TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his first trip through Morocco during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frankly, within the awfulness of the horror story, there is something very, yes, pleasant about travel in the Time of Corona. For instance, Terminal One at JFK. Usually a madhouse of overcrowded crowds and lines and chaos. Not now. Half the banks of check-in desks are closed and empty.
Check in at Royal Air Maroc is effortless. Yes, I have to show my taken-within-the-last-72-hours negative Covid test results. Yes, I have to show my proof of hotel reservations. And yes, I receive my boarding pass and an invitation to the Air France lounge. At the head of the line for security I am asked to stare at a screen that presumably checks my temperature. Of course, there is no actual line for security. There are exactly two people in it – a Hasidic man and his wife in one of those you-can-spot-it’s-a-wig-from-100-meters wigs that make her seem probably far more appealing than her real hair.
The new security scanners at JFK no longer require one to remove laptops or iPads from hand luggage. I walk through the scanner, hold my arms over my head and I await my backpack and jacket to emerge – which they do, after the hat boxes, plastic bags of food, and assorted paraphernalia of the ultra-orthodox couple.
The Air France lounge is at Gate 1, and my flight departing from Gate 10. I’m not hungry so I wade through the acres of empty terminal whose Hermès store is open and empty, and whose Michael Kors store is shut tight. Only one “bar” is open – where, for $27, yes, twenty seven dollars, I am served a pre-flight double-Tanqueray on the rocks in a plastic glass with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. In retrospect, I could have bought a whole bottle for that price in the duty-free shop, but I recently watched the Netflix movie, 7500, which features a bloody hijacking orchestrated by three Arabic-speaking terrorists using the glass shards of smashed duty-free liquor to threaten, stab and murder.
The benches surrounding Gate 10 have every other seat blocked and I sit, sip my gin and polish off the latest New Yorker. On board I don my prescription ski goggles, N95 mask and Hotel Hassler mask. I catch the “20” in the purser’s Arabic pre-departure announcement, and figure the flight is going to be quicker than scheduled: six hours and twenty minutes. In English and French at comes out as five hours and twenty minutes – which seems to me as if we will be breaking records. The flight attendant is chagrined to hear I shall be requiring neither dinner nor breakfast and that I intend to sleep. Five minutes after take-off, I push the magic button to flatten my bed, take my magic Ambien, and five hours later am woken as we descend over the Atlantic beaches of Anfa were GI’s stormed ashore in 1943. We slide on to the runway and taxi to a distant stand and we walk downstairs into the morning warmth of Casablanca. We are not sufficiently social distanced in the minibus that trundles the Business Class passengers to the terminal – hence the two masks. Once indoors, a policeman reviews my Covid test result with such cursory speed that if I’d been tested two months or two years ago, instead of two days, I’m confident he wouldn’t have noticed. I show my hotel reservation confirmations to the immigration clerk who studies them with care. He bids me lower my mask to be sure it’s actually me. He thumps his date stamp into my passport and I am admitted to Morocco. The vast baggage hall with its ranks of stalled conveyors is made vaster by its emptiness.
A very smiley Abdel is holding a sign bearing my name and he whispers into his phone to summon the driver. It’s been more than two decades since my last visit to Casablanca and it appears very much changed. We drive along an expressway instead of two-lane meandering roads. Instead of farms, we pass building after building, glass walled and bearing the logos of the “usual suspects:” global high-tech giants. It could be the morning commute into Dallas or Lima or Tel Aviv, but the Arabic neon confirms it is neither.
Hotel le Doge is in a leafy neighborhood of art deco houses lining narrow streets. A remember of Relais and Châteaux, it is a five-story building that was once a three story private home. The bemasked doorman takes the temperature of my wrist. A very pleasant bemasked manager guides me to two different suites from which I am to choose. The larger of the two – the one pictured on the hotel website and which made me choose the hotel in the first place - faces the street, and, has, above it, the hotel’s elegant Moroccan restaurant. She expresses concern that the noise of both will disturb me. (In retrospect, the occasional Renault in a Casablanca side-street, nor a restaurant which closes at 8PM, would have been unlikely to keep me awake.) The second of the suites leads onto a white walled, palm filled courtyard on whose patio are a welcoming table, four chairs, a pigeon atop each. Other than the cooing of the pigeons, this will certainly be the quieter. She is pleased by my choice. She withdraws and I admire the art deco bed, with its pound of brown and pink art deco cushions, the clearly
original art deco crown molding, the tub shaped white mahogany and leather fauteuils and the glass-topped coffee table – with its tiered silver tray of nuts and dried fruit, and its platter of cakes. The bathroom is all white veined black marble, with a rectangular bathtub that could sleep three, and a shower, I soon discover, whose water is instantly hot, and whose one-slab marble floor alarmingly wobbles.
Breakfast is served in the rooftop restaurant – a delightful sunny oasis. The sky is blue, the neighboring houses are white, the palm trees are green and all’s right with the world. The amiable manageress apologizes that “à cause du Covid,” they have reduced the staff and, although there are two waiters delivering food to other social distanced tables, it is she who brings me platters of cheeses, smoked salmon, and roast beef; a warm flat Moroccan crumpet dripping with honey; slices of baguette; warm and flaky croissants; an assortment of home-made jams; mason-jars of yogurt (fait maison); granola; and a cheese omelet as understandably delicious as any omelet would have to be when cooked in a kilo of butter. Suddenly ravenous, I devour it all.
I take a stroll through the quartier and suddenly find myself opposite the Hyatt Regency, where, when it was called the Hotel Casablanca, I had stayed with my mother and my wife, forty-one years earlier, on my first visit to Morocco. It seemed deserted, except for two red-jacketed bellboys, standing beneath umbrellas (it wasn’t raining) outside the Cartier store that abutted the entrance.
I continue into the Avenue Mohammed V, with its parade of ailing but once-elegant art deco apartment buildings. In the galleries beneath each building, sellers have neatly arranged an astonishing quantity of fake Moschino and Vuitton bags and shoes and belts laid atop blankets. As there are currently only about seventeen tourists in town, I imagine business has to be slow. I gaze upward and try to recall in which of these stately apartments we had had afternoon tea in the patrician hoke of my late aged cousins, Doris and Vivienne. I am somehow relieved that these two refined ladies passed on before decrepitude overtook their home.
I hail a cab to take me to the Hassan V Mosque – the world’s largest – but it is closed to visitors because of the pandémique and, even if it weren’t, I couldn’t enter today because it’s Friday – the Muslim Sabbath. Despite the enormity of breakfast, I make my way back to the fifth floor of the Doge and manage to find room for a salad of perfect avocado and tempura shrimp, and a glass of Moroccan pink-tinged vin gris. The jet-lag has now caught up with me and I stumble into my art deco bed beneath its art deco ceiling. By the light of a Lalique (yes, real) wall sconce, I read about a half-paragraph of the new biography of Sybille Bedford, and fall into a whopping three-hour nap.
The Doge’s speedy wifi enables me to wipe out a mass of emails and I casually dress casually for dinner at 7:30. I emerge from the elevator on the fifth floor into a scene of poorly-supressed panic. Diners are hurriedly finishing their dinners and waiters all in black are racing around with worried expressions. The Maitre ‘d looks at me and then at his watch and then at me and is desolé, but I was expected at 6.30, and I will have to dine in my suite. I had mistaken the time for dinner. Covid-19 has imposed a curfew throughout Morocco, from 8PM until 6AM – and there are no exceptions. I am graciously permitted to have a gin and tonic at the bar, and I watch as the diners – most of whom are neighborhood residents - munch their final bites, pay their bills, don their masks and depart. I hurriedly QR-code the menu onto my phone, order the salmon, and by 7:59:30 am back in my room. The news is reported on a giant flat screen by a former BBC correspondent on English-language Al-Jazeera. I watch Netflix as I down the salmon. Some more pink-tinged vin gris assures me of a sound night’s sleep.
When you say “Morocco” to most Americans, certainly those of a certain age, they either think of Marlene Dietrich, or of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or of Paul Bowles’ or Peter O’Toole’s endless Lawrence of Arabia desert. What they don’t imagine is its extraordinary green-ness. The four-and-a-half hour drive from Casablanca southwest to Essaouira is endless green – especially in February as the winter rains are starting to subside. There are vast hills swathed in green the color of emeralds: meadows, pastures, goats, cows, the occasional teenage shepherd – and a road that just yawns into the distance. We are stopped by a policeman who needs to see the papers proving – during the era of Covid – that I am a tourist with a valid hotel reservation at my destination. My affably polite driver has an animated conversation with the policeman – both chatting through their blue medical masks. I sense there is a small exchange of Dirhams (the Moroccan currency from which the face of His Majesty Mohammed VI stares), but I could be wrong.
We drive on. I nap, and I awaken in the bustling town of Sebt Gzoula as the car slows to weave through crowds, most dressed in traditional Moroccan garb. It’s market day and there are hundreds of people – of whom about seven are wearing masks; and those seven are either rakishly slung below the nose or below the chin. The driver asks if I’d like to stop and browse. I am not in the mood for bargaining either for haunches of goat, nor a carpet, particularly those offered beneath an invisible spray of infectious droplets.
We drive on a four-lane expressway carved through the continuing green and suddenly we are slowed by yet another policeman. He is holding a digital thermometer. I’m reassured by the assumption that our temperatures are to be verified before we are permitted to proceed. But it seems he is not interested in whether or not we are wracked with fever. What looks like the identical digital thermometer aimed at my 12-year-old’s forehead when I drive him to school two mornings a week, turns out to be a speed gauge. My driver has exceeded the speed limit by a perilous two kilometers per hour. An impressive looking document is completed in triplicate by the policeman; Salim – my driver – shrugs as he accepts it. On we drive.
Essaouira appears like a mirage as the car reaches the cliff that overlooks the ancient port of white houses with blue doors, all protected from the crashing waves – and by Barbary pirates - by terracotta battlements built by the Portuguese in the 17th-century. It wasn’t called Essaouira then, it was Mogador. And just as I can’t call Sixth Avenue the Avenue of the Americas, or Saigon Ho Chi Minh or Bombay Mumbai, to me it is Mogador, not Essaouira, that is where my great-grandfather lived before he sailed to England to grow his wealth into an unimaginable fortune. I’ve been coming to Mogador for forty-one years…and it has always felt, through some genetic memory, I suppose, just a little like “home.” The driver parks just outside the city walls and I am met by Abdel, whom I’ve known for a decade. My luggage is decanted into a pushcart, and I bid au revoir to Salim. Abdel walks me the hundred yards to Relais & Châteaux’s L’Heure Bleue Palais, an elegant boutique hotel that was once the palace of the Caïd (prince) of Essaouira.
The staff is blue-medical masked, there are squirters of sanitizing gel everywhere, and the once-open reception table is fronted by a glass partition. But the elegance and history is uncompromised, the palm filled courtyard as lush as ever. I am shown to my customary suite, whose layout I know as if it were home, its amenities and luxuries unchanged. The only reminder that these are not normal days is the round green sticker over the keyhole announcing that the room has been “disinfected.”
I stroll through the ancient lanes of the Medina – where the lack of tourists is notable (and not unwelcome) and I admire the immense UNESCO-funded restoration project that will have the white and grey houses of the Medina restored to their one-time glory after centuries of neglect. The restoration is effected by the same artisanship-by-hand with which it was originally built. Craftsmen clamber atop rickety scaffolds. Carpenters saw and carve and hammer planks into fabulous ornamental doors and window shutters. Plasterers create Moorish cornices. Some are wearing masks, some not, happily breathing in the dust that enshrouds them. I try to suppress concern that the ensuing perfection will be so perfect as to make the restored Essaouira look like something in Orlando.
Passers-by, the women in long robes and headdresses, men in a parade of garb that ranges from flowing galabiyas to crotch-clamping jeans, wear masks. Some masks even manage to cover their mouths; a few even cover their noses too. The main population of Mogador, its thousands of plump, sleepy, curious, napping, mousing cats, do not appear to be wearing masks and I wonder if they’ve notice that the humans are. It suddenly occurs to me to question the origin of the British slang name for a cat, a “moggie.” Is it remotely possible that it was brought to England by sailors from Mogador? Google tells me my fantasy is just that: apparently an ancient name for a calf or a lamb that was then transferred to domestic animals and ultimately to 19th century ladies of the evening. But Messieurs Google fail to explain why it’s Moggy and not `”poggy” or “Edward” or “firythwrq” or “Jellicle,” so I’m going to hang on to my theory for now, particularly as the great wealth of Mogador was the result of its massive 19th-century sea trade with England, that was to bring my great grandfather to London in 1864, enabling me to be born there 86 years later. As I wander I see a sign advertising “Fish Spa.” And I realize it’s one of those emporiums where you plunge your bare calves and feet into a deep tank of water, and hundreds of tiny fish eat the dead skin from your feet. I haven’t done this since I was in Cambodia and have been dying to try it again. After the fishes’ lunch, my feet are creamed with orange water and massaged with super strong hands. My 40-minute pedicure complete, my feet are reborn and I walk on clouds of air back to the hotel.
Because of the curfew, I dine at 6PM in L'Heure Bleue's English-paneled dining room, with its red velvet chairs and roaring fireplace. There are several other diners, French Moroccans on a weekend away from Marrakech – 150 minutes to the west. I don't feel experimental tonight and opt for a mound of couscous, clearly infused with the nuttiness of argan oil, topped with lamb and perfectly softened vegetables moistened by a rich sauce. As is customary in Morocco, dinner for one would happily feed a family of four and at 7:55 I give up, exhausted. I am in the elevator at 7:57 and safely in my room by curfew, and bedtime with the BBC World News.
Abdel is in the lobby at 11AM sharp the following morning, to escort me to Beit Dakla, Essaouira's Jewish Museum. The museum was inaugurated in January 2020 – just before the pandemic was declared – by His Majesty King Mohammed VI who, along with his entourage, took over the L'Heure Bleue Palais for their two-day stay, transforming it into only the second hotel in Morocco to become a “Royal Residence.”
Beit Dakla includes one of Mogador's ancient synagogues as well as elegantly post-modern galleries exhibiting Jewish artifacts, documents, costumes and photographs (as well as a research center) recalling the two centuries until the early 1950's when a good half of Mogador's population was Jewish. The museum was curated by my cousin, Sidney Corcos, whose mother Georgette and father David emigrated from Agadir to Jerusalem after the catastrophic Agadir earthquake of 1960. The museum is full of names with which my brain is permeated – Afriat (my mother’s maiden name), Cabessa, Corcos, Abulafia and Azoulay. It's like a visit into my family tree, because Afriats had been marrying Corcoses and Cabessas and Abulafias and Azoulays and yes, even Afriats, for 300 years. And while most of the Afriats and Cabessas and Abulafias and Corcoses now live in Casablanca or Paris or Tel Aviv or Toronto, the name of Azoulay is still prominent in Morocco. Pierre Azoulay is one of the most honored advisers to the King. And it is the Azoulay family who rebuilt the crumbled Caïd's palace, and turned it into a retreat for family gatherings, and, when they realized these would take place seldom, eventually into the Hotel L'Heure Bleue Palais.
I wade through his habitual piles of horizontally striped bowls for which I have a passion (it’s not just shirts). I choose a variety of about twenty – small, medium, large, in a variety of colors, some ordered by my friend, Robin, but most for my home despite my wife, Noa's, pre-departure entreaty not to dare bring one more striped bowl into our home. Comme d’habitude, it’s an entreaty I ignore.
The seller who has no name and I launch into the inevitable and obligatory barter-dance as we gradually meet on the high-side of mid-way between his $80 and my suggestion of $40 – and the deal is done. (Just one of these bowls would cost $50 in the Moroccan market in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market.) He painstakingly wraps each of the twenty pieces in brown paper and tape and I don't have the heart to tell him I'll shortly be ripping it all off in order to swathe each in 21st-century bubble-wrap to be brought back across the Atlantic secreted in my roll-on bag brought to Morocco expressly for this purpose. And, with my purchases packed into fabric shopping bags (plastic bags are eschewed in environmentally-aware Morocco) I stagger through the narrow lanes (twenty pieces of striped and glazed ceramic pieces from nearby Safi are not light), pausing to admire to moggies, swaying to avoid the maskless, to the L'Heure Bleue Palais.
I had arrived in Essaouira on a Saturday when about a third of the hotel's 33 rooms were occupied. By Tuesday, it's down to five, the affable manager, Eric Molle, tells me, explaining how his is one of the only hotels still operating in a town that traditionally draws 80% of its income from tourism. The Covid closing down of its two major sources of visitors, France and Britain, has had an agonizing effect on travel to Morocco. But, as I assure Eric, and as he obviously knows, nary a country on the globe has not had its tourism industry shattered by the pandemic.
My arrival on a Saturday reminds me of an historical oddity that kept Mogador a backwater throughout the twentieth century. When the French began their protectorate of Morocco in 1912, fleets of bureaucrats swept the country to identify suitable towns to become regional capitals. Mogador was on the list, but when the officials’ Renaults and De La Hayes rolled into town to check on its suitability, they chose to arrive on a Saturday and found virtually the whole city was shuttered. They didn’t ask why everything was closed - it was the Jewish Sabbath. Instead, they instantly determined that Mogador was far too sleepy to qualify among les capitaux régionaux. And onward they motored south to Agadir.
All is well – apart from the masks and the more spaciously distanced tables – on L'Heure Bleue's tiled roof terrace, with its sparkling swimming pool, elegant chaise longues and today's lunch menu inscribed on a blackboard. I choose the salad of tuna and a glass of Moroccan rose, and the salad arrives, as I expected it to be: a mound of greens, nouvelle-cuisinely arranged on a branded white plate, topped with slices of peeled tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, cucumber, capers and rose-red canned tuna (much better than fresh in my book) all enrobed in a dressing redolent of the region’s native argan oil. Served with Morocco's ubiquitously flavorless fresh bread, is it a lunch for the ages and I leave not a speck in the bowl. It's February and while it's snow and ice in New York and London, here the sky is blue, it's a balmy 70 degrees and, unusually for Essaouira, there is not a hint of wind. Atop the L'Heure Bleue Palais, I bask in the sunshine that warmed my ancestors and engage in sadly one-way conversations with some of the plumpest seagulls on the planet.
Sated by nostalgia, I bid au revoir to Abdel and stroll through the ancient lanes to the Scala – the Portuguese ramparts – where my favorite seller of ceramics has a store in the ramparts’ cave-like ground floor. He beams as I approach, recognizing me, he says, not by my eyes visible between my cap and my mask, but by one of my 10,000 horizontally striped shirts, sweaters, pullovers, tee-shirts that some consider my idiosyncratic trademark.
I have known him for years, but never asked his name, as he has never asked mine. He is a devout Muslim, always wearing a to-the-toes robe, a lace skull cap and a gushing, voluminous jet-black beard that has never known a razor. He is not wearing a mask, perhaps entrusting his wellbeing to Allah, or simply because he would need a tablecloth with loops to encase that beard.
“It’s a two-hour drive to Marrakech,” they say, but, of course, it never is: this is just tourism hubris to persuade you Essaouira is nearby. It’s more like two-and-a-half to three hours, but I don’t care. Salim is at the wheel again, the scenery continues to be gorgeous and I sit in the back of the Mercedes mini-van and ponder the vagaries of my third transatlantic expedition during the pandemic of 2020-21.
Mention to a neighbor in February 2021 that you are bound for California or Florida and there’s nary a shrug. But say that, like Webster’s Dictionary, you’re Morocco-bound, and you’re met with shock, horror, the assumption of your utter insanity, and, just very occasionally, envy. The reality, of course, is that the rate of Covid-19 infection in Morocco is a fraction of that of Los Angeles or Miami. But reality rarely matters with tourism – it’s always been all about perception. When Covid-19 descended on us, our inborn genetic Ellis Island mindset, quickly kicked-back into action: “the New World spells safety and promise, the Old World spells untold perils, Cossacks, potato famines and injustice.” After 9/11, when four airplanes on domestic flights were hijacked and crashed into unimaginable awfulness, what was the reaction of the American traveler? That’s it’s not safe to travel overseas. The illogic of 2001 is now aped by the illogic of 2021.
This is my third transatlantic venture since the pandemic began, but it is the first since I no longer blink with shame when I see the Stars and Stripes fluttering outside a foreign hotel. The dreadfulness of the last four years, and particularly of January 6, 2021, has been replaced by a return to sanity, reason, caring, truthfulness, competence and pride. I am able to present my blue passport with confidence once again, no longer suspicious of judgement.
Every time I arrive in Marrakech by road, the city seems to begin earlier than last time. Forty-one years ago, Marrakech was, yes, a bustling city, with its fabulous souks at its heart and the fabulous La Mamounia as its joy, but it was manageable, quaint, picturesque and seductive. In 2021, it still seduces, and it is still gorgeous. But it’s a metropolis now, with dozens of hotels, one aiming at greater magnificence than the other; and with even more hotels evoking the style of those bordering thruways, motorways and autobahns, albeit enrobed by Moorish arches and enriched by Arabian swirls.
Entry in the sacred grounds of the Hotel La Mamounia -- opened in 1923 and immortalized by Winston Churchill -- is a lengthy affair. One smartly black-suited security guard studies his clipboard with an academic’s intensity, and finally places a check against my name, while another examines the underside of the vehicle with a mirror at the end of a long pole. Eventually the iron gates creep open and Salim glides me to the main entrance. The tall doorman whom I have known for years is as thrilled to see me as I am to see him. We place our hands on our hearts and elbow bump. I ask him if his family is well, and he responds with the inevitable, “Hamd’i’lla,” the Muslim version of the Jewish “Baruch Hashem,” that never permits a simple, “fine, thanks,” but intimates wellness is at the mercy of God.
I am ushered into the lobby with its heady and instantly recognized perfume. Just inside the door, one butler offers me a squirt of hand sanitizer. Another bids me gaze at a glass screen that assures us all that my temperature is a healthy 36.3 (37 is normal in Celsius) and I am whisked to a couch and brought a tray of almond milk and plump dates. My passport is “borrowed” and I am ushered to my suite that overlooks the 250-year old park that gave birth to La Mamounia, and its giant pool.
But the pool and the gorgeousness will have to wait as I have a business appointment in town. I am wafted through the no-longer traffic-choked avenues in a Mamounia Land-Rover, whose driver waits for me while business is done. I tell him I’d like to pause at an ATM, and he steers me to the grand central D’Jmaa el F’na Square, where it takes attempts at four different quadrilingual, sclerotic machines until I finally hear that welcome scraping that signifies my money is being doled out.
I survey my surroundings. The square has its habitual assortment of orange juicers, date sellers, snake charmers, acrobats, and story tellers, but there is less than a smattering of tourists. In the streets surrounding the square and the stately Koutoubia Mosque, absolutely vanished is the rank of tour buses idling, punching exhaust fumes in to the atmosphere to keep the air-conditioning going so that its perspiring and arthritic occupants can sigh with joy as they clamber aboard, appreciating the armpit-drying cool after navigating the souks.
The simple truth is that the pandemic has dealt a death-blow not merely to tourism, but to the overtourism that has latterly transformed visiting Marrakech, Machu Picchu, Monte Carlo, Macau, not to mention the Mona Lisa, into an encounter with bedlam. And as shameful, and un-PC, and elitist as it inevitably sounds, the emptiness, the sense of space, the lack of crowds…are simply heavenly. It’s as if it’s 1950 again, yet with all the conveniences of the 21st-century. Yes, it’s pain in the face to wear a mask, but mask-wearing and hand washing have become so automatic that they’re barely bothersome.
The tragedy of Covid, the million and more deaths, the undoing of virtually every constant of our lives, has been shattering, traumatic. And it is the travel and hospitality industry – and all its dependent sub-industries – that have been dealt a hammering blow by Covid. But for those of us who have the wherewithal, the determination, the willingness to ignore the scolding, to travel right now to foreign parts, we are able not only to help salve the wounds of devastated travel agents, hoteliers and bus drivers, but also to experience a specialness that will hopefully, yet sadly, be fleeting. Or maybe it won’t. Perhaps when we gradually start our return to reboot (it won’t happen overnight), the lessons learned from the excesses of overtourism will wring change. But that’s for us to discover in 2022 or 2023.
I return to La Mamounia, and make my way to its vast pool, and its tiled poolside, and its ancient park, in time for lunch served at my chaise longue. Each pair of lounge chairs is laudably socially distanced from the next; yet it’s quite unnecessary as instead of the customary 200 surrounding the pool, there are not more than 25. A waiter brings me a real menu, which I prefer to the QR download, and he also hands me, with tongs, a plastic branded Ziploc bag into which I am to place my mask while I eat. I’ve traveled to eight countries since Covid arrived, and this new thoughtful extra is a first.
La Mamounia reopened three months ago after an almost twelve-month renovation, one planned long in advance, but happily timed to coincide with the collapse of travel. But it turns out to be less comprehensive than the three (or is it four) renovations I’ve witnessed at La Mamounia. This one turns out to have been no more than replacing all the eau-de-nil green wooden windows and balcony doors of each guestroom with eau-de-nil green metal windows and balcony doors – and to a total reworking and rebuilding of two restaurants whose menus are overseen by Alsace’s and New York’s very own Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The restaurant that was formerly “L’Italien” is
now “L’Asiatique” and the former Frenchish brasserie is now “L’Italien.” Abutting the “L’Italien’s” terrace tables, three square, two-story-high “pyramids” enclose private dining rooms, presumably intended for the use of Saudi royals who wish to eat unobserved. They’re grand, but too prominent, as they block the restaurant’s view of soaring palm trees. An ominous staircase leads beneath them to yet another private dining room – reservable for two or twenty. The grand Moroccan restaurant embedded deep in the park in an art deco mansion remains unchanged. The only other evidence of renovation are some new lamps and the conversion of the former Churchill Bar (built long after Winston’s demise) into a new Churchill Bar and small cinema.
But the thing about La Mamounia is that however many times it is fiddled with, beautified, rearranged or “reimagined,” it is one of those landmark hotels, like Claridge’s or the King David or Ashford Castle or the Ritz, that manages to remain fundamentally unchanged. Its central core, its grandeur, its sheer gorgeousness, its immaculate service, its pampering, its sense of self -- all survive the repeated tinkering.
I want to be home. I want to see wife, and my children. But I defy anyone – with the possible exception of James Stewart and Doris Day after their trauma-wracked stay in Hitchcock’s 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much” – to leave La Mamounia with anything mildly approaching enthusiasm.
Now that the United States has, like any normal country, demanded returning travelers be in possession of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival, it is two days before my departure, exactly at noon, that the concierge telephones my suite to inform me that “the technicien from the Laboratoire de Guéliz is here” and to inquire “if I may send him up?” Five minutes later, I open my door to a gentleman in a navy siren suit and red baseball cap who is carrying a small cooler. He’s all business. He’s here to test me for the coronavirus, not to charm. He takes my passport and painstakingly enters copious details onto forms, and then peels off a sticker to adhere to a red-capped test-tube. He produces a nasal swab on a long stick, bids me sit, pushes my had back, and -- like tests were performed back in March 2020 -- he plunges it so high into my nostril and then swivels it, that I sense my right frontal lobe is being tickled. But he’s a no nonsense fellow. He’s heard all the squeals and seen all the squirming and all the grimaces, and within sixty-seconds he is gone.
Precisely at 9AM the following morning, an email from the Laboratoire de Guéliz clonks into my phone. Inexorably, there’s a moment of panic, and I open the attachment, a page full of small-font French, and there it is, embedded deep within the text, the word “negative.” An hour later, a print-out of the attachment, in an official looking envelope is slid under my door. I wonder if the immigration staff at JFK will be able to navigate the French.
But, depart from La Mamounia I must. Salim, and his handsome young colleague, Omar, are downstairs. I check out with ease and grace (no lines, of course) and my bags are packed into the Mercedes mini-van. It’s but a ten-minute drive to Menara Airport and as he waits to help me check in (as if I am incapable of doing this for myself) Omar tells me he is a student of English literature, currently immersed in The Great Gatsby. I tell him I have a book being published in two days and he promises to google me. As we walk to the gate he tells me that his dream as a child was to be a pizza delivery boy in New York. I tell him that, right now in Manhattan, he would be a very busy boy.
The check-in clerk reads my Covid-result with great seriousness and the boarding pass she issues reflects that I am “Covid-OK.” She gives me the link to The New York Department of Health website, and after completing several questions, I receive confirmation that I do not have to quarantine in New York (presumably because I live in New Jersey?). She makes sure I take a photo of the confirmation “because you will need to show it on arrival.”
I pass through security and my backpack is taken apart. The uniformed guard insists I have a bunch of keys that requires inspection. I tell him I surely don’t have any keys. He and his female colleague are clearly unmoved and after a lengthy search it is from deep in a cranny that the officer triumphantly produces the keys I had been convinced I had left at home. It is their weighty heavy bronze Hotel Adlon key fob that had set off the alarms. Both of them then demand – and read - the findings of the Labarotoire de Guéliz. There’s no line, just smiles at the passport desk. The inspector inspects my Covid-test result and stamps my passport.
The flight to Casablanca takes thirty minutes and Royal Air Maroc has splurged on a separate vehicle to drive the two Business Class passengers to the terminal. Once inside I am led through security (I have the wit this time to place my keys in my coat pocket) and I walk about a hundred miles to the Royal Air Maroc VIP lounge where a disagreeable waiter deigns me to bring me a caffé latte.
Once again, I luxuriate in the Covid sparseness of an airport. Casablanca’s Mohammed V terminal is, for now, as its architects dreamed it: clean acres of marble and glass: no longer acres of baseball caps, roll-on bags, and screeching. The staff in the airport stores are desperate for something to do, someone to talk to, something to sell. Around the departure gate, we remain socially distanced. But once we make it into the jetway, human nature takes over as passengers cram forward, convinced that the plane will leave without them if they don’t push and squeeze. I slow down and keep six feet beneath the passengers in front of me. The lady behind me is outraged and tries to advance. I maintain my distance, and turn my bemasked face away from her fulminating. But as I stand my ground, I realize that there is something quite reassuring that everyone around me was, like me – well, at least 48-72 hours ago – guaranteed Covid-free.
I board. I settle in. I survey the movie choices: with 2019’s Ad Astra and Ford V Ferrari ranked among the ten “new releases.” I slide to “Classics,” and settle on Dr. Zhivago which, I haven’t seen since it came out 56 years ago. The Dreamliner pushes back and growls out to the runway. We gently rise into the air, and fly over Casablanca, the minaret of the beachside Hassan V Mosque its most prominent landmark. Instantly, we are over the Atlantic, bound from an airport named for a dead king who once told the Vichy French, “You will not touch my Jews,” to an airport named for a dead president who once told us “to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” (Hopefully, where will never be an airport immortalizing a president who wondered if injecting Clorox into our veins would neutralize a virus.”)
Once the seat-belt sign turns off I retrieve my laptop from the overhead compartment and I write. I eat a salad with a fat slice of foie-gras followed by a scrumptious stew of lamb with rose-water flavored carrots (my friends constantly mock my appreciation of airline food). I watch two-thirds of Dr. Zhivago. I nap. I watch the last third, and we start the descent to JFK. We park at the far end of an empty Terminal One, and walk the kilometer to immigration. Global Entry is now so slick, it requires only my face in the screen, and my arrival confirmation rolls out. We line up to meet the Department of Homeland Security representative and I unfurl my Covid test result.
“Anything to declare,” he snaps?
I shake my head.
“Did you buy anything? Gifts?”
“Yes, pottery bowls.”
“Pottery bowls,” he repeats, and he waves me on.
I am now standing at the luggage carousel and am realizing that nobody in America has asked to see my Covid-test results. Nobody seems to care. Or is it truly possible that it is not in God we trust to protect the United States from the coronavirus, but in a succession of clerks at Marrakech Airport? Whichever it is, it is staggering.
As is customary at JFK, luggage tagged “priority” is the last to roll down to the carousel. It’s another “fuck-you” gesture from the deep within the airport. I roll my luggage out, and it is only in the public arrivals hall that a pretty National Guard soldier hands me a quarantine form to complete. I tell her I completed it on line. She asks me to show her the confirmation. I scroll to the photograph the check-in clerk in Marrakech had told me to record. I show it to the soldier. She gives me the thumbs up, and out into the freeze I go.
I’ve now been told I don’t have to quarantine in New York, and nobody in America has really any idea – other than elusive assumption – that I tested Covid-negative a day ago. Maybe that’s why we call ourselves the Land of the Brave.