Hopping from one place to another, that was me over the past few years. With the influx of inexpensive flights, it was impossible to say 'no'. However, 'no' was forced upon all travellers and the travel industry, as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. As a frequent flyer, I got to experience this black swan event up close, with still being able to get to specific countries due to their relatively low number of cases. Of course, each country had its measures, and all of my movements got conducted in abidance with them.
It's early June 2020, and I've arrived in London from New York. I had spent the last few weeks in limbo, due to numerous flight cancellations. Funnily enough, the airline that got me back to England was British Airways (thank you). This company receives attacks for lousy service. In comparison, the airline that gets praised for good service, Virgin Atlantic (useless), failed to serve its customers at a time in need. I still haven't received a refund or voucher from Virgin Atlantic. But I digress, the safest place to be at a time like this is in your home country.
Restrictions continued upon my return to England. Though, it did seem as though they were beginning to ease. One of the most amusing things I noticed upon returning was how everyone in New York had become a runner. And everyone in London had become a cyclist. Anyway, after self-isolating in London (it was not mandatory at the time - a stupid decision), with echos of Ghost Town by The Specials, I went up to Birmingham just before the protests. It boggles my mind that we went from clapping for the NHS to not caring about the strain we were putting on its capacity, within a few weeks.
Throughout June, COVID-19 cases seemed to be on a downward trajectory or at least stabilising. However, as peoples attitude towards the spread of the virus eased, numbers started to rise towards the end of July. Before July concluded, and England making the announcement that they were delaying an easing of the lockdown, I boarded an Air Baltic flight to a country that I'm an e-resident of, Estonia.
It was evening by the time I had touched down in Estonia (Tallinn). Compared to England, it was fairly bright outside. Tallinn sits higher up than most people assume. Hence they have long summer days and short winter days. As I wasn't arriving from within the Schengen Area, I had to pass through border control. All arrivals were required to complete a 'passenger locator form'. Arrivals had to agree to self-isolate for two weeks, or risk a fine of ten thousand euros. I knew about this beforehand, and I accepted it. Estonia had done a commendable job of managing the virus, and they wanted to keep it that way. The way I see it - if you disagree with a country's rules, don't go. However, the thing that isn't so fine by me is where the 'passenger locator forms', of which I completed a handful, are stored.
I cleared border control without a hitch. And, after a short Bolt ride, I arrived at my Airbnb, which was in an ex-Soviet block. Inside, the apartment was Nordic-themed, fully-fitted with a sauna. I was only too happy to self-isolate for two weeks. It felt more-so like a retreat than an action forced upon me. Other than going for grocery shopping and exercise, I wasn't allowed outdoors. Once the two-weeks passed, I was free. The reason why Estonia handled this pandemic well, is because it was already a digital nation. It wasn't forcing digital initiatives at a moment of panic. That meant I could carry on, as usual, frequenting my favourite cafes on the edge of the old town.
During my time in Estonia, daily cases never went into double-digits. After my month in Tallinn, I got the itch to move-on. My plan was to go-to Tartu (Estonia's second city), though that plan didn't work out. So, I decided to make my way to Warsaw, Poland. Poland is the country I've travelled through the most in mainland Europe. But, other than passing through Warsaw, I'd never spent any considerable time in the city. Hence, I was looking forward to my stay, especially as Poland is becoming an evermore important EU member. And, historically, it is a significant country.
I arrived in Poland (Warsaw) a few days after the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. As my journey from Estonia to Poland was within the Schengen Area, I could waltz out of the airport. Though it was convenient, I wondered why, at a minimum, temperature checks did not get enforced. Although there were no checks, every passenger did have to complete a 'passenger locator form' before landing.
Once I was out of the airport, I hailed a Bolt (Uber's European equivalent) to take me to my Airbnb. The apartment was superb. It was a studio, near the Warsaw University of Technology, in a very hip neighbourhood. I prefer large, open-spaces, over many separate rooms. Hence, this apartment was ideal for me. Once I checked-in, the first task on my list was to get some groceries for the next day. And, as a treat, I picked up a zapiekanka (also known as a Polish pizza) - Polish street food, for an evening bite.
In comparison to Tallinn, my day-to-day didn't change much in Warsaw. Naturally, due to Poland's higher number of cases, more people were wearing masks. But, cafes (of which I frequented many) and restaurants remained open. Furthermore, I only went to independent places. They need the custom more than multi-national chains. Overall, my time in Warsaw was great. However, it was not as inexpensive as other parts of Poland. Warsaw has become pretty wealthy since Poland's privatisation, and you can see that wealth when you roam the streets. Though I enjoyed my time in Warsaw, it's not my favourite place in Poland. And, after a month in Warsaw, I was ready to leave Poland for Malta.
Each time I return to Malta, the same thing happens. I disembark the aircraft, and then the humidity welcomes me back with a slap of vengeance. Like my previous flight, I was travelling within the Schengen Area. Therefore I was out of the airport within minutes. There were no COVID-19 checks like other flights, just the requirement to complete a 'passenger locator form'. Once I was out of the airport, I hopped into a Bolt and made my way to the capital, Valletta.
I had rented a charming studio apartment in Valletta through a friend. The studio sat behind the Upper Barrakka Gardens. And, you can be sure that if you're not a morning person, the daily mid-day cannon firing will turn you into one. Having lived in Valletta for two years, previously, I'd never in that time lived on this side. It was much nicer. The one thing I particularly love about Valletta is that it doesn't feel like a replica of another European city. It has a distinct architecture. Furthermore, the capital is walkable (an understatement), with co-working spaces, cafes and more on your doorstep. Of course, that is of no help to you if you're trying to avoid someone.
The COVID-19 cases had started to stabilise in Malta. However, towards the end of the summer holidays, numbers began to rise again. Before Malta's second national lockdown, it was my birthday. It was nice to be able to spend the day among friends considering the abnormality of the world. Furthermore, I had a friend visit me from England, whilst travel was permitted. During my eight-week stay in Malta, I also spent a long-weekend in Gozo (Malta's sister island) with friends. Gozo is an idyllic island if you want to get away from big brother (Malta).
Malta's second national lockdown started as I was approaching the end of my stay. The second nationwide lockdown included the mandatory wearing of masks, everywhere. Restaurants could remain open. Hence I had a leaving dinner at Chukkas, a steak house. Chukkas, the steak house, sits inside Malta Polo Club, the second oldest globally, after Calcutta. For now, it was time to say goodbye to Malta (again), but not before an English breakfast which I had been craving before coming to Malta. With Christmas approaching, I yearned for winter, as different seasons inspire different thoughts. Hence, my final stop of this trip was to Austria, just as the second-wave was gathering steam. And, Brexit was looming, waiting to strip me of my birthright, freedom of movement within the European Union, where I had lived for several years.
I landed into Austria (Vienna) looming the announcement of a second national lockdown. Hence, the first thing on my agenda, after checking-into my AirBnB, was to go grocery shopping. Fortunately, there was a Hoffer (supermarket) nearby. And, a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant, which cooked me up a much-needed Pho. As I had been expecting, the announcement of a second national lockdown got made. It gave me enough time to move into my next Airbnb. I didn't book a long-stay in my first Airbnb, as I was wary as to if Austria would be allowing arrivals. And, Airbnb was no longer giving refunds for COVID-19 related issues.
I'd been to Vienna twice before. Though I'd been to Vienna before, I'd never stayed across the Danube, where my next Airbnb was. The neighbourhood was my favourite yet. However, shortly after moving into that AirBnB, Vienna suffered its worst terror attack, not far from where I stayed. My Airbnb felt like a sanctuary while I was there. While the apartment had a separate bedroom, there was a sofa-bed in the main living area that I preferred - I did say I like large studios. However, that wasn't the final place I stayed in Vienna. My last AirBnB was near the Opera House - a magnificent building.
During Austria's second national lockdown, you could still see people (however strange that sounds). Hence, I got to spend time with a great friend in Vienna. We've rendezvoused in cities around the world, but never in Austria, until now. And, I went on a short business trip to Graz. Graz is Austria's second-largest city, but feels very much like a town - I liked it. Many notable people have passed through Graz's University - Nikola Tesla (he dropped out). All in all, I spent just over a month in Austria, which I enjoyed hugely, even under lockdown. In late November, I boarded an early-morning flight back to England for Christmas.
I arrived back in England and made my way to Birmingham for Christmas. It beggars to believe that Birmingham's connections aren't as great as to the capital for the second-largest city. My arrival back into England was as the second lockdown was ending. However, a tier-based lockdown was starting, with Birmingham being in the highest tier. It was an intriguing time to arrive back in England, on top of COVID, Brexit was waiting to cheat me out of my freedom of movement. I will be in England until the new year. Where I will go after that, I don't know.
I avoided spending money with multi-nationals throughout my trip, trying to devote more money to small businesses. Small businesses are dying, and unless we want our streets filled with multi-national brands, we need to alter our spending habits. It seems as though we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. I prefer to support an entrepreneur with a small business, over another multi-national brand trying to steal market share. I don't want to see the gentrification of the world. Why should every place we go to be the same? The wonderful thing about exploring is that we get to draw inspiration from different environments. As a result, right now, I'm a sucker for spending money at small businesses.
It wasn't easy to navigate each country's restrictions throughout my trip - trying to understand what is and isn't allowed. I think many people would give up and not travel, or unknowingly break the law due to the complexity of official instructions. How the travel industry will reignite, I'm not sure. It sure won't be within the next twelve months, or as soon as people are vaccinated. It will be over many years. Don't be fooled into thinking that the stock market is an accurate reflection of the economy. Looking at data, only, can render people blind as to what is happening in the streets.