By Blane Bachelor
Eric Barry has been riding a seemingly never-ending wave of uncertainty in his life over the past year. The 35-year-old writer and podcast host, who is originally from California’s Bay Area, was researching a novel in Ecuador when the global pandemic erupted in March 2020.
Over the next 12 months, as Barry tried to establish his new home base in Berlin, where he’s studying for a master’s degree, he faced challenge after challenge: an apartment that fell through in Berlin’s notoriously difficult rental market; trying to track down a German residence permit likely mailed to his former address; and navigating an unfamiliar healthcare system in which he has no idea when he’ll be vaccinated.
Now, Barry is headed back to the United States for something he does have control over: getting his Covid-19 shot in the near future. Hearing a fellow expat’s plans a few weeks ago to travel to the U.S. for her own vaccination “planted a seed,” he says.
“And then on a Facebook group I started seeing wave after wave of Americans that were all traveling back, and I thought, maybe this is something I want to do,” Barry says while waiting in a Starbucks before the first of a three-flight, 30-plus-hour journey to California, where he plans to stay with his already-vaccinated mom. “I never thought that, as I was leaving the United States for Germany, with this promise of a life with a better healthcare system, less than a year later I’d be traveling back to the U.S. for healthcare.”
That seems to be a growing sentiment among Americans living overseas — especially those in Europe frustrated by a vaccine rollout that the World Health Organization slammed in a recent report as “unacceptably slow.”
Just 10% of Europe’s population has currently received the first shot in a two-dose regimen, and many countries, including Germany and France, are in strict lockdown.
‘We both felt so much relief’
It’s quite a different scene across the Atlantic as more and more US states continue to open up vaccines to all adults over 16, with “I Got the Shot” stickers and vaccine selfies proliferating on social media.
The United States continues to set records for numbers of daily doses administered, and President Joe Biden has pledged that by the end of May — a target that has been moved up by two months — the U.S. will have enough vaccine for any adult who wants one.
Some Americans abroad want in on the action, too.
Spokespersons from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection told CNN via e-mail that they do not keep track of data on US citizens who live overseas coming back for their vaccines.
But it’s a safe bet that there are more than a few doing just that on half-full flights into the U.S., whose borders mostly remain closed except to US citizens.
Mindy Chung, her husband, and their young son were recently among them. Chung and her husband decided earlier this year to fly from Berlin, where they live, to their home state of California after her doctor in Germany told her she wouldn’t be able to get the vaccine anytime soon, despite her underlying health conditions. “That was a moment of like, yeah, we can’t stay,” Chung says.
A few days after landing in California about a week ago, Chung and her husband secured appointments. “As soon as we got through the process of checking in and got our shot, we both felt so much relief that we had another layer of protection,” Chung says.
Meanwhile, online American expat groups are buzzing with posts about travel restrictions and border closures and which states are stringent about showing proof of residency. Others share on-the-ground updates about how the process went.
‘There’s no right answer’
Unsurprisingly, there can be backlash, too, both online and in real life.
“There sometimes is the sense that, now that you live here, this is part of the package,” says Austin Langlois, a former digital nomad who moved to Amsterdam for a full-time communications job in the spring of 2020. “It’s this feeling I kind of get, like, it’s a cop-out to go to the States to get your vaccination, to get it faster.”
Langlois’s range of eligibility for a shot in the Netherlands stretches into the fall, which is “a long time away,” says Langlois, who’s originally from Michigan. “My perspective is that it shouldn’t be a debate on what [vaccine] you’re getting or where you’re getting it. Everyone should get it as soon as they can, where they can, because that will support the collective health of our society.”
That said, while Langlois is considering traveling back to the U.S. this spring, he hasn’t bought a ticket yet. He remains hopeful that the Netherlands will speed up its vaccine program and wants to be “respectful” of current travel advisories. He’s also keeping an eye on the still-tenuous situation in the United States.
“We’re approaching a third wave in the U.S., so you do have a bit of that dilemma as well,” Langlois says. “Do you travel and put yourself and others at risk to get your vaccination earlier, or do you wait to get your vaccination here, which is who knows when? There’s no right answer, and there’s no clear answer.”
‘Taking some control back’
For American expats with health conditions, the decision takes on another level of complexity. Ali Garland, a travel blogger based in Berlin, says even though she has an autoimmune disease that puts her in a higher priority group, it’s unclear when her shots would actually happen, and the timeline for her husband could reach into 2022.
The risks and hassles of the trip itself — flying with their new puppy, finding short-term housing in the US — also are daunting. So Garland and her husband remain in an angsty “wait and see” mode. “A big part of why I’m considering going back to the U.S. is control,” Garland told CNN via email. “The past year has felt like a complete lack of control over my own life. So it feels like everything was taken away from me, and considering going to the US to get vaccinated potentially months ahead of here would feel like taking some control back into my own hands.”
Eileen Cho, a Paris-based freelance writer and photographer originally from Seattle, can relate. Cho spent three months with family in the United States before returning to France in March — and into yet another lockdown.
Cho has heard alarming reports of other expats having their residence cards confiscated at the French border. That makes her hesitant to go back to the U.S. for a vaccine, only to be barred from re-entering France, where she’s lived for six years and now considers home.
Still, Cho, who says she has severe asthma, says if the situation doesn’t improve by around June, she just might hop on a US-bound plane for her vaccine. “All my friends have been vaccinated or have an appointment, and they send me vaccine selfies,” Cho says. “Obviously, I’m so happy for them. But because of the way things are going in Europe, right now it just feels like there’s no hope.”