to get our boarding passes. Passports, yes. Online health form, yes. Negative test results, yes. “Where is your passport number on the test result?” we were asked. “It’s not there,” we answered. “It has to be to verify your identity,” she said. Panic. What could we do? She left to ask a manager, and when she returned ten very long minutes later, she asked if our dates of birth were on them. Yes, they were. Very clearly. We were clear to get on the plane. Security was no problem, and with great relief we were at the gate.

Making the connection in Madrid was no problem. Once at the gate for the flight, our passports and negative results were checked and confirmed, and we were asked to sign a Passenger Disclosure and Attestation to the United States form that we were told would be collected in the US. The flight was full again. Lots of families, babies in tow. Besides needing to be masked, being on an international flight felt very similar to flying pre-COVID. Getting to the seats was a regulations ordeal that was very stressful.

Home at last

At JFK, when we got to a customs officer, we had only to show our passports and have our pictures taken. Our Attestation forms were not collected. The last leg was the drive back to my place in Green Island, where Michael would spend the night before driving to his home in Maine the next morning.

Was it all worth it? One thousand percent. Was it stressful? Very much. We dodged a restriction currently in place in France, though, that would have made things far less pleasant. The French now need to present a Passe Sanitaire to eat at cafés and restaurants and travel on intercity trains. It’ll be in effect at least through November, and tourists need to get them through their embassies. Mon Dieu!

Bon courage if you plan to travel to France any time soon, though she is toujours la France, and for me there is nowhere nicer to visit.