The message from Norwegian authorities to Norwegians abroad “get home as soon as possible” is not so easy to follow when the world shuts down and borders are closed.
On Thursday, March 12, it became clear to Lars Gule, an Associate Professor at Oslo Metropolitan University, that the development of the coronavirus crisis bids him to return to Norway. He is in Gaziantep, in the south-east of Turkey, on a stop in his research trip. He has interviewed Syrian refugees for a book project he is working on, as well as spoken with both academic colleagues and Kurdish activists to update himself on the situation in the region. The idea was to stay for a while in Turkey to process the material while the impressions are fresh, but the developments at home make it clear that this is out of the question. The journey home begins on Friday March 13.
Finally, Thursday March 19, seven days later, he is back home in Oslo.
This is his story of his return to Norway through Europe during the time of the coronavirus.
Itinerary: Gaziantep – Adana – Konya – Istanbul – Ruse – Bucharest – Lököshaza – Sibius – Munich – Hamburg – Copenhagen – Malmö – Oslo.
The first leg of my long journey home begins with a bus from Gaziantep to Adana on Friday March 13. I have my Interrail ticket and the next day there is the Toros Express from Adana to Konya. However, this train is not really holding express speed but passes through a spectacular landscape as it climbs from the coast to the Anatolian high plain. It is not full but some young people are on their way home after Turkey decided to close schools and universities. A few of the passengers use medical facemasks. Some women use the niqab, several use the hijab. And a conductor finds it appropriate to carry out his prayers on his knees in a seat a couple of rows in front of me. No one seems unduly worried about the coronavirus.
I have to stay overnight in Konya, for all departures to Istanbul are full the rest of the day. The first opportunity is at 6 am the next morning. The high-speed train on this Sunday morning is not quite full, but almost. Of course, the train is also somewhat delayed to a wet and rainy Istanbul. It does not matter because the night train on to Sofia in Bulgaria, with connection from Dimitrovgrad to Bucharest, are not departing before 10.40 pm. That gives me plenty of time to book a ticket at Sirkeci Station. But, as feared, the Istanbul–Sofia Express is cancelled for the time being due to the coronavirus. An annoying setback!
While I would prefer to travel on by train, I have to consider other options, including taking a plane. But although very few cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Turkey so far, the country has cancelled flights to and from Norway and several other countries in Europe.
But, luckily, there are still going buses, so it is still possible to leave Turkey. I find a bus that leaves in the evening going to Ruse in Bulgaria, on the border with Romania.
It will be a long night on the bus in bad and rainy weather from Istanbul. But the roads are good and the speed high.
The bus is not full, far from it – and people are going to different places in Bulgaria. The trip to Ruse takes 11 to 12 hours. Patience is a virtue. And I just have to wait in anticipation of what the Bulgarians would say to a Norwegian on his way home.
The bus takes the road to the smaller border crossing at Hamzabeyli. Fortunately, there are no problems in checking out of Turkey. The border guards stamp me out without questions. On the Bulgarian side, however, there is trouble.
But not with the police. They stamp me in without question – and without any stamp in the passport. Now I am in an EU country with which Norway cooperates. However, the customs’ officers have decided to check our bus thoroughly. Everyone must get off the bus, find their luggage and await inspection.
In biting cold we are left waiting as they go through all the goods in the bus, most of which does not belong to any of the passengers. Did the drivers have their own import business of various goods? The customs’ officers check, the drivers wave with papers, but the empty bus is taken away! What now? Probably it is going to be some sort of X-ray screening. We wait and wait.
Annoyed customs’ officers are eventually fed up and without looking at the passengers’ luggage. Everything is loaded on board the bus again. We all give a hand to hurry up the process, and finally, the journey can continue.
About four o’clock in the morning we arrive in Ruse. The first stage is completed and I have beaten the virus – so far!
The hours pass slowly while I wait for the bus to Bucharest, Romania, which will leave at seven. This is just a small minibus with seven passengers. Getting “stamped out” from Bulgaria is quickly done. No questions or anything. Then it is the Romanian police who will look at the papers.
Passports and ID cards are collected. Something happens. There is going back and forth between people with the passports. Finally, a police officer comes and asks for ‘the Norwegian’.
I must get out. There is a form to fill. It’s about the coronavirus! Where do I come from, where have I been for the last 14 days, do I have any symptoms? And no, I will not stay in Romania, just travel through the country.
After signing the completed form everything is fine! I am on my way to Bucharest in Romania. The seat reservation on the train to Vienna, scheduled for 13.20 local time, is purchased. At this stage nothing indicates that there will be any problems on this next phase of my return journey. After 20 hours I will be in Vienna and can continue home! It looks as if I am going to beat the virus again.
It is far, very far, from Bucharest to the Hungarian border. In fact, it takes 12 slow hours. On expensive roaming on the Internet, I check the web regularly. Is there news about closed borders? In Austria or Germany. Yes, news agencies can inform us that Victor Urban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has decided that Hungary will close its borders at midnight!
This is worrying, but it will not affect us already on the train, will it? We are several passengers discussing this. This cannot be a problem for us since we are only going through Hungary to Vienna in Austria. We are in transit, although the border itself is crossed a few hours after midnight. It would be very inflexible to stop us.
We arrive at Curtici, the border town on the Romanian side. Police there say the border is closed, but that the train will continue. There are also Hungarians on board who, of course, can travel home. And the Romanian police are not entirely sure whether Hungarian police will let us through or not.
What are we going to do? Get off the train in the middle of the night, somewhere without immediate connections anywhere? We who are going to Vienna decides to take the chance. We are checked out of Romania and the train continues.
It is almost two o’clock at night when we arrive at the Hungarian border station Lököshaza. The police are ready. All have medical face masks and gloves. The border is closed! We have to get off the train, we are not getting any further. Some attempt to protest. This is not logical; we are just in transit. Everyone is going to Vienna – no one will stay in Hungary.
Of course, the objections are to no avail. Not even those who risk losing their job by not getting to Austria are heard. We were taken off the train and placed in a cell at the police station. A cell with a steel bar door. Some are annoyed, some are tired and a young black American cries silently.
However, we are not really under strict arrest. The door remains open and we can go outside. Nevertheless, several police officers make sure that we do not try to run away. They also have a police dog, just in case.
Now starts a time-consuming bureaucratic procedure. It is not a simple matter to reject citizens from other EU countries or the US. After a while, a police officer comes with several pages of documents. They are about the law allowing for the rejection of non-Hugarian citizens entry into Hungary. The reasons relate to what is seen as “a threat to public policy, internal security, public health or the international relations of one or more of the Member States of the European Union…”. Public health makes sense, after all, it is an exceptional situation.
This leg of the home journey, the coronavirus is winning. But the race continues. Because I have to get home!
We are put on the first train back to Romania. The prospects of a 12-hour train ride back to Bucharest are gloomy. So, what now? For me, direct flights from Bucharest to Norway are out of the question. But there are some possibilities for flights to Sweden. But can we rely on the information on the websites? Cancellations occurs all the time.
Some Germans on the train know of a small airport in Romania where flights to Germany are still taking off. The train we are on, stops at a station that allow us to get to Sibius International Airport well in advance of the evening’s departure. I decide to join them. If this works out, it will be a rather short flight. Very well, and then I will be in Germany and can continue homeward.
At the airport I buy the ticket to Munich, although the ticket seller cannot be 100% sure that the flight will depart, but it is still on the departures list although several other departures have been canceled.
Actually, the plane takes off a few minutes before scheduled. It is almost full. And the flight goes well, it takes less than one hour and 40 minutes of the timetable.
There is no night train with a sleeping car from Munich to Hamburg. But after having travelled for more than 60 hours without proper sleep, a night in a good bed in a hotel makes sense.
The next day the trip continues with a fast train to Hamburg. From there the journey will go on through Denmark and Sweden. It remains to be seen what the Danes will say to a Norwegian on his way back home. According to Norwegian radio, the Danes are intent on further sharpen their anti-virus measures. Will it affect me?
DENMARK & SWEDEN
There are no longer direct trains from Hamurg to Copenhagen. So, I have exchange train in Flensburg in order to cross the border to Denmark. There is no control or questions on the German side before the Danish boarder. I travel with a Danish grandfather and his grandson. They have been touring Germany and are going home. In Padborg Danish police go through the train. A very polite police officer welcomes a Norwegian in transit. The next to the last obstacle has been passed!
I want to get into Sweden as quickly as possible and make a fast change in Copenhagen to Malmö. Swedish police have not tightened their controls. The last obstacle has been cleared! One night’s sleep in Malmø and then I’ll be home soon.
The last moment of uncertainty now is what the Norwegian police say on the border. Are there any new restrictions on us, coming from abroad or are the quarantine rules the same ones I have read online? The very nice police officer in Halden has no new information. Go straight home. Yes, but I have to buy food. Well, if you do not have anyone who can help, then you must – the most important thing is to wash your hands and keep a good distance to others! Exactly! Comfortable information.
There is no more control or information at the central station in Oslo when I arrive. Only posters with the same information. So, I take a taxi home, shower and change all my clothes. I use an improvised face mask and plastic gloves. Then I buy as much food as I can carry at the nearest convenience store. It is probably not sufficient for the full 14 days I have to stay at home but eventually I will have some friends helping to restock supplies. For now, the front door is locked and the home quarantine has commenced.
Did I beat the coronavirus? It remains to be seen. I could still develop symptoms but most likely I will not. Given all my travels the symptoms would already have shown up if I had been infected.
My journey home was long and arduous. Nevertheless, it was not much more than an adventure. I reached my goal as I was sure I would. This cannot be said about all the refugees attempting to reach a safe haven in Europe, not racing with the coronavirus but fleeing from war, persecution and inhumane conditions. The corona crisis can only make the situation worse for all who are attempting to escape conflicts, oppression and an appalling situation. It is our responsibility not to forget these people in these corona times.