A Trip to Spain in the middle of the pandemic

A Passport and a Mask: Traveling to Spain During the Pandemic

I was determined to see Sevilla, Spain, and now I was going. I ordered a car to take me to the airport, as none of my friends were available to give me a ride.

A gray sedan pulled up to my house, and I put on my mask. An affable, middle-aged man was driving, and he had many questions about my trip to Spain. He said he had always wanted to go.

We arrived at the airport some 30 minutes later, and I approached one of the customer service desks to check in. The European Union was requiring visitors to obtain a QR code so they could presumably track where we were going. They wouldn’t let me check in without it. 

I didn’t understand the system, and it seemed unlikely to be of much use, but I went along with it. I eventually figured out the complicated government website I needed to navigate to get this QR code on my phone and showed it to the person at the desk. They looked at it, typed something into the computer and gave me my tickets. 

“This is fatal,” he said as he laughed.

Here’s a tip: Get the QR code before you get to the airport if you need one to get where you’re going. If you need a seat number to get the code and don’t have a seat number yet, one could theoretically make one up. They could type in 26A, for example.

My flight was delayed, so I spent some quality time with a whiskey and a beer. I observed the people I’d likely be traveling with. They seemed fine enough. Considering how contagious the Delta variant is, it seemed silly to me that we were maskless at our tables, as if six feet of distance would keep us safe, but you can’t exactly drink a beer with a mask on. 

My connecting flight landed in Miami and, of course, the terminal I needed to get to was about halfway to the Moon. I cursed under my breath the entire way—trying to figure out why I was taking multiple shuttles to get where I needed to go. I arrived at the terminal with just moments to spare.

Now we were really in the danger zone. A nine-hour flight with hundreds of people during a pandemic. Luckily, everyone appeared to be masked—if haphazardly—as was required.

It was starting to get late, so I drank some whiskey and tried to fall asleep to a sitcom on the screen in front of me. I started to fall asleep and then heard a harsh cough behind me. My eyes darted back and forth. I could tell it was coming from a young girl.

I would regularly wake up during the night to the sound of this harsh cough. I eventually located the culprit—a girl who appeared to be about 5 years old. She was wearing a mask that was covering her mouth but not her nose. Her father seemed to have no interest in the fact his daughter was hacking up a lung during a pandemic and freaking everyone the fuck out. I wanted to smack him across the face for not at least offering her some water.

We made it to Madrid, where I’d be spending a night before heading to Sevilla, and I was sure I had COVID. I didn’t have any symptoms, of course, but I just knew that little girl had given all of us the virus. (It turned out I didn’t have it.)

I went to get my luggage from baggage claim, and they had lost it. Rather, misplaced it. I struggled to navigate the situation with my mediocre Spanish. They said they could bring it to me in Sevilla.

The traveling wasn’t over, of course. I had to take a shuttle to a train and then the train to my hotel. The shuttle was at the bottom of some stairs, and when I got in and it started moving, I felt like I was in a noir film. Everything looked black and white and outside lights flashed by as the shuttle moved. Everyone seemed emotionless.

Madrid. Photo by Thor Benson

After getting off the shuttle, I found my train to central Madrid. Everyone on the train was masked, which was reassuring. When the train arrived at my stop and I left the station, I found people were even masked outside. Some people weren’t wearing masks, though, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked up the rules on my phone and found you’re only required to wear a mask when there are a lot of people around. I was desperate to take mine off after wearing it for 16 hours, so I found a way to my hotel where I wouldn’t be around basically anybody. 

The hotel had things set up so you could grab your key from a lockbox and never have to interact with any employees. I got into my room and collapsed onto the bed. I turned on the TV and decided to take a quick nap. When I woke, I took a shower, changed and left to see the city. I had visited Madrid for the first time right before the pandemic began, so I knew where I wanted to go, but I also knew things would be different.

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I was in the Malasaña neighborhood of Madrid, and I wanted to go to this bar near Plaza del Dos de Mayo where I had become good friends with the bartender during my last trip. I was hoping we could chat about how things had been during the pandemic. When I arrived, the bar was closed, and I suspect it may have closed permanently. Unlike many of the other bars in the area, there was no room in front of the bar for outside tables, so they may not have been able to serve anyone for quite some time.

I walked around the neighborhood looking for a seat at an outside table, and every seat was occupied. I eventually asked a server what I should do. I spoke to him in Spanish, but he switched to English.

“You need to sit down,” he said rather aggressively. I understood that he meant I needed to wait and take a table by force the second someone started getting up to leave. I didn’t want to do that, so I walked on until I found something in a more quiet part of the neighborhood.

I visited a few watering holes in the area and eventually went back to my hotel. I wondered if I’d be able to safely meet anyone on this trip. If everyone is sitting at their own tables outside, it’s not easy to socialize. Of course, you also want to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk.

Photo by Thor Benson

The next morning I got my things together and checked out of the hotel. I went to an outside cafe and grabbed a seat. I was served smoked salmon, delicious cheeses, fruit, toast and more without ordering more than an orange juice while I perused the menu. It wasn’t free, and I was confused, but it was actually exactly what I wanted for breakfast. My breakfast was routinely disturbed by a bee that really wanted my food, but I eventually learned to dine with the bee.

I took a train to the train station where I’d be taking the high-speed rail to Sevilla. I’ve always found this train station, Puerta de Atocha, more confusing than it needs to be. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the place. I eventually figured out where I’d be getting on my train, and I discovered that I had accidentally purchased a first-class ticket, which was a pleasant surprise. 

Just short of three hours later, I finally made it to Sevilla. I ordered a car to the apartment I would be renting for the first week, and I spoke with my driver as we moved through the city.

Sevilla. Photo by Thor Benson

He was an amusing old man who dressed as if he had been in the driving business for many years. He had a nice coat on and a driving cap. He made fun of the tourists who were out on the streets in the middle of the day while the temperatures were well above 90 degrees. “This is fatal,” he said as he laughed at them. 

After what felt like years of traveling, I was at my apartment in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla. I got the key from a lockbox and walked up three flights of stairs to my little rental. I was pleased to discover the balcony I had seen in pictures was about twice the size I thought it would be, and I had a gorgeous view of the city.

Photo by Thor Benson

I decided I would rest for a little bit and then go explore this place I had been waiting so long to see. International travel is always arduous, and it’s worse during a pandemic, but a great experience is often preceded by some suffering. 

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

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