Rachael and Idara, somewhere over the Atlantic.
In the days leading up to our departure from Oregon my mind kept circling back to the one-page letter that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote to the soldiers under his command on the eve of D-Day. It begins: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
It goes on to describe the challenges they would face (a “battle-hardened” enemy who will “fight savagely”), but then makes a turn at its finish: “The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”
Our relocation from Oregon to Azerbaijan, also many months in the making, had almost nothing else in common with crossing the English channel and storming the beaches of Normandy. The challenge that lay before us was orders of magnitude safer and easier, but this was precisely why I kept thinking about what Eisenhower wrote. If he could cast the invasion of Normandy – an endeavor that he knew would kill thousands of the men under his command – as the “Great Crusade,” with exclamation and hope and the word “victory,” then surely we could stare down a few international flights with a similar measure of optimism.
This was a mindset easier to strive for than it was to achieve. To be honest, I didn’t feel like Rachael, Idara, Oren, and I were marching together toward victory. I felt like we were doing something dumb (flying amidst a pandemic, for example) and that we would soon pay the price.
I remember a similar feeling back in 2013 when Rachael and I moved to Qatar. And that was when there was no pandemic, and the country we were moving to hadn’t recently signed a treaty to end a war. Most importantly, in 2013 there were no innocent bystanders. If Rachael and I had erred in our decision to move to Qatar we’d be the only victims of our decision.
The innocent bystanders were also part of what was making me dread the trip. Locking yourself in an aluminum tube with young children is a bad idea. Especially since their behavior will reflect whether you are a good person, worthy of the love and affection, or at least the tolerance, of the 300 strangers who are locked in the tube with you. Not to mention the fact that there’s hardly enough room to turn around (who needs to turn around?). This is, surely, among the more tortuous experiences of parenthood, and we were going to be doing it for 15 hours across three flights. Add in 630 pounds of checked luggage, the byzantine process of securing and passing COVID-19 tests,1 plus the threat of COVID-19 itself, and perhaps you can see why I was taking inspiration from Gen. Eisenhower.
To my utter amazement, though, everything worked. We got all of our COVID-19 tests back on time and all of them were negative.2 We made all of our flights, didn’t lose any luggage, and from what I can tell managed to earn the tolerance of everyone we flew with. And though there were some tears and poopy diapers along the way, not a single one of us had a blowout.
Despite the fact that our journey stretched from one side of the planet to the other, and despite the fact that it began on a Friday morning and lasted through to Sunday, the entire trip boiled down to two moments. The first was set outside of a Beaches Restaurant in a mostly empty airport with Rachael, Oren, and Idara, and Gordy and Suellen, and my mom, and me.
She and I hugged for the first time in months, and for the last time in many months. This, more than anything else, was what we were leaving. I could pack our books, and our paintings, and our toys, but I could not pack what it feels like to be wrapped up and squeezed by my own mother, I mean really squeezed, which is Mom-speak for “What you are about to do is dumb and irresponsible and I’ll worry about it while I’m falling asleep, and when I’m in line at the grocery store, and whenever I wash the dishes, and I don’t want you to do it, but I understand that you have to.”
The other moment took place once we’d exited customs in Baku. We’d just collected all nine of our bags (which is so incredible that I feel the need to mention it again) and stepped outside to meet the driver who’d been sent to pick us up. This airport was mostly empty, too, except for the parking lot. It was filled by what appeared to be about one hundred Ladas, all idling on diesel, or based on the smell, perhaps straight motor oil. The sun was still well below the horizon and the airport was blanketed in a thick fog and while it felt like we could be anywhere, this was where we were. In a few hours the sun would rise and the fog would lift and I’d have a chance to orient myself, but in those first few moments I felt completely lost, and I wondered if my mother was right.
Of all the challenges we stared down on the days leading up to our journey, the COVID-19 tests were the hardest to navigate. While we knew that we’d need negative tests to gain entry to Azerbaijan, Turkish Airlines changed their policy just a few days before we left such that Rachael and I would need negative tests to layover in Turkey. The tests had to be sampled 72 hours or less from when we left for Turkey, and at the time, getting a test that quickly in the United States was not easy to do. We ended up using the Pixel at-home test and then calling to request that they expedite our results. It worked, and we had negative tests in hand by the time we left Portland. We retested in Turkey before continuing on to Azerbaijan. ↩
I’m writing this over three weeks after we arrived, and though we’ve yet to take another COVID-19 test, I think it’s safe to assume we’re in the clear. This despite the fact that the flights were almost completely full, and that we came across many, many people along the way who either wore their mask across their chin, or below their nose, or not at all. Rachael and I wore N95s the entire way (which you can see in the picture above), and Idara wore a cloth mask except when she was asleep, and Oren didn’t wear a mask at all, because he’s a baby and babies (regardless of age) don’t wear masks. ↩