ExperiencePlus! Blog

Traveling Through The “New Normal”

My First International Road Trip

by Philipp Schmitt

We are in Granada and temperatures are rising to 100º F every day. Summer is here! My family and I would like to escape the heat and go to Germany, as we do every year.

A few weeks ago we weren’t even sure if we would be able to travel at all. And amongst all the uncertainties, I got a call that my mom wasn’t doing well. Normally, without giving it a second thought I would have hopped on one of the countless flights bound to Germany. But Spain was determined to keep the lockdown and the ban on international travel, even within the EU. So, I needed to prepare for travelling under lockdown conditions and started getting all the documents necessary for travel, getting them translated into German and Spanish. On top of that there were no regular flights from Spain to Germany. Which means I also had to have them translated them into French so I could make the two-day drive.

The liberty to move anywhere at any time is so natural to me that I never thought it could change. I am having a hard time feeling that my autonomy and right of self-determination are restricted, especially with my mom not doing well.

Luckily, my mom is getting better, and it isn’t as urgent to go as it seemed in the beginning. And fortunately, under the pressure of the other European states, Spain decided to open up the borders a week after the rest of Europe did. At least it cuts out all the paperwork. We decide to travel with the whole family and hurriedly pack up everything. And while I pack, something else shakes the very foundations of my life:  I grab my toiletries bag and have to dust it off!? Usually I use it at least every 5-6 weeks. And more than 120 days a year. But I haven’t been travelling for the last 4 months! I can’t remember the last time that happened …. And I realize that traveling is my life and how much it is my livelihood.

Since there still are no regular flights, we set out with the whole family plus dog on the 1400 mile two-day road trip across Europe to Germany. But how will travel change under the “new normal”? Well, we’ve got various sets of face masks ranging from fashion to super safe in our luggage along with what feels like a few gallons of hand sanitizer. And the curiosity to see and learn.

First lesson I learn: While you are sitting in the car with your family there is nothing different, after five minutes my 8 year-old daughter asks: “Will it be much longer?” and “when will we get there?” I give up all my good resolutions to limit screen time for her and I am thankful for the iPad and all the NetFlix series she downloaded and all the games she can play.

But when you look out the window you see some things are different. There is much less traffic on the highways in Spain. Along the coast on the highway between the beach towns we’re starting to miss the annoying Sunday drivers in rental cars and RVs. Spain is one of the biggest European summer vacation destinations on the Mediterranean and attracts a lot of European tourists. But literally no car with a foreign license plate is around. And we are the only car with a bike rack and bikes on top. It is spooky and although we usually complain so much about crowded beaches, full hotels and over-tourism… we realize how dependent we are on it.

In the evening we cross the border into France. My daughter had developed a strange paranoia about our temperatures being checked at the border. We cross the border without her noticing it. Everything is open as if nothing had happened. No one stops us, or even looks at us as we cross. Let’s see what new normal means in France.

A few miles after the border we arrive at our hotel, a roadside motel we always stop at when we make this trip. At first sight the new normal there is what we are used to: hand sanitizer when you walk in and plastic screens around the counter.

It is us who change the routine. After 12 hours in the car we would normally have gone to a restaurant close to the hotel and the choice is between bad or very bad; or pick up some fast food… This time we decided differently and we go to a supermarket to buy some French cheese, baguette etc.

Coming from a country like Spain that has been hit pretty hard and has had the strictest lockdown regulations in Europe, I am concerned about how few people are wearing masks at the supermarket. The guy at the counter for cold cuts doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t want to understand my rudimentary and very bad French, so I take off my mask too and hope he’ll understand me. But I feel absolutely naked and like I’m committing a crime. I try to calm myself down. I had done some research for numbers of Covid cases in Perpignan and I found a website that stated a total of only 78 cases. I am trying to cling to these low numbers, but another thought sneaks into my mind: one of the problems of this pandemic is information. Too much information is as obfuscating as fake news. So later I check the website I had found and see it was the Covid section of some obscure ovulation calculator site. Not exactly the World Health Organization!

Despite the risks I have taken, it turns out it was the best dinner decision we made in 10 years. Aside from some gorgeous French cheeses and cold cuts we found something new to us: tomato tartar. I’ve never seen such finely diced tomatoes! Those with fresh basil and a little dressing, that goes great with the cheese and the red wine. It assures me that even now one can rely on French cheese, red wine and culinary finesse.

At first sight, the breakfast next morning at the hotel is surprisingly similar to what it used to be. Being breakfast and a road-side motel it is not a prime example of French culinary finesse. Everything is packed in single portions, butter, jam, cheese and Nutella. Only am I not sure what to do about the croissants… they are on a shelf above my head in a breadbasket, not packed individually and no tweezers to take them. While I am perplexed and hesitating what to do, a feisty Swiss lady gets impatient and asks me if I would like to have a croissant. As I affirm, she grabs two croissants with her hand and slams them onto my tray. I am pretty sure that is not according to the protocol! Still a little confused, I head to the outside seating area. I hope eating outdoors will make up for the breach of protocol with the croissants. Suddenly, the lady at the counter behind the plastic screens yells at me, that I was heading the wrong direction. Now I see the arrows on the floor that meander like a one-way road through the hall and breakfast room, leading one along all the stations of the breakfast buffet and then release you to the outside seating area.

While I am having my (contaminated?) croissants, my wife explains to me the croissant protocol: they are above your head so you can’t cough or sneeze on them (makes sense) and that you have to take them using your cutlery makes it safer – but makes it very difficult! I decide to go back in and work on my technique. About 3 croissants fall on the floor and a few more flick back into the bread- basket. Finally I learn how to squeeze them with my knife and fork (above my head) with one hand and with the other hand holding a plate to catch the flicking croissant!

We have another 700 miles ahead of us and get back into the safe bubble of our car equipped with baguette, cheese, cold cuts, veggies, dips and a few less healthy but soul-nourishing food items…

We notice right away in France there are many more cars with foreign license plates on the highway, especially Swiss. But still a lot fewer than what we had seen in the recent years. Again RVs and holiday makers with fully packed trunks and roof racks are missing. The advantage is that driving is a lot more relaxed. The whole travel day is uneventful and crossing the border into Germany is uneventful. Without even noticing the border we have made it to Germany.