No Christmas drinks, but plenty of Christmas-themed masks. No singing at midnight mass, but lots of empty places at tables. This is truly a Christmas like we have never seen before. In some ways, it’s more dialled back, a little more low-key. Christmas cards are making a comeback because we can’t see each other in person. There isn’t as much craziness in the streets, from either intrepid shoppers or ‘Friday before Christmas’ drinkers.

But so many people are acutely aware of the absences felt this year, of family, friends, carol services and concerts, visits to homes and catching up with returned travellers from afar, back for the holidays.

One such returning traveller is Alice, who has spent the last two years living in Copenhagen.

A graduate of DIT’s culinary entrepreneurship course, Alice moved to Denmark after completing her degree and is now head baker in one of the busiest little artisan bakeries in Copenhagen.

Alice has not been home since last January, calling the year living abroad during a pandemic, ‘the longest year of [her] life. The longest year of everyone’s lives, really.’

Alice and I caught up to discuss why and how she planned to come home this year, what the airports are like and how to travel as safely as possible from a red country.

Last March, when everything really took off with the virus and you were living in Copenhagen without any real Irish connections there, how did you react? Did you want to come home? Do you regret not doing so?

‘I was glad that I wasn’t home because I felt like during the first lockdown, Denmark seemed a little bit freer in terms of restrictions. At the time, I was working in a very busy bakery and we didn’t close, so I was just going to work every day and it felt somewhat normal to me.

‘So, I was glad of that but at the same time I was worried about my family, and of course I missed them. It’s tough being apart during a global pandemic, for sure, but all in all I’m kind of glad I stayed put where I was.

‘ I didn’t think it would go on for this long, I don’t think anyone at the time thought it would go on for this long.’

And what does Denmark’s Covid situation look like now? They’re a red zone country now.

‘I think the whole mink situation was a bit of a mess. It was a very rash decision; I don’t know if it was the right or the wrong one. But that was certainly a little bit scary and then it just put another barrier up to me coming home. It’s all blown over a little bit now.

‘At the moment they’re kind of struggling…They’re in lockdown now but it probably should have happened a little bit earlier than it did. In a way I’m glad I’m not spending Christmas there because they’re under strict restrictions now so I’m glad I’m not in that situation on my own.

‘One thing I will say about it though, is that it is very efficient in terms of testing. You can book a test no matter what. If you want to book a test, you can book 5 tests, that’s no problem. I got a letter form the government saying everyone between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five would be tested before Christmas. It’s all just very easy there in terms of getting tested and getting your results.’

So about a month ago, there was a little bit of a bomb dropped on Irish people living abroad when they were told to reconsider coming home this Christmas. How did you feel about that advice?

‘Obviously, it was a little bit scary, but just between myself and my family we looked at two sides of the weighing scale; On one hand, of course, you want to be as safe as possible and you want to see your family but on the other hand there is risks involved.

‘So the way we decided to do it was to come home because we felt like we needed it and it’s been a year that all of us needed it. They needed to see me as much as I needed to see them.

‘So, we just decided to take every precaution possible. I got two negative tests before I flew, I’m getting another test five days after I land and my parents are separated from me. I’m wearing a mask in the house; I’m staying socially distanced. I’m extremely restricting my movements, so at the end of the day you’ve done as much as possible to be safe.’

What was the testing process like for travelling? Walk us through what you had to do.

‘So basically, at the moment because [Denmark’s] number are getting higher, they’ve opened up pop up testing centres, so you just show up and queue up. And you have a health card, so you just go in and scan that it’s just a throat swab so then it’s done.

‘There’s a health app that has all of your health documentation in it and so you just get your results on that after 24 hours. It was all very easy.’

And you’ll be getting another one now, that you are home?

‘I’m getting a private PCR test on Friday. And the unfortunate thing about this system is that it’s not free and luckily enough we had the means to get that, but there’s a lot of people who might not and if I was in that position it would probably be a barrier for me to come home.’

What was it like going through the airport? How had it changed to accommodate Covid restrictions? Can you walk us through the process?

‘So in Copenhagen airport there were segregated sides to walks on, hand sanitiser absolutely everywhere, everyone was wearing a mask. I took the extra precaution of wearing a mask and then a ski snood, like a scarf as well that I pulled up, so I had kind of double layers.

‘Unfortunately, my flight got cancelled last minute so they re-booked me on a later flight, but I just decided to get out of the airport and come back later, just to reduce my time there.

‘On the plane itself, there was a middle seat left between myself and the person on the same row as me. We were put on the plane row by row and taken off row by row. We were given little packets with hand sanitiser, and a disinfectant wipe.

‘I wouldn’t say it was the most pleasant experience ever, because I was nervous, but at the same time all you can do is take all the precautions that you can and try to be as safe as possible. The only thing I was a little disappointed with was that they handed out snacks, on the plane, free snacks. So I felt like it was just an invitation for everyone to take off their masks at once, so I just decided not to take it and just keep to myself.

‘Arriving in Dublin airport, I had gotten a text form the airline saying that I needed to fill out the passenger locator form. There were so many signs and so many opportunities to fill it out, that because it’s a legal requirement, there was no way they were not going to let you do it. Overall, I mean, it was fine, I got here in one piece.’

And do you think anyone would have been able to avoid doing this?

‘No. When you go to passport control you have to show them either a hard copy of it or an email receipt and they won’t let you through without it.’

So now that you’re home and isolating, what is the game plan? What does your roadmap out of isolation look like?

‘So now I’m basically self-isolating in my house for the next five days. My dad who is still working at the moment is moved to another house to stay away from me while he’s still working. My mam has taken time off work, she’s staying here in the house with me, but we’re using separate bathrooms, face masks when we’re together and we’re just constantly sanitising and washing our hands, staying as separated as possible.

‘I arrived on Monday night and on Friday I have the private PCR test. And then I should get the results back in twenty-four hours. But we still have decided as a family that even if, hopefully the test comes back negative, we’re still going to sanitise, wear face masks, you know, still take precautions, because you can never be too careful. I think once you’re careful and you’re playing it safe, that’s all you can do.’

How long will you wear the masks and distance for? Have you plans to meet up with people this Christmas?

‘We’ll be doing all that until I’m here for fourteen days which will be the 28th. But I’m hoping to meet up with my friends once I get the negative PCR test.

‘So hopefully I’ll meet my friends for a socially distanced walk or something, once I get my negative results. I’m not planning on going to anyone’s house or having anyone over. But at the same time, I feel that at the moment, I’m the risk, so I want to leave it up to other people for them to decide whether they want to take the risk to see me or not. I won’t take any offence if they don’t. It just is what it is. My family’s safety and their families’ safety are the priority.’

So not heading to the pub anytime soon?

‘No unfortunately not, that’s the one thing I will miss this Christmas, is meeting up with the girls in our local pub, but if that’s the sacrifice I have to make, it’s only a very small price, so I’m happy to do it just to be with my family.’

What was the hardest part of all of this?

‘The hardest part about travelling home was not being able to hug my mum when I met her in the airport carpark, after being away for a year. Or not even being able to see my dad for the next few days. It’s the toughest thing about the whole situation, but it’s for the greater good.’