If I were to follow time-honoured tradition, I would have spent this morning watching the New Year Concert from Vienna. But not this year. For you see, Vienna was where this whole nightmare started for us...
Early in Spring 2020, we set off on a voyage down the Danube, beginning in Vienna. The world was just becoming aware of Covid-19 at that point, but no one seemed overly concerned. As we arrived in Austria, however, the first few isolated cases in Europe were beginning to unfold into something more serious in Northern Italy, so the Austrian authorities closed that border.
After about a week of enjoying a fairly normal city holiday, and watching the situation in Italy spiral into something tragic, events began to move quicker than we could keep up with them. First, the Austrian government banned gatherings of more than 50 people as a precautionary measure. (There were still no confirmed cases within Austria at this point.) That meant we had to cancel our trip to the Zoo, but hey-ho, 'tis but a mild inconvenience. The next day, they closed most indoor attractions - museums, places of worship, concert halls. Fine. Not much to do, but at least there is lots of open space to wander in.
Then it happened. Austria detected its first cases in some faraway ski resorts. We were in a swimming pool and thermal spa when the news came. (Where, incidentally, I had already suffered the indignity of having my swimming shorts stolen while in a sauna, and had to seek help in all my nakedness across the language divide.) We were promptly ushered out - the government had issued tougher restrictions on gatherings and almost all indoor spaces were now off-limits. We were soon to learn that neighbouring countries began to close land borders, which presented us with a bit of a hiccup given that our next destinations were Slovakia and Hungary, and that our flight home now lay on the other side of a closed border.
Let's get out of here, we thought. Luckily, we managed to secure seats on a flight to Edinburgh on the Tuesday morning (this was Saturday). Hooray. We had to be out of our flat on the Monday, but finding a night's accommodation should be no big deal. We polished off the last of the food in the cupboards and began letting people know our amended travel plans.
|About 2 hours before the shutdown.|
A full lockdown had been declared. Everything closed faster than you could imagine. Police were stationed at the gates of children's play parks to ensure that no one entered them. And we didn't get our lunch. That wouldn't have been much of an issue, except for the fact that we had scoffed every last crumb of food in our possession and, being a Sunday, all food shops were closed for the day. So here we were, out on our ear in the middle of the day with no way of obtaining food until Monday morning. We've got ourselves into predicaments around food when travelling before (like the time we accidentally went off-roading in a Volkwagen Polo far from any source of sustenance), but having a hungry two-year-old and no food to offer them is altogether more scary.
That's when I remembered that the street our flat was on backed on to a motorway service station - perhaps that would still be open! It was, but the shelves of the petrol station looked like the pasta asiles back home - not a thing on them. There was, however, a drive-thru McDonalds, so (since we had no vehicle in which to drive-thru) by slightly comical means, food was obtained to see us through the night. It was while scoffing down my McNuggets that we learned of the next set-back: Austria was to close its airspace at midnight the following day - seven hours before our flight home. All the land borders were already closed, so escape by train was not possible. It simply became a case of try to get on a flight to somewhere. Anywhere.
By a stroke of luck, three seats became available on a previously fully-booked flight to Stansted the following night - the penultimate flight out of the country before it was completely sealed off. The following morning, I made my one legal trip outside to acquire multiple baguettes from the bakery on the corner to se us through the day, and then we left our little flat behind and made our way to the airport, where we hunkered down with our stale baguettes for the remaining twelve hours until the flight.
The sense of relief at boarding the flight was short lived. With every seat filled, there were still 12 passengers stood in the aisle with non-existent seat numbers. It transpired that we should have been on a 737, but it was stuck behind some other closed border, so they were using an A320 instead - which had two rows of seats fewer. By the time they had escorted the understandably livid (and now stranded) twelve passengers from the plane, this had put one member of the cabin crew over the length of time they were allowed to work. This meant not enough crew to safely operate the flight, so it would have to be cancelled. With 30 minutes to go until the only way out of Austria for the next few months was closed off.
In the manner of a straight-to-video production, our hero then rose from a seat half-way down the plane and pressed the call bell, saving us all. It turns out she was an off-duty member of cabin crew for the same airline, and was happy to sit in the vacant rear facing seat and perform the necessary safety duties. With eleven minutes to spare before airspace closure, we finally left Vienna behind. The flight from then on became even more like an episode of an ITV2 comedy as they ran out of food, drink and soap before we were even an hour in. It was about to become a bit more serious, however.
There was a call to one of the cabin crew, who rallied all her team (including the new recruit) for a meting behind the curtain. The seatbelt sign came on. The captain came over the intercom: "This is your captain speaking. Return to your seats and read the safety card." The cabin crew strapped themselves in and did not move again for the remainder of the flight. We never did find out what that chilling announcement was about, but when we landed, four fire engines swept in behind us and followed us down the runway. A couple of minutes later, they departed, and we all disembarked as if nothing strange had happened.
Having been through this lockdown experience in Austria, which had very few cases, it was rather astonishing to arrive back in the UK, which had by this time many more cases, and find that life was carrying on as normal - unlike his cautionary Austrian counterpart, our Prime Minister was rushing round hospitals shaking hands with people and telling us we'd all be fine if we sang Happy Birthday while performing our ablutions. The end of our journey was clearly just the beginning...