Racing the Coronavirus Home to Canada
By Riana Ang-Canning
On March 11th, I woke up in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I was midway through a road trip from Prague, where my partner, our dog and I had been living since June 2019. As it was my partner Colin’s birthday, I was thinking about where I would find candles. The coronavirus was barely on my mind.
But on March 12th, the world changed. I woke up to news that the United States had issued travel advisories not just for Italy or China, but for the entire world. It was shocking, but it still felt distant. As I scrolled through news updates on my phone, we set out, driving onward to Zagreb, Croatia.
It was business as usual. At the border, they asked if we had been to Italy. We hadn’t and so were waved through. At dinner that night in Zagreb, the restaurant offered hand sanitizer, but there was no talk of closing borders and no one had heard of social distancing.
In less than 24 hours, our world would change again.
The Czech Republic announced they would be closing their borders on March 13th. Seeing as it was already 6:00PM on March 12th when we found out and we were 650 km from our home in Prague, we panicked.
The Czech borders would remain open to residents. Colin and I, Canadians, had visas for the Czech Republic, granting us residence for one year. At that point, we had already been living in Prague for almost 10 months. While we were pretty certain our visas would allow us back into the country, we didn’t want to take any chances.
We woke up early the next morning and got on the phone with the Canadian Embassy in Prague. They didn’t have all of the information either, but urged us to hurry back. They also pointed out an issue we hadn’t thought of: Sure, we would probably be allowed back into the Czech Republic, but we’d have to cross two other borders to get there. Would we be allowed into those countries?
We had no choice but to try. We cut our stay in Zagreb short, cancelled our other hotels, stocked up on road trip snacks and hightailed it back to Prague. Colin drove almost eight hours straight to get us back before the lockdown. Along the way, we held our breath at each border crossing and luckily made it through. Upon crossing the final Czech border, they checked Colin’s temperature and then let us in.
Back in Prague, we obsessively refreshed news websites and Twitter feeds, trying to stay up to date with what the coronavirus meant for our lives. Restrictions were coming down hard as restaurants and shops closed and masks were made mandatory.
For days, Colin and I waffled on whether we should come home to Canada or not. We had been living in Prague since June 2019 and were not planning to go home until June 2020. This wouldn’t be cutting short a two week vacation – this would be ending our life abroad.
After watching Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the words, “It’s time to come home” (and having them texted to us by concerned parents less than a minute later), we made the decision to leave Prague almost three months early and return to Canada.
We entered scramble mode. I started looking up flights online. Colin began emptying dressers and pulling out our suitcases.
There was only one flight left, from Paris to Vancouver on Friday, that was anywhere near a reasonable price. So we booked it. But we still needed to get from Prague to Paris. We pulled up those flights and, once again, there was only one option that wouldn’t bankrupt us. And it left in less than 24 hours.
We looked at each other, bewildered. Were we really going to pack up and leave Prague tomorrow?
But we didn’t have a choice. We spent the entire day packing, cleaning and eating as much of our fridge contents as we could. There was no time, and no way, to say a proper goodbye. On our dog walk that night, we shared a teary hug as we looked at the Prague Castle all lit up in the distance, knowing it would be our last Prague view for a long time.
The next morning, we set out with four suitcases, two backpacks and a dog, with scarves as masks on our faces, to take the metro and a bus to the airport (taxis and Ubers weren’t running). Needless to say, just the journey to the airport was exhausting. But we weren’t done yet.
At the airport, desk agents asked where we were going. We informed them that today, Wednesday, we were flying to Paris, in order to catch our flight home to Canada on Friday. They frowned. France, like the Czech Republic, had closed its borders to all non-residents. You were allowed a 24 hour or less connection through Paris. We were over the limit.
After waiting forever, the agents delivered the news. We would not be able to fly to Paris today. They gave us an airline number to call and wished us luck.
Again, Colin and I were bewildered. Surely we weren’t stuck in Prague? I dialed the number. A stressful hour later, we were booked onto the next day’s flight from Prague to Paris, shortening our Paris connection to less than 24 hours.
Unluckily, we had already turned in the keys to our Prague apartment so had nowhere to go. I called around to a few hotels, only to learn that they were closed. Finally, we found a hotel – one of three hotels in all of Prague that was still open.
That night we fell asleep to the deafening sounds of jet engines after eating overpriced room service, as all restaurants in Prague were closed. The next morning, we headed back to the airport.
We made it through the check-in desk, needing to explain that we had already paid for our luggage, it was just on yesterday’s booking. We made it through customs, something we’d not had to do between Schengen countries before. And we made it through security, carrying our dog through the metal detector. The Prague airport was eerily quiet, but we were just relieved to be there.
When it was our time to board, we got pulled out of line. The gate agents chatted amongst themselves in a language we didn’t understand, investigating our tickets. Finally, after the entire plane had boarded except for us, they agreed that we could get on.
As the near-empty plane began taxiing to the runway, I breathed a sigh of relief. One more and we were home.
Luckily, we didn’t run into nearly as many problems in Paris. We landed, checked into a hotel, ate our dinner in bed and woke up the next morning to head right back to the airport.
The Paris airport was a lot busier than the Prague one. But after waiting in lines and having our bags checked, we were on our way through security and to our gate. 10 hours and three movies later, we were landing in Vancouver.
It wasn’t the homecoming we expected, but as soon as we walked out those doors into a surprisingly sunny Vancouver day, a wave of relief washed over me. We had made it. The hard part was over. There were no decisions left to make.
We were home.
THANK YOU Riana Ang-Canning for submitting this article