At the beginning of 2020 – not for nothing, but doesn’t that seem like a decade ago? – Matt and I had a dream of nesting in an apartment we had recently purchased in Lucca, Italy. That dream, however, as much as we’ve tried, has stubbornly alluded us (aka the visa-saga).
Maybe that struggle is the reason, as our 90-day tourist-visa clock ticked down, we couldn’t seem to decide a destination for our next three-month immersion. Exiting Europe’s Schengen Zone for 90 days was essential, but where should we go?
“Why not return to the country of your birth?” some might ask. That answer is multi-faceted, but here goes the gist of it. We had not lived in the U.S. in over four years at that point. Plus, the house we own there is occupied by long-term tenants and our private health insurance policy, based in Italy, covers us anywhere in the world, with one exception – yep, you guessed it…the U.S. And, finally, with racism’s head cheerleader still in office, traveling to our home country had little appeal. Going back would have been more of a culture shock than traveling somewhere new, we suspected.
At this time in early 2020, the first rumblings of Covid were barely beginning. The virus wasn’t on our radar. We had no reason to view traveling as dangerous, for ourselves or anyone else. And, if not for the visa issue, we would not have chosen to travel internationally, then, and certainly not later as the global pandemic raged.
Thus, naturally, this isn’t a story aimed at promoting travel in 2020. It’s simply meant to share with you what it was like to live through this surreal year with a view of three different countries from our windows. That’s part of what gives this crazy life meaning for me…sharing stories with you and taking you along with us on this journey.
Whew, okay, I had to get that off my chest. 😉
So, now, here’s our first stop…
Six Months and Seaviews – Island of Cyprus
Days before our visas expired in Italy, a Skyscanner flight search revealed inexpensive, direct-from-Milan flights to Larnaca. “Let’s go to Cyprus,” we decided, relieved to have finally taken the necessary step. Later that week, we settled into a not-so-nice apartment, but with knock-out sea views. So far, so good.
I think our initial booking was five nights. We weren’t willing to make a long-term commitment (meaning anything longer than a week. #nomadthinking). Then, Matt got sick. Really sick. Chest infection sick. So, we stayed put – isolating, before we knew isolating would soon be all the rage. And, we focused on resetting healthy habits for a new year.
To that end, we booked another week, which turned into another. And, then as winter temperatures began to climb and bodies recovered health, we continued to extend, week-by-week (here’s more about our constantly-comic search for the perfect apartment. House Hunters International really should follow us around).
Finally, in late February, we decided to take another big step and book an apartment for a whole month. 31 entire days, y’all. I became a member of a gym and an art studio. Big commitments. Then, as we rolled into March, news began to spread about the virus spreading in Italy and beyond.
It became all the talk of the art studio. Someone’s sister was a doctor at the local hospital and had begun warning the family to be careful. Together, our group made the decision to take “a week off.” That very afternoon, after reading news reports, Matt asked that I take a week away from the gym, too. Basically, we began our own personal quarantine in early March (again, before we knew that would become the 2020-thing).
A week later, the decision of whether or not to go to the gym became easy. With 21 positive cases, Cyprus announced the whole country was going into mandatory lockdown on March 16 and everything, except for essential shops and services, would close. Confinement to your home would be mandatory. Let me say that again. Confinement to your home would become mandatory.
Airports would close. Borders would shut. No one was coming or going until the virus was under control and the health care system could manage without collapsing.
We were permitted to leave our homes once a day, for no more than one hour per day, for one of seven reasons. Those reasons included grocery shopping, pharmacy visits, doctors’ appointments and – wisely – solo exercise. People were encouraged to walk, run and cycle – alone – and no further than your neighborhood. “How was this monitored?” you ask.
The government rolled out a texting system, with lightning speed and efficiency. Every day you called in, selected the reason of that day’s one-hour excursion, and then waited for a text giving you permission to exit your home. (And, by the way, we have just heard from Cypriot friends that the texting system has now been reinstated with residents allowed to leave the house twice a day until cases decrease. That’s serious measures, friends)!
When I think back now on how Matt and I would each hold our breath while staring at our phones…waiting for a text, well…that feeling is surreal.
Those weeks in March and April were scary for most people in the world, regardless of how individual governments responded. The uncertainty was unnerving. Yet, for us, the lockdown measures in Cyprus never felt overtly oppressive. We never felt like our freedom was being taken away. Instead, it seemed necessary and vital to keep the island’s health system intact and to ensure the best possible health for vulnerable populations. The mantra, across the board, was “let’s pull together and do what needs to be done,” and we were grateful for clear communication.
The strangest part for me was the silence. Our apartment was practically next door to the airport, and suddenly, there were almost no planes landing or arriving (with the exception of reparation flights to bring Cypriots home from abroad). Car and motorcycle traffic all but disappeared. You could hear the seagulls chatter, day and night, so clearly you felt part of the conversation. You almost started chirping back.
For the most part, people followed the rules. For those who didn’t, there were substantial fines. Even Matt got fined – a whopping 300 euro for venturing beyond our neighborhood on his bicycle. The officer told him he could cycle his heart’s content every day, for one hour, within one kilometer of our house. Lesson learned, fine paid, habits adjusted.
In addition to cycling and running, we could also swim in the ocean, though beaches were officially closed and no lounging or gathering was permitted. A few wily sunbathers would race from the sand into the water, pretending to swim until the police passed, then plop back on their towels. But, mostly people behaved, at least in our neighborhood.
Savvy entrepreneurs sprang into action quickly, making lockdown easier to navigate. Soon, we were able to get all sorts of “essentials” delivered to our front door (and avoid sacrificing the one outing per day on grocery gathering). From vegetables delivered by the farmer who grew them to wines delivered by the actual winemaker. A small independent bookseller would message with you about the sort of reads you preferred, email a few suggestions in stock, then deliver to your door. Even our local pharmacist brought my order, personally. “I know face cream isn’t an essential good, but since you are bringing vitamins anyway?” Pavlos, the pharmacist, soon became my new bestie.
We could still stop by fishing boats on the pier and buy fresh catch directly from the fishermen. Oh, and did I mention wine delivery? All needs were covered.
But, that still left the cooking to us. I watched on social media as friends around the globe baked bread and brewed beer, while Matt and I drew straws on who would “have” to cook dinner. Eventually we settled on an ever-other-night rotation as to avoid the tussle.
My “cauliflower surprise” was funny for about two weeks. Binging on Netflix was entertaining for about three weeks. But, then as us humans do, we began adapting to these new rhythms and slower pace. We started flying through as many books as we could get our fingers around. Matt developed an impressive meditation ritual. I focused on yoga to counterbalance running. I created what I dubbed my “four points of light” – working/writing, running/yoga, Italian language study, painting – then, manically kept score of how many points I hit daily.
And, before long, that star verb of 2020 squished into our schedule, filling the every open space like foam.
Weekly quiz & curry sessions with friends in Lucca. Weekly board games with friends in Scotland. Italian language lessons. Even a lesson in making grape leaves, from a friend’s kitchen in Alabama. Birthdays, holidays and regular days, all celebrated via glow of a laptop screen.
As June unfurled, restrictions began to ease in steps. Soon it was announced we could leave the house a whopping 3 times per day! Two weeks later, the texting system phased out and we could leave home at will. What a strange feeling of liberation. We almost didn’t know what to do with such open-ended freedom. The funny thing is…our routine didn’t really change that much. We cycled and ran further and longer, but we certainly didn’t dash out with wild abandon.
Art classes resumed, with some changes…doors and windows open, chairs distanced, hand sanitizer always on ready. The gym and me, though, we were done. Besides, the weather had hit a place I will call, “perfection:” 26 C / 80 F, bright sunshine, all day long. Locals said it wouldn’t last and would soon be unbearable, so we soaked it up while having the chance.
The day before restaurants re-opened for outdoor service only, I ran along the waterfront promenade and watched as employees armed with measuring tape, marked distances from table-to-table and chair-to-chair on every terrace. Such a sign of the times.
Masks and social distancing were still enforced and we began to venture out slowly, a simple outdoor lunch, then drinks on the terrace, and, eventually, a multi-course dinner.
Beaches reopened, but the airport remained closed, providing a small window of absolute paradise. Flights were re-introduced gradually and small numbers of visitors began to arrive. We knew our days were numbered.
We had already overstayed our visas by nearly three months – resulting in the longest time we have lived in any one place in over five years. The government had announced the suspension of visa rules for a “reasonable amount of time,” once the airport re-opened. We didn’t know how that would be interpreted. Could we stay for another week? A month?
In early July, we decided it was time to make the move back home to Italy. It took three attempts – which included one flight cancellation and one prohibition from bordering because of a connecting flight in Greece – before we had success on an easy, uncrowded and direct flight from Paphos to Rome. After months of uncertainly, we were back home in Lucca within hours.
As a parting gift and reminder of this strange time in Cyprus, an art class friend gave me a special gift. Measuring tape, a pocket-size reel to take wherever life takes me.
Three Months and Garden Views – Historic Center of Lucca, Italy
How strange it was to arrive back home to our apartment in Lucca. The space was the same, but somehow felt larger, more open and richer in natural light. The “outdoor-space-or-bust” decision during our apartment search back in November 2018 had never felt wiser.
Temperatures were ideal for sitting on our balcony and staring into the green gardens of Lucca. By the time we had left Cyprus, temperatures had soared at times above 100 F / 37 C and sand storms were becoming more frequent and our breathing and sleeping felt the impact of both. The locals had been right.
Since Cyprus is part of the EU, quarantine was not mandatory for anyone entering Italy directly in early July. Still, Matt and I never doubted the right thing to do in that situation. What if we were the cause of bringing sickness to this community we love? It wasn’t even a question.
We told our friends we would catch them in 14 days, and, other than daily solo runs and cycles, we locked away inside our apartment (hardly a hardship after being away for six months). We set up grocery deliveries and settled into more Netflix and Zoom.
We emerged from quarantine to find our community groping for normalcy, yet scars were visible in every layer. Many beloved shops and restaurants (including our kitchen-away-from-home Bottega dell’Oste) were shuttered, permanently. Carabinieri police patrolled streets ensuring masks and social distancing were respected. Grocery stores followed a “one person per household” entry rule to limit interaction.
Restaurants were open – including inside dining, which was shocking. (It doesn’t take a genius to understand the virus is much more likely to spread indoors, right?) We settled in with weekly grocery deliveries and frequent visits to our neighborhood fresh veg market. We gathered with small groups of friends for outdoor picnics and barbeques. I was so sick of my usual cooking routine, I decided to take a deep dive into sushi and takoyaki making, often with mixed results.
As the August heat in Tuscany became stifling, we debated making the annual pilgrimage to our Trentino family, as we have for almost eighteen years. One month of mountain life sounded blissful, but…would it be safe to travel there? Would we put ourselves or anyone else at risk? Was it the smart/right thing to do?
Matt would cycle, solo, the entire way (because, he’s crazy). I would double-mask and take the most direct train journey possible. We missed our people there so much, we decided to go for it. The journey was absolutely uncrowded, safe and seamless. I was relieved. But, then on arriving to Trentino, we once again became paranoid about being potential “spreaders.” We went into semi-isolation, again. It was so out of character that our host family stuck us with the label: eremiti.
“Dove sono gli eremiti?”
Anyone who knows us can agree for the question to be asked, “Where are the hermits?” in reference to Matt and me is an indication of strange times, indeed. From the window of our usual apartment on the grounds of a family-run hotel, we watched as guests from Italy, Germany, The Netherlands and Austria arrived and departed. Many are guests, like us, who return every summer. Most stayed longer than usual, also choosing to play it safe. Many, “checked in” and never left the grounds. Spending days out hiking locally or lounging by the pool, then dining at the hotel restaurant, followed by after-dinner drinks outside in the open air.
As we settled into life in this gloriously-tiny village, we began to join and mix more, mainly for these outdoor gatherings. We continued to turn down invitations for indoor activities, but other than that, our routine was similar to previous summers: Cycle, Run, Meditate, Write, Drink Wine, Repeat. Once again, things began to feel “almost” normal.
It was during this time that we learned from our attorney in Rome that our latest visa quest had been denied. The clock began to tick again and our 90-day visa dance drew near. It always comes quickly.
“Where will we go now?” This time, the question was more complicated than ever before. Borders were closed in every direction and, as Americans, we weren’t exactly welcome in many places – even though we had not stepped foot on U.S. soil, even for a visit, in over a year.
Three Months (and Counting) and Harbor Views – Rovinj, Croatia
The decision was actually an easy one. We would stay close and familiar. A friend offered to rent a car and drive us over the border to Croatia so we could return to Rovinj, a seaside town we have called home for over 12 months, cumulatively, during these last five nomadic years.
With negative Covid tests in hand, we arrived to Rovinj at the end of September and were surprised to find a region that seemed nearly untouched by the chaos of the pandemic. Of course, this feeling was only on the surface, but still it was striking.
This region is a prime driving destination for Slovenians and Austrians, thus domestic and international tourists were out and about on the harbor. Hotels and restaurants appeared busy and locals seemed grateful the entire year in tourism wasn’t a wash.
The sea air had a calming effect on us and we were able to do what we love – cycle and run – without risk. The town’s daily outdoor vegetable market has always been our go-to for supplies, but now, we realize more than ever what an asset it is to have just steps from our door.
Our region’s case counts remained low then – prompting a short-term status as the sole green zone in all of Europe. But, like nearly everywhere else, those numbers began to rise at alarming rates as October gave way to November. Cases surged in the capital city Zagreb and further south in Spilt fueling speculation about new bevy of restrictions to come.
“What will you do for Thanksgiving?” American friends asked. My responses bordered on belligerent. My sincere apologies if you were on the receiving end of a response like…“I’ve been stuck in the f-ing kitchen for 9 months, what do I care about Thanksgiving!”
Clearly, I wanted nothing to do with the holiday’s feasting aspect. Giving thanks, yes. Cooking casseroles, no freaking way.
Then, the day before that deeply-rooted ritual, maybe in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to cook, cook, and cook. A feast for two. Deviled eggs. Polenta. Stuffed squid. A gingerbread torte, even.
Then, just hours into Friday, wouldn’t you know it, the Croatian government announced that restaurants, bars and cafes – inside and outside dining – would close at midnight that very day. Like every other body in the country, we immediately made plans for sunset drinks at one spot, then a glutenous “last supper” on the terrace of another. I shall never cook Thanksgiving again (remind me of that next year, please).
No place loves outdoor Christmas decorations and lighting quite like Rovinj, and that festive feeling helped to keep our spirits up during Christmas – well, that paired with the endless generosity of our host family here. A parade of tupperware containers packed with local dishes like baccala, sausages and lasagna, a surprise treat of a boombox with Croatian Christmas CD’s for some old-school DJ magic, and evenings spent together sharing wine, laughter and stories helped to keep the merry fires burning.
And, then, as we began to count down the days to bid this chaotic year adieu, I was writing at my desk when my chair began to shake. In a split second, I realized we were having an earthquake – how very 2020. The 6.4 magnitude quake barely rattled Istria, but people in the central region did not get off so lucky. Seven people have died and entire villages near the epicenter have been destroyed. There’s a frequently-used term which I loathe, but, strangely, it’s the only term that comes to mind at this point. What a shit-show.
Thankfully, though, hope is always a more resilient and steady performer. Just when we need it most, she enters the stage. As a small firework show lit up the night sky on New Year’s Eve, we cranked up the tunes for a dance-party-for-two, popped bubbles and raised glasses with hopeful toasts. To less uncertainty and stress. To healthy and happiness. To the return of hugs. Many, many hugs.
We’ve already hit our visa limit here – see what I mean about that happening fast? – and, as soon as it’s safe, we will make the overland journey back home to Lucca.
In the meantime, we will continue to Zoom. To Cook. To Write. And, to Hope. And, to be grateful for this view – for all the views – from our windows.