Bailing Out of London

Fleeing from the UK coronavirus mutation, journalist Daniel Harper documents his odyssey bussing with the Bulgarians back to Vienna. Fortuitous, yes, but the "scenic route" this was not.

The virus situation in London was “out of control,” Mayor Sadiq Khan had said the morning of January 8th. And here I was, standing in its centre at Victoria Station trying to board a bus to Vienna –  but what felt like the last helicopter out of Saigon. 

The bus pulled up a paper sign in the front window, “London – Sofia,” and the passengers lined up to enter, the driver checking passports, and negative COVID-19 tests. “What time we would arrive, I asked, when my turn came.  He shrugged: He only spoke Italian and Bulgarian so could not understand or answer me. So I boarded having no idea what route the bus was taking, where it would be stopping, nor what time I would arrive. 

My flights had been canceled and rescheduled far off in the future. With the new, more infectious COVID strain in the UK, all flights had been grounded, leaving me to try to find an alternative route. With flying impossible and trains over €300, the bus was the best option. There was also a Czech company leaving the following morning. But I placed my faith in the Bulgarian bus drivers. Why were only Eastern European transports were heading out of the country? With thoughts of illegal cross-continental drug and cheese trafficking, I decided to not question it. The reality was that Bulgarians were providing a cheap way for people to transport goods across the continent, with many stops, and no limits on baggage. Since then, the prices have nearly doubled.

The free NHS tests wouldn’t suffice for travel purposes, so I paid £120 and drove over two hours to the nearest cooperating pharmacy for a one-minute swab of the mouth and nose, timed so that I could hand over a negative result less than 72 hours before my journey.  But when the results take 24-48 hours, this quickly becomes a cruel high school maths problem, as it was not clear whether it should be 72 hours from the test or from when you get the results. 

I boarded armed with an iPhone filled with podcasts and playlists, and a hardback of Polly Sampson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, with stories of the Greek Island of Hydra. I also had my passenger locator forms for several countries in case a border patrolman should see a post Brexit Briton onboard who might be  an easy target.  I tried to relax.  It was the usual scene: Seats that ought to provide adequate comfort but don’t, a man in a hoodie at the back eating trail mix, and the eternal hope that I’d fall asleep for the entirety of the journey – which I never do. 

The bus had not been cleaned, as was evident from the pendulum movement of the half-drunk two litre bottles on the luggage shelves above. The windows were streaked with dirt and rain resembled rows of used canvases in a skid row atelier, and the air-conditioning was broken, in some cases bits were hanging from wires cascading like vines toward the seat. There weren’t a lot of passengers, which was one positive a least.

On the English side, French border staff boarded and checked the bus, asking for our passports and COVID results, after which the trail mix guy was escorted off the transport, in the process, helping himself to a Bulgarian man’s luggage from the hold. Fortunately the Bulgarian spotted him and quickly chased him down. The ferry ride itself was dark and close, affording none of the optimism of previous travels to the continent. 

Nearly two hours later, we were on the other side. French border guards climbed on with a sniffer dog who were wide awake and promptly located the stack of sweaty Cheese sandwiches and Jaffa Cake Bars I had brought in a plastic bag. 

We were in Paris by 9:00 and parked at the back of the Panthéon. I walked around to the front of that majestic structure and could just make out the Eiffel Tower in the distance, wrapped in fog but for the tip poking out through the cloud. As we left, I caught the late magenta and yellow sunrise illuminating the flowing current of the Seine and, for a brief moment, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame. 

Back on the bus, we were treated to a Cook’s Tour of the border towns of Southern Germany. Places I had never thought to go, and for which I fear my appetite has now been soured as filtered through my filthy window. Strasbourg, though, was quaint, and here I set myself a reminder to come back in the unknown future with my spouse and small children for a weekend away. 

The cities of Southern Germany passed by in a blur. Saarbrücken and Mannheim, Ulm to Augsburg and the Soviet styling concrete of the Munich Bus Terminal. I recalled a Brazilian man I had met in Amsterdam who had spent a year studying in one of the lesser-known German cities and had developed a drug habit to quell the boredom. I could understand why he had moved to Amsterdam.  Somewhere along the way an elderly Turkish man, large and bald pated, took a seat in front of me – which I determined from the language on his phone and the pictures of his wife standing in a field in-between two flag poles bearing the white Islamic crescent on a background of red. He started coughing the moment we entered Germany, and didn’t stop until we departed at Vienna. I kept my mask on and my head down.

As the sun sank below the horizon around 4:30pm, I was struck again by how short the day is in winter. But my eyelids refused to close, and sleep didn’t come, only thoughts of the absurdity of the situation. I had seen more sights from that dirty bus window than I usually see in a year. The world was in a peculiar tilt, as was I.  “Why am I doing this?”,  I wondered. I checked my messages:  How was I, Vienna friends asked?  I realized, I have a flat, an internship and a good group of people there. If the Bulgarians are offering to take me back there, then I’ll take it. I opened my laptop and watched two films one after the other, A Separation (2011) and My Sassy Girl (2001), an Iranian drama and a South-Korean romantic comedy reminiscent of Notting Hill.  Good to get away. 

After a stop in Salzburg, we arrived outside the Erdberg Bus Terminal around 3:00 in the morning. It tool another two night buses to Schottenring, and then a brisk walk home up the Währingerstraße singing aloud in my own private karaoke of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I walked through my apartment door at about 4:00, to a welcoming committee of near dead plants and a stale baguette, and headed for the shower.  I would never get to sleep before washing the smell of the bus off me. 

I had never been happier to be home.  

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Daniel Harper
Daniel Harper is a British multimedia journalist. After graduating in International Politics and History he studied International Journalism MA at City, University of London. Writing about culture, society and human stories. Instagram: @simonpaulphotos

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