Have you ever wanted to go home after a holiday? Nah, us either, except for this past week when the Coronavirus Italy lock-down was announced without warning. We had legitimate fears we’d be stuck in Sicily for the month to come. Maybe longer, the way things are looking now! Things have been anxious and stressful, to say the least. And as I reflect on the events that unfolded, I’m sad to say things have only gotten worse.
Just a year ago, we were on one of the best trips of our lives. We enjoyed a train journey across the country, taking in Milan, Lake Como, Verona and Venice.
It was magical, and I hope to return again soon.
Coronavirus Italy lock-down
For now, Italy has been hit HARD by the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and the country is a no-go zone. Usually it’s teeming with tourists. On the morning of 10 March, we woke up in our Airbnb in Catania, Sicily, at 6am to discover that late the evening before, the government had announced extreme measures – all of Italy was on lock-down. A terrible way to start your day!
Coronavirus – an infectious disease that attacks lungs and airways as well as other vital organs if you’re suffering from underlining health conditions – had been sweeping through the north of Italy. When we chose to continue with our trip to the south of Italy – Sicily – that area was clear. Several major centres in the north had already been quarantined which had been the strategy for China where COVID-19 originated. But just a few days before when we stepped onto a plane, our destination was fine.
Certainly, there were signs of trouble on 8 March. Our flight was only about a quarter full. But we had nowhere else to be that week, and figured we would go catch up with some friends who were also headed to Catania – a few ‘TBEX survivors’ who still turned up for a travel media conference that has been (at time of publishing) postponed.
Panic response vs managing a crisis
If we’d only seen the messaging the evening before, we might have got out on a flight to the UK easily on Tuesday 10 March. It had been our back-up plan – if things escalated, we’d just get on a flight straight away. But from 6am until 6pm both Cooper and I were on our computers and on phones, trying to get out.
Things looked bright around 8am when we finally got a flight from Catania to neighbouring Malta. We figured Malta was a good choice, we know the place well. I transferred our Easyjet flight from Catania (set for Saturday 14 March) to take us from Malta to London the next day. We incurred some hefty fees but that was ok, it was time to leave.
Something told me to keep an eye on the Catania airport departures board. It felt like the response from our accommodation on the ground in Malta was fearful. Malta is close to Italy, and it’s a small island. If Coronavirus infiltrates, they’d find it hard to manage. I was liaising with the manager of the airport accommodation on WhatsApp when I spotted about 9.30am: our flight status had gone from grey (‘scheduled’) to red – cancelled.
Distress kicked in from that point. Everything was cancelled, more and more as the minutes went by. We love travel. But the feeling of being trapped is unnerving. Our family in Australia were getting worried too. They called and tried to help – which was appreciated, but added to our anxiety.
In my view, with so many people trying to urgently get back to their country of residence, governments and airlines in the area made bad decisions – panicked choices that amplified the problems and the region’s collective fears.
Bad practice by airlines in a time of heightened anxiety
After this, we spent the day trying to book flights on numerous airlines to many different destinations. The threats from the media and government warnings kept mounting: we would be locked in and all flights grounded within 48 hours. Although, many, many flights were simply cancelled that same day. Countries were closing their borders to anyone coming from Italy. It felt like we didn’t have a chance!
BUT, airfares continued to sell. Oh, and many airlines simply shut off their customer service call lines and social media messaging function too. No contact, many charges and much stress. We’d get to the payment section and the bill would tally on our credit card – our flight tickets wouldn’t process though. We encountered ‘errors’. Only to try again and discover the flight prices had been hiked up significantly. Very bad practice in a time of much stress. Some university students we met later on told us stories of how they simply had no more credit to keep booking under these circumstances, and they’re still in Italy.
It seems that if you continued to book, you eventually won a lottery seat on a flight out – but he/she who paid the highest price won a spot on the escape route. By 5pm I was in tears, Cooper was stressed (he’s NEVER stressed), and we didn’t know what to do.
Small gestures and good people
Through all of this though, our encounters with kindness were amplified. The manager of this small airport hotel in Malta was ever so kind, assuring me he’d not hesitate to issue a refund, despite booking.com stating the fee was non-refundable. He stuck to his word, and the money came back.
Similarly, our Catania Airbnb host made us feel safe and offered help to contact embassies and get food. He also told us that he’d help us with accommodation if we got stuck.
These gestures – from operators who will suffer financially as part of this global disaster – were really appreciated in stressful times.
We were also in contact with our house sit in England – one we were returning to after sitting for them in Bedfordshire last year. (They run a beautiful B&B here too, if you want to visit when things are back to normal!) 👇
Due to the unprecedented situation, we suggested they might want to look for last-minute sitters. Instead of doing this though, our host spent time looking for flights that might just get us out of Italy and back to the UK via a European destination.
We’d tried a few of these routes, but Andy at our house sit found one on Ryanair via a cool city in the Netherlands that we’d never heard of, Eindhoven.
As it turned out, Andy’s suggestion that we chose to book (despite the stress of mounting credit card fees and the necessity of an overnight connection stay) totally saved us. This flight was one of the last two flights out of Sicily on 12 March. Nothing is set to leave until mid-April, or beyond. When we landed in Eindhoven, everyone cheered!
Lock-down in Catania
We were really lucky to get out after a couple of days. Wow, were those days fraught with anxiety. To get groceries or necessities, we had to line up one at a time outside stores. Lock-down got crazy and scary. Masks and gloves were essential. The image above is from an area near us in Catania – deserted. The feature image at the top is from Catania’s famous and usually thriving fish markets. Again, now all closed indefinitely.
One shop after another gradually closed, store-owners aware they were shutting their doors indefinitely. How will they pay the bills? Can this country recover? Life’s already tough for many.
Sleep was hard because each hour the rules changed, not just in Italy but around Europe and the world. Borders closed, transport was restricted and people started hoarding food.
There was no guarantee our flight would depart. Every half hour on the 12th, we obsessively checked but it remained green: good to go at 5:15pm.
Travellers in Catania worried about whether they should try to leave and risk potentially spreading the virus at home or passing on to ‘at risk’ relatives. We would face a 14 day self quarantine if we got into the UK, but that was ok by us – we were headed to a regional area anyway. As residents in England, we chose to pursue a location where we can access healthcare (although perhaps a dubious notion now that hospitals are overwhelmed).
We worried for friends (like Jason and his mum 👇) who appeared to be entirely stuck in Catania. They were even asked to leave their Airbnb with nowhere to go!
I had transferred our original Easyjet tickets back to the Saturday flight out (at more expense), but it was cancelled too.
We felt sick, despite the sunny days in Catania which would otherwise be a joy. Our time was spent indoors except for going out to get a bit of food. The streets were dead. A few cafes were open, but not for many more days, I’d guess. The experience took me to the height of anxiety. We’re still waiting for refunds from airlines that I’m not sure will come – perhaps they’ll go into receivership before processing. I never imagined I’d want to leave Italy, ever! But during those days, we very much did want to get out, back to a ‘home’ base.
Since we left Italy, thousands of people have died due to COVID-19, and thousands more are ill, without access to oxygen or healthcare. The situation there is now worse than it is in China. The system in Italy is not coping. Other European nations are in a similar situation, and the UK harbours legitimate concerns about the future too.
Conversations have moved from ‘this is just a flu’, to, ‘you really should talk about final arrangements with your family should the worst happen’.
They say there’s reasons to find hope within this chaos. This is how things unfolded in Sicily and elsewhere 👇🙌
Now we are on lock-down in the UK (but so far virus free 🤞). We’re trying our best to deal with the anxiety associated with an uncertain future – here’s our personal tips on that.
I don’t know if things are ok though, or what’s around the corner.
I regularly share thoughts in Australia’s Get it Magazine, and this month I cover the importance of professional development the the role networking plays in this.
I’ve shed insight on how to introduce yourself professionally and make the most out of your time at conferences and business events to get your career where you’d like it to be.
The importance of professional development – how to introduce yourself professionally: the conference
The packed conference room was buzzing with excited energy. The popularity of the break-out session I’d just witnessed had obviously been underestimated. People were sitting and standing in every free space.
I, like all the attendees, had been impressed by the generosity of the speakers who hadn’t held back on sharing wisdom about their business success strategies.
Dazzled, I simply had to meet them!
I lined up with other inspired folk at the end of the session to say hello. When it was my turn to swiftly meet-and-greet, I spoke but a few words, handed over a business card and scurried off.
Significant networking fail. NOT a lesson in how to introduce yourself professionally or beneficially at an event.
Networking doesn’t have to be scary. Be prepared
We’re coming into our final quarter of the year. With so much on the horizon including conferences, events and a host of opportunities proving the importance of professional development, there’s a good chance you might find yourself in a situation like this. I’m here to urge you to make it work for you (better than I made it work for me).
There’s no doubt that networking fast-tracks the opening of career and business doors. This happens through:
– the gaining of new tips to improve your work
– learning that accelerates growth
– finding customers or a new job
– making friends or discovering people who become future business partners, mentors and collaborators.
Yet, many of us cringe at the very thought of networking.
When we finally get ourselves in front of the crowd, we’re often ill-prepared, shy and take the wrong approach.
I soak up conferences (I especially love TBEX for travel content creators)! I love the learning and the inspiring presenters. I have always known the networking component is seriously valuable, but for many years I’ve made the errors referenced above.
When running my own business, I had to get stuck into the networking game, faking it ‘til I made it, so to speak.
For every person I met, I had a chance to discover how I might add value to what they were working on, and critically, much of that led to paid business.
How to make the most of a conference or event and introduce yourself professionally
It’s easy to slip into shy/tired/straight-up complacency though. This is where you hang out with the same people, get caught scrolling emails on your phone, feel stuck for conversation, or march right on in there with your business card.
Shamefully, I’ve done it all.
But, here’s my intention for us from now on:
be open to opportunity.
Make it your mission to connect with new people at each event you go to. Get to know them on a personal level.
Rather than only talking business, see if you can discover what hobbies, work, people, heroes, background or interests you have in common.
Ask questions, be interested, helpful, and listen some more.
If you have a few conversation-starters up your sleeve, that inevitably improves confidence when you approach someone new in a room.
Try things like ‘what brings you here today’, or ‘what are you working on that you’re most excited about right now’?
Another element I’ve always struggled with is getting my story right. You know, the ‘30 second elevator pitch’ thing!
I have always found it hard to articulate. Probably because I never crafted nor practised it – which is the final important bit of advice I wish to impart.
Instead of stating your job title when you meet new people, try sharing who you serve, what problem you solve, how you solve it and what results you’ve achieved.
For example: ‘I serve business owners by helping them produce high quality, creative digital content and this year already I’ve helped more than 45 brands reach their audience and engagement goals within six months of working with me’.
Over to you…
What emphasis do you put on the importance of professional development?
Make the best of what’s ahead this year, raise your profile and develop connections (offline, initiated via email, and online) that take you closer to your goals.
There’s no time like the present!
Keep in mind too, it’s only human to feel shy, reserved, or unsure of what to say.
Be honest about it – you can be certain others know the feeling well!
A welcome cool breeze skimmed across the Vltava, as dozens of paddle-boat revellers and a few small ferries floated past me on excursions along the Prague waterfront. I’d arrived ahead of Cooper for our weekend in Prague for travel bloggers – or, with a creative content twist; you see, we’re on our way to another annual TBEX conference, and I couldn’t be more excited to be in the Czech Republic.
It was Friday afternoon about 6.30pm and after a scorching hot day fighting through crowds for a glimpse at the city’s famously pretty highlights, I’d stumbled into a stunning yet quite secluded spot by the water. The place was otherwise anonymous, crudely labelled ‘Riverside Bar’ on a blackboard out the back of the place.
The shabby-chic joint served cold drinks and was streaming chilled House tunes – right up my alley. Similar name as a luxe and expensive Brisbane counterpart (that admittedly I love), yet cheap, romantic, less sweaty and overlooking the city’s medieval structures including the Charles Bridge. With a flavoursome gin and tonic sparkling in my eyes and the sun beginning its descent across the Czech Republic, it occurred to me, this is the life. I could be an a$$ and hashtag it ‘blessed’, but…
For the first time in months, I’d say, I sat without thought, just observing in peace.
It’s been so so busy this year and I need this weekend in Prague. I don’t like to overuse the word ‘busy’ – we tout a saying in my team at work about how ‘busy’ has become an excuse, often meaning that actually, you believe your ‘stuff’ to be more important than someone else’s, when often we have no idea what others are up against, nor do we remember to be respectful of it.
That said, while I’ve tried hard to balance things, it’s been tough, and writing or blogging for myself and for this lifestyle and travel space is the last thing I have energy for. Yet, it’s in my heart. And away from the hustle and bustle of Prague’s overcrowded tourist centre (not to mention my ‘other’ routine life), yet with its best bits in my line of sight, I felt inspired again.
While I moan about the crowds (apparently Prague is the fifth most visited city in Europe), I must admit to having a moment on Friday afternoon. I was wandering the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage listed Old Town Square, and as I gazed around me at the colourful, historical architecture and felt energy of so many who had come before, my breath caught and tears came to my eyes. It was rather overwhelming and took me by surprise. Probably nothing to do with being deliriously tired following a work social the night before and a 6am flight.
In all seriousness, it’s as beautiful as I remember it, and more than that, how lucky are we to have the chance to be in such places, so far from home?
Beyond the selfie sticks and those taking more photos of themselves than their surroundings, the depths of crowds attempting to enter popular areas, and hundreds of tourist groups dripping in deep-fried ice-cream-stuffed doughnut cones (yep it’s a thing, although not even Czech, as I understand it), there is palpable magic in this city of red rooftops and a thousand spires, wooded hills, romantic views and influence from generations gone by.
Founded in the latter part of the 9th Century, Prague became the seat of the kings of Bohemia. The city flourished during the 14th Century and for hundreds of years was a multi-ethnic city with an influential Czech, German and Jewish population.
From 1939 the country was occupied by the Nazis and while Prague’s structures remained relatively undamaged during the war, most Jews either fled the city or were killed in the Holocaust. The German population was then expelled in the aftermath of WWII.
Most of us remember the Prague that was under Communist rule for over 40 years, rarely visited by tourists until after the Velvet Revolution on 17 November 1989. Freedom meant a huge economic boom and an influx of delighted visitors from then on, which only increased after the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004.
As mentioned, we’re destined for TBEX Europe 2018, in a place I’d never thought to have visited, Ostrava. That said, as travel bloggers and explorers we are very excited to see somewhere new! Preparing and in Prague for the weekend, Cooper and I wanted our schedule to be part (re)discovery, part relaxing, part planning for networking and the conference (which I blogged about for the TBEX Events site recently).
We stayed about twenty minutes walk from the city centre, at Hotel Kinsky Gardens in a quiet Prague neighbourhood, yet with the convenience of supermarkets, shopping mall, pubs, a delicious tapas restaurant called Miro, and tram stop not five minutes’ walk away.
The river precinct I came to love (including the ‘Riverside Bar’, gorgeous new waterfront restaurant opening this week Kalina Kampa and Belle Vida Cafe) was just ten minutes walk from our accommodation, and is perfect for anyone who has done the central Prague tourist bit and is happy to indulge in the views away from the chaos.
On Saturday night I hosted my very first TBEX meet-up (this is my sixth TBEX conference so I’m excited to have taken this step).
We met up with four locals to Prague and five visitors from as far as America, Costa Rica and another conference attendee coming from England like us. We ran the plans through the conference Facebook group and Katie (an American expat living in Prague) chose a cool pub on a hill with a view for our group’s meet-up, and Prague local Veronika assisted with finding an impromptu dining option so we could all hang out and try local cuisine.
It was immensely fun to meet other travel bloggers and content creators in Prague this weekend and part of the reason we’re so pleased we continue to develop our little corner of the web here, for love and a hobby.
Prague is easy to do as a city break – you can walk around the old town, to the castle, up to view points, catch trams to gardens, boat-ride around the Vltava, enjoy a little jazz, join a free walking tour and get cultural in museums.
A weekend in Prague: practical tips
Be careful of taxis, they can be unregulated and rip you off. Go with a pre-booked service or use the trams and trains as they are very well run and cheap, but DO buy a ticket as if you get caught without one or if you have not validated it the fines are hefty.
Try the beer (it’s the home of Pilsner, after all), and as always, get out of the tourist areas of a cheaper experience when it comes to food and dining.
Take your money out of an ATM that’s associated with a bank and be careful of the exchange outlets that say ‘zero commission’ (usually they are hiking up hidden charges).
Importantly, be curious. In our case, this weekend in Prague was for us as travel bloggers: an unexpected low-key treat and reminder of how much I’ve gained from travel – the people met, surprising and inspired moments, lands wandered at early (or late) hours, and the fulfilment that pursuing creativity provides. We are lucky, but I too am grateful.
Onwards to Ostrava…
Got a question on where to stay, how to get around or things to do in Prague? Drop us a line in the comments – we love to chat and share
Attending my fifth TBEX Future of Travel Media conference, I had the chance to also travel in Killarney and Kenmare in Ireland.
I produced a vlog on the experience to share so you can see highlights like seals, donkeys, history, nightlife, traditional dancing and much more.
Ireland is amazing! If you want to know more about TBEX and why you should go, press play, or search TBEX on this blog for learnings and adventures from over the past few years in Costa Brava, Athens, Stockholm and Dublin.
If you’ve been to TBEX or have questions drop us a line and say hi in the comments.
Welcome to Travel Live learn, where we are passionate about living a life full of great adventures. We are Sarah + Cooper: we know life's short, and we're here to encourage you to make the most of it! We have worked in media, communication and creative roles for many years, and have spent over 10 years living and working abroad. Our hottest content topics here are pet friendly travel, house + pet sitting, and designing a life as expats or digital nomads wherever in the world you want to be. Join our community of over 11,000 like-minded adventurers - find out more by signing up for the mailing list and our Facebook Group. Find us on YouTube too. NEW podcast now live: search 'Freedom and Four Paws' on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts or your fave podcast service provider.