When Distance Becomes Viral: One Family’s Flight from Delhi to Zagreb

May 12, 2020 - TCN is delighted to welcome Jennifer Barsky to TCN, whose arrival and first few days in Zagreb from Delhi in mid-March is quite a story. Welcome, Number 153! 

Living apart from loved ones is difficult under any circumstances, but the pandemic has only made distance all the more challenging and complex. In July 2019, my husband accepted a position in Zagreb. At the time, we had already been in India for two years and with our son starting high school and our youngest daughter transitioning to middle school, the kids were adamant they return to Delhi in the fall to begin the year with their friends, even if it meant a year largely apart from their father.

For the children, little changed. Their days continued to consist of school, friends, and activities and I relished the opportunity to do more yoga and continue our amazing adventures around India. For my husband, it meant new patterns away from us, weekends now spent in the office, and seemingly endless hours on planes.

Our new ‘normal ’would change again with the onset of coronavirus. With my husband’s mother in Spain, the uncomfortable tension of where things were leading was already building by February. Four people had tested positive in South India, but the situation seemed under control so together with a friend visiting from Canada we hopped on a plane for a weekend in Kerala armed with masks and Lysol wipes. My husband was still set to return to India for work and to spend March break together with my brother who would join us from Boston for trekking in the North. We were still making plans to drive in June from Croatia through Italy and France on our way to Spain for summer vacation.

jennifer-barsky (1).jpg

Suddenly, it felt as though the best-laid plans were only traps, with doors slamming all around us. On March 13th, Delhi closed schools through the 31st and my chat groups filled with dissenting views on whether the American school should follow suit. The definition of safety and what was best for our children became fluid. My daughters’ play was canceled, but parent-teacher signups continued. Borders were closing and death tolls in Italy and Spain were mounting daily. My brother canceled his trip, concerned he could end up in one of India’s military quarantine camps 

The swirling of rumors, advice, and directives accelerated. Flights out of India canceled. Airports now hotbeds of the virus. New travel advisories issued by the day. Visas canceled for France, Spain, and Germany. The children’s school closed until March 27th. Hand sanitizer and gloves sold out. Calls with my husband became more urgent.

Amid the seeming chaos, life was calm and took on yet a new ‘normal’. Quiet days, low pollution, the trees full of squawking parrots, gardens ablaze with color, and a light breeze. I began teaching socially distanced yoga in the park, the kids organized school working sessions with friends. We were happy. But we were also apart. Then, March 12th, a new travel directive virtually erased our visas from the pages of our passports. If we left now, we would be unable to return until at least April 13th. The kids wanted to stay. My husband was desperate we be together before the window slammed tight and we risked months apart. Maybe he should come here, friends said. We began looking at Zagreb-Delhi flights.

Amidst the indecision, a flurry of calls and messages. A friend and doctor from Montreal. You need to leave now. Come to Canada where you will be safe. My sister who drove with her daughter at 5 am across the Spanish-French border to reunite with her husband before it sealed. Leave now. With 1.3 billion people and an unknown infection spreading like dust storms across communities, there is no telling where this is going. You need to be together.

I buy a ticket for Monday, March 16th and we begin packing. I’m unsettled. It feels counterintuitive to fly from India’s relative calm into Europe’s eye of the storm, but Croatia seems an oasis for the moment. Don’t worry, you will be back when school opens, I tell the kids, unsure our visas would be honored for our anticipated April return. They are sad to leave friends, our dog, but also excited to have a vacation in their soon to be Croatian home.

Monday comes, but when I go online to check-in, I realize the flight had left with the sunrise that morning. I have spent my career on a plane and have never missed a flight. It hits me like a punch in the stomach. I get online and start searching. Flights are few and far between and prices more than double. It’s not even four am for my husband. I need to make a decision. The earliest I can get us out is Thursday with a 14-hour layover in Doha. I imagine the tension, exposure, exhaustion, but I can no longer shelter the children from a cross-continent transition in flight. I buy the tickets.

When my husband wakes up, he is increasingly desperate. More border closings. “Buy a ticket for tomorrow,” he says calmly but I can hear the concern in his voice. I am trembling as we look at different dates, different options, flight prices increasing every time I open the browser. “Just buy it,” he urges. I check the times, type my credit card number, and hit purchase. The itinerary comes back confirmed, but it is the wrong day. The brave face I have kept for the kids these past weeks evaporates. “I can’t do it anymore,” I shout. He listens and calms me, but I can feel him pacing, helpless across the distance.

This time we pack more bags. The kids slowly coming to terms that we may be gone longer than they anticipated. I stock up on our favorite things to keep India close and ensure some continuity as we tear them from their lives. Telephone goodbyes. We will see each other soon.

The airport is unexpectedly smooth. Masks, Lysol wipes, gloves, sanitizer. I am obsessive. The kids feel safe with me. We arrive in Doha. It feels empty but full of life. Young migrant workers from around the world, from India, man the airport, smiling greetings.

Hours go by surprisingly fast and it is time to board. As we approach the gate there are people still seated, others are waving papers at the agent. My husband calls to make sure we are on board as I present our passports. Three Spanish for the children and my Canadian. The rules had changed while we were in transit. I am refused boarding. Relatives of EU citizens are no longer allowed in. I present a government letter advising my husband is a resident and we are joining him. No amount of discussion will change their minds. Should I board the kids and try to get a flight to my native Montreal? The flight closes together with the distance for those onboard. We are still in Doha.

The walk to the transit desks feels miles away. The kids trade stories of the Himalayas with our Nepali escort. On arrival, a young Kenyan agent listens patiently to our story. “There is a flight in six hours, but will need written confirmation they will allow you entry,” she tells me. My husband is on the phone with the head of his office as they desperately try to obtain permission for us to travel. It’s the middle of the night. The Zagreb airport police confirm we will be accepted but there is no written confirmation. “Don’t worry,” the agent reassures me. “I will stay past my shift end to ensure you get on the plane.” I want to hug her, but the virus says no.

I take the kids to lie down on some chairs. They are exhausted and scared. Hours pass. The airport is sealed so we cannot travel into Doha. Authorities waive the rule allowing us to stay in the airport beyond the 24-hour limit. I comfort a young woman from Namibia, unable to reach her mother since they closed the airspace over South Africa. A 14-year old boy alone, trying to reach his family on vacation in the Maldives. We are just one of the so many stories of separation. Of distance.

Only 30 minutes before the flight is set to leave, they rush to tell us we have been confirmed to travel. We race to the gate only to be denied boarding again by security. They did not receive a message. This time they hold the flight and the message reaches in time. The bus idles for what seems like hours before we finally board. Masks, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer. The last call to my husband. Cautious relief. We are on our way.

The kids relax and watch a movie. I practice pranayama to calm my mind. We arrive. The kids are excited but still nervous. They want so much to enjoy these first steps into the new country they will soon call home. I am prepared for the entry process to be slow. We present our papers but are turned back. The distance is nothing but meters now from my husband waiting on the other side of immigration, but unable to step into Croatia, we might as well still be in India. More calls, more committed people working tirelessly to help free us from no man’s land.

Almost four hours after we disembarked, our passports are stamped, we collect our luggage and step across the distance into my husband’s embrace. Suddenly, near 40 hours of travel dissolves. We quarantine happily in our new house. The kids wake to snow for the first time. The coronavirus lockdown is announced but we don’t mind. We are safe, together and grateful. We sleep peacefully until just three days after our arrival we awake to the house, our world, shaking beneath us again. This time, a 5.3 magnitude earthquake just 7 kilometers north of Zagreb, the first in 140 years. We huddle outside in the cold, a sensation of incredulity, a deep sense of fear of what next. Many lose their homes. We are lucky.

We leave our shoes, coats and hats close to the door and every one of the more than 100 aftershocks over the coming weeks sends us running, hearts in our throats. As time passes, the tremors diminish, and our sense of security returns. Our sense of gratitude throughout remains unshaken.

As I write this, Croatia takes steps to open and India’s lockdown has been extended another 14 days. Thousands of the migrants who took to Delhi’s streets when it first began remain stranded, some starving. Had we left one day later or not experienced the compassionate commitment of so many, we would still be there, awaiting news and watching temperatures and uncertainty rise. Here, the garden we planted a month ago is blossoming. We are home.

For more human stories of expats in Croatia, Croatians abroad, and those somewhere in between, check out the dedicated TCN section.

Jennifer Barsky is an international development professional, health coach, and certified yoga instructor. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she now lives in Zagreb with her husband and three children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.