A travel photographer, The Shining, an international love story, a three-week trip turned three months in a 40-year-old Chalet in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. A visual tale of being stranded overseas during COVID by Australian creator Melissa Findley
Truth be told, I had wanted to visit Switzerland for so many years. I could never have dreamed that I would finally get the opportunity to do it earlier this year. And I definitely couldn’t have dreamed that I would still be here three months after my arrival, unplanned, of course.
My life doesn’t usually look like this. These past few months in Switzerland have been transformative, a total rollercoaster of emotions from happiness to helplessness, sympathy to empathy.
I imagine it’s probably like that for many people around the world.
I’m a travel photographer, and my job is a dream, a hard-working albeit fantastic dream.
Over the last eight years of running my own small business, I haven’t paused, even though I was so desperate to do so. Life before the 2020 coronavirus lockdown was busy. I was always on the go, and I haven’t spent more than six weeks in one place until now.
For example, my February 2020 looked like this: Japan for a photo assignment for five days with overnight red-eye to get home to Australia for a dear friend’s wedding celebration. So I had one night in my bed before grabbing four flights to get to the Philippines for a three-week underwater photo assignment.
Then I was back home for a weekend to co-host a photography exhibition to raise money for those affected by the devastating bushfires in Australia. Follow that up with a 30+ hour commute to Switzerland for a job.
Woah, where’s the time to breathe? It’s hard to stop when the hustle gets you. It’s no wonder that so many millennials suffer burnouts.
I could have never imagined I would soon be stranded overseas during COVID.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How can you complain about your dream life?
I love my life so much, and I am so very aware of my privilege of both holding my dream job and the safety of being lockdown in a remote part of Switzerland during COVID. It sounds like a dream. And it is. But even picture-perfect dreams are rooted in a hard reality many can relate to.
I want to share with you the story of how I got to be stuck in the mountains of Switzerland, with a new romantic love. We all want the truth behind the photos, don’t we?
Day one of self-isolation
What did you do? Binge TV, of course.
We watched the Shining, of course (WHY?). Like all ordinary people would do amidst the onset of a global pandemic and being the only two people stranded in an empty 138-room-hotel in the mountains.
As a functioning highly-anxious adult, this was an excellent idea for my nervous system and the weeks to follow.
The words in my travel diary started dreamily and almost blissful. Also, in the early days, I still had a flight home to Australia. Things seemed more optimistic.
I was with someone special, and we were excited to live out this dream together. You see, it was romantic in my mind, as I suppose everything is with a new love and the “honeymoon period.” Come on, trapped in Switzerland in the mountains with a new love? What isn’t romantic about that?
However, I don’t think anything could have prepared us, or those in a similar situation to spend the majority of that period in isolation, or for a day in a Swiss hospital, weeks spent cooking on a camping burner and doing laundry in a bathtub. Nothing prepares you for that.
Bathtub laundry aside, it’s a very sweet story of stranded overseas during COVID and in love.
My partner, Ryan, and I have been “friends” for years. He is a travel photographer too. When he isn’t at home in the Pacific Northwest, USA, he spends most of his time in Switzerland.
How did it start? Well, a few years ago, I used to make Zines (short for Magazine). Essentially it was a self-published 80-page coffee table style book of my travel portfolio for each year. I didn’t know at the time, but when I gifted Ryan two copies of my zines, it would be the beginning of this story.
It was a small gesture, one I didn’t put too much weight into. He tells me now those magazines were a source of comfort and inspiration to him.
Back in 2017, we missed each other by only days while traveling around the South Island of New Zealand. It was then we started talking about working on a project together.
I had a harmless crush on him; he consciously friend-zoned me because, in his words, “I made him nervous.” Cute, right?
Last year, while I was traveling in the PNW, he was here in Switzerland – it seemed we had just been missing each other. So, when he invited me out to work on a unique project here and the dates finally aligned, I got on that flight. And guess what? I’m still here.
Ryan and I FaceTimed all the time in the weeks leading up to the trip. We started by talking about the project but quickly found ourselves losing hours per day looking at each other through a screen and talking about everything BUT the job at hand.
Fast forward to my first day in Switzerland together, a total dream come true. From running around in the snow to throwing snow-balls at each-other to drinking wine and nibbling pasta together, it was just like a romantic movie scene. It was bliss, the perfect beginning to a true love story.
But then came the chaos.
Over the last ten weeks stuck in Switzerland during the pandemic, I’ve fluctuated somewhere between cloud nine and the earth-is-ending state of consciousness.
Slowly I began to withdraw from my family and friends back home, slipping into that fog that accompanies many of us during self-isolation. Most of them (still) don’t even know the next part of my story or even precisely WHY I didn’t come home before things closed down. Reflecting now, it’s hard to remember just how uncertain those times were. Wouldn’t it just be over quickly, and we’ll get back to normal?
But then I got sick. Like, really sick right as the world was beginning to panic from a crazy viral illness that would eventually leave me stranded overseas during COVID.
You see, I’m stubborn, very stubborn. If I’ve learned one thing about myself in isolation, it’s that I’m stubborn. I’ve only ever called in sick once to work over the past eight years, and it still bugs me.
So, after nine days of what I can only describe as pure physical agony as an unexplained sickness consumed me, I finally allowed Ryan to take me to the hospital.
With a hand-written list of symptoms to be translated to Swiss-German, I spent the day in the hospital trying to explain to my doctor why I didn’t come in after over a week of not being able to move, uncontrollably shaking and riddled with goosebumps, while Ryan put me in a warm bath as I cried like a baby.
Am I reaching new levels in a relationship way too fast? I think so.
After a few hours, multiple tests, sitting in an isolation room in the hospital with a drip, and an intense course of pain-killers along with ten days worth of antibiotics, I was on my way out. I left the Swiss hospital to a lovely boyfriend waiting outside for hours in the car. I had to explain to him that I wasn’t allowed to leave or to go anywhere for five days in case my infection got worse, and I would need to return.
They never tested me for Covid-19.
So, what was I going to do about my flight? I had a significant job to come home to, working closely with local tourism on photography for Bushfire relief in Australia. Also, I simply wanted to go home and see my cat. I missed her and still do.
Well, the universe decided for me. Before I even had time to decide what to do next, two of my flights were canceled. I was left without a refund as the airline went into voluntary administration. Then I lost both upcoming job contracts too.
As the Australian borders swiftly closed, I was stuck on the other side of the world faced with a few hard questions:
- Do I find another flight and risk my infection getting worse during a 30-hour transit?
- Do I risk possibly getting COVID-19 during the transit?
- Or even worse, do I risk infecting other people if I already had COVID-19? Which was entirely possible.
You see outside of the infection in my body, I had a lot of the coronavirus symptoms. For example, I had a terrible headache for days, a sore throat, on and off fever, shallow breaths, and trouble breathing with sharp pains and a slight cough.
I had self-isolated for ten days already, and while Ryan showed no symptoms. But when I told this to the hospital, they didn’t test me.
Was it COVID-19? Or perhaps was it a cross-over of symptoms from my infection? Maybe it was it health anxiety? Was it one of or all 3 of the above? Who knows.
Regardless, the decision was out of my hands. I was going to stay in Switzerland, where Ryan and I decided to wait this out together.
In the beginning, I eagerly devoured every single news article I could find about the pandemic, like many of us. Obviously, in no way, shape, or form is this good for anyone’s mental health, let alone for someone with serious anxiety now prone to nightmares and nighttime terrors. I promptly; banned myself from reading any more news with Ryan as the enforcer, simply because of the sheer anxious state my body was living in.
Instead, I quietly accepted my fate. I spent days lying in the sun. The weather was about 11 degrees Celcius at this point, as Switzerland slowly shifted into springtime. As Queenslander (hot and tropical Australia), I would typically complain that it is still way too cold.
We easily slipped into a routine stranded overseas during COVID.
I pretended to read my book, rare for me as an avid book reader; I just couldn’t focus my mind. Ryan bought me an orchid, inspiring me to begin a photo-series called “In Bloom,” a compilation of still-life and light, while I finished out the course of antibiotics in isolation.
Best of all, I started talking to my friends and family again. It was hard, even though I ignored (and still ignore) their questions of “When are you coming home?”
I’ve never learned so much about myself in such a short amount of time. In a world of uncertainty, I have learned a few things from my time here in the Swiss Alps stranded overseas during COVID.
There are little moments here in Switzerland that I utterly cherish. As a solo world-traveler, I never knew I could settle down somewhere, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic.
One minute I’m petting Swiss cows, happy as a clam, and the next, I’m searching for any possible flight route home in the middle of the night hours. Simple things like Ryan opening the door for me everywhere we go (basically to the supermarket and back) make me so happy. We’ve made friends with the local horses, goats and named a few stray Swiss cats too. I know for a fact they aren’t homeless, but we like to pretend they need our love and attention on our daily walks.
Ryan and I have even created our own language – there’s absolutely no logic to it, but it’s ours. I’ve shaved his beard, and we survived that experience too. There was absolutely no way I would trust myself with a YouTube tutorial and some blunt scissors to cut his hair.
I’ve eaten my weight in hummus and spicy penne arrabbiata. I’ve learned that although I love camping. Also, I love cooking though I’m sick of cooking on a camping stove and doing my washing in a bathtub. While I can assure you it’s not nearly as exciting to me as the times, I’ve done my washing in a tub while trekking in the depths of the Himalaya or the night spent under the stars in Patagonia. It’s still remarkable, in a way.
And if that is the least of my worries these days, then I’ll take it. I’m just happy for the small victories.
Day 63 of self-isolation:
I still haven’t finished that book I’ve been trying to read. I’m writing to you guys from the library of an empty hotel, while the sun is shining outside. I’ve watched the snow begin to melt, and the wildflowers start to grow as I’m still stranded overseas during COVID.
I’ve now spent more time in Switzerland than I have in any other corner of the world in years.
Mostly I have come to know myself better. This new love and these times have taught me the resilience of the human spirit. It’s incredible how quickly we can adapt to a greater good and the health of others.
How much I truly cherish nature and the simple moments surprise me. Like slowing down and seeing the flowers poking through the matted grass flattened by a long winter makes me smile. The ability to be present and quiet as a new day begins is now part of me.
So what’s next? Who knows.
My home country of Australia has closed the border to foreign nationals for the foreseeable future (estimated to be open again next year). If I return home, I likely won’t be able to go anywhere that’s outside of Australia – unless it’s across the Tasman Sea if an Australia – New Zealand bubble begins for travel (New Zealand is my second home, and I can’t complain about that).
But what about love? If Ryan and I part, it’s likely we won’t see each other for 6 + months. The future of travel is uncertain.
That future seems to be one of hand-written letters (true story – I love them) and hours spent back on Facetime.
I would miss the days of nothing. I love annoying Ryan while he works away editing photos and rebuilding a website for the Hotel group here while I work on a dream job teaching on my most loved software for Adobe Lightroom. But worst of all, to be parted after finally finding each other.
All I know is I’ll have a new skill as a barista by the time I leave here (triple shot oat milk mocha anyone?). I would leave Switzerland with only the memory of the long days where we watched the space between the minutes when time stood still. Just us two, fresh air, on top of a mountain, staring at the Swiss Alps.
No matter what happens, I will never take this unexpected experience for granted.
What would you do in my place? Can you imagine being stranded overseas during COVID? Have you been in Switzerland before? How has life caught you unawares? Share!
**All images of Melissa photographed by the talented Ryan Field