On the morning of 1 July last year, while sitting in my apartment in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, I got the phone call I had dreaded since I moved to Australia.
My dad was dying.
My sister had just been to visit him in hospital in Jersey and had been told the doctors had discovered an untreatable aneurysm. She said he could live for a few more months, or die within the next couple of days.
My dad was 82, a former dock worker, and had remained active and relatively healthy. I was so shocked that I couldn’t focus on booking a flight online.
So I walked straight out of my apartment to the local Flight Centre – surprised to see it was still open. My bosses granted me compassionate leave, and as a New Zealand citizen, I didn’t have to apply for an exemption to leave the country, as Australian citizens have had to do since March.
Later that night, I was sitting among travellers in full hazmat suits on a sparsely-filled plane bound for Doha, then London, nervous about turning my phone on when we landed to learn news of my father’s condition. Since moving to New Zealand, then Australia, I’d always feared having to grieve on a long flight home.
I had to sleep a night in terminal 5 at Heathrow, but luckily had arrived a day before the first flight to Jersey since the island’s border reopened.
A week after Dad entered the hospital, we had a meeting with the hospital medical team and convinced them to let him return home, to the house he had built for us in the 1960s, to die surrounded by his family. It was his dying wish.
My three sisters and I took turns caring for him. My mother, who was separated from my father but remained friends, was also there. She was the person who made him happy in life.
I took the night shifts, as I was still on Australian time. I was lucky because he was more talkative at night.
One night in early August I was reading a poem to him – Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold – when I saw him take his last breath about 10 minutes before midnight. I woke my sister, a midwife, who confirmed it.
The Doha plan
After the funeral I quickly started making plans to fly back to Australia. I assumed I would fly directly, and began searching the websites and apps I would use to book a flight before the pandemic.
By this point I’d heard talk of people being bumped off flights as Australia restricted the number of international arrivals to ease the burden on its hotel quarantine system.
I thought I could be smart and booked a flight to Sydney from Doha, Qatar, where fewer travellers would be trying to board. I thought I could make an adventure of travelling through Europe to Doha for a couple of weeks while working remotely with colleagues in Australia.
Two weeks after my dad died, I took a ferry from Jersey to St Malo – the closest French port – and then a train to Paris, where I spent a week working from my hotel room.
I then caught a train to Berlin, where I would again stay for a week, before flying to Istanbul, which was to be my last week before flying to Doha and then on to Sydney.
This was where the Doha plan began to seem no longer quite so smart. My flight to Australia was cancelled, the first of at least five flights I would book in vain over the next months, among countless more I monitored online that were cancelled before I got the chance to book them.
I decided to fly to Athens, where I thought I could base myself for a few weeks. I had read that Greece was handling the pandemic reasonably well, and was open for tourism.
But this flight was also cancelled, and with the Turkish-Greek border shut due to the pandemic, my only route to Greece was via Bulgaria.
I caught a bus to Edirne, on Turkey’s border with Bulgaria, then a bus to Sofia, where I worked from my hotel for about a week – a pattern that was to become all too familiar.
I then flew to Athens, where bizarrely there were almost no tourists. At the Parthenon and the Acropolis museum, I had the place to myself. I would come back to my hotel room after a day of sightseeing to work, in line with the hours of my Australian colleagues.
I had treated the three-week journey from Jersey to Istanbul as a working holiday and had been staying in some fairly nice hotels, thinking I would soon be home. But as it became clear I might be unable to get back to Australia for months. I started booking cheaper and cheaper accommodation.
Where do you go when you can’t go home?
By now it was late October, prices for one-way flights to Sydney were more than $10,000, and it was clear economy passengers were still being bumped off their flights. I was looking at routes via Kuala Lumpur, Doha, San Francisco, anywhere – nothing was available.
It was at this point I realised I didn’t need to stay in Athens. I decided to continue moving across countries I could get into, working in a different city a week at a time.
I travelled to the port city of Patra for two weeks, then on to Corfu for another two, thinking I could catch a ferry to Italy and try for a flight from Rome. But the ferries never ran due to the pandemic.
As airfares to Australia soared, the cost of accommodation in smaller European cities plummeted. I was able to stay in hotels for about $200 a week.
Eating lunch one day in Corfu, I told a waiter I’d be back for dinner the next night. He said I had better come back that night instead, as the lockdown began the next day.
This was the first I had heard of it, as I didn’t speak Greek and they were announced with little notice.
Corfu was just across from Albania, so I quickly packed my things and caught a ferry to the Greek mainland, then crossed into Albania before the lockdown began.
I was dodging and weaving through lockdowns and border closures, desperate to be in a position where, if a flight home presented itself, I could get on it. I felt like Leonardo di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can.
After a week in Tirana I moved on to Montenegro, and was starting to question where home was. We would sell our childhood home after my Dad’s death, while the Australian government was effectively barring me and thousands of others from getting home.
Where do you go when you can’t go home?
In Montenegro, I’d move from town to town by taxi each week. I’d developed a routine, with very odd hours. I’d get up at 5am, work for a few hours, then do some sightseeing and have a long lunch – as many regional towns had curfews from 8pm. I’d then work late into the evening, to line up with my colleagues in Australia.
Crossing into Croatia, I had a week in Dubrovnik, then one more in Split. By now, in mid-December, I had booked another flight to Sydney. Leaving London on New Year’s Eve, I figured, I might have a better chance of not being bumped. Who would want to fly on New Year’s Eve?
Arriving in Zagreb, I booked into a fancy hotel as a treat for Christmas and Boxing Day. But days later I was in a shoddy Airbnb when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the city. I was ready to go home.
On 30 December, with my flight from London to Sydney still scheduled, I boarded a flight from Zagreb to London, with stops in Warsaw and Paris. There was one last glitch when Polish authorities said I wasn’t permitted to be in the country, forcing me to book a new flight to London.
Right until the moment I got on my Sydney-bound flight in London, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.
I was waiting for the moment of lift, when I was sure the whole plane would erupt in cheers. It didn’t – the cabin was almost empty – but I felt a massive sense of relief.
Quarantine in Sydney was about as fun as you would expect, but being released two weeks later was magical.
On a sunny day in mid-January I returned to my Balmain apartment. It was like a time capsule, with post-it notes for upcoming events strewn over my desk, and the calendar still set to June.
• Andy Ball works as a developer for Guardian Australia. He was speaking to reporter Elias Visontay