Students reflect on 23 hours stuck in Europe due to rapid coronavirus spread
Illinois senior Ren Crudele and Macomb junior Brennen Malaga's European expedition was supposed to be a token of adventure, encapsulating a persistence to explore far beyond the box.
The disarray they experienced as countries around them were closing boarders now only embodies the lack of foreshadowing the coronavirus pandemic had, they said.
Before leaving North America, Crudele said she couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the pandemonium erupting from her phone screen. As opposed to unsettling her, the handwash tutorials on TikTok and tweets mourning trip cancellations only made her more eager for spring vacation.
So as she rode shotgun to O’Hare International Airport, she admitted having no preparation to face the pandemic that would come most alive in a German airport.
They departed for their trip Wednesday, March 4 – exactly one week before a presidential proclamation suspended entry into the U.S. by residents of Europe's Schengen Area.
This zone of 26 countries had 17,442 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 711 deaths when the proclamation was made on March 11.
In only 17 days, this has skyrocketed to more than 290,000 confirmed cases and 17,700 deaths, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
After the proclamation was made, a frenzy of messages stampeded into Crudele and Malaga's inboxes. Each word was made less comprehensible by the immediate terror surrounding the term “travel ban.”
“(There) was a dozen calls and texts asking if I needed money to get home and if I would be stuck on the other side of the world,” Malaga said. “After doing a single Google search, I saw that the Trump Administration later clarified that the ban would not affect U.S. citizens, so my panic instantly subsided.”
Even while wandering through Europe, the two said they felt separate from the American media's narrative.
“When we first arrived in Europe, London specifically, nothing seemed out of the ordinary," Malaga said. "The amount of tourism seemed appropriate, and all of the places we visited were open for business. We did not experience any signs of the virus until our final day in Budapest, (where) some of the larger night clubs were closed due to government concerns there.”
The trip was organized and booked eight months before Spring Break. It consisted of pub crawling throughout England, gazing at Swedish mountains between cappuccinos and soaking up some Portuguese sun.
“We had plans to visit Rome near the end of our two-week journey through Europe, and even when we left for the trip, the situation in Italy was not as severe as it would be at the end,” Malaga said.
By Sunday morning, March 15, Crudele's fantasies of photographing the Coliseum and enjoying scoops of gelato were out of reach.
“SO I’M STUCK IN EUROPE," she posted on Facebook. "Next flight home costs a fortune and won’t get me there 'til Tuesday, even though I’m already at (another) airport. Any love, kind words or pennies will help get me home!!”
Crudele, Malaga and their traveling companions, Navy members Mike Ceccardi and Ed Gutierrez, were forced to sit in Düsseldorf International Airport in Germany, the atmosphere frozen beneath a single question: “What happens next?”
Their $2,000-per-person budget skyrocketed to more than $2,700. The next flight to the U.S. cost $590 each and was 23 hours away from takeoff.
“We planned to go from Budapest to Rome and just stay in the airport until our flight (for home)," Crudele said. "But then we tried to check in for our flight and got notified that it was canceled.”
Crudele said the airline, TAP Air Portugal, offered no financial compensation.
Without rescheduling through the original airline as an option, Crudele said the group was forced to combine savings – money originally set aside for covering two months-worth of rent and utility fees back home. Only Venmo payments made by friends were used for food.
As they arrived for their layover in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday evening, Crudele was notified she’d be unable to return to her retail job at Claire’s for two weeks.
Although the two said the trip was worth every penny, hysterical Facebook message and airport-induced body ache, they agreed it left them feeling disillusioned.
"The trip was absolutely worth it, I wouldn't have changed a single thing besides not buying flight insurance," Malaga said.
Crudele said reality hit the worst while physically engaged with the common naivety people shared toward the virus.
“Being on public transport was usually awful," she said. "We took buses and trains everywhere... People would cough so openly. We tried to keep a positive outlook, but with all this panic and the numbers of people dying, it's hard not to be concerned when you know germs are getting on you without your control.”
She said the dining experience usually consisted of being inundated by multiple languages, each one repeating instructions to wash up better and avoid facial touching.
As Crudele lies in bed, she observes the media as travel restrictions stiffen in the communities she was just exploring.
On March 17, all Schengen Area member states passed a plan requesting the European Commission to close all of the territory’s external borders for at least 30 days.