When I was a child, packed like a sardine with my siblings, in a car towing a caravan through the middle of nowhere, a small voice would pipe up ‘Its too darn late, Its too darn late! Oh afraid to go home cause its too darn late’ It was my youngest brother singing mournfully from the boot of our station wagon where he shared a makeshift seat with his brother (no seat belts back then). We would join in, one by one, chanting the words until we reached a crescendo at which point my father would roar “Be quiet, I need to concentrate on the road” There would be silence for a while before my brother would quietly start up again.
I can’t remember the rest of that popular fifty’s song or if we even had the correct words but that first line came to mind recently.
Friday 28th feb 08.30
The road from Heeten to Hoogeveen is a single lane, and no passing is allowed.
The speed limit is 80 and everyone appears to be abiding to it. And even though the Friday morning traffic is heavy, it’s running smoothly.
I pass small lay-byes at regular intervals. These are marked with a tractor sign so I’m guessing that if you are stuck behind a slow moving vehicle don’t panic. It will pull into one of these and let the built up traffic by.
I note how at each set of traffic lights or roundabout, the single lane turns into a double lane for a few meters and thus impatient drivers can inch a few cars ahead.
And cleverly, to stop anyone cutting across you at roundabouts, there is a kerb separating the lanes. Once you choose your lane you have to stick to it.
Not being familiar with how many meters before the two lane merges back into a single lane, I play safe and don’t bother trying to pass the truck in front of me.
Besides I am not in a hurry.
Maybe it is my dawdling that allows me to make an unplanned turn right (instead of keeping straight for Hoogeveen and re-looking at the kip shelters as I had planned).
In the the show room at Dedemsvoort, the small Eriba caravan now stands polished and shining center stage.
It is hooked up to electricity and the curtains are open, giving me the opportunity to peek through the window at its pristine interior.
Yes, there are the dusky rose colored seats I dreamed I slept on and there is the warm honey colored veneer interior that made me feel so comforted and cocooned.
Was I getting the ‘that’s it’ feeling?
“Go ahead inside and have a look” The owner has stuck his head out of the office door.
“I’ll bring you a coffee”
I step inside and sit on the seating.
Closing my eyes, I sniff.
No smell of mold. No lingering aroma old cigarette smoke. No wet dog smell.
I lean back against the comfy cushions and dream I am somewhere by the sea in the west of Ireland with the rain beating on the roof and the kettle singing on the little hob.
My revere is broken when the owner hands me a tray through the door laden with a cup of coffee and milk and sugar on the side .
“I’ll take it” I say loudly.
Puzzled, he looks down at the tray which we are still both clinging to.
Realizing he has misunderstood me, I explain.
“Not the tray! I mean the caravan”
He releases his hold and I take a deep breath.
“I would like to buy this caravan please” I announce rather formally.
“Okay” He seems surprised by my quick decision. “Would you like me to show you all the features first? Make sure you are happy that everything is working correctly?”
“No” I smile “I’ll just have my coffee here and then I will come over and make the payment”.
When he is out of earshot I pull out my phone and text our family group chat.
‘I have just bought a caravan’ I type excitedly.
My phone rings.
It’s my older daughter.
“Congratulations Mom. Which one is it.
“It’s the little old Eriba” Suddenly I doubt my decision “Should I have gone for the Kip?”
“No! The Eriba is a great choice. It looks super” She reassures me, “We were rather worried about you getting the Kip and maybe blowing away in such an light caravan in one of those west of Ireland storms”.
I know we are both right.
The paperwork is straightforward. My bank card doesn’t let me down. We arrange the weekend of the 28th March as the date when I will drive back to collect it.
As I am leaving another customer comes in. I overhear the words ‘Corona’ and ‘Tilburg’.
But I am so excited with my purchase, It could have been beer they are talking about.
Saturday 29th feb 10:00 hrs
I have said goodbye to my airbnb host and to Nana, the cow.
I have successfully dropped the car back to schiphol without a scratch on it.
I notice a few people wearing surgical masks in the airport, but don’t pay much attention as I run down the stairs to the platform. There is a train to Amsterdam center leaving in three minutes.
With hours to spare before my flight, I decide to be a tourist.
I wander along Harlemstraat stepping out of the way of cyclists. But I am not aimless. My destination is the Lindengrachtmarkt.
This authentic Saturday market has been running for about 120 years.
It is not my first visit to it and I know what I am looking for.
I make my way through the throng, passing stalls selling vegetables and tulips, cheeses and artisan foods until I find the one I am looking for. I join the queue and eventually it is my turn.
“En broodje harring alstublieft” I say and pass over my two euros.
I know people who eat sushi without a second thought, yet shudder at the idea of eating raw herring. But confined in a bread roll and dressed with onion and a pickled gherkin, I think there is no nicer way of eating this delicacy.
I find a bench among the bicycles and enjoy every mouthful.
Now besides raw herring, there is another traditional dutch food I remember with fondness and my excuse, as I push my way into Cafe Papeneiland, is to find out if it still tastes as delicious as I remember.
The cafe is full to capacity, but I find a vacant seat at a communal table and order an ‘Apelgebaak met slagroom’ (Traditional dutch apple pie and cream) and a Koffie verkeerd (Coffee with a biscuit on the side).
The waiters are busy, the customers relaxed and chatting. Social distancing hasn’t been heard of yet so we squeeze together, elbow to elbow.
I intend to just eavesdrop but the two couples at my table are having none of it and we end up sharing stories.
They tell me of how, without fail, they come each Saturday to the market and end their day with a coffee in this cafe.
I tell them of my dream and my search to buy a little caravan.
“Have you many cases of the Corona virus in Ireland” They ask me.
“Luckily none” I reply.
When every crumb of my apple pie has been consumed and my coffee cup is thoroughly drained, I gather up my bag and, bidding my new friends goodbye, I make my way back to the station and board the train to the airport.
Saturday 29th February 1900 hrs
The turbulence of the flight that evening, through storm Jorge, should have been a forewarning of what loomed ahead but having no idea as yet, I innocently joined in the relieved clapping as the aerlingus plane landed awkwardly on the tarmac of Dublin airport.
Happy to be alive, I smiled at the Hse staff sitting at a table in the baggage collection area, offering information on the virus.
Unknown to me the first corona victim in Ireland had landed sometime earlier.
Friday 7th March 0900 hrs
I am due back to work tomorrow.
After following the dutch news and seeing the numbers rise so quickly, I ring the HSE helpline to inform them I had been on a recent flight from the Netherlands and to inquire if it is safe for me to come into work.
I am told it is and so I do.
It is quiet in the hospital for a change. There is a strange air of expectation. We have a few empty beds as re configuring of patients is taking place in preparation for the worst.
My two thirteen hour shifts go smoothly.
During the week I read that numbers in both the Uk and the Netherlands are rising fast.
I begin to panic, wondering how high they will be by the end of march.
“Go over next weekend, while the going is good, don’t delay. It’s probably only going to get worse” My daughters advise.
So on Wednesday I work out a route that would have the least human contact and therefore the least chance of picking up the covid 19 virus (to give it its correct name).
By that evening I have booked my series of ferries starting on Sunday morning 15th march.
I planned on returning with my caravan in tow on Tuesday 17th.
It will be a tight schedule. A round trip of 2,480 km, completed in 60 hours. There could be no room for errors! No ferry delays, No flat tyres, no hiccups of any description.
The Hull to Rotterdam is an overnight trip each way, so I book a cabin for those journeys, taking care to request a single, outside one, on the top deck. Oh and most importantly, with no air con, thank you very much.
Thursday 12th March.
The department of foreign affairs has a travel app giving information on travel safety in every country in the world and updating it as changes occur.
I add the app to my phone and check it frequently.
The green dot signifies no restrictions on travel for the UK.
There is a green dot also for the Netherlands.
I breath a sigh of relief.
By Thursday evening, however, the green dot for the Netherlands has been replaced with a yellow one!
‘Proceed with caution!’
I can do that! I think to myself. I will pack sanitizing wipes, face masks masks and gloves. I will wipe every surface on those boats. I will hunker down in my cabin. I will wear a mask passing through public areas. I will be more than cautious. I will be on guard!
On Friday morning I check the app again and am relieved to see there is no change in the color of the dots.
With just forty eight hours until my departure. I might make it.
Saturday morning is a different story.
The green dot for the UK remains unchanged but the yellow one for the Netherlands has changed to orange.
‘Avoid nonessential travel’.
My heart sinks.
I check the HSE web site.
‘Health care workers are requested not to travel to Europe and staff who have recently come back from Europe are asked to self isolate for 14 days’.
I cannot justify the journey.
I was too darn late, (as my brother would say)
With a heavy heart I start the process of cancelling my ferries.
I ring my daughters. They sound relieved.
“We didn’t want to say anything, but you are making the right decision”
That night I wept over the loss of my dream.
The next day I ring my best friend. I want her to tell me that it’s awful. That it’s so unfair. That I don’t deserve it!
But instead She says “At least its safe. All is not lost. it’ll be there when this is over”.
“But I want my caravan NOW” I stamp my foot like a bold child. ‘
“Are you actually stamping your foot?” she laughs “anyway even if you had it, you can’t go anywhere in it”
I can’t explain why I want it so badly. The thought that I nearly but not quite had my dream place, my sanctuary.
On Sunday 15th march I ring the caravan owner and explain the situation.
“No worries, we will mind your little caravan. It will be safe here”
Saturday 21st March 06.30
Again my weekend for work has come around.
Feeling sorry for myself, I go in, determined to be miserable.
By 11 o clock I am genuinely miserable and can barely drag myself around.
My colleagues check my temperature. It is 38.1 centigrade
They give me a mask to don and send me home with instructions to ring my GP.
I climb into bed and sink down under the duvet shivering.
I have obeyed every rule in the book and now I was a suspected covid case.
You just couldn’t make it up.
Bicycle parking outside Amsterdam train station