At the airport entrance my partner was stopped by an enormous armed security manchild, so we said a prolonged and tearful farewell in the concrete wasteland outside before I went in search of the white kangaroo on the red background. Despite feeling ill at leaving her, I also felt twinges of excitement at the idea of going home. It’s freezing in France and I miss Australia: my house and cats, friends and family, sunshine and sweet-smelling air and noisy birds (not necessarily in that order).

CDG was “un bordel” (politely put, a mess). There were red gaffer tape crosses on the floor and signs everywhere saying “1m Distance”, which everyone ignored. A good percentage of the airport workers were wearing masks under their noses. There were more police than gate attendants and more perfume ads than Marie Claire. Everyone was wearing black.

Qantas check-in was near empty and everyone was so friendly it brought more tears to my eyes. They gave me the green wristband and ticked me off the list of rescued strays. They were so happy to be helping. It felt so Australian.

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At this point my partner suddenly rejoined me. She had followed a likely-looking couple and ducked under the do-not-enter tape a couple of doors up. We scoffed a quick breakfast of croissants and madeleines before saying goodbye for real, and she waved for what seemed like forever as I walked that tortuous path into customs.

The official barely glanced at my overdue visa. But at customs my carry-on luggage was stopped because the official had told me to take my laptop out of my luggage, but didn’t say it should be removed from its covering. Two out of three people in the line were stopped for the same reason, leading to a traffic jam of COVID proportions. It took 25 minutes to walk 30 metres. Very French.

After that, the airport was pretty much normal; duty free shops, newsagents, bad coffee, people rushing about smacking into each other with carry-on cases, signs pointing in every direction, including to gate K27 – the gateway to Australia.

Which is where I am now.

“KitKat?” asks the thin, perky woman dressed in Paris black as I walk off the escalator. “I’m from the Australian embassy,” she says by way of explanation. Another black-clad embassy official is handing out Ferrero Rocher chocolates. They’ve turned out in force to farewell us. I count at least four of them.

After waiting the requisite half-hour longer than expected, we are herded onto a bus, standing room only. Mostly young people with a sprinkling of older, one of whom I saw sneaking a nervous drink out of a paper bag in the terminal. We taxi for what seems like an hour and take off into thick fog. It’s 7 degrees.

I’m sitting next to 31-year-old Romy Faulkner from Prahran, who’s been working with the Red Cross in Switzerland for five years and is reading sustainable development theory (Doughnut Economics), and Danny, a young bar manager from Yarraville with hand tatts and a shaved head who teaches car mechanics and whose literature of choice is philosophy and biography (Max Stirner, Jeanette Winterson). I’m glad I’m reading John Irving and not some cheap crime novel.

Turns out we’re on the first-ever non-stop flight from France to Australia (16-plus hours) and the staff are all volunteers. They seem genuinely delighted to be helping us get home “before Christmas” (except of course, we won’t be home, we’ll be in quarantine). As we start our descent into Darwin, the pilot gives a tearful welcome back speech.

A rainbow over the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility in Darwin.

A rainbow over the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility in Darwin.Credit:Louise Radcliffe-Smith

On Australian soil, it goes like clockwork. I’m on the bus, tagged and tested, within 90 minutes, in my cabin within two hours, logged on to work within three. I’m generally not a fan of bureaucracy, but every step of the way, from France to here, Australian officials (embassy, DFAT, Border Force, Howard Springs) have been friendly, organised and down to earth. The woman who welcomes us to the quarantine facility tells us everything we need to know in a few short sentences, including: “Yes, there is Wi-Fi, but it’s crap.”

I’ve been living in a one-room house in the Cevennes where I had to walk 30 metres through sub-zero temperatures to the fridge in the summer kitchen to get milk for coffee, so Howard Springs seems like heaven.

We’ve been provided with snacks, toiletries and a bag of Christmas decorations. The weather is fantastic, the phone reception is better than Footscray (haven’t bothered to check the Wi-Fi), I can open the mini-fridge while working at my desk, and the food is better than half the takeaways I’ve ever had. A tofu and chicken Malaysian noodle dish for dinner the first night; a Thai duck salad for lunch the next day. A lot of packaging, but they’ve made a real effort.

Romy from Prahran and Carminda from Brisbane decorate Block D at  Howard Springs on Christmas Eve.

Romy from Prahran and Carminda from Brisbane decorate Block D at Howard Springs on Christmas Eve.Credit:Louise Radcliffe-Smith

Apparently 16 people from the last three repatriation flights to Howard Springs tested positive, and they have all been moved to a different part of the facility. So has anyone from our flight who tested positive (at the time of writing, at least one crew member). My test came back negative and I’m checked on twice a day by the medical team.

We’re wearing medical armbands during the day and masks outside our rooms, and we’re not allowed to leave our verandahs except to put rubbish in the bin, but it’s much better than being stuck alone in a claustrophobic high-rise in Melbourne. Our cabins have windows that open, we are surrounded by gumtrees and hakeas, the days are punctuated by thunderous rain and raucous birdsong, the nights by the bark and yip of geckoes, and we can sit outside on our verandah and chat to the neighbours.

On my right there’s a feisty young woman who works out using water bottles as weights and spends the rest of the time sunbathing. On the other side is my neighbour Romy from the plane and Carminda from Brisbane who went overseas for a month to help her sick son. We joke a lot.

It’s like being on a strange and expensive holiday where you’re not allowed to leave your rental, or where it rains constantly and you decide to stay in and watch Netflix. Quite frankly, there are worse places to spend two weeks.

COVID willing, I’ll be getting out on December 31. Which means I’ll be walking through my own front door as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Flawless timing. And not a bad way to ring in 2021.

Romy and Carminda share a Christmas cracker joke. Harry the flea: “Shall we walk home?” Alan the flea: “No, let’s catch a dog.”

Romy and Carminda share a Christmas cracker joke. Harry the flea: “Shall we walk home?” Alan the flea: “No, let’s catch a dog.”
Credit:Louise Radcliffe-Smith

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