When Chelsea LaVere first traveled to the United Kingdom, she expected a few months of traveling and adventure.
But the coronavirus pandemic had something else in mind.
LaVere decided to take time after recently going through a divorce and go to one of her favorite places in the world: London. She took a six-month leave from her job as editor-in-chief and owner of the Tidewater and Tulle, packed her bags and headed across the pond in December with her cat, Pickles.
But very soon after, LaVere started hearing talk of the pandemic, especially from her AirBnb host who was staying in Vietnam.
“So I had all these mini-adventures planned and in January we started to hear the first COVID-19 rumblings happening,” she said. “We heard it was going around the world, but we didn’t know what was coming.”
LaVere also found herself during that time in a real-life romance that emulated all the great British novels she had known and loved. She went on a date with Robert Barton, a native to the U.K., and the pair connected immediately. They started spending more time together but very quickly the coronavirus accelerated their relationship.
LaVere’s AirBnb host returned home around mid-March, leaving LaVere stuck in a foreign country with nowhere to go. But by that point, she and Barton had decided they were each others’ “happily ever after” and decided to move in together.
And the move came just in time as England went into lockdown just days after.
“It really makes you appreciate life more,” she said. “It makes you appreciate what you have and realize things that are more valuable than any money or job or contract.”
But LaVere was still a foreigner there, unable to return home to Williamsburg. Her visa was supposed to end in June but had to be extended to the end of July because of travel restrictions.
She and Barton during that time also started a new Etsy shop to sell various hand-crafted products, which she said has helped level out any income issues since Barton was furloughed with only a partial salary.
But since being in the U.K., LaVere has watched her home country be torn apart not just by the pandemic but by racial injustice and political upheaval. While sitting at home with her cat and budding relationship, LaVere watched the news in the United States and worried about her return.
“Honestly, I’m frustrated that I’ll be coming back to a country where they haven’t been following safe protocol,” she said. “I’ve been in lockdown for 15-plus weeks and now I have to return home [to isolation] again because the U.S. didn’t do its job basically.”
LaVere said being in a foreign country during a pandemic has given her a new perspective not only on her life, but on the communities of which she is part. Being in England has shown her a more community-focused mentality that she doesn’t think she’ll find when she comes home.
“Overall, the culture here is we have to do this,” she said. “We’re all in it together.”
Another noticeable difference, she said, is the cultural attitude toward health care because the U.K. has the National Health Service, a publicly-funded health care system. LaVere said people in the community are taking time to rally and praise their health care providers more than she’s seen in the U.S.
But she recognizes that since she hasn’t been home for this experience, she doesn’t have a full understanding of what the experience is like in the U.S. She’s been piecing together information from friends, family and news outlets back home and comparing it to what she’s seeing around her in England.
“Yes, racism and the pandemic exists all over the world but they’re very specific American problems and it’s heartbreaking because…it’s a different level of things,” she said. “With the pandemic and my lack of understanding, I don’t comprehend a lot of the selfishness that I’ve seen. I think the community aspect of so many different cultures is such a beautiful thing.”
LaVere’s time in the U.K. came to a close and she returned home at the end of July, leaving her boyfriend and her cat behind. While being stuck in another country can be scary, LaVere said it’s also terrifying to not know when she’ll be able to return to the U.K. and see Barton again.
The current travel restrictions prevent him from coming to Virginia, but LaVere said her plan is to travel to the U.K. again in January on another six-month visa. But even with that plan in place, she realizes life and the world could change within that time.
“The lesson of all this is you just have to pivot and focus on what’s really important in life,” she said. “Everything else falls away when you realize there’s more to life than an office job and your everyday routine. You learn to adapt.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT THESE STORIES:
- Paying the price: How Williamsburg’s Black business sector died in the 20th century
- The Confederate battle flag: Different meanings for different people
- These temporary workers keep America fed but face uncertainty during pandemic
- Facemasks: There are still people refusing to wear them. Here’s where to find local ‘Mask-Friendly Businesses’