Last Updated on March 7, 2021
This is Part II of my 2020 review – everything I did in the second half of the year, including some travel stats and final thought on 2020.
Table of Contents
Here is what I got up to from July to December 2020:
I finished my 14-day quarantine at my sister’s house, and then I packed my bags: it was time to travel a bit. My first stop was Leipzig, where I spent a week with my nieces, my brother and my sister-in-law, and then I drove to Bavaria to surprise one of my best friends for her 40th birthday. I spent a week with her and her family and then I went back to my sister’s to hang out with my niece and nephew. And I got to spent time with all of my favorite animals, as you can see in the pictures below. I also saw some other friends who still live in my hometown, and I couldn’t believe how normal life felt in Germany. Sure, people were wearing a face mask in supermarkets and shops, but restaurants were open and they were as busy as ever, movie theaters and gyms were open, and one night we even walked by a classical concert (outdoors) that was packed with people. There were concerts happening throughout the summer, beer gardens were open, beaches were crowded. I took my friend’s daughter to a swimming pool and for me, coming from NYC, nothing about it felt right, but nobody in Germany seemed to worry much about COVID. On the contrary: Everyone I talked to was planning their summer vacation. So much so that I decided that I wanted to go on vacation, too!
Surprising my friend for her birthday
My friend had invited me to her birthday party early: She told me LAST SUMMER when she’d be celebrating her 40th birthday. But I had told her back then, in summer 2019, that summer travel is always difficult for me, and two trips to Europe during the summer would be impossible (I had a trip booked to Germany for August 2020 for a family event). But because of COVID, I found myself in Germany for her milestone birthday! With the help of her husband, I was able to surprise her. She had no idea that I was even in Germany – I had kept it a secret from her until I showed up on her doorstep.
This is one of my oldest friends (I’ve known her for 23 years!) and we rarely get to see each other, which is why I was super stoked to be there for her birthday party, and to spend a few days with her and her family afterwards.
Actually, July was a month filled with birthdays: I was in Germany for my niece’s birthday, my god daughter’s birthday, my best friend’s birthday and my brother-in-law’s birthday. I am never there for any of these birthdays, so this was a nice treat.
Reading COVID-19 news from the U.S. / Marathon cancellations
Meanwhile, I kept reading about rising COVID numbers back in the U.S. – something that I had not expected. When I left New York, I thought that the U.S. had the worst behind it. I assumed that the reopening of NYC was well underway and that I’d return to a fairly functional city later this summer, possibly even offer some tours. But looking at the speed with which COVID spread throughout the U.S., my hope to return to a more relaxed COVID situation began to diminish. The first grim news came on 7th July, when the U.S. saw 250,000 new COVID cases in just five days, then a day later, the U.S. was about to hit 3 million COVID cases, and only around two weeks later, on 24th July, the U.S. hit 4 million COVID cases. The numbers reported in the U.S. were mind-boggling to me, considering that Europe was doing fairly well in containing the virus and most countries had re-opened for tourism. As a result of the virus spiraling out of control in the U.S., many marathon cancellations started to pour in: Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia… and ultimately, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., which I was supposed to run on 25th October. I had initially booked a return flight for early August, but I decided to postpone my return to the U.S. until September, because I didn’t anticipate the situation to change much before then.
I was ready for a vacation. I helped out my sister with childcare while she was finishing her dissertation for the first couple of weeks, and then they left for their summer vacation. This meant I was released from my nannying duties! A friend had suggested we’d go on vacation together, but first I went to Leipzig where I looked after a little zoo while my brother went on vacation: my brother’s dog, my mother’s dog, two guinea pigs, a bunny and a kitten. A couple of friends came to visit me while I was there and I also had a couple of days to myself – for the first time in over two months.
As soon as my brother returned, I was able to go on vacation myself. My friend and I had vague ideas for our trip: we knew that we didn’t want to fly anywhere, we wanted to do a road trip, and we wanted to leave Germany. That left us with a wide range of options: France is only a 5-hour drive away, Italy a 6-hour drive, Prague a 4-hour drive, Austria a 4-hour drive, Belgium and the Netherlands are around 4 hours away, and Poland around 3 hours.
Eventually, we decided to drive down to Italy to experience places like Venice and Rome without the usual summer tourist crowds. On the way south, we stopped in Salzburg, where she’d never been, and somehow we ended up staying in Austria. I felt a huge pull towards the mountains, and luckily my friend was game and agreed to a vacation surrounded by nature instead of the city trip we’d originally envisioned.
I ended the month with a big family event which I was scheduled to travel to Germany for – pre-pandemic. I honestly didn’t think I’d still be in Germany at the time of the event when I left New York in June.
Visiting Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein
The trip to Austria, which included day trips to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, was, without a doubt, the highlight of the month. I don’t think I would’ve been able to go on a trip had I stayed in the U.S., and being able to just get in the car and drive to another country felt so good. I also loved the areas of Austria I got to explore – besides Salzburg, which I had already visited, I went to places that were new to me: Vorarlberg and Feldkirch. We based ourselves in a small village for a few days and used our vacation rental as a base to go on hikes around beautiful lakes, and then we used Feldkirch, which is minutes away from the border with Liechtenstein and Switzerland, as a base to visit these two countries. It was a fantastic trip and I even got to visit a new country (Liechtenstein) and added a new stamp in my passport.
A cable car ride in Austria
This experience was almost as bad as my flight from Atlanta to Germany back in June. The cable car was supposed to run at 50% capacity because of COVID-19 but when we entered the crowded cabin I wanted to die. This was definitely more than 50% capacity! Luckily, the ride was only 3 minutes long, and the Luenersee Lake atop the mountain (pictured above) made up for this dreadful experience.
I was scheduled to return to New York on 1 September, but because the city was still far from “back to normal” and I was still not able to run my Brooklyn tours, I decided to postpone my flight for another month. I felt much safer in Europe, despite COVID numbers slowly rising again, while the U.S. hit a sad milestone: a COVID death toll of 200,000. Germany, in comparison, had managed to keep its death toll below 10,000 (at that time).
Once I had changed my flight, I decided that staying in Europe for four months and NOT visiting some of my best friends in the UK was not an option, and spontaneously booked a ticket to London. My friend Kate and I rented a small house in the Cotswolds for a few days where we held our own little writers retreat – and it was exactly what I needed after a couple of months during which I focused more on helping out my family than writing (other than some paid work). We spent the mornings at the house, working, and the afternoons either on long walks or visiting nearby towns. We spent an afternoon in Oxford, where I hadn’t been in over ten years, and also visited Burford, a picture-perfect Cotswolds market town.
I also spent a few days in London where I treated myself to a hotel instead of crashing on my friend’s couch, and I was so happy with that decision. It allowed for some desperately needed “me time” and I was able to plan my days without having to consider other people’s work schedules. I went for long runs (including a half marathon to Richmond), took myself out on brunch dates and just wandered around my favorite neighborhoods. I hadn’t been able to enjoy London in such a relaxed way since I left the city in 2010 and it reminded me just how much I love my former home. I even considered moving back there should the U.S. election not go the way I was hoping for.
Things in London felt pretty normal while I was there: street and food markets had re-opened, people crammed into restaurants and pubs. It still felt weird to have very few tourists around though – the London Eye had not a single guest when I was walking down the South Bank Promenade, and I was the only person outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, a place that’s usually packed with tourists. I was really lucky with the timing of my trip, because shortly after my visit, London started shutting down restaurants and pubs again.
Thanks to my London trip, I also got to spend 24 hours in Berlin, because my flight left from Berlin’s Tegel Airport. It was not enough time in one of my favorite cities in the world, but enough time to go on a street art walk, have some good coffee and Vietnamese food, meet up with friends and remind myself that Berlin is one of the greatest cities in the world.
After I returned to Germany, we celebrated a good friend’s birthday and my sister’s birthday, and then it was time for me to get ready for my flight to the U.S. I also happened to get work that had nothing to do with travel or tourism, which was a big relief, since a freelance project I’d worked on over the summer had been put “on pause”.
Returning to London
London is the only other city – besides NYC – where I resided for several years as a grown-up, and every time I get the chance to visit my old stomping grounds, I’m reminded of how much I loved living in London. Since London was very different because of COVID-19, I spent most of my time walking around the neighborhoods I used to live and work in, to see how they’ve changed over the years and to see which of the places I used to frequent were still there. I got to enjoy some of my favorite markets (Portobello Road Market and Borough Market), I went to all my favorite parks (Regents Park, Hyde Park, Green Park, Kensington Gardens and St James Park) and even made it to Richmond Park, famous for the 600 deer that roam freely there – a park I always loved but didn’t make it to very often when I lived in London.
I also got to check out a new rooftop space: the Skygarden, atop the “Walkie Talkie Building”, which opened only a few years ago. I met up with a couple of friends, ate at some of my favorite restaurants, and checked out new street art in East London. It was almost a perfect London trip, despite the circumstances, but seeing the Westend theaters closed and usually crowded places like Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square completely deserted was heartbreaking. There were barely any tourists around, and tourist attractions were empty. As someone who earns her living in travel & tourism, it is utterly depressing to see this industry suffering so much.
Driving in England
I consider myself a fairly confident driver, even though I don’t own a car and I don’t drive very often. So I didn’t think twice about renting a car to get to the Cotswolds. However, it had been a while since I’d last driven in London, with the steering wheel on what I consider the passenger side. And it turned out traffic in London was still mad – even during a pandemic. Picking up the car from a Central London rental office seemed convenient, but it meant I didn’t have any time to adjust to driving “on the wrong other side of the road” again, Instead, I was thrown in the deep end. Let’s just say that this was probably the most stressful moment I’d had in months. There were tears, and I was close to having a nervous breakdown when I fully blocked the road sideways after a failed U-turn attempt and I couldn’t figure out how to get the car in reverse. Looking back at it now, I can laugh about it, but back then I wouldn’t have been able to fix the situation without the lovely EMT Driver who came to my rescue.
After nearly four months away, I was back in New York City. I had been nervous to return, because seeing the city I love so much going through such a painful time in the spring had not been easy. But my worries were unfounded: I returned to a city that was so much livelier than it had been when I left in June. It seemed like people had adjusted to life with Covid and had learned to coexist with the virus. Initially, wearing a mask again outdoors was a bit off-putting and seemed strange to me after so many months in Europe, mostly mask-free, but having lived through the horrible COVID-19 months in the spring, I understood why it was necessary to have very strict rules in place. Nobody wanted to relive the dark months of March and April 2020. Other than mask wearing, life seemed much more normal again than four months prior: restaurants and bars were packed, and almost all the eateries had added an outdoor seating area (indoor dining was still not allowed when I came back and was only allowed at 25% capacity in mid-October).
The subway was also busier again, and shops had reopened (they were only open for curbside pick-up when I left New York in June). Midtown Manhattan felt much more crowded again, even though only about 10% of office workers had returned to their office towers. But it was notable that one thing was missing: tourists. With New York still being closed off to most of the world and around 40 U.S. states on a strict 14-days quarantine mandate upon arrival in New York, not a lot of people were able to visit New York. This, of course, meant that my business was still far from recovering, and the same goes for every single tourism business in NYC. I tried to resume my walking tours, but demand was low and I made barely any money. Luckily, a friend had recommended me for a temp job which brought some extra income.
When I wasn’t working, I tried to take advantage of “tourist-free” New York and visited the MoMA (where I hadn’t been in years because it is usually too crowded for me), went to see two exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum, ran two half marathons and caught up with friends. I went on a 50-mile bike ride to New Jersey, marveled at the fall colors in Central Park and Prospect Park, I celebrated Halloween (a little bit), and I spent a sunny afternoon on the beach in Coney Island. Fall is such a beautiful season in New York, and I was so happy to be back – for exactly one month.
To be honest, I was a bit wary of getting together with a small group, but we were only six people and spent most of the day outside in a small park in Brooklyn where a drag show took place. It was very low-key, but simply dressing up (can you recognize me in the photo below?), buying some Halloween candy and making some party snacks felt wonderfully normal.
Returning to New York a month before the election meant not being able to escape any of the pre-election madness. Reading and hearing about the election every day wasn’t great for my mental health. From stupid remarks by Trump on Twitter (who would’ve thought that this is a thing of the past now?!) to watching the disastrous presidential debates to a general fear of the outcome of the 3rd November election – I felt anxious for most of the month, had trouble sleeping and couldn’t wait for the election to be over.
Shortly after arriving in New York in October, a client whose cat I had looked after regularly in Brooklyn contacted me and asked me if I’d consider coming down to Florida for a month to care for their cat while they’d be away on an essential trip. They had relocated to Florida to self-isolate there when COVID hit New York hard, and they offered me a nice house with a backyard, a nearby beach, and the use of their car. They didn’t have to ask me twice. The housesit was in a region that didn’t have a lot of COVID-19 cases, and the house itself was also fairly isolated, so that social distancing wasn’t going to be a problem.
So I swapped New York’s grey and cold November for sunny Florida, and I am so grateful that I got to spend a month in a state I hadn’t spent much time in. I was able to do some exploring – mainly solo hikes in state parks near where I was staying, but I also went on a day trip to St Augustine, the oldest city in America, which I’d heard a lot about. It didn’t disappoint, even though I was shocked by the amount of tourists in the city (on a random Monday) – it almost felt like there wasn’t a pandemic going on.
After the housesit, I decided to fly back from Miami instead of Orlando and road trip along Florida’s west coast. A friend of mine had offered me to stay at her place in Miami (she was not there, unfortunately) and I wanted to get at least a taste of Miami, even though I knew it wouldn’t be the same because of COVID. I was able to do some of the things I’ve had on my travel wish list for years, including the Wynwood Arts District (the street art there was amazing!), the Art Deco architecture in Miami Beach, and Little Havana. I also spent a day in the Everglades where I spotted the first wild alligator of the trip (I’d been on the lookout for the famed Florida alligators all month, and I finally saw one three days before my flight back to New York). I want to return to Miami when things are “back to normal”, to enjoy the restaurant scene, dance the night away in South Beach, and spend more time in the Everglades (I ran out of time for an air boat ride, which I think is the quintessential to do there).
November turned out to be the most unexpected month of the year: Four weeks earlier, I hadn’t even known that I was going to spend my birth month (during which I usually go on a big trip) in Florida. And I got to visit a city in Miami, one of the top five U.S. cities on my list (I’ve visited most of the cities on my travel wish list over the years, but the other four I haven’t been to yet that I really want to see are Portland, OR; Milwaukee, WI; Pittsburgh, PA and Detroit, MI). And I even got to tick off a major bucket list item: swimming with manatees – which was definitely the best moment of the month:
Swimming with manatees
Swimming with manatees has been on my bucket list ever since I found out that hundreds of these gentle giants gather in the waters of Florida in November to spend the winter there. When I found out that one of the most popular places to swim with manatees was only 2.5 hours from where I was staying and that the manatees usually arrive there mid-November, I knew I had to go there. I looked int the logistics and COVID-19 safety and found a tour company I felt was taking COVID-19 measures seriously and booked a 7am manatee swim in the hope that other people would be too lazy to get up that early. My theory was right: I ended up being alone on the boat with my guide and the boat driver and had the best time swimming with manatees.
On these tours, it’s actually not guaranteed that you get to see manatees, let alone swim WITH them, but I lucked out: We found a large group of about a dozen manatees shortly after leaving the port and had them all to ourselves for a while before another boat with a large group arrived. We then decided to leave and look for manatees in a different spot, and again, we got lucky. There, we were the only boat and I saw so many manatee mommas with their babies and friendly manatees that swam up to us and said hi. This experience definitely lived up to my expectations. In fact, it even exceeded it, since because of COVID-19 there weren’t many tourists around. From what I’ve heard, the boats are usually fully booked and up to 60 people (from a number of boats) can be in the water with the manatees at the same time – and I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed that.
Nothing really terrible happened in November, but I wasn’t feeling great this month. I was in a funk. Before the pandemic, I had big, exciting travel plans for my 40th birthday. Instead, I spent it all by myself in Florida. This did weigh on me, despite all the great experiences I had in Florida.
I was also disappointed not to be in New York City when Biden was announced winner of the presidential election for the very first time on 7 November. All of New York City broke out into one huge celebration, while I found myself surrounded by Trump supporters who took to the streets immediately to start their “the election was stolen from us” protests. After all the tension of the previous months was finally released, I would’ve loved to join the cheering crowds in New York. The outcome of the election was, of course, a giant relief for me, but I’m going to be honest here: I am still extremely disappointed about the huge number of people who voted for Trump and everything he represents. I wasn’t surprised by it – I wouldn’t have been that worried had I not thought he had a very good chance to get re-elected – but seeing that over 74 million people would like to see him rule the U.S. for another four years after his first term, his actions during COVID and during the last four years, and pretty much everything he’s ever said, was extremely disheartening to see.
I returned to New York and spent just enough time in the Big Apple to get a glimpse of the Christmas lights in Midtown Manhattan, marvel at the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and enjoy the Light Show at Saks Fifth Avenue. I also went ice skating in Bryant Park with my friends Kristin and Adam – something I hadn’t done since 2016! I combined these trips to Manhattan with some last-minute Christmas shopping, and when I arrived in Germany, I was beyond relieved that I’d done the majority of my Christmas shopping in New York because I arrived in Germany just in time for a strict lockdown which required all retailers to shut down – a week before Christmas!!
There were no Christmas markets anywhere in Germany this year, which I was very sad about, and because of the strict lockdown and quarantine requirements I didn’t even get to see any friends. I got some quality time with my family, however, and that was why I took another trip to Germany in the first place. This Christmas trip had been planned before COVID-19 hit, because I only get to spend every other Christmas with my family. I felt pretty confident about flying because New York was pretty much “open”. I surely did not expect to fly into a strict lockdown! In the summer, it had been the other way around – I’d flown from New York, which was still pretty much “closed” back then, to Germany, where life felt so much more normal. This time around, I was coming from a city where COVID-19 seemed under control, and arrived in a country with rapidly rising COVID cases.
Despite some COVID worries and the lockdown, my siblings and I managed to pull off a pretty epic Christmas for the kids, who were almost more excited about spending time with other kids (their cousins) than their gifts, because they didn’t get to see their friends during lockdown. I was so grateful that I got to spend the Holidays surrounded by loved ones, that everyone in my family was healthy, and that I was able to do travel to Germany again – something I do not take for granted.
Baking parties with family and friends
While I was still in New York, I was able to join my friend’s “Christmas cookie baking extravaganza”, which was a lot of fun, and then I had more “baking parties” with my sister and my niece, and I love baking so much. Having an excuse to make hundreds of cookies fills me with so much joy – as does gifting homemade cookies to friends.
I want to keep things real: Even though I love my family and was happy to spend time with them and we had a nice time together, things aren’t always perfect. There were tensions and arguments and frustration and even tears. While most of it has been resolved, there are still things happening in my family right now that make me sad and leave me with a hurting heart.
I want to end my 2020 review with some travel stats, since I’m a numbers person. I am sharing some of the same statics I’ve shared in previous annual round-ups, although this year I’ve obviously traveled less. Thanks to my Australia trip at the beginning of 2020, I racked up quite a few flights and hostels, and even an uncomfortable night on a bus:
These were my flights pre-Covid:
…and these were my flights during the pandemic:
Interestingly, I didn’t fly much less in 2020 than I did in 2019, when I took 23 flights. However, my Australia trip did account for half of my flights, and four out of eight flights during the pandemic were my trip to Europe, broken up into two flights, since Delta, the airline I chose because of their COVID-19 precautions, flew to Germany via their main hub Atlanta.
I took one bus in Germany during COVID-19, and while restrictions were fairly relaxed during that time and COVID numbers were low, I didn’t feel safe on the bus
The only boat rides I took this year were the boat excursions in the Whitsunday Islands in Australia, and I took the Staten Island Ferry on a sunny day in May because the ferries were only transporting a fraction of their usual passenger load and it felt glorious to take in the beautiful Manhattan views without the usual tourist crowds on the free ferry.
One cable car in Austria – a terrible experience. In fact, the worst moment of August 2020, you can read more about it above.
2020 was a strange year because nothing – except for my Australia trip – went according to plan. Everything that happened was beyond my own control. I had such high expectations for the growth of my business and was excited about the trips I’d planned, but when none of those things happened, and the situation didn’t seem to improve, it became harder and harder to stay motivated and positive that the pandemic would come to an end eventually. Watching my savings dwindle caused me sleepless nights and financial worries like I haven’t had them in years. But I am trying to keep things in perspective. This was (well, in most places it still is!) a period of standing still like we’ll probably never have again during our lifetime. A lot of people who I’ve talked to about this unrequested “pause” in our lives told me that they actually benefited from it, and I think in some ways, I can include myself in this.
Life in New York City is always full-on – juggling three jobs, my social life and relationships, exploring and taking advantage of all the great things NYC offers – there’s not much time to sit down and reflect and to be introspective. There’s never time to tackle all the projects I’ve got on the back burner, or time for self-improvement.
This forced standstill allowed me to do many of the things I am usually too busy to do, to grow personally, to improve my businesses, to educate myself, to learn. I even got to spend some quality time with myself – something that I often miss when I fill my calendar to the brim. COVID also brought me closer to many friends around the world who I usually don’t talk to on a regular basis, but when the world went into lockdown, we set up regular WhatsApp or FaceTime calls and checked in with each other much more often than we used to do.
And how privileged am I that I was even able to stay at home and have all this additional time? I felt for all the frontline workers during the months of lockdown, who had to risk their lives day after day and did not have the luxury of quality family time, the opportunity to start a side hustle, or to use alone time in lockdown for self-improvement.
Nonetheless, it felt like a punch to the face to realize that I wouldn’t make any money this year. Worrying about my business recovering from this (will it? and if so, when? I still don’t know.), and being able to pay my rent. But money isn’t everything and I am incredibly grateful for the last couple of profitable years which allowed me to put some money aside so that I don’t have to worry about running out of money anytime soon (only about my retirement fund, ha.)
However, the longer the pandemic lasted, the harder it became for me to stay positive and not to lose my optimism. As 2020 came to an end, it didn’t look like things were going to change anytime soon – on the contrary: many countries that had reopened went back into lockdown, a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 was found in the UK, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make money in travel again anytime soon.
At this point, I have no idea what 2021 will look like. I flew back to New York after the Holidays and am trying to focus on some positive things. I got into the Berlin Marathon, which is supposed to happen on 26th September, which means I’d fly back to Europe then. Other than that, I don’t have any trips planned, I don’t know if I’ll still be working in travel 12 months from now, I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the marathon will actually happen. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this pessimistic about the year ahead. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so defeated. I don’t even want to allow myself to feel this way, because I know I still have it so much better than most people who’ve lost loved ones to COVID, lost their business, haven’t been able to travel anywhere. And yet, I can’t shake these feelings off, and I still mourn my pre-COVID life, I miss seeing my friends and being able to hop on a plane whenever I want to, or to simply be out and about in New York City the way I used to until last spring.
I am trying to end this 2020 review on a positive note, but I don’t really know what to say. I guess life can’t always be all sunshine and rainbows, and for now I just hope that the world will be largely COVID-free twelve months from now. I hope that the majority of people will have received a vaccine, and that the world can slowly come out of lockdown, that businesses can reopen, that people can travel again and that I’ll be able to put my stash of face masks in the far back of my drawer and never look at them again.
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