HomeCommunityCUSD’s favorite British family adapts to unconventional COVID-19 experience

CUSD’s favorite British family adapts to unconventional COVID-19 experience

Published March 03, 2021


When Carmel resident and business leader Brendan Cook flew to England in mid-March of last year, he planned to stay only a short period of time. He ended up being stuck overseas for several months, far away from most of his immediate family.

Six of the eight members of the Cook family moved to Carmel from England in late 2019, including siblings CHS senior Niamh, CHS sophomore Clare, CMS eighth-grader Orla and Tularcitos fifth-grader Imogen, and the family purchased Cafe Carmel, which allowed them to get five-year visas.

“Owning a business and operating a business in California is just an experience you’re never going to forget,” says Brendan, “so that’s part of the reason we came across.”

At the start of the pandemic, Brendan had flown to England to help his two eldest children — Dominic, who studies classics at Oxford University, and Anna, a medicine student at Cambridge University  — get settled back into school. Shortly after he arrived, countries worldwide began to go into lockdown.

“I was due to be over from the 16th of March to the 24th of March,” Brendan explains. “I got to our house in the U.K. and started getting texts from the airline saying the return flight has been canceled and that there are no flights until May. By May, there were further restrictions.”

With their family split between California and England, the Cooks kept in contact with one another by improvising their traditions online.

“The thing that’s kept my family sane has been birthdays,” Niamh says. “We’d FaceTime on birthdays. It was my birthday in May, and my mom made me a birthday cake and had my dad in England make the exact same birthday cake.”

The family ended up making a habit of these international two-cake celebrations. They were able to do a similar thing for Brendan on his birthday during his time in England.

“It was fun to see his face when he saw both cakes there,” Clare says. “It made us feel like more of a family when we’re eating the same cake and celebrating the same thing.”

The Cook family (from left): Brendan; Anna, 20; Dominic, 21; Imogen, 11; Niamh, 17; Orla, 13; Clare, 15; and Sarah. (courtesy of Niamh Cook)

Because Brendan is not an American citizen or a permanent resident, the restrictions stated that in order to return, he had to spend two weeks outside of the U.K. and European Union. With international flights largely on hold, it was not until July and August that it was even plausible for him to leave the U.K. To further complicate matters, most flights to America in or around Europe connect in a restricted country, which invalidates the two-week waiting period.

“You’d have to find airlines that flew directly to the U..S.,” Brendan explains. “When you look at it, the only two countries in that part of the world were Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. They were the only ones with direct flights to the east coast, and Turkey had direct flights to the west coast. That’s why I spent two weeks in a hotel in Istanbul.”

Brendan Cook was eventually able to make his way back to California in late November about two weeks after the U.K. went back into lockdown. November also happens to be prime time for seniors to make choices about their collegiate futures. Niamh was no different; she found herself reconsidering her college options as a result of the pandemic.

“In terms of college, I always had my heart on going back to the U.K. because it’s three years, it’s cheaper, and there aren’t really any general education class requirements,” she says. “I kind of still wanted to explore the option of U.C.s, but this whole pandemic made me want to go to college and be done with it instead of four years with the American system. I think I’ll probably end up taking a gap year and deferring.”

When the holiday season approached, the Cooks found it impractical to see their English relatives in-person. They would have to get negative COVID-19 tests, quarantine for up to 10 days at home once they reached the U.K. and then stay in a third country for two weeks before they could return to California. As such, they resorted to the tried-and-true digital method.

“We had a Christmas day with an eight-hour time difference,” Brendan says. “We woke up and they were having their Christmas dinner. They joined us later in the afternoon as we had ours, and it was nearly midnight in the U.K. You get through these things. You just need to. Life’s too short. You just need to enjoy it the best you can.”

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