Pandemic travel is making us shelve our passports for 2022
(This is the last of a three-blog series on Finland. Today: The exhaustion of traveling during a pandemic.)
ROVANIEMI, Finland – Buon anno, tutti. Happy New Year, everyone. I hope everyone is happy and healthy, loved and healthy, safe and healthy. Usually at this time I’m mapping out new travel destinations for the next year. I dig into my bucket list, see what parts of the world I’m missing or I miss. I discuss with Marina where we’ll take each other on our birthdays, ruling out any hotel that does not have a buffet breakfast.
For 2022, it’ll be strictly a cornetto and cappuccino.
We’re not going anywhere. At least not for a long while. We’re exhausted. Yes, my last two blogs on Finland showed us in the ultimate holiday spirit. Reindeer sleigh rides. Dog sledding. Northern Lights. Christmas markets. Stewed moose.
But underneath the smiles and thermal underwear are two beaten souls.
Finland has broken us. It’s not the high prices or traveling across the Arctic Circle. It isn’t even the freezing temperatures and snow.
Pandemic travel is reason
It’s Covid. And it’s not even the virus. It’s all its ramifications, particularly the travel restrictions and rules which are becoming more complicated than tax forms. Every country has different rules. Every country changes its rules seemingly every hour and a half. Since June I have been to Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, Spain twice, England and Finland.
We spent our entire last afternoon in Finland online, overwhelmed with forms, confusion, questions and stress. Marina was near tears. My patience with computers is already down there with IKEA home construction so my mood nearly melted the ice beneath us.
No one has written this sentence yet but I will: Omicron is rising at the right time. We have a reason not to travel, and Omicron is a good one. It has become Italy’s tsunami. We had 126,888 new cases Thursday, an Italian Covid record. Our daily average this past week is 66,340. The third week in October it was 2,686.
On Thursday Rome’s Lazio region alone had 5,843 cases with a seven-day average of 4,232. On Oct. 13, the seven-day average was 135.
Italy is clamping down. Masks are required in all outdoor spaces. The higher-tech FFP2 masks are required on public transport. All outdoor activities for New Year’s Eve have been cancelled. Home gatherings are advised to be no more than 10 people. The Green Pass, Italy’s proof of double vaccination, is required to enter anywhere.
Every day there’s a line outside my local pharmacy to get tested. There’s a mob scene outside the major testing center the next block down. Travel restrictions haven’t returned but I believe they’re coming.
I get my booster Jan. 7. It’s for health reasons, not for travel.
Traveling has become work. The Roman army traveled easier. Traveling used to be fun. You walked into a travel agency, told them where you want to go, have lunch and the agent has mapped out your vacation by the time you’ve finished your second glass of wine.
You arrive at the airport an hour before your flight, take a comfortable seat and have a nice meal on the way to your vacation, your two bags waiting for you when you arrive.
That was life before 9-11, before Covid. Now let me tell you about our trip to Finland. It’s when I lost my sweet disposition and was not happy in the four-time defending Happiest Country in the World.
Italy’s new restrictions
It started the day before we left Dec. 15. With Omicron continuing to rise, Italy announced it would require a negative Covid test for all arrivals. I didn’t think it was a problem. I got tested in Bulgaria and England before returning. Then I inquired about Finland’s Covid testing.
The Antigen test is 99 euros! That’s the cheap option. The molecular PCR test is 159! (A cardinal sin for writing is using exclamation points. You should always find strong words instead. But no words can describe my anger.)
The Antigen test can be taken no more than 24 hours prior to our arrival back in Italy. The PCR can be taken within 48 hours. We were stuck. Our flight would leave Rovaniemi, Finland, at noon. We wouldn’t arrive in Rome until 10:50 p.m. With no testing available in Rovaniemi at 11 p.m. the night before our flight, obviously, we had to either take the expensive PCR test or find a way to get tested the morning of our flight.
The PCR test would’ve cost me 320 euros just to get home. I wondered if they’d insert the swab orally or anally.
A similar robbery happened in England. In October I had to pay 69 pounds ($93) for a Day 2 Antigen test I had to administer myself. To return from the United Kingdom, Italy required another test in a pharmacy for a reasonable 28 pounds ($38) but still an outrageous total of more than $130 for two tests. A global health crisis in some countries has turned into a blatant money grab.
Adding to the unexpected expense were the larcenous baggage prices airlines now charge to make up for their losses from past Covid cancellations. For our flight from Rome to Helsinki through Munich, Lufthansa charged us $30 for each check-in bag. That’s IF we paid online. At the airport it would be $60. Norwegian Air charged us at the airport 40 euros each for our Helsinki-Rovaniemi leg. For both of us I was looking at about $300 total just for two bags.
We never check bags. We travel light. However, with Rovaniemie’s temperatures never going above freezing, we weren’t packing swimsuits and flip flops. We packed clothes. Warm clothes. Marina packed enough clothes to mush a dogsled over the pole.
To cut costs, we put all of our clothes in one duffel bag instead of two. I took my giant bag I used to transport clothes when I moved seven years ago from Denver to Rome. It’s big enough to transport clothes for a move to Pluto.
When we arrived in Finland, we asked various questions to various Finns. Does a Covid test really cost 99 euros each? Do we need it for our first noon flight from Rovaniemi to Helsinki or our 5:55 p.m. flight from Helsinki to Rome through Frankfurt? Which test do we take? Where do we get tested?
No one knew. While we seemingly pranced through this winter wonderland, inside we simmered in stress.
Rovaniemi sits on the Arctic Circle with a population of 63,000. It has two testing centers: one downtown and one at the airport. For convenience sake and timing, we wanted to get tested at the airport before our noon flight home. With a lot more questions than answers we took the bus on a recon mission to the airport on Dec. 18, two days before our departure.
The testing center was closed. The airport information center didn’t know why. They didn’t know if we needed our test results before we left Rovaniemi for Helsinki or before we left Helsinki 4 ½ hours later. So one day before we were scheduled to leave Finland, we had little more information than when we arrived.
We waited an hour outside the airport in 25 degrees for the city bus that never came. A bus broke down, they said. We took a taxi and paid the comical 24 euros for the 10-minute ride to the hotel.
The next day, one day before our departure, that simmering stress boiled over into full-blown panic attacks. It’s when life imitates Nordic art. Ever see Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream,” which hangs in Oslo’s National Gallery and is modern art’s quintessential example of human angst?
That was Marina and me that Sunday afternoon.
- Where to get tested? We walked downtown to a square with a big red, portable 9Lives Covid lab. It looked like a bus with no wheels. We inquired and they said no appointments are taken. It’s first come, first served, starting at 8 a.m. the next day, four hours before our flight out of town. We must pay online.
- We did get information. To avoid the 320-euro PCR tests, we sought the cheaper Antigen tests the morning of the flight. The lab said we need a negative test to leave Finland, not to leave Rovaniemi. So instead of needing the online test results within four hours before our noon flight from Rovaniemi, we needed them by the time we left Helsinki at 5:55 p.m. That gives the lab six extra hours to get us the results. The lab said we’d have the results and the required online certificate within two hours. However, my American friend in Helsinki, Michael Hunt, told me of his friend who had to wait 48 hours for his. A clerical error, the lab said. Suddenly, Finns didn’t seem so pleasant. Our angst remained.
- We returned to the hotel and hunkered down at its computer in the lobby. We registered with 9Lives and I paid. I pulled out my credit card and clicked away 198 euros for two $@#$#@ Covid tests. For future writing references, I found the word voiteluaine.
That’s Finnish for “lubricant.”
- We then filled out the ubiquitous Passenger Locator Form, which Italy has required all year. We’ve filled them out in every country. We know the importance. In Athens we saw a family of four denied boarding our flight to Rome because they didn’t fill out their PLF. I heard they had to buy four new tickets to get back. The PLF is long and laborious. It asks for all of our flight information, where we’ve been and where we’ll stay in Italy. Are we coming via direct flight or indirect flight? We didn’t know. Our flight from Rovaniemi has two connections but we arrive from Frankfurt which is direct. What do we put? We filled it out once, twice, three times.
- Then we had to print them. Marina couldn’t. She never got an email confirmation. Apparently, her email server got confused when she logged on a different computer and it blocked her. Without the PLF we can’t leave Finland. Marina was near tears; I dropped some F-bombs that even at the Arctic Circle needed no translation. A heroic hotel clerk came to the rescue by sending Marina a code to open her email.
- We had to check in online for our Rovaniemi-Helsinki flight and Helsinki-Rome flight. Checking in online is tedious and confusing even without a global pandemic to negotiate. But now we must insert our Green Pass and PLF link. Two different airlines. Two different forms. Two different requirements.
- We set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. the next day of our departure to walk the 15 minutes through the snow to the testing lab. It was 15-below Celcius (5 Fahrenheit). We arrived at 7:45, 15 minutes before it opened and already a dozen people in matching Lapland Adventures Arctic suits were in line. It looked like we were all going snowmobiling. Marina, dressed like Nanook of the North’s wife, jogged around the square to keep warm. She then slipped on a piece of ice and fell flat on her butt. She was fine; our nerves were not.
- At 8:30 a.m., after 45 minutes in temperatures that forced two reindeer to check in at the local Y, we stepped into the lab. I asked the woman in her white hazmat suit why the test costs so much for non-residents. It’s free for Finns. In Italy, an Antigen test is 15 euros for residents and visitors as well. “I only do the test,” she said. Showing her appreciation for my question, she then shoved the swab nearly through the back of my skull.
- We weren’t through. We trudged back to the hotel, took a taxi to the airport and at 10 a.m., two hours before our flight, we received our results via SMS. Both negative. However, Marina could not open the online certificate we needed to board in Helsinki. Her cell only accepted PDF and the form was in XLM. Our flight was leaving in two hours. She was near tears again. She had to forward the email to a computer-savvy friend in Rome who turned it into a PDF and sent it back. We forwarded them to the airport information clerk who printed both certificates for us. I decided not to execute the Finnish population.
The end result
The whole experience left us more exhausted than cross-country skiing through a Finnish forest ever could. We were exasperated and mentally fried. Weaving our way through this process online was like wandering through a maze with the deadline of a departure rapidly approaching. I always love coming home to Rome but don’t remember a time when I wanted to come back more than from Rovaniemi.
“The world is changing under our feet,” Marina told me. “Technology has changed our life. During a pandemic, technology changes so fast. If we don’t change with technology, we will be like dinosaurs. It’s important to update with technology. Because if we don’t have the ability for technology, we will die early.”
As Omicron socks us all in for the winter, Marina and I are very thankful we’re healthy and, most of all, alive. However, we decided to put away our passports. We usually leave the country for our birthdays. But for mine in March we’re going winery hopping in Piedmont; for hers in June, for Christmas I got us four nights at a nice seaside hotel on Elba, an island in Tuscany. No PLFs. No Covid tests. No confusion.
Not yet, at least.
So Happy New Year, everyone. Hope the planet has a better 2022. A cornetto and cappuccino will never taste so good.