Lifestyle Travel

Sun, Sea and Social Distancing: A week in Italy

The days leading up to our family trip to Italy were a melange of excitement and anxiety. It had been two years since I had seen my grandfather and I was happy that my mum would be able to spend the time with her dad that she had yearned for in lockdown. The anxiety was palpable; flying or travelling anywhere at the moment is risky, a risk we had nonetheless decided to take. That anxiety, however, seemed to slip away as we touched down in Nice in the morning arriving in San Remo just before midday to spend the afternoon on the beach. 

Source: Pinterest

Being on the beach made lockdown feel far away, a distant memory that you talk about over coffee with friends. While signs everywhere instructed people to wear masks when entering the cafes, no one seemed to care. I watched as Italians I had seen on the beach every year as I grew up greeting each other with the customary kiss on the cheek, and wondered how this could be the same country that had hit headlines months ago for staggering cases of the coronavirus, and difficulty in coping with them. 

Strolling into town on our first night, we went to check out the end of the Milan-San Remo bike race, despite being told that the police had issued a warning that they would hand out one hundred euro fines to spectators. When we got there, however, we found that the police were in fact directing spectators to where best they would see the finish, and there was no social distancing in sight. To be a fan at a sporting event again was a welcome change, if not a little jarring, given that the thousands of people there seemed to have forgotten the way the virus had swept across their nation mere months ago. 

Wout Van Aert, 2020 Milan-San Remo Winner

Catching up at dinner with family friends on Wednesday night lifted the lid on how a holiday town like San Remo had been affected by the virus. San Remo’s hospital had become the designated coronavirus hospital for the region, meaning to receive medical care for anything else you would have to travel to Monaco or further along the coast. Italy’s introduction of legislation that made it practically impossible to fire anyone had led to the closure of several businesses, unable to sustain the costs of a full work force in a time of crisis. The thing that shocked me the most that evening was being told that early in the pandemic, Italians had been banned from buying sanitary products over the weekend. It’s bizarre that someone on their period would be unable to access necessary products, and it seemed to me to be a decision clearly made by men. 

As the week progressed, France’s rising infection rates made quarantine increasingly likely. Headlines quickly yo-yoed between an inevitable quarantine upon return and at least a week’s delay on the government imposing measures that had already affected holiday plans for Brits in Spain and Portugal. The simple fact that we would be flying home from Nice airport meant that our three hours in France would confine us at home for two weeks. Optimistic headlines in the latter half of the week as A-level chaos dominated the news cycle kept me hopeful that we would manage to get home unscathed. 

“Unfortunately, in this pandemic, there isn’t a risk free way of travelling overseas.”

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson during the week of my travel, days before France was removed from the quarantine exemption list

After going to bed content in the fact it looked like there would be no quarantine on Thursday night, I was awoken before my alarm on Friday morning at 7am to be told quite the opposite. My dad quickly muttered that we needed to be in Milan in the evening and that he was leaving for Nice to drop off the car. 

That morning then consisted of a scramble to pack, a realisation that there were no spaces left on trains or buses left to Milan, and desperate phone calls to taxi firms to see if anyone was prepared to drive us there on the eve of a major holiday. A rushed goodbye between my grandfather and mum was heartbreaking to watch, as we were whisked off to the airport at midday for our 22:00 flight.

Pictures from previous yearly trips to San Remo

Once in a cab to Milan, we had four hours to kill, during which the events of the previous night were relayed to me. While I was sound asleep, my dad had seen the news of the quarantine break. Our flight out of Nice was at 9.30am on Saturday which meant we would not be exempt from quarantining upon arrival back in England. He had then woken my mum to decide whether we should face the two weeks together at home or try to get back some other way. By the time my mum had said we should try and get home, all flights out of Nice before the deadline were full. This left flights out of Milan, Genoa, and Turin airports as their only options. They quickly settled on a flight the following evening at 10.10pm from Milan, before trying to get some sleep. The rest of the trip to the airport was fairly quiet; everyone was exhausted and recovering  from the stress and anxiety the morning’s rush had produced. 

Our flight passed quickly, everyone sleeping through the hour-and-a-half journey. Landing in the UK, we were all in good spirits, until we started the hour-long wait to get through passport control. People getting off various flights formed a mass slowly moving through the corridors, with absolutely no social distancing being practised as they pushed past each other. When we reached the front, we found out why there had been such a delay; travellers had not filled out the mandatory form to re-enter into the country, and were being pulled aside to complete it at the airport. However, with only one border security guard at the front checking if this had been done, it was easy to slip past without having your form checked. It seemed a very hap-hazard system for such an important measure in keeping cases in the UK down. 

Within a few days, I was off to Reading to spend two weeks with my boyfriend before his year abroad started, something that had seemed impossible less than forty eight hours ago after hearing news of the quarantine.

Would I fly again? Absolutely. Do I wish the government could find a better way to enforce a quarantine that did not lead to panic travel? Completely. Am I aware they have much bigger problems to deal with first? Yes – I just wish they’d get on with them. 

Gabriella Emery

Gabriella Emery is one of the Editors-in-Chief at The Oxford Blue. She reads Classics and French at Wadham College and is going into her second year. When not ruining all things light and wonderful like Christmas (or your dignity and pride), her hobbies include: bullying the Managing Director, fangirling the M&S Deli Counter or confusing having a dog with having a personality.