An American stranded in Europe by the pandemic: a personal story

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic last month, a Norwegian Airlines flight from New York to Amsterdam carried far fewer than the usual number of passengers. (Photo: Charlotte Parker Dulany)
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic last month, a Norwegian Airlines flight from New York to Amsterdam carried far fewer than the usual number of passengers. (Photo: Charlotte Parker Dulany)

AMSTERDAM (April 06, 2020)—I walked hand in hand with my boyfriend along the Looiersgracht Canal to the soft tune of a piano, which had floated sleepily out of a nearby third floor window for only us to hear, and as we gazed around Amsterdam, only our memory brought forth the people and colorful life that usually flourish here—replaced now by locked doors and vacant streets.

Two weeks earlier, I wouldn't have thought I would be here.

Knocks on the door, buzzing cell phones and the ringing of our longstanding landline telephone all erupted at once in my family's fifth floor apartment in the East Village of Manhattan, urgently compelling us to turn on the news. President Donald Trump was announcing his travel ban on Europe in an attempt to halt the persistent spread of the coronavirus.

On that night of March 11, Trump declared in a brief Oval Office address that all travel between the United States and Europe would be suspended for 30 days and would go into effect in 48 hours.

I stood statically before the television as headlines in capital letters appeared, my yellow carry-on bag gripped tightly in my right hand in preparation to leave for John F. Kennedy International Airport to catch my flight to Amsterdam in three hours.

Against her view that fate brought this moment, my mother drove me to the airport with her eyes glued to the city streets over the wheel as we drove up 1st Avenue, ignoring each ding of the many incoming notifications from her cellphone. In the Queens-Midtown Tunnel she asked me, "God forbid, what if something happened and I couldn't get to you?"

"Or, what if something happened to us?" she continued, speaking of our family. "Would you be okay with not being able to come back to us?"

The virus had spread in a whirlwind across various countries and into the United States over recent weeks with many disruptions; days earlier, the school I attend, the University of Maryland, announced its closure until April 10. It later extended the closure for the remainder of the spring semester.

Trump had placed a ban on all travel with Europe for the next 30 days, the woman at the desk for Norwegian Airlines at JFK reminded me. "If you go, there's no guarantee when you will be able to return," she said with a concerned look.

Out of 246 seats, only 112 passengers had checked in for my 1:05 a.m. flight. Most were Dutch citizens returning home. The Norwegian agent said kindly, "It's your choice."

I was torn about what to do as I sat with my mother in the airport parking lot watching our car's digital clock rise in numbers. Cutting through silence she surprised me when she said, "If it were me, I would go."

My trip had been planned for two months—to stay for 10 days in Amsterdam and Bussum, a small town nearby the capital city, with my boyfriend. I was at a gridlock, wondering when I would next be able to go if I didn't go then. With 20 minutes left to get to my gate, I decided to take the leap.

The rest moved swiftly and I was soon on the plane, wiping down my seat and tray table with disinfectant wipes. In seat 8D, I could see only four fellow passengers and they were all engaged in similar cleaning practices. Looking around, I swayed between exhilaration and worry as I thought about how many would've opted to stay home.

Only when the plane was rolling down the runway was a correction issued that American citizens were able to return after undergoing proper screenings.

Upon my arrival in Amsterdam, I met the same surprise at my decision to travel after the ban; a TSA agent at the Schiphol Airport ran my bag through a second security scanner as suspicion accompanied my seemingly reckless decision.

The regulations for COVID-19 came on my fourth day here, as I sat with friends before the television to listen to in on remarks from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. I waited through gasps, groans and some cheers before it was translated to me that all cafes, shops and schools in the Netherlands would be closed through April 6.

The Netherlands had earlier been reproached throughout the European Union for not yet holding crisis talks to address new health measures. School doors were already closed in most Western European countries the week of March 8.

The Dutch Ministry expressed concern about how "public life will come to a standstill."

Students globally have been making do with the adjusted circumstances through online learning programs connected to services like Zoom, through which they are able to watch and hear lessons and connect with professors. Everyone I know here who is still enrolled in an education program is participating in these virtual classrooms to further their studies until the schools reopen.

In a recent directive, the Dutch government decided schools and businesses will stay closed until April 28, and all national exams for the academic year were cancelled.

"There is a very real chance that we will have to extend the measures past April 28," Rutte said at a press conference to address the crisis. "We don't want people to travel all over the country, and after April 28 we certainly won't be back the way we were."

On March 17, six days from my expected return to New York, I was alerted that my flight with Norwegian Airlines was cancelled.

With instructions not to contact the airline unless flying before April 15 was absolutely necessary, there were no answers as to when I would be able to reschedule. All flights to New York with Norwegian through April have been eliminated and read as "sold out" on the carrier's website.

Many airlines have halted operation of long haul flights, and the window to return home has been gradually shrinking. From over 50 countries, more than 26,000 U.S. citizens have been returned home with a repatriation task force dedicated to bringing all Americans back, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"We do not know how long the commercial flights in your countries may continue to operate," Pompeo said. "We can't guarantee the U.S. government's ability to arrange charter flights indefinitely where commercial options no longer exist."

Now, two weeks overdue in my time here, it is unclear when I will return home.

So I've chosen to stay and return to normalcy here—I will live in Amsterdam until the spread of COVID-19 has slowed and the U.S. border reopens. I am in a good place—safe and healthy—and will abide by national regulations as my peers do in this new environment.

When I venture around, I don't see many people outside, and the ones I have come into contact with are in groups of no more than three people, with a distance of five feet between them. Social distancing has been strongly encouraged and from what I have seen is widely respected by Dutch citizens.

There is a limit of people allowed inside certain shops at once; outside the Albert Heijn, a popular grocery chain, there is often an organized line of patient people waiting to purchase groceries.

It is a rare occurrence to see people wearing masks, latex gloves or goggles, but the reactionary panic that has been circling the globe exists here, too, though it is subtle. One day, a cashier at the grocery store didn't like that I paid for a bottle of orange juice with coins and carefully sorted them with one gloved finger.

With announcements made regularly by the Dutch government every three days, the Netherlands seems to have been well prepared to manage a seemingly unmanageable crisis.

As of April 2, the Netherlands has reported 1,339 virus-induced deaths. Approximately 14,697 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

The U.S. State Department announced its most severe warning in a time of progressively increasing restrictions on March 19 when it issued a Level 4 travel advisory, urging Americans to not travel internationally and for citizens abroad to return home immediately.

When people hear I am in the Netherlands they are in disbelief, usually with a trace of pity at my current situation, stranded in limbo. They tell me it is "wrenching to hear about (my) plight" and hope I can get home soon. But I am settled and happy, and curious to learn what lies ahead for my unexpected life abroad.

Charlotte Parker Dulany is a reporter in the Washington bureau of Capital News Service.

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