TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in London during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve flown 91,420 miles to four continents in the Time of Corona, but this is my first visit to London in two years. I was born a Cockney on the very last day of the 1940’s, and raised and educated in a glorious yet wounded city that truly took a full fifty years to recover completely from the damage, the hardships, the austerity of World War 2 and its aftermath. I’ve heard that people in London are very lax about mask-wearing. I’m determined not to be, and if Londoners give me withering looks, I’ll give them right back. Since September 2020, I’ve worn a mask in New York, Lisbon, Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dubai, Jerusalem, Marrakech, Malé, Milwaukee and dozens more cities, and I ain’t taking mine off in London.
There is only one daylight flight today to London, and I’m on it. (Those six hour overnight flights so you can get to London at 7AM and not have your hotel room until the afternoon are really a killer.) There is a crowd of anxious people surrounding the Virgin Atlantic check-in area at JFK’s Terminal Four. I’m perplexed. A Virgin clerk accosts me in the morass, and asks to see my passport. And my vaccination certificate. And, unlike at Times Square’s Nederlander Theater last week, she avidly compares the two and studies my vaccination credentials. Then she asks for my UK government Passenger Locator Form. I know what this is – but, she explains, the group of harried passengers around me have not completed theirs to Virgin’s, or the British government’s, satisfaction. It turns out that I have completed mine in A+ style – which doesn’t surprise me because it took almost an hour of computer time to detail my itinerary in Britain, upload my passport information page, upload my vaccination certificate, and provide the confirmation number of my PCR test pre-ordered through my hotel for two days after arrival. Once submitted, I had received an immediate confirmation with the all-important QR code that should let me into my homeland.
The Virgin lounge at Terminal 4 is pretty fabulous – and different from the clinical and frugal atmosphere of airline lounges worldwide in the Time of Corona. I sit at a table, and a friendly server takes my order of fruit, granola and cappuccino. I take a photograph of the artwork on the wall, and she immediately asks if I’d like her to take a picture of me. I decline graciously.
There has always been a wonderful chumminess and informality about Virgin, stemming, of course, from the personality of its creator, Sir Richard Branson. My London upbringing was in an era when “you-are-judged-by-your-accent” was still in vogue. And if it weren’t, I had a mother who would have excused my becoming an axe-murderer as long as I spoke like a member of the Royal family. But when Virgin was launched in 1984, all that British Airways’ faux poshness went out the window. Jolly cockney accents were not merely tolerated, they were lauded. And the crew joked and smiled. 37 years later they still do.
As I enter the jetway, a crew-member handed me a small foil package named “you’re in safe hands.” I stroll to the airplane door, am welcomed and shown to my seat. We often forget that while it was British Airways that introduced the first flat beds in Business Class, it was Virgin that created the Business Class, or “upper class” layout that would set it apart and become the template for most airlines’ business class seating. Today’s flight is on a brand-new Airbus 350-1000 and its interior contains the usual 1-2-1 arrangement. There’s a massive TV, and the addition of a sliding door that affords a kind of minimal privacy usually supplied only in Asian airlines’ First Class.
As I take my seat, the four passengers in front of me have opened their “you’re in safe hands” package and are wiping down the seats, the TV screen, the armrests, the window, the window shade with fanatical fervor. I wonder if this is their first flight during COVID, because I think we have to know by now that airlines are compulsive about cleanliness in the Time of Corona. And I wonder if they missed the memo that it’s 99% the inhaling of droplets, not a supposedly contaminated tray table, that spreads the virus. I briefly wonder if they shouldn’t have come equipped with spray bottles of Fantastik and scrubbing brushes: but then I realize they’d never have gotten them through security.
At my seat there is a zippered “goodie bag.” It’s made of recyclable paper, and contains hand and face creams, a really high class black silk eye mask and a super pair of socks with blue and green umbrellas in “tribute” to Virgin destination, Tel Aviv. As we get comfortable, the seatback screens are showing a collage of mini-videos of all Virgin’s destinations. And while New York, Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Mumbai have the expected images, Tel Aviv’s is a massive Pride flag with people frolicking on the beach.
This latest Airbus has a camera at the top of the tailplane and I watch the taxi-ing and take-off on my giant TV screen as if I am in some Star Trek cockpit. We gather speed down the runway, we leave the ground, I watch the undercarriage retract, and there before me are the towers of Manhattan. We make a left turn and all I see are clouds. But wait: I can look out the window: there’s Brooklyn.
I’m one of those people who adjusts their watch and their mindset to the destination: it really helps fight jetlag. So, for me it’s not 8:15AM in New York, it’s 1:15PM and lunchtime in London. You can take the boy out of Britain, but you can’t take Britain out of the boy, so I choose the “full English Breakfast” option over the banana bread pudding with maple syrup. And a glass of English Hambleton sparkling wine is just perfect to wash down the scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and baked beans…the kind of breakfast that built, and then lost, an Empire. Most Americans have not yet learned that the chalky soil of the county of Kent, is the identical chalky soil as the Champagne region of France, just 75 miles away across the English Channel. But Haworth Wine and Spirits in New Jersey’s suburban Bergen County has got the message and my wife and I often choose British “champagne” over Veuve Clicquot.
I’ve convinced myself it’s lunch, and as I slept only four hours last night before my 4AM alarm, I convince myself it’s time for a siesta. I visit the washroom – and what I love about certain Airbuses is that the washrooms have windows. I can do what is necessary as I stare at the clouds. Indeed, once when I was aboard a Singapore Airlines Airbus before take-off at Newark, I unknowingly flashed a baggage handler. I press the flat bed button, arrange my pillow, undersheet and duvet and open my iPad to lull myself to sleep with Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis alarmingly believable, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” I’m soon asleep.
I awake and we are already descending over nighttime England. I watch the landing on the tailplane camera; I look around me and everyone else seems to be doing the same. Even though Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is very quiet tonight, the Virgin plane parks at the absolutely farthest jetway and I have to hike 15 minutes to the arrivals hall with its slightly ominous UK BORDER sign. I’m through immigration in a moment, my luggage is on the carousel and my driver is here. I am in the Mercedes sent by the Dorchester exactly 30 minutes after landing.
It really is extraordinary to be back in my hometown after two years that seem like five or ten. We drive through the tunnel that connects the terminal area with the M4 motorway (I remember when both the tunnel and the motorway were inaugurated – eek) and whizz into Central London. We pass the gorgeously floodlit Natural History and Victoria & Albert Museums, and there is Harrods lit up like a fairyland. And all of a sudden it strikes me that London is still here, still gorgeous, and still flourishing, despite the plague that has plagued us all.
We glide past Wellington Arch and into Park Lane and draw up at the art deco gem that is the Dorchester. The welcome is beyond gracious and within minutes I am in a massive suite overlooking Park Lane and Hyde Park. Am I hungry? Yes, I am. I descend to the Dorchester Grill and have a delicious light dinner. London seems normal. And so do I.
The Dorchester opened ninety years ago and was the first hotel in the world to be built of reinforced concrete. Which explains why in a city of red brick and grey stone it remains unique, a massive cream-colored curved art deco landmark on Park Lane. I used to pass the Dorchester every day on my way to and from my school on the Thames Embankment, steps from St. Paul’s Cathedral. To me, it was, and remains unique in London, in some ways no less a historic site than Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. In 1792, the Earl of Dorchester built a house on this patch of Park Lane; in 1853 it was replaced by an Italianate palazzo that continued to be called Dorchester House; in 1910, the building became the American Embassy. After the hotel opened in 1931, it quickly became one of London’s most fashionable and it was in the hotel’s Eisenhower Suite that the man who would become President planned the D-Day landings.
Even though the Dorchester was this great hulk of art-deco that I saw throughout my teens, it wasn’t until 2018 that I set foot inside. Its giant lobby with its endless array of cozy banquettes, swooping drapes, flower arrangements that soar to the ceiling, and waiters in frock coats, is truly beyond compare.
When I say London feels normal after 19 months of intermittent lockdown, to my taste it feels a little bit too normal. Hardly anyone is wearing a mask, indoors or outdoors. Even though masks are mandated on the Tube and on buses, as I stroll the streets hardly anyone in the passing red double-deckers is wearing one. I ask myself why – especially, as I write, there is an endless TV campaign urging people to be vaccinated and endless discussion of why masks are vital. And there are currently 50,000 new cases a day. And I wonder if it’s a 21st-century version of the World War 2 “Blitz Spirit” that had Londoners declaring “we can take it,” as German bombs and then rockets fell on the city.
The Dorchester is in Mayfair, London’s poshest neighborhood. When Alan Jay Lerner wrote a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, he created a brilliant title for the show, My Fair Lady, recalling the legendary children’s rhyme about London Bridge falling down. But it was really a pun, mimicking how a common flower girl would have pronounced “Mayfair” in the cockney accent Professor Henry Higgins was determined to refine. I stroll along Curzon Street with its flowerbox-bedecked Georgian mansions, most of which are now private clubs or banks. I make a right turn into a small neighborhood called Shepherd’s Market. The houses in its narrow, pedestrianized lanes were built by one Edward Shepherd in the 18th-century, and it was in these streets that a “May Fair” was held each spring – eventually giving a name to the district surrounding it. A hundred years ago, Shepherd’s Market was known for high-end publishing and high-end prostitutes. By the 1970’s it was becoming stylish, with hair salons and fashion boutiques, and in the 2020’s it is now – even in October – mostly crowded open-air restaurants that evoke Paris and Beirut, intermingled with Victorian-era pubs outside which clusters of maskless Londoners smoke and down tankards of beer.
I’m on way to Piccadilly, the long avenue that divides Mayfair from Green Park. As a child, the queen, her parents and her sister, Margaret Rose, lived at 145 Piccadilly, until Edward VIII’s abdication rocketed them across the park into Buckingham Palace. I walk through the colonnade of the Ritz Hotel, opened by César Ritz in 1908 to my destination, the Wolseley. When I grew up, and when I started my travel career in the 1960’s around the corner at the headquarters of Thomas Cook, this was a grand showroom for staid Wolseley cars, now as defunct as Packards or Studebakers. But it is now one of London’s most fashionable restaurants, famous for its buzz, its formal informality, and its menu that ranges from English to French with intermediate stops at Jewish and Austrian. It’s always crowded and my guest and I are given a corner table in the center of the restaurant so we can see the comings and goings through its revolving door. Actually, many of the diners are arriving in masks, which is a relief. One who isn’t masked, is actor Bill Nighy, who stands chatting with friends as they wait for their table. Indeed, everyone at the Wolseley has that look that makes you think they must be famous even though, like me, they aren’t. Our server is wearing a mask and she recites the specials in a delicious French accent, and the food she brings us – prawns with avocado, a Holstein Schnitzel for me, sea bass with endives for my guest – is delicious too.
As a New Yorker who just last week went to theater for the first time in two years, I can bear witness to the indisputable fact that London is back. This city that has survived the Romans, the Norman conquerors, the Tudors, the 17th-century Civil War, the global cholera pandemic of 1854-1860, the 20th-century’s Spanish Flu, and Blitz, has survived the lockdowns and the pandemic of the 2020’s. I had feared that Brexit would fracture London, that it would become insular and inward-looking. Happily, my fears were groundless. London remains hot, happy and bustling. And despite no longer part of the European Union, it still feels like the capital of Europe.