If I had a dollar for every person who’s called me “brave” this past month just because I’m travelling to the US, I wouldn’t have to write this article.
“I’m not brave,” I tell them. “I just married a Yank. I’m a hypochondriac from Queensland. If someone gets Covid here, it’s front-page news. I’m going to where almost a million people died from Covid. How do you think I feel?”
If I was brave, I wouldn’t be waking up at three o’clock most mornings in a dull panic, visions of Chatty Cathy Americans breathing virus breath all over me still with me from my dream. And I sure wouldn’t know this statistic off the top of my head: in November 2021, the US averaged 95 000 new Covid cases per day; in that same period, Queensland averaged 0.2 (locally acquired, at least).
The short of it is: I’m kinda freaked. It’s not a knee-knocking sort of terror, more a shallow-breathing, insomnia-inducing sort of mild (ish) anxiety.
To get anywhere overseas right now, though, you’ve got to do a whole lot more than just be brave.
First there’s your International Vaccination Certificate. You need this or you can’t fly, It’s as necessary right now as your pilot, or the wings on your plane. The good news is it’s a cinch to get. I apply for it from my Medicare account on MyGov (you’ll need to be vaccinated first, of course) and it shows up on my email 30 seconds later.
And you’ll need a PCR Covid test no more than 24 hours before you fly. I’ve booked mine for Sydney Airport (with Histopath). They do them on the spot just outside Departures, with your results back within an hour. I still don’t trust the timing, so I allow five hours between my landing at Sydney Airport (from the Gold Coast) and my departure.
As I take off south towards Tweed Heads from Coolangatta Airport (on the border of NSW and Queensland) I realise that I haven’t even been to NSW in five months, and NSW is a six-minute drive from my apartment. And now, I’m flying to Chicago?
At Sydney Airport, my Covid results are back in half an hour (negative, BTW). The airlines advise to arrive four hours early for your flight, but it’s worth noting there’s almost nothing open at Sydney Airport. Bring a good book and snacks.
Being back on board an international airliner feels much the same as it always did. The big bloke in front reclines his seat to my knees just after take-off, a position he’ll assume till three minutes before we land. It’s just that he’s wearing a mask now and smells vaguely of hand sanitiser. The bathrooms still reek – wearing a mask helps. Someone sneezes outside the one I’m waiting for at the back of the plane. “Oh, sorry, you’re not meant to do that anymore, are you?” she asks no-one in particular, as if sneezing in a public place used to be a pretty awesome thing to do.
Ever since March 2020, taking a 70-minute flight from Brisbane to the Whitsundays felt like long haul to me, but I swallow a sleeping pill to catch some z’s, then soothe my American trepidation with an entire season of a series about a 40-year-old woman who pretends to be 26 to get a job, falls in love, falls out of love, cries and makes passionate love in the bath (sorry, seats 58 A – E, if you think I’m creepy). Ah chick flicks, the best way to disguise the fact you’re hauling ass across the Pacific in a coffin-shaped metallic cylinder at 1000 kmh.
Thirteen hours later, America shows up below my portside window. Those distinctive brown slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains beside the sea, the infamous smog of LA and that Hollywood sign: now they seem so otherworldly and foreign, like I’m taking a joy flight over Mars. It’s the Covid deaths, the crazed Floridian anti-vaxxers, the Capitol invaders parading on CNN; they’ve all transformed the US in my mind to a cross between the setting for The Handmaid’s Tale and Blade Runner.
Immigration is no different to how it always is – smiling here is always frowned upon. I wonder what Immigration officials look like when their kids give them Christmas presents? Do their cheek bones hurt when they turn those frowns upside down?
I’m through easily enough, but now I have seven hours to kill before my connecting flight to Chicago (it’s Thanksgiving, so only the red-eye at 12.40am has seats available).
I have seven hours to begin to see that life in America looks much the same as it always did. I might have a 10-pack of face masks in my backpack, and enough hand sanitiser to neutralise the initial Wuhan outbreak, but no-one’s collapsing around me, gasping for breath. On the contrary, they’re still making sure I remember, above all else, to have myself a nice day.
The service is still as great as the coffee is terrible, and Mimosas (champagne and orange juice) are still the best way to celebrate the fact you’ve landed in America. They never suggest alcoholism, even if you have them at 7am. It’s Christmas soon (Christmas celebrations begin here around late October) so they’ve thawed out Bing (Crosby) and put the batteries in Buble (Michael) and Wham’s Last Christmas is still tugging at the collective heartstrings of a nation on its 38th Yuletide rotation (yeah, yeah, I know the band’s from England, but you tell that to an American).
In Chicago – my final destination – my mother-in-law welcomes me with a new red, white and blue cloth face-mask (she used to buy me socks). There’re signs at every restaurant and cafe saying you can’t enter without one, and there’re diagrams showing how you should wear one, for those who can’t work out where their breath comes out (hint: it’s not your eyes, or your ears).
My fear of Americans, and America, quickly subsides. Last week, the night before I left, I cancelled a farewell dinner with a brother who had a sore throat and had been to Byron (shock, horror), now I’m spending entire weekends with people who just flew back from Florida, and Texas, and Kentucky. Omicron raises its head out of nowhere a day after I arrive, and Australia freaks out – my Omicron anxiety attack, which strikes over a matcha latte in Starbucks, comes after the sixth text message from a friend back home asking me how I think I’m going to get back into Australia – but it barely rates a mention around Chicago. They’ve seen it all before.
When I feel my mind wander to Omicron attacks, I shut down the news on my computer, and walk outside in the frigid sunshine and watch the squirrels dart about, gathering their nuts for the winter. They move like hyperactive furry slinkies. I can watch them for hours.
“Forget about Covid,” my mother-in-law warns. “You keep staring at people’s yards all day and you’ll get shot.” But there’s a lot to stare at right now. America is lit up for Christmas – entire suburbs of houses illuminated with Santa, reindeers, Christmas trees. Being in the US at Christmas-time actually makes me feel that Santa, maybe… just maybe, is real. So is Covid, of course (unless you’re an anti-vaxxer from Mullumbimby). But right now, I’m going to think about getting a new bike for Christmas, not a new variant of a virus that’ll get through my vaccine.