The long way home …

A retired dentist, grandmother, outdoor enthusiast, and world traveler navigates two continents in the time of corona

Eileen Notsund

Photo courtesy of Eilenn Notsund

Bergen, Norway

I live in Bergen, Norway. My youngest daughter lives permanently in Los Angeles, and my husband works temporarily in Seattle. My routine has become to visit the U.S. west coast twice a year: I fly Norwegian Airlines to L.A., where I stay a few days with my busy daughter, then Alaska Airlines to Seattle, where I stay a few weeks with my likewise busy husband, then back to L.A. for a few days before I return to Norway.

For my latest visit, I had planned to spend the month of March in the United States. I bought my tickets in November 2019, the month before the first incidents of a deadly virus epidemic in Wuhan, China. Little did I know that the increasingly alarming news from a distant continent would affect my travels in the coming months.

Flying from Bergen to L.A. as the virus approaches

As March approached, so did the virus. At the end of February, I was worried that the Norwegian authorities would stop my flight, but nothing of the sort happened. The plane from Bergen to London was about half full, so I figured people were already aware of the risk of traveling at that time. 

For a few hours in transit at Gatwick airport, I kept watching everyone around me for coughs or sneezes, but they all seemed happy and healthy, although a few were already wearing white masks. This was March 2. 

The plane from London to L.A. was pretty full, but I was lucky to discover some empty seats close to me. Since I was sitting next to a young fellow who was already sleeping with his head tilting toward me, I asked the flight attendant if I could move to the two empty seats in the next row? No problem! I felt lucky to have all this space around me in an otherwise full plane.

Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport is always chaotic. I had reserved a shared ride shuttle from the airport to the hotel, and it required some patience. I was assisted by a hospitality worker handing out seats in cabs to people waiting in line—people who were impatient, tired, and stressed. “Please don’t start crying,” he kindly told an older lady. He worked effectively and calmly. He was an African American and wore a black N95 mask. How fitting, I thought. Of course, he wouldn’t want to wear a white mask: it would stand out too much. We almost didn’t see it on him, as the sun was setting.

I got my cab seat with two other passengers: a Dutch juggler from Berlin in his late 20s, who was going to the Pasadena Civic Hall to participate in “America’s Got Talent” the next day. The other passenger was an overweight African American woman in her early 40s wearing ethnic clothes that were too tight, with big long hair that looked like it hadn’t been combed for weeks. 

My prejudices set in, but they were soon refuted: She had no less than three masters degrees: she was a pastor, a teacher, and a school administrator. During the conversation that followed, I was knocked out by her intellect, her wit, and her politeness toward two Europeans who thought we already knew a few things about American politics—it turned out we knew nothing! This is why I love taking these shared rides: you immediately get right into the heart of L.A., almost like being in a scene from a Hollywood movie.

My daughter came to the hotel after her evening boxing training. She had a burgeoning blue eye but was ecstatic. “I knocked her, I totally knocked her down!” Two weeks earlier, it had been the other way around: my daughter had felt drained and totally out of energy when they were working out. She had taken all the blows and had a nosebleed for hours, after which she spent three days in bed with a fever, nausea, and diarrhea—but no respiratory symptoms! 

At that time—Feb. 19 to 22—none of us thought that it could be the coronavirus. But lately, we’ve read reports that estimate that up to 30% of the cases have no respiratory symptoms, and some cases included diarrhea. My daughter drives Uber to cover her living expenses while going to acting auditions and a studio to record her own music. With this kind of exposure, she may very well have been among the early cases in L.A. Who knows: she still hasn’t been tested.

The next day we went shopping: My daughter needed foundation to cover her black eye, which was really starting to show. We looked for a Lysol spray that she uses to disinfect her boxing gear—but we couldn’t find it. Not only that: we couldn’t find any brand of disinfectant in any of the three shops we visited. They were all sold out, the shelves empty! Only after I left L.A. did I come to think WHY. Of course, people were stacking up on these products in times of a growing epidemic. 

Without planning on it, we stacked up on laundry detergent. I bought my daughter two big bottles to help her save on expenses—now she tells me how “lifesaving” that has been while there’s been a shortage lately.

The two of us went jogging in Griffith Park. Three weeks later, my daughter had her last run on the trails in that park for a long time: It closed on March 27, because of new restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

We had lunch at a sushi restaurant in Silver Lake—a great place.  We were sitting outside in the sun, talking French with a couple at the next table. The owner came out and wanted to know where we all came from—everything was so nice—until he stretched out his hand and said, “Nice talking to you, come again,” and I shook his hand. I shook his hand! OMG! How could I do that? It was impossible to stop thinking about it.

Before I left L.A., I gave my daughter one package of facemasks and two bottles of antibacterial wash that I had brought from my dental practice in Norway. I keep asking her, “Are you using the facemasks and the antibac?” She keeps answering, “I have them in my car!” “But are you using them?” I ask, and she answers, “I haven’t had any sick passengers yet!” A concerned mother, I shot back, “Have you heard about prevention?”

All the while in Norway; landing in Seattle

On March 3, I heard from my oldest son in Norway. He had just returned from a weekend in Berlin with his girlfriend and upon arrival in Norway, they were both instructed to put themselves in two weeks of home quarantine. These new regulations had just been put in place but were backdated to February 27.

The next day on March 4, I heard from my youngest son in Norway. His girlfriend had to move in with him for the next two weeks, because her roommates were returning from a weekend in London and had to stay in home quarantine for 14 days.

I thought about my own travels that had started on March 2, but I was not in Norway any longer, and in the United States, there weren’t yet any restrictions.

I arrived in Seattle on March 5. The plane was not completely full, but still densely packed. No special regulations or quarantine. Very few people were wearing facemasks. When people coughed or sneezed, they seemed to be doing it into their elbows. I felt uneasy, but since I rarely get sick, I wasn’t really scared. 

As a matter of fact, I haven’t been sick since January 2009, after returning from a six-month stay in China. I had the flu for two weeks and stayed home, most of the time in bed. After returning to work for a week without feeling completely restored, I got sick again. I then stayed in bed for three weeks with pneumonia. I have never been so sick in my entire life, and I remember saying to my husband, “It actually feels like I’m going to die!” He just laughed.

In hindsight, I now wonder if I was hit by a strain of coronavirus in China, which may have given me some level of immunity to other strains of this virus that, among other things, causes the common cold? We’ll never know.

Travel - Coronavirus

Photo courtesy of Eilenn Notsund
The Tuesday Trekkers are a 95-member hiking group in Seattle that organizes weekly excursions.

Life in the outdoors

I belong to two hiking groups. In Bergen, we are five people in our 60s who have been hiking the same steep trail, “Stoltzekleiven,” every Tuesday since the spring of 2008, no matter what the season or what kind of weather. Although we have only been hiking together for the last 12 years, we have known each other for 45 years, so we were a close-knit group long before we started to hike together. 

We hike after work, even in the winter when it’s pitch dark and some have to use headlamps. After each hike, we go to one particular bar, “Folk & røvere” (which has been reviewed in The New York Times), and drink beer and wine and eat nuts. We call this “stretching out!”

The other group is the Tuesday Trekkers in Seattle, with 95 members. Usually, there are between two to 20 people on a hike, and it’s divided into sub-groups; gold (80- to 90-year-olds) and silver (60- to 70-year-olds). The group has been in existence for more than 50 years, but I only got introduced to them last summer. They are the smartest, funniest, healthiest, strongest, most interesting, and best people I have ever met. We start early in the morning by carpooling to different mountains every Tuesday and are usually away for the entire day. We bring our own snacks and lunch and eat out in the wild.

You can imagine how much I’m always looking forward to these hikes every time I stay in Seattle—including this time. Well, I was lucky to catch their last hike for a long time on March 10, before the group’s activities were canceled due to restrictions of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The hike that was planned for March 17 was canceled the day before. But we could still hike in smaller groups like up to four persons, as long as we practiced social distancing. The trails were open,  and the parking lots were open, as were the parks. It was the carpooling that was the bottleneck: one had to drive alone or with a partner and meet up at the trailhead.

My husband and I hiked to the top of Mount Si three consecutive Sundays. Beautiful snow-covered trails and amazing views: even Mt. Rainier revealed herself to us as well as the snow-covered ranges of the Olympic Peninsula. We could see forever… but then the fourth Sunday was upon us: March 29! All parking lots leading to all trailheads were closed. Even the parking lots at some bigger parks were closed. 

Last Sunday, we found a smaller park—Carkeek Park—that still had open parking lots last Sunday. Of course, we can still visit parks that are within walking distance from where we live or perhaps find parking space in residential areas close to bigger parks. 

We are so lucky to live close to Magnuson Park, which has lots of wetlands and birdlife. I walk there almost every day, alone or with my friend and former neighbor Elaine. She has also brought me to Kubota Garden close to Seward Park. It is a wonderfully designed Japanese Garden. 

Another friend, Alice from the Tuesday Trekkers, has showed me the Winter Garden in the University of Washington Arboretum and the Sandpoint Country Club, both beautiful spots to take a stroll. One day, we even walked in her neighborhood, which has streets filled with magical blooming cherry trees, before we ended up in Ravenna Park looking for coyotes.

Home to Norway

Today is the day I was supposed to arrive home in Bergen, after a few days’ visit in LA. But I’m still here in Seattle. Why? Did I not want to return to Norway, or did I deliberately postpone my flight? Have I decided to stay for good? 

Actually, all of the above could be true: I really like it here in Seattle, I have friends, and I’ve started to build a network like the one I have at home. And I really don’t like to live long periods so far away from my husband. But I have a 3-year-old granddaughter in Bergen, who I treasure being with, and I’m the only one in our family left in Bergen besides her mother. Our time together is now: The fierce urgency of NOW, so I’m going back to her for sure!

But Norwegian canceled my flight for March 29 early this month. I rebooked for the first possible date, a direct flight from L.A. to  Oslo that takes 10 hours, but it wasn’t until May 3. It didn’t seem too bad: it meant an extra month in Seattle, and it was still within the 10-week limit of my travel insurance and well within the limits of my ESTA visa of 90 days. I wasn’t a bit worried.

We followed the news closely every day. During spring break in February, thousands of young Norwegians had been skiing in the Alps. They returned to Norway and resumed their active daily lives. In March, Norway welcomed several planes filled with Italians who came to ski in Norway. 

In particular, I remember that during my first week in Seattle, I read about four planes with Italians landing in Tromsø, and the director of the public health service in Tromsø was interviewed on TV. He said there was nothing he could do as long as the authorities of Norway had not banned foreign planes. 

I also read about planes filled with Italians landing at two different airports in Oslo. At Gardermoen they were checked for fever and sent into hotel quarantine if they had one. At Torp, no one was checked, and they entered freely into the Norwegian society and mingled socially in bars and restaurants, as well as on the ski slopes. 

I wondered about this: how come our own kids were quarantined upon return from other European countries, while foreigners could enter Norway without any restraints? At the same time, we saw news about the pandemic’s enormous death tolls in Italy. It started to appear that in Norway more than 500 of those who had been skiing in Austria and more than 100 of those who had been skiing in Italy had contracted the virus. 

On March 12, the health authorities and government of Norway held a press conference, where they presented harsh regulations and restrictions on movement of people, closing all schools, universities, preschools, shops, restaurants, bars, cultural institutions, non-essential workplaces, borders, and harbors. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (UD) urged all Norwegians to return home as soon as possible. 

Everyone abroad had to register with the UD. When I did that, explaining my situation, they mailed my registration to the Norwegian Consulate in San Francisco, and the next day I got a nice message from them suggesting different airlines I could check for tickets. UD texted us daily to get us home. 

At the same time, the situation in the United States developed, and even Trump realized that restrictions and sanctions had to be applied. I realized I wasn’t going to go to L.A. for a visit on my way back, so I canceled my ticket with Alaska Airlines. I also canceled my ticket with Norwegian from L.A. and bought a new ticket from Seattle to Bergen. The earliest possible departure date was April 24. 

The next day Norwegian canceled that flight, too. I rebooked for the next possible date, which was May 1. Then we heard on the news that we had to get home before the last day of March, and I started receiving texts from UD twice a day asking us to hurry, as there weren’t going to be many flights into Norway in April. 

That night I didn’t sleep well and early the next morning on March 27, I called my Norwegian insurance company and told them about my situation and how Norwegian had canceled most or all of their flights. The person on the line was very understanding, but she said that they had a time limit of March 28 to cover tickets for expedited flights. 

I told her I had tried different airlines, but none had any flights until April. She transferred me to a different person higher up in the hierarchy, and he told me they had just extended the time limit by one week until April 4. If I could get a ticket within that timeframe, they would cover it. 

I was finally able to get a ticket with Icelandair on April 4. Compared to Norwegian’s low-fare prices of $200-$300, the ticket with Icelandair cost $930 one way. It seemed worth it—but the flight was canceled on April 2. The quest for a new ticket began.

After searching the internet for six hours with no luck late the next night, suddenly a possibility popped up—but the flight was boarding in eights hours. I quickly packed my bags and slept for three to four hours, and left for the airport. I was off: Delta to JFK, KLM to Amsterdam, then Oslo, and, finally, Norwegian to Bergen. It took 22 hours, but I was relieved. It was the end of a month of worrying and not knowing if or when it would happen.

I can say in retrospect that I’m happy that I was here, in Seattle, with my husband, when this extreme and surreal pandemic exploded around us all. And I’m looking forward to coming back to Seattle to be back with my husband again, although I understand it will not be soon this time. 

Maybe I will not even see him in August, when he has tickets with Norwegian Airlines to spend two weeks of summer in Bergen? If the United States has not opened its borders so European planes can land, he cannot take the chance of not being able to enter the United States again. He will not risk his job in Seattle.

I will think about all of this, as I sit here Bergen in two weeks of home quarantine—not unlike the life of a retired person living alone anyway. And on April 21, I’ll go hiking with my pack in Bergen again, practicing social distancing, of course.

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.