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A Reporter’s Journey Across a Resuscitating, and Oddly Changed, Europe

2020-05-28 14:57:57

ROZVADOV BORDER CROSSING — “Can you please,” said the policeman at the Czech-German border, “step out of the car?”

He and a colleague rummaged through the vehicle, muttering to each other about the possibility of a secret compartment. By the time they finished 11 minutes later, they had strewn the contents of my suitcase, backpack and medical bag across the passenger seats.

I was now free to enter Germany, they said.

It was only a mildly inconvenient episode, but nevertheless illustrative — an encapsulation of how haphazard and disorientating life in Europe has become since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Three months ago, I could have driven from the Czech Republic into Germany without even noticing where exactly the border was, thanks to an agreement that allows free movement between most countries in the European Union.

Now, there’s a checkpoint on the Czech side, and another one just inside Germany. And initially, not even a letter from The New York Times, a diplomatic note from the British embassy (I’m a British citizen), a German press card and a certificate confirming I was virus-free were enough to persuade the Germans that I had legitimate reason to be traveling this way.

It’s exactly this kind of odd encounter that I’m trying to document as I drive through a Europe in the process of waking up after the lockdown.

Accompanied by Laetitia Vancon, a Times photojournalist, I am in the middle of what will likely end up as a 3,700-mile journey through as many as six countries in various stages of emerging from a virus-induced slumber.

Over the next few days, we will be publishing our dispatches and photographs from this changed world — from an eccentric drive-in theater in Prague to a dystopically long line at a food bank in Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities.

So far, it has been an absurdly privileged experience, at a time when many people are still confined to their neighborhoods. It has also been predictably strange — a journey in which surreal moments seem normal, and normality seems surreal.

In Berlin, we spent a day at a newly reopened restaurant, something that wouldn’t have merited a mention three months ago. Now it seems remarkable.

It has been bewildering to witness different countries — and even different regions within individual countries — open up at different speeds and with different priorities.

That day in Berlin, diners could already eat inside restaurants. Yet simultaneously in Munich, they could still only sit at tables outside.

In Switzerland, most people didn’t seem to be wearing masks in the street. But a day later in the Czech Republic, it was still the law to wear a mask anywhere outside the house.

Then the next morning, we emerged into the sunlight to see people’s faces again: The law had changed overnight.

The logistics of travel have proved infinitely more challenging than usual.

Most hotels were closed. Those that remained open were eerily empty.

In Prague, I paid for a hotel in advance — but on arrival, it turned out to have shut weeks ago. The lights were off and a sign on the door advised us to contact another hotel in the same chain.

When traveling through Europe for work last year, I sometimes flew overseas at a few hours’ notice. But this journey took weeks to organize, and for safety reasons we decided to travel by car instead of plane. It would minimize our exposure to public spaces, and other people’s exposure to us.

The journey also required liaising with several national governments to work out whether they would allow journalists to enter their territory, and if so, under what conditions.

It was a flat “no” from the Polish border guard. But the Belgian interior ministry said we merely needed a press card and a blue sign we could download from its website, print out and place behind the windshield.

The Danes wanted a letter from my editors. The Swiss only needed to know our dates of travel, before providing a laissez-passer for us to present on the border. The authorities in Germany, where I live, said I could leave the country for only 48 hours at a time, unless I wanted to spend two weeks in quarantine on my return.

Sometimes, the officials weren’t even sure what to tell us.

The Czechs initially wanted just a letter from The Times, and a diplomatic note from our respective embassies in Prague. Then, days before we traveled, the rules changed.

To enter the Czech Republic, we now also needed an invitation from a Czech company (the drive-in theater eventually provided one) — and, trickiest of all, a virus test that had been completed within four days of crossing the border.

That was challenging because the results can take three working days to process, whereas we had only two. By the time the results arrived, we were already in Switzerland, forcing the clinic to send them, slightly grudgingly, by email.

After all that, the Czech police barely glanced at the results before waving me onward at the border.

To my surprise, it was the German police on the Czech border who were the most suspicious.

Crossing to and from Switzerland, the German border guards hadn’t even pulled me over. But now their colleagues several hundred miles to the east couldn’t fathom why I was traveling in this way and at this time.

They pressed me about certain stamps in my passport. Eerily, they also asked about an old passport I lost years ago in Berlin, which still seemed to be logged on their database.

“Do you have anything in the car like weapons, knives?” one officer said.

“Or drugs?” he added. “Marijuana?”

I have spent much of my career investigating smugglers. But in this world turned upside down, the policeman seemed to think I might be one myself.


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