Pandemic portrait
Me about to board my flight to LA.

I thought my travel days were over. A 7 month long round-the-world trip should be enough to sate anyone’s wanderlust. And then there’s the pandemic. Today, infection rates in Europe remain at a low simmer with occasional flare-ups in places like Barcelona and Antwerp. By contrast, the US is at a rolling boil with Los Angeles hot, hot, hot.

But none of this matters when your father dies. You grab the first flight you can. You wear a face mask for 12 hours straight. Then you do it all over again for the trip home. So here I am, on yet another transcontinental flight, back to Amsterdam.

Pandemic: Then and now

When my husband and I returned from our world trip, Amsterdam felt like a new world. The city was so quiet. It was, perhaps, nothing more than the difference between the hustle-bustle sprawl of Perth versus a city crafted during the Golden Age. But I thought then and I still think now: it was the pandemic. COVID-19 had not yet reached the farthest shore, at least not in a form the Australian government recognized. Whereas Amsterdam had just gone into its first intelligent lockdown.

Pandemic airport
Schiphol Airport, 10 July 2020.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

This time around, the pandemic is everywhere. Last month, I departed from a deserted Schiphol Airport. You’d think I was boarding a 2am flight. But this was a Friday afternoon at one of the busiest airports of Europe.

When I arrived at LAX, Los Angeles had just re-entered lockdown. Since every government defines lockdown differently, I should say that, in the City of Angels, lockdown means no indoor seating at restaurants and bars. Banks are open by appointment only. Lawyers conduct business by Zoom. And if you, like us, need to get a document notarized, the mobile notary will witness your signature from the safety of your front lawn.

All this pandemic prevention complicates my efforts to settle Dad’s affairs. The death toll and social distancing measures create a backlog in the issuance of death certificates. Americans now represent 22% of global deaths due to the pandemic, even though only 4% of the world’s population lives in the United States. Back in May, when I started researching a feature article on the pandemic, there were 5 million COVID-19 cases worldwide. Now, there are 5 million cases in the United States alone.

America Bashing

It’s tempting to couch this debacle as a uniquely American phenomenon. After all, we Americans hate all forms of government. No pencil-pushing bureaucrat is going to tell us what to do. Live free or die is the motto of the state of New Hampshire. Coming soon to a theater near you.

What a relief, then, to return to the civilized shores of the Netherlands with its first rate health care and level-headed attitudes. Or, so I thought. Friends who should know better spout conspiracy theories on social media. Only a slight majority of the Dutch sees a benefit to wearing a mask. Due to a lack of capacity, COVID-19 tests are only available to those who present symptoms. Some of those will, no doubt, include the 50+ teenagers down the street who partied last night in a hot, humid, enclosed space.

Neither the Netherlands nor the US seems serious about pandemic prevention. If you land at the international terminal at LAX, you’ll get a flyer advising you to self-isolate for 14 days. If you travel to Amsterdam, it’s the KLM flight crew who say you must quarantine. No one at either airport asks me where I’m going or how to reach me. Only the taxi driver at Schiphol does. He apologizes for the form he’s required to deliver to the Amsterdam city government.


Why should I self-isolate if no one else takes this seriously? Talk about an existential question. In my lady lawyer days, I was known as a risk taker but this is only by comparison to the mouse-like denizens of your average law firm. If scientists say that a 14-day quarantine is necessary, then 14 it is.

My new pied-à-terre is our basement. I’ve got a comfy bed, a full bath and a cat who may join me in the middle of the night. It’s not the most tender homecoming I’ve ever experienced. But at least my husband and I can see each other again. We eat our meals together socially distanced and outdoors. When the weather cools down, we’ll go for walks again though, for the time being, not hand in hand.

I’m not complaining. There are loads of people who have it much worse, not to mention those who are actually sick. If my 14-day separation is necessary or even merely likely to keep us both healthy, then I’m on board. Besides, it’ll be good practice for round #2.

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