On February 17, 2020 we raced to Newark Airport to pick up my Italian cousin, Annarita. We had great plans! Trips to New York, walks in Philadelphia, strolling through the Grounds for Sculpture and being foodies – eating in every interesting non-Italian restaurant we could find. Annarita is thirty-something and a great sport. The first week we visited New York’s Italian Consulate, wandered city streets and, starting with “French 45” cocktails, enjoyed great French Food. During the trip, rumblings of the Coronavirus were shaking in our head. I carried enough hand wipes and hand sanitizer to keep a troupe of scouts germ free. We smeared our hands with sanitizer in the train stations, cabs and well, just about anytime we touched something – out came the wipes and the sanitizer.
Carrying bleach wipes, sanitizer and vitamin C, Annarita flew off to Texas to spend time with our cousins. She had a great adventure. When she got back – boom – Coronavirus really dropped into New Jersey. Jack and I had just bought a condo and moved in moments before the “stay at home” orders started. Her March tickets back to Italy fell into the trash. The hip young woman was now stuck in a 55 plus condo. WOW! What fun! We cooked, we laughed, we got everything delivered and didn’t venture out. After six weeks of this frivolity, she was ready to go back to Italy. The other reality was, foreign nationals without Visas are only allowed to stay in the USA for 90 days. With this administration’s posturing on foreign folks we were frantic to get her back by day 89.
We had two problems to deal with – 1. Would Italy let her back in the country? 2. If we couldn’t get her home by day 89, what would happen to her when she tried to leave the USA at a later date? Taking deep breaths we booked a Lufthansa flight to Naples.
Would Italy let her in –
AUTODICHIARAZIONE GIUSTIFICATIVA DELLO SPOSTAMENTO IN CASO DI ENTRATA IN ITALIA DALL’ESTERO spit out of my printer. This Self-declaration Form of Displacement must be completed by any Italian National coming back to Italy from abroad. Since the east coast of the USA is a red zone, we started to worry and wondered what she would have to write and certify. Unless, you have an urgent reason to return, Italy would prefer you stay away in self quarantine. She had to attest that she didn’t have the virus and hadn’t been near anyone who did. The question that got me was , what is the urgency to come back? The bloody 90 day cut off for her American stay was the urgency. She also had to guarantee she had a place to serve a fourteen day isolation quarantine. That means – alone, no family, remain in a space where no one else has access. We wouldn’t know if they would let her in until she got there!
Could she stay in the USA longer than 90 days –
Before she came to visit she completed an application for the Visa Waiver program, ESTA – she needed a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) This is what Europeans usually apply for – you can fill it out at a Travel Agency. Easy – right? Except, according to Travel.state.gov –
If you enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, you are not permitted to extend your stay in the United States beyond the initial admission period. You must depart the United States on or before the date on your admission stamp when you entered the United States.
I couldn’t get a hold of anyone in the Department of State. Does anyone still work there? Being an old politico, I sent a nice campaign donation to my local congressperson. I then sent an e-mail and asked for help with the DOS. The office aide did call me and leave her Washington number. I called back and obviously the aide blew me off because I never heard another word. We were afraid that in today’s American climate she would be in major trouble if she overstayed the 90 day tourism window European visitors are allowed. Until she landed in Rome, we still worried.
It took angst, my skill of phone sex or phone tears magic and the ever powerful lawyer Rossella but in the middle of May Annarita was finally able to go home. Home being my favorite southern Italian Village, Pontelandolfo. Was it easy? No. Were we gnashing teeth, arguing with airlines, frantic to get in touch with anyone in power? Yes
Let us start with the flight. Just by chance – I had called Lufthansa to check on her flight status – we discovered that her flight to Naples via Frankfort was cancelled. WHAT? I asked the representative why we didn’t get an e-mail or a text message or even a notification on the Lufthansa app? Who knows why? We went to the Naples Airport website and discovered that no flights were coming in or out. It seems that the small regional airports were closed. The reality was she had to fly from Frankfort to Rome. Great, you’re thinking, Rome is cool. Sadly, after literally hours on the phone with three different people in the Lufthansa call center, we discovered that because Italy is so concerned with social distancing and the safety of its residents they insist planes flying in had to be no more than half full. The only flight would arrive in Rome at 5:45PM.
Too late to get a train close to home – besides it was impossible to get train tickets. Maybe someone can drive the three hours and pick her up. WRONG! Italy knows how far reaching this virus is and contains it by not letting people go from one region or another unless they work in a vital industry. That means that no one from Campania can drive to Lazio and pick her up. We were frantic. Her family in Pontelandolfo was besides themselves. Her sister kept calling hotels in Rome. A pal who owns a travel agency called all his pals trying to get Annarita a place to stay. All of the hotels are being used for isolation quarantine. There are no beds in Rome. The tension mounted and pounds of cookies, biscotti and tortes were being devoured. We could get her to Rome but then….
Thank the Lord for Rossella, ace advocate and older sister, she found out that there were some limousine services that could cross regional borders. One was found in nearby Benevento. I am imaging the back passenger seat being a containment bubble. The driver texted Annarita and said not to worry he would be there and be carrying “real Italian” coffee for her.
Everything was in place – or was it. We got Annarita to Newark Airport three hours early. Social distancing apparently wasn’t on anyone’s brain. That said, the airline employees did exercise caution. Annarita said that no one would touch her luggage. She printed her own boarding pass, luggage tags etc. The wait for the flight was harrowing. No one respected the six feet rule. Airline employees screamed, “RESPECT DISTANCING.” But with hundreds of people anxious to get out of New Jersey, it was chaotic. Chairs were X’d out but people just stood crowded together. It was frightening. People all wore masks and many others wore white coveralls covering their clothes. They covered up but crowded up – makes no sense. To board the plane – it was a United flight – the had six foot makers near the door. Five people at a time were called to that position and allowed to board. The boarded from the rear of the plane first. That was smart. No one was standing in the aisle breathing on seated folks. Annarita said the plane was half-full and there were empty seats between people. Then she landed in Frankfort.
Frankfort was “impossible”. I thought the Germans would have had this organized. They didn’t and worse – Lufthansa had lied to us. The plane to Rome was not half full. It was freakin’ overbooked. People were packed near the gate and arguing to be let on. She got on. Kept her mask on and sanitized her hands a million times.
The Rome airport was organized and social distancing was mandated. There was a long spaced line for everything. They took the temperatures of very young people and others. Luckily, Annarita had filled out the Self Declaration Form in advance. Folks queued up for about twenty minutes to get a table and fill out the form. Again, one person at a table please. Every single traveller met with someone from border control to review the form. Questions were asked and answered. Annarita breezed through.
The Limo driver met her, helped with the luggage and walked with her to the car. Hand sanitizer and wipes were in abundance. She sighed, settled back and made it home to Pontelandolfo.
When an Italian returns they must also give a form to the local police, the mayor’s office and A.S.L. – Aziende Sanitarie Locali – universal health care agency.
Our house in Pontelandolfo was obviously empty so she hunkered down there. Her family had stocked the refrigerator and pantry, the wi-fi was on and the television works. What more could she want? After the fourteen days, someone will come and test her or give her a physical. That hasn’t happened yet. Doesn’t matter. She is home. She is healthy. She has opened the windows in my house.
Hopefully, after she is back with her family, we too will soon be isolation quarantining in our Southern Italian home.