March 30, 2020

We were 200 miles from London when the travel ban was announced. Getting home was an adventure.

At 1:30 a.m. my phone pinged. “Just wondering about your reaction to Trump announcement,” I read. What announcement?

View of the colourful terraced houses at Tenby in Southern Wales with families and tourists on the sands below (View of the colourful terraced houses at Tenby in Southern Wales with families and tourists on the sands below, ASCII, 111 components, 111

Tenby, Wales. Photo by Ray Lipscombe, iStock

On Wednesday night, March 11, my wife Sharon and I were in Tenby, Wales, a little seaside resort town at the south shore of the UK on the Bristol Channel. It is a lovely place, with colorful pastel buildings lining ancient narrow streets. We had checked in that afternoon at the Atlantic Hotel and admired our room with its large sitting area and a bay window that looked out from a cliffside perch over the beach and the sea.

It was a gray and windy afternoon; gulls squawked and the sea wind whipped the fronds of the palm tree outside. We watched in amazement as, far off down the beach, a young man in a wetsuit lashed himself to a large kite and let it pull him back and forth over the waves, the wind sometimes lifting him far above the whitecaps before he would splash back down and resume cutting through the water.

We made our way down a rainy cobblestone street to a local restaurant and bar. The night outside was damp and windy but the inside was warm and well-lighted and filled with laughter.

When it was time for dinner, we stopped by the front desk and talked with the friendly desk clerk, Angie, about a good place to go. Angie knew we were from Nashville and took the opportunity to tell us that her partner, who also worked in Tenby, was a big country music fan and streamed WSM radio at his business.

A windy, damp night in Tenby. Photo by Wayne Wood

After speaking with her, we decided to take the five minute walk down the esplanade, through the gateway arch of a 13th Century medieval town wall, and down a rainy cobblestone street to a local restaurant and bar. The night outside was damp and windy but the inside was warm and well-lighted and filled with laughter. I think we may have been the only non-locals in the place. There was a large family–grandparents, parents, and a couple of little girls who scampered happily around–crammed around one table. Another was occupied by a a couple of middle-aged women who seem to have met after work to talk and each nurse a glass of wine for more than an hour as they chatted–friends catching up. Four firefighters had come in after their shift and were enjoying a pint together before getting on with the rest of their evening.

When the waitress/bartender, one of two working that night, came over we ordered pints ourselves, and a few minutes later, when it was time for dinner, I ordered the fish and chips. Sharon, unsurprisingly, ordered something more healthy.

We made our way back to the hotel, the sound of the surf whispering in the distance and the lights of the hotels along the esplanade lighting our way.

A change of plans

At 1:30 a.m. (U.K. time, of course) my phone pinged. I had a text from my friend and co-worker Kathy. “Just wondering about your reaction to Trump announcement,” I read. What announcement? I raised my head sleepily–the text tone hadn’t awakened Sharon–and checked the news. “Trump bans travel from Europe.” I scanned down the article and saw that, for now, the order didn’t apply to the U.K., but it was clear that we needed to change our plans.

Our plans.

We had booked this early spring trip to the U.K. about six months ago, last September. As we thought about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see, we had settled on spending six nights in southern Wales, a part of the U.K. we had never seen, and finish off the trip with a few nights in London. This trip was really going to be fun, a nice getaway for us.

As it came closer to our departure date, we were watching with much trepidation the news about the COVID-19 virus spreading across the world. We were checking in with friends and colleagues for advice about what they would do in our circumstance. I even checked with an infectious disease specialist to get his opinion. Nobody thought it was a bad thing to go. The virus was barely in the U.K., and there was certainly no evidence of it in rural Wales.

Out of an abundance of caution, we changed our plans and decided to stay in the countryside of Wales and the Cotswolds area of England, rather than stay in London. I phoned and canceled our British Rail passes. We decided that the whole trip would be by car and we would avoid public transportation.

All these were great ideas and smart adjustments, but events came too fast. We left home March 9, flew overnight and arrived in the U.K. on Tuesday, March 10. By Thursday, we were scrambling to get home.

Last-minute transatlantic airfare: not pretty

The original reservations for our flight home were for Friday, March 20. I contacted Delta Airlines to see if we could switch those reservations to a week earlier, March 13. And by “contacted” I mean, “did not contact because I could not get through.” Not online, not by phone (announced six-hour wait time for callback), not by app.

As I was trying to reach out to change our reservations, Sharon was checking on her iPhone and said there were seats still available on the Delta flight out of Heathrow the next day, March 13. They were about two grand each. We looked at each other, swallowed hard and Sharon pressed “purchase.”

The front desk at the hotel opened at 7 a.m. Angie was still there (“Does she ever go home?”) and was very understanding about our hasty unscheduled check out. She said the hotel would waive the payment for our two remaining nights, even though it didn’t have to.

Tenby, Wales, is about 200 miles from London by car. You may think, “OK–that’s like driving from Nashville to Memphis or Birmingham.”

No, it’s not, for a couple of reasons. One is that in order to get to the main highway running from that region of the UK into London, the M4, we had to drive about 40 miles through the countryside first on mostly narrow roads leading through small villages. This is normally a great thing — it’s why you’re there in the first place, to see places like this. But when you are trying to make good driving time, small villages, however picturesque, are not your friend.

The other reason is that, as you may have heard, people in the U.K drive on the extremely other side of the road. I’ve driven on the left side in various parts of the U.K. and Ireland, but it requires a lot more concentration because every bit of the muscle memory about driving that you’ve spent decades building is useless. Sharon used her phone to navigate, we counted which exits to take on the dozens of roundabouts, and she always reliably murmured, as her mantra and reminder to me, “Keep to the left.” I drove, she navigated, and driving that day was a two-person job.

A disturbing rumor, disturbed sleep

Sharon, who is a wizard at online travel bookings, had also managed to find us a room at a Hilton hotel beside Heathrow airport, so we had a place to lay our heads on this last, unscheduled night in London. We turned in our rental car, and stumbled our way over and checked in.

That night as we had dinner, there was a rumor in the hotel’s restaurant/bar, passed on by at least two people working there, that Heathrow was going to shut down the next day. I scrambled to check news sites and social media for any mention of this, and there wasn’t any — but it was the kind of unnerving rumor that gets going in a crisis. Our sleep was fitful.

The next morning we dragged our bags from the hotel to the adjacent terminal and found the counter to check in for our flight. Honestly, this was pretty much smooth and normal. Flights were still coming into Heathrow from all over the world and disgorging people into the terminal. Social distancing was not a thing in the counters and in the crowded concourse, but people were calm. A few wore masks, but not many. I didn’t see anybody who looked or acted sick.

Nine hours of flight, Altamont and the imaginary danger of a poorly timed sneeze

When we began our trip and flew from Nashville to London via Atlanta on March 9, the overseas flight had been probably 85 or 90 percent full. Our flight back four days later was packed. The professionalism of the flight crews on all the flights was exemplary. It’s a nine-hour or so flight back, so there’s a lot of time to pass. We read some, slept some. I watched a documentary on the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert at Altamont in 1969. Seemed to fit my mood.

We wondered what the situation would be when we landed in Atlanta. Would there be health screenings? If you sneezed at the wrong time would you find yourself pulled from the line and in some kind of custody? Your imagination can do lots of things in nine hours of enforced idleness.

So when we landed, here’s what happened: we went through customs and passport control, picked up and rechecked our bags and…that was it. Really. The next day — the very next day — we read of huge crowds at airports and multi-hour waits crammed in with other travelers to get back in the country. It was a nightmarish scene. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any of that. We got home just under the wire.

A couple of codas

We have been in touch with Delta airlines — it turns out Facebook Messenger and Twitter worked better to reach them than any other way — and they have indicated they will apply our existing reservation for a flight home to the tickets we frantically booked the day the travel ban was announced. The money isn’t in our account yet, but we are cautiously optimistic that this will work and we’ll get a refund on those crazy expensive tickets. It helps our case that Delta canceled our original flight home, so if we had waited, we would have been stuck.

Also, a couple of days after getting home I had a scratchy throat and a cough. It is exactly the kind of scratchy throat and cough that allergy-prone Nashvillians reliably get this time of year, that is, if they don’t have a mild spring cold that also causes a scratchy throat and a cough. In the context of COVID and the fact of those crowded concourses and transatlantic flights, though, those symptoms led a certain member of my household to suggest that a test might be a good thing. The doctor at the clinic I went to agreed, and I was tested. When I got the results via My Health at Vanderbilt, I found out that I was COVID negative. Apparently I had either a mild cold, seasonal allergies, or possibly both.

We were not sure we would get home, but we did. We are thankful to be here and thankful for our friends. God bless us every one. Stay safe.

Oh, and someday, I hope before too long, I want us to be able to go back to Tenby. It really was nice.

One of the narrow cobblestone streets of Tenby. Photo by Albert Pego, iStock