Sep 7, 2020
Travel industry super-publicist Geoffrey Weill spent ten days traveling around Europe. What did a discerning, professional traveler find? A mixed reaction to COVID. In this first installment, he leaves Newark and makes his way briefly to Portugal and on to Switzerland.
1: Nothing Has Changed. Everything Has Changed.
Oscar, whom I haven't seen since February, is outside our house in his giant Cadillac SUV. He schlepps my Rimowa case and my Vuitton duffel. I carry a backpack crammed with PPE to the car. Newark Airport is utterly deserted, like a scene from On The Beach. I check in at TAP. The check-in lady has a flowery mask and smiling eyes. She surveys my negative Covid-19 report with a cursory glance and hands me my boarding pass to Lisbon.
"Is there a lounge?" I ask meekly.
"The Lufthansa lounge might still be open?" she responds doubtfully.
I'm on my way across the Atlantic for the first time in seven months; seven months that have turned the world, and my world, on its head. I'm lucky. Because even though I stood and swore allegiance to the United States of America in a New York courthouse in 1980, I still have my British passport which, at least until December 31, also makes me a European. And European passport holders may fly from the US to Lisbon, as long as they can prove they had a negative Covid test within 72 hours of departure. I do public relations for the travel industry, and I'm on my way to visit clients in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. But I'm also going because I'm curious to see if Europe still exists. And if so, in what form? What it's really like to be in a grand hotel that — we've been assuring the world — is clean, swabbed, hygienic, and magically adapted to Covid-19…yet somehow still grand.
The new travel: an empty Newark Airport / The author in safe travel mode
I walk through the vast and utterly empty spaces of the airport. I wind through utterly empty roped-off lines to utterly empty security. The personnel, who never smiled before the pandemic, wear serious face masks and serious face shields, and their eyes still don't smile. The process is as usual, except that my more-than-three-ounce flagon of hand sanitizer is permitted. I walk to the eastern satellite of Terminal B and discover the Lufthansa lounge is closed because its daily flight to Frankfurt left an hour ago. My flight to Lisbon is the only flight remaining tonight. There are perhaps 40 people in the giant space. The snack bar is open, and I buy a small bottle of wine, a small bottle of Perrier, and a blueberry muffin. I sit at a social-distanced table, which I cleanse with Clorox wipes, and admire a fellow passenger — a giant ginger tabby perched on a table, socially distanced, twelve feet away, devouring a can of gourmet cat food, while his owner, a young man with a below-the-nose mask, beams with adoration. To be as oblivious as that kitty.
We board. A machine blinks and is, the clerk tells me, "from the CDC." It takes my photograph and, I assume, checks I don't have a fever. I board. I've arranged to sit in a Business Class single flat-bed seat in this narrow-body Airbus A321LR-Neo, and I unpack my PPE: a face mask designed to resist nuclear radiation, and a ski-mask with prescription lenses to ensure the virus doesn't enter my eyes. The few people around me are spraying their seats and wiping armrests. Announcements in Portuguese (that always sounds to me like Russian and Ladino in a blender) inform us alcohol may not be drunk, we must wear masks at all times, and, it is recommended, that disposable masks be changed every four hours and deposited in the toilet trash can AND NOT IN THE SEAT POCKET!
The Alps. At least they look the same.
The flight attendant offers me — a glass wine, which I greedily accept. We taxi, we take off — there are, of course, no lines of planes on the runway — we level off. I press the button to transform my seat into a bed, switch to a N95 mask and a cushiony eye mask, wrap myself in the duvet, turn away from the aisle, and wake up 45 minutes before landing.
Because we are arriving from the United States of Contamination, the plane parks at a spot on the tarmac that seems like it's halfway to Madrid. We are bussed to the very furthest point of the terminal and then walk a couple of hundred miles to be greeted by an official who, despite mask and shield, smiles and asks for my Covid test result. He reads it with the thoroughness of an East German border guard reading every page of my passport at Checkpoint Charlie. I am approved. My passport has opened the gates of Europe. My luggage is on the carousel and my masked driver awaits. The Mercedes is spotless, with water bottles, face masks, and hand sanitizer.
It's 8 a.m. and Lisbon is still waking up. People are sitting at outdoor cafes eating breakfast. The streets aren't full, but pre-March 2020 they possibly wouldn't have been full at this hour anyway. We draw up to at Bairro Alto, a hotel where I've always wanted to stay. I'm greeted by a bemasked doorman who welcomes me warmly and ushers in past a giant sculpture that evokes an evening of BDSM. The bemasked Rute greets me, checks me in, offers me hand sanitizer, explains everything, acknowledges my upgrade, and tells me my room is ready. She places the room key in a sanitizing box and, germ-cleansed, hands it to me. She also tells me the hotel reopened only yesterday after a six-month closure. I am weirdly cheered as I realize nobody has slept in my room since March.
The room is lovely and spotless but, nevertheless, I give it a cursory Clorox wipe. A room service waitress delivers coffee and granola — and is so happy to have a guest she could burst. Time to venture out to discover if Europe is really still there.
As I emerge from the hotel, I realize that nothing has changed, and everything has changed.
I stroll through the square and admire the aged rattling Lisbonian trolley cars. About half the passers-by are wearing masks. Others have them jauntily slung around their elbows or armpits as they smoke, at the ready to don to chat with an acquaintance or enter a store. And then there are the maskless, who seem to be the poignant penniless, the strutting brave, and, incredibly, the tourists, most of whom appear to hail from the blond north where they think they know better.
Empty tourist shops are crammed with cork souvenirs, tiles, fridge magnets, and desperate proprietors. A gorgeous interior design store is vast and empty — and everything is marked down 40 percent. Gastronomic restaurants seem full, but I've pledged to myself and my family that, wherever possible, this trip's meals will be room service or outdoors. I down a twenty-euro pork-filet-and-two-glasses-of-vinto-tinto lunch at an outdoor restaurant where I am the only patron.
I've been to Lisbon a dozen times. I've eaten a hundred pastels do nata and toured the castle and the dreary Gulbenkian Museum and, this is, after all, just an overnight stopover. And it's been 220 days since I've enjoyed a hotel. (But who's counting.) I plan to stay in, rest and Zoom and write and, tonight, will dine on the hotel's outdoor rooftop, gazing out at the lights of Corona Europa.
2: You Get Used to Le Nouveau Normal Very Fast
The porter uses sanitizing wipes to cleanse the luggage handles. The receptionist hands you a pen wrapped in a wet wipe. There is sanitizing gel everywhere, discreetly designed, yet in your face (or on your hands). Some dispensers are atop stands, some on walls, some by elevators, some in elevators. Some are automatic, some require you to step on a tiny lever to receive a squirt of foam.
Leaving Lisbon airport felt more like the old world. Lots of people, socially distanced, but lots. Dozens of flights. Dozens of open shops. Airport chairs have decals pronouncing where you may or may not sit — to maintain distancing. There are families — parents in masks, but children under six may be maskless. A family passes me: Mom's and Dad's nose and mouth enshrouded in fabric, their toddler breathing in and breathing out the droplets. Please explain the logic of that.
At the boarding gate, floor decals designate social distancing for standing in line. The elderly lady behind me wears a mask woven of delicate lace that couldn't stop a germ if it tried. As she chats on the phone, she subtly moves forward, her brain still wired to "keep up." I take a step forward and turn to glare. I raise my hand to indicate she should stop. I think she understands. My wired-in Buckingham Palace sense of politesse makes me ashamed of being rude, rather than assured that it's okay to be justifiably firm. It's the little social things that are disconcerting.
Arriving at the Palace wing of the Beau-Rivage Palace is a new experience. (Full disclosure: This is one of my clients.) There's a gracious sit-down-at-an-elegant-escritoire check-in, with the customary, charming Grand Hotel efficiency and discretion — behind a mask.
My room overlooks the lake, as usual. I can see Evian and the snow-capped French Alps, as usual. The room is gorgeous, as usual. There are art books on the shelves, as usual.
What isn't usual? There are no directories, no menus, no little informative cards, no folders of crisp stationery.
But what's this? This is a new. A tablet. Not Apple, but SuitePad. Made in China. Of course. I press the orange button, and there it all is: Press for English, French, or German. Also room service menu, information, spa menu, what to do in Lausanne, concierge tips, the boutique menu, internet, newsletter, access to the world's media, weather forecast, links to airlines for flight check-in.
The grandeur remains at Beau-Rivage Palace.
I realize that the coronavirus just sped up what was anyway inevitable. There will soon only be tablets. Why reprint menus? Why reprint spa choices? Adding or changing items can be done with a few keystrokes by IT. Why provide wads of writing paper and envelopes that are rarely, if ever, used? So, it's new, yes, but avec ou sans Covid, this tablet would have arrived by 2021 or 2022 anyway. The one thing it augurs that I don't love is that newspapers are no longer delivered. It's all on the tablet — linking to the websites of a hundred newspapers — from Abu Dhabi to Atlanta. (As does my iPad, my iPhone, my iMac, anyway). One of the joys of lockdown (and, actually there've been many), is once again having the New York Times delivered daily, instead of just at weekends.
The doorbell rings. It's the porter with my bags. He's wearing a mask and I'm not. I race to the desk and put mine on. Mask wearing in the presence of staff — even in the confines of my room — must be a mutual responsibility. It's not mentioned, because grand hotels are far too polite to insist, but it has to be a chore required for all. As I write, the maid rings the bell for evening turndown. I open the door and hurry for my mask. I sit at the desk as she works. I have to learn to get my mask first, and only then open the door.
My pledge to eat every meal outdoors faces the challenge of rain and a temperature of 55 in Lausanne. I thought I could still dine outside in my jacket and scarf beneath the dry portico, but no tables were set. I debate having room service, but the tables in the Café Beau-Rivage are set wider apart than usual — more than six feet — and I sit and feel socially and Covidly secure. The menu downloads to my phone — although I could have a normal printed menu if I choose. The wait staff is all masked, off course, and the meal proceeds completely normally, and, needless to say, deliciously. I'm jet-lagged and, as is also normal, night two is always the worst.
Safe dining at Beau-Rivage Palace.
In the morning, breakfast is served on the socially distanced verandah. I'm used to the masks and sanitizer by now, but notice that the side counter no longer bears its array of newspapers. There is still a buffet — which is kind of mix and match: brave and cautious. Individual bowls of cereal, granola, fruit are covered with plastic wrap. Little glasses of yoghurt, small plates of ham, cheese, smoked salmon are similarly covered. But for the reckless, there are platters of fruit, salmon, cheese, pastries. Saran-Wrap gets my vote.
So, on a scale of 1 to 100: Is a grand hotel still a Grand Hotel in the time of Covid? Yes. Has the graciousness been fractured? No. The grandeur remains, the impeccable service remains, the physical amenities remain. The only changes are there because they should be there, and they're reassuring.
3: Unmasked in Zurich
Hertz delivers my car to the Beau-Rivage Palace. The doorman busies himself sanitizing the entire interior as Monsieur Hertz bids me sign 4,526 forms and gives me a tour of the tiny scratches on the car. Within minutes, my Bluetooth is connected and I'm on the autoroute northeast bound for Zürich. About a third of the way to my destination, autoroute switches to autobahn, sortie switches to Ausfahrt, and the buildings stop looking like Lyon and more like Heidi.
Eventually, Nigel, my aristocratic GPS friend, guides me into the forecourt of the Baur Au Lac. The white-jacketed doorman whom I've known for years waves and grins in welcome. Then it strikes me that I shouldn't be able to see his grin. He's talking animatedly to a colleague. Neither are wearing masks. I enter the lobby. Another doorman totes sanitizing gel: big smile, no mask. Concierge behind not a suggestion of a sneeze-guard: big smile, "Hello, Mr. Weill," no mask. Reception clerk: "Welcome, Herr Weill!" even bigger smile, no mask. I've just driven three hours from Lausanne to Zürich, and I've left Manhattan for Kansas. Except these people here are not loony NRA anti-maskers. They're just confident they're not going to get infected and the coronavirus isn't going to harm them.
The unmasked waitress at the restaurant breathes droplets on the inviting bread basket she places on the table. She points to the laminated card atop the table and invites me to download the menu with a QR code. It appears that Zürich hasn't received word that Covid-19 is far less likely spread by touching a menu than by the waitress chatting seductively about the specials. It makes no sense, and now that I've been here for five hours, it still makes no sense.
I'm irritated. More than that: I'm affronted. I've spent seven months taking every precaution possible, and here, in this hyper-civilized city, I'm endangered. And I'm nervous. I ostentatiously keep my mask on, order lunch, and ignore the bread. I remove my mask to chomp and sip. I sign the bill and finally get to go to my room.
Here's the thing. The lone maid wandering the empty corridor is wearing a mask. Her colleague, vacuuming fifty feet ahead, is wearing a mask. The lady who comes to show me how to switch off the air-conditioning is wearing a mask. It seems that the back of house is masked, but the front of house is not. Apparently, because it might alarm the guests. Please explain this one to me.
Dinner: room-service or do I brave the outdoors? I opt for the latter because, quite simply, Zürich is home to my favorite restaurant on the face of the earth, Kronenhalle. It's been here since the 19th century, a mash-up of Lipp with Grand Véfour with the Grand Central Oyster Bar with the chic of the Wolseley and the art collection of the Frick. Plus, waitstaff who've been here for decades and are welcoming, friendly, jovial, and expert. And guess what? Every bloody single one of them, along with the host at the door, is wearing a fetching white cloth mask. I can breathe again. Zürich is redeemed. Tomorrow, I will have room service breakfast, get back in my car, and drive through the Alps to Italy. When I arrive at my hotel on the shores of Lake Como, I will be checked for fever. And I'll be welcomed with smiling Italian eyes and a mask probably designed by Missoni. I can't wait.