The escape to Canada – Travel in the time of COVID


I’m not saying I thought getting home was going to be easy – I know London has a scary Varient and that travel was being heavily restricted – but I was still hopeful for an uneventful trip…

But first – what is this War Measures Act? I think it’s pretty important to understand that on a global scale – Canada is doing pretty well – and yet we’re seriously talking about the War Measures Act – now called Emergencies Act. This name change and ability to implement it was done in 1988. The big difference is that the Prime Minister can’t just say – I’m doing this. Parliament has to review it. Not sure they have to agree – but they must review it. So if it gets implemented – it will be after Parliament reconvenes on Monday, Jan 25.

But even so – getting out of Dodge and into Montreal seems the right thing to do on Saturday, Jan 23.

Adrienne and I, as planned, got up from a sleepless night at 6:30, got dressed and loaded up the car with my suitcases. Before leaving the condo I did one last sweep to be sure nothing was forgotten – looked good.

Our drive from her flat to Heathrow was absolutely uneventful. The only scary part was getting the car out of the seriously too small parking spot and onto the road. Once accomplished – the sailing was smooth. Traffic was light to non-existent and we arrived at Heathrow by 8:15.

Parked the car – took the elevator (only had to wait for one other group to board before we were able to ride up alone) to the 5th floor to find out that the COVID testing center – our first stop – was on floor zero. Ok – back on the elevator – back down.

There were lots and lots of signs of floor zero – so we pushed my loaded cart to the test center. It was clear that they were prepared for hundreds of people to be waiting in line – it looked like Disney land on a very bad day. But all the stanchions and all the ropes that marked line after line were completely empty.

There were perhaps 30 folks in line – and several ‘helper’ types directing traffic. I got in line by just asking folks – is this the end of the line – and Adrienne stood with my luggage waiting. It was much cooler in the open space near the stanchions – so she put on my good winter coat. I’m glad it got some use – I think that’s the only time it’s been warn since I left Montreal.

For a line, it moved quickly. Although the guy in front of me kept giving me the snake eye – I was standing too close to him. Even though I was masked and had on my face shield. Sorry about that – I should have grabbed an empty luggage cart to keep us apart.

The guy behind me was chatty – he told me that he’d decided to get the test done today but he was only flying tomorrow. He was heading for the US – and like me – needed a negative result to get on the plane. I’m guess that was true of most folks.

Rather quickly (maybe too quickly – I am nervous about this test) it was my turn. The helper at the front of the line told me that I’d go inside, get tested – they would email me the results. I could just show the PDF of the results to the ticket folks, or come back down and (for free – or basically included in the price) they would give me a printed copy.

Then I was ushered into a make-shift space. There was a row of tables with plastic separations, both front and sides. A young man guestured at me to sit down – took a look at my passport, and made sure I had an appointment (for an hour later – but apparently that was no problem). He took my money, and then sent me directly behind him to visit the nurse.

The nurse couldn’t have been nicer. He told me to relax, that this wouldn’t hurt, and when I had closed my eyes, took a wand and quickly swiped the inside of both nostrils. No swap down the throat, not pain, not even scary.

Whew.

I left the area – they had once side of the row of tables labeled in, one labeled out – but a bottle neck at the door. I had to wait till folks cleared the door way to get safely out and back to Adrienne.

We’d thought we’d be able to sit and have a cup of coffee/chai – but everything was blocked/closed/not available. We could have sat in the car.. but I was too nervous to take that option seriously, so we hugged and said good-bye.

Adrienne headed back to the car, I headed back up to floor 5 to wait for my ‘you are positive/you are negative’ email.

To my surprise – the inside of the airport was mobbed. Seriously mobbed. Well, ok – mobbed by COVID standards. I threaded my way past folks toward the coffee shop that was my destination. I needed coffee and I needed it now.

Unlike 3 months ago – the coffee shop was open ONLY for take-out. All the tables and chairs were blocked off or piled up – you are definitely not sitting here to enjoy that coffee. I got my top favourite British treat – a Bakewell Tart – and a medium latte. I found a quiet corner near Air Emirates and sat on my luggage cart to enjoy my coffee and read my newest story- Calico Joe.

Shortly after 9:30 I got my email saying my test was negative.. Whew. I drag myself back down to floor zero where a lovely staffer takes a picture of my phone showing my appointment ID – and returns with a printed copy of my test results- clearly showing the time, the date, the company that did the test, and my status – Covid Negative.

Whew

Now – onto check-in. I take the elevator back up to floor 5 – again waiting to ride alone. I’m not spending even 1 minute in a closed space with folks I don’t know… and I wend my way thru the crowds towards the Air Canada check-in. They verify my test results, my passport, my ticket – and let me in to the actual check-in area. There they again verify my passport, my test results (Am I Leslie Eiser, Leslie Agrin Eiser, or Leslie Agrin? I explain about my maiden name and the rules in Quebec – and I’m cleared), and told to go thru security.

I’m well ahead of the time I needed to be doing this – but I don’t care. Let me in.

Once passed security – again painless – I’m in the main area of Heathrow – and can check for the Gate assignment. The sign clearly says that the gate won’t be listed until 12:45 – and it’s now just shy of 10:00. So I find a safe corner – and actually can sit down. Unlike outside of security – here there are restaurants open, and even some shops. Everyone is masked, although not every one is ‘securely’ masked – and I spot a few staffers taking the whole – wear a mask thing – a bit too casually, but they have put large Cardboard signs on every other seat. So there’s lots of space between people. I’m fine.

Sooner than I’d have thought (Calico Joe is a great story), my gate is posted and I make the long long walk to section B. Basically I’m walking under the runway. But it’s not crowded (I think all those crowds went somewhere else – I’m not sure where though), and I’m fine.

I get to my gate, I wait for my turn to board. Staff is circulating thru the waiting area – making sure that everyone is clutching their negative COVID test results, has a valid ticket and a passport. The gal came a bit closer to me that I liked, but she did have to take the papers.

Eventually we’re called for boarding – and they take my temperature. Nice. They once again check my test, check my passport (I have to pull down my mask so they can see my face), scan my ticket – and I’m on the walkway to the plane.

Even getting myself and my carry-on down the tiny aisle isn’t too horrid, and I’m thrilled to see that I’m alone in my row. The stewards and stewardesses are making anyone further back than me move forward – they want to be able to sit separated as well. There’s someone sitting at the window to my right, then an empty seat, the aisle and then my seat. So I slide over one leaving 2 two empty seats and the aisle between us. There’s no one behind me. That’s good. And no one on the row to my left although there are folks at the windows both in front and behind that row. At first the row in front of me is also empty – but after the plane takes off, one of the passengers moves in. He’s wearing a mask, looks ok, and immediately lies down to sleep. Ok then.

Lunch is served – and is a LOT better than the cold Eggplant dish they served me on the way to London. At least it’s hot. And there’s a yummy chocolate pudding.. which might actually have had some real chocolate used in the making.

I watch 4 movies – two of which I can recommend – Military Wives (tear jerker but very good) and Wild Wild West. Wild Wild West is a steam punk version of a western action comedy and is really quite amusing, if a tad strange. Time went by quickly. I sanitized carefully every time I went to the toilet – and the ‘goodie’ bag they handed me had personal hand sanitizer inside. I had wiped down my seat before I sat down – so I felt pretty good about the whole thing.

We land in Toronto without issue. Since I’m in the very back of the plane, I allow all the folks to exit before me, and slowly make my way up the aisle and off the plane. Next challenge – Canadian Customs and Immigration.

Again – painless. There’s an extremely short line – clearly marked with 6’ separations and the inspectors are fast and efficient. The only hiccup is my ArriveCAN form. Turns out that there are 2 pages to the form, and I only saved the first page with the ID. I have to turn on my ipad, go back to the app and scroll down to the second page to show the very pleasant border guard my name. I’m in. He didn’t even ask me about the food I’m carrying (most of which I ate actually).

Now it’s follow the signs to the flight to Montreal. It’s a long walk, but since I only have my carry on, the biggest challenge is getting one foot in front of the other without tripping over my coat. All the doors are braced open so you don’t have to ‘touch’ anything. Again – that’s good.

Unlike Heathrow, the airport in Toronto seems relatively quiet. Some restaurants appear ‘open’ with folks sitting at tables. But since it’s now around 10:00 PM in London – I’m neither interested in food or even a drink. I just want to get on my flight to Montreal.

In the past – there were flights from Toronto to Montreal twice an hour – but in the time of COVID – they are down to 3 flights a day. The next flight leaves at 9:00 PM – 5 hours from when I arrived here in Toronto, and 2:00 AM London time. I’m going to have to hang tough on this one. I’m tired, I’m sore, I’m not happy – and I’m scared of exposure. I’m wearing my mask, my face shield, I’m sanitizing everything – and I’m still scared.

I walk and walk till I find the Montreal Gate. It’s isolated at the far end of one of the long halls – and at 5:00 PM is relatively empty. I sit down, but after about 30 minutes get very uncomfortable. Since this is the only flight to Montreal – anyone who is flying in from Florida, from Mexico, from Cuba, from any of a zillion holiday sun destinations – is coming here to sit and wait. And a lot of them are clearly NOT taking COVID seriously. Too close together, too many, too casual about masking.

I’m moving.

I find another area of the terminal that is much less busy, and settle down again. This time, it’s clear I’m not going to have to move on. No one is coming near me at all. I set a timer to remind me when to move back to my gate – I don’t want to miss the flight – and eventually it rings.

Walking back to my gate I realize that things have gone from bad to worse. Flight after flight must have arrived – and the number of folks waiting to get to Montreal has sky-rocketed. This flight could well be full – or at least a lot more crowded that I’m comfortable with.

Eventually they start boarding the flight. No temperature check. No looking at COVID Negative results – just scan your boarding pass (lower your mask so we can see your face) – and then on board. Oh dear.

There are lots of folks who have clearly returned from ‘sun’ destinations. They have beads in their hair, kids in tow, suntans, masks hanging from the glasses instead of snuggly around their faces, sandals and palm frond hats.

The Prime Minister of Quebec has been going on and on about folks taking these all inclusive holidays – at bargain rates I might add – and then returning – infected – back to Quebec and Montreal. He has been publicly blaming them for Quebec high infection rate – not that this has prevented them from going apparently. Part of the logic behind implementing the War Measures Act (Emergency Act) is to stop folks from doing exactly this – And I’m going to be on a plane full of them.

Oh dear.

My seat is on a row to myself, but there are folks behind me and in front of me who are clearly returning from these ‘sun’ destinations. I try to figure out where I can move that would at least feel safer. I try moving further back – but that feels worse. Finally I spot a row near the exit door that is empty. At the last minute I grab my things and take one of those seats. There is still one guy in front of me – and a lady to my left, but they both look like they are treating COVID more seriously.

At this point, the lovely stewardess comes over to hand me my forgotten back cushion. I guess she had spotted me trying to find another place – and knew exactly where I’d dashed off to! After handing me my cushion, she takes her place in the jump seat just in front of me – but safely distant.

The flight lasts for a very scary hour and a quarter. I drink the water they hand me – I don’t want to get dehydrated, but otherwise my mask and face shield stay firmly in place. If I don’t get COVID from this flight – it will be a miracle.

When we are landing, the nice stewardess sits back down on the jump seat – and I ask her if she’s concerned. She admits that the flight is quite a bit more crowded than normal – and it’s a tad alarming, but says that being careful seems the safest option. I hope she’s right.

I wait for EVERYONE to get off the plane before going back for my luggage, and then drag myself down the aisle,

Naturally – the terminal is basically empty. Everyone from our flight has bee-lined to the luggage pick-up location, and since I was last off, I’m basically alone.

I make the walk to the luggage carousel hoping that the suitcases have already been delivered and picked up. No such luck. The herds from our flight are all clustered around the carousel – waiting.

I back off, and move to a quiet area and wait. When I spot my suitcase, I circle around the hoard and grab it off the Carousel.

Now I just need to get a taxi and I’m home. The taxi proves to be more challenging than normal. There’s no one running the dispatch line – it’s a free for all as folks push past me to grab a cab. Finally one taxi takes pity on me and actually stops right in front of me. I get in, we leave, I get home. I’ve never been so glad to see my home – EVER!

Hubby, Bed, Bathroom, my fridge, my house, my yard, my bird feeders… I’m so happy.

Signing off in fond hopes that things are going to get a lot better – soon would be nice… The Soup Lady

The trip Home – Travel in the time of Covid


War Measures Act? – OMG – Friday – Jan 22. The news from Canada is taking a frightening turn. Not that cases and deaths are going up – actually they are going down a bit, but the government is mulling mandatory 2 week quarentine in hotel rooms for all incoming travelers. And this morning they are talking about invoking the War Measures Act. This allows the Federal Government to over-rule the Provincial Governments in time of crisis. Think Biden’s Executive orders on Steroids.

To say that my husband – who has manfully been living at our house in Montreal all alone – for 3 months – put his foot down is understating the obvious. I need to get home. And I need to go NOW!

So Friday – while playing my scheduled Bridge games – I need a Mountain of Silver to earn Life Master status – I’m madly trying to piece together all the things that have to align for me to fly from London to Montreal on Saturday.

No two ways about it – that’s short notice.

Ok – the pieces. Move the plane tickets, figure out how to get a COVID test that reports fast enough for me to get on the plane, Cancel my hotel reservation, Figure out how to use the ArriveCanada App. Deal with the emotional upheaval leaving my daughters will create. Pack – figure out how to get to Heathrow. – the list is endless.

And the best way to deal with endless lists is to just start.

First step – figure out how to get the COVID test. Lots of folks I know have gotten one – including my daughter and her husband. They have been getting their tests by mail order – for free. But the rules in Britian are clear – you can only get free tests if you have symptoms or have been exposed or work for an essential service. You can NOT get a free test if your purpose is travel.

Sigh. My purpose is travel.

So – it’s google time. There are lots of folks offering quick turn around COVID tests – with prices from 100 GBP to 200 GBP (that’s about $150 to $250.. like that). But the standout option is a testing center at Heathrow that offers RT-LAMP tests with results in 60-90 minutes. And there test is a bargain 79 GBP – about $135. That would work. But first I have to figure out when I can get to Heathrow.

Consider the complications – My daughters Flat – let’s call it point A – is at least an hour to 2 hours away from Heathrow – let’s call it point B. So I have to figure on a 2 hour drive. (She’s got a 4 hour drive… but there aren’t really safe options. She is going to suffer. I’m so sorry). My flight leaves at 2:00 in the afternoon. I want to check-in at least 2 hours ahead, the test results take up to 90 minutes… I need to plan to get the test as soon as the testing center opens basically.

So I make an appointment – Saturday, Jan 23 – 8:45-9:00 AM. We’ll get up at 6:30, leave by 7:00 – should be ok. It’s Saturday during lock-down. How much traffic could there be?

Then I discover that the Testing Center’s system – while showing me booking for the 23rd – emails me that I’ve booked on the 24th. That’s odd. I’ll do it again. Nope – same result. I fill in the form a third time – take photos of it showing me booking on the 23rd, and the email confirmation clearly says the 24th.

Ok – I’ll contact them. No phone number. An email address only. Ok – I’ll email. Surely they can straighten this out. Step 1 -maybe done.

Now – step two – move the plane tickets. That turns out to be the easiest thing. I call Air Canada – I explain the decision – They (FOR FREE) move my flight and change my seats. Whew. Step 2 – Done.

Now – cancel my hotel reservation. Originally I was flying out on a Friday, but my daughter didn’t think we could make the drive from Point A to B in any reasonable time on a Friday morning. Most of the drive is thru the crowded, narrow, stop light filled streets of London – and on a Friday morning – even in Lockdown – these would be mobbed. So we decide that I will spend the night in a hotel near the airport. But now, moving the flight to a week early and on Saturday means she can drive me in the morning. Won’t be fun – she doesn’t generally get up and out that early – but it’s possible. So I call Hotwire – and low and behold – they offer me a choice of a full refund or a different date. Refund please. Step 3 – Done.

Now – on to ArriveCAN – it’s an app by the Canadian Federal Government that you must use prior to traveling to Canada. You tell them how you plan to Quarantine – and they keep track of you. Cool. I had already filled it in for my original leaving date, so I went back in. No way to change anything. Hmm. Ok – maybe a new application. I try that – and the app works. I take a photo (as directed) of the final screen with my ArriveCAN Receipt ID – and figure – Step 4 – Done.

What else – well – Packing isn’t that difficult – I only take a week’s worth of clothing on these kinds of trips – and I don’t need stuff to be clean to pack it. I toss my suitcase together, leaving out what I’ll need in the AM and search the house. I definitely don’t want to forget anything. The $$ for sending stuff by post from London to Montreal is crazy. Step 5 – Done

What else, what else…

Food – I had a horrid food experience on the flight here – they served me an ice cold Eggplant Parmesan which was inedible. So I raid my daughter’s fridge. Carrot sticks, 3 quick peel oranges, nuts, prunes, some candy. We can’t go shopping – too dangerous to go to the stores – so I’m just grabbing things that will be easy to eat and stuffing them in my backpack. At the last second my daughter hands me an Apple. Step 6 – Done

Meanwhile – back to Step 1. Remember the COVID test date issue? Well they finally (hours and hours later) email me back to explain that the problem isn’t on their end – it is the date setting on my ipad. Really? It’s on British time, and has been for 3 months. But I try their site again – using my daughter’s computer – and what do you know – this time the dates match up. Problem – the time slots earlier are gone. I book for 9:15 – the earliest – and figure we’ll just beg. Begging often works, right.. Ok Step 1 – Now really done.

I try to remember to notify everyone that my flights have DRASTICALLY changed – I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone and I’m sure they will let me know. (Turns out I forgot a lot of people – but that’s the way the Rushed up cookie crumbles).

My husband emails asking me for my food list for the lock-down. He can’t go shopping after I arrive and needs to stock up the fridge. Our plan is 14 days of ‘together’ time – otherwise known as mandatory Quarentine – and he won’t be able to leave the house. So he’s doing a massive shopping and needs to know what I think is essential. I tell him fruit – lots and lots of fruit. And Fish and Steak for dinner. I have kids who live in Montreal – and they have said that they will shop for us as needed – so we’ll be fine. But it’s hard to pre-plan 2 weeks of meals. I feel really sorry for folks forced to do this without some of the advantages we have – like kids nearby and friendly neighbors. It’s not easy for us – it must be insane for other folks.

My daughter had planned on a nice dinner and a game night with her husband and me as a farewell kind of thing – and we slide those plans forward to Friday night. We actually end up playing Monopoly – a British version with the names of the properties all strange.. Or exactly right if you ask my daughter’s husband! It’s a 80 year celebration set – so the playing pieces are actually metal, and the money looks right. We love it – and my daughter wins. Then we watch a final episode of Ru Paul’s drag race and it’s definitely bed time.

I always have trouble sleeping before I travel – tonight is no different. I toss and turn and read my book (Great Story called Camino Winds by John Grisham – real page turner). Too soon it’s 6:30 and time to get up.

Tune in tomorrow for the actually adventure – and remember – it’s not an adventure unless something goes wrong…

Signing off – The Soup Lady