Before the pandemic struck, there were many situations I wish I had a manual for: how to navigate raising teenagers, how to stop my hair from thinning and neck skin from falling without becoming victim to overpriced lotions, and so on…. On March 11, 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 3 Travel Warning that included the country we have been living in this spring, Norway- I really really wished I’d gotten a manual for navigating a pandemic in a foreign land.
I would have been happy with a mere appendix, a footnote even, to the pandemic manual we all need, but instead, we found ourselves suddenly in uncharted territory far from home unsure of what to do. We were, “Strongly urged to make arrangements to return to the United States as soon as possible” and told that, “If you do not leave now, there is no guarantee … (they) will be able to assist you to leave later.” We were scared. We were confused. Our decision to stay in Norway or travel home during a pandemic felt like a matter of life and death, and my husband and I had limited time to decide what to do. We had no idea how to navigate a pandemic in a foreign land.
We thought we’d been managing the pandemic news in our home abroad appropriately with stepped up hand washing. We even adopted a game for the subway where we earned points by catching each other whenever we touched our faces. The winner (me) would earn a prize (in this case, an expensive glass of wine generously purchased by my visiting mom). When the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed and a pandemic was declared, Norway closed its schools and many businesses. We adapted quickly to our new normal, canceling our sightseeing trips, telling the girls we “Were living through history,” and making plans to isolate ourselves in our tiny European apartment.
The sudden recommendation to instead return home threw us for a loop. We ran through a hundred different scenarios trying to figure out what made the most sense. Our instinct was that we were fine in our apartment. Our understanding of the pandemic was that we should NOT be moving around, especially in airport crowds, at this time. But our government told us something different. My husband and I went round and round considering what would happen when we returned home three months early with no place to live vs what could happen if we waited out the pandemic and tried to get home later. Would we make ourselves sick traveling? Would we end up carrying the virus home? Would we have to purchase entirely new flights? Be quarantined on some military base? Would there even be flights for us to return home if the pandemic got bad enough?
When we went to bed that night, still not sure what to do, visions of the apocalypse danced in my head.
I pictured us trapped and alone in a foreign country with nowhere to go. I imagined us traveling desperately across a hostile continent overwhelmed by the virus. Or worst of all, sick ourselves. What if we got very, very sick in the middle of a pandemic in a country where we had limited health insurance, few friends, and didn’t speak the language? The State Dept letter had said, “There is no guarantee… (they) will be able to assist you to leave later.”
Our debate began again the next morning with somewhat clearer minds. “I think we should stay,” my husband said. If we travel now, he reasoned, we’re more likely to get sick or make someone else sick. We both agreed that things looked even more up in the air back home. We decided to talk it over with the girls given the enormity of the decision. Pandemic planning felt like a family affair, though he and I would have to make the final decision.
The girls quickly shared that they wanted to stay. “Who knows what it’ll be like back home?” our eldest said. “I’d rather stay here where we know what’s happening,” our youngest chimed in. “We’re good here.”
We’re good here. It’s true. We debated a little longer, reached out to some friends who had decided to leave, but ultimately, the danger of plunging into the crowds traveling home in the midst of a pandemic felt greater than the risk of staying put. The newspaper headlines the next day describing the lines of people crowded at airports for hours together felt like a sign from the universe that we made the right call, at least for now.
The situation may change again. It’s inevitable during a pandemic that it will, right? Just this week, they raised the threat level to 4 and we went through the whole process again, anxiety and all, but reached the same conclusion.
In the end, we may regret our decision. I’m discovering though that whenever I get that choking feeling in my throat when I find myself awake in the middle of the night panicky, that the thing that helps me is knowing that we’re all making these decisions right now. You may not be trying to decide if you should stay abroad or go home, but you too are making huge decisions that could impact the health of your family and the well-being of our community.