TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a year after his first trip.
I last saw Marion, my German sister ,on New Year’s Eve 2018. And after almost three years and a global pandemic, this summer I wanted to see her again. In ALL ABROAD, my Memoir of Travel and Obsession (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021), I describe in tearful detail my learning, at the age of 34, that I have a sister. And I talk of our first meeting in 1984 and how, within less than ten minutes, it was as if we had known each other forever.
So, I decide to prelude my business visit to Berlin with 24 hours in Düsseldorf. This is my first overseas trip since September 2020 before which I don’t need to take a PCR test. How come? Because the European Union has determined that my CDC Vaccination Certificate is proof enough that I am not a danger to myself or Europe.
Since COVID crippled airline routes, there are no nonstops from New York to Düsseldorf right now. So I route myself via Paris on Air France. At 4:30PM on a Saturday afternoon. Terminal One at JFK is like an echoing mausoleum. There’s an Aeroflot flight leaving for Moscow, and mine to Paris. As I roll my bag to the Air France priority check-in counter, a dour and masked clerk bids me pause. He wants to know where I’m bound. I tell him.
Have you completed the online documentation for Germany?” he asks.
“I didn’t know there was any required,” I respond, a mite alarmed. He tiredly removes his phone from his pocket and shows me the link I need to access. This is probably the twentieth time he’s done this today, which is why he’s so fatigued. I hobble in my orthopedic boot to a chair. (A metatarsal in my left foot has a hairline stress fracture, and I have to wear the boot until it miraculously mends.)
I enter the URL - an agonizingly long amalgamation of German nouns…dot DE - into my iPhone’s browser. I answer a spate of questions, record my flight information, and list where I will be staying in Germany. I provide my passport information, my contact details. I click submit. I had actually checked-in for the flights on my phone’s Air France app. Part of the process had included a charmingly Gallic and innocent moment when I had to check a box “declaring on my honor that I don’t have symptoms of COVID or have consorted with anyone who has.” Now I can check-in formally. The Air France clerk examines my CDC vaccination card (which, just in case, is recorded as a photo on my phone), tags my luggage to Paris and Düsseldorf and she hands me my boarding pass.
The line for security isn’t a line. It’s two people. The Department of Homeland Security checker sits behind a glass booth. She is masked and she’s smiling. She looks at my passport and bids me lower my mask. She seems to agree my passport photograph bears a passing resemblance to its owner and wishes me a good flight. At security, I am moved to the side as an official solemnly passes a wand over my plastic boot and then inserts it into a device which will reveal if hands reeking of Semtex or TNT have recently velcroed my boot straps. Unsurprisingly, it tests negative.
I limp to the Air France lounge. Everything to eat is individually wrapped, but bottles of Champagne and liquor are available for generous pourings. I pour generously. I unwrap a sandwich of smoked salmon and cream cheese that is surprisingly delicious. I limp back to the buffet for another. And then I recall this is Air France, so of course, it’s delicious.
One of the advantages of an orthopedic boot is that nobody objects to my staggering to the front of the boarding line. It seems like a very full flight…mostly Americans, en route to a screw-COVID vacation in France. I make myself comfortable on board. I unstrap my boot and put on a pair of Air France socks. I throw the boot into the overhead compartment. I get comfy and after rejecting 164 obscure movies rated “new,” I start watching Casablanca. It is interrupted constantly with stern instructions in seductive Catherine Deneuve accents that N95 or medical masks must be worn throughout the flight, and changed every four hours. In a cynical salute to America, Ms Deneuve reminds us that the U.S. FAA does not permit the removal of one’s mask to eat or drink: it must be briefly swiped aside to sip or munch, and then slid back. Catherine’s tone corroborates she knows this is utter nonsense and implies you should ignore it. Bien sur: I do.
After take-off, I realize my smoked salmon sandwiches were merely an appetizer and I order a slice of foie gras, toast and some Bordeaux. It’s Air France and again it’s delicious. I don’t get much past Bergman’s and Bogart’s flashback to lovemaking in Paris when my eyes begin to droop. I lower my seat to “flatbed,” insert ear plugs, put on a new medical mask, and don the velvet and silk Air France eye mask which is astonishingly comfortable. I wrap myself in the duvet, snuggle, and I’m out.
Leaving New York at 4:30PM for a seven-hour overnight flight is bizarre. Most of the passengers seem to stay up watching movies until we land – while Ambien washed down with Château Whatever helps me wrestle my body clock into believing it’s 6AM in Paris, not midnight in Manhattan.
You can tell a lot about a country and an airline by the amenities in its business class bathrooms. Two weeks earlier on Lufthansa, there were baskets of minty mouthwash, toothbrushes, toothpaste and sachets for removing gravy stains from your tie. On Air France, there are bottles of Clarins skin toner, Clarins anti-wrinkle night-cream, Clarins body parfum – and nobody’s going to smell your breath because you’re wearing an N95 mask.
It’s dark when we land at Charles de Gaulle, and still dark as I make my way up the jetway into the vast ovoid Terminal 2F. My connecting flight is leaving from Terminal 2E which, one might imagine, ought to be near Terminal 2F – which in relative geographic terms it is. Except I know better, having navigated this airport dozens of times. I descend two escalators, ride a train, ride up in an elevator, walk a kilometer and a half past cheery signs sporting the Eiffel Tower, and I’ve only made it to immigration. And even though I’m actually not entering France, I am entering the European Union. The passport clerk, complete with navy and silver-braid Inspector Clouseau hat and matching mask, sees my passport is American, stamps it and neither glances at me nor swipes it through that slot that might reveal I’m wanted by Interpol. Next comes security and once again my boot is suspected of being a carrier of explosives. (Note to self: when I next want to bring heroin into Europe, wear an orthopedic boot: they’re only looking for bombs.)
Unlike the shuttered shops at Munich Airport two weeks earlier, it’s business as usual at 6AM in Paris. Gucci is bustling, as is Hermès, Lancel, Prada and a Vuitton Store so massive you need a map to locate the scarves. However, the Air France lounge in Terminal Deux Eu (2E), is bolted and looks like it’s been bolted since the first droplet emerged from Wuhan. As I’ve convinced myself it’s morning I get into a socially distanced line at Paul – an upscale French Starbucks – and engage with a self-service monitor that is so user-unfriendly it takes me fourteen minutes and three-reboots to order a cappuccino, a jus d’orange and a croissant. I tap my AMEX card on the eyelet – denied. I try VISA – denied. Mastercard – denied. I study the machine to see what I am doing wrong and I come upon a Formica sign which, in 8pt type, explains “Nous acceptons seulement les cartes bancaires françaises,” which don’t you think is extremely clever in one of the world’s most trafficked international airports? I move to another line and finally reach a human who takes my order and I sit at a table. And of course, I’m at a crappy snack stand in an airport in Paris and, of course, the croissant tastes as if Escoffier himself had been resurrected in the night to bake it. It’s France. Nobody does skin toner or croissants better.
The flight board at Terminal Deux Eu displays so fantastic an array of departures that I briefly assume COVID has been stamped out during the night. My flight to
Düsseldorf is boarding and as it’s on HOP, Air France’s subsidiary for lesser-traveled routes, we are bussed to the Brazilian-built Embraer jetliner that is parked seemingly somewhere near EuroDisney or Fontainebleau. We could have binge-watched episodes of Friends on the bus ride. We clamber up the flight stairs to be welcomed with a spritz of gel and a mask in an envelope, and very soon we are in the air.
In the terminal at Düsseldorf, large placards remind us to submit our health declarations, but nobody checks that we actually have. Indeed, what does a passenger do who has the effrontery to be flying without a smartphone? I give up trying to answer such questions and follow the sign to “taxis” This is Germany. Taxi drivers are of the belief that it’s beneath their dignity to be in a place convenient for the rider. No, you have to hobble half-a-kilometer to the distant line of cream-colored Mercedes taxis whose drivers are standing gossiping in German, Turkish, Kurdish and patiently waiting for you to find them before they consider bestirring themselves.
My taxi-driver has enormous difficulty understanding my sister’s address through my mask. In all fairness, it’s not me. He arrived two weeks ago from Macedonia. I tell him Heideweg 34, and he types Heiderweg 34 into the GPS which flashes back that we will be there in 45 minutes. I remonstrate that he’s typed the name wrongly and we go through a five-minute pantomime of vowel pronunciations that instantly brings to mind Laurel and Hardy and “who’s on first?” Finally, we are set and in twelve minutes we are at my sister, Marion’s corner. Except it’s a one-way street, the house is 150 yards away, I have two suitcases and a backpack and Mr Macedonia is vexed that I am not enthusiastic about schlepping all of it in my orthopedic boot. He harrumphs in Macedonian and reverses cautiously up the street, and there is my lovely sister standing in the doorway. I hobble-run to embrace her, we rip off our masks and we hug. Presumably, stirred by this scene of sibling adoration, Mr Macedonia emerges from the taxi and actually carries my luggage to the front door. I pay him, adding a hefty tip (one doesn’t tip taxi drivers in Germany). We part as lifelong friends.
When I first met Marion, we both realized the power of genes. Quite separate for 34 years, we developed the identical humor, the identical taste, the identical tidiness. Her husband, Helmut, is away on a sailing trip in Holland, so it’s just Marion and me and Cloudy, a rotund beige Persian cat who is arthritic, deaf, toothless and so ancient that he sits for hours with his face pressed into the floor. He bestirs himself only to eat and the lick butter from your fingers. Although, last week, Marion tells me, he caught a mouse in the garden and devoured the whole thing, head, feet, tail and all. It’s extraordinary what one can do to impress one’s mistress even though you’re toothless and semi-paralyzed.
Marion’s patio, with its bench and table and assortment of plants in ancient jars overlooks an enormous backyard in the center of Düsseldorf. Except to call it a “backyard” is ridiculous. It’s a mini-version of the New York Botanical Gardens. Everything is in bloom. There are massive hydrangeas in various hues, fuschias, roses, exquisite trees. A faux Roman fountain gently tinkles. It’s paradise.
We have lunch on the patio and the jetlag knocks at me. I shower, then nap in my Ralph Lauren bedroom. At six, we walk to a nearby Italian restaurant to have dinner with Marion’s stepson, Joerg, his Brazilian second wife, Rosanne, and teenage David and Felix, Joerg’s sons from a first marriage. The restaurant proprietor who knows Marion, duly inspects all our vaccination certificates and we are seated. Rosanne doesn’t speak German, Joerg doesn’t speak Portuguese so we all converse in English. Dinner is delicious and the wine makes us garrulous. Joerg and Rosanne are moving next week to Oxford in England for his new job. The move would have been effortless in 2020. Post-Brexit, it’s a nightmare of forms, visas, permits, contracts, codicils, apostiles, notaries and car transports.
It’s suddenly 10PM and again the jetlag washes over me. Marion and I stroll home and by 10:15PM I’m snoring.
After breakfast, I hug my sister – one of those hugs that you don’t want to end – and a taxi takes me to Düsseldorf’s Central Station. This morning’s driver seems to know the city well. I find the right platform for my five-hour ICE express to Berlin and, as is customary, lights and letters have me standing exactly at the door to my train car as it slides into the station. I stow my bags, find my seat (forward-facing, please) and we glide northeast towards Hanover, where Marion was born. Announcements in German and English underscore the necessity of wearing a mask that covers your nose and chin, and there are graphic posters showing examples of how to wear and how not to wear your mask. I open the table, and work on my laptop. The Wifi is supersonic speed. Another announcement apologizes for the closure of the restaurant car due to the pandemic, and train personnel hand out menus for food to be brought to your seat, As I’m headed to Berlin, I order the currywurst mit pommes and even though I don’t like curry it’s quite tasty. A tall tankard of lager helps wash it down.
I am arriving at Berlin’s spanking new Hauptbahnhof, part of the post-reunification complex of post-modern government buildings that abut the restored Reichstag. The station is on the site of the pre-war Anhalter Bahnhof and as we slide in and whistles blow, I have visions of an eager Michael Crawford aka Christopher Isherwood arriving here in 1930 in “Cabaret.” But there are no Nazis and it’s all glass and soaring steel and within minutes I am in yet another taxi. “Zum Adlon, Bitte,” I tell the driver.
I have worked with the Hotel Adlon for some fifteen years. Originally opened by the Kaiser in 1907, it sits on Pariser Platz, flanking the U.S., French and British embassies and the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most iconic site. The 1930 Hollywood movie, “Grand Hotel” that starred Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo was set in an imaginary Adlon. The Adlon survived the bombings that destroyed two-thirds of Berlin only to burn to the ground in May 1945. After the wall dividing east from west came down, the new Adlon was opened by the Kempinski group in 1997, and while not an exact copy of the original, it is a brilliant hommage to it. The check-in desk is now behind glass and I am asked for my vaccination certificate. I am royally welcomed by the exquisite and charming Sabina Held (the hotel’s communications director, who somehow manages to remain exquisite and charming in an N95 mask: she always reminds me of the German actress, Senta Berger, yet more even more beautiful), and by general manager Michael Sorgenfrey, tall and also dashing in his N95. I feel like I’ve come home. And when I enter suite 212 I know I’m home. It has a circular wood paneled foyer that leads to a sitting room whose table is piled high with exotic fruits, chocolates, and a vast bottle of Moët et Chandon in a silver ice bucket. The sitting room leads to a vast bedroom that leads to a vast bathroom and to a dressing area large enough to accommodate the touring company of Hamilton. The sitting room faces the Brandenburg Gate. So does the bedroom, which also faces Unter den Linden, the Champs Elysées of Berlin. I am in the suite from whose balcony a hooded Michael Jackson had dangled baby Paris.
My four days in Berlin rush by. I go to dinner at Crackers, purposefully hidden behind barricades on Friedrichstrasse, and have to show my vaccination certificate. As I do at Paris Bar in West Berlin. As I do at the Jewish Museum, whose exhibit, Redemption, by Israeli artist Yael Bartana, sports giant installations imagining the Jews and a non-binary Christ figure returning to the city that built the Holocaust. I visit the Humboldt Forum, a center for the arts installed within the recently unveiled re-creation of Berlin’s 18th-century baroque imperial palace. It was last occupied by Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria, and was bombed to smithereens in World War 2. It is vast. It is monumental. It cost a controversial billions of Euros. And it’s simply breathtaking.
I visit my other favorite Berlin hotel – the “un-Adlon.” The Orania.Berlin is in the Lower East Side of Berlin, Kreuzberg. It sits in what was once a re-WW1 art-nouveau department store and it’s fabulous. Created by Dietmar Mueller-Elmau of Bavaria’s Schloss Elmau, it is a grand hotel yet totally hip and casual. The décor is a redo of Schloss Elmau, with fine woods, colorful silk drapes and elephant-embroidered upholstery. When the hotel opened, the creation of a luxury hotel in a working-class neighborhood so angered some of the Kreuzbergers, that they tried to smash some of its windows in a middle-of-the-night assault. Instead of replacing them, Mueller-Elmau decided to retain the cracked windows as part of the hotel’s identity. The Orania.Berlin is run by the stylish Jennifer Vogel, whose husband, Phillip, is the chef. His X-Berg Duck (kreuz is German for cross) has become a Berlin legend: four courses of duck prepared in methods from Beijing to Turin and back to Berlin. I have a delicious lunch – which is actually breakfast. Jennifer tells me that despite COVID and two lockdowns they are now very busy – especially at weekends where the lobby is a forum for jazz.
One of the highlights of my visit to Berlin is lunch with Sabina and her partner in crime, the Adlon’s sales director, the suave Sebastian Riewe. The week earlier, Sebastian had run the Berlin half-marathon that started and ended near the Adlon, his wife and daughters cheering him on. We chew over the monumental difficulties of 2020 and 2021. Indeed, it was the Kempinski and the Adlon that was the first of our clients to institute a wealth of adjustments and practices to deal with the pandemic, including the option of members of the staff never entering your room during your stay. (When I checked in, I was asked if I wanted the total privacy preference during my stay – and while I got the point, I don’t go to the Adlon to make my own bed and change my own towels.) We eat a gourmet meal in the hotel’s Quarré restaurant which the management keeps threatening to renovate and I have no idea why: I think it’s perfect. From my seat, I gaze at the Brandenburg Gate and cannot stop myself pondering the torments it witnessed in the last century.
But the Berlin of 2021 is a city of hope and grandeur and parks and space and bicycles and friendliness. On the day I am leaving Berlin, I wake at 6:30, and down there in Pariser Platz, an astonishingly sexy couple (he in black, she in white) is dancing the samba to music from a boom-box, self-videoing by an iPhone atop a tripod. They’re dazzling. It’s drizzling. The Brandenburg Gate looks gloomy. They don’t seem to notice or care. They just keep dancing the samba.
Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome.