What at time in the world. We feel for everyone who is suffering right now because of this coronavirus. We wish everyone as good health as possible, financial security, and mutual help and kindness.
The little tale we want to share is hardly as important as what others are experiencing. Hopefully, however, our story will entertain and amuse you while you are stuck at home.
For quite a few months, we had been planning to visit Marrakech for about a week. We have long wanted to explore Morocco, but wanted a gentle introduction.
We receive daily emails from La Collection Air France. They offer travel packages — air, airport transfers, hotel, excursions — all over the world, including Morocco, and usually at attractive prices. Over the years, we have had mixed experiences with Air France: delayed and canceled flights, poor communication and customer service, general uncertainty. On the other hand, once on a plane, the flights are reasonably comfortable, the staff pleasant, and the wine free and plentiful. We thought we could test the Moroccan waters while seeing if the packages from La Collection Air France will work for us.
We selected a 6-night package in Marrakech, starting on Thursday 12 March.
A couple days before our departure, we were having dinner with our French friends Jef and Val. At one point, Jef said, “You know, they will close the borders any day now. Do you really think you should go to Morocco?” We smiled uneasily and pulled out our confidence. “Well,” we said, “if that happens, we will have a good adventure, won’t we?!”
The night before our flight out, Trump announced his stopping flights between the US and Europe. Our American friend who was going to Morocco with us decided it would be best if she got herself back to the US, to her husband and family. It was four o’clock in the morning. We completely agreed, wished her all the best, and said farewell.
But we were still determined to take our chances. We flew out as scheduled.
On Saturday, Morocco announced that, with agreement from France, land, sea and air connections between the two countries were going to be closed. It wasn’t clear exactly when this would happen, but was implied to be imminent.
We checked the Air France and Collection Air France web sites: no information. We checked our specific flight, which was scheduled for Wednesday: no information. We called Collection Air France: the hastily recorded message said that they were too swamped to answer. Same thing for Air France itself. We tried contacting Air France via Facebook Messenger, which is one of the ways they recommended. There was an automated response after many hours:
Dear customer, we received your inquiry. We are currently experiencing longer than average handling times and are therefore unable to offer assistance in a timely manner. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience. If you need to cancel your flight, you can now do so via this link…
Cancelling the flight wasn’t at all our objective.
Fortunately, we aren’t given to panic. But we did want to find a way to get home. We talked about what it would mean to have to stay in Morocco for weeks or months. On the one hand, we could probably find a relatively inexpensive place to stay. The weather and food are good. But our travel insurance was set to expire the day of our scheduled return to France. What would happen if one or both of us contracted the virus while in Morocco and without insurance? (Our French health insurance is valid only in the European Union.) And if the stay in Morocco were long enough, we would run out of some of our regular medications.
So: much better to find a way home to France.
With that in mind, we were able to book a second flight for Wednesday, this time on British Airways to London, and then two days later, a Ryanair flight to Carcassonne. At that time, the UK was still keeping its borders open. They were following a more nuanced policy of testing and containment than what was already happening in Italy. Since we were getting no information of any kind from Air France, we felt a bit reassured with a Plan B.
During this time — Saturday and Sunday — we were still being active tourists. As we were out and about, we chatted with fellow travelers. The coronavirus situation was the one and only topic on everyone’s lips.
Two young women were sitting next to us at a café — one from northern France, the other from Belgium. They had just managed to buy tickets on Ryanair to Brussels. Brussels was close enough to the French woman’s home in Lille, so she was relieved. At the same time, no one was sure if the flight would actually take place. She said that when she booked her seats, there were still a few more available. She told us a few times, “You should check Ryanair!”
At a cocktail bar, we met a Scandinavian couple who had come to Morocco on a sailboat. Even the sea borders between Morocco, Spain and France were going to close. They too were wondering out loud which countries they should try to get a flight to in order to find their way home.
On Saturday evening, we went to Al Fassia for dinner. This is a restaurant in the new part of Marrakech. It‘s reputation is among the best for traditional Moroccan food, and it is run completely by women. The restaurant is very attractive, offers Moroccan wine, with satisfactory if not wonderful food. At a big table next to us, what seemed to be three generations of a big Moroccan family had gathered. In the midst of the family, a pale corpulent white man in his 30s kept dominating the conversation with a loud piercing voice. All he wanted to talk about was the virus and the challenges of getting home. In the presence of his noisy obsession, we changed from trying to go with the flow and waiting for either Air France or British Airways flights on Wednesday to wanting to get home before we got trapped in Marrakech. The image of our getting sick in Morocco and running out of meds loomed large.
Still no clear message from the airline or the tour organizer. We checked online to see if there were any available flights to France or the UK on Sunday or Monday. Everything was either booked up or canceled. We would just have to wait until Wednesday to see if one of our reserved flights would fly us away. We moved back to staying in the moment, taking a sightseeing tour, and making sure there was wine with dinner.
We shared a tour van to the Atlas Mountains with a young German man. He was trying to find a seat on any Ryanair flight to most any city in Germany before the borders closed. He kept googling the status of flights out of the Marrakech airport, watching some of them get canceled throughout the day; it wasn’t at all apparent why some flights were being canceled and others weren’t. We agreed with the German man: How can we know what is really happening? So much uncertainty.
On Sunday evening, we walked through the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, on our way back toward our little courtyard hotel, or riad. There were plenty of people around, lots of families and groups of people. However, we started to notice that there were very few tourists. We had been told that March is high season in Marrakech. And now it was emptier than anyone could remember. Think of the economic challenges and even despair.
Sunday night we found phone and email messages from La Collection Air France that said that the French authorities had chartered a plane back to France sometime during the next day, Monday. They said we should go to the airport in the morning to get on this flight. Since we had by now accepted that we needed to leave, we packed our things, ready to fly out.
In the morning, at the airport, we found, unsurprisingly, lots of long lines and no real real informaton. The people at the central information desk knew nothing.
We just picked a line out of about twenty, with a black-and-white sign above it that indicated Paris. After a while, with not much progress, Mike moved to a different line while I stayed in this one; that way, we had two chances to succeed. We decided that however long it took, at least we would eventually get to an airline agent. Perhaps we would be able to fly out today, or at least, we would have more information.
For the most part, our fellow travelers were patient. People shared what they had learned up to now, which wasn’t much and was vaguely contradictory. One French couple said they had gone to the French consulate in Marrakech and found confusion and no answers.
A young doctor from Glasgow had a flight for the next day but was trying to get to Paris or London today. His specialty was geriatric medicine. He was clearly needed at home for the group of people most at risk from the virus.
A tall young woman, perhaps Middle Eastern or Moroccan or French, weaseled her way in front of me and then other people. People started to protest in French and English. She turned, indignant, screaming in French, “Don’t you touch me!” Hideous selfish behavior. Truly disgusting. After a while, she headed off to another line – the one that Mike was waiting in. By the time I joined him there, she and her cohort had pushed again to the front, deaf to angry protestations.
Very slowly, our two lines inched forward. From time to time we would wave to each other over the crowd, and text each other.
I got to the counter in the original line before Mike got to his. The poor beleaguered agent could only say that this wasn’t the right line. No other information. Not even what flight this line was actually for.
I joined Mike in his line. He was only about three people away from the counter. The selfish woman and her cohort had just pushed to the front where they monopolized the counter for at least 30 minutes.
Behind the counter, a senior agent was working with two junior agents. The senior agent seemed to know what he was doing. It also seemed that some part of the reservations and ticketing system was down. They were selling seats to people, putting in credit card numbers by hand, taking photos of the screen of the laptop they were using after each exchange. At one point he yelled out an announcement to all of us in line: there were only four seats left on the next flight, in business class, 8000€ each! A nice French couple in front of us bought two of the seats. When I said something articulate like, “Wow,” he said with a resigned laugh that they would get home but they wouldn’t have any money left.
The senior agent called out again to say that they would pause for a few minutes, and then they would start to work on the next two flights. So everyone should step aside and wait. Someone said, “Step aside where?” This person — and we — were obviously not enamored of losing our hard-earned places in line. The agent looked a little stunned, and then said, “Right where you are.”
At this point we were at the counter. We had our passports, our titres de séjour, our printed itinerary, and our hands on the counter. The senior agent and the junior agents seemed to be taking a break. Someone near us said that they had heard that the three agents were waiting for more ticketing materials since they had run out. They weren’t used to needing to print this many tickets in a day.
I tried to make a little light conversation with the senior agent, about what a remarkable day this was. He said, “A remarkable week!” And then “Like a volcanic explosion.” I thought it was a simile for the crowds and tempers. But then I realized that he was referring to the time in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland exploded and grounded all air travel in Europe and the Atlantic for a week. (I had to look up the name of that volcano!)
Mike spent many years as an airline agent in the airport. He has seen his fair share of all sorts of passengers in all sorts of situations. He was tuned into a few aspects of what was going on. The senior agent, not in a uniform, was, to Mike, obviously an airline manager. However, he and the junior agents did not or could not take control of the situation. They, while outwardly unruffled, were only reacting to whatever part of the crowd was in front of them. They let people push into the front of the line from the sides. They were reactive rather than giving direction.
Before the senior agent was ready to start everything up again, we caught his eye and were able to ask our question: “We have flights on Wednesday and were told to come to the airport. Can we see about flying out today?”
He said that this counter was only to sell tickets. We pointed to the sign above us which just said Economy Class, not Ticket Sales, and reminded him with as much equanimity as we could muster that we had been waiting for quite a while.
He calmly pointed to the next counter over where a woman was helping a young family. We asked, “She will be able to help us? You will explain it to her?” We were afraid that we’d be shunted to another equally productive line.
While we waited for this new agent, we chatted with a very patient older French woman who was standing nearby with her cart of luggage. She had been in the airport since the day before, having slept there. She said that she too had not been able to find any reliable information. Whoever she was with was in the ticket-sales line trying to buy some seats.
Once we got to the desk, the young woman agent started silently working for us at her computer. All the agents were wearing face masks. We could only see her eyes, which looked very tired. The senior agent came to help her from time to time. Another agent who seemed to be a whiz at the reservation system helped her as well. And after a while we had boarding passes to Paris and on to Toulouse! I’m pretty sure we were beaming. We wanted the agents to enjoy a little bit of our happiness amid what must have been already many grueling days.
We passed through the remaining crowd of expectant travelers to security and passport control. Behind us, masses of people. In front of us, almost no one. So many people trying to leave and yet apparently so few flights. We were starting to feel very fortunate.
The flight was understandably full, and in itself routine. We couldn’t help but feel relief. Once the plane touched down at CDG in Paris, applause erupted throughout the plane. As we were standing up, waiting for the front door to open, people were holding their phones up, watching and listening to President Macron’s address. He was announcing the country’s “war” on the virus. Starting the next day, Tuesday, at noon, everyone in the country would be required to stay confined. We would be able to go grocery shopping, to the pharmacy and doctor, and in some cases go to work. In order to drive around for these things, we would need to download a form with which we would attest to our purpose. Picture everyone standing in the plane, phones up with President Macron’s serious talking face on all of them.
Our seats were in rows 3 and 5, which meant that we were among the first to be able to exit the plane. We hurried through the airport corridors, following the big yellow walls with directions to our departure terminal. We turned the corner into a huge hall full of queuing ropes – and no people. Two security agents were waiting at the security scanner far on the other side of the room. And no one else. We couldn’t stop commenting on the fact that there weren’t any other people. The security agents seemed a little stunned too. They said that they had heard that the airport would completely close on Wednesday, but they didn’t know for sure.
After security we entered the next big empty hall, this one for passport control. There were only two immigration agents in a single glass booth, standing and chatting with each other. Unlike the usual passport control experience, tonight they were in a good mood.
We walked almost alone down the concourse to the gate area. We found more people at the gate, and our flight to Toulouse was full. There were only about eight flights left on the departure board for the day. But it felt like these were the last flights forever.
Our flight to Toulouse was easy; we stayed the night in a hotel attached to airport, and we took a train on to Carcassonne in the morning.
This was now Tuesday, the day when the national confinement was starting. On the way home from the train station, we stopped in our usual grocery store which specializes in fresh produce and meats. There were some shoppers, but not many. And happily, most of the shelves were full. No evidence of panic.
As I’m writing this, it is a beautiful sunny warm spring day. The vintner for the vineyard we see from our living room is working on removing some old vines with a backhoe. Everything looks lovely and normal. But, of course, it isn’t normal.
Last note: A few minutes ago, the phone rang. A woman from La Collection Air France wanted to know if we had gotten home. Nice sentiment, but way way too late.