Strangely enough, this whole challenging saga began after my second trip to Japan in January 2020. After visiting only a few months prior, I had returned to the country again to see Tokyo and Kyoto, and this time I even got to visit Hiroshima. As I love Japanese food, I ate up a storm on this trip, and I dove deeper into Japanese culture. Even knowing that this was my second time there, it was still mind-blowing and spectacular. But there was this thing in the background that I was aware of. I had picked it up on the BBC News and knew it was out there. But I thought it would be resolved.
There was a cruise ship in Tokyo Bay that had been stranded while they tried to figure out what to do with people who had been infected by isolated cases of this novel virus, Covid-19. I think we all thought that it would be sorted out quite quickly as Japan is highly organized and efficient and that they would help to isolate whatever this was, and life would go on. For me, I continued to travel.
Fast forward a few weeks to coming through the Marco Polo Airport in Venice on February 20th. It wasn’t a big deal but I had my temperature checked before immigration. Immigration in nearly every European airport is electronic. So, it was strange to see somebody jumping out of nowhere with a machine that detected your temperature. I didn’t think too much of it and headed into town on a boat across the glorious lagoon. Had I known what was about to follow, I think I would have asked the motoscafi guy to go super slow so that I could taste every single aspect of that journey from the airport into Venice. It is probably the greatest single airport transfer in the world.
I checked into the hotel and went for lunch at a cool place as I waited for a friend of mine to come in that evening. I even met up with an ACIS group. I hung out with Anna Costes, our fantastic and fabulous Tour Manager, and we made some silly poses with masks on. We didn’t think much of it except how lucky we were to be in a town like this, in a setting like this, as everyone walked around in wonderful Venetian Carnival costumes and masks. It was a theater set in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The next day, I walked around the city and people were flooding in from everywhere since it was Saturday. At Carnival, the city usually enjoys three million visitors. I had a bite to eat, left Venice, and drove with my friend to Switzerland. Every year I go skiing there – the same hotel, same mountains, and same friends. We have been doing it for 20 years. I know exactly what is around every corner of the mountain. Believe me, at my age I’m not looking for surprises. I’m more of a sightseeing skier and I like to coast and cruise while I take in the scenery. I even know what the hotel room looks like and I know the people in the hotel. Had I known what was about to unravel, I would probably have savored that week a little more. But same hotel, same mountain, same bartender, same friends. It seemed just like any other week in the mountains. Except it wasn’t.
This was the last week that Europe would be open. That week was when the cruise ship in Japan became a deteriorating situation, and Japan had shutdown. Italy, one of the first European countries to experience this outbreak, started to shut down too. The Carnival was cancelled. Borders were closed. Literally the lights went out during the course of that week slowly but surely. By the end of the week, Europe was shutting down.
By the time I got back to Boston, I wasn’t even sure what kind of entry issues immigration would give me. I boarded the busy British Airways plane from London to Boston, and upon arrival, I had to ask somebody if there was any special immigration protocol for Covid-19, or new entry requirements, or new concerns. An immigration official said that nothing unusual was required. Welcome home. There were no temperature checks or masks being worn then and they let me through as normal.
The first 10 days of March was confusing. Italy had essentially shut down right after I left, some countries remained fairly open, and we still had groups traveling. The last two groups out there were Jim Minor from Sarasota on an amended European itinerary, and Lucy Bartholomee from Dallas was in Australia. Everyone else had cut their journey short or rethought their plans. By mid-March, everyone stopped traveling. In four weeks, this virus, which started in China, became global.
I was thinking of all the traveling I had done since the start of the year. When I was in Barcelona in January to celebrate our Global Teacher Conference (with more teachers than ever before), I wish I had stayed a little longer to taste this wonderful city by the Mediterranean. It always energizes me. When I went to Bruges, I was so charmed by the place, and a beautiful evening hanging out in a gorgeous converted monastery, that I nearly took it for granted because I knew I would be back since that’s what I do. I travel, I wonder, I learn, I travel, and it changes me. And then the world stopped.
An April to Remember
As I sit out in Western Massachusetts watching the annual invasion of Japanese beetles balanced by an influx of hummingbirds and crickets and dragonflies, I was thinking how quickly April passed and how Easter came and went. That’s when I realized I had never spent Easter in the USA. I always find myself traveling because that is when our groups travel and it’s one of the busiest times of our year. I find myself jumping on planes and trains and moving between London and Paris, while sometimes catching the processions in Seville or other times listening to the Papal Blessing in St. Peter’s Square. I rarely spend a spring without visiting Versailles. Even Notre Dame under construction would have been a place I would go. After all, I was there last summer when it took fire and I witnessed the scene from the top of the Montparnasse Tower with the fabulous Marie-Helen Hickman, our Frenchie-Alabaman Tour Manager whose whole family of stars have worked with us over the years.
So, this year I had Easter in Western Mass for the first time ever. April in New England is always interesting as we still have the occasional snow storm, the last splurge of winter, in between the mud season getting going. April came and went but at least I got to enjoy Easter egg hunting with Cecilia, my grandchild. And still we thought we would be back in travel mode sooner than later. We still had a bunch of groups who were hanging on for the summer. Although increasingly people began trending towards rolling over their trip to next year.
And then global travel started to really shut down. I would get reports from Jessica, our niece in Rome, who was locked in her apartment with her husband and daughter, Beatrice. Italy was under complete lockdown and masks were already mandatory. You could not leave your apartment without a certificate and you had to prove you were going to either the pharmacy or a grocery store. Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, all came tumbling down too. The UK followed – albeit halfheartedly at the beginning. And the USA finally started to take it seriously. Suddenly I started to delve into my bag of tricks and retrieved as many magnets as I could from all of the trips I had taken. I popped them on my fridge. Every now and again when I go to grab my milk, I stare at a magnet and disappear into whatever takes my fancy and whatever is on the fridge. I will always regret not buying more magnets for times like this.
And the toll of Covid-19 continued to spiral. Fatalities, sickness, it all became very real and very frightening. It was clear that we were going through something that we had never experienced before as individuals, as a company, as families, or as countries. This was huge.
Some people were born to be remote workers. They wake up, make some coffee, have good Wi-Fi, and then drift off to a room that is all kitted-out for a virtual office. They love the non-existent commute and they’re very self-motivated. They don’t miss the socializing in the office. Type B people…highly focused, not attention seekers. The money and time they save on lunches and travel alone means that they actually make more than all of us. In addition, babysitting becomes less of an issue. I really had thought of what it would be like to be a remote worker – to not have the buzz of the office, the people smiling as I grab my morning coffee at Flour Bakery, the impromptu meetings, the beer after work, the buzz of the city. I just really couldn’t imagine myself being in that world of the remote workers. But…here I am tapping away, sitting on Zoom, and looking out the window. I am now one of them, a remoter, and it feels weird.
When I closed my office in mid-March, we all became affiliates of the remote club. Little did we know how long it would last. There are some people who never really get comfortable with working from home (literally and metaphorically). And there are some people who just simply find it so easy that they never want to return to the office. In fact, you may have to plead with them to come back.
Over the course of the pandemic calendar, one word gives it away…remote. I feel a bit remote. I miss the buzz and banter. I miss the innovation and creativity that often comes about through this buzz and banter. I miss the faces. I miss the city a little bit – probably because I’m not a rural guy – but I’ve adjusted to the sounds of hearing coyotes in the evening and wondered at the miracle of dragonflies and bats. And I wonder when the world will return to normal. And then I think that this is normal now; dragonflies are beautiful, bats eat mosquitoes, and maybe I’m going mad!
I remember when we first started working remotely and our IT staff said that we would get everybody on Skype. I had mentioned that my son had been using Zoom for over a year and thought it was really good. IT said they’d check it out for us. Companies before had never entertained the idea of doing things on another platform other than Skype. We made the switch to Zoom, as did many others, and suddenly Zoom became a household word. It was like saying you were “Hoovering” the house or using a “Kleenex.” Everyone was using the word.
I realized that Skype started to disappear down the Blackberry hole. What ever happened to Blackberry? Obama was using one all of the time and giving it free advertising. Even with the presidential seal it couldn’t overcome the popularity of the iPhone. So, Skype joined the Blackberry on the dust heap of history. Now we all Zoom. Even people that shouldn’t Zoom, Zoom. Even people with the crappiest Wi-Fi use Zoom. And now all of us remote workers rely on Zoom.
Months ago, I went into a tiny store in Kyoto and bought myself a set of three masks because I thought it would be cool to emulate the health and safety protocols that Japan has had for years. Who would have thought that we would all be wearing masks as a matter of protocol on a daily basis?! Whether it is a lightweight bandanna around your neck, a medical mask, or a designer one from a fancy shop, it is standard to wear one now in Massachusetts. And in most countries in the world, it’s impossible to enter a store without a mask. Belarus is definitely an exception but they seem to have more problems with their crazy government than most. Who would have thought that when I saw the intricate masks worn at Venice Carnival back in February, like the long nose masks used to protect against the plague, it would be a premonition of what we’d see around the world on a daily basis? Even leaders of the world wear masks with the exception of the USA and Belarusian Presidents!
Who would have thought that to enter a museum, shop, or restaurant, now means that you must wear a mask. “No mask, no entry” signs are standard everywhere. I have approximately 30 masks now and I keep buying extras from my dry cleaner since he’s selling them to help supplement his decrease in business. Who would have thought?
I am not sure when we will return to our new normal. But one thing I know is that I will continue to wear my mask for the foreseeable future. It may not be 100% safe but it is preventative, protects other people from me and me from other people. And guess what? In my business, you can’t fly without one now. And who would have thought that?
Learning Spanish in Lockdown
I have been trying to learn Spanish off and on for many years. It’s ok and is always enhanced by my fabulous Argentinian tutor, Martha, who comes to the office to teach a bunch of us. However, I miss too many classes, I never do my homework, but I still love the buzz of a Spanish chat. Frankly, I am unapologetically fearless when it comes to “going for it” with a Spanish native.
During the pandemic isolation, without even the socializing that I needed so much from my Spanish friends, and certainly no contact with my Spanish tutor, I had to resort to other methods to maintain my level of confident hopelessness. That is how I discovered the wonder of tacky Spanish soap operas. As it turns out, the Spanish are famous for their period pieces and use the same group of actors in different costume dramas. They are all beautiful and their accents are (for the most part) from Madrid. With my able partner, Netflix, we started to tune in to another world of getting addicted to soaps. This is not the world of The Crown or Downton Abbey, this is a whole different ball game.
A Slow Reopening
As Europe has slowly opened this summer, I get to see the places that I frequent through my friends that live there. I get to look at the canals in London, the empty piazzas of Venice, I get to walk through the royal parks and Hampstead Heath, and I truthfully miss it all. Travel is such a compelling part of my life and my colleagues’ lives, that at some point we are all going to jump on a plane to go anywhere and begin the journey once again.
I was thinking of this the other day as I was driving from my house to the office in Boston. But by instinct, I took the wrong turn and I ended up at Boston’s Logan Airport. I almost felt like parking the car, getting out, saying hello to the British Airways staff, and just having a walk around Terminal E. I probably need to see a therapist and I quickly continued back through the tunnel to correct my mistake and headed into the office. But in the meantime, I am waiting for departure day to arrive!