March 10, 2021

1916 words 9 mins read

1 Year Ago: My Travel Adventure while a Pandemic Begins

The current fad on Instagram, as I’m led to understand, is posting stories of what you were doing “One Year Ago Today”. Since mid-March 2020 was the start of the “real” pandemic for most people in the USA, it’s mostly pictures of normal life. However 1 year ago today I was flying back from a week and a half trip to Bulgaria and Germany. Just a day after touchdown in San Francisco, the European travel ban would be announced.

[email protected] 2020. A conference from the before times
Our story today starts in early January 2020, in San Francisco with the hiring of a new Security team member in Bulgaria. Over in Europe they have a more civilized system of transitioning jobs which can take several months, so my new hire was going to be starting in late February. My boss decided that this new hire was a great reason for me to head out to Bulgaria. Nominally there was no problem with this plan, COVID-19 was still a “Mostly China” problem at the time and no one in the USA was even tracking cases. However, I wanted to go to Bulgaria in April as I was headed to Japan in mid-March. The boss overruled and I was headed to Bulgaria “soon”.

The trip to Bulgaria was booked for the first week of March and at first everything was fine. However reports of COVID-19 started to crop up in other places, like the USA, and it was starting to cause me a little bit of anxiety. At one point in January I was chatting with a coworker in the office and said something to the effect of “The first time there is a COVID case in the Bay Area, is the last day you see me in the office. No way in heck I’m getting on BART with a pandemic in our area.” Of course, as more cases showed up around the world I got much less excited about traveling.

SFO International Terminal February 29, 2020
Departure to Bulgaria was on Saturday February 29th, 2020. Air Travel had decreased some, but it was yet to even be a “thing” to wear masks. In short, people were concerned, but it wasn’t the pandemic we know today. While I wasn’t thrilled about the trip, I didn’t think it could get too bad in a week. Besides Bulgaria and Germany both had no cases, so they were technically safer places to be than the USA.

On my flight to Munich from San Francisco, the plane was significantly more empty than normal. Most rows had no more than one person every other seat, some rows only had a single person in each section. I had the aisle and my neighbor had the window seat, with no one in the middle. As soon as my seatmate sat down, she put on a mask and started cleaning her area around her. I even lent her one of my cleaning wipes as I’ve previously gotten a stomach bug from a flight - so I like to clean the high-contact surfaces as well. Other than her giving me free drink coupons, we had a pleasant and mostly interaction free flight.

Munich to Sofia. A packed plane
The stop in Germany would just be a long layover as I waited for my flight to Sofia, Bulgaria. Wandering around every square inch of the available airport terminal (again, very long layover), you’d think nothing was wrong. At the time, nothing was wrong. Restaurants were full and gifts shops were doing brisk business. The flight to Sofia was basically full, as normal. Arriving in Sofia was easy and painless. Though I was seriously looking forward to getting to the hotel and sleeping since I hadn’t slept well on the plane and it’s a long trip, especially with the layovers.

Sunrise in Sofia
When in Sofia, I went to the office and everything progressed mostly as normal. There were plenty of conversations about COVID but it wasn’t “too serious” yet. The first italian spike of cases was just getting going about that time and the biggest concern was that someone in the office had been to Italy in the previous week (they were fine, nowhere near the affected area). Repeatedly, I was told that there were no recorded cases in Bulgaria because COVID can’t handle Rakia, which if you’ve ever had Rakia… actually makes sense. Jet Fuel. However, many admitted there were several deaths due to “flu-like symptoms” and that the government was probably covering it up. Seems the locals trusted their government about as much as the USA did for most of the pandemic.

Vertigo Business Tower, Sofia
However my anxiety level was ramping up all week and not just because of the direct threat of COVID-19. As the pandemic had started to spread in Europe, airlines had started significantly curtailing their service or out-right shutting routes down. Lufthansa, whom I was flying on for the trip, was reducing their flights all over Europe. There were only three flights a day from Sofia to Munich, all Lufthansa. While I was enjoying my time in Sofia, it was of great concern that my flights might get canceled and I’d be stuck in Bulgaria. Additionally my flight from Munich to San Francisco repeatedly was modified. Originally I booked a flight on an A380, as I’d never been on that plane before, but that would be swapped out several times before my return home. As it turned out Lufthansa grounded all their A380’s just two days before my flight home.

Mistakenly booked my trip during a holiday week. Bulgarian Liberation Day celebration
Second, was the trip to Japan in late March. It was a trip with a group of friends that had been in planning for years (Editor’s note: This is NOT an exaggeration. We had been planning this trip since 2017.). Cases were starting to ramp up in Japan. The Diamond Princess event in Japan had been in early February. Even into the first week of March now, the group was still talking about Japan being a “go”. In their view, the risk wasn’t too bad yet which was fair. However I was already sure it wasn’t going to happen; here I am sitting in Bulgaria hoping I’m going to get home. What are the chances we’d get to Japan and not get home? Needless to say, each day compounded the stress level.

On Saturday March 7th, I was flying from Sofia back to Munich, where I’d stay for a few days of vacation. By the end of the week none of the Saturday flights from Sofia to Munich had been canceled, which was fortunate. While I’m not a regular in Sofia International Airport, it did feel significantly less busy compared to the last few times I’d pass through. Practically no line at security. Munich Airport wasn’t packed, but there was still a decent amount of people to be seen. Overall, the travel world was continuing to operate as normal, albeit with less people traveling.

Hotel Hachinger Hof
My time in Germany was wonderful. I stayed at a lovely more traditional Bavarian style hotel in Oberhaching, Germany which I think is best described as a suburb of Munich. The location and events of the weekend were arranged by my family who live in Southern Germany and grew up in Munich. You can’t get a better tour guide than a local. The biggest downside was that I only had three and a half days in Munch.

Since I was already in Munich, a major hub airport, my concerns about making it home were greatly reduced. The likelihood of every flight back to SFO, another major airport, being canceled in the next few days seemed very slim. In addition I was with family who lived in the area and could give me a place to crash if it absolutely came to that. With those worries put aside, I could enjoy a few days of learning about Munich. One of the most interesting was visiting the famous Munich Glockenspiel (aka Rathaus-Glockenspiel) in Marienplatz (the central square of Munich). The most elaborate clock “show” I’ve ever seen, and it’s over a hundred years old too.

One of the “small” things about my time in Germany that I would enjoy, at the time, but not truly appreciate until later… was the food. Between the amazing hotel restaurant and the numerous fantastic local haunts, I ate a lot of great food that weekend. If you’re a traditional American, then traditional German food is a match made in heaven. They are all about meat and potatoes and sausages and pretzels. Looking back on it, the delicious meals of Munich would be the last I would eat out in a restaurant until October 2020 - when we had a single outdoor lunch. As of this writing, I still have not had dinner in a restaurant since Germany.

Tuesday March 10th was my return home. Headed to and getting on the plane in Munich was the first time it was abundantly clear the world was starting to change very rapidly. When I booked the flight home in January, it had been a reasonably full Airbus A380. In Lufthansa configuration that plane can hold about 509 passengers. However what I ended up getting on was an A340-600 which “only” holds about 297 passengers. Except in my row which was a 2/4/2 configuration, there were only 3 people. The entire middle section of 4 seats was completely empty. This was par for the course, for the entire plane. Certainly there were no complaints from me regarding having a lot more room to stretch out myself. Plus the lack of people directly around made the “pandemic” thing a little less anxiety inducing.

Over the arctic ice
Everything about the flight home was uneventful. Boring even. With so many less people getting on planes, Munich airport was much less busy. Getting on the plane wasn’t a huge queue, neither was getting off. Once I landed in SFO it was more of the same. Less people and less flights meant that Customs was almost not a pain. Baggage claim was fairly quiet as well. At the time it was nice, but it’s also strange to think that the same area would be pure chaos just a few days later as Americans panic and scrambled to find a way home, post travel ban announcement.

The lights of the Bay Area
A year ago today, I was getting home from a long and exhausting trip. If the travel itself wasn’t bad enough, the constant COVID-19 stress didn’t help either. Not to say that I’m unappreciative of my trip: I truly enjoyed my time in both Bulgaria and Germany. Most importantly I would turn out to be extremely lucky. A contingent of my office mates from San Francisco would end up in Sofia the week after myself (there was a misunderstanding and I probably should have been going the same week as them) and have to scramble to get home. There was no sickness and it’s probably the last week or two that anyone could travel in the world in a nearly normal fashion.

Oh, and the Japan trip would end up being canceled. The group made the decision not long after I returned home. As it turns out, the day we were scheduled to fly out to Japan, our flight was canceled anyways - so we would have been in trouble right out of the gate.