Coronavirus Reports from Our Guides in Europe — Week 7

On many days, the first thing I read — while I’m still in bed — are emails from our tour guides all across Europe, many in countries more locked down than mine. It’s touching and fascinating to learn what their lives have been like for the last two months. Earlier this week, I sent them all a video message reassuring them that our company is financially strong and determined to weather this storm. Like them, we are eager for this crisis to be over, so we can all get back to guiding our Rick Steves tour groups around Europe. But in the meantime, it’s great to be in touch.

Here’s a recap if this week’s communiques from guides.

Jana Horovska sent these eerie images of empty Prague, including some of the most crowded places in town:

Karlova Street, which we usually make a point to avoid with our tour members because it’s so jammed.

Charles Bridge, normally clogged with visitors.

And the Old Town Square.

In the Netherlands, Ellen Janzing writes:

“This time after Easter is a festive period for us, with our National Holiday, or King’s Day, on 27 April (our King Willem-Alexander’s birthday), plus Memorial Day on May 4 and Liberation Day on May 5 coming up. The commemoration of these have all changed drastically now because of the coronavirus crisis.

“Usually on King’s Day there are car boot sales everywhere, people go out in droves (dressed in orange!), and there are festivals, bands playing, parties, and so on. This year, everyone celebrated at home — together with our king, who was at home, too, and checked in with people online.

“The day began at 10 a.m. with the national anthem being played by the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra from their homes, with people around the country invited to join in. And they did! (With the notable exception of Amsterdam, the city that traditionally has a love-hate relationship with the monarchy.) Here’s a clip:

“At 4 p.m., the day was concluded with a toast from the king, and my husband and I joined in from our garden with the traditional, orange drink: Oranjebitter and an orange tompouce cake.

“Here’s the king’s toast:

“In the last week, I also had the chance to go to Amsterdam. I know, we’ve all seen the quiet streets of otherwise buzzing cities, but to me personally it was shocking, memorable, and emotional to see this vibrant city so quiet now. What remains of a city when people have left it? I filmed it for my tour guide colleagues:

“You’ll see Central Station, the Red Light District, Dam Square, a coffeeshop, the Homomonument, and the Anne Frank House. And yes, I talk too much and show too little — I’m no professional vlogger, sorry!”

Stephen McPhilemy — not in Ireland, but in Switzerland — writes:

“I’ve been isolating in the silent, blissful, and safe Swiss Alps for about three months now. My two American friends, Patrick and Cyrus, and I have always daydreamed of buying a little hotel in Switzerland as we love hiking in the Alps each summer. In mid-February, this dream came true. We took over the keys from Mark and Ursula, celebrated, and sat back for a blissful life as Swiss hoteliers in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

“The lads headed back to life in California, and my Brazilian wife, Rubia, joined me, leaving her best friend Vera to watch our three huge Irish wolfhounds at Milltown House in Dingle. The plan was to stay in Lauterbrunnen for a month, get things ready here for the busy summer season, and then return home to Dingle to our wolfhounds…and for me to begin my 20th summer on the road guiding Rick Steves Heart of Ireland tours.

“Oh how our world has changed.

“We are now approaching our third month in the Alps. Summer has arrived, and Switzerland is still in an obedient and disciplined lockdown. Financial support from the Swiss government has been swift and relatively generous. So although, in retrospect, the timing of our hotel purchase was abysmal, we are secure and ready to reopen when it is safe to do so and the Swiss Federal Council gives us the go-ahead.

“My wife and I have become vegetarian, after an initial month of Rösti and bratwurst! Vegetables and herbs grow wonderfully in the strong alpine sun. We are cycling every day along beautiful trails with not a tourist crowd in sight. And I’m learning German! Then the even wilder Swiss German…here’s a clip of my best efforts.

“Our Irish wolfhound pack is being well taken care of in Dingle with poor Veramuza from Brazil — little did she know what she was letting herself in for when she volunteered to dogsit!

“We are safe and happy here in our isolation. I’m dreaming of the day when we tour guides can be ‘on the road again.'”

In Sarajevo, Amir Telibećirović shares the Bosnian perspective on life in self-isolation, with his characteristically dry sense of humor:

“As a very small country, often almost forgotten but socially and culturally vibrant, Bosnia is struggling through the ongoing international crisis. While we are dealing with similar issues as in other European countries, I am finding that people who lived through the siege, war, and/or expulsion in the 1990s are a bit more resilient than younger people. They are handling this collective isolation with more patience.

“In order to avoid the stereotype of ‘do you want the good news or the bad news first?’, let’s make a sandwich of the ‘good’ list divided in two, with ‘bad’ in between.

“Good News, Part 1: According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 96% of all Bosnian citizens wash their hands with soap and water after going to the toilet. That puts Bosnia on the top of European countries. Before this global state of emergency, this number didn’t seem like a big deal. But now many people in Bosnia are reminding ourselves that we have already been following WHO advice to wash hands carefully, for generations, with or without the pandemic.

“Another suggestion on hygiene from the authorities is to take shoes off before entering a home or other indoor space, as a precaution against the virus. That’s another tradition deeply rooted in Bosnia.

“While people around the world have been buying enormous amounts of toilet paper, that’s been done at a lesser scale in Bosnia. At first, Bosnians did some stocking up out of fear of shortages, but soon we remembered our own hygienic tradition. It’s simple: Water is more important, more significant, and more effective than toilet paper. Water and soap first, and then paper, but not paper alone.

“Bad News: The economy, which was already in bad shape even before this crisis, is about to collapse. A lot of people are losing their jobs. The ongoing political crisis is more visible, especially with corruption on a local level.

“Also, the governments of neighboring countries — Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro — are taking advantage of the crisis to Bosnia’s detriment. They are sending illegal immigrants across the border into Bosnia, and Croatia has announced plans to dump nuclear waste on the Bosnian border, with many Bosnians living just downriver.

“Good News, Part 2: Ordinary people are closer to each other, helping their neighbors. Young volunteers are self-organizing to help older and disabled people who can’t go out for their supplies. People are spending more time with their relatives. And people are turning more to agriculture, in order to rely on their own production, like their ancestors.

“We’re greeting each other in a similar way to what Native Americans used to do: with an elbow and a small bow for respect. There is more humbleness now in greetings — more modesty, less formalism. It looks odd at first, but traditions are there to be changed, to evolve into new traditions, to be adjusted. The rest is history, as long as people respect each other.”

And in London, Jeanie Carmichael takes a “stiff upper lip” approach to finding things to be positive about through this crisis:

“Even though the news seems increasingly grim from all around the globe, I have been playing on repeat Ian Drury and the Blockheads’ fantastic 1970s song ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’:

“And there are, in fact, many of them to be found — first and best the incredible Captain Tom Moore, who decided to celebrate his 100th birthday by walking 100 laps of his garden, to raise funds for our wonderful National Health Service. He had hoped to raise £1,000 at best — his inspiring story went viral, and so far he has raised over £30 million! He has also recorded a song with Michael Ball and the NHS Choir which has gone to number 1 in the charts (our oldest chart-topper ever) and on his actual birthday, April 30, the Royal Air Force did a fly-past over his home, as a thank-you to this gallant and inspirational gentleman.

“Every Thursday at 8 p.m., we have ‘Thankful Thursday’ and we hang out of our windows, clap, cheer, and bang saucepans to thank the NHS — this week it was for him, too.

“Other inspiring elderly folk from Britain, the Rolling Stones, have released the brand-new single ‘Living in a Ghost Town,’ which is great stuff and good for dancing around the kitchen:

“Our museums and art galleries have wonderful online tours to enjoy — and how marvellous to be able to enjoy all these treasures with no one else around to get in the way!

“The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, and many other theatres are streaming terrific productions for free, and I am settling down with a glass of something lovely and a plate of cheese, in my own private theatre every night. It just doesn’t get any better…

“This situation has really brought out the Blitz Spirit in Londoners: Armies of volunteers are every day helping neighbours and housebound folk, with the result that we are meeting people we never knew before. I deliver medicines for my local pharmacy and have endured endless teasing from my chums, calling me ‘The Local Drug Mule.’ But I have the last laugh as I get more outdoor exercise than is normally allowed, and get to chat to neighbours, and best of all, feel useful.

“This strange situation in which we all find ourselves has given us all plenty of time to think and re-evaluate many things — and it’s been interesting to discuss with family and friends, what is the first thing we will do when we are finally let out of lockdown. I want to head straight for Westminster Abbey, just to sit and soak up the beauty, and to think of all the troubles and struggles which that loveliest of buildings has helped people endure for a thousand years…I am not a very religious person but I do think that courage, faith, art, and the lessons of history will get us through.

“Chin up, everyone, and remember what Churchill said: ‘When you’re going through Hell, KEEP GOING.’”

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