Escaping the pandemic maelstrom of Spain

Doug Bradley and Cornelia Wagner in happier times on their vacation in Spain before it was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Liz McNaught

By Douglas Bradley

I have travelled overseas extensively for 20 years and consider myself adept at changing itineraries on the fly. Once stuck in Trondheim during a Scandinavian Airlines strike, I jumped a train with no ticket, sat on the floor with half the Norwegian army, made it across the mountains to Oslo airport and, with 5,000 people storming the airline counters, finessed my way through and got a flight to Heathrow in time to meet my elderly uncle who was waiting for me there. That was scary, but nothing compared to our nightmare of being stuck in Spain as it spiralled downward into the abyss of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Italy became the European epicentre with 8,500 cases by March 10, we were in southern Spain and that seemed far away. We started to worry the next day, when airlines began suspending flights to Italy and the World Health Organization confirmed a pandemic. Our Air France flight on April 1 quickly seemed too distant, and my wife Cornelia and I decided to leave early. I found flights available on the airline website but whenever I pressed the “change reservation” button, nothing happened. Friends had tried to reach Air France by phone but gave up after being on hold for three hours. I read that with revenues tumbling, the airline was at risk of going bankrupt. On March 13, we took the bus to Malaga airport to talk with an actual airline agent. There were none. Things were getting scary.

Back in Nerja, we gave up on Air France, and I booked low-cost tickets online with TAP-Air Portugal to leave March 13, Malaga-Lisbon-Newark-Ottawa. A Trump proclamation suspended entry into the U.S. for all foreign nationals as of 11:59 on March 13 but since TAP had sold me the tickets, I assumed we could deplane at Newark and catch our Ottawa connection. I tried for two days to reach TAP to get this assurance but could not. Now we could think of nothing but getting out. Then Spain announced a country-wide lockdown to take effect March 16. All tapas restaurants, bars, stores and beaches closed two days before that. We tried to find a travel agent, but they too were closed. When the full lockdown started, we were only allowed to go out for food or medical attention. Police cars prowled the streets. It seemed something happened each day that was unthinkable the day before.

We abandoned our TAP tickets to book something safer but more expensive with Air Canada. The cheapest one-way tickets were $3,000 and rising by the hour. A suitable itinerary suddenly showed up for $2,200 each so I jumped on it. It was a horrific price, but what choice did we have? Good old Air Canada wouldn’t let us down! All we had to do was wait. Then it happened – on March 18, I checked our booking and Air Canada had cancelled it, with no email, no warning. Air Canada could not be reached. It was becoming a nightmare.

That day, Prime Minister Trudeau called on Canadian airlines to get citizens home. Another Air Canada itinerary came open. Trouble is, the last leg was direct from London to Ottawa but the government had just announced foreign flights could only land in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Toronto. Still, I booked it and hoped. Sheila Saliba, a Glebe friend, waited on hold with Air Canada for three hours to get us a legal connection through Toronto. We sat on pins and needles for three days. On March 21, we made for Malaga airport. It was all but empty. You could shoot a cannon ball through the terminal and not hit anybody. We boarded and held hands as the plane left the tarmac. We were out of the hotspot of Spain and heading for Germany. In Munich, we had reservations at the airport hotel but authorities would not allow the Canadians out of the airport. We kicked up a fuss and they relented. The next day was surreal. A Lufthansa A320, empty except for 21 Canadians, flew us to Heathrow, which was largely oblivious to social distancing. We connected to an AC 787 Dreamliner that was jammed to the rafters. As on the other flights, we wiped down the armrests, seatbelts and tray with disinfectant and washed our hands every 20 minutes.

After three flights and a very long day, we landed in Ottawa and kissed the ground. What kept us going during this trial? All of our Glebe friends cheered us on by email, and Sheila has become our new hero.

Douglas Bradley, former president of the Canadian Bioenergy Association and Climate Change Solutions, is now retired and has lived on Third Avenue with his family for 30 years.

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