Repatriating During A Global Pandemic – A Conversation With Denee Savoia

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Deciding to pack up your life abroad and head back to your home country can be difficult enough, but doing it during the Covid-19 pandemic brings all kinds of extra challenges.

Australian journalist, Denee Savoia, recently returned home after four years living and working in Turkey. However, getting herself home certainly hasn’t been straightforward. She was among the tens of thousands of Aussies that – even now – remain ‘stuck’ abroad, due to travel restrictions and Australia’s international arrival caps.

I caught up with Denee during her stay in hotel quarantine in Brisbane, to chat about the difficulties that she faced, and how it feels to finally be back on Aussie soil.

Denee, what’s a typical day in hotel quarantine been like for you?

Denee: Well, it’s a tough one. I mean, there’s a lot of Netflix. I have been sleeping in a lot, just because jet lag has been quite difficult to overcome, and that’s because I’m in a room without any open windows or a balcony.

So, yeah, it’s been really hard, having come from the Northern hemisphere, flying down to Australia. Usually, it’d take me three or four days to get over the jet lag, but it’s been 10 days now, and I’m still finding myself wide awake at three o’clock in the morning.

So, yeah, I’m sleeping in. I usually skip breakfast, have my lunch, watch a bit of Netflix, and catch up with friends on FaceTime. I’ve been doing daily workouts with my personal trainer, who’s back in Istanbul. We’ve been doing that on Facebook chat. And I hired an exercise bike as well. So, I’m keeping active.

I’m going to say there’s a lot of sitting around and doing nothing, but I’ve had plenty of time to prepare for sitting around and doing nothing, because in Istanbul, before I returned home, we had a lot of rolling lockdowns, like, a lot of curfews.

The bars and restaurants were all shut down there in, like, October, I think. So I’ve had a lot of practice in not being able to do much. So, this has been, surprisingly, easier than I thought it was going to be.

Carlie: It must’ve taken a bit of the excitement of finally being back in Australia away, to be whisked from the airport straight to a hotel when you got there.

Denee: But I think I was really well prepared for this. I knew what I was coming home to, in terms of this whole quarantine arrangement. And I’ve been reading other people’s accounts on some of the Facebook groups for Australians abroad and Australians stranded abroad and, you know, groups for people in quarantine. People were sharing their experiences and suggestions of things to pack and all of this.

So, nothing took me by surprise in the entire process. Everything was kind of exactly what I expected. And I have flown into Brisbane. My hometown is Melbourne, so I’m not even in my hometown yet, which was not my choice. I didn’t want to come to Brisbane, but the airline didn’t give me a choice in that one. So, yeah, it’s been weird.

I described it to friends as being in a form of purgatory. Like, I don’t actually feel like I’m in Australia yet, because I haven’t really stepped on Australian soil, if that makes sense. I’m literally just in a hotel, watching Australian television and having conversations with the hotel staff on the phone. I do feel like I’m home, but it’s just that slightly longer process before I actually get to see my friends and family and the dog.

Carlie: And from following your updates on Instagram, it has been quite a mission for you to get to this point of being back in Australia, after living and working in Turkey. I mean, obviously Covid-19, but what were the key factors that have held things up?

Denee: So, it’s a little bit complicated. I was meant to come home in March anyway. As the pandemic unfolded, my flight was actually cancelled. My flight with Emirates was cancelled before Australia shut its borders and before the Australian government had started warning people to come home.

And that was because of limits on the flights coming in and out of Turkey at the time. So, I was kind of stranded even before Australia was warning people to come home. But I still had a job then, and I weighed everything up and thought, I can wait it out here. It’s not the end of the world. I have a job. I have flat. I have friends here. I have a life.

But then, as the European summer kicked along, we were quite lucky that we were still allowed to travel throughout Turkey. I had a really great summer, but I think what happened was I just really wanted to leave my job, and I just felt trapped by the fact that there was a cap on the arrivals into Australia and all the rest of it.

So, I just got to a point where I just really felt like I needed to leave. And by the time I booked a flight home, the arrival caps – the limits on the number of Australians who are even able to board flights – was in full effect. I basically just had to wait until Qatar Airways was able to put me on a flight.

Initially, I was meant to come home on 1st November. That was cancelled with eight days’ notice. The next flight they were able to get me on was in January. So, my whole plan to be home for Christmas was scuppered. And then – I think that last week before I was due to fly home – there were a lot of phone calls to Qatar Airways. They changed my flight again, and they changed the destination city.

So, by that stage, I’d packed up my flat. I’d already resigned from my job. So that was when the stress levels really got quite high, because I was then facing the prospect of being technically in Turkey illegally, without a work permit, and without insurance, and without any of the sorts of protections that I had as an employee there. But, thankfully, I did get on that flight, eventually, on 7th January, and now I’m home.

Carlie: We’ve heard in the media [about] other expats in this situation, and there must be others that are contemplating this right now and facing the same issues that you faced. What contingency plans did you put in place? I mean, you said your first flight was cancelled with eight days’ notice. Had you already packed up your life by then? Or what sort of plans did you make, for in case your flight was cancelled again?

Denee: Again, I have to sort of separate the two flights. The flight in March that I was going to take was just to come home for a month. That was just for a vacation. When that was cancelled, I didn’t mind so much, because, as I said, I still had a job. I didn’t actually feel trapped at that point. That just felt like an inconvenience.

But yeah, as I said, as the year went on, and I really started to feel like I actually did want to come home permanently, that was a different scenario. So, eight days before that flight on 1st November was when I was told that flight was cancelled. And, in terms of contingency plans, I was quite smart about it.

I hadn’t resigned from my job then, either. I had negotiated with my boss to work remotely for two months from Australia, so that if I did get on that flight, then I would have been able to resign while I was home in Australia, serve out my two months’ notice period, and then get someone in Turkey, in Istanbul, to pack up my stuff and ship it all home for me. I also knew that it was going to be quite risky.

And then, when that flight was cancelled, mostly I was relieved, because it just meant that I knew where I was going to be for Christmas. Because, up until that point, I just didn’t know. I had a gut feeling that the flight was going to be cancelled. I knew that I had about a 50% chance of being booted off that flight, because of the cap on arrivals. So, yeah, when they did cancel it, I was mostly just relieved.

But, as I said, I then made a decision that, no, I didn’t want to have one foot in and one foot out. I wanted to resign from my job. And I had spoken to my parents about the fear that I had of being stranded – feeling like I couldn’t quit my job, because that would leave me in a very precarious situation, in terms of not having any sort of legal standing in Turkey with a work permit.

So, I spoke to my parents, and they just said, ‘Look, if it comes to it, and we have to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to get you on a business class flight to guarantee your trip home, then don’t worry. We’ll help you with that.’ I distinctly remember my mum saying, ‘You shouldn’t stay there, if the only reason you’re staying there is because of money. That’s what your family is for.’

I think, knowing in the back of my head that if we got to a worst-case scenario then my parents would be there to help me, I felt a bit more confident that I could just pack up my life. And if that Qatar flight that I had booked back in July got cancelled a third time, then I would have gone through one of their travel agents – who are sort of promising on Facebook groups at the moment that they can get people home.

I would’ve gone to one of them, and I would have said, ‘Just get me home. I don’t care how much I have to pay.’ Thankfully, it didn’t come to that though.

Carlie: For podcast listeners that aren’t aware, flights to Australia have been as much as $10,000 one-way. You have to buy first class or business. Because of the caps on arrivals every week, the planes can’t fly full. So, the airlines are basically not letting you purchase economy tickets. They need to make their flights to Australia viable. Therefore, they’re charging through the nose for these tickets.

Did you look at getting a place on a repatriation flight to Australia?

Denee: I had registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They had sent me a couple of emails about spaces available on repatriation flights from European cities, including Paris and Frankfurt. But the problem was that I was what the airlines considered a Turkish resident, even though I was never a Turkish resident – I was just a work permit holder.

The airlines would look at my passport and see that I hadn’t left Turkey in, like, six months or whatever it was, maybe nine months. And so, they considered me a resident of Turkey. Therefore, I could not get on airlines to get into Europe, even though technically Australians were allowed into the various EU countries. I couldn’t get into any EU countries from Turkey.

And I had responded to several of their emails to tell them that, but they just didn’t have a solution. The expectation was that I would be able to get myself to Frankfurt with two days’ notice and somehow still manage to get a Covid-19 test 72 hours before the flight – when they were, in some cases, only giving us two or three days’ notice. It just wasn’t practical. Me not being in Europe meant that I couldn’t get any of those repatriation flights.

Carlie: What a nightmare.

Denee: I’m going to say it was probably one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but, that said, my situation is nowhere near as bad as what I’ve read that other people have gone through. I didn’t really burn through my savings for months and months. I had a job right up until the very end. And, in fact, I had so much annual leave left at my job that I’m still technically being paid from that job, even though I’ve resigned.

In terms of the financial imposition, I’ve still spent a ton of money on the flight to get here, the quarantine that I have to pay for, and the ongoing flight. I then have to pay for the extra baggage. I have to pay for all of this stuff. It’s all adding up. Plus, the original flight that was cancelled back in March – it took that travel agency nearly nine months to refund my money.

So, yeah, I really do feel for those people who are burning through their savings. They’re having to spend, $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 per person. There are people with partners and children, and they’re looking at, like, $30,000, $40,000 to get home. It’s just heart-breaking that the Australian public just doesn’t seem to care.

Carlie: It’s really interesting, at the moment. At the time of recording this, we have a quarantine hotel in Brisbane that has turned up cases of the highly contagious UK strain of Covid-19. There’s the issue of the Australian Open tennis tournament going ahead. But then, the players that are being flown into the country have to go into the strict quarantine, because some people on flights have been found to have Covid-19.

From your perspective of living in the Northern hemisphere and seeing how the pandemic has been handled and has played out in such a higher degree, what are your thoughts on the way Australia is handling things?

Denee: It’s really easy, I think, to be an armchair critic, especially given that I wasn’t home to experience … For instance, Melbourne had a 104-day lockdown that my entire family had to endure. And, in that process, they managed to basically eliminate the virus in Victoria, which was quite commendable, but there was a lot of discussion about whether or not that was an appropriate, measured response for what the threat was.

I wasn’t there, so I can’t really say. The way that they’ve handled the issue of returned citizens has been an international embarrassment. I just think that everything that you need to do to protect your people from the virus should not come at the expense of citizens who just happened to be outside the border at the time.

I think what I really am getting tired of is constantly having to justify myself to people who seem to have no interest in really understanding that people like me weren’t just on holiday at the time. You can’t just pack up your life in two days when you’re an expat and jump on a plane. It’s just not really possible.

When you say that to people – not directly, but I’m talking about social media commentary that you get yourself into – people say really horrible things, like, ‘You’re not really Australian’ or ‘you’re an Australian of convenience’ or ‘it was fine for you to leave, so why don’t you just stay where you are?’

There’s this real sense of … It’s like a bit of tall poppy syndrome and a bit of jealousy and a bit of … It’s just a really ugly streak in the Australian society at the moment. It’s just really lacking in empathy and understanding for people that aren’t in the exact same situation that they are.

I think that people don’t seem to understand that if you can start limiting the rights of some citizens over others and prioritising some citizens over others, then that means everyone’s at risk. And I think that that is just something that has been impossible to explain to people. I don’t have citizenship in any other country.

I’m literally just an Australian citizen. There’s no other government in the world that’s responsible for me. The saddest part about that was just feeling so abandoned by my government. I’ve never felt so abandoned before.

Carlie: Yeah. I can really empathise, as an Aussie myself. I’m not in a situation where I need to go home right now, but just the fact that, even if I had to, it would be really difficult. Just this week gone, there was the news that Emirates is stopping flights into Australia for the foreseeable future, other than to Perth twice a week. And that just felt like another barrier put up for a potential way to get home, if I had to, you know?

Denee: Yeah. And I think you mentioned earlier, the tennis and the cricket as well. And I think that just feels like a real kick in the guts for the Australians who are stuck abroad. When you find out that Tennis Australia has been able to fly more than a thousand tennis players and support staff into Victoria for a sporting event.

It just feels like, at the same time as the government have been cutting the number of Australian citizens that are able to return, they’ve still been able to accommodate 1,200 people for the tennis. It just feels like we’re not a priority. There’s a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to the justification for leaving us stranded.

Only in the last couple of days have I really started to see the local news here in Australia make some noise about it. And it’s really only because of the tennis players, in terms of the number of cases that are in Victoria right now – all of them are either tennis players or tennis support staff. So it just seems ludicrous.

Carlie: I feel like the citizen thing is a no brainer, and you should get your citizens home. No question. I understand the need to try to keep the economy ticking over, especially for a state like Victoria, which was really badly hit during that Covid-19 lockdown where no businesses could really operate, and they lost a lot of money…

I understand the desire to try to get something like the Australian Open tennis tournament happening, to keep it for the future and to try to get some money coming in. I understand that, but I think they need to read the room a little bit, as well.

Denee: Yeah, absolutely. I think it just feels like everything that’s coming from the Victorian government at the moment is just incredibly disingenuous.

Carlie: Denee, you said you couldn’t fly directly into Melbourne, which is your final destination, when you do get out of lockdown. So, what happens after your two weeks is up?

Denee: So, as well as Australia having its international borders closed, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there’ve been a lot of state border closures as well. And that’s kind of changing day to day, based on the one or two cases in each city. So, you mentioned earlier that there was a hotel in Brisbane that had some people contract the UK variants of the coronavirus. Brisbane went into a three-day lockdown as a result of that. And Victoria shut its borders to people who were in Queensland.

So, I have just been watching this daily, to see how this changes and how it affects me. But, initially, my plan was to just jump on a plane and go straight home to Melbourne. And because I have completed quarantine here in Brizzie – even though, until a few days ago, it was considered a red zone and I would have been completely locked out of Melbourne – because I had done hotel quarantine, if I had gone straight to the airport, flown to Melbourne, showed them the paperwork saying that I had done quarantine, I would have been allowed into Victoria.

So, that was my initial plan. But now that the state borders have been reopened again … I have a friend who lives down on the gold coast, which is an hour from here, and she has asked me to come and spend some time with her. So, I’m going to go and spend a week on the beach with her, and then I’ll fly back and see my parents and the dog.

Carlie: Sounds like a really nice way to get back into Aussie life.

Denee: Yeah, I think they say that the best way to overcome jet lag is to have some sun on your shoulders and some grass between your toes. And so, yeah, I’m definitely going to be doing that.

Carlie: Now, you said you were well prepared and knew exactly what to expect when you went into hotel quarantine, so nothing really surprised you. What would be your top tips for Aussies that are facing a two-week quarantine in the future?

Denee: I read something on a Facebook group that was basically like, ‘Just have zero expectations’ – not to be pessimistic or fatalistic about it. But just really go into it knowing that it’s going to be a bit tough, and don’t be mad about it. Just understand that it’s a potluck as to what room you get. You might get a hotel where you have a really nice room, but the food is a bit ordinary.

It’s just two weeks. Just deal with it. I think that if you go into it feeling angry about the fact that you even have to do it in the first place, you are probably really going to struggle.

The other thing is to actually come prepared with stuff to do. So, I brought my Apple TV with me. This is all stuff that I would have normally packed in my shipping when I shipped the contents of my apartment home.

So, there were certain things that I packed in my suitcase that I knew I was going to need: my Apple TV, my laptop, some resistance bands and a skipping rope, self-care stuff, like Facemasks … I hired an exercise bike, as well. So, I had researched who to hire that through. I’ve had people drop off little care packages.

One thing that has absolutely made my time here so much more lovely – and it seems small, but it was really important for me – I had made a little comment on Instagram about how the lack of fresh air was starting to get to me a little bit. I was just really craving the smell of eucalyptus. And so, my mom and some of my best friends in Sydney sent me some flowers – some beautiful Australian natives with gum leaves in them.

So, my room just smells like Australia. And that’s made a huge difference. So, I would say to people, ‘Maybe you’re coming here and you don’t have people that are going to be dropping off care packages or whatever, but jump online and order yourself some flowers that smell nice. It’s the one time in your life that you’re going to be in this situation. Do what you need to do.’

A lot of people have said things like, ‘I really need my glass of wine every night.’ For me, I decided I didn’t want to drink. And instead, I just wanted to keep moving. And, like I said before, I’m doing daily sessions with my personal trainer. So that’s kind of anchored the day, in terms of giving me something to look forward to, and a conversation that I know I’m going to have with Kim every day, as well.

Come with zero expectations, and then everything will just be a pleasant surprise. And I will say, the hotel that I’m in, I really was expecting just nothing. And, you know, the room is small, but the staff have just been so lovely. I can call them and ask them to send up extra teabags. I’ve called them to ask for fresh towels. They do laundry.

I’ve had so many online shopping orders delivered, just little things that I wanted to buy anyway. So, they’re constantly bringing up deliveries, and they’re just really nice about it, as well. They are really trying their best, and they’ve had months to deal with this. So, they know what we are going to be asking for. They’re really not surprised by anything.

And the food has been incredible, but if there was something that I didn’t like, I could just call them and say, ‘Look, I don’t really want breakfast. Can you just send me some boiled eggs and some fruit salad?’ And they’ll do that. They’re pretty happy to accommodate you. They’re not trying to make your life difficult.

Carlie: And what’s the first thing you’re going to do once you’re out of quarantine?

Denee: I don’t know. I mean, it changes all the time. I have joked with my friends about how the first thing I want to do is go and have a beer and a chicken parmi at a pub. I think just being outside, really, after being cooped up in a room for two weeks … I just want to spend some time outside. And we’re lucky that it’s summer in Australia right now. So, yeah, I just want to be outside as much as possible.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you want to share your expat experience, hit us up on Instagram or Twitter – we’re ‘Expat Focus’ – or you can share a post in our Facebook groups. You’ll find all the links at expatfocus.com. Remember to subscribe or follow us on your favourite podcast app, and I’ll catch you next time.