ARTIST RESIDENCY IN EXILE: ‘News of the 14-day quarantine hit. I despaired’…now after surreal experience returning from U.S. ‘pure joy’ isolated with new canine friends on mainland

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(Editor’s note: The following is an essay by Elizabeth Bourne, a Seattle artist who moved to Longyearbyen a year ago. She is now in quarantine on the Norwegian mainland until April 1 after returning to the U.S. to sell her home and possessions in anticipation of living in Svalbard for the foreseeable future. It is presented with minimal editing.) 

Home. To return home is one of nature’s strongest instincts. Monarch butterflies travel 3,000 miles to return home. King salmon swim 6,000 miles to find their home pond. Arctic terns fly an amazing 24,000 miles from their southern grounds back to Svalbard to nest. 

My home is also Svalbard. I was 4,000 miles and nine time zones away as news reached me of how bad coronavirus was in other countries – China, S. Korea, Iran, Italy. Seattle had one case, then suddenly it spread like fire through nursing homes in Seattle, then patients’ families spread it into the south Seattle community, and further. I worried how I would get home, if I could get home.

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A “painting from memory” of Svalbard is shared by Elizabeth Bourne on her Facebook page this week as she spends a quarantine in effect until April 1 in a rural home on mainland Norway.

Getting information was difficult. No one was answering their phones. No one was answering e-mails. I understand this. So many people were trying to get answers. And there were so many rumors. I heard that Svalbard was being quarantined. That Svalbard would be evacuated. I was told I would be allowed into Svalbard because I am a resident, then told elsewhere I would not be allowed into Svalbard, and another person said that Norwegians would be allowed back home, but that non-Norwegian residents such as myself would not. 

Getting information from Icelandair also proved impossible. Were they still flying from Seattle? Were they still flying to Oslo? Their phone system said to check their website, but neither the website or the Facebook page had been updated, and they were not answering their phones. A friend drove me to the airport to check, where I was told Icelandair was no longer flying out of Seattle. 

The clock was ticking. I did not realize how fast. 

Friday, March 13, I checked Icelandair’s webpage again. They had updated their news to say they were flying from only four North American cities and Seattle was one of them. Because of flight schedules it takes me three days to get home. Then news of the 14-day quarantine hit. I despaired. Would I be allowed to overnight in Oslo, and quarantine at home? What if I stayed in the airport and didn’t leave? Would they turn me back at the border? No one knew for certain. Friday afternoon, I had all but given up. If I couldn’t get all the way home, what would I do? I prepared a Plan B for staying in the U.S., uncertain whether it would be weeks or months before I could get home.

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One of many “sights of the times” observed by Elizabeth Bourne during her trip back to Seattle to sell her home and possessions before returning to Svalbard for the indefinite future.

Then, a friend of mine in Norway texted me to say I could stay at their house in central Norway. Her partner would pick me up at the airport. I immediately went online and booked a flight for Saturday the 14th to arrive in Oslo Sunday the 15th. Almost everyone I knew thought this was a mistake. But my instinct said I had to get home, or at least as close to home as I could. I would not change my mind.

Saturday morning, I read the news that Monday morning at 8 a.m. Norway would close its borders. I panicked. What if Icelandair refused to fly me to Oslo? What if I got to Oslo on Sunday morning, and something changed while I was in the air? Was going to Norway really a wise decision? Almost everyone I knew said no. I should stay put. The risk of getting stuck in some airport or turned around was too great. Few people encouraged me to go – my Norwegian friend, a Swedish friend, and friends in Svalbard. Sunday was not Monday. I decided to stick to my plan. I was heading home, but because I could not reach home without a break in Oslo, I had a place to quarantine. I met the requirement. I would trust the government of Norway to keep their word. 

I admit, when my friends took me to Sea-Tac, my heart was pounding hard enough I was sure other people could hear it. To my relief, Icelandair checked me in with no problem. I made it through security, and once on the plane at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, texted my anxious friends that I was on my way.

The trip was like being in a disaster movie. The airport was almost empty. The Icelandair Boeing 757 is capable of carrying 239 passengers. Only 17 people boarded the flight. We arrived at Keflavik at 6 a.m. We had to wait as two stewards assisted an older woman in first class wearing a very industrial face mask. She was coughing and unable to walk. In seconds, a gurney manned by emergency medical personnel arrived, settled her, and rolled her away. She had been boarded before the rest of us, and was the reason first class was empty. A steward told us the woman was Icelandic, and had become sick in Seattle. Coming face-to-face with the reality of coronavirus was a sober moment for all of us.

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An Iceland Air flight from Seattle to Oslo is eerily empty after Norway enacts a ban on those who are not citizens or permanent residents from entering the country. Photo by Elizabeth Bourne.

We exited the plane to an airport that was empty, with most shops and restaurants closed. I went through passport control with no problem. I think the passport officer looked at my ticket to Oslo, and was happy I was Norway’s problem as he stamped my passport. Halfway across Canada I had switched to my Telenor sim card. I was relieved to have a message waiting for me from Icelandair. It said that I would be required to have an address in Norway for the mandatory 14 day quarantine, otherwise I would be turned away at the border. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could still go. 

I waited the three-hour layover, checking my phone every 15 minutes to see if there was a change. There was not. After I took my seat, I again texted my friends so they knew I was continuing on. The plane to Oslo was also thinly populated, and most of those were Norwegians hurrying home. We flew over an Iceland so covered with snow it looked like a plate of whipped cream, and then over the blue, blue water to Norway. 

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Elizabeth Bourne experiences the “pure joy” of hanging out with new friends at a rural home on the mainland an existing friend is letting her stay in alone during her quarantine.

After the plane landed in Oslo we were told that we would be required to fill out a form listing our quarantine address in Norway, and if we had any history with coronavirus. In baggage claim were dozens of young men in combat gear handing out forms. They were members of the Home Guard. We separated into two groups: Norwegians and non-Norwegians. There were considerable fewer non-Norwegians. I was directed to a young man who looked too young to be in uniform. I gave him my form, and said, “Jeg bor på Svlbard, men Svalbard er stengt. Jeg drar til en venns hus for å quarantine.” He looked at the form, then at me before saying, “Jeg må spørre min veileder.” After a brief conversation with a man who looked maybe 20 to his 18 years, he returned with my papers. “Du er god.” Then waved me out the door into Norway.

Now I am living on the second floor of a large house out in the country of beautiful central Norway. I have a spectacular mountain view out my window, woods to walk through, and dogs to play with. There’s even a sauna. I am very lucky and very grateful to be here. I know not everyone is so fortunate. If all goes well, April 1 I will return to my home in Svalbard. Which is appropriate since April 1, 2019, is the date I arrived in Longyearbyen to begin my life there. There’s a bottle of champagne in my fridge, and I intend to drink it with my friends. I will celebrate my anniversary year in Svalbard, and my return home. Maybe there will be two bottles.

(You can read more about Elizabeth’s experiences on Patreon.)