Pandemic Musings: Chapter 7 on the First Trip Back to the USA Since Before the Pandemic (combining a series of progress reports)

Chapter 7 on Pandemic Living started with travel anxieties in anticipation of my first trans-Atlantic flight since the pandemic began.  The draft was initially written on 30 and 31 July 2021. Progress reports on 10, 20 27 and 31 August have continued the saga with various mid-travel reflections, and a final piece dated 12 September incorporates my post-travel reflections. During this same period, the delta variant was rampant but quixotic in its own travels around the world. We are still living with bated breath even as we try to go about a return to “normal” living, but this chapter tracks the ups and downs of uncertainty as we try to understand and adjust to a pandemic that keeps changing.

As I started writing this chapter, the anxiety level is (was) about as high as it can (could) get. We had already postponed plans multiple times to visit our family either here at Villa Ndio or in the US – from August of last year to December to April and then July of this year – as the pandemic continued to surprise us with its longevity. Once again, we held off until June, when the latest (third but not last) French lockdown was coming to an end and things were opening back up, to book our travel. And instead of July, we even gave ourselves some extra time by booking the trip for  August, with the expectation that we would be well past the latest wave of the pandemic by then. We assumed that everything would (should) have opened up by then for regular travel and socializing, both in Europe and in the US.   But the delta variant changed all of that. Here is what I wrote about the anxieties on 31 July, just before I was leaving Villa Ndio for my first trip from France to the US since January 2020.

31 July 2021: I am preparing both emotionally and physically for my first flight to the US since the pandemic hit. It was supposed to be when pandemic worries had steadily dissipated, with travel to have finally opened up both from Europe into the United States and from the US back to Europe. And here we are with an exploding delta variant everywhere, a US administration reluctant to open its doors to international travelers and thus no comfort level to anyone, even for those of us who can travel back to the States as Americans – and have been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, back in France, my travel preparations are further aggravated by this being the weekend of “le grand chassé croisé des vacances” when the “Bison futé” or traffic jams as they call them are at their worst – 1000 kilometers of them on the autoroutes, trains packed to overflowing and  hours-long delays at airports. Will I manage to make my flights on Monday and arrive safely in the States by the end of the day?

What are my worries? I have several. First, I worry about getting cleared through all of the extra boarding procedures – on top of which the Air France assistance lines are completely jammed up for any guidance. I have, of course, been monitoring the booking, only to discover rather belatedly that the agent who helped me rebook flights from August 1 to August 2 (because of a Delta Airlines snafu) actually failed to cancel the snafu-causing reservation for a flight on August 1 from JFK to National. It has no evident effect on my bookings for August 2, BUT it keeps showing up on my Air France bookings without any means of removing it from my end. Calling Air France has been a bust – left holding and disconnected, etc. And now, it seems to prevent me from properly downloading the boarding passes for the properly booked August 2 flights. Or at least something is blocking me from doing it. Even when the website informs me that check-in has opened for these flights. It keeps flashing up a no-can-do message and urges me to consult an agent. Really? It appears that there is a big “bison futé” for Air France agents.

10 August update: We went to the Nice Airport extra early to cope with any holiday traffic jams or other airport delays only to learn that downloading of boarding passes was simply not allowed for any flights to the US. This had not been explained on the website but did relieve some of my worries. In fact, once I did check in, there appeared to be no reason at all to be worried about my booking. The possible snafu of an uncancelled booking did not come up, and the only glitch was that checking in was not available until two hours before flight departure. We had already whizzed through the autoroute – whatever “Bison futé” there may have been around Nice over the weekend had dissipated by Monday. All the roads were open, and the airport itself had no crowds to speak of. So the first part of the trip went far more smoothly than anticipated but did involve a long waiting time before I could check in and let Peppy go home. I did enjoy an extra pain au chocolat and cappuccino with Peppy while we waited for the check-in counters to open.

Back to 31 July: Then there is the matter of suddenly discovering that my bookings that showed chosen seats for all flights has suddenly been modified to say that I can choose my seats only when I check in. What? The chosen seats are showing in my bookings file, but still I have to choose my seats? Well, I suppose I can entertain myself with movies and/or Kindle books for the whole trip with a lousy middle seat, but I am really disturbed about this from the pandemic point of view.

And what are my worries on this front? Checking on various websites – Air France, France’s official COVID-19 website, US State Department – I have determined that I need both proof of vaccination and proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of flight departure plus a supply of  sanitizers, tissues, approved masks and even my own pen for filling out forms.  Plus the usual passport and residence permit, of course, and forms filled out for emergency contacts and address while in the States.  All of this has been done,  including the negative COVID test, with hard copies as well as electronic ones for all of the forms. Might I have missed something? Or misplaced something? Will someone suddenly decide I can’t board the plane? I read about someone who was blocked from boarding and had to pay another $600 to fly to his destination a day later.

Will I be safe enough? How close will I be to other passengers? How will they behave? The rules say that passengers have to wear masks over their mouth and nose at all times except when they are eating or drinking. Will this really work? What about all those people in shops and other indoor places around here who pull their masks below their noses and get angry with you if you encourage them to cover their noses? Even sales clerks ! Well, maybe the airline staff will be more attentive to anyone who isn’t compliant. But what about me, in any case? How will I manage to wear a mask for hours on end  – plus putting on a new mask every time I take one off? Maybe I’ll be able to sleep for much of the time?

Update on 10 August:  All of this anxiety for the first international travel since before the pandemic began. But we were quite aware that everything was different – and that different settings produced different outcomes, some good and others not so good. In my case, though, everything worked out surprisingly smoothly.  I was only asked to show my recent negative test result with my passport (but not my proof of being vaccinated or any of the other forms) – once as I checked in at the Air France counter in Nice and once again at passport control in Paris (CDG Airport).  And later, too, once I arrived at Dulles, no one even wanted to see my test result, just my passport as in the past. Really? This US country that wasn’t opening up its borders didn’t care if I had had a negative COVID test?

Furthermore, the transfer in Paris involved no backed-up lines for the passport control and few crowds anywhere.  As I waited to board my flight to Dulles, I even had extra time and was motivated to check the official and relatively sparse departure listings to see where travel was open and where it was not.  It was obvious, for example, that no flights were coming in or going out of South Asia, although I did see lots of South Asians at the gates for flights to Dubai. Everything else seemed to be European focused – or Canada – but not much else.

Once on the plane for Dulles, I was pleased to have the seat I had originally booked, and I was relatively comfortable with the spacing among passengers. Everyone wore masks and all seemed to wear them appropriately, although there were all kinds of styles, and no one came around to check if we changed them every four hours. Nor did I see anyone putting on any new face masks or using their sanitizers, etc. The flight was delayed for close to an hour, due to the no-show of passengers whose checked bags had to be found and retrieved. But the flight was uneventful, the video system worked well, the seats were comfortable, and I even discovered the video camera link to visuals of the terrain over which we were flying and of the landing strip. Upon landing, too, the passport control at Dulles was smooth with a short wait and no hassles. (I have to admit that I was grateful that the sniffing dogs that are trained to find any contraband did not seem to be attracted to me or my luggage in spite of the cheese and saucisson that I had recklessly purchased on my way out at the Nice Airport even though the salesclerk confirmed that they were contraband for entry into the US. Whew! I meant for them to be my evening snack, after all.)

Back to 31 July: Then there’s the matter of airports and other crowded places in the foreseeable future. I know I will have a relatively long wait at Dulles for Kristina, Julian and Remy to arrive. Where will I find a comfortable place to wait?  My delta variant worries have altered my perspective even there. Maybe I should have arranged for PJ to pick me up after all? Well, no. Too late for that, and besides Kristina has made special arrangements for a luggage rack on her car. So wait it is. And really, the only worry is to find a comfortable place to wait.

Update on 10 August:  Waiting at Dulles started out being adequately comfortable – a sit-down restaurant near the international arrivals area and pleasant reading. I didn’t feel right pulling out my cheese and saucisson, though, so instead I ordered and ate a whole pizza. BUT THEN I opted to leave the comfort of this safe corner to be on hand for the anticipated arrival of Kristina, Julian and Remy from London. My flight had come in at 4:45 pm (a half-hour late but so much the better for a shorter wait), while theirs was due to arrive at 8:15 pm. Having taken only some 30 minutes to get through passport control and pick up my checked bag, I had assumed that they, too, would likely be coming through no later than around 9 pm.

Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case – off by well over two hours! Not only did their flight have a delayed departure from London (but no sign of this on the Dulles arrival board although I did have a Skype message from Kristina alerting me to this fact), but they were also held up with an unusually slow passport control once they landed at Dulles.  I kept on refilling the coffee I had purchased for Kristina and Julian to energize them for the drive to Richmond, and I shifted standing from one place to another, watching all these people come through the international arrivals passageway, imagining that they were all passengers from London (and not Rio or Tokyo) – but there was no sign of them. When they did finally show up, the coffee was cold and the bus to the long-term parking lot was slow to appear. We made it to the car and then to Richmond by 2:40 in the morning – long after we had all thought we would have completed our journey. PJ kept on texting us through the evening in the hopes of seeing us that night in Richmond but had to wait until the next day as I tumbled into bed for a few hours’ rest.

Back to 31 July: Looking further ahead, there are worries about mingling with family and friends in a delta variant world. Karen and Charlie from London; Kristina, Julian and Remy from Bristol;  Deborah, Matthew and Annika from Hartford; Tante and Wade, PJ and Sarah in their different Richmond settings, with and without masks. All vaccinated? Yes, that’s good but multiple exposure settings, nonetheless.  And now the Israelis are urging anyone over 60  to get a third shot if their second round was five or more months ago. My second shot was on 25 February, just over five months ago. The US experts at the CDC aren’t yet saying the same thing, but dear me!  They are reporting the exceedingly high contagion rate of this delta variant – something that the French authorities had already been reporting a couple of weeks earlier. Well., the French are also limiting their recommendations about a third shot to those older people who happen to be “immuno-depressant”. But worries, worries, worries.

How will we all manage? Peppy here in Grasse by himself? The rest of us thrown together in uncertain times? I have two liters of olive oil for wedding prep, a few clothing items for Remy, a ceramic chicken for Kristina, knick-knacks and tablecloths for PJ and Sarah, numbered prints from a local artist for Kristina, PJ and Becky, nothing just yet for Tante or anyone else. Maybe I should stock up on those posies after all. I think we’ll go into Grasse this afternoon?  A bathing suit, tennis racket and shoes, otherwise simple stuff for me. Computer, tablet and phone. Headphones. Chargers and wires.

Update on 20 August: Well, yes, there are delta variant worries. And confusing messages about precautions, especially regarding mask-wearing. The CDC did revise its own messaging to encourage mask-wearing for in-door gatherings with large numbers of people even for vaccinated people. But the stores around here in Richmond do not have uniform policies and even where they encourage mask-wearing don’t seem to require it. So the grocery store shoppers are a mixed bag, and there is no attention being given to any kind of social distancing. We did go to a private club swimming pool a couple of times, where masks were used to get in and out of the facility, but we concluded that there was too much risk in the swimming pool itself since one can’t really wear a mask while swimming. No big deal for the likes of me, but little Remy is not vaccinated and is therefore vulnerable.

I have been to a couple of indoor restaurants, and I have joined other family members in outdoor activities in parks and at an orchard for picking peaches and apples. But the weather has been unusually hot and humid, making most outdoor activities quite unbearable. I did accompany Kristina and Remy to a Virginia Beach outing, but we decided it was way too hot to go to the beach. So Remy and I stayed at a hotel some distance away and walked around the grounds where there was a nice lake. We didn’t even see the ocean!  Otherwise, it has been family visits and mealtime gatherings at Kristina and Julian’s home. All are vaccinated but Remy, and we continue to wonder how safe we all are.

More to report later. I will take my first solo trip on Sunday to visit friends in Raleigh, North Carolina. And on Tuesday, Peppy flies in from Nice. So I’m driving up to Dulles to pick him up – and daughter Becky from Portland, too. We’ll have more organized outings as a family, I am sure, but also other social events mostly in the DC area.  We will join the Boddy family for a celebration of Sarah and PJ’s engagement and have fun planning the details of the April 23rd wedding itself. So far so good.

Update on 27 August:  Delta variant worries are growing. Trends are upward, and forecasts are for peaks for this wave in mid-October.  I did have a fun and Covid-secure trip to Raleigh, where I stayed overnight at the home of my dear friend Pam Kohl and spouse Tom Gongaware. They even included my friend Barbara Ruby from Greensboro for a dinner visit there. All were fully vaccinated, and we practiced social distancing but didn’t wear our masks as we visited. Two striking developments were that (1) we had to search the Internet for a restaurant close by that could handle food delivery to the house – the idea of a gourmet salmon dinner was replaced by settling for a pizza (still a top-of-the line version, though) and (2) it was through Pam that I learned that her own health experts at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke were projecting that the delta variant upward trend would only peak there in mid-October and not before. She had been counting on a postponed fundraiser for metastatic cancer research on 11 October but had been obliged to once again postpone the event. No new date yet certain. How scary is that. Pam, an immuno-depressant candidate for her own breast cancer status, had already received a booster. Yes, scary.

Then, after my overnight trip to Raleigh, I got back in the car for a drive up to northern Virginia (NOVA) to retrieve daughter Becky and spouse Peppy from various NOVA locations – Old Town Alexandria and Dulles Airport. Again, no masks when we were together but all fully vaccinated. We all drove back down to Richmond on the back roads – not so much a pandemic issue as a truly impressive GPS system of guiding us through side streets and two-lane highways here and there to get us down to Richmond twenty minutes faster than the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95.

Becky was with us from Portland for four days in Richmond, and we did have one meal at a restaurant (outdoor table, socially distanced, with wait staff fully masked) with the extended family, a shopping spree along a well-known street (Cary Street) for funky shops (fully masked for this activity and in the sweltering heat), and later a long walk across an unusual bridge with pleasant breezes over the James River and around Belle Isle (no masks but plenty of distancing). Again, it was the sweltering heat that was the issue, not the pandemic. But then, at dinner back at Kristina’s home, we encountered the dilemma of a family member (actually a soon-to-be member of the family) having been exposed at her workplace to a setting where three co-workers had reported positive tests but with no provision to quarantine or shift to remote work. So this meant that all of us donned masks and sat socially distanced apart on the deck outside while Kristina, herself fully masked, served each of us our meals from a buffet table.

The same masked and outdoor dining occurred on the following evening when the family was invited to PJ and Sarah’s new home. We toured their new digs for the first time but with masks on. And we dined once again on their deck, sitting good distances apart, with Sarah assuming the serving duties this time.  We had delicious home-made meals both times, of course. But we are confronted with continuing anxieties about the delta variant and limiting our socializing to small family gatherings and outdoor settings.

Update on 31 August: Here we are at the end of the month and approaching the final week of our visit to the States. Shifting plans have redirected us to t two separate trips to NOVA and eliminated all other possible outings to the beach or to the mountains. We completed one of our trips to NOVA over the weekend. PJ drove us up and kept his mask on the whole time, establishing that he is the most likely to be a vaccinated spreader, not Sarah, since his work requires constant interactions with strangers, albeit mostly out of doors. We dropped Becky off for her flight back to Portland, and we treated ourselves to some shopping before heading over to brother/uncle Larry and Marti’s home for a brief visit.  Sarah joined us there from her own drive up from Richmond, with a family reunion and wedding shower along the way.

Our trip to NOVA (and DC) was primarily to visit with Peppy’s friend Ed from Geneva days. Ed and his wife Liz were hosting an engagement party for their son and future daughter-in-law and a birthday brunch for their daughter, both in Washington, DC rather than their home outside Philadelphia. This made it easier to connect with them for a visit, although it did mean joining in on larger social events than we might otherwise have chosen. PJ and Sarah were included, too, since PJ had grown up with their son and daughter in Geneva.

To our surprise, however, the engagement party was in a sports bar! Really? Yes, a sports bar! When we arrived, we were quite taken aback by this. The party was in a cordoned off back corner, with its own open bar for the guests. The 40 or 50 guests who were already there were standing around cocktail tables and chattering away, to the extent that one could hear any talk over the loud broadcasts of the latest football game on the large screens displayed along the walls of the bar.  One could say more about the personal exchanges that were indeed very important for Peppy with Ed, and for PJ with Ed’s son Zack, but the point here is to describe the pandemic-related experiences of our American travels. So I limit it here to note that we were surprised by the mask-free socializing of the guests, most of whom were of the younger generation, and we opted to find a bench within the party area but somewhat separated from the clusters of chattering partygoers to sit with some sense of social distancing. We did, however, end up removing our masks for the snacking and sipping.

As for the birthday brunch the following day, the event was much smaller, with guests seated around a large round table. But dining in public settings, whether indoors or out, still requires guests to be seated and maskless. The hope is that each group knows its vaccination status and remains far enough from other groups to avoid any direct contact with anyone but servers who are all properly masked and respectful of distancing.

Driving back down to Richmond featured a stop along the way at an outlet mall (Potomac Mills) where Peppy and I shopped around for clothes and toys – all comfortably masked and satisfied with what we were able to find. But we have to admit that at this mid-point in our travels, we have been exposed to quite a variety of public settings that may give one pause – restaurants both indoors and out, shops both large and small, swimming pools, a manicure salon, and relatively large family gatherings (varying in size from four or six to as many as 12). We have not gone to any cultural events or cinemas or sporting events. We have not traveled on any public transportation besides the planes that brought us here.

Update on 12 September 2021:

The usual jet-lag recovery which takes longer going from West to East than it does going East to West has slowed us down since our return to Villa Ndio a few days ago. We are gradually getting things done for a return to normal – bags unpacked, laundry moved along, dead plants removed and replaced with fresh pansies, pool nurtured back into shape….While there have been a few distractions as well – the twenty-year memorials to 9/11, the surprise winners at the US Open tennis tournament, the wild and impressive concoctions on display at the Met Gala, we are catching up on our sleep and settling into the daily routine. But before the routines kick in, I need to wrap up this chapter on the trans-Atlantic experience of living in a time of pandemic.

      • Our Last Week in the US

Even as the news continued to report the spread of the delta variant, we had a busy final week in the US. Although it included multiple activities, we were deliberately conscious of our settings  – daily walks in parks and around the neighborhood, gardening and household repair projects, an outdoor jazz performance in one of the parks. But it also included some indoor restaurant dining – once in a senior citizen center and once in a small Indian restaurant, where we all wore masks except when we were eating.  And family events were a big deal, bringing together as many as 18 to 20 people.

Several of the events were oriented to meeting with the family of PJ’s fiancée Sarah in different settings – a nicely decorated back yard in Richmond, a spacious river house and veranda in Osprey, and even the open setting overlooking the James River where the wedding itself will occur next April.  Others included extended Doggett family gatherings in northern Virginia at the homes of Peppy’s brothers. But we knew that everyone was properly vaccinated (except the younger children, of course), and all these larger events were effectively managed out of doors or in well-aired indoor settings. Nonetheless, I have to admit that we did seem to mix up our efforts at social distancing and bumping of arms with natural gestures of warm family hugs.

      • Homeward Bound

Our homeward bound travel via Amsterdam started at Dulles International Airport on Wednesday, 8 September. We had been warned by family travelers a few weeks before that this could be a slow and crowded ordeal. So we gave ourselves extra time, only to be pleasantly surprised at how fast the clearance process went. We were also surprised at how smoothly the rest of our trip home proved to be.

First, at the Air France/KLM check-in area, the lines were short and quickly processed. We were asked for our passports and our vaccination certificates but did not have to show any proof of a negative covid test.  Nor had we in fact gotten any such test since our daily checking of  French and Dutch government sites and of Air France and KLM sites kept showing no such requirement, even though we knew that the US had  recently lost its “green” status for European travel.  So it wasn’t surprising that the clerk informed us of a new requirement, just implemented that day by the Dutch, for us to complete a form to be completed prior to boarding. What was surprising was that the form, somewhat confusing to read, only required us to check off that we were in transit and had proof (a transit boarding pass).

A couple of other surprising observations on our way to the gate confirmed that we were still in pandemic mode. On our way, we did, of course, have to pass through passport control (where all we had to show was our passports). But that went smoothly, as did the screening process. But the first striking observation is that we passed by a screened-off area of the terminal that seemed a bit strange – people mingling around in a large room behind the screens. Aha! Refugees, of course! Afghan refugees! We had forgotten that Dulles was a central receiving point for the dramatic evacuation of Americans and Afghans in August. But why was it not so crowded? Well, we had also heard that refugee flights had been temporarily suspended into Dulles on account of an outbreak of measles and the need to vaccinate all incoming refugees for measles! Not just for covid but also for measles! Wow! No wonder the terminal was quieter than we had heard.

The second striking observation was to see how many of the airport shops and restaurants were closed – and even gated up! Maybe things had opened up across the US – and perhaps even for domestic air travel. But here in the international departures area, it was strangely quiet. Scattered clusters of travelers were waiting at their departure gates, but there was no buzzing of last-minute diners or duty-free shoppers. We eventually figured out that there was a posted listing of which shops or food kiosks were open, but they were few and far apart. So much for relaxing comfortably somewhere over a beverage and snack with all the extra time we had accumulated through our speedy checking in process!

As for the rest of the return home, all went well. On the trans-Atlantic flight, we were once again pleasantly surprised that it was only half full (if that). We had a whole middle row of seats to ourselves and stretched out for the night in our masked state – gently but strictly enforced by the flight attendants.  At Schipol Airport, we had time for a leisurely coffee at a Starbucks and zipped through passport control (with no scrutiny of any forms besides our passports). The flight to Nice was full but stayed on schedule. The only odd thing was another last-minute request to fill out a “contact” form, distributed just as the plane had started its descent into Nice, in case there was a need to follow up with any contact tracing. Really now?  At the last minute? Had someone displayed symptoms? Or had someone complained about the full flight?

Anyway, here we are now four days since we arrived home. We had an easy time getting home, having used a new valet parking service for the first time. And we had a couple of young French students, hired by Peppy as Villa Ndio and Puna caretakers waiting to greet us.  So it all went smoothly for us – both going and coming. As we settle back into our comfortable isolation here, it’s easy for us to think that we could do all of this again!  But what’s next?

The pandemic continues on its quixotic path – multiple paths, it seems.  Here in France, the vaccination rate is above 62%, and the delta variant seems to be under control (for now). We might not have had to go through a lot of hoops to get here, but we did have our mobile app certificates to show when we checked in, both going and coming. We have also had one other experience here in France so far where the certificate was required – to attend an annual open-air exhibit of community associations. We expect to have it on hand for other events here, too. But in the US? or in the UK? How crazy is it that we don’t have a common approach? Well it is an uncommon pandemic, but the resistance to vaccinations and health passports and all should not be so controlling. But then, this only sets things up for the next chapter, I guess.

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