We all have our own risk tolerance levels nowadays when it comes to leaving the house, whether it’s to exercise, get groceries, visit the dentist, see loved ones, or get to work. It’s no different when it comes to getting the heck out of town. Some of us traded European adventures for a weekend in Vegas or distanced mountain getaway. Others, like Erin Codazzi, suddenly found herself on an unplanned trans-Atlantic flight after tragic family news from Italy.
My eyes follow the server in his crisp white shirt, black apron, and face shield, holding a tray as he moves along the line of weary, masked passengers. It’s December 23, and we have just arrived in the Rome airport on one of Delta’s first COVID-tested flights from Atlanta.
Most of the passengers are too tired, anxious, or distracted to take him up on his offer: a neatly packaged piece of pandoro, a traditional Italian Christmas cake. I happily accept the sugar-dusted wedge. Another slice of humanity, I think. I take it with me as we check in for our third COVID test in three days.
I swore I’d never get on a plane as long as this coronavirus could be lurking in seat pockets, pull-down trays, or, more likely, the passenger in the next row. And then, on December 8, the call came. I heard my husband’s grief before I made it up the stairs, into the living room, and to the loveseat next to the Christmas tree where he sat with his face in his hands. His sister had called to tell him their dad had died. Not a victim of the virus that had ravaged their province in northern Italy. No, he had slipped on an icy stair.
We’d talked to him the day before, and his twinkly self was as strong as ever, a rock for my mother-in-law for 55 years—and especially during the prior months as she’d weathered chemo. We couldn’t process it, nearly 5,500 miles away.
Two days later, we sat side by side just after sunrise, watching my father-in-law’s funeral through the screen on our iPhone. From our vantage point on the altar in the church where my husband was baptized and confirmed, we saw his siblings in the front pew, their sadness heavy behind KN95 masks.
We watched the community congregate in the back of the church to pay their respects, shadowy figures against the patina of centuries-old walls. We listened to the choir, the priest, and my husband’s cousin revere this kind man I’d met 34 years prior.
We followed along as the priest offered communion to family members and relatives, extending what looked like a long-poled fishing net filled with wafers down each aisle. And we watched, numb, as smoke from the incense blanketed my father-in-law’s coffin.
Like so many others, we’d been eager to kick 2020 to the curb. Now, it had reared its ugly head again, heckling us with a parting shot. Not so fast, I thought. This shitty year isn’t going to have the final word. We would go.
But could we go? For starters, Americans were still banned entry. (While my husband remains an Italian citizen, I had never applied.) And even if we could get there, we’d have to quarantine for two weeks, making it impossible for us to comfort—and be comforted by—our Italian family. That’s when the first slices of humanity started shining through.
Delta announced it would start COVID-tested flights from Atlanta to Rome on December 19, meaning arriving passengers wouldn’t have to quarantine if they followed certain testing protocols: a non-rapid PCR test 72 hours before the flight, and rapid tests at both the Atlanta and Rome airports. Then, after countless calls to the Italian consulate, we got the green light for me to travel.
We booked our flight for Tuesday, December 22, to arrive the next day—just when the country locked down under Red Zone status, shuttering stores and emptying streets.
For the PCR test we’d need before we left, we made appointments with Rite Aid and Walgreens. And then I panicked: What if the labs didn’t process tests over the weekend? What if they didn’t have our results back in time? Maybe someone else had been in my shoes and knew how long it might take, I thought. I posted my question on Nextdoor—and 103 neighbors, all strangers, responded with condolences and advice. Not one questioned our decision to fly overseas. Several advised me we might not have results in time, and one neighbor, a Delta employee, said the airline might not accept test results from those vendors, either.
In that scrolling list of kind neighbors, one stood out: the director of a testing lab in Vancouver. He set us up with his lab for that Saturday. His staff hand-delivered our tests and saw that we received our results first thing Monday morning. More slices of humanity.
En route to PDX at 4:30 the next morning, our Lyft driver told us he’d been one of the first to get COVID in Oregon. He and a group of six friends had gone dancing together at a country-western bar in February, he said, and all of them got sick. His friend ended up being Oregon’s first recorded COVID death. In the airport, I could feel my anxiety creep up into my throat as I saw the lines of passengers checking in.
I wanted to be brave for my husband. But then we boarded our first flight. We’d paid for Comfort class so we’d have a little more leg room. Apparently, so had everyone else: all the Comfort rows were full, while most of the rows in Economy were empty. Poor planning, Delta. I wiped down the seat pockets, the drop-down trays, the window shade, the seat belts, and possibly the head of the passenger in front of me.
The plane departed at 6:30 a.m., and the dudes in the row across from us started ordering beer after beer. After over two hours of watching them drink—no masks in sight—my husband, aware of my mounting anxiety, politely asked them to put on their masks.
“[email protected] off,” said the one closest to us.
The flight attendant appeared, reminding them of the rule to keep a mask on at all times unless taking a sip or a bite. She received the same belligerent response. That’s when we decided to move to an Economy row.
In Atlanta, we checked in for our rapid PCR test and boarded the flight to Rome. I was comforted by a standard poodle flying in the row ahead of us and a cat in a bubble backpack across from him. I passed the time watching Bombshell on the in-flight entertainment and season two of Home for Christmas on my iPad.
When we arrived in the Rome airport, I was relieved. No throngs of travelers, and those I did see were masked. Employees were sanitizing surfaces. Even the COVID test we received seemed more thorough, as the swab nearly connected with our brains. And then there was that slice of Christmas cake.
Our flight to Milan was uneventful. As we emerged from customs, I saw my sister-in-law wearing a beret and a big smile. She’d had to get a special permit from the police to pick us up in Milan, an hour and a half from where she lives. We made it home in time for a table laden with antipasto, radicchio salad, and minestrone.
Christmas came and went. It was really hard to be there without his dad, and COVID exacerbated that emptiness. The streets were deserted most days. Instead of 10-plus family members all gathered around, chattering, eating, laughing, as on past visits, it was me, my husband, my mother-in-law, and often his brother, all masked at every meal.
Some cafés were still open for takeout (espresso is like oxygen to most Italians), so we often woke up early and walked to a nearby one for a takeout cappuccino and pastry. My husband's siblings brought a TV in after a few days, so we were able to at least tune into the few channels we could get. We watched back-to-back episodes of a reality show that judged two couples based on their cooking and hospitality skills. I was really happy when two of my favorite movies, Il Postino and Amarcord, came on the TV during the week, breaking up the monotony of having to watch how to set the perfect table and cook al dente pasta.
Three days after Christmas, the area’s restrictions went from red to orange. The stores reopened, people appeared in the streets. And it snowed—adding a layer of comfort to what had been a pretty somber several days. I remembered a saying about snowflakes being kisses from heaven. And maybe they were.
Erin Codazzi is a writer born, raised, and still loving living in Portland—though she is now looking into dual citizenship.
This article is part of a series. Do you want to share your own pandemic travel story? Email [email protected]