Surviving and Recovering During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Edmond Gagnon

During our last trip to Italy, Cathryn and I booked a food tour during our stay in Venice. It was an amazing experience made possible by the tour operators, Adam and Maya, who were American Expats we became friends with. They moved from California to Venice to start a new business and live abroad. By staying in touch with this couple, I learned first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged their city and country. In a letter from Adam, he told us about their experience:

A Letter from Adam and Maya from Venice Bites Food Tours

Maya & Adam Venice Bites Food Tours“Beginning with the New Year in 2020, we were full of hope and excitement because our company, Venice Bites Food Tours, had just been recommended in the 16th edition of the Rick Steves Venice Guide Book.  We knew we had reached the pinnacle — receiving a Rick Steves recommendation is akin to winning an Oscar award for ‘best food tour’.

A Rocky Start Before the Pandemic

We had a tough end-of-season in 2019, because Venice experienced the second-worst flooding event in recorded history during early November. Tourists canceled their holiday plans to Venice out of fear that the city was completely underwater. Most businesses reopened by the end of the first week, but US news outlets reported that Venice looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we were forced to close for the rest of the season.

Come February of 2020, it appeared that Venice was bouncing back. Carnevale had arrived, and hotels, while not full by normal standards, were still booked with tourists and residents alike, enjoying and participating in the annual celebrations. Things were looking up.  

But then we started getting reports about a virus that was already in full swing in China, and how it had found its way to northern Italy. The City of Venice made the difficult decision to close down the rest of Carnevale on February 23rd, and canceled all festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday, two days later.

At first, the government defined specific areas in northern Italy as “red zones”;  town officials closed off a catchment area of around 50,000 people. Then, within days, the red zone areas were widened. Soon, Venice was quarantined from the world.

The Pandemic News Worsens

Every day we would wake up to new news and new restrictions on our movement within Italy, our province, and the city itself. Venice and the Veneto, along with the neighboring Lombardy region, became a cautionary tale. People around the world watched as things became worse and worse here, with so many cases and deaths. The numbers seemed to grow exponentially with each passing day, as did our sense of dread and fear.

The Italian government, both city and regional, did their best to contain the situation in the midst of the pandemic. Restaurants and bars could be opened but had to close at 6:00 pm. They told them that they must keep diners one meter apart. This meant they were only able to fill every other table. It was the death knell for our eateries. With the restrictions, they could see no way to stay open.

Finally, they put a stay-at-home order in place. Only essential workers could leave their home unless shopping for food and supplies or to visit a doctor or pharmacist.  If you find yourself outside your home, you must wear a mask and gloves. You must also carry a self-verification form stating your home address, where you are going, and a testament that you will return directly back home.  

Predicting the Future of Travel

Adam & MayaTravel experts issued a four-phase recovery chart that contains both optimistic and pessimistic views on how long it might take for tourism to recover. The phases are lockdown, easing, returning, and recovery.  Their estimate for how long the lockdown will be 2-4 months. We are currently in month two of lockdown.  

Experts estimate the easing phase to take 4-9 months, which begins right at the end of lockdown. Travel restrictions will begin to let up and gradually return to normal. If Lockdown is over in four months (say, the end of June on the pessimistic side), and the easing phase begins in early July, this phase could potentially last until the end of July, 2021.

The returning phase is when travel demand grows and the economy recovers. They estimated this phase to take another 6-12 months. So again, pessimistically, that’s another year of waiting. Experts project that travel demand will be 40-70% of the 2019 numbers. That takes us to the beginning of August, 2022 before we can expect to be ‘back to normal.’

Finally, in the recovery phase, travel demand will approach pre-COVID levels. Experts expect another 12-18 months of this phase, with a pessimistic end date of February 2024. That’s a very long time for people like us in the travel industry, who have no other means of income. After learning of these estimates, real fear set in. 

What Will Venice Look Like?

Empty Italy StreetsWe also have to wonder about Venice and what this city will look like throughout these phases. How many Venetian-owned-and-operated restaurants will make it? How many Venetians will stay in Venice, hoping to ride this out?

As far as coping, it has been incredibly stressful. Maya contracted pneumonia and Bell’s Palsy, and was admitted to the hospital on April 1st. They immediately tested her for the virus and quarantined her in the hospital for 48 hours. Thankfully, the test returned negative. She continues to battle the aftermath of pneumonia but recovered 95% of the way. To add to the stress of all of this, we feel constantly worried about our families and loved ones, especially our parents. We are 6,700 miles away, with a nine-hour time difference. 

We also feel immense pressure due to money. Since the November flood, we have given only a handful of tours. We have savings, but it’s a race against time trying to anticipate when our money will run out. At what point do we pull the trigger and execute our exit plan? It will come at great financial, emotional, and mental costs.

Facing ‘Recovery’ After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Maya in Hospital during the PandemicOur hopes were so high for 2020 and beyond. After the recommendation from Rick Steves, we thought we’d be able to grow our business, hire a few guides, and add more tours. Now, we are stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future, not knowing how this thing is going to play out. 

We will be home without work for at least twelve months and are coping in different ways. Those ways change daily. There are good days and bad. I do projects around the house and fetch groceries for seniors in our building. Maya is trying to learn guitar. These are small things that help keep our minds and hands busy.

We fear that the money will run out or that we won’t execute the correct plan at the right time because of the pandemic. We are in a vacuum and have no idea how long we will sit in it. Also, we worry for the rest of the world, as we know we are not alone in this fight.”

Wrap Up — The Exit Strategy

After reading this letter, I asked Adam if he could expand on their exit strategy.

“We still own rental property in California (my former home). We hope that the real estate market allows us to sell it at a profit if it comes to it. If we have to leave Venice, we’d use that profit to buy land in Ireland, where we’d begin the next chapter of our lives, and maybe start another business or two.” 

I’ve never met another couple with such resilience and an optimistic long-term game plan. They tackled all obstacles that life’s thrown at them. Cathryn and I wish them health and the best of luck. If you plan a trip to Italy in the near future, please check out ‘Venice Bites’. We, along with Rick Steves, highly recommend them as the best food tour in Venice.  

Edmond Gagnon is a storyteller, author of fiction novels and traveler. He resides in the City of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada with his wife Cathryn.

 

 

 

A Day in Venice, Italy

 

Cassidy Kearney in VeniceIf you haven’t read my last article about Verona and our first night in Venice, catch up here!

We started the day bright and early. After a speedy breakfast, I flew down the hostel steps to meet the rest of the group. We were taking a water taxi over to the island. We met our tour guide at the pier near Piazza San Marco, who led us to the two pillars that guarded St. Mark’s Square. It is said to be bad luck to walk through the two pillars because that was where they used to hold executions. 

St. Mark’s Basilica

The square was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, with side entrances on either side of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is also where the Doge’s Palace was, which served more as a political hub for Venice rather than a palace. The story goes that the Doge ordered for the retrieval of the body of St. Mark from Constantinople so that he could rest in the church. This is how St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice. 

St. Mark’s Basilica

The church’s age was easy to note. Stained glass and 24-karat-gold-leaf depicted the life of Jesus on the archways of the church. To make it that much more culturally rich, artisans hand-crafted the marble floor centuries ago. The floor buckled over time and became wavy because Venice is actively sinking into the sea! The church often has a platform that extends into the square because Piazza San Marco floods regularly. In fact, many of the Venetian locals make a day of it. They bring inner-tubes and floaties out to the square to hang out in the water before the tide returns.  

Glass Blowing and a Gondola Ride

Our guide showed us the bell tower in the square. He then pointed out the place where it is believed that the Leonardo Da Vinci, tasked by the Doge to construct a submarine, stayed while in Venice. Afterward, he led us to a local glassblower so we could see a demonstration. Over the centuries, glassblowers made Venetian glass very special and unique. The glassblowing was mesmerizing to watch and I appreciated the amount of skill that went into the craft. 

From there, our group split up. I went with Rachel, Sara, Maria, Aryana, and Dounia for lunch. We got traditional margherita pizza (which is very different from American-style pizza!) and then headed out to search for a gondola. It was initially rather challenging, as most of the gondoliers were out having lunch! Finally, we got someone’s attention who then led us to a different spot where there were available gondoliers. 

A Day in Venice Italy

traveling by boat

boat ride

The gondola was very rocky to get into, and reminded me of a longer, shallower canoe. The gondolier instructed us to sit on one side of the gondola so that he would be able to stand and steer on the other. He took us through the many canals, giving us fun facts about Venice while we took pictures of everything. He finally took us to the Grand Canal, where we saw many different types of boats (traghettos, gondolas, vaporettos, and more). Once we had finished the boat ride, we all split the fare of €80 to a simple €13. Although €80 is a bit steep, splitting the fare with someone else absolutely makes the ride worth it. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip. 

Wrapping up the Day in Venice

canalsAfter we finished up, we hit up some of the local souvenir shops. I remember being too afraid of getting lost again, and we all decided to head back towards the port where we all bought gelato and people watched. Aryana needed to pee, so we all followed signs for a water closet for 20 minutes only to find that it cost €1,50 to use. We went back to Piazza San Marco to find a cheaper bathroom. While everyone rested in the shade, I decided to do a little bit of exploring on my own. Instead of heading back towards the port out of the square, I went the opposite direction and found a nice park and many local vendors. I sat and enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before heading back towards the group.

We took the water taxi back to the mainland, and many of us bought food at the grocery store next to our hostel. Sara and I picked up a bottle of wine each, which we both finished before Nikos enticed the group to a stroll in a nearby square. In my travel journal I wrote, “I don’t remember much of the square itself, but I do remember telling Nikos and a few other friends about Florida cockroaches and the anhinga.” One of my friends told me I was like a “walking National Geographic… I learned so much!” On our way home, Nikos stopped everyone (“Wait, wait – we must stop – we have to,”) for ice cream. 

The next day, we all woke up early again so we could start our journey to Rome. Make sure to stay tuned to read all about the many historical sites we saw as we visited one of Italy’s largest and oldest cities!

Gondola Ride with friends

building in venice

The First Night in Venice After a Pit Stop in Verona

If you haven’t read my last article about our trip up the Swiss Alps, check it out!

After a stunning day on the mountain, we returned to our fancy hotel for a night of each other’s company. We broke out spare wine we had collected in the previous cities. We spent a good half hour looking for a wine opener while trying alternative bottle-opening techniques. The next morning, the hotel provided us with a gourmet breakfast (twelve different types of bread, six kinds of cheese, fresh fruit preserves, and more!) before we headed out at 8:30 AM. 

verona italy

An Afternoon in Verona

Everyone had forgotten that there was a planned stop in Verona before we finally landed in Venice. For me, it was a welcome pit stop as the very first Italian city on our tour. Italy was warm and gorgeous, and the architecture felt rich and ancient. Nikos took us on a quick tour of Verona, showing us several points of interest. We started with the Portoni della Bra, a large clock nestled in the gates of the old medieval walls of the city. This served as our landmark and meeting point later on.

portoni della bra clock verona

Nikos led us down cobblestone alleyways and Via Mazzini as he guided us past fancy restaurants, boutiques, and brand-name clothing lines I’d never heard of. We passed a giant coliseum that had red curtains hanging in the archways, suggesting its history of entertainment was far from over. We stumbled into the courtyard where Romeo and Juliet supposedly fell in love, and saw Juliet’s balcony. Nikos bought everybody gelato as a treat before we visited Statue Dante and broke up for the afternoon.

Freetime While Touring Verona

After a long wait in a bathroom line, I found that most of the group had left. Only Emily, Alyson (and one other person, but their name escaped me when I wrote my journal entry at the time), remained. We meandered through the market before we wandered into Via Mazzini to explore. I looked at the marble ground that lined the street with horror. I could only imagine how slippery in the rain it must be (I have a high propensity to slip and fall in public). Luckily I had an inkling of which alleys to take to get back to the Portoni della Bra, and we popped out in front of the coliseum. Considering its age, it was really in fantastic shape. 

coliseum flavian amphitheatre

Emily offered to take pictures of me in front of it, which is exactly when I realized that most of the pictures I’d been taking the entire trip lacked an important element: people. Anybody can Google a picture of Europe and see the same images I had been frantically running around taking. But what makes pictures special after a trip is the fact that you’re in them, or that people you care about are in them. I felt silly that I hadn’t realized that until halfway done with our trip. 

Panic at the Alleyways of Venice

the mainland of veniceWe all eventually made it back to the Portoni della Bra, with an exception to Dounia and Georgina, who got lost trying to make it back. Nikos left the group to find them and guide them back, which made us 30 minutes late leaving Verona. This mattered because Nikos had made a dinner reservation for everyone at 7:00 PM in Venice. 

Once we finally arrived at Mestre (the mainland of Venice), we dropped our luggage off at our hotel. We immediately left to hop onto a bus that would drive us over the bridge that connected Mestre to Venice. I felt thrilled to be in Venice. In the setting sun, it was everything I wanted it to be. In fact, I was so excited about visiting Venice that I didn’t realize that Nikos — our faithful guide — was lost! 

I had been so caught up in racing around the window displays and photographing public squares that it was only once it was finally dark did I realize that we were seriously turned around. Nikos kept ducking into stores and restaurants to ask for directions. We didn’t show up to the restaurant until 9:00 PM, two hours late. While I’m sure he felt bad about getting lost, I had a great time taking the scenic route! Besides that, finding your way in Venice is incredibly challenging. The alleyways are so narrow and winding that keeping track of where you are or where you’re going is impossible, especially as someone who doesn’t know the area well.

Summer Heat Affects All Cultures

After a great dinner of pizza and pasta, we left to take the bus back to Mestre. Apparently, however, we had arrived during the driver’s break! We wound up waiting on the bus for over twenty minutes. We piled into the bus, packed like sardines amongst tourists and locals alike, sweating in the Italian summer heat. Nikos refused to take off his jacket for fear of “being stinky.” I tried opening the bus window, and when I couldn’t get it because of the angle, the passenger sitting next to it helped slide it down. The entire front of the bus cheered as the cool outside air swam in.

venice italy

Finally the bus driver arrived and we took off. The bus lurched back and forth and we all quickly realized the bus malfunctioned! The tension while the bus driver restarted the bus was palpable. When the engine roared to life and we were finally on our way, the entire bus cheered again. 

Join me next time as I talk about our next day in Venice, my favorite city of the trip!

shopping in venice