TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his second trip through Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It never occurred to me that Terminal Four at JFK would be busy on a Sunday night. But then I omitted to remember I was due to fly to Europe on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving. But busy is a relative term. Before the pandemic, the ‘crowd’ at the Delta terminal on Sunday November 28, 2020, would have seemed paltry. But at the height of Wave Two (did we actually ever leave Wave One?) there seem to be a lot of people. Although very few seem to be flying across the Atlantic like me, and even fewer are flying in Business Class. Actually, I’m not even flying Delta. I’m flying KLM to Amsterdam and connecting to Copenhagen.
A month and a half ago I had made my first trip to Europe since the lockdown in March. I went to Portugal, Switzerland, Italy and Germany – on business to visit clients old and new. It was an extraordinary adventure, particularly as the approach to Covid-19 in different countries was remarkably dissimilar, and in one country, Switzerland, strikingly different in the country’s French- and German-speaking regions. But the trip proved to me that Europe is still there, still functioning, still delicious, still glorious, still European. And now I’m en route again, this time to Denmark and Sweden.
Check-in at the priority desk at Delta is complicated – and it explains why I couldn’t check in the night before on my phone’s app. The check-in clerk is a tad flummoxed by what her computer screen is demanding. She needs to see my European passport as well as my U.S. passport (I was born in Britain, and gained U.S. citizenship in 1980. I am going to be a European until December 31, 2020; after that, because of the foolhardy and catastrophic Brexit, I’ll just be a Limey and a Yank). The computer screen bleeps. She now needs to scrutinize the letter from my client in Copenhagen affirming that I am indeed entering Denmark on valid business (I-just-wanna-go-there tourism is not currently permitted). Another computer bleep: she needs to see proof of my negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of my arrival in Denmark (more on this later). She reads every word with a thoroughness of a Talmudic scholar.
Checked-in accomplished, I wander through the empty TSA Pre-Check line to the TSA officer, safely ensconced behind a glass panel under which I insert my passport into a monitor. I lower my tartan mask (quite fetching, actually), and am approved. Through security (surly staff in masks and face shields looking like stormtroopers from Star Wars), and down to the concourse in which every single shop, store, bar, restaurant – save the newsstand selling gum, magazines, those neck crunching croissant-shaped pillows, and sanitizing gel - is firmly shut. Welcome to the glamour of travel in the era of Covid-19.
I ride the escalator to the Delta Lounge, where I am welcomed by an eye-smiling clerk in a snazzy Delta mask. Tables are distanced and I order a double Damrak Gin on the rocks at the bar (having no intention of adding a ridiculous $10 for Hendricks) and then line up at the hot buffet – now behind glass, with food ladled out by a rotund woman smiling over her mask. (We all have to learn to smile with eyes not mouths.) The choices look rather disagreeable – a dry-looking Turkey hommage to Thanksgiving, spicy rice, and piles of fried plantains. I choose the latter and, assuming I am a famished vegetarian rather than a snotty gourmet, the lady piles plantain after plantain into a peak rather resembling Vesuvius. Demasked, I down my plantains and survey my fellow loungers – intrigued by a young woman with a vast Vuitton hold-all and what seems like a robustly healthy and fully sighted young man caressing his golden retriever service dog.
I descend to the gate, board, and as somebody has chosen to sit in my seat, the smiley-yet-bemasked flight attendant moves me to an empty pair of seats on the far side of the plane. My Covid-travel routine is now down pat – a thorough Clorox wipe of the surfaces, exchange the fetching tartan mask for an N-95, and exchange my glasses which, I am told, make me look like Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada, for airtight prescription ski-goggles.
One of the glories of Covid-19 (there are very few) is the new effortlessness of departing for Europe from New York. No longer is there that numbing forty-minute line to take-off. My KLM 777 just weaves to the runway and whoosh. After five minutes, the seat belt sign is off and a beautiful-certainly-above-the-mask flight attendant seems crushed when I tell her I am going to sleep and no I don’t want the chicken. Or the pasta. Or the roulade of beef. She seems even more crushed when I tell her not to wake me for breakfast. Two Klonopin mix nicely with the gin. I push that heavenly “flatbed” button, whip my tartan mask back on, don the squishy eye mask I stole from god-knows-where, pop in earplugs, snuggle under the duvet and the next thing I know the captain is announcing we are landing in 32 minutes.
Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport was fabulous decades before the fabulousness of the Singapore or Hong Kong or Gulf airports. It still is. I show my passport and enter Europe. Everyone is wearing a mask and the airport is busy. I make for the duty-free shop. On my last European jaunt, I had discovered my own personal attraction for these acres of liquor and perfume: the cologne testers. I seize a bottle of Eau Sauvage and spritz lavishly into my Ziploc bag of masks. Sniffing the aroma of Christian Dior is a definite advance over smelling my own breath.
I approach the gate for my ongoing flight. There is a long, not-socially distanced line to board. A very, very large and very, very short man – just possibly wider than tall - lumbers up to the line, and says what I assume is Dutch or Danish for “excuse me” and waddles to the front of the queue. I realize that his girth is not his secret, but his Business Class boarding pass. “I too have one of those,” I say to myself, so instead of waiting in that far-too-cramped line, I also ‘excuse-me’ to the front, rather reminding myself of a thuggish President Trump elbowing the President of Estonia out of the way so he could be in the front of the photograph memorializing his first disdainful attendance at a NATO meeting.
The flight purser is courtly and welcoming. I’m in seat 2A. Guess who’s in 2C, shoehorning his bulk into the seat? Exactly. I don my meekest expression and point to myself and then the window seat. He is cordial and bursts out of his seat –I slide through and get comfortable. The doors eventually close and the purser asks my neighbor if he would prefer to sit alone in the three empty seats across the aisle. He accepts. I put on my N95 mask, and my ski goggles, and we’re off.
The immigration clerk at Copenhagen gives a cursory glance at my business letter and Covid negativity certificate. She certainly doesn’t take the time to check its timing. Maskless behind her glass window, she asks me to lower my mask so she can make sure my visage matches the one in my passport. It does. I am in Denmark.
(To enter Denmark I needed a negative Covid-10 PCR test taken within 72 hours of my arrival. No urgent-care clinic in New York or New Jersey would guarantee I would get test results back in time, especially with Thanksgiving in the middle. But this is America, I figured, and googled. Within five minutes at www.leaa.io, I was assured that Matt Damon had used its at-home services, and had arranged for a clinician to come to my home at 11AM on the Friday after Thanksgiving to administer a test, whose result I would have by email within 24 hours; all for the not insignificant sum of $450. And guess what? At 10:59AM on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Mike of Leaa appeared at the front door, walked me to his car, plunged a six-foot long Q-tip up my right nostril, plunged it into a test-tube, and whizzed away. At 9AM the next morning, the negative test result clanged into my in-box.)
The hotel has sent a masked driver for me – and once I’m ensconced he says I can removed my mask if I wish. I absolutely don’t wish. The sky is grey, the streets are grey, and I remember that Scandinavia in winter is anything but technicolor. We draw up at the Hotel d’Angleterre and a bemasked bell-boy rushes to open the door and heave my baggage out of the trunk. The round table in the round hotel lobby is a beautiful clutter of Christmas. I walk past the massively valuable Winterhalter painting of Queen Victoria that just hangs there unprotected on the lobby wall, and look up at the Andy Warhol silkscreen of the Queen of Denmark that hangs above the reception desk. Neither queen is wearing a mask, but everyone else is, and I squirt what is possibly the world’s most delicately fragrant hand-gel on my hands. I’m checked in and escorted to my room that overlooks Kings Square and Nyhavn. The desk features the usual hotel amenities, plus a mini-bottle of the delicately fragrant hand-gel, and two medical masks encased in individual cellophane envelopes sealed with extremely official-looking stamps.
I walk across the square to Geist, one of my favorites, where I sit outside in the 33- degree weather: I’m not ready to eat indoors, even though the tables are admirably widely spaced. I sit on the sidewalk, warmed by fiercely potent heaters – and look at the parade of unmasked passersby. The young, amiable long-haired waiter wears a mask of thick tweed through which hearing what he has to say is a challenge. But somehow we seem to manage. When my food arrives, I demask. I down oysters laced with kiwi juice (totally not an improvement over lemon) and a curiously Danish, curiously delicious concoction of crisp cabbage, chopped roast suckling pig and potato purée. Washed down with Hendricks and tonic. Thank you.
Back at the Angleterre I survey Kings Square from my balcony. For the last five years Kings Square – the Place de la Concorde of Copenhagen – has been surrounded by a hideous green wooden graffitoed barrier, while a vast underground metro station was constructed. The barrier finally gone, the square is elegant again, with its central regal statue, its grass, its cobbled walkways that lead to Nyhavn and the colorful outdoor restaurants and bars that now must be shuttered by 10PM.
I am taken to dinner to a restaurant called Marv & Ben, which I briefly imagine has to be a very un-Scandinavian Jewish deli, named for its owners. Wrong. Marv & Ben is
Danish for marrow and bone…and gives a heavy hint to the reality that the restaurant is not going to be, er, vegan. We are greeted by a young woman, who turns out to be one of our three servers. She is wearing a face shield with a white head band. The clear plastic extends down to her clavicles. It’s another episode of Star Wars. Only one other table is occupied and far away, so there is no problem with social distancing.
She explains the menu which is a four- or six-course degustation, plus three light appetizers and a small but not too-small tin of caviar. The bread is baked with about seven pounds of butter, and accompanied by another two pounds smacked onto a wooden board. “Our bread,” she explains, “is baked with a bone marrow glaze.”
It’s definitely not vegan – indeed it’s very much a Noma clone, but a lot less costly, and a lot easier to get into. And equally delicious, with each dish explained by one of two male servers, each with a clavicle-level face shield and a red tin flower earring in the left ear. Each appears to be around seventeen, yet each displays an extraordinary knowledge of ingredients and the taste notes of the wine pairing. Caviar, halibut, asparagus, mallard duck, sorbet of gooseberry are just five of the 147 ingredients of a dinner that turn out to be scrumptious.
Everybody bikes in Copenhagen – without masks. But one may not enter a store or a restaurant unmasked. The laissez-faire attitude I had suspected I’d find in Scandinavia is patently not evident, at least in Denmark, and it’s a relief. The following day my business meetings are maskless – but we are seated very far apart. What does take getting used to is the endless steaming of one’s glasses above one’s mask. Which, in New York, is normally fine, because I know where I am and what I need to see. But as I walk around Copenhagen I realize I really want to see where I am. So, I have some choices to make: (1) walk around maskless like everyone else and risk inhaling their Covid-19; (2) walk around bemasked but sans glasses, and see everything through a blur; (3) keep the glasses on and see Copenhagen through a film of steam. I choose door number two. And it is truly extraordinary how this person who has been wearing glasses since he was eleven, manages to see the Danish capital pretty clearly, if not with full definition. But, I figure, it’s 2020. I can see Copenhagen properly in 2022. Or maybe even late 2021. For now, I’d rather be blurry and healthy, than well-sighted in the ICU.
Dinner at A Terre is similarly magnificent – an exquisite array of esoteric flavors of duck, crayfish, crispy kale and more – although why anyone would have the chutzpah to charge $600 for dinner for two and yet provide only paper napkins (albeït of not completely vile quality) not only defeats but outrages me. I am accustomed to being taken for a bit of a ride. But this is a serious schlepp.
When the 260-year-old Hotel d’Angleterre reopened in 2013 after a two-year renovation that turned also into a reconstruction, it was labelled the most luxurious and sumptuous hotel in Scandinavia. Arguably, it remains so. And yet the management of the hotel was faced with the Spartan and disapproving Nordic concept of janeloven, a uniquely Scandinavian concept which looks down the nose at anything too ambitious, too opulent, too veering towards over-the-top. After a year or so of sniffs and scoffs, Copenhagen accepted that it’s darling “white lady,” the d’Angleterre, was permitted to be a glamorous exception to the egalitarian rule.
Janeloven is certainly the order of the day at the five-star Kurhotel Skodsborg, a mere 40-minutes north of Copenhagen, on the beach whose strait’s crashing breakers separates Denmark from Sweden. Opened in 1896, the Kurhotel Skodsborg is, like the d’Angleterre all white and, in the build-up to what is hopefully the first and last Covid Christmas, strung with thousands of white lights. The spa is massive and welcoming. The Carl Restaurant serves some of the most delicious and inventive food on the planet (think Beet Waffles with a topping of tomatoes, cream, soft boiled egg and shrimps, and rare roasted duck with elderberries and capers). The staff is all smiles and concern for one’s wellbeing. Yet the deluxe “suite” I had booked was Scandinavian spare, complete with a kettle and sachets of Instant Nescafe, and a large sparkling bathroom that, appeared to have been completed about ten minutes before I checked in. Eyeing my mound of luggage, shopping bags, coat, scarf and assorted paraphernalia, the smiling check-in lady enquired half-heartedly if I would like help with my “things,” a perfect example of janeloven in action. “Er, that would be a definite ‘yes,’ thank you.” I responded. Well, I actually left out the “Er, that would be a definite,” but the unsubtlety of my tone possibly implied it.
What sets the Kurhotel Skodsborg apart in the traveling of 2020 are the masks the staff wear. They are made entirely of clear Perspex, attached to white plastic ear pieces that appear to cover the mouth and the nose. The advantage is that one can see smiles. The disadvantage is that they are barely sealed – so that droplets can escape north-south-east and west, and, presumably, also be received. But it’s Scandinavia and they are certainly trying. There are sanitzer-gel squirters everywhere. In the restaurant, no attempt has been made to lessen the amount of tables, although I was able to find a table or two comfortably distanced. Yet, the elevators sported signs in Danish (all the signs at the Kurhotel Skodsborg are in Danish) limiting the lift’s capacity to one person.
In the spa, medical or cloth masks are worn by guests, but the spa staff sport the Perspex semi-helmets evident elsewhere. The pool is warm and limited to eight guests. The sauna is limited to one. There are ten million towels and ten millon toweling robes. It’s kind of fabulous, an on-the-border merging of American comfort with the stark clinical atmosphere of the standard European spa.
Twenty minutes north of Skodsborg is one of the great treasures of Denmark, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. It stretches from an ivy-clad Victorian-era mansion, through several extensive wings, to sculpture gardens overlooking the sea. It was begun in the mid-twentieth-century by one Alexander Brun, who owned the mansion. He named it for his three wives, all of whom happened to be named Louise. It’s pretty gorgeous. Masks are required, and gel-squirters are everywhere. One of the temporary collections is of massive bronze sculptures by Danish sculptor Per Kirkeby, with one or two Rodins thrown in to give a sense of reference. The artworks by Tetsumi Kudo range from wow to radioactive to flamboyantly penile, specifically coronal, which, I suppose, is pertinent to the moment. Outdoors, massive pieces by Henry Moore and Alexander Calder are framed against the crashing waves. Downstairs there is the inevitable and father fabulous gift and book shop. It’s all kind of super.
After three days in rural Skodsburg, I return to the d’Angleterre, and it’s like coming home. I do some Christmas shopping in the adjacent Magasin du Nord, Copenhagen’s Harrods or KaDeWe. The shop assistants are all wearing Skodsborg-style perspex masks, although they seem even briefer and far less protective. I sit outdoors beneath the canopied heaters of in an Italian trattoria smack on King’s Square, gaze at the majesty of the d’Angleterre, and inhale a plate of vitello tonnato and dark Italian beer. A troop of the queen’s guards with grey uniforms and black bearskins march smartly by, in step with a speeded-up version of Santa Is Coming To Town tooted by the squad’s brass section. It’s Sunday, and a day of well-earned rest. Traveling to gorgeous places and eating exquisite meals is, well let’s face it, exhausting.
To say that I was approaching the next day’s journey to Sweden without the merest tad of apprehension would be colossally disingenuous. We have all heard about and been puzzled by the earth’s only Western country choosing a different path to surviving the coronavirus. The concept of herd immunity and the confinement of the elderly is by now legendary; and because I don’t hail from South Dakota, it’s also pretty alarming. My way of dealing with it is a decision to upgrade from an elegant brocade mask, to serious N95’s, even-more-frequent hand washing and wiping everything I touch with heavy-duty Clorox wipes. I will create my own pod.
Copenhagen’s red-brick Central Station opened in 1911 and not a lot has changed. I locate the platform for the train-ride Malmö in Sweden. The train departs on time and everyone is wearing a mask. We pause at Copenhagen Airport then cross the five-mile Oresund bridge (the longest railway/expressway bridge in Europe) and pull into the Sweden’s Hylle station. An announcement in Danish, Swedish (not sure which is which) and English announces “this is passport control: please have your passport ready for inspection.” I gaze out of the window at Swedes of all ethnicities, 95% of whom are maskless. Will the immigration officer be wearing a mask, I wonder. The answer is no, because the train slowly pulls out of Hylle station with no immigration officer having appeared. My passport has not been inspected. Here I am, anonymous in the land of Ingmar, Ingrid and Ikea, H&M, herring and Volvo.
Shortly, we’re in Malmö station where I am to change to the express to Stockholm. I find the ATM (Clorox wipe) and out churn Swedish Kronor which are different from Danish Krone. My cash is two 500 Kronor bills, about $60 each: not terribly useful should I want to purchase a bag of Swedish Fish. I stop at a foodstall to buy a bottle of mineral water, which turns into a lengthy exchange with the owner of the kebab stall who speaks excellent Turkish, passable Swedish but no English. Hand gestures do the job. He palms my 500 Kronor bill, and I receive small bills, a few coins and a plastic bottle of citrus-enhanced sparkling Ramlösa. More Clorox wipes.
I make it track 5 and car #1 of the Stockholm Express. It’s pretty comfortable. Of course, I wipe the seat, I wipe the tray table, I gel and look askance at my twenty-or-so traveling companions, just one of whom is in a mask. I realize that my banging on endlessly about masks is pretty monotonous, but I come from a land where masks are no longer merely protection, but have become a statement of right versus wrong, sanity versus insanity, sense versus conspiracy, science versus scorn.
Yet, somehow, in Sweden, not wearing a mask is considered enlightened science. I wonder what the people around me are thinking as they see me in my mask. Am I considered a nutty foreigner? Is there a kind of Britain-in-World-War-II ‘we can take it’ syndrome happening? Do they wonder, just for a moment, if they’re being reckless? Do they secretly yearn to don a mask but don’t want to be seen as defeatist? The bottom line is I am on my way to Stockholm to meet a potential client…and I plan on living to tell the tale.
Sweden’s the endless forests are, well, endless. Every now and then there’s a gigantic bleak lake. Little villages break the miles of pine-trees, gaily colored houses relieving the perpetual gloom of anemic daylight. The train ride wears on into the 3:00 p.m. twilight (houses all now have the windows lit), an outlook not enhanced by the train car’s tinted windows. And I rather begin regretting having been persuaded by a Stockholm friend that the four-and-a-half train ride is far more pleasant -- and not a lot longer from city center to city center – than flying. I am sitting in an express train whose expressness is far more Metroliner than Bullet, and I begin to realize that a bemasked hour on SAS might have been wiser and cheerier than 270 minutes on a train riding through the murk with a batch of maskless Swedish people hammering on cellphones. The first-class train fare includes lunch which I realize I have to eat unmasked, so I make it quick and figure it’s time to change my N95 for a fresh one. Happily, they and their Ziploc remain imbued with the drenching of Eau Sauvage I gave them exactly a week ago in the duty-free shop at Amsterdam airport.
Eventually we chug into Stockholm Central and a taxi brings me through festively decorated streets to the Grand Hotel. Opened in 1874, “grand” is the fitting term. The lobby is all columns and carpets and Christmas. The very cordial front desk clerk escorts me (yes, maskless) to my seventh-floor aerie, the Rooftop Suite, unveiled a year ago, and designed by Swedish-born international interior designer Martin Brudnizki. The sitting room is a shade of sunshine yellow with serious chandeliers, marble floors and wonderful pictures. The bedroom is deep sage green. The bathroom is grey marble and massive. The suite’s windows resemble large ocean-liner portholes and overlook the royal palace and the Gamla Stan old town. I dine at the hotel at Matbaren, a venture of Swedish celebrity-chef, Mathias Dahlgren, who specializes in locally caught and picked ingredients. He’s just returned from the Maldives where he opened his first overseas venture at Soneva Jani. The food is smallish dishes – and delicious – fresh, flavorful, surprising. My favorite is a cushiony Chinese bun containing a perfect deep-fried soft-shell crab, cilantro and kimchi mayonnaise. The only element that jars is the masklessness of the extremely cordial serving staff. They stand right next to you as they explain the menu. I wear my mask during the recitation but it’s awkward to keep popping it back on every time the wines glasses are topped up or the next course delivered. And so I skip dessert and return to my hotel-top aerie and its plate of some of the most delicious strawberries on the planet.
I awaken at 8 a.m. and through my portholes I see that the city is light. Well, light is an exaggeration, but it’s grey and post-dawn and the street lights are off. So I guess that’s light, and I guess I won’t need sun block today. Breakfast in the terrace restaurant is lavish. It’s lovely to sit at the window and gaze at the royal palace and the harbor. But the unmasked serving staff continues to bother me. Yet at the buffet are large dispensers of disposable gloves to don before doling food on to your plate. It seems that Sweden just didn’t get the memo that emissions from noses and mouths are now considered far more dangerous than Covid traces on surfaces.
I stroll through Gamla Stan, the island in the harbor where Stockholm began. I watch the changing of the guard and note that 25% of the marching soldiers are women. In a small square near the palace a film crew is spraying snow on to a side street and onto a black 1940 Packard. Stockholmers gather around to snap pictures. The narrow streets are beautiful, the historic architecture striking. Gamla Stan’s lanes are Christmassy, but most shops don’t appear to open until noon, and many of the most interesting ones are only open on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays and I’m here on Tuesday. There are no tourists, and the shopfulls of snow-globes and trolls are bare save for their dispirited, unmasked proprietors.
I dine tonight with old friends. They pick me up at the hotel and we stroll through the square with its Holocaust memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the aristocratic attaché at the Swedish embassy in Budapest who issued Swedish passports to tens of thousands Hungarian Jews, saving them from Auschwitz. Wallenberg was arrested by the occupying Russians and his fate has never been fully established. It is rumored he died in 1951 immured in Moscow’s horrific Lubyanka prison.
We continue pass the usual mélange of names like Chanel, Prada, Boss and Vuitton and arrive at Sturehof, a really hip fish restaurant, whose gorgeous blonde waitresses are dressed as ships’ officers. We eat a variety of herrings – in cream, in garlic, in mustard, plain – along with sharp Swedish cheese. And then we down hake and some of the most delicious potatoes ever fashioned, a deliciousness probably explained by the three kilos of butter in which they’re swimming. My friends, one American, one English, have lived in Stockholm for 18 years. They know the city inside out and point me to all the best places to admire uniquely Scandinavian design and architecture. I ask about the masks. They shrug and seem to be accustomed to it. Which is a different reaction to what I was told at a business appointment earlier in the day. That Swedish scientists had assumed that a vaccine would take years, if ever, to develop, and that the herd immunity route would be the cleverest, the most efficacious. “I guess we were wrong,” I was told with a disconcerted hand gesture.
I have two business appointments the following day, and at both, the single person with whom I’m meeting is maskless and I’m not. I apologize out of politeness and they seem very understanding, even affable. I wonder if they’re not also envious. Meetings done, I visit NK, the Galeries Lafayette of Stockholm, and add a few more Nordic Christmas gifts to my haul. I stroll back to the Grand Hotel and decide that I’m done with maskless wait-staff and I opt for Netflix and room service dinner. A trolley arrives bearing Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, cucumber salad and lingonberry sauce. I’m in heaven.
I order room service breakfast, pack, and squirt a spritz of Joe Malone into my bag-o-masks. A Mercedes whooshes me to Arlanda Airport. The main concourse exhibits an emptiness exceeded only by Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion terminal on Yom Kippur. There is no line for check-in, no line for security, no line for the lounge. Yet when I reach gate 8 for my Swiss flight to Zürich, there seem to be a lot of passengers, many of whom are maskless Swedes. And even though the airport demands mask-wearing, many people aren’t. Perhaps Swedes just don’t have them. The flight is delayed, having arrived late from Zürich because of de-icing, and I fret my short connection for Newark will be even shorter.
There are two male flight attendants in Business, one with a fabric mask, one with a blue medical. The individuality seems both unusual and un-Swiss. On my seven prior pandemic flights the flight attendants all wore uniform masks. I don my ski-google and N95 and as we taxi to the gate a passenger in the bulkhead row has a loud tantrum, indignant that his laptop must be stowed for take-off. He rages that this only happens on Swiss (untrue, utterly fake news) and the medical-masked flight attendant tries charmingly, and fails utterly to calm him. He’s still harping as we accelerate down the runway. It staggers me that, especially in the middle of a global pandemic when every airline is trying its darndest to make thinks work, that anyone can be so frivolous, so entitled.
Thankfully, nobody is seated next to me and we soon escape the feeble daylight of Sweden and are above an ocean of clouds that appear beneath me like meadows of snow. I am begoggled and bemasked (but not bewildered) as I lower my seat back for a short nap. I awaken and see Alps peaking above the cloud cover.
On all four airlines I’ve flown during the pandemic it is customary for an announcement to be made before landing requiring passengers to remain seated when the plane arrives at the gate, and not to stand until their row is called, and then gather their belongings and the disembark. This avoids the customary chaos of passengers crowding the aisle. And this flight was no different. Makes sense, no? Yet barely had the wheels hit the tarmac when Mr Laptop-Tantrum rose, opened the overhead bin and made to start removing his effects. The medical-mask flight attendant leapt and ordered him to sit. Sit he reluctantly did.
Zürich Airport is a conundrum. Everywhere there are floor decals to further social distancing. Large banners demand everyone be masked. Yet there are none of the markings on the banks of seats at the gate to ensure people don’t sit next to each other…as there now are at airports from Nome to Nicaragua. I hand my passport to the security officer who flicks through my its many pages and hands me a form to be handed to the medical officer at Newark on which I am to give my contact details and seat number so that I can be traced in case a passenger on the plane becomes ill. The lower part of the form is to be completed at Newark by an official who will record my temperature and any symptoms. This is very different from my arrival six weeks ago at Newark (from Portugal). Back then in October, I could have arrived with leprosy, syphilitic sores, wracking tuberculosis, coughing spasms and a fever of 106 and nobody would have cared or noticed.
The Newark flight is called and we are herded into a smallish area where we stand close together and wait, virtually mask to mask. And then we are herded (sans immunity) on to a bus which is filled virtually to the gills. We then, herded together, trundle out to our distant aircraft which seems to have been parked in the lonely suburbs of Geneva.
Once on board all is calm, with the exception of a husband and wife – he seated in a starboard window seat, she in a portside window seat. Even though the Premium Economy section in which they are travelling is virtually empty and they could effortlessly change seats to afford greater proximity, they remove their masks and bellow at each other in Italian across the width of the wide-body Airbus A340. My Italian is insufficiently proficient to know if their bellowing is endearment or loathing. Whichever it is, it is vehement and continues until take-off.
I make myself cozy in my Business Class pod, and Clorox the tray and surrounds – probably unnecessarily. As I tuck my coat in the overhead compartment I mistakenly touch the seat back in front of me. It’s occupant, whose Vuitton hold-all I had noted aboard the crammed bus, bore vast LV’s, so I assume it is a new style, as fakers fake and rarely create. In any event, she reacted to my touching her seat back as if I had just water pistoled Covid globules in her face.
I have a much better interaction with the Serbian Orthodox priest seated in the pod behind me. Shrouded in floor-length black robes, he wears an immense enameled cross and is making googoo noises at his handsome tabby cat who is sad and mewing in his mesh-windowed carrying-case. Even a fervent atheist such as I could convert to have a cat like that.
Watching movies through ski-goggles is somewhat of a challenge, and I long ago learned that airlines’ “latest movies” are usually three-months-old, or vile, or both. I churn through the classics, and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” seems the perfect accompaniment to my mood and my lunch. Or is it dinner?
We left Zürich forty minutes late, yet, with Rolex precision, we touch down at Newark exactly on time. Again, we are required to wait to disembark until our row is cleared. I sail through Global Entry – which is now so space-age that my passport is no longer required: simple face recognition gives me entry to the United States. I prepare to hand my Covid-tracing form to the immigration officer who, I assume, has a fever-testing gun at the ready. “Oh, we don’t collect those at this airport,” comes his dismissive response.
And so I enter my homeland, with its photograph of a smiling Donald Trump above the customs area’s exit doors, and I make for the waiting car. When I get home, if I want to quarantine, it’s up to my family and me. Because the only thing that seems to matter on December 10, 2020 is a grotesque and venal attempt to reverse an election, while the fact that more people will die today of Covid-19 than died on 9/11 pales into irritating irrelevance. I’m home.