Were this a normal year, the prospect of spending two months in California during the coldest months of the British winter – December, through January and into February – would seem like heaven.
This, however, is not a normal year.
For two years, my husband Lewis and I have known that, at some point in the future, we’d have to decamp to Los Angeles for a couple of months.
Since November 2018, we’ve been trying to have a baby via surrogacy in the US as I have a genetic heart condition.
Then, the prospect of a hiatus from normal London life was thrilling; beach days, café breakfasts outside with our baby, hikes in the hills, strolls with the pram around outdoor shopping malls…
But it just so happened after more than a year of trying, the start of the global pandemic coincided with our surrogate getting pregnant with our son.
Now at a time we really didn’t want to travel, we had to. We watched as global infections rose, the death toll spiralled and America – and Los Angeles in particular – became the centre of the pandemic.
Of course, travelling during a practically global travel ban is not simple. America’s borders have been closed to everyone aside from US citizens and Green Card holders (with some other limited exceptions) since March 2020.
My husband and I already possessed work visas for America, but with these not valid during the pandemic, we had to employ a lawyer in the US to make a case for us to get special visas allowing us in for the birth of our child.
After two months of collating documents and an interview at the US embassy in London, our plea was successful. It was the day after the so-called ‘UK coronavirus variant’ meant the world had begun shutting its borders to flights from Britain.
Ten days later, on New Year’s Eve, we – and our five suitcases – were at Heathrow airport. If you think travelling was a faff before, you ain’t seen nothing. Before even being allowed to check in, a US immigration official gave our documents the once over.
We showed the necessary negative Covid test certificates. We scanned QR codes on our phones from the state of California, promising to abide by a Stay At Home order put in place by the governor. We signed documents agreeing to abide by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) stipulations for a ten-day at home mandatory quarantine in our Airbnb…
Heathrow’s Terminal 2 was deserted. Most seats were out of bounds. Restaurants and shops were closed, the airline lounge was empty.
Ditto our flight with Virgin Atlantic (so clean, so safe, so considerate of passenger nerves), where there were about five other (masked) people in the business class cabin – all spaced out for social distancing reasons – and another 60 passengers on board, total.
Eleven hours later, we sat, still fully masked and visored up (we’d been in face coverings 17 hours and counting), in the US Customs and Border Protection department at Los Angeles International airport, watching CNN broadcasting their New Year’s Eve show from a surreal empty Times Square in New York for a final check on whether we could enter the country. Thankfully, we could.
Travelling so far from home during Covid really does bring home how ‘global’ this pandemic is. Like here, hand sanitizer stations are everywhere. People are masked. Signs encourage social distancing… The normally heaving Los Angeles International airport was dead. It was bizarre. We’d come so far and yet everything was the same.
Knowing we’d have to quarantine indoors for ten days – and we’d be staying two months – we put serious consideration into our Airbnb. We wanted somewhere with open space and a garden so we could be outside but not around too many people once the baby came and because of my heart condition; somewhere central but not in the city…
We opted for a tiny pool house in the spacious grounds of a big 1920s home in Laurel Canyon, a chi-chi bohemian district high on the hill overlooking LA home to lots of celebrities and musicians – Sam Smith, Rihanna, Harry Styles, writer E.L James were all residents on our street or those nearby.
As anyone who has travelled to the US can attest, the British accent normally opens doors. Let me tell you, those days are gone thanks to the ‘UK variant’.
The car hire guy told us he ‘thought they’d banned Brits already’, and, when we could leave home, people frequently asked us ‘how long we’d been here’, seemingly scared we could infect them with ‘our’ ultra-contagious Covid strain.
Our Airbnb hosts who lived in a main house in the grounds were equally cautious. They met us wearing N95 masks (as were we) and we sent them our negative Covid test before we arrived. Talks around the pool took place at a social distance of several metres – which is just as well as three weeks after our arrival, they informed us they’d got Covid (not from us and we didn’t catch it).
While we’re all used to ‘staying at home’ at home, it’s very strange (although completely necessary) being in a new place for weeks and not really going outside.
We had food shopping sent in from a nearby Whole Foods and got everything else we needed from Amazon. I took to doing daily 80s aerobics workouts online while my husband developed a circuit training routine in the garden.
Social norms were a mystery too as evidenced by my going – barefaced – to put the bins out within the bounds of our property a couple of days after arriving and being shouted at to ‘wear a frickin’ mask!’ by a lady hiking past.
When soon realised masks are worn everywhere, not just indoors – ‘wherever there’s a reasonable chance of encountering someone else’. Angelenos wear them to jog, they wear them to cycle, while walking the dog or talking to a neighbour.
We wore them in the gardens of our house or in the driveway if we thought other people were around. While people lower their masks when no-one else is about, even passing someone on the opposite side of the road is cause to put your face covering up. It’s seen – rightly, in my opinion – as selfish not to.
Nearly two weeks after we arrived, our first trip out of the house was for a dawn hike (thanks jet lag) around a nearby canyon.
It felt like freedom! In the days preceding, we did several more; to our favourite beach for a dawn walk and to Santa Monica beach at sunset for another, but were careful to avoid people – California (and LA in particular) was experiencing it’s deadliest ever month with 15,000 people losing their life to the virus in January alone.
Then, three weeks after we arrived, we began a whole new adventure (with its own self-imposed self-isolation!), when our baby Jesse made his way into the world.
This time there was more noise and less sleep and while it coincided with the lifting of the California’s stay at home order, we still didn’t really leave the house aside from for a daily walk around the canyon.
Total number of meals eaten that we didn’t make? Two (a drive-thru at In N Out Burger and delivery pizza). Coffee shop visits? One (drive-thru). Tan lines? Zero (initial ones pre baby seemingly erased by a serious lack of sleep).
But when we returned last week, we had everything we’d ever wanted. A healthy baby.
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