TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
JULY & AUGUST 2021
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his stay in Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We arrived last night in Israel. This morning, the results of our PCR test taken on arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport zap into our iPhones: we’re all negative. But that’s not enough. Because as the Maldives and the UAE, from which we flew to Israel, are considered “high-risk,” we’re still required to quarantine for a week and then take another PCR test – and then, and only then – may we emerge.
But there is a way out of the morass: we can drive an hour to the south of Tel Aviv for a serology test to prove we’ve been vaccinated. Or that we have antibodies…or both. Indeed, my resourceful wife, Noa, has already set our appointments up in advance. (Israel, unlike Britain and the EU, doesn’t give a fig about our CDC cards and our vaccination details.) So, after breakfast, we drive along Highway 4, encountering a lot of traffic, to Shamir Hospital. The parking lot is too small and everyone searching for a space looks irritable. We stand in line for our testing, and everyone’s irritable, outraged that their noon appointment may actually not happen until 12:44. Those waiting to be tested are, like we, people who just arrived in Israel – and almost all are Israelis just back from an overseas vacation. And they’re irritable. The level of entitlement is close to obscene. Arguments, threats to inform the media, the inevitable “don’t-you-know-who-I-am’s?” and reprimands of the staff who are doing their best to calm the throng, even offering popsicles to the children. Finally, we gain entrance about an hour late. (I wonder how Israelis would deal with visiting a Manhattan physician and having to plow through seventeen creased copies of People until hearing the magic words: “the doctor will see you now.”) The nurses are sweet, the test is easy. We drive back along the clogged eight-lane highway to Noa’s family’s home in Kfar Yona, a city that sits in the narrowest part of Israel: five miles from Netanya on the Mediterranean, six miles from Tulkarem in the Palestinian Authority.
It’s nice to be “home” after two weeks of hotel and restaurant meals. Virtually everything we consumed in Dubai and the Maldives was, actually, beyond delicious. But there are those times when you just want a fried egg and a slice of toast, or to open the fridge and grab a yoghurt. Anyway, Noa’s mom is an amazing cook.
That evening, Noa and the kids receive their serology results, confirming antibodies in the hundreds, followed by an email from the Ministry of Health that they’re released from quarantine. I assume mine’s delayed because I’m a foreigner. Mine doesn’t arrive until after dinner. My antibody level is 41, and the minimum is 50: I have to remain in quarantine. Maybe it’s because I’m not as young as I once was? Maybe it’s because I was vaccinated five months ago, long before the others? Whatever. It’s no punishment to stay home. And the garden, full of Noa’s mother’s ceramics, cactuses, succulents and fruit trees, is serene. And just as we’re discussing whether I can actually sneak out, Noa’s Dad receives another phone call. It’s the police. They want to know if I have symptoms. He tells them I don’t. He asks if they want to speak to me. They don’t. But we get the message: Israel doesn’t fuck around with COVID.
The days pass. I work and read and we watch the opening of the Olympic Games. It’s surprisingly beautiful, and I salute the Japanese for bringing it off with such warmth and panache. And because we’re only five hours behind Tokyo, we can watch it live. Painting the seats in the empty stadium in different colors is a brilliant touch: it looks like the stadium is full. On the fifth day, the police call again. No, they don’t want to talk to me: they just want to know I am there, and that I’m well.
‘On the seventh day, God rests.’ But instead of resting, I race to the nearest Be-Pharmacy (Israel’s CVS) for my PCR test. The clerks and the testers are Arab Israelis, helpful and endearing. They perform the same double test that was performed at the airport. Six hours later, my negative result bings on my phone.
The next day, Noa and I drive to Jerusalem, leaving the kids in the care of their grandparents. Israel’s capital has changed mightily since my first visit exactly sixty years ago. It was a small town then – with barbed wire down the center dividing the Israeli half from the Jordanian. Now it’s Israel’s largest city and every time I approach it, it seems to begin earlier than last time, with vast tracts of houses and apartments climbing the Judean Hills. The ride from the coast to Jerusalem once took over two hours. On a good day, it’s now 45 minutes and eight lanes. My London born-and-bred late father used to quip that “Israel will be beautiful when it’s finished.” But it never gets finished: new highways are constantly being constructed with giant interchanges, and shortcuts bored through mountains with Biblical names.
Our destination is the King David Hotel. Opened in 1931, it was thirty years old when I first stayed here. I fell in love with it then, and have been in love ever since. It has a colonial grandeur, a capaciousness, a sense of theater with its high ceilings, and its wall paint designed to evoke the kingdoms of ancient Israel. The lobby contains the framed and charming art-deco type 1929 design-brief from the hotel’s Geneva-based interior-decorators, describing their aim to replicate “old-Jew styles”). Here too are the lobby’s throne chairs, the gilt-framed old masters, the pinkish-beige-ish stone with which every building in Jerusalem is still built. And upstairs, are the gorgeous bedrooms that face the centuries-old Old City walls and Mount Zion.
Kings, queens, princes, presidents, chancellors, movie stars all stay here. The hotel even has London-born Jeremy Sheldon, the Delegations Manager, whose chief task is to coordinate the frequent stays of potentates, prime ministers, foreign ministers and royalty. Sometimes their retinues take over entire floors. When the President of the United States comes to stay, the entire hotel is requisitioned and guests unfortunate enough to have long ago booked their vacation, are elegantly and regretfully moved to the nearby Waldorf or Citadel or Inbal – good hotels yes, but lacking the stature of the King David.
Yet despite its vintage, its gravitas, its magnificence, and its pedigree, service at the King David was often, to put it as diplomatically as I can, somewhat, shall we say, erratic. Housekeeping was and remains perfect, with middle-aged ladies in black uniforms and white lace aprons treating guests like beloved nephews and nieces. But downstairs! One might chance upon a front desk clerk, smart in pin stripes and tails, munching a sandwich. Or a concierge tooth-picking his molars. A waiter might yawn open mouthed, or let you know his bunions hurt. A phone call to the operator might be answered with a growl, or not answered at all. One overlooked it, because it was the King David, crediting the oddities to Israel’s one time socialist origins. Or arguing that at Katz’s Deli on New York’s lower East Side, scrumptious food is delivered with a sneer and a put-down. Of course, the presidents and kings were always shielded from the blunders: but not the regular hoi polloi like me. One just endured it while basking in the physical glory, wistfully wondering if the hotel’s service might one day match its splendor.
I’ve used the past tense in the last paragraph for a reason.
As Noa drives her parents’ late-model Renault beneath the King David’s porte-cochère, a handsome young bell-leaps at the car from the hotel doorway.
“Welcome to the King David! Are you checking in? May I take your luggage? May I park your car?”
Noa and I look at each other. Formerly, one might have sat in the car for untold minutes until a vexed minion might deign to make an appearance.
We twirl through the revolving door into the vaulted lobby and approach the front desk.
“Welcome to the King David! Are you checking in?
“Er, yes, we are, thank you.”
“Won’t you please come and relax in the lobby and we’ll be right there to check you in on a tablet?”
Noa and I look at each other. We collapse into the exquisite, 90-year-old throne chairs beneath the Hittite friezes. A waiter appears with glasses of juice, a plate of dates and olives, little linen napkins. Noa and I look at each other, again. We note the tent card advertising afternoon tea, with musical accompaniment, from 4 to 6. We sip. The desk clerk joins us, remains standing, and welcomes us again. He asks for our passports. He taps on a tablet. He asks if we had a pleasant journey.
“Would you like a tour of the hotel before I take you to your suite?” he inquires.
“Well we do know the hotel rather well,” I counter.
“Then let me escort you directly upstairs so you can get comfortable,” comes the reply.
We rise to the sixth floor in the elevator and he leads us past the walls of nostalgic black and white photographs of the Kind David in the thirties and forties. He opens the door to our room. He ushers us in.
“I hope you will enjoy the view,” he says, parting the net curtains and urging us to gaze at the millennia-old panorama of walls, churches, domes, spires, and the Mount of Olives. “Your luggage will be right up, but please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” He bows and departs. Noa and I look at each other.
Truth be told, I had hoped, nay prayed – even though I’m a devout atheist, that the King David might have been magically transformed by its new general manager, Tamir Kobrin. But to believe it, I really needed to see it for myself. Six months ago, the Federmann family, who created the Dan Hotel chain and bought the King David soon after Israel was born, had hired Jerusalem-born Kobrin. He has a long resumé that includes the Mandarin-Orientals in Bangkok and Hong Kong, Raffles in Siem Reap, the Plaza in New York, the best resorts in the Maldives. Within moments of our arrival, we’ve witnessed the spell he’s managed to cast.
We descend to the lobby for lunch. The perplexed and often doubtful greeting at the King’s Garden restaurant has been transmuted into to a broad smile and a professional invitation to choose a table: “perhaps one with a view?” The table service is courtly and expert. The food is delicious (it always was), but now it’s more varied, more modern, more creative. Noa and I have given up exchanging shocked glances. We’re getting accustomed to the new King David.
We nap. At five, the hotel phone rings. I lift the receiver. It’s the Guest Service Manager.
“I’m just calling to welcome you and to let you know I’m here if there’s anything you need.”
“Everything is lovely, thank you,” I stammer.
“I’ll be in the lobby till midnight, so please come and say hello,”
I hang up. We dress for dinner and take a cab to the Jerusalem Theater, whose Talbieh restaurant is one of my faves. We dine there with my brother, who moved from London to Israel in 1958, and his wife. We tell them about the makeover of the King David. They’re stunned, having long considered the hotel gorgeous yet hopeless. When we return to the hotel, we meet the Guest Services Manager. She’s charming. She’s interested. She’s hospitable. (She’s delightful, she’s delicious, she’s delovely.)
Breakfast is – as always – spectacular at the King David. A vast buffet of everything imaginable (except bacon). The same maître’d as always recognizes and welcomes us, and leads us to a table. We say hello to the same waiters I’ve known for years. But something’s different. They are perky. They’re pouring coffee as you sit. They’re eager to bring fresh squeezed orange juice. An omlet, perhaps?
We peruse the buffet and make our choices. We return to the table: our napkins have been refolded. Noa and I look at each other. We notice a stir at the entrance. Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President until his term ended just days ago, is coming with a friend to breakfast. It’s the King David. It’s customary to see the celebrated.
At eleven, I meet with Tamir Kobrin. We meet in the lobby and sit in the throne chairs. He is tall, handsome, courtly, with the self-assurance and gleam of a superstar general manager. I am bursting to congratulate him, and I do, heaping praise as if genuflecting to the Wizard of Oz. He receives my encomiums with elegance, with modesty.
“It’s not me,” he urges, “it’s the team.” We both know it’s not really true, but it’s a graceful thing to say.
I tell him I first stayed at the King David in 1961 and it’s been my beloved ever since.
“How did you manage to achieve such a revolution?” I ask.
“I teach. I don’t give orders,” he explains. “Yes, a couple of people had to go. But mostly it’s repeatedly meeting with the staff in teams, and explaining that we are hosts and how honored guests must be treated in our ‘home.’ They got it. There’s still much to do. But I’m always present. I see everything. And they see me seeing everything. They learn from example.”
I tell him he’s made the King David what it always should have been. He knows I’m right, but accepts my words with humility, repeating that “we’ve still a lot to do; we’re only 50% there.” I immediately like and admire this man. General managers are often smug and haughty. Tamir is not. He’s earnest. He’s chivalrous In this land of ancient miracles, he’s performed a modern one.
I return to Jerusalem a couple of weeks later to spend the day with my brother. We have a million old family photographs to go through, to catalog. Instead of driving, I take the train from Netanya. Israeli trains are super-efficient. Double-decker, comfortable, masks obligatory. And they’re extraordinarily cheap. My fare from Netanya to Jerusalem is 32 Shekels ($9.90), and I even forget, as a senior, I probably should have paid half.
I change trains in Tel Aviv. The train I took as a teenager from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem took two hours as it crawled through the Judean Hills. It now takes 40 minutes, including a stop at Ben Gurion International Airport. The new line slices through the mountains and one barely feels that one is climbing 2,600 feet to the capital.
Once I arrive at Jerusalem’s spanking new Yitzhak Navon Station I understand why the climb was imperceptible. If you’ve been to London’s Leicester Square tube station, you’ll know it’s escalator is endless, at 177 feet, the world’s second longest. The one at Yitzhak Navon Station 148 feet. Up I ride, only to learn there is a second escalator, equally long. Up I go, and there’s a third escalator. And then a fourth. And I’m only in the underground concourse. It’s all steel and glass and colorful signs welcoming me to Jerusalem in Arabic, English and Hebrew. And then there’s another escalator to the street. Later, I learn that it’s the deepest rail-station in the world. And I also learn that when its doors are sealed, it can protect 5,000 people from chemical attack.
I taxi to my brother’s apartment, passing Santiago Calatrava’s epic “Strings Bridge.” My brother and I spend a super day, recognizing long dead ancestors in England, Germany, Morocco. I see some pictures I don’t recall and snap them on my iPhone. We have an Asian lunch nearby in an open-air restaurant. And then it’s back to the photos. And, eventually, back to the station. This time, I descend via two elevators. Leaving Jerusalem we’re underground for a full twelve minutes before we finally emerge into the Ayalon Valley, where Joshua bade the sun stand still so the Israelites could finish off the Canaanites. We glide through forests atop spindly looking viaducts and soon we are back underground at Ben Gurion Airport. I ride through Tel Aviv and I am back “home” in 80 minutes.
A week later, on August 3, we are back Ben Gurion Airport. Noa, Zoë, Liam, and nine members of Noa’s family. We’re bound for Italy to celebrate Noa’s half-century – her birthday was back in May, but COVID has made us all accustomed to postponements. We were tested for COVID 24 hours earlier, and are all negative. Noa’s parents had their third “booster” Pfizer shot yesterday, and her arm is sore. We arrive at the airport at 2:30AM for the 5AM Alitalia flight to Rome. (Another “joy” of COVID is that there are fewer flights from everywhere to everywhere; so you fly when there’s a plane, not when you necessarily want to.)
We line up at the inevitable this-is-Israel pre-flight security check, and we discover that Noa’s Dad has brought his wife’s expired passport instead of her current one. The trip is ruined. There are tears. We are gob smacked. We hurriedly think of options. The security clerk is calm as a cucumber.
“Just upstairs,” she says, “there’s an office of the Ministry of Interior: they’ll issue you a new passport.”
Gob smacked again, eleven of us proceed to Alitalia’s check-in. Ten minutes later, Noa’s mother and father join us, brandishing her brand-new passport. The trip is saved. We whiz through immigration, we roam through duty-free, we drink lattes and munch croissants. We go to the gate. We board. We take-off.
Why, I think, couldn’t the Department of Homeland Security at JFK, or Newark, or wherever, have a similar policy? You forgot your passport? Here’s a new one.
Yes, that’s going to happen. When, when pigs fly.