Conference Travel! Philadelphia and AWP 2022, March 19-26

Once again, I traveled in the tiny valley between large variant waves. This time: Philadelphia.

Day zero

My options for flights were red eyes, terrible connections (which I’m not doing in this era even if they’re not grueling, and maybe never again), and approximately two direct flights that didn’t leave at 11 pm. I got one of those and so leave SFO at about 1 pm, set to arrive in Philadelphia at nine. I still have to get up early to make it – not just Saturday early, but any-day early for me in this era. I depart from SFO’s new Terminal One, and I don’t say this often, but: it’s swank as fuck. It looks like a soft version of the well-lit, soft-edged Elysium rich people future, with huge pictures of Harvey Milk, art everywhere, and really interesting museum exhibits. I walk through a technicolor dream of flight attendant uniforms from the 60s and 70s and another little collection of scientific equipment of olde, which the part of me that enjoyed steampunk for 15 minutes before it was too much, too everywhere thrilled at. So much brass, all these rivets and tiny articulated pieces. The food is great too, and all local; they have The Little Chihuahua, Filipino food, even a Drake’s. It reminds me of Portland’s airport in the best way.

Brass scientific equipment behind glass

I get Filipino because there often aren’t veg-friendly options, and I like to seize the day. I write my daily fiction words at one of the many, many little desk spaces with both USB ports and power outlets. On the plane, I write in my journal and read a book and a half, which massively reassures me about my attention span, which I struggle with lately. It’s still there; it’s just really hard for it to work well with all of, you know, everything. But it’s waiting, and it tentatively emerges when it can, like when I have a five-hour flight and a backlog of books on my tablet. I read about horny, vengeful gods and tentative teachers in love. In this age, I give my brain whatever it will stay with.

We have a little turbulence out west, but it remains pretty smooth until about 45 minutes before landing. The pilot warns us that they’re going to circle the airport a little to try to find a less-choppy way through, so we knew… ish. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long the bad turbulence elapsed because my body lost all sense of time due to being submerged in terror. I’ve had a varying relationship with turbulence since I went to college and found myself on planes roughly twice a semester. I became really scared of it when I did some silly math and realized that flying more meant MORE CHANCES TO DIE, which… I mean, yes, technically that is true, but twice a very small figure remains a very small figure.

This math did not soothe my lizard brain.

Then I went on a flight in a four-person plane and had my hands on the controls while we went through turbulence, and I got a better sense of how small any plane is in the hands of nature, same as any size of boat in the ocean. Air is not by its nature still. And so I calmed down for several years.

After the last two, that calm has mostly left me, and now I spend turbulent times arguing with myself about my shitty, substandard estate planning efforts and how I haven’t put anything in place for a trusted loved one to find my unpublished writing should I die. And so that’s what I think about as we fell several feet (for several seconds? an hour? I don’t know?) more than once, causing me to hiss-yell fuck and elbow my neighbor as I slam my hands onto the armrests. This was not an outsized reaction on the flight; it really was awful. And I notice that two aqua-blue ceiling-mounted lights sometimes pop on by the toilet nearest me just before things get rocky again. I sit in my chair, seat belt cinched tight, one hand holding my tablet, the other holding the back of the seat in front of me, gazing at the ceiling, waiting to see if the blue light was about to tell me about more incoming terror. My brain cycles a litany of unhelpful things: they should have delayed us, I should have stayed home, nothing is worth this, I’m done with planes, etc.

I look up the details of taking Amtrak home later that night—90-110 hours, $600-$3,000—and resign myself to not being done with planes.

I take the train into the center city, annoyed at an unclear sign on the door I’d come out of that said BUY TICKETS INSIDE, except the kiosk inside was broken, and they actually meant buy tickets inside the train, and so I miss the first train because I didn’t want to jump on with no ticket and possibly get fined. Instead, I spend a not-unpleasant hour on a bench where the rain didn’t land, enjoying real air, thick and wet with spring showers, for the first time in almost 12 hours.

I emerge downtown to an actual Saturday night, drunk youths everywhere, which I didn’t anticipate, and so have to navigate happy people having fun while dragging my bag and feeling the bonelessness that sometimes comes after adrenaline recedes. After figuring out that the H&M and where I was staying shared a street number, I get in and collapse. Being a first day of a trip, my assignments were only to find where I was staying and feed myself. I summon Indian food, do after-midnight yoga to try to get my body to relax a little, and go to sleep after four, full of aloo gobi and still wondering a little about what I’m doing here.

I have an answer—I am here for AWP—but it still doesn’t feel like enough answer. But, like my winter trip, the goal is to remember wonder, discovery, and fun. I’ve asked myself, as nonjudgmentally as I could, if this is me starting to understand why some people like all-inclusive vacations and cruises, and maybe I’d be happier with the nerdier versions of those? But no, it’s not like that. I don’t want to stay on a resort with a rubber bracelet that entitles me to food, and I don’t want to be safely swaddled on a cruise ship doing the sampler platter of tropical countries, even if it was possible to avoid covid and norovirus. The goal is to learn to stop being a scared grump and recover the things I still like, deep down.

It is, alas, a lofty goal.

Day one

I, uh, sleep until 4:30. I wake up at one to pee, but I realize I have that wavery-edged feeling, slightly raw, that means it’s best if I slept more. And did I. I remind myself that this is acceptable for the first day of a trip like this in an era like this. The first goal is to actually relax, to be restorative when I can.

So I eat Indian leftovers and do LWH, which is where I began this post and got as far as this sentence.

After this, I mostly give into the fact that I was tired. I’ve talked some about first-day feelings over the years, and I’ve learned to meter my expectations, which has led to a drastic decrease in self loathing; always worthwhile. Lingering in my not-a-hotel around six pm, though, I realize: I am still so fucking tired. I’d finished Friday, after a full day of work and then not-uncomplicated packing, so tired I could barely form words, and then there were the twin stressors of Saturday’s solo travel and, you know, thinking for a little while that maybe I was going to die.

I order sushi, and fetching it from downstairs is the only time I leave my not-a-hotel-room today. It’s fine. Tomorrow will have stuff; today can be for regaining a little energy and enjoying a lot of nothing. As I’ve reminded myself a lot across the pandemic: when I have the energy to do things, I want to do them. In fact, it’s hard to stop me from doing them. However, browbeating myself into being a more vivid version of me when I’m exhausted rarely brings me toward anything I want.

I gleefully rewatch Umbrella Academy and put myself to bed.

Day two

A Philadelphia street with old brick houses, a narrow cobblestone lane, trees, and gaslamps

I have an appointment with a work friendly, and so I rise before noon. Just like that: the idea of walking around outside isn’t exhausting anymore. I meet my coworker (with whom I have worked for seven months but of course have never been in the same space with) for brunch a couple neighborhoods over from where I’m staying, which leads me on a lovely walk through the Gayborhood. We talk with an intensity I didn’t fully predict, wonderful stuff about the Prisoner’s Dilemma and cultural norms about communication and openness and how to change people’s minds. All that and bread pudding French toast too: fabulous. We part ways, and I walk east, wandering through historic parklet after historic parklet. This was once the potter’s field, and beneath us are all these unknown soldiers; this is where a typical rental house once sat, home to cobblers and a tavern and so many other things; this is where beekeeping was born and one of its seminal texts written. I walk until I get to the Irish Memorial and the Scottish… tribute to being awesome, I dunno. It’s a bunch of upright people, one with a sporran, which is an interesting contrast to the moving and rather devastating sculpture and explanatory plaques around the Irish one. They’re odd neighbors.

From there, I walk a little further to Penn’s Landing, which on a Monday is a fairly empty waterfront span that has the strong look of hosting summer musical events and other big crowds. My favorite part is on the walk back up via a bench-lined path that lists American firsts in Philadelphia: the first billfold, the first bank, the first mustard, library, performance of a play written in America, and gobs more—and, get this, some of them weren’t even done by Benjamin Franklin. I come to love this part of the city fast; I’m a plaque reader, but on the way back from the waterfront, I realize that if I stop and read every plaque, I will never get home.

This is a nice problem to have.

A blue historical sign for Lorzeno L Langstroth, 1810-1895, reading, "Born here, Langstroth revolutionized the beekeeping industy with his 1852 patented movable frame hive and his manual The Hive and the Honey-Bee. Both remain in use today. His innovations advanced beekeeping, pollination, and honey production worldwide.

I stop at home to sit for a minute and give my feet a rest, but I really do leave again, because today was my last really good chance to finally, finally go to the Mutter Museum. Of this I have no pictures because they aren’t allowed, so I’ll, uh, make you some images of words, because it’s not hard to do about that place. One version of the tour: I walk through and say hi to maladies so familiar they might as well be members of my family (rather than just belonging to members of my family): abnormal colons, ovarian cysts (I maintain mine was more impressive than one of the two I saw, but I’m not here to cyst swing at the long dead), bones showing what multiple myeloma’s effects look like. I skip the wall of wax figures of eye maladies but linger at the slices of brains that end in a single slice that kept most of two faces intact, empty eye holes above placid features. It isn’t a place for the queasy. I see a young guy in a black hoodie with a conjoined fetus skeleton design that wasn’t from the gift shop in front of a display of conjoined fetuses and skeletons have a little shudder and look quite creeped out. I was all in black and grey today, as I’ve tended more and more across the pandemic, and I fit in aesthetically among a lot of the people there. I won’t say we are all definitely gothy; I’m just saying a lot of us would fit easily into the aesthetic of certain clubs and dance nights with a musical and sartorial tendency. Only that.

I find I needed to deliberately swap museum buddies a few times. You know: museum buddies, the people you end up shuffling next to a lot as you make your way through a museum at a similar pace. One was an older white guy, maskless of course, in an exhibit all about the 1918 flu epidemic and Philadelphia. Others were little groups I didn’t trust not to say something tasteless in a place that I think deserves respect. I thought the museum did a good job addressing the eras of language about deformities and the varying ethics of how the types of things in the museum are collected, and I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to dipshits take potshots at dead people who’d had hard lives. Instead, I skipped around and was mostly ok. I had to double back to see the wall of skulls because it was so crowded when I first got in there, and once I had time, I was drawn in hard by the dead collector’s handwriting directly on the skulls with notes about their owners’ lives. The tightrope walker who died of a broken neck is the one that’ll stick in my head the most, and after that probably the several skulls of soldiers who died by suicide, who ended up overrepresented because of where the collector worked.

Dried or defleshed body parts, wet specimens in jars, translucent wax models of flesh and nerve, and skeletons from two people who died last century of a rare disease called FOP, who never met while alive. The gentleman died not long before his 40th birthday; the woman who donated her skeleton was touched by what he did and decided to donate her own skeleton, with the request that some of her jewelry collection be donated too. A small glass case next to their skeletons, all incorrect joins and painful looking spikes, contained a rhinestone tiara and earrings, among other things. It was so real and personal it hurt a little to look at.

I went through faster than I expected; I went through as fast as I should’ve. I spent a chunk at the gift shop, postcards of things I couldn’t take pictures of, earrings of arms, magnets. Not books, even though the curation felt made for me; I think I’ve read at least a quarter of what they have for sale in there. And I may go back later this week for hoodies. (In fact, I end up ordering them online while still in Philadelphia, in the interest of going easier on my book-stuffed luggage.)

I came home for LWH, and after that, I just… drift. I watch TV and write some more. I do yoga. I almost talk myself up to going out for food, but I step onto the sisal rug under the bed, and the skin of my feet twinges and says, “Oh, did you think you were putting us into shoes again? Fascinating.” So I eat the last of my leftovers and push the acquisition of new food off into tomorrow.

I make plans with another friend who lives here. I read events related to AWP and feel overwhelmed in a way I decide to regard as exciting.

Day three

Once again, I sleep later than I mean to, but I decide it means I need it. I get lunch at Pret-a-Manger (one of my very basic pleasures that I seek out when I end up in Pret territory) and get a story from the woman working there, who has matter-of-fact manager vibes. While we wait to see if their card reader will work, she tells me about the last day they were open before lockdown in March 2020. The card reader didn’t work then either, and, as she put it, “We were full of people, and they were all hungry.” So she gave people food for free.

I like her a lot.

Philadelphia's City Hall on a cloudy day

I take my food across the street to eat in front of City Hall, which looms in the nicest way. I realize I walked by a very clear view of it on my first night, but I was so fixated on getting to where I was sleeping that I completely missed it. It’s hard to miss, so it says something about how frazzled I was when I got into town.

There are picnic tables and other people who do things like eat lunch outside when it’s 55 degrees out. After that, I walk to Christ Church Burial Ground. I realized last night that I hadn’t scouted out a cemetery to visit, which would be a terrible omission now that I’m in the old part of the US again. Christ Church is where Ben Franklin and a bunch of other Revolutionary War luminaries are. I’m game. I figure it’ll be like the cemeteries in Boston, where I fell in love with roaming through cemeteries to begin with, but it’s, well, not. The Boston tombstones with their 400-year-old winged skulls and hourglasses tend to be carved from slate, and this cemetery tended toward marble. Marble, it turns out, kinda melts if it’s left outside for too long, and these have been outside for about 300 years in some cases. The pastor of the affiliated church noted in 1865 that some of the inscriptions were becoming hard to read, so he made a project of recording all of them, which is the only reason we know what most of them say. The cemetery has a number of plaques reproducing the recorded version, but almost none of the original stones are still legible. There are newer ones, tributes from societies and military brigade honors, but the originals are mostly blurry. Looking back across the graveyard, it reminded me of a grassy area filled with broken teeth. It was worth going, but it wasn’t what I usually expect when I take these detours.

From there, I go home to plot my way north to see a friend who lives outside of the city center. I return to Suburban Station, which isn’t the dark labyrinth it seemed like on Saturday night, when I was exhausted, dragging bags, and recently terrified. It’s… pretty easy to navigate, actually. I get my ticket, I follow signs, and I get right on the train. Oh. Right!

An open bottle of Yuengling beer with a cheesesteak sandwich sticking out of foiled paper.

I meet my friend at a station not far from where she lives, and I get to see how regular people live in a new-to-me place and pet her cats, two of my favorite things. She takes me to a cheesesteak place near her, and we both get the regular with American cheese and a beer. I get a Yuengling, because I am here. This sandwich represents more meat than I may have eaten in the entire last decade. I nibble it sometimes, usually during travel, but it’s usually a bite of someone else’s food that’s worth sharing and worth breaking my usual pescatarianism. In this case, I go for it. I’m in Philadelphia, for god’s sake. I’ll eat fish at home. And so I devour this giant-ass sandwich, and it’s pretty good. Meat and cheese: they still taste good together! And I feel content that I got a non-touristy sandwich. I enjoy it enough that I ask myself if I might reconsider how I usually eat, or if I might at least want to seek out another one before I go home. But you know what?

I really don’t. I have accomplished my goal. My friend confesses that this is not the very best of these, but for me it turns not to really matter. I tried the thing and am content.

A cement bridge with a rainbow drawn along its inner arch. Beneath it is a few of cars and houses.

After, we go to a really nice little neighborhood nearby called Manayunk and get cookies. The sky is going dim, and people are having beers on sidewalk tables, and emerging from yoga classes, and just existing. And it’s so nice to see. I picked a really central place to stay downtown, which makes perfect sense for conference life. But it’s a lot of… stores. It’s a Uniqlo and an H&M within a block of me, it’s outdoor mall stuff. Not the places people really burrow into to live. Along with seeing friends (which, after the last two years, can you imagine? Seeing people?), getting to see the more livable spots is one of the best things about going places where I know people. I might’ve stayed here a month and not ended up in Manayunk, but instead I did. Amazing luck.

Day four

Today I discovered that the reason I’ve been sleeping through my alarm is that, when my phone’s OS updated, new alarms defaulted to no sound rather than the last sound set. So. Right.

Thus today started later than I meant it to, but this was the last non-tragic day to figure this problem out, so it’s lucky, actually. I set out around two and head to the convention center to check in for AWP. It is, in the way of convention centers, a casually enormous space, all soaring ceilings and long escalators. It’s strange to picture it stormed by 7,000 of us tomorrow, but I’m told that’s what’ll happen. After I get my badge and my Green Lanyard of Vax Proof, I spot a Trader Joe’s across the street and do some long-delayed grocery shopping, and I come home and take care of one of today’s to-dos: eat an actual salad.

This doesn’t stop me from wandering by the LOVE sculpture and a bunch of less-famous sculptures of game pieces. I take a very important picture there.

A large game piece, blue and round with white writing saying O-69, sitting on granite tiles outside

From there, I embark on one of my favorite things to do while traveling: “my friend told me to do this thing.” In this case, my friend Matt, who is from here, told me to go to Crash Bang Boom. I was game immediately, then even more so because it reminded me of my wonderful New York excursion to Trash and Vaudeville. I have a quest to get a Clash shirt for my partner and a Bauhaus shirt for me; I manage both, plus a couple goth magazines. (Goth shit became one of my pandemic special interests, and I’ve had sads occasionally about missing good zine culture around it. So when I saw something black-and-white and pretty on the subject, it was immediately foretold that I would buy it.) It was another hard afternoon to make myself go outside (such is depression, it’s fine), so it’s a bonus that I get into a spirited and pleasantly weird conversation with the folks working there, who I suspected were the owners, which was confirmed by my friend later. It’s always a good day when I get to tell people about the common faults of AI-generated faces. (I mostly talked about the symmetry stuff—nonmatching ears and glasses.)

Storefronts, including a black-and-green one called Crash Bang Boom and another reading South Street Art Mart

I walk home via South Street, where I happen onto a METRIC FUCKTON OF EXTREMELY ORNATE MOSAICS and am thus very very very happy. I duck into side streets, alleys, and occasionally building courtyards to see more mosaics than I have ever seen in my life. It’s honestly stunning. I think if I lived among or behind such a thing, I might die happy. I like wandering around here anyway—I like old, and Philadelphia is well old enough to have layers upon layers of stories casually everywhere—but this was a bonus.

A tile wall with faces drawn on some of the tile pieces. Others are in shades of shite, cream, pink, and blue, and some are mirrored.

I head home to drop things off, write for a bit, and then set out for my first AWP-adjacent event, a reading not far from me. I drink a sour beer, listen to some poetry, compliment a woman on her fantastic royal blue suit, and realize I’m done for the night. This is why I stayed where I did: City Centers are not, as a rule, full of character, but they have the charming quality of being within a 15-minute walk of so many things, ideal for when you’re cold with unreliable social energy.

Day five

Or: day one of AWP.

I actually get up early and make it to the convention center by 9 am. I go to sessions about integrating monsters and myths into your fiction and nonfiction, about querying agents and starting that relationship, about epistolary works. I even talk to some people, the true goal of the day. And by about 3 pm, I am zapped. I stayed up a couple hours later than I meant to finishing reading a book, which is thematically appropriate but biologically inconvenient. I take advantage of my strategically located Airbnb and crash for a couple of hours.

I meet up with my local friend around 5:30, and we walk north to Love City Brewing for Strange Theater, an AWP-adjacent reading series behind held for the fourth time. The authors contend with interesting acoustics (clever speakers on lanyards that connect to headsets), but the brewery is big, and the event area isn’t closed off from the cacophony of the rest of the place. I tell one of the writers later that hers was the best short story I’ve ever heard yelled. “I bet it was the only one,” she said. “Yeah, but even if I’d heard five others, I think yours would’ve been the best.” I meant it too. The excerpts are good and well delivered.

We stay a bit to have another beer and catch up. It feels so goddamned good to just sit in a brewery. I love all of it: the endless musical chairs as people move from one table to the next, to nest at the bar and then to stand in the middle, just people being people. I love the bathroom graffiti. I love the bar’s cute stickers. It’s all just really good. After, it’s cool and misty outside, and I love that too.

A wooden door covered in stickers and scribbles, with "If you haven't lived in Philly for at least 7 years, don't talk to me about yr neighborhood" written in black on it

I wasn’t the ruthlessly networking writer type that I was never going to be, and that’s ok. I had some genuinely pleasant exchanges with strangers and a great time with my friend. In this era in particular, I can ask for nothing more.

I come home to discover the relatively few luggage storage options in the city center area that are available before nine, after three, and within ten minutes of Suburban Station. A mystery to investigate further tomorrow.

Day six

Conference, front to back. I sleep in a little and go to the 10:15 session rather than the 9 am one in the interest of being a little kind to myself. I spend six hours roaming around a convention center in quest of whatever interesting things I can learn. (And I like spaces like this, so the zigzagging back and forth is a pleasing activity on its own.) I get to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I meet an online friendly in real life, which is my usual threshold for and now we shall be proper friends. I’m her first new person in a long time too, and so we’re both delighted. Even better is when we’re walking through the book fair and we see a neighbor of hers, someone she’d only known online, and now they know each other in real life. Being in the same space: it’s right to give it up when it’s dangerous, but when it’s possible, it’s one of the best kinds of magic.

I come home to eat some badly needed food (as my schedule meant that lunch was one [1] apple) and to do a couple of the anniversary round-the-clock LWH sessions. I did four last year, culminating in them playing “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince, which I danced to in my living room while crying, so much did I miss getting to share enthusiasm in person. It’s an incredible feeling to not have to experience that loopy, explosive energy all by myself anymore.

I have one more day of AWP, and I’ve been watching my feelings about it as I go along. Yesterday, I came to a soft conclusion that I was enjoying this but that an event like this is probably not going to get me where I’m trying to go with where I am now with my writing. Today, having talked to more people and hung around with a friend, it feels more vital. I’m very curious of where I’ll end up around 4 pm tomorrow, when it’s time for me to catch my train to the airport. I’ve done repeat conferences, and I know that part of the process of starting at one is planting seeds for future relationships. I talked to some cool people today, including someone at a press I’d really like to submit something to. Those are the kind of people I might end up at a bar with if I come two or three more times, because that’s how it works. I’ve felt like kind of a rogue element here; I told someone today that I had started to make a game of finding genre fiction in the conference, which has a tendency toward a poetry/academic bent. I said it felt like a scavenger hunt. I don’t think AWP should be packed with speculative fiction; SFF has its own conferences. But finding where the wild and whimsical sneaks in was a lot of fun.

Before eight, I convince myself to drag my tired carcass off the cozy chair and take the subway north for a reading. It’s my first time on public transportation here, with the exception of the train I took from the airport and my one-way trip on the commuter rail. This isn’t deliberate avoidance; it’s that I stayed so centrally that I preferred walking most places. But tonight I knew I didn’t have it in me to take a 30-minute after-dusk walk through parts unknown, so I tried the subway. It was mostly fine, though I could’ve done with better signage and without the screaming that started shortly before my train pulled up. Mostly it sounded like harmless teenage girl aggression noises, but it was still unnerving. But no one else reacted, so I figured we were just hearing kids fucking around and not murder.

A ten-story building on a street corner, at night, a red neon sign on top reading "Divine Lorraine Hotel"

The reading is fantastic. Five writers from Sex and the Single Woman read parts of their essays, including one person I’d become a fan of at a panel earlier and another whose book of essays I read a couple of months ago and loved. What was most delicious was the feeling of a whole room experiencing the same thing at the same time. We gasp and laugh and swoon together, aghast and enamored in turn. Most of all, I love the feeling that we were all completely on the side of our readers, women writing about sex, relationships, and navigating the world. We all want only the very best things for them. I don’t drink at the event—again, too tired—but it’s the most intoxicating thing I could’ve experienced tonight.

I take a Lyft back, because that was my promise to my tired self when I decided to go to the event. At home, I engage in a sacred rite of AWP passage: I rearrange my entire packing situation to accommodate the seven books I bought at the Book Fair today. Then I eat the entire bag of spinach I bought on Wednesday, the better to balance out my sometimes-shoddy nutrition from the last few days. That’s how it works, right?


Day seven

The luggage conundrum has an easy solution: AWP has coat check and luggage storage. My bags join dozens of others behind the folding tables. I spend the morning in sessions, including the only one to use slides and a projector, which are used to a rather wonderful end to show poems whose impact is partially visual. I meet another new friend for lunch via the magic of two people who know how to put energy into Twitter. I cannot in good conscience recommend being a social media manager to anyone, but it’s one of those things that has ended up (like speaking at conferences) leading me to things I wouldn’t have found otherwise: people, events, conversations, opportunities. My favorite is what happens today, when two people follow loose ties and a mutual friend and end up having turkey wraps and sitting outside, being people. I don’t usually eat turkey, but when I’m traveling and someone says “it was amazing and I want it again,” you know, I want one of those too.

I take a break after that to go to a 7-Eleven to load up on Tastykakes, because of course I do.

I stay until almost four and then collect my stuff, a little annoyed at myself for leaving on Saturday instead of Sunday. I’m right to, though. I know I ease back into regular life better when I have a buffer day instead of having to fly home and then go back to work in less than 24 hours. Still, I’m a little grouchy as I walk back to Suburban Station, my shit in tow. There’s some kind of multi-entrance construction going on, and the first three doorways into the station are locked. I pair up with another confused woman as we figure out exactly how the fuck to get into the train station. There are no signs indicating what entrance might actually be open, and the closures sometimes aren’t evident until you get close to the door. I am grateful, as ever, that I leave a slightly ridiculous amount of extra time for stuff like this, because what the hell. She lives there and is similarly pissed. I make my train; it’s fine, it’s fine. And also: ugh.

I end up sharing a flight with what has to be the entire women’s equestrian team at UC Davis. I put this together slowly as I check my bag and then make my way through security: what is that strange plastic carrier that man is holding? Why are all these young women holding similar boxes? What is—oh, they’re cowboy hat carriers. They’re… cowboy hat-wearing people. They’re… horse girls? Yes, horse girls. They have, in the way of traveling sports teams, terrible OSINT, and all their gear is emblazoned with UC Davis logos and their names, which I try not to notice. Before the UC Davis detail, I figured they were going to, you know, Montana or something. Wide-open spaces. But no, we’re all going to the same place, and indeed I end up seated in the middle of all two dozen of them. They are young and all very very pretty, with a lot of waist-length hair and athleticism. This, I decide, means we’re definitely doomed, because it means we’re going to crash into the mountains with survivors, and the bright young things will decide to eat my stringy crone meat to stay alive. I’m still wound tight from my flight there, and this realization does not help. No one will ever read my books, because I still haven’t figured out emergency access to all my stuff, and also I will be a footnote at best when our plane crash makes the news: “UC Davis Women’s Equestrian Team Involved in Rocky Mountains Plane Crash,” with “we found some curiously worn sparkly boots among the wreckage, but no other victims of note have been identified.”

They’re really nice, though. I mostly listen to music with my serious-business noise canceling headphones as I write and read, but the snippets of conversation I catch are all about their recent tournament and a lot of good-natured in-jokes. They’re nice plane neighbors. They do spend a lot of time watching riding videos, though, and I wonder what aspects of form they’re figuring out. I have a lot of questions for them, actually, but I don’t have the social energy left to navigate a six-hour plane ride relationship, so I let it be.

I make it home exhausted, plane-grimy, and mostly content. Philadelphia is rad. Books are rad. Friends are rad. And conferences that require both masks and vaccinations are rad. The world remains fairly open if we’re careful with each other, and I’m grateful AWP gave me the slim justification I needed to fly across the country and see a new city I’ve always wanted to visit. People from there seemed surprised when I told them I was taking the trip. “But why?” I was asked more than once when I mentioned taking a vacation to Philadelphia.

“I know people from there and almost always like them,” I said. “And it’s old, enough to have weird parts. And I miss the east coast. And it’s my country. And this whole thing about booing Santa and destroying the good-will robot? I’m into it.” And I was. Reason enough.

Getting from France to the US in December 2021 Covid Times

I knew, from the time I planned this trip, that I was making a Choice. I hadn’t done a good and proper trip since February 2019, when I went to Amsterdam and a terrible cold fucked up my back. In the way of our species’ collective fantasizing from March 2020 on, I’d longed to have a do-over across lockdown. Fall didn’t offer a window amidst the walls of horribleness in the way we had in the early summer, when vaccines were offering such hope and the shitty roar of antivax horseshit had yet to really arise. But it felt safe enough for my own threat model and fears, so we moved ahead: to France and Spain we would go. (To Berlin we would not because of the rough covid rates and impending threat of lockdown.)

I researched and acknowledged the hurdles: I would have to get a French pass sanitaire by paying a pharmacy 36 euros to convert my paper CDC vaccination record – sure, that sounds great. I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t checking vaccinations at the door anyway, and I didn’t care to go anywhere that wasn’t at least as careful as the Bay Area. I would also have to get a covid test 72 hours before flying back and have an electronic or paper copy of the test to provide to the airline and, presumably, US border control or a similar entity. Very well! I researched testing options in Paris, sketched out a rough schedule in my head, and felt pretty ok about what was to come.

Then, on the Tuesday morning before a Friday morning flight, I got an email from Air France: the covid test now had to be done within 24 hours of departure, which meant late morning the day before. To be clear: this was an initial misinterpretation of the requirement, which actually states, as of this week, that the test has to be done on the calendar day before you leave. But that wasn’t Air France’s initial interpretation, so I got a little bonus freaking out due to that.

I’ve had to get covid tests twice during the pandemic, once after working at an election site and once after my trip to New York this summer. Both times, I had results within 24 hours, but that felt like a fluke: never promised, always incidental.

This new requirement, of course, changed things. Here’s how I got home.

Covid testing in Paris

Before the testing window shortened, I asked my host for the last leg of my trip what she knew about covid testing and timing in Paris. She told me that most pharmacies test (something that seemed very true; most of them had little tents by their front doors on the sidewalk just for that). With the 72-hour window, that would’ve been great; we were within a ten-minute walk of at least three pharmacies. Easy! What I couldn’t find was a solid, specific statement saying that those test results would be ready in 24 hours – or, ideally, in less than twelve. This led me to Biogroup, which I found through the official French site that directs people to covid testing sites. There are a lot; it seems like a ton of dentists have gotten in on this, which is pretty great.

Biogroup was the only one I found that offered:

  • Lots of locations
  • A promise of results in 12 hours
  • A clear description of how results would be provided via PDF, securely downloaded
  • The promise that walk-ins were available
  • A list of which services provided by each clinic
  • Promises of English speakers. I can speak good-enough terrible French for things like getting tickets or food. For navigating something that straddled medical and international travel spheres, I wanted someone who could talk to me in my own language.

This is how I ended up walking to 20 rue de Pont Neuf just before the 8:15 am sunrise the day before I was due to fly home. I ended up in a line of maybe 20 people, primarily English speakers, working with Google Translate to figure out the best way to say I needed a pre-travel covid test please. We were finished by 9:30 am. Was it extremely well organized? Not quite, which is fine – I have a sense of how French bureaucracy seems to work, and I knew they were trying pretty hard to make this weird thing work. They were kind to confused people and got me what I needed, and sometimes that’s all I can ask from a situation.

Here’s how it went:

  • They let us in one or two people at a time; usually couples were allowed in together. Other people showed up for appointments during all this, standing in a separate, shorter line. Good for them. I wished I’d worn another layer but generally do ok in the cold, so I wasn’t desperately unhappy.
  • Once we got in the door, they took our passports and had us complete a form to consent to the test and get our results. It looked like it was about eight generations off of the original copy. We just had to confirm the test we wanted, write and sign our names, and provide our email addresses.
  • We paid 44 euros each for the pleasure. Card was fine.
  • We were each taken into a private room and got the brain swab. Remember the big-ass q-tip people talked about nervously in the beginning of the pandemic? The one they pushed in so far that you figured they had to be brushing your brain stem? That’s what was still going on there. The site also offered saliva and blood tests at certain labs, but my French and anxiety were bad enough that I just went with the version of things I knew would work in the tight timeline and requirements I had.
  • Everyone who dealt with the confused tourist line spoke enough English that things worked pretty smoothly.
  • They confirmed they’d transcribed the email addresses correctly from the handwritten version on the form. Bless.
  • They gave us a slip of paper with a pre-generated password to retrieve the results later. This wasn’t necessary but was a great touch.

That was it. It sucked, but the people were kind. We had our results emails by 4 pm: blessedly négatif.

They sent two emails. One takes you to a portal where you enter some PII to generate an email containing a temporary password for said portal, where you can download the PDF you need. The other had a password-protected PDF attachment that could be opened with the password they provided. You’ll want the one from the portal because things like the Air France document void and the ToutAntiCovid mobile app will not have any idea of how to handle a password-protected PDF. (Still, cheers to Biogroup for trying.)

Uploading everything everywhere

I uploaded the PDF to the ToutAntiCovid app, which created a new record that contained its own QR code, the negative result, and a dynamic field that showed how old the test was. This was enough proof for everyone who asked for it at Charles de Gaulle – much easier than asking people to squint at the tiny version of an 8.5×11-inch test result file on my phone. I uploaded the PDF plus some other paperwork (vax records for both countries) to Air France, which promised that doing so would avoid hassle at the airport.

A couple things exacerbated all this: the first was the CDC reclassifying France’s covid risk, and the other was a general sense of elevated risk within Paris or possibly all of France. Those last few days, I saw military types with automatic weapons in a lot of different places, including the airport, La Defense, and by the Palace of Justice. That general !!! sense probably did not help with things like allowing airlines to accurately interpret extremely fresh, imperfectly worded international health directives. I would assume this was the case with all airlines flying from the US from other countries right now, particularly ones like France that were recently put on double secret probation by the CDC.

The night before we left, I received an email saying all those uploaded documents were approved… and then they were reviewed again in total before we were allowed to check bags. For this, we were rewarded with a sticker on the backs of our passports, a label with a handwritten set of initials on it, indicating we were ready to go. My boarding pass already had a READY TO FLY designation on it from the document upload approval, but I saw no indication that any of this actually expedited anything for us on the day of.


And other administrivia

I also received multiple Air France emails about A FORM that we had to print, fill out, and bring to the airport. I regret to inform you that it’s a stupid and duplicative form that my government clearly foisted on other international agencies without a lot of explanation. (Kind of like the change in the acceptable window for covid tests; the first Air France email said “within 24 hours of departure” and the other stated correctly that it needed to be done in the calendar day before your departure, so a 12:30 am test on Thursday would be valid for a flight at 11:30 pm Friday night. The CDC says that this is to try to give flexibility to travelers, but as an anxious person crossing time zones, I gently suggest to them that they are not helping in the way they claim to be.) The first version was a docx file; the replacement form was a swanky PDF. I got to go to a copy place in the Marais the night before we left to get this shit printed only to find that the airline had a giant stack of them available at the check-in desk at CDG. COOL.

It just says that you either have submitted a covid test or have a damned good reason not to have done so, plus a signature. It isn’t tied to a passport or booking number or anything else solid and traceable, and it did not appear to be recorded electronically in any way, judging by the messy pile of them being collected at the gate. COOL.

We were asked about it more than once at bag drop, and then a third-party security guard type came around the gate area, checked passports, and collected them from people who happened to be sitting around the gate 45 minutes before boarding, including me. He pointed at the sticker put on the back of my passport earlier and said, “If you talk to another one of my coworkers, they will see this and know you’re good to go.” “Cool,” I said.

I will note here that I have seldom encountered a situation where the addition of third-party security guard types makes the situation better.

My partner came back from getting food, and I said, “You should probably give your form to that guy. They seem to be trying to get this done.” This was a mistake. He did as I suggested and was told to stand somewhere else for boarding (we were not boarding), handed the form over anyway, and came back, figuring he’d done what he could.

Cut to 45 minutes later when we actually were boarding, and he was accused of not having a form. “I gave it to you earlier,” he said. The security guard said he did not. “He did,” I said. Finally, it became clear that filling out an additional copy of the brief and pointless form was the path of least resistance. He did so while I started my own battle. “You didn’t fill out the form,” the guy told me. “I did,” I said, and recited our entire conversation, finishing by pointing at the sticker. Apparently my performance was more convincing. We were finally allowed to board the plane.

And, finally, home

That was the last of the covid test result presentation dance. We have Global Entry, so our return interview consisted of getting little print-outs with grainy pictures of our tired selves, a recitation of things we bought and brought home (“a couple of bottles of champagne, a lot of gummy candy, and some inexpensive earrings”), and then walking out into SFO, back to being ordinary people. We plan to test ourselves again early next week just to be very sure we made it through this ok, but I’m not worried.

It’s nice to stop being worried. I haven’t really had that for the last five-odd days.

My suggestions for you

If I’d known this shit was going to go into such upheaval so soon before we left, we would have brought a couple of those proctored self-tests. Prior to this week, I didn’t know those existed and resulted in a legally helpful test result; it would have made a lot of things much easier, both generally and because I do not do well with vague directives for things as specific as paperwork for international travel. So if you’re going abroad in this era, I strongly suggest doing that.

I would also suggest not flying to the US from France or other level-four-omg countries right now. I didn’t really have the opportunity to consider this, as the levels didn’t change until the trip was well underway. If you have the choice, though, depart from an easier country. If we’d flown out of Spain, a lot of things would have been simpler.

However, I’m pretty grateful we flew into France. I haven’t seen a CDC card conversion scheme for other countries as of this writing (and preliminarily googling it again so soon after all my pre-trip research frankly makes my head hurt right now; there are countries that work easily with it, but the US is not among them). Starting our trip in France meant getting an EU covid vax certification QR code shortly after arriving from the airport using a fairly straightforward process that costs 36 euros. There, it’s generally referred to as the pass sanitaire, a phrase which I can blissfully usually pick out of rapidfire French directives. (Getting the pass sanitaire was step one; buying cheese was step two. Falling asleep for five hours followed shortly after.) This pass, which initially seemed France specific when I was first researching it, is what allowed us to fly into Spain, to go to certain events there, and to just generally have a proper vacation. I feel like there have to be ways around this in other countries, but I don’t know what they are. I have it on good authority, though, that most people at the door in Europe are not going to be interested in deciphering your weird paper CDC card.

The pass checking wasn’t always consistent but happened often enough that I felt more comfortable with moving around in the world. France: thanks for checking the pass even for patio dining. Spain: your whole QR code locator form process for new arrivals was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the efforts are clearly working, so thank you. We were rarely asked for an ID to compare to the name on the pass, but best to keep one on hand anyway, in the way of these things.

I hope you like forms, because this requires a lot of them.

At the moment, certain kinds of travel mean taking up government documentation and admin interpretation as a new and time-consuming hobby. I’m a process dork by nature so take to this stuff pretty well, and I still had several not-ok moments during all this.

I had a small panic event the night before we left because I found a now-inaccurate Air France page from a month or two prior that still stated that visitors to France needed a compelling reason and a covid test for entry. I called my partner into my kitchen and said, “I think I ruined our trip and I’m sorry.” I had not ruined the trip, as it turned out. But this is what lackadaisical documentation governance in a complicated time can do to a person!

I even had a dress rehearsal of sorts when I helped a friend with the lighter version of this stuff required for going to Hawaii from the continental US, and I still felt overwhelmed more than once in this heavier international version. I say again: I like figuring out difficult bureaucratic stuff, and this shit almost broke me a couple of times.

The regulations and requirements change often enough right now that there’s a lot of outdated stuff out there. Right now, if you read guidance that isn’t dated within the last week, question whether it still applies.

It’s a good idea to think very carefully about traveling internationally right now at all, of course. I only wanted to go to places that had a similar model of safety to the Bay Area; a lot of places remain fundamentally off limits to me, including large parts of my own country. I urge you to be very careful and weigh things similarly. And once you’ve figured out that perhaps there’s a place in the world you feel ethically ok with visiting, really consider what your trip might look like if you have to spend parts of two or more days being stressed about meeting requirements to get on your plane home. If this had been a week-long trip, I think I would’ve been pretty upset to have spent so much time on this stuff. Instead, it was a two-week trip, and the hard parts got diluted – but it still had an effect. I also brought a laptop; navigating this stuff without one would’ve been really, really hard. We didn’t stay at hotels, so business centers were not an option. Copy shops would have been possible, but pretty inconvenient.

In addition to taking a frankly perverse joy in unpicking complicated systems, I also have enough money to deal with large, expensive changes of plan and reason to believe I wouldn’t lose my job if I suddenly had to be away for an extra two weeks. It’s a bet I can afford to make. Be sure you can too before doing something like this in this era. For instance, this was the plan B I formulated in case our tests came back positive: I was going to quarantine somewhere less expensive in the Paris suburbs and enjoy what I had named the Plague Ship Writing Residency. This plan fell apart somewhere around “but French takeout delivery apps don’t seem to accept American credit cards,” but that was future plague rat me’s problem to figure out.

I’ll write soon about the fun parts of all of this, and I promise you there were many. But everything I just wrote was part of the cost of every excellent meal, every minute spent gawping at centuries-old stained glass, every ramble through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. In the meantime, while it’s still fresh and technically accurate, here’s the harder part. I hope it helps. Good travel is possible; just know that it’s still very different than it once was.