One recent morning, over a pain aux raisins and cappuccino at Gail’s Bakery in London (half price thanks to the U.K. government’s Eat Out to Help Out plan to encourage dining at restaurants), I searched for fall plane tickets and hotels in Denmark, Germany, and Portugal. Last month, I traveled—quarantine free—to Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. It was almost like it was 2019.
As an American living in London, I realize how lucky I am to travel in Europe right now, while most of my family is living and working in the United States, missing seeing my 22-month-old daughter grow up. We relied on open, free borders to maintain this cross-continental life. A four-day weekend in London from New York to see the baby? No problem.
Now, my residence card, not passport, is the ticket to travel. But that bright sense of optimism as internal borders reopened in Europe in early July has definitely dimmed a bit. It hasn’t been as easy as everyone hoped: The list of quarantine-free travel for the United Kingdom is growing shorter by the day as several countries across Europe see their positive test rate rise again. For the U.K., anything above 20 positive tests per 100,000 residents turns the red light on for quarantine. (An increased rate in hospitalizations—and deaths—has not followed in any country, including in the U.K. The Financial Times cites a changing age profile and improved care.) Spain, after just weeks of being open, is back on the “ever-changing travel naughty list”—that’s British humor for you.
Still, the travel pages in the U.K. are filled with inspirational articles for global exploration—not just domestic road trips—and a light focus on safety measures in those articles. (Plus, travel advertising is back!) I see a stark contrast to the day-to-day shifts in the U.S., where “travel shaming” has become the latest trend. The local press, per a top travel editor in London, reminds us that “travel is one of the greatest gifts and joys of life, and to focus so much on safety is to focus on fear.” In general, people I talk to seem to be cautious, but not fearful—during a recent lunch with friends, we talked about this stat that had been making the media rounds: Around 91 percent of England’s population live in neighborhoods where there hasn’t been a recorded COVID-19 case for four weeks.
Mask wearing varies across Europe
As far as mask mandates go, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy across the continent. For instance, you have to wear a mask on public transit in Denmark and the Netherlands, and that’s it; social distancing and hygiene measures remain in place. In Switzerland, where I go back and forth visiting family, masks are mandatory in public transit and in hairdressers, and each canton can set its own rules. Geneva made masks mandatory in shops until mid-October.
Masking gets stricter as you enter Spain, where they’re required indoors or outdoors in public spaces—from shops to beaches—even if social distancing can be observed. In Portugal, they’re required in “services, shops, and supermarkets,” as well as on public transit.
Another key difference I’ve noticed is age—in Switzerland and the U.K., for instance, masks aren’t required for children under the age of 12. In France, they’re actually prohibited for children under the age of 3, and only required for children ages 3–11 if they exhibit symptoms. In Spain, children must wear them over the age of 6. The World Health Organization released advice last week saying that children under the age of 5 should not be required to wear masks, and the decision for children ages 6–11 depends on several factors, including whether there is widespread transmission.
When I travel, I bring a mask and wear it when appropriate or required, and that action feels way less politicized than it does in the U.S.
Traveling has been a welcome recharge
Traveling across Europe now, even under the restrictions of COVID-19, is simpler—and more worthwhile—than I imagined. The stress caused by reading newspapers and social media rarely manifests as the same level of stress on the ground. No need to arrive five hours early to an airport. No need to get health certifications to enter a new country (at least for now, in the places I’ve visited). As my family and I drove to Lake Como from Switzerland last month, the simplicity of the border crossing (the guard gave a slight nod of approval to drive on) lifted several bricks that had been sitting on my shoulders. Behind us was the feeling that travel was criminal. In front of us were three Vespas, hugging the curves of the lake. Welcome to Italy. Welcome to freedom.
I’ve always joked that nothing bad can happen at a great hotel. If my husband and I have a fight, we’re able to find peace in a beautiful hotel lobby or bar. But now, great hotels feel like even bigger, more beautiful cocoons than before. At the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, there is discreet safety signage at the front desk and on tables, guests are smart with social distancing, and you’ll find mini bottles of hand sanitizer in your room. Plus, it sends you an email prior to arrival asking how you want your stay tailored—how often do you want housekeeping? Do you want to be escorted to your room?
This was my second stay at this Wes Anderson–style hotel, with its abundance of colors, palazzo-studded views, and terraced gardens. And just like before, I felt safe here, happy: We ate thin-crust pizza by the pool, bought Panama hats in the gift shop, and popped olives in our mouths, chased with an Aperol spritz on the terrace.
Most of all, we met and talked to people, all so grateful to be traveling in Italy. A couple from Berlin was staying in the hotel for 10 days, and they had left the hotel once—not because they were nervous to be outside, but because they were really slowing down and enjoying the space. They didn’t feel the need to check off a list of restaurants George Clooney had eaten at.
That’s how I felt, though I also wanted to support local businesses outside hotels—and did, just not at the fevered pace of my past. Slow travel was a trend before this hit, but it’s savored travel I’m seeking now—enjoying everything to the very fullest. Dining in the grandest squares; exploring tiny shops filled with pasta and olive oil, jewelry, and scarves; sitting in museum cafés, lingering over scones and coffee; enjoying poached eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast at Europe’s grand hotels, and being taken care of because we all desperately need it.
“What we are missing from our beloved American guests is the enthusiasm, the love for everything Italian, and curiosity for our culture, food, and history,” says Valentina De Santis, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo’s owner and CEO. “The guests now are mostly from Europe and they are living in the hotel much more. They come here to slow down and most of them don’t even leave the hotel. But I cannot explain this different behavior only by nationality but also from what each of us has been living in the past months. I think it taught us to slow down, to appreciate living in the moment.”
That’s what I hope to do more of. While I’m looking for flights to multiple countries (I did, after all, move to London to take advantage of European living), my trips will be different. I’ll stay longer in each place, and I won’t cross-reference my Google map of places to eat and see 27 times a day.
Travel has always recharged me. I’m energized by what’s new, by discovery. But now, it’s helping pull me out of a melancholy mental state that I have never found myself in before, driven by uncertainty and lack of time with my family.
No matter what passport we hold, we have all been hit with despair. And we’re all looking for the world to rebound, and the curve to truly flatten. Still, there’s something that feels so good about commiserating over scones and coffee with a stranger. What a privilege.