When I was a kid there was a country called Czechoslovakia. By the time I was a teen it had grown a new name, The Czech Republic, having broken up with Slovakia. (It’s not you…). I called it Czechoslovakia a VERY VERY long time before I finally got it right. The social embarrassment was consistent (“Oh right they broke up sorry sorry.”) Now I’m caught up and say the Czech Republic with the same glee that equally easily pleased people say “Grathias” when they are in Spain. Sometime during the 24 hour period before I arrived in Prague I learned that Czech Republic no longer existed, it now had a new name, Czechia. How quickly things fucking change, I thought. Ooh was I in for a lesson in that today.
Day 2 of the global pandemic outbreak.
When I got on my plane to Czechia was fine, located in its usual place east of Germany and under Poland. By the time we touched down, Czechia was under a state of emergency, restricting all events to sizes of 100 or less, canceling sporting events, etc. Even our event was affected, halving our 200 attendees into two equal groups.
Group One which would gather in one room and share the Coronavirus with each other live while Group Two would catch the Coronavirus in a separate room while watching the other room’s infection live on a video feed. This isn’t intended to be a joke. This is almost certainly what was happening, the virus is insanely virulent, the room was filled with international travelers, some of whom had recently returned from China, and Italy. At any rate, Amazon eCommerce is as boring as it sounds, and the only thing on people’s minds was the virus.
One attendee told me a nightmare theory where the virus was certainly stolen from researchers in Canada and re-engineered in China to then spread just as a trial run to see how the world would cope. Having assessed the global response, [whoever] would then release a more virulent and more vicious version of the disease, and reclaim the planet. Maybe this year. Maybe years later.
Another attendee told me that he’d heard that China was upset for being the scapegoat, and was in fact, restricting the shipment of newly manufactured masks until the West had apologized. Like when your ex won’t give you your hoodie back and puts your entire family at risk for an awful death, I guess. Just like that.
Social distancing, proved to be even less popular as I found myself in another conversation with a third attendee from Israel told me that he was never as scared as he is now, which is strange because he grew up in a country where he was constantly being bombarded with missiles.
As we spoke, I noticed that roughly 80% of conversations consist of talking, the remaining 20% of them are just you and the other person breathing as hard as you fucking can on each other. I felt like the world’s most stubborn birthday candle. Have people been breathing on me like this my whole life? Do I breathe on other people this much? This is disgusting why are we CPRing our way through this conversation, a conversation that is explicitly about the danger of doing this exact thing it feels like maybe my tank ran out of air so now we’re buddy breathing our way to the surface, Jesus we’re so fucked the only people that are going to make it are the extremely socially awkward and the Deaf who don’t have to deal with any of this aggressive exhalation just to get an idea across.
“Oh here’s my business card,” I would say, when the time was right.
We all drank a lot, too much in fact so that I stumbled back to my Airbnb and inadvertently fell asleep on my couch.
At around 2:30 in the morning my phone imploded with text messages and IG DMs.
“PHIL YOU HAVE TO COME HOME NOW.”
Drunk, and on the ‘before’ stages of a hangover, I checked my messages which directed me to the CNN front page which had an article with the headline “TRUMP BANS ALL FLIGHTS TO AND FROM EUROPE.” Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.
Awake now, too fucking awake. I skimmed the article. And another. And another. They were unified, it was real. Trump had banned all flights to and from Europe, the ban would take place Friday. After that, it’s national musical chairs, that’s where you live now. Find a wife. Raise a family. Czechmate.
Frantically, I hit google/flights and tried to find a way home. Sweet. Prague. Oslo. Oslo. New York. I don’t know what I’d do in New York but I’ll figure it out. Oh the last window seat, sweet. Book it. Fuck. Error. What? Again. Error. Fuck. Oh wait I’ll just use norwegian.com. Great. Shit my window seat is gone, now there’s just middle seats. Do I want to sit middle seat for 10 hours transatlantic? Hard No. Do I want to try to learn the Czech language? Harder no. Booked.
As I tried to sober up and dole out and absorb knowledge from worried friends and family, I packed. This was frustrating and scary. It was also disappointing. The last 3 years I’d spent working on one project, and this conference was going to be a great opportunity for me to launch that project to the ideal target audience. But as the hours passed, and my hangover took over, my focus shifted from the business ramifications to political ones. It seemed my flight back from Oslo was far from a done deal. Hungover, exhausted, and scared I tried to find some real source of information, which has been a problem for the last three years, or so.
As the sun came up around 6am, I learned that the president’s speech had lacked a certain amount of what you and I will call “detail.” The president was unclear and when his message hit Prague, it was even more…sigh, vague. Somehow I made my way to the actual presidential decree on some government website. The ban was not actually for all of the European countries. It was for the 26 countries in the Schengen zone, which did not include Countries with Resorts owned by the President, or Countries recently the victim of extortion attempts by the president. Britain, Ireland, Ukraine, a few others. Also the ban didn’t apply to US citizens, only foreign nationals.
Still, I grew worried about my return plan… how many flights would Norwegian actually fly from Oslo, if the only people that could board them were American citizens? I called up the help desk and sat on hold for an hour, behind probably 1,000 people with the exact same concern, and changed my flight to route through London, safely out of the Schengen Zone. (This proved to be a wise move, as 24 hours later Norwegian cancelled all of their flights from Oslo to the US)
By 10am I’d found a solution, a flight from Prague to London, London to NYC, the following Tuesday. I’d be able to give my presentation, see a bit of Prague, and fly home. I collapsed into my bed, and disappeared into sleep, after 8 stressful hours.
At 3pm I woke up, and was going over my presentation when, absentmindedly, I checked Twitter, and saw that the Czech R… Czechia was trending.
Perhaps frustrated with the Presidential decree from America, the Czechian prime minister had increased the severity of the state of emergency. No groups of more than 30. No movies. Restaurants would close by 8pm. Also, no visitors from any of fifteen countries heavily affected by the virus. Including Great Britain. This was to go into effect tomorrow, midnight, four days before my flight out.
I wondered how likely it would be that airlines would fly empty planes from England just to pick up the handful of eligible people back from Prague, in 4 days, and realized that I was, again, fucked, and needed a new plan. Kyiv was outside of the Schengen zone, was not banned from flight, and had direct flights both to London (for Tuesday) and New York, in a pinch, if I needed.
I booked a flight to Kyiv, cancelled my flight to London, and within 3 hours was headed to the airport for a 10pm flight to Ukraine.