Happy Thanksgiving: COVID-19 style

It was the Ides of March in 2020 when I moved from California to Europe. Thanksgiving marks March 271st. I was still a postdoc in Jonathan Eisen’s lab at UC Davis and my contract would have ended in the end of August 2020. In March 2020, my husband and I were in the process of booking a container to bring our belongings through the Panamá Canal to Europe. He was applying for jobs in Germany, I had already an offer, and we were looking at schools for our children. I was in the middle of analyzing my data I had collected during one of the many field trips to Central America in the months before, when my mom from Switzerland called and told us we have to come now. Switzerland is closing its borders in the next few days and many European countries are already closed!

Graphical abstract for Thanksgiving methods. Idea by Grace Ho @Gracegusta. Sorry Canadians, that this idea comes a bit too late!

At that point I had no practical understanding of a pandemic. I was even still looking at flights to Hawai’i to celebrate our wonderful time we had spent as a postdoc family in California before moving on to the next step. It was my mom –  with no academic degree or scientific education –  who informed me that we need to leave now, practice social distancing, wear a mask, and stay at home. The Swiss government stood united and communicated through the national media about the current situation and how people should act now. My mom would follow the news daily and was fully prepared. When we called the airline company and asked whether we could change our flights to Germany to an earlier date, we were told that our flights had already been cancelled. The lady on the phone also told me that the last plane to Switzerland is leaving from Chicago within three days. We would have to figure out a way how to get to Chicago, and then she could reserve four seats for us from there to Zürich. We said yes and spent the next three days packing the most precious belongings into boxes and saying goodbye in the most socially distanced way we could came up with. We did not only have to leave much of our stuff behind but also the best people I have met in my life.

The masks. Well, there were no masks. All pharmacies were sold out. Online deliveries delayed. We stitched some cloth masks together. The best one was devoted to my husband who is a diabetic type I.

The dog. Well yeah, the dog. I had filled out paperwork for weeks and taken care of vaccinations to be able to export our dog in a couple of weeks. Now we arrived at the airport early in the morning without a ticket for the dog. The clerk at Sacramento airport first told us that we could not fly with Luna to Chicago because the weather was too cold at O’Hare and she would freeze in her crate at landing. Would we also have to leave Luna behind? The lady at the desk right next to us working for a different airline overheard our conversation and sold us a small cabin handbag because our airline did not have any dog handbags. So the luxury crate was transported empty as cargo, filled with kids toys, and the dog sat on our lap the whole time.

It was snowing in Chicago. When we arrived at check-in for Switzerland, my husband and kids were denied. Only Swiss citizens were allowed to fly to Zürich. The aircraft was full. Overbooked. This was the last aircraft leaving the US to Switzerland. Legally, an American citizen has to fly out of the country on their American passport. Luckily, we all also have a Swiss passport. My husband pulled the red passports out and we got checked in. Citizens of other countries, even if living in Switzerland, were denied. Again, no papers for the dog. No space in cargo. Luna traveled on our lap across the Atlantic.

In Switzerland we went directly into quarantine. My brother had parked his car at the airport and hidden the key. When we arrived, we walked to the car and drove it into our cottage in the mountains. My brother had not only left us his car for two weeks, he had also filled with a care package. At the cottage we spent two weeks in quarantine. We could call the local store and they would leave our staples in front of their door. We paid for it on a tab (they wrote down what we owed them and we paid it by the end of the month). After ten days, my mom visited us and we talked to her from our living room through the window, her standing outside.

I would go for long hikes with the dog. She saw snow for the first time. Thanks to Zoom I could connect with my collaborators. I talked to different classes through @SkypeAScientist. I managed to stay sane by writing a lot with a collaborator in Panamá and doing bioinformatics with a colleague in California and two collaborators in Vienna. Although I was super isolated in the Swiss mountains, professionally I felt very connected to the world.

Our main fear was health insurance. My postdoc health insurance would only cover us in California. My new job started in Germany. We were physically in Switzerland. Thanks to a stipend from my future PI in Germany, Prof. Nicole Dubilier, I managed to buy private insurance for a month in Switzerland that covered the whole family in case anyone of us would get sick. Who would get sick during a pandemic?

The move to Germany. Well, officially, we were not allowed to travel to Germany. However, I had a confirmation from the Max Planck Institute that I would start my job soon. We filled a truck with furniture and goodies my siblings gave us, and we drove all the way to Northern Germany. Originally, we had planned to drive on Saturday. However, the rental truck company closed 5h during the day we were supposed to pick up the truck (due to Corona, of course) without telling us. Packing took much longer than anticipated. After all, it was Corona time and we packed everything alone. The two of us. Eventually we left on Sunday. At the Swiss border, we were stopped by the Swiss border police. We had to pay $650 for driving a truck on a Sunday (Swiss law – no trucks on Sundays) and we were not allowed to move the truck until Monday. This is the moment when, usually, your world falls apart. The Austrian border police on the other side had seen it all. He walked over to us and explained that technically we are at the Austrian border and could now drive into Austria. In Austria, the law that prohibits trucks from driving on Sundays was lifted because of COVID-19. So we continued. The German border police simply welcomed us to Germany and waved us through after seeing the official Max Planck letter.

Care package from support group

Now we have been in Germany for 6 months. While the Germans have been mostly hunkering down the whole summer and fall, we had to fill out paperwork and run from one administration office to the next. The Max Planck Institute has been a constant during these months of change and isolation. So at least my work has been progressing nicely, which gave me some comfort. I feel a major difference in how the pandemic is handled here compared to California. While in California, it was the people who acted and informed on how to best minimize transmission, here it is the government that is informing and setting the rules. This reaches down to the scientific institutes where a plan was made how to act even before the pandemic started. As I was told by the head of our institute, they had prepared an emergency plan two years ago. There were two most likely scenarios: (i) A major flood after a winter with lots of snow followed by a rainy spring, and (ii) a SARS-like pandemic. So they pulled the plan out of a drawer and installed the rules. And the people seem to be OK with following those rules.

Several people asked me to write about our experience of moving continents during a pandemic and about the differences in academic culture between Germany and California. Yet, whenever I started writing about it, it became too emotional. Too personal. Only now I am slowly emerging and adjusting. I am sure I am not the only one who moved jobs since March. It has been extremely difficult. As a mother, I am constantly worried that I am exposing my children to stressful situations because I am making life decisions that benefit my academic career but traumatize them. Our kids were pulled out of a wonderful school in Davis, California. We traveled across the world during a pandemic and they were exposed to aerosols with little protection. They were not allowed to go to school here for months. There are no sporting events or after school activities where they could make friends and learn German. Our babysitter is not going into other people’s households during lockdown. We did not meet people and make new friends for many weeks. Our apartment is basically our world now. I feel adjusted enough to write again. Many postdocs out there are experiencing the same and I am thinking of you. We are the COVID-19 postdocs! I hope you have the time to still read The Molecular Ecologist while dealing with social distancing, applying for jobs, and being excellent. For some of us, this is really hard. But we are there for each other. Last week, I received a care package from two international colleagues, now friends, who have been social distancing in Austria for months. This gesture invigorated me a lot. I think COVID-19 is bringing us closer together. Think of your friends who struggle and send them a package!

I am slowly making friends now and we have been organizing Thanksgiving dinner. Since only two families are allowed to spend time together in Bremen, we are all cooking at home and then delivering the different dishes to each other’s door steps. Special attention will be given to the correct delivery to vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous households. Then, we will assimilate in groups of two families and eat all together via Zoom (see graphical abstract). I am thankful for my support groups and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Practice social distancing. Wear masks. And please don’t spread COVID-19.

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