TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
THE FRENCH RIVIERA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in French Riviera during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was exactly fifteen months ago that I took my first flight during The Time of Corona. It was aboard TAP to Lisbon, and I had to scramble to get a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure. It wasn’t so easy in September 2020 – you had to pay gobs extra for it to come back so speedily – and even then, you weren’t so sure it would arrive in time. Plus, in all candor, it was pretty frightening. Back then we believed we could get COVID from touching a table or an armrest. We didn’t know until October 2020 that President Trump had told Bob Woodward back in February that the virus was airborne. We all spent – and continue to spend - gazillions of dollars on hand gel and wipes, and hotels and airlines performed and perform cartwheels making sure their rooms and planes are hospital clean - probably needlessly. I wonder if we’ll ever know if anyone ever caught COVID from an airplane armrest.
For that September 2020 flight, I had worn prescription ski goggles and a mask with filters and side clamps that could just possibly have kept me safe during the Chernobyl meltdown. Newark Airport was utterly deserted, other than the twenty or so passengers (one with a plump ginger cat) embarking for Lisbon. It was eerie. It was also exciting.
Flying to Lisbon, and on to Nice, in December 2021, is not nearly as alarming. I got my PCR’s test back within a day, and by now most of us are more comfortable wearing a mask than not wearing one. It’s all become pretty much routine. I’ve flown about 100,000 miles to five continents in the Time of Corona and the only time I was really unnerved was flying to and from Milwaukee. Because on a domestic flight, where testing isn’t mandated, I had no idea if anyone on the plane was vaccinated, or was knowingly or unknowingly spewing forth droplets of the virus. The disheveled guy with the NRA tee-shirt and the under-the-nose mask really unnerved me – but at least I wasn’t seated next to him.
But life, sometimes, throws a curve ball. I was due to leave for Lisbon and Nice on Friday night, eight days after Thanksgiving. On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, our friends Bob and Rose had come for dinner. We’re all vaccinated, I made couscous with Moroccan-spiced chicken and vegetable – enough for a Moroccan regiment. We had a lovely evening. On Monday, Bob didn’t feel well. On Tuesday evening, Bob and Rose learned that the friends with whom they’d celebrated Thanksgiving just tested positive for Covid and were sick. Bob was positive for COVID too, yet Rose, with whom he sleeps in the same bed, was negative. On Wednesday morning at 7:10AM, before I took the kids to school, our trusted local nurse, Josie, came to give my wife, daughter, son and me COVID swabs for PCR testing: we’d have the results on Thursday. We all felt fine.
On Thursday at 6PM, the results rolled into my phone. My daughter: negative. My son: negative. Me: negative. My wife…positive. Positive? How could this be? My wife and I are double vaccinated and both have of us have had the booster. And we too sleep in the same bed. “It can happen,” said Josie, “PCR false-positives are extremely rare.”
My son’s school happened to have had a testing drive that very Thursday and my wife, Noa, had taken a PCR test. But we wouldn’t get the results till Saturday. I was due to leave Friday night. Josie came back on Friday morning at 7AM to test the four of us again, and to have the swabs processed by a different lab. She put a rush on it. At noon, we had the results: all four of us: negative. But one positive versus one negative wasn’t enough for me to feel comfortable leaving my wife and kids at home. I postponed my Friday departure. We called the school-test lab. No response. If I was going to take the trip I had to leave our New Jersey home on Saturday by 2:30PM for TAP’s 5PM departure from Newark. Saturday morning dawned. 8AM: nothing. 9AM: nothing. 10:01AM: Noa’s result clicks into her laptop. “Covid not detetected.” We figure two v. one makes it safe for me to go. I pack in minutes. We’re all lightheaded with relief. Yet the drama and back and forth of the last previous 48 hours has taken its toll. If I had hair, it would have turned white by now. And one of the awful things about COVID is that when you learn someone you know and/or love is positive, your first thought is inevitably not about the state of their health, but whether you got it too. It really sucks.
Interestingly, even though both France and Portugal are in the EU, they have different entry policies. France just needs proof of vaccination. Portugal requires a negative PCR test. Luckily, I have both – and I am checked-in in moments. The SAS lounge at Newark Airport is sparkling clean, and groups of Scandinavians were garrulously pushing their masks aside to swill tankards of beer and munch individually cellophane-wrapped mozzarella and tomato sandwiches. I’m one of these neurotics who still chooses to arrive at the airport two hours before departure – when we all know that Business Class check-in, plus Clear security, takes all of 15 minutes.
5PM in Newark is 11PM in Nice. And I am exhausted from the negative-positive drama. I eat two sandwiches. And down three gins with mere splashes of tonic. I board the narrow-body Airbus A321 Neo and install myself in the single flatbed seat. The flight attendant is crushed that I spurn dinner. The wheels are ten feet off the runway when I push the flatbed button. I’m asleep before the seatbelt sign turns off. I awake as the undercarriage grinds Lisbon-ward.
Lisbon has a great airport. Not too massive, not too dinky. I enter Europe through passport control, and make straight for the gate for the flight to Nice. Everyone is dutifully wearing masks correctly, with none of that chin or nose baring so prevalent in America. By now I’m famished and, amazingly, TAP’s lunch is delicious. The sky is blue over Nice, and we have one of those approaches so picture perfect that I video the descent along the shoreline. I am bound for ILTM, a travel convention in Cannes, the first international gathering of travel professionals since the arrival of the pandemic. I had attended ILTM in 2018 and 2019, and had always chosen not to stay in the clamor of Cannes but to play like I’m French, renting an AirBNB, buying milk, and butter, and eggs, and hopping out in the morning for freshly baked croissants. I love even the tiniest Riviera supermarket tucked among the palm-trees beneath an azure sky. Where else can you buy baguettes, Tide, Kleenex and foie-gras?
In 2018, my abode had been a heavenly old apartment with stone walls in Mougins, a medieval village in the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes. In 2019, I chose a lovely apartment in an ancient house in Antibes. In 2021, I’ve plumped for a modern apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, twenty minutes from Cannes, in the port of Mandelieu-La Napoule. When I arrive the, landlord’s caretaker shows me the apartment, how to work the shutters, the heat, the stove, the washing machine, and after a quick stroll to the supermarket I’m snugly at home. At dusk, I stroll the boardwalk whose trees are elegantly lit with blue and white holiday lights (Chanukah? Probably not), to La Rocherie, where I am seated and asked for my EU Vaccination pass. This is not the smudgy dog-eared CVC paper card we’re accustomed to – but a telephone app with your name, date of birth, full vaccination details and a QR code the restaurant (and stores, and the convention center) scans to prove it’s for real. I had applied for mine on line about a month before the trip and it downloaded to my phone a week before departure. It’s taken seriously, and it makes you feel very protected.
I dine on roasted sea scallops followed by steamed cod and crunch vegetables sublimely flavored and spread over potato purée…all washed down with two coupes of Deutz Champagne. Back home in London, my late Dad’s credo was that it is impossible to have a bad meal in France. And through sixty years of travel, I’ve rarely found him to be wrong. Yes, throughout Europe -- nay, the world -- cuisines are magical, yet nothing quite compares to the subtlety of the flavors and the elegance of the presentation at a restaurant in France. Sated, I pay my bill by credit card with one of those machines the waiters have been bringing to tables in Europe for thirty years and which, for some obscure reason, have rarely been seen in America. I rise, put on my jacket and as I walk to the exit I miss the foot-tall step leading to the lower part of the restaurant. It’s one of those falls that in the two seconds it’s happening you (1) realize there is nothing you can do but go with it, (2) recognize you’re going to go sprawling and nothing can stop you, and (3) that you might just possibly die and there it is. I crashed onto my butt, my shoulder. My head slams into a serving trolley, some of whose wooden slats snap and whose flower vase crashes to the flower in a hundred pieces. Waiters come rushing and help me to my feet. “Please sit here,” says the manageress tenderly, bringing me a glass of Badoit. Clearly, I’m shocked and sore, but just as clearly, know nothing is broken. But I also know I would have a Technicolor shiner by morning. One of the waiters graciously escorts me back across the boulevard to my apartment building. I shower, and climb into my very comfortable bed.
The sun streaming through the French doors leading to my patio overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean almost enables me to forget about the previous evening’s adventure. I hobble to the kitchen, and make coffee in the Nespresso machine. It is now Monday and I decide to “stay home” and rest rather than go to the opening party of the convention this evening in Cannes. I go for a walk along the beachfront and discover a beautiful sandy beach overlooked by the Château de la Napoule, built by the Countess of Villeneuve in the 14th-century, bought in 1919 by the American Henry and Marie Clews, and restored. Which explains, finally, why my apartment building is situated on the oddly and distinctly un-French “Avenue Henry Clews.”
The following morning, I Uber to the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, location of the travel convention, and, more famously, location of the annual Cannes Film Festival. Entry to the palais is complicated. First, an inspection of my iPhone’s Covid Vaccination Certificate. Then a security check. Then registration. Only then am I free to roam the exhibits, meet with clients, meet with journalists, and, perhaps most important of all, air-hug and air kiss friends I haven’t seen since before the pandemic. Mask-wearing is absolutely de rigueur, and it’s fun to recognize old companions just by the eyes. The ILTM convention turns out to be somewhat joyous: the first gathering of the luxury travel industry since COVID ravaged our businesses. There’s a light-hearted sense of celebration and relief, although tinged with the inescapable knowledge that perhaps we are not yet entirely out of the woods. There are two evening parties – and even knowing everyone is vaccinated, rollicking around with 500 people, masks askew to guzzle Champagne and caviar, not to mention hugs and kisses on both cheeks, is not for me.
But La Napoule certainly is. Super restaurants: Le Bistrôt de l’Oasis (the main Michelin-starred Oasis is closed until January), Paméa, and the trip-down-the-step Rocherie – are each sublime. And the scanning of your iPhone’s authentic French vaccination code that your kid couldn’t have forged on a Macbook is remarkably reassuring.
Another vaccine-check, another masked visit to the trade show, another lunch with friends atop stools in the sunshine, and a quick Christmas-gift search through Zara, and my short visit to the Riviera is drawing to a close. One last step: a visit to the convention’s COVID test tent just next to the beach for a quick antigen swab. Within fifteen minutes, the result is somehow relegated to my phone’s junk mail, but I magically retrieve it.
Lunch on a TAP Embraer 195 is delectable, as are the treats in the TAP lounge in Lisbon. Another half-hour of Christmas shopping later, I am aboard an Airbus A330-NEO bound for Kennedy. Boarding is a tortuous process of vaccination and COVID-test checking, and the customary completion of a four-page, fine-print U.S. government form attesting to my COVID status. Since September 2020, I’ve completed about ten of these and not even once has anyone at Newark of JFK exhibited the slightest interest in them.
The duck is tender and the mushroom puree flavorful, as are the cheese and the fruit. What isn’t delicious is the thunderously unpleasant middle-aged male flight attendant, who brings rudeness and disdain to stratospheric levels. I share my wrath with one of the charming female flight attendants, who diplomatically apologizes. She shrugs embarrassedly in that way that tells me the whole crew knew he is demonic but protected by tenure.
TAP docks at the snazzy JetBlue Terminal 5 at JFK. Global Entry, luggage first off, and I am home within just over an hour.