Flying home from Panama to London was as normal as it could be, given we were on a humanitarian flight during a global pandemic. As months of confinement in a hot and humid, strange new city dropped away under the clouds, I felt giddy with relief to be going home for a bit, to visit my Mum and Dad. But also filled with gathering sense of foreboding…
We were leaving the longest, strictest lock-down in the world (Panama’s restrictions on movement, shops and restaurants were still in place when we left in August, and have only just been relaxed now in October). I hadn’t been for a walk outside my housing estate for 5 months. The kids had only left the estate 3 times, for one pretty awful bike ride, a trip to the immigration office and once to go the doctors. Talk about feeling a bit agoraphobic. And now we we traveling 10,000km!
I was also leaving behind my beleaguered husband, mired under a ton of work. Our plan was he’d been joining us in a month. And, if that all went wrong, now with my freshly printed, hard won, one-day-old permanent residency visa in my wallet, at least I would be able to travel back to Panama. It’s strange leaving behind someone you’ve spent 6 months in close confinement with. Great, to have a little break, but then you realise something massive and crucially important is missing, like your leg.
The flight went smoothly, we all wore our masks the whole time, though some of our fellow travelers had gone for rather unsettling head-to-toe hazmat suits. The kids settled in for10 hours of screen watching like pros. Usually I insist on us all trying to achieve some sort of nap, but this time, considering all the protective gear, I just gave in and let them at it.
Bleary-eyed, we staggered off the flight at Charles de Galle Airport, me brandishing the PCR test I’d been assured by KLM I would need to enter France. I didn’t. Being in transit didn’t count after all, and no-one asked us for anything.
We wandered into that massive, modern terminal feeling like survivors stumbling out the other side of the apocalypse. Tocumen Airport, Panama, had been weird and subdued, with no escalators working, all the restaurants closed etc. Technically, in fact, the airport had been shut. Here in Paris, we couldn’t believe the shops were actually open! With people in them! And there were children! Moving around! Not shut into their homes for months on end! Small ones weren’t even wearing masks!
We had 6 long hours to wait for our connection to the UK, so I made a ‘camp’ as families do, though it’s harder these days as socially distanced chair arrangements are not suited to family sprawlathons. The airport was half empty. Any Brits in France had made a dash for it the day before, as England had just introduced new 2 week quarantine for Brits returning from France.
Thrilled to actually buy something, I left the kids and nipped off to a shop. Look at me! Nipping off to a shop! Oh, the joy! In Panama, for months, I’d only been actual able to go to either the supermarket or pharmacy. And only during my specified hours on specified days which usually meant I couldn’t go at all because I was doing online school with the kids. For pretty much everything else in Panama, a masked motorbike man will whizz whatever you require to your door, from car batteries to antibiotics. But here I was, in a shop, in France!
I queued up, at a distance, to get ripped off buying some massively over-priced, but seriously crusty, baguettes, a serious pleasure when you’ve been living in countries with such steamy humidity as I have. Not even the stiffest baguette can take it for long in Panama. I’ve even made them myself, which is satisfying, though unbelievably time-consuming. And fattening, as you have to stuff them into your face directly out of the oven, pausing only to slather them in butter, before the dreaded limpness overcomes your beautiful bread that took all day to make.
I ordered them in perfect Spench: that’s what you get when you mix rusty school French with newly acquired Spanish. Buenas Dias, trois baguettes con fromage y jamon, por favor. I found I couldn’t manage single line in French without mixing in whole load of Spanish.
Baguettes wolfed down in moments, we settled in for some serious staring at our screens. It’s amazing what children will put up with while plugged into devices. Overnight transatlantic flights wearing a mask and visor and getting disinfected from head to toe by a paranoid mother every time you move? No problem. 6 hours hanging around in an airport after zero sleep the night before. Fine. Thank goodness for the brain-numbing, incapacitating power of screens. My mum aptly calls them ‘the stun guns’.
Considering the bathrooms are probably the worst places to be in an airport during a pandemic, it was amazing how many times we went. Maybe 15? Every time I took one child, I’d implore, beg and threaten the others to come with us and go at the same time, but due to the immobilising rays of the stun guns, I’d fail each time. So, I’d take the one child, use my giant pack of medical wipes to clean the bathroom door, the handle, the seat, the lock, the flush, the seat, the child, the sink, my handbag (not necessarily in that order). Then, bathrooms sparkling behind us, we’d head back to camp. Just as we settled ourselves back into our seats, the next child would start clutching themselves, desperate to go. Fun times.
Finally we boarded for London, Heathrow. This time, only a few passengers were wearing visors with their masks. There was not a single hazmat suit to be seen, which felt a little bit more normal. The flight was half-empty and the children zonked out for a bit. In fact, ‘a bit’ is all if feels like on a short hop in Europe. Why, oh why can’t the kids sleep on the 10 hour through-the-night leg? How is a 30 minute power nap enough to recharge their invincible batteries?
Heathrow was horribly busy. People milled around trying to understand how (and why!) they were supposed to print out the Covid declarations they’d so carefully done online. I made the kids put on their visors over their masks. We waded our way to the ‘family ‘ queue for border control, suddenly in more danger of catching Covid than we’d been in for the whole trip, or even than we had been in Panama since March. There must have been 1,000 people in that hall, queued up in sort of socially distant family groups, but the snaking queues came right past each other. How can a huge airport like Heathrow not have been able to organise this better?
The queue took an hour. The kids were exhausted. As usual, I was saddled with everyone’s heavy hand luggage. Why do I still believe the children are going to actually do any colouring or playing on the airplane? And not just turf out their toys and pencils out all over the floor? Will I ever learn?
The kids constantly whined to take off their protective gear. Mummy look, none of the other kids are wearing their masks… All around us children were howling with frustration and boredom, spraying snot everywhere, pole-dancing round every single steel post from which the rope barriers swung. Not everyone is going to stay with their 80 year old grandparents! I hissed back at them, begging them to stand still, stop touching their faces, the floor, the luggage, those horrible posts… Suddenly this whole journey felt like a very risky thing to be doing indeed.
Heathrow was apparently on a ‘go-slow’ I found out later. Border officials were on strike, probably because of unsafe working conditions, meaning the rest of us were left like corralled cattle waiting for the chop. Welcome home the UK. It all felt a bit third-world!
Finally, we got our luggage, gave the last toilets and thorough cleaning, and staggered out into arrivals where I don’t think I’d ever been so glad to see a man with a sign. My mum had organised a lovely, friendly taxi driver to pick us up. As we drove away into the evening sunshine, he motioned towards his mask; we don’t need to wear these if you’d rather not. I told him what we’d just been through at the airport and suggested we all kept them on. I think he was very brave to be picking us up at all, what a strange world it is where driving a taxi has become such a high-risk job.
We were finally on the way to Selsey. To see my Mum and Dad. They’d been pretty much self-isolating in their house by the sea since March, and had been through some pretty lonely dark days. They were hugely looking forward to seeing their grandchildren. And to help me manage them! Three kids shut into the house for 5 months had been no joke. My Mum knew exactly how close I’d been to cracking up in Panama’s sweaty never-ending lockdown, and had been encouraging us to come as soon as we were able.
But for them, this visit was going to be laced with danger. They are both in the eighties (well, my mum is nearly there!) My kids are proven germ magnets. Dad, who’s high-risk anyway for Covid, was only just getting over a broken hip. Only God knew what bugs we would be bringing with us from the airport. Even if we stripped in the road, were hosed down from the balcony and then barricaded into our rooms, we were going to have to be very, very careful indeed. As we crunched down the unmade beach road towards their lovely home, I was prickling with relief, joy and fear. We’d made it.
Part 3 coming soon!