With Europe slowly reopening, the airports are going to receive more and more visitors in the upcoming weeks. But while the border closure was still in force, I had the chance to travel and experience what looked like a dystopian world.
I was born in 1997. That year, Italy entered the Schengen Agreement. Honestly I don’t know a world without Schengen. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve studied it in the books. I’ve been to a couple of customs museums, I went to Ellis Island even. I know borders existed. I have been through borders myself. But I see them as different. Because WE, in Europe, we don’t have borders. And suddenly, we do.
I went to the Lisbon airport 3 hours in advance. And consider I was travelling carry-on only. Despite the online check-in, I still needed to queue at the check-in stands. The hostess asked me whether I can prove I will only transit in Switzerland. I booked a train ticket to Italy right away – even though I wanted to wait to ensure my flight was on time. They told me I may not be allowed to board or I might get stuck in Zurich. I could hear her mentally asking: is it worth it traveling now? Couldn’t you just wait? And I was mentally replying: It is.
I haven’t been to Italy in 5 months. It’s my record. But there is a non written rule for expats. Your bank account shall never be 0. You shall always have a couple of thousands available to be able to fly back home for an emergency. Always. Depending on where you live, it can be anywhere from €1,000 to €10,000. You shall always be able to hop on a cab and buy a ticket at the airport even. Get the last flight of the day or the first in the morning. You know that. No one tells you but you know it from the very moment you buy a one way ticket for a foreign country.
And then it happens. Then you get the call. “His condition has gotten worse, I’d strongly recommend you to come to see him.” That’s the expat’s nightmare. That’s the only reason for having your bank account close to zero.
I’m based in Lisbon. Which usually would mean I can hop on one of the several flights to Bergamo/Milano/Verona that run through the day every single day. In normal times, I would be able to be in Italy in 10-12h top and spending roughly €200/400. I’m lucky enough to live abroad but close enough. BUT there’s a pandemic going on.
Booking a flight right now was the last thing I wanted to do. But I would have never forgiven myself if I hadn’t gone. I underestimated distance. I thought living in Lisbon would be just like living in Trento, Florence, or any other city in Italy that is 2:30/3 hours away from my hometown. But once the borders closed, it is not. There is a new distance that sets you apart from your loved ones, a distance that is deeper and more corrosive than the physical distance. There is a barrier. A physical one, a mental one, and an emotional. There is an understanding that we are no longer on the same boat. And that what I was going through here in Portugal was never what they were going through back in Italy.
And this thought is the one that haunted me in those 3 hours in the airport. Distance is no longer irrelevant. While I got my temperature checked. Or while I walked through an empty airport, with most of the shops closed and the lights turned off, I have never felt further away from home. And, having traveled solo much further than Portugal, that was a hard pill to swallow.
COVID-19 will never be something I recall as a “learning experience”, because the death, devastation and poverty that it created will always offset any benefit (such as reducing environmental pollution) it may have had. But one key takeaway I will forever treasure is this: I will never underestimate distance again. I will take my future living decisions more seriously and will live the next year or so with the consequences of the decisions I made underestimating distance. I will look at the km between me and my dear ones more closely in the future. With that being said, I don’t want you to interpret my words as: never be an expat. I am an EXPAT. I pride myself in this noun. But I want to acknowledge, to myself first, that there is so much more you have to consider when choosing this life. And while we have it easy in Europe, we shall never take the freedom of traveling back home whenever we need/want for granted. Never again.
Have a Safe Journey!