Published: Oct 9th, 2021 · Nonfiction | Travel
Travel Dates: Aug 21st-Sep 20th, 2021
Days Nomadic: 202 · Miles Traveled: 18078
Shelby fetched the key to our studio from a lockbox on the back of the building, then we ventured inside. She unlocked the door and pushed on it once, but it didn’t budge.
“Did the lock actually turn?” I asked her.
“It felt like it.”
I pressed my shoulder into the door and it moved a fraction of an inch. The friction between the door and door jam made a loud squeaking noise that echoed through the tile hallway and into the main foyer. I assumed the wood must be swollen from the heat, so I rammed my shoulder into the door and it swung open.
A sour stench that was strong enough to taste poured from the apartment into the hallway and nearly made me gag. I scurried in and checked the trash cans and fridge for rotting food, then looked under the furniture thinking I might discover a dead mouse, but I couldn’t find the source of the smell. I decided that maybe the last guest left something fragrant that the cleaning crew took care of, but that the smell was still lingering, so I cracked a window and turned up the AC to flush the air.
We spent half an hour unloading our car, and by the time we were finished, the stink hadn’t dissipated, so we messaged our host. Shelby went to use the restroom before leaving to park our car at her aunt and uncle's house just outside the city, but she called me over as soon as she turned the corner into the narrow hallway leading to the bathroom.
Inside the hallway closet, there was a cushioned cube soaked in urine and a used cat litter box. The stench emanating from the closet was potent—there was no mistaking where the smell was coming from.
We both thought the studio looked decently clean when we arrived, but after finding something that gross, we decided to do another survey. Most surfaces were pretty clean. There were some spots on the rug under the living room chair where we could see clumps of cat litter. And a toothpaste splatter on the wall. It wasn’t perfect, but we could tell someone made an effort. That led us to two logical conclusions: either the previous guests left the cat items and the cleaning crew didn’t know what to do with them, so they stuffed them in the closet; or the items belonged to the host, who must live in the unit part-time with his cat(s). We immediately messaged the host again, telling him we’d found the source of the smell and asking him to remove the items.
Several hours went by without a word from our host. We went out for dinner with Skutull and sat on a patio in the evening heat to escape the smell. My seat was on top of a metal grate near the street, which a steady stream of hot air rose from. I felt like my shoes were melting off my feet and dripping into the sewer below. I brought our cooler ice packs and set them on the ground for Skutull to lay on. They helped, but he still panted the entire meal.
As the sun set, we still hadn’t heard from our host. It was getting dark and there was nowhere good for us to be other than in the unit. We wanted to unpack and watch TV, but the combination of the smell and the unresponsive host made us hesitant to commit. Instead, we browsed other rental listings in the area. The prospects weren’t good. Since it was last-minute, we couldn’t find anywhere with four consecutive weeks free. There were a few decent options with chunks of days open here and there, but we’d have to hop around the city several times to make it work.
Shelby and I eventually reached a breaking point and decided we had to do something to improve the smell in the apartment if the host wasn’t going to. Shelby shoved the dirty cat items inside garbage bags and placed them outside our front door in the hall, then scrubbed her hands in the kitchen sink. We thought about throwing them away, but if they belonged to the host, we imagined he wouldn’t be happy about that.
I reopened the windows and blasted the air conditioning, flushing some of the cat smog out of the apartment. Not fifteen minutes passed before someone pounded on our door. I answered and found a skinny, freckled woman with strands of gray in her hair standing with her nose inches from where the door must have been when it was shut.
“Is all of this stuff yours?!” she asked, widening her arms in the direction of the litter box and cushion. She smelled of cigarettes and weed, which mixed with the cat smell created a concentrated aroma that overloaded my sinuses. The burning sensation felt like when you’re swimming and water accidentally shoots up your nose.
“We just got here and are renting. That was in here when we arrived, so we’re not sure whose it is.”
“Well if you could take it out of the hallway, I’d really appreciate it. I don’t want to come out here and smell it!” she said in a loud, commanding tone while waving her arms.
“We’d throw it away, but we aren’t sure if it’s the host’s.”
“Oh no, it was the last guests’. They were PIGS! Absolute pigs. It was disgusting. They were here a week and a half and never scooped. I could smell it out here in the hallway the entire time.” She paused briefly, then continued, “And they weren’t very nice, either. I talked to them once and they were rude. The guy was okay, but the girl was nasty. But like I said, I’d really appreciate it if you’d move this because I don’t want to smell it. Take it back inside or throw it away.”
“Well I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t think we can sleep with it in here.”
“Well I’d appreciate it if it wasn’t out here. I’d really appreciate it,” she repeated, putting her hands on her hips and shooting me a toothless smile.
“Ok, I’ll figure something out,” I replied, and turned to close the door in her face.
“I’d just throw it out if I were you,” she said, “I’m telling you, those last people were pigs. It made me gag. They were disgusting. I’d really appreciate it if you’d move this right now.”
“Ok, thank you.”
She turned and went inside her apartment next door.
Shelby and I talked about what to do. We still hadn’t heard from the host. We didn’t want to bring the cat items back inside the studio. The smell had by no means gone away, but it was becoming less potent. We weighed the pros and cons of throwing it away. We thought that more than likely it belonged to the last guests, but since we are living in rental units indefinitely, we were paranoid about getting a bad review because we threw out the host’s property.
After much debate and waffling, we dumped everything down the trash shoot. The closet still reeked and we could see urine on the wall where the cushion had leaned against it, but the smell faded enough to be bearable for the night.
As we were falling asleep, we finally received a message from the host. He said the stuff wasn’t his and that we could throw it away. Shelby responded, asking if he could send someone out to reclean the closet. He agreed and told us that someone would be by the next day. The exterior door into the building required an electronic fob to unlock, so Shelby asked how the cleaners would get in. His response was, “They’ll knock at the door, Shelby.”
We got used to living amongst strong smells while we were in DC. The cat stench got better, but never fully went away. As Shelby ferociously messaged the host back our first night, we heard our friendly neighbor coughing through the walls. It was nearly constant for a solid ten or fifteen minutes. Then the fresh air that was coming in from the AC and flushing out the cat smog started to smell like cigarettes. She smoked inside every morning around breakfast and every night around bedtime. Her coughing fits were an early indication warning to turn off the AC if we wanted to minimize the smell that flushed into our apartment, but even then we were never fully spared.
Our neighborhood was packed with organic grocery stores and trendy restaurants where women in floral dresses and men in collared shirts waited for open tables on the sidewalk. Near the end of the block there was a town plaza where a dozen homeless people pitched tents and sat in lawn chairs all day, hollering belligerently at passersby who wore headphones to drown out the verbal assaults. There was a liquor store across the street that groups of them made trips to. Sometimes they would pass out on the sidewalk just outside the liquor store without making it back to camp. Most of them wore clothes that were frayed and covered with holes, but there was one middle-aged woman who stood out because she was always wearing makeup and a brand new Washington Football Team jersey as she crawled up the sidewalk like a zombie.
On one of our first mornings in DC, Shelby walked past this plaza on her way back from a fitness class and the group of men cat called her. “I was shawty wit da legs,” she told me when she returned home. I asked her what she did, and she said that she ignored them. Since I’m a suburban boy, she taught me how to put on a “city face” and told me to ignore anyone that tries to approach you or talk to you.
Later that week I got to see Shelby’s city face in action. We were walking down the street when a young woman exited a building ahead of us. She was wearing a tight, shiny dress early on a Sunday morning that barely covered her boobs and butt. She held a matching clutch in her left hand, and as we approached, she stuck her chin high and showed her teeth like an animal. Shelby didn’t notice her or at least pretended not to. Then as we passed the young woman, she swatted Shelby in the torso with her free hand.
“Did that girl just hit you?” I asked Shelby, thinking maybe there was a bee I hadn’t seen.
“Yep,” she said, staring forward, “but I’m not going to acknowledge it.”
There was a park on the other side of our building. In the evenings, it filled up with dozens of picnickers and children playing. The playground had a giant ring that sat about a foot off the ground and tilted slightly. The kids loved holding onto the ring while it spun round and round, occasionally throwing one of them off into the mulch. The grassy areas were patchy amongst packed dirt and weeds. Most nights an artisanal popsicle food truck pulled up beside the park entrance and always seemed to draw a line of giddy toddlers waiting for their sweet treat.
Then the sun set. Families headed home and the man running the popsicle truck closed the vendor window and drove off. Homeless people moved in, pitching their tents across the green. Groups of young men with their hoods up gathered around poorly lit benches, glancing left and right as they whispered to one another. Sometimes in the morning there were people passed out on the ground next to piles of vomit.
On one particular morning, Skutull and I walked through the park and saw a woman throwing a ball for her dog. The dog pounced the tennis ball, then took off toward one of the tents.
“No. No. No. No!” the woman shouted in a panicked whisper.
“No, come! Come! No!” she repeated, pacing sideways.
The dog jumped toward the open slit of the tent door and stuck its head in.
“Aye, No!” Now the woman raised her voice to a full-volume yell, “Come!”
There was rustling in the tent, followed by the sound of a zipper closing the gap. The dog continued to disobey the woman as it circled the tent, cocking its head at the grunts coming from inside.
“Get outta here!” a grumbly voice moaned.
On the other side of the park, we entered a picturesque neighborhood filled with eclectic row houses. Most of the units had miniature towers on the front of the building, which were topped with cylindrical roofs that looked like wizard hats. Lush gardens were ornamented with political signs that said, “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Taxation Without Representation; DC 51st State.” The streets were lined with large trees, though the dirt around the trees was filled with broken glass. Two giant pitbulls across the street lunged toward us, barking and nearly pulling their handler to the ground. She was large like a viking and had one arm strapped to each dog as she leaned back and heaved. She looked like a professional bodybuilder pulling an airplane with a rope. Skutull was a good boy and ignored them.
Around the corner, a shirtless man with a wife beater slung over his shoulder pushed his bike across the street while yelling at two short women as they passed carrying a vacuum and bags of cleaning supplies, “Look-a-wee, look-a-wee, look-a-wee have here a couple of fucking PHONIES!” The women walked by him staring straight ahead as if they hadn’t heard anything. “You’re phonies! Fucking phonies!” he screamed over his shoulder. Then he spit on the ground.
A few blocks further we entered the Kalorama neighborhood. Embassies of countries such as France, Afghanistan, and Thailand intermixed randomly with mansions. The houses weren’t especially large, but they were pristine in every way—from the custom architecture, to the light fixtures lining walkways, to the tasteful statues ornamenting lawns. Most of the buildings were made from stone and had all sorts of interesting curves, corners, and towers that gave the neighborhood a colonial-villa vibe. The front yards showed off a wide array of flora and the lawns had grass so uniformly green and evenly cut, it looked like an artist had drawn it with a colored pencil. I noticed that one of the streets in the neighborhood was barricaded and had an idling police car blocking the entrance. We walked around the block to the other side of that street and there was a cop on that side, too.
When I showed Shelby this street later in our stay, she remembered that the Obamas had recently moved to the area and immediately jumped on her phone to see if this was where they lived. Sure enough, that was their block. And their neighbors include Jeff Bezos and Ivanka Trump.
We spent a lot of our time in DC finalizing the logistics of moving to Europe. Skutull went to the vet to get an FDA health certificate so he could enter Europe without a quarantine. We printed lots of documents. We got covid tests. We overnighted the title of our car back and forth between us and my parents to sign ownership over to them. We arranged pickup of the car to be shipped across the country. We purchased stuff we thought we’d need in Europe, like a muzzle for Skutull (required on many trains in Europe), new water bottles that were smaller than the one-liter nalgenes we’d been lugging around since college, and Apple outlet adapter kits for our computers.
I traveled back to Colorado one final time to drop off a suitcase full of stuff that we wouldn’t take overseas, visit family, and meetup with work colleagues whom I hadn’t seen since before covid. While I was gone, Shelby made the mistake of signing up for Nextdoor with our rental’s address. Her intention was to use the app to sell a few items we didn’t need anymore, but she ended up getting alert emails after there was a shooting a block from our studio. It happened earlier that day about 20 minutes after she and Skutull had walked by the scene of the crime. Then she read about a serial dog kidnapper in the area that approaches people at gunpoint and takes their dog to resell. And the group of adolescents still at large who’d been kidnapping people at night, driving them around to ATMs across the city to withdraw cash, then dumping them somewhere far from home without a wallet or phone. I know some of this happens in every city, but we no longer felt safe being outside our studio at night, so we made a habit of taking Skutull to potty right after we ate dinner, which was usually about the time the sun was setting.
Shelby’s aunt introduced me to alcohol-free beer at a German restaurant near Georgetown. She said that drunk driving is a serious offense in Germany, so most breweries offer an alcohol-free version of their brews. I’d never heard of this concept, but I loved it! I stopped drinking alcohol back in March because it generally makes me feel bad and destroys the quality of my sleep. The tough part for me isn’t that I miss alcohol, it’s that I miss having something different to drink at night. I don’t want to switch from alcohol to sugar, so most traditional alcohol-free options, such as soda, aren’t a good substitute. And water all day, every day, gets old. I went to the liquor store the next evening and bought two packs of alcohol-free beer. Then another pack later in our stay after I ran out. One morning I even cracked a bottle open to have with breakfast.
Shelby and I passed several life milestones in DC.
Shelby turned 30. She originally wanted to drive outside the city to hike on her birthday, but it was on Labor Day this year and after talking with one of her friends who lives in DC, we decided all of the hiking trails were going to be packed. She opted instead to utilize Rock Creek Park by creating a “through hike” that would take us on a ten mile loop through the city. DC is unique in that their park system isn’t just big grassy patches. There are also forested dirt trails that run throughout the city.
Most areas of the park are very nice, and if you block out the sound of traffic, you can sometimes convince yourself that you’re no longer in a city. The first stop on Shelby’s route was a bakery two miles from our studio. We hiked along a main section of the park, then turned onto a fork that extended out toward the bakery. As we walked down the trail, we noticed an increasingly strong smell of sewage. Then the path started crossing a creek, back and forth, back and forth. Normally we wouldn’t mind, but the water had an unnatural blue-green tinge. We did our best to hopscotch across boulders and cross the creek without touching the water, but Skutull fell in chest-deep a few times. Both sides of the trail were bordered by a barbed-wire fence that had signs saying the area was under surveillance. I’m still not sure what we walked by, but we were happy to emerge back onto a main road. I worried Skutull would get a rash from the water, so we found a hose around the side of the bakery’s building and rinsed him off.
Next stop was American University, which is where Shelby attended her freshman year of college. It was a much smaller campus than I imagined. I was feeling witty that day and spared Shelby no kindness about getting old, especially since I’m a year and half younger than her. As we entered the main quad on campus, she dove into descriptions of the eclectic buildings and which classes she had in each. “At the end of the quad is the International Studies building that was brand new when I was a freshman—” she said before I cut her off.
“And now it’s sadly crumbling to the ground.”
Ba dum, tish!
Many restaurants were closed on her birthday since it was a Monday and Labor Day, so we went out to celebrate later in the week. Shelby spent the day at a spa, then met me downtown at a Michelin-starred restaurant. For most of the meal, it felt like we had the restaurant to ourselves—the staff outnumbered the guests and there were many open tables. Our waiter was a short man about our age. He was extremely attentive and said on his fifth or six time checking in on us that, “I drank a quart of coffee before this shift, so just let me know if I'm being annoying.” We told him he was doing great.
After our delicious meal, we caught a cab home. Our driver was an older man from India and I could tell he wanted to talk. He said he moved to The States in November 2020 to live near his son in DC.
"I lost a lot of friends,” he said solemnly. “So I move here. And I would go on walks and hikes in the city, but didn't know anybody. I knew a few deer and one turtle and one crane, but that was it…” He paused to think, “And one bird, but that was it. So I started driving nine days ago."
I asked him who his most interesting rider had been so far.
"Just before you there was a professional golfer... But there was one girl named Yasmin….” he paused again, “Yes, I think it was Yasmin. This is a very popular Pakistani name. When I picked her up, she was wearing one of those full body coverings Muslim women sometimes wear that covers their faces. Do you know?” he asked, looking back at us in the rearview mirror. We said we did and he continued, “A lot of people in the United States don't like them because they say they're oppressive. She checked my car number with the app twice to make sure I was her car. She was very very nervous. And, her skin was black, which surprised me. I could see it through the eyes,” he said pointing at his face with his middle and pointer finger extended. “I asked her some question about if she knew the best roads to take to engage her. She was from Harlem. The one in New York City. And she was born there and has citizen. I was thinking she was immigrant. When she talked, she was powerful and smart. She studies International Relations at very prestigious school in DC. I choose this as my most interesting because she was so different from my expectation. I don't know if it is the right one, but this is the one I choose."
Shelby and I also celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary and our 10th anniversary since we met back in college. I know we’re becoming a more mature couple because we agreed not to make elaborate plans or exchange gifts. Instead, we made a loose agreement that we’d celebrate together once we got to Europe. I think we’ll know what to treat ourselves to when we see it.
We slept in the morning of our anniversary, then got ready and drove to get covid tests. Our flight was in a few days and we weren’t sure if we’d need a negative test or not, so we decided to get one anyway. Shelby’s aunt and uncle hosted us for a lovely candlelight dinner that night. We don’t get to have people over or go to other peoples’ houses for meals often as nomads, so this was a cathartic experience. I’m very “Monica” in that I like hosting dinner parties, so I’m hoping to figure out a way to host meals while we’re in Europe.
The transition from NYC to DC was rough for me. Each time we arrive at a new destination, I feel like I’m starting a new life, but this felt especially true in DC.
As a nomad, I always set foot in new cities with no routines and every decision feels like a chore: Where do I exercise? Where do I grocery shop? Where does Skutull go to the bathroom? Where do I work? Where do we park the car? Are there any doctors nearby in-network for our insurance? I don’t know where a pan or mixing bowl is in the kitchen, or if the kitchen even has those items. When I run out of shampoo, I don’t know where to buy a replacement and oftentimes the only choices are brands I’ve never heard of. Then I investigate the practical constraints I’ll have to work around, such as a faulty AC, slow internet, or a broken dishwasher.
This lack of routine as a nomad can be frustrating and inefficient. Some mornings all I want to do is wake up and have a predictable, productive day. And it’s usually on those days that every task that used to be quick and mindless takes three times as long as it should and eventually I give up for fear that I’ll pull all my hair out and go bald even younger than my grandpa did.
I’ve noticed that I go through stages of adaptation when we arrive somewhere new. The first full day is typically the hardest. I expect to jump into new routines that mirror the ones I formed at our previous destination, but that never works out. I’ll set up a workout station in our rental, only to realize that as I’m jumping, the entire building is shaking each time I land and that we now have downstairs neighbors. I’ll walk across the street to pick up an avocado from the store, only to discover that this store has terrible fresh produce. An hour and three stores later, I’ll find an avocado that works, but still isn’t fully ripe. I’ll plan an errand route and leave during lunch thinking it will take an hour, but then I discover that two of the subway stations I planned to stop at are under construction for the next 6-12 months.
These experiences are maddening, but they also help me grow as a person. There’s a thrill in designing a new life from scratch a dozen times per year that’s difficult to describe. At the start of each stay, I feel like an imposter living somebody else’s life; at the end of each stay, I feel like a different person. Human psychology says that we tend to follow the path of least resistance, and I notice that in myself. I usually only change when I’m forced to.
In DC, I struggled to find a good way to exercise. Our studio wasn’t as close to Rock Creek Park as I’d hoped when we booked it and the space inside was too small to workout. I looked into fitness centers, but was shocked that most of them had $300-400 monthly membership charges and +$40 drop-in fees. It was the most expensive exercise I’ve ever seen. On top of that, all of the traditional gyms with weight rooms had 3-6 month contracts, one-time signup fees, excetera. I decided that if I was going to spend that much money exercising, I should also learn a skill.
So I signed up for memberships at both a boxing gym and a Muay Thai gym. Fighting techniques aren’t skills I ever thought I’d develop, but the gyms were closeby and they had some of the most affordable deals, so that’s what I went with.
I got up at 6am one morning for my first Muay Thai class. A short man covered in tattoos let me into the studio. He had leathery skin and a big smile. He showed me around, but there wasn’t much to see. A small locker room, a weight room with a few benches and a collection of rusting kettles bells. The mat area was large and I was the first student to arrive.
All of my Muay Thai classes were taught by the same instructor, who also happened to look like a young Kenan Thompson. The other students in class paired up with each other while he took me under his wing.
Muay Thai wasn’t what I expected. The footwork was difficult and technical, even for punches and elbows. The first thing I learned is that you always stand with your dominant foot back, you don’t switch stances. My instructor wore pads on his forearms and moved them into place to catch my punches, elbows, knees, and kicks. The strike that was most difficult for me was an attack knee with my left leg. You’re supposed to point your toe as you throw knees so your toes don’t collide with your opponent and either take power off your blow or throw you off balance. For some reason, my left leg didn’t have the coordination to ram my knee and point my toes at the same time.
On my last Sunday morning in The States, I went to a Muay Thai workshop and paired up with a guy about my age who was built like a professional athlete. He wasn’t bulky like a protein-drink-guzzling gym rat with a huge torso and chicken legs. He was built evenly and was impressively flexible during warmups. I liked being paired with him because we both enjoyed taking things slow to get the technique correct.
The workshop was a pleasant experience until we started working on roundhouse kicks. I’d been to half a dozen classes at this point and had practiced with an array of different people, but none of them came close to the power this guy put behind his blows. I was wearing dense, four-inch-thick pads on my forearms, but his kicks still felt like his shin bone was making direct contact with my forearms. Then we switched to knees. I held the pads over my stomach like I was taught to and braced for impact. Each knee he threw pushed my arms up into my gut, knocking the wind out of me slightly. When the two hour workshop was complete, he invited me over to the punching bags to show me a few technique improvements. While I practiced, he started wailing on the bag, kicking it repeatedly as fast as he could like a honey badger, sending echoing smack sounds throughout the gym. I’m writing this article two weeks after this workshop and my forearms are still bruised from his kicks.
I liked the boxing classes better than Muay Thai, not because of anything inherent about the styles of fighting, but because the boxing classes were structured around rotating one-on-one work with the instructor while in Muay Thai the instructor paired us up with other students and called out what to practice, much like a yoga teacher announcing poses in their flow.
My favorite boxing coach was a guy about my age and build, but with no body fat. He always wore a tank top and had a chin goatee. All of the instructors at the boxing gym were good, but I could tell this guy had exceptionally good technique. I looked him up one day after class and found out that he’s a professional boxer.
He taught the last boxing class I went to before leaving DC. We started class “dancing,” which is footwork practice. The coach rotated around the four students in class, forcing us to move side to side and back and forth, intermixed with fake strikes with swimming pool noodles he held in each hand. Then we moved into technical work. The coach put pads on his hands and we “gloved up.” I had to ask him to help me do my hand wraps because I couldn’t remember how to do it.
I practiced punches on a heavy bag, then stepped into the middle of the room when it was my turn.
“Jab,” he called out. I hit the pads on his hands.
“Jab, jab… Jab, brick… Roll… Roll.”
Like Muay Thai, you always keep your dominant foot back when boxing. Your lead hand is called your “jab,” your back hand is called your “brick,” a lean to either side to avoid a punch is called a “slip,” and ducking under a hook is called a “roll.”
I hit his pads softer than I could with full force, focusing on technique. The coach paused.
“You’re too tight,” he said, tightening his traps and arms while bringing his shoulders to his ears. “You gotta relax. Don’t push, strike with a pop,” he said, flinging his fist out in a lightning fast jab.
“Jab, brick, hook, brick.”
I threw the punches… Pop, pop, pop, pop.
“Cover, uppercut, cover, uppercut.”
“Faster. Jab, brick.”
“Faster! Jab, brick!”
Pop, pop. That time I could feel the snap of my punches hitting the pad.
“There ya go.”
“Good, again, brick.”
“Now ya got it, nice work.”
My routines were thrown off in dozens of small ways outside fitness in DC, the funniest of which was the time we took Skutull to the groomer and told the woman at reception that he only needed a bath and nails clipped, no shaving. When Shelby picked him up, his luxurious mane was trimmed and he had a Brazilian treatment around his private parts. I’ve never seen that done on a dog, but she told us that it’s “hygienic.” Skutull was not a fan. He was very itchy down there for over a week.
On our final day in The States, we packed our bags as full as we could in preparation to move to Europe. We each had a carry-on-sized leather backpack for city roaming, a hiking backpack for any through hikes we might do, and a suitcase. Whatever didn’t fit went to a donation center.
There were countless stressful moments leading up to our big travel day. About two weeks before our flight was scheduled to take off, the EU announced sweeping travel restrictions on Americans, which was part logical response to the out-of-control wave of cases in the US and part retaliation for Biden not removing travel restrictions on Europeans as quickly as he promised. Each country in the EU announced different changes to their travel policies. Some barred Americans all together. Others did nothing. Most added vaccination as a requirement and/or negative covid tests.
We were flying into Frankfurt, Germany, where the rules required either vaccination or a negative covid test within 72 hours prior to arrival. I worried every day that we’d wake up to news of tightening restrictions; that Germany would bar Americans like Norway and Sweden, or require a 14-day quarantine, as it already did for unvaccinated travelers. It’s the ‘not knowing’ that was stressful. And the worst part was that there was no schedule for when the changes took effect or lag time between when they were announced and when they were enforced. It was possible we’d wake up on the day of our flight and have to cope with new restrictions that went into effect immediately.
Then there was the stress of getting Skutull across the ocean. We used a dog travel service that works with ambassadors and is experienced in importing pets abroad. This company is actually the reason we spent our final month in DC and flew from Dulles to Frankfurt. This route was their recommendation and they seemed to know what they were doing, but it’s still a long flight and a lot could go wrong.
They told us that once we made it to Europe, we’d have to present Skutull’s FDA health certificate, and if everything wasn’t perfect, they could send him back to the USA. The details went down to the color of ink used by the veterinarian to sign his vaccination records (had to be blue). We were meticulous, but uncertainty was introduced when Shelby stopped by the travel consultant a few days before our departure and picked up Skutull’s certificate, only to notice that they’d spelled my name wrong when they transcribed it from the documents we gave them. The travel consultant told Shelby it would “probably” be okay because Shelby’s name was also on the document and was spelled correctly. But I was listed as the primary handler and “probably” wasn’t a good enough vote of confidence for me to totally relax.
The days leading up to our flight felt like finals week back in college, only if we didn’t get every question right on every test, the repercussions were being sent back to the US on another nine-hour flight. If that happened, who knows where we’d live back in The States, if we’d get a refund for the accommodation we’d booked in Europe or the flights, or how we’d catch up to our itinerary.
In the end, everything went smoothly. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but looking back, there wasn’t a single hiccup. We aced every exam.
When I stepped foot outside the Frankfurt airport and breathed in fresh air for the first time in 15 hours, I felt peace and calm wash over my body. Skutull walked immediately to a street median filled with pebbles and pooped while cars and semi-trucks zoomed by in both directions. Then we filled his bowl with kibble and served him a large meal, which he scarfed down.
“Go slow and chew,” I told him.
He looked up at me with his ears back and chewed obediently while wagging his tail.
“Good boy,” I said, stroking his back.
Suddenly, our dream was reality. There was nothing left to worry about or plan. All three of us were safely in Europe. My thoughts weren’t looking back on what we accomplished, only ahead.
“How do we get to where we’re staying?” I asked Shelby.
“We can either figure out the subway or get a cab.”
And so our European adventure began.