Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist

Coronavirus: The long journey home

Cypriot citizen Valerie Michaels describes the tortuous process of her repatriation on June 16 from the United States to Cyprus amidst coronavirus precautions

For family reasons, I left Cyprus for the US on February 23, planning to return on March 21. By then, Cyprus required negative tests for Covid-19.  In the US, tests were offered only to essential medical personnel, to those who showed symptoms or who had been with others who had tested positive. I cancelled my return. As friends from Cyprus repatriated from the UK and US in late March and early April, I followed their returns, their quarantine time in hotels. I envisioned my return only once a vaccine became available, say, by Christmas 2021! In the meantime, my 87-year-old mother made a pleasant host, one silver lining of the lockdown.

Then, in early June, with the virus situation worsening in the US and a window to return, I booked flights via Frankfurt and Vienna. Next, I called the Cyprus embassy in Washington about the new Cyprus Flight Pass. Repatriation required a negative test less than 72 hours old upon arrival and/or a test upon arrival.  I thought Germany and Austria might be easier to pass through with negative results in hand. The following week, I called the embassy with more questions. I was told that upon arrival, I still might be tested again, might be in state quarantine (for 24 hours or up to two weeks), and should not arrange for anyone to drive me home (the government might do that). I felt relief that Cyprus remained vigilant.

Next, I registered for the flight pass, but it seemed the password or username was incorrect. I emailed the Cyprus Flight Pass people for help. I was also stumped where it said ‘Flight’, because like others repatriating from non-EU countries, I was on multiple flights. They advised me to list the final flight into Cyprus. Finally, did ‘Apply 72 hours before arrival’ mean at least 72 hours before arrival or within 72 hours of arrival? Within.

Ten days before leaving, my sister found a pharmacy offering the drive-through swab-test with results in 15 minutes. It was early days in the US to find this available with fewer required criteria. My appointment was on a Sunday, the day before the 20-hour trip. Testing is a bit like being in a sci-fi flick. Medical attendants in gear gestured through rolled up windows. After obtaining my sample from the trolley, the attendant stepped back, gestured to roll down a window and projected, “Your results will be available within 24 hours. Have you got any questions?” “Well, yes, any chance it could be faster?” I asked.  (I wanted to say, “What happened to the 15-minute result?” and “I still have to upload my results for the Cyprus Flight Pass.”) She said, “We say 24 hours, but it might be this afternoon or tonight.” By 7 pm, the night before leaving, I uploaded the results and submitted the Cyprus Flight Pass form. At noon on Monday, I left for Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) airport, for a  4 o’clock departure.

DFW to Frankfurt on American Airlines

Masked and gloved, I walked through an empty-ish airport; DFW did not require people wear masks and some did not. At the counter, across a ‘taped barrier’, I handed documents to the masked agent. First, she said she could only check my two bags to Frankfurt and that one hour between flights was insufficient. I said, ‘I’ll just risk it.’ Then she said, “After fetching your bags, you must change terminals, not to mention border control, re-checking your bags and security.”  She continued, “Sorry this is taking so long, but I have a lot to read here about these tickets.” By then, I had inched closer. She reminded me to stay behind the barrier tape.

Next, she said she could not issue boarding passes for the connecting flights (I should have arranged that online). Then she asked if I would like to fly business class for $500. I responded negatively and said that should I get stuck in Frankfurt, I would need that $500 for a hotel. “At least I’d be closer to home,” I said.  She said, “There IS no getting a hotel room in Frankfurt.  Not with the virus.” Then, she said, “Okay, I can check your bags all the way through to Larnaka.” What good news!

While boarding, we were given informative letters from the German government and silver packets labeled ‘sanitisers’. The middle row of the middle section of the fuselage was empty. Almost everybody wore masks. Because I had limited time and a terminal change between flights, I asked the flight attendant if I might request a ‘golf-cart’ ride to my next gate. She said  this was not available these days but I need not worry because only one terminal at Frankfurt was operating. More good news!  Next, she mentioned masks were mandatory in the airport. Noticing the man directly in front of me was mask-less, I said, “Speaking of which….” She discreetly explained that masks were not required on board.  I found that odd but sure enough, within a day, the airline started banning mask-less passengers.  The ten-hour flight was quiet. The in-flight magazine, the April issue, now seemed more like archives of fantasy destinations from days gone by.  We were served beverages, a decent dinner and breakfast.

Upon landing at 8:30 am Frankfurt time, we were told to remain seated. German health authorities boarded and explained policies of the airport, including the mandatory mask-wearing rule.

Most shops seemed to have been shuttered a while. I found my gate posted, went through border control, and then security. They encouraged me to hurry.  I followed signs to ‘A Gates’ but at one point, found myself in an almost empty hall reading ’A Gates’ one way and ‘Departures’ another. I gathered the signage confusion was due to the terminal closure and walked toward the ‘A Gates’.

Frankfurt to Larnaca (via Vienna) on Austrian Airlines

The agent printed my final two boarding passes.  Both flights were nearly full.  As we flew one hour from Frankfurt to Vienna, flight attendants distributed forms in case tracing were eventually needed. (The other two flights did not require this.)

In Vienna, after border control and security, I found gate agents scrutinising documents. Once on board and at my seat, I heard, “Hello, again.” Seated next to me was the same woman next to me on my previous flight. Through our masks, we smiled.  I was not my usual talkative self; it seemed nobody talked on these flights. Before taxiing, the captain announced that some passengers had to de-plane and regulations required their bags be found and removed.  After 45 minutes, we departed for the three-hour flight to Larnaca.  Austrian Airlines offered passengers coffee, tea or water.

Upon landing, the flight attendant announced that those without test results were to stay seated. Others could exit from the front. The ‘untested’, about 15, were to disembark from the back door to be taken for testing. In the terminal, Cypriot authorities at tables checked Cyprus Flight Passes and temperatures. Cyprus was the only country that checked temperatures. As we waited for temperature checks, some were not ‘social distancing’.

The Cyprus border control officer asked if I had uploaded my test results with the Cyprus Flight Pass. At the baggage area, only one carousel worked; there were no other flights.  I loaded a trolley with my bags and headed outside.

The Ride Home

Two taxis were outside. I asked, “Could I take a taxi to Nicosia?”  “Yes,” they said. “But,” I said, “I thought maybe the government was to drive me home?”  “They might reimburse you,” one driver said, “but it isn’t sure yet.”  “I’m not worried about paying the fare,” I said, “I just want to be sure it is safe for the driver, with the virus and all.”  “Yes, it is fine,” they said.

It was good to see Cyprus again. The masked driver and I spoke little as he drove, mostly about the virus. Worried as to whether I had contracted the virus as I travelled, I asked, “May I have your card?” “Yes, the driver said, “But this is the company card and we are in Larnaca.” I noticed no name on the card, so, just in case, I asked, “And your name?”  “Soteris,” he said.  When I arrived home, Soteris kindly placed my bags near the door and drove off.

Once home, worried I missed some steps, I emailed my Cyprus Flight Pass friends asking, ‘Should I just go see my doctor if I feel ill?’  They replied, “Yes, but please also contact the Cyprus health authorities if you feel sick”

Self-isolating was much like lockdown in the US since March, that is, staying in 24/7, but I do miss my mom’s company. Although it took some effort to get through the Covid-19 hoops, it’s good to finally be home!

Requirements of countries and airlines vary and change often.  For specific questions, contact the Embassy of Cyprus where you are.  A travel agent can help you learn what each country you transit through requires.  The Cyprus Flight Pass team also help with questions via email.

 

 



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