The negotiations began last autumn. During a family Zoom call with parents, siblings and various toddlers periodically summoned to wave into the camera, I broached the subject of Christmas.
Should we have it at my parents’ house in Meath, or at my aunt’s in Castleknock in Dublin? What were the plans for Stephen’s Day?
My usually loquacious mother was suspiciously quiet. Let’s see, she mumbled, moving swiftly on.
Having been stranded in the United States since the pandemic began I was hankering to visit Ireland. Though the summer of 2020 saw a relentless increase in Covid-19 cases in Donald Trump’s America, people were on the move.
Not us, however. The US travel ban introduced in March had prohibited inbound transit for most non-permanent residents. While there were exclusions for some visa holders, foreign journalists on specific visas were not exempt – not surprising given the former president’s views on the media. I was free to leave the US but not return. With an Australian husband desperate to see family in England and Sydney, our plight was even more acute.
I enviously watched as my green card-holding friends flew to Dublin. All quarantined at home on arrival they assured me, but at least they could travel. Reported sightings of baseball hat-wearing tourists with American accents wandering around Kerry filled me with envy.
With Ireland’s Covid numbers creeping up, I detected a growing disquiet on the weekly Zoom calls
I found my inner activist, taking it upon myself to write letters to ambassadors and minsters in Ireland and the US. Quoting Ireland’s history of emigration to the country, in one particularly passionate missive to the State Department I declared that nothing less than the US’s status as the bastion of democracy was at stake.
Remembering my days as an EU correspondent, I seized on the Brussels strategy of aligning oneself with bigger, more powerful countries. Together with a Spanish journalist friend we co-opted a group of European journalists to make our case to the authorities, but to no avail.
Irish and European diplomats in Washington ducked when they saw me coming, worried I would regale them with yet another detailed explanation of the injustices of the US’s visa system. Never had the plight of the undocumented felt so real.
As the summer came and went I realised more desperate measures were needed. I triumphantly booked a 22-hour flight leaving from Dublin to Mexico City via Madrid on St Stephen’s Day – under the rules I could enter the United States if I spent 14 days in a country not on the travel ban list.
I spent hours selecting lavish hotels in Cancún on offer for a snip, blithely ignoring the rocketing Covid case numbers in Mexico. Many hours were spent ruminating over how I could pack efficiently for Christmas in Ireland and a Caribbean beach holiday. It could be done, I assured myself.
In October, partly to allow foreign journalists in to cover the presidential election, changes were made to the foreign media visa scheme. Holders could now apply for exemptions to re-enter the country. Gone were the plans for Mexico, as I frantically sought a refund from Iberia Airlines. Instead, my mind was filled with images of glasses of Baileys, Leopardstown festivities and sitting by a Bord na Móna fire dressed in a yet-to-be-acquired Aran jumper.
But the mood at home was changing. With Ireland’s Covid numbers creeping up, I detected a growing disquiet on the weekly Zoom calls. Siblings were divided on the appropriateness of me travelling home. One mentioned the national interest as he urged me to reconsider. My mother’s silence said a multitude, as her mind worked overtime to work out ways of sequestering me from the citizens of Trim, in the fear I would be spotted in public having flown in from the US.
Eventually, the decision was made for me. We both got Covid, me in the US, my husband during a long-awaited visit to the UK.
“We’re thrilled”, my mother declared, as I announced that it meant I would not be travelling home, no doubt relieved that the prospect of social ostracisation had receded.
And so it was with dismay that I absorbed last week’s announcement that travellers from the US would be required to quarantine in a hotel, even the fully-vacccinated like myself. But barely a week later there was hope once more, as the Minister for Health announced that exceptions for vaccinated people were forthcoming.
As I awaited the latest twist in the Covid travel saga, I celebrated my second lockdown birthday this week in a restaurant in Washington. As the temperature reaches the mid-20s, and the city begins to open up, there could be worse places to be. And after all, there’s always Mexico.