From the official travel.state.gov website:
The CDC order from December 2, 2021, requiring persons aged two and above to show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the United States, is rescinded, effective June 12, 2022, at 12:01AM ET. This means that starting at 12:01AM ET on June 12, 2022, air passengers will not need to get tested and show a negative COVID-19 test result or show documentation of recovery from COVID-19 prior to boarding a flight to the United States regardless of vaccination status or citizenship.
Hallelujah! I expect a large jump in foreign travel now, because as we know from vivid personal experience, the threat of finding yourself stranded in a foreign country for an indeterminate period of time is a big deterrent to travel.
The news is not quite so good for tourist destinations in America, as the order is still in effect requiring foreign visitors to be vaccinated. We haven't quite caught up to countries like Switzerland, which officially states,
There are currently no entry restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No proof of vaccination, recovery or testing is required for entry into Switzerland.
But we have made a very good, if overdue, start.
What does extended coercion do to common sense and courtesy?
I think about our drug laws. While I understand the reasoning of those—including friends who have been state prosecutors—who say that we'd be better off legalizing most drugs, I also understand the fears of others—especially parents—who know that removing a prohibition leads people to believe that what was once illegal is suddenly now harmless.
Note also how, when "right turn on red after stop" became legal, it took very little time for drivers to act as if it were mandatory, and to cheat on the "stop" part of the equation.
Our recent flight home from Europe took place only days after the mask mandates for airline passengers were lifted. Now don't get me wrong; I'm all for it. Not only does the combination of mask and altitude make my blood oxygen plunge, but putting the mask back on "in between sips and bites" gets old really fast (and fouls up the inside of the mask).
And yet, we and the people around us wore our masks for most of the transatlantic journey.
Why? Because seated just behind Porter was a lady with a very nasty-sounding, persistent cough. Who neither wore a mask nor covered her mouth, despite the urgings of the flight attendant. ("Please cover your mouth when you cough; you're scaring the other passengers.") This flight was also a lesson in the difficulties of a flight attendant's job; he was remarkably patient with this person, who was difficult in other ways as well.
Obviously at this point we were not worried about COVID, but that didn't mean we were eager to catch some other virus. I'm also well aware that, especially in elderly people, there are many non-contagious conditions that cause coughing. But we wore our masks.
Making a drug legal doesn't make it safe to experiment with. Allowing cars to turn right against a red light doesn't give someone the right to lean on his horn when the person in front of him is more cautious than he would be. And lifting mask mandates for the general population does not mean we should throw out common sense, and courtesy to our fellow passengers.
But when we have been constrained for so long by the letter of the law, it's easy to forget the spirit.
I think I will tell the story of our recent trip to Europe in topical segments rather than strictly chronologically. The COVID pandemic, being so intimately woven throughout, seems a good place to start.
Our last trip to Europe before the pandemic shut down travel had been in September 2019—to Switzerland (of course) with a side trip to Rome. Then 2020 and 2021 broke our 13-year streak of annual (sometimes more frequently) international travel to visit our international daughter and her family.
Our planned Viking river cruise of 2020 was postponed twice—and then drastically altered thanks to the fact that one of the stops was to have been St. Petersburg (not the city on the west coast of Florida). As part of Viking's compensation for the inconvenience, we acquired along the way a one-week cruise up the Rhône River in France, with an extension that gave us two weeks in Switzerland. Much to my surprise, that one survived.
It seemed fitting to remove, at least temporarily, my Facebook profile picture, which prolaimed—in response to Facbook's pressure to brag about having received the COVID-19 vaccine—that "My vaccination status is none of your business." Because suddenly my vaccination status had become everyone's business. First it was Chicago, where we couldn't attend a concert, visit a museum, or eat in a restaurant without out photo ID and proof of vaccination. This time it was international travel.
I've said many times that I deplore the division of our society into the "clean" (vaccinated) and the "unclean" (unvaccinated), with its harmful (sometimes hateful) discrimination against the latter. I've also admitted that my scruples only go so far. I may willingly cut back on my restaurant meals and museum visits, but seeing friends and family is another issue. We were willing to go through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to make that happen.
The problem was that those hoops kept changing. Europe started opening up drastically, and so did some of our states. But America's rules regarding international travel remained stuck where they were the first week in December. And Viking chose to keep its own rules very strict. (Wisely, I think, much as I hated them, because how were they to know when the countries involved would change their minds again?) Plus, as we all know, websites are not always kept up-to-date, and we found that one page on a given informational site would contradict another.
But finally, with tests taken, documentation in multiple formats, and unwanted apps installed on our phones, we thought we were ready. The most stressful part was the required pre-travel COVID testing: there's nothing like knowing all your plans could be so easily trashed at the last minute to bring home, once again, the sub conditione jacobaea warning.
Our results were negative, and we boarded the plane for the first leg of our journey, to Montreal. All looked to be going well, as they pronounced all our paperwork to be in order as we waited to board the next flight, this time to Brussels. But at the very last minute (boarding had already started), they decided that our European Union forms were not sufficient, and that we needed special forms for Belgium. (Which, last I knew, was still in the EU.) These had to be filled out online (one for each of us) and we had to wait for e-mail confirmation of approval. Miraculously, both our e-mails came through in time and we were able to board the plane.
As it turned out, neither the form for Belgium nor the original EU form were ever looked at.
Masks, by the way, were required at every stage of the journey. We had been told that ordinary masks would not suffice, and that we had to acquire and use N-95 masks—another requirement that turned out to be false.
The rest of the journey, from Brussels to Marseille to the awaiting Viking ship, went smoothly. Once on board we were subjected to another COVID test, as we would be daily for the rest of the cruise. Once this was confirmed as negative, we were allowed to remove our masks. The one guest whose test came back positive was quietly "disappeared."
The cruise up the Rhône was lovely; I'll save the details for another post. Only two things bothered me: The substantial dinners never started till after 7 p.m. and lasted till 9, perfect conditions to provoke reflux; thus I soon developed a mild sore throat and post-nasal drip. This was made worse by the plane trees, which were in bloom everywhere, shedding pollen in blizzards and creating "snowdrifts" that we shuffled through on our frequent city walks. This, of course, exacerbated my symptoms, and added itchy eyes to the mix. Still, it wasn't that bad, and I could somewhat mitigate the problem by wearing a mask when we were outside. (France has done away with masking rules, but wearing one helped with the pollen and additionally kept my face warm in the brisk mornings.)
At least, I assured myself, I knew for a fact that what was bothering me was allergies, not COVID. Not if testing means anything, since every one of my daily tests came back negative.
Until one didn't.
On the very last evening of the cruise, as we were packing and preparing to disembark at 4 a.m. the following day for our flight to Zurich, there came a knock on the door.
"Mrs. Wightman? Are you all right?"
"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"
"Because you have tested positive for COVID."
Porter's test had come back negative, but that made no difference: we would both be whisked off to an unnamed hotel for isolation and quarantine.
It's a pity that we had already filled out and turned in our customer satisfaction surveys, because at that point our very happy experience with Viking turned into somewhat of a nightmare of unanswered questions. Since Janet & family were expecting us the next day, we had to start making plans, but Viking could not or would not tell us anything. Not where we were going, not what would happen, not how long we'd have to stay isolated. Their best guess was 10-14 days. Once we arrived at the hotel, we were told, a Viking representative would explain all of that to us. Could we please have that person's phone number so we could explain our specific situation and include our waiting family in the plans? No, we could not. Nothing could happen till we were settled into the hotel. Finally, they promised to give us the phone number as we were leaving the ship. Which for some reason took until after noon the next day (at least they served us breakfast).
At that point we were treated to a 350-euro taxi ride (paid for by Viking) from Lyon, where we were berthed, to ... wait for it ... Geneva, Switzerland! To the InterContinental Hotel, to be precise. My guess is that Viking, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, has some sort of relationship with the InterContinental. The name of the hotel only matters in that it turns out that I had stayed there once before, in 1969, when for reasons I never knew, our Girl Scout troop, which otherwise lived as cheaply as possible during our European tour—i.e. sleeping at youth hostels, convents, and the like—spent our last night before flying home at this incredible luxury hotel. It wasn't the least bit familiar to me, but then again, a lot would have changed in more than half a century, and besides, we weren't allowed to leave our room.
During the long taxi ride, Porter had called the number Viking had finally provided for our contact, only to find out that it was some other Viking representative's number, not that of the person dealing with our problem. They wouldn't give out the number of the right person, but assured us she would be waiting for us at the hotel.
She wasn't. Our taxi driver checked us in and walked us up to our room.
We were in some sort of hotel "isolation ward," with at least 18 rooms filled with people from our ship. Considering there were only some 145 passengers on the cruise, and most of the hotel rooms probably housed two people, that's a pretty impressive percentage. And to think that if I could have held off for just one more day we'd never have known. I'm pretty sure that if there had been one more day of testing, Porter would have been positive as well, as it seems he was no more than a day or two behind me.
As prisons go, it could hardly have been better. We were required to stay in our rooms and get our meals via room service. The room service prices were absolutely sky high, but as we were told we had an allowance of 140 francs per person per day, that was okay. (Or so we thought.) If we hadn't been so busy trying to pry information out of Viking, we could have enjoyed it.
To shorten the story, in the end it was the "wrong number" person who eventually helped us the most. The official contact had finally called, much later; she refused to give us her phone number, and would only say that she'd be by the next morning to deal with us. By now you are sensing the pattern: We never heard from her again, despite having told her that we needed to let our family know our status before 9 a.m.
There was no reason for them to keep us in isolation. Switzerland now has no isolation/quarantine requirements, so they couldn't hold us. As far as I can tell, most people in Switzerland either have already had COVID or consider it nothing to worry about.
The only thing holding us back was the need to fulfill Viking's requirements, since they held us hostage by virtue of being the ones who were taking care of our flights back to the U.S. Finally, the "wrong number" Viking contact faxed the hotel a paper for me to sign releasing Viking from all responsibility for my medical care, and Stephan generously made the three-hour drive to Geneva to rescue us.
There was one more unpleasant surprise: just as we were leaving, a hotel employee came running up to inform us that Viking required us to pay the hotel bill in full. We didn't hesitate, though it was over $400 for the few hours we were there. (So much for the food allowance we thought we had!) Porter will be seeing what he can do about reimbursement through either Viking or our travel insurance, but at the time the only thing we were thinking of was getting where we belonged: with family.
And finally we were, having lost only one day of our planned, very busy, schedule. Again, that's material for another post.
From that point on, our only COVID worry was getting the negative test results needed to fly home. Before we left, there had been some speculation that the U. S. would lift the requirement before our return, but alas that did not happen. Our chief concern was that some people continue to test positive long after they've recovered. In hindsight, we probably should have gotten Porter's positive status diagnosed officially, so that we could both get the "recovered from COVID" documentation, but at the time it seemed like an unnecessary expense and, more importantly, disruption to our schedule.
Fortunately, a good collection of at-home tests was available to us. Our first tests, taken 10 days after my initial positive result, came back still positive for both of us. Mine was a little lighter than Porter's, giving me hope that we were progressing in the right direction.
Four days after that, we tested again.
One down, one to go.
Two days later, Porter followed.
Of course, this was not good enough for the U.S. government, which requires tests to be properly documented by an official medical facility, but Stephan found us a place for that purpose and graciously accompanied us for testing. The price was very reasonable, and in less than an hour we had our coveted paperwork, and could pack in earnest. We flew out early the next day, as originally scheduled. The timing was a little too close for comfort, but all's well that ends well.
As much as we love visiting our family, the prospect of an indefinite stay wasn't pleasant for any of us, and the thought that our government could suddenly decide we were not permitted to come home was disconcerting and disorienting. I haven't been so glad to be back on U. S. soil since returning from Venezuela years ago.
As for COVID itself, what was our experience? I'm not certain. The only reason we know we had it is that we were tested. If we'd been at home, we wouldn't have had a clue. For me, the symptoms were very mild and indistinguishable from normal seasonal allergies. Porter's were much milder than an ordinary cold. Neither of us had a fever, lost sense of taste/smell, or had any hint of difficulty breathing.
In hindsight, the day after my positive test was the worst for me. (I didn't know I had COVID at the time.) That was Palm Sunday, our most strenuous day of the cruise: over 16,000 steps (according to my phone), up and down hills, at a pace so brisk I could not stop to take photos without falling significantly behind. I was exhausted by dinnertime, and left the table before dessert was served. (Perhaps the latter should have been a clue.) After that, I found I tired more easily (not uncommon when visiting grandchildren!) and experienced occasional light-headedness. Then one day I suddenly realized I had more energy—and later that day I tested negative. Porter's lingering symptom was a sore throat and tiredness—not that that stopped him from repeatedly playing soccer with our grandsons.
It took us ten to fourteen days to test negative; could we have shortened that by taking to our beds and resting? Maybe. I'm not convinced—though had we been at home I wouldn't have minded a few days of lounging around with a book and copious cups of tea. I'm just so grateful that we were not slowed down either on the cruise or in our family activities. If we had to catch COVID while on vacation and out of the country, it's hard to imagine the timing and course of infection working out better than they did. I'm told the French healthcare system is very good, but I'm happy not to have put that to the test.
Now my vaccination status is once again no one's business but my own. Maybe I'll put back my Facebook profile picture to that effect. Nonetheless, I'm reveling in what I call my super-vaccination: three shots, and recovery from the disease itself. The protection may be temporary, but for now, no one can ask for more.
And no one can blame Florida's relaxed COVID restrictions for our illnesses. This was no ordinary Southern-style virus, but the high-class, COVID-française. Nothing but the best pour nous!
Faith's new flight arrangements required us to get to the airport earlier than planned, so church was the only big event of the day (besides flying home). In truth, it would have been the big event no matter what else we had scheduled. Worshipping at Father Trey Garland's new church, St. Paul's By-the-Lake in the Rogers Park neighborhood, was the reason we made this trip.
St. Paul's is not within walking distance from the Palmer House. It is, however, within walking distance from the Jarvis L stop, so that's what we did.
We had planned to go out to lunch with Father Trey after the service. An unexpected death in the congregation made that impossible, however, so we were very thankful for what seemed at the time to be a very annoying mistake.
For some unknown reason, our cell phones, which were set to change time zones automatically, occasionally and apparently randomly flipped back and forth between Eastern and Central Time. Unbeknownst to him, this happened to Porter's phone while we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Corner Café. He looked at the time as we were getting up to leave—and suddenly we were running for the train. We made it, and only later realized we had arrived at the church an hour early.
Which, as I said, turned out to be perfect, as Father Trey had time between services to give us the grand tour of the church and the rectory. It was wonderful to see him again and catch up a little bit. Then there was the service itself.... (Only masks required.)
I don't expect most of my readers to comprehend what it meant to me to worship at a service that used both the 1928 Prayer Book and the 1940 Hymnal. We received a warm welcome in the service and a personal prayer for our travels. And most of the the service was SUNG. (Not the sermon, in case you were wondering, though I wouldn't put it past Father Trey to try that sometime.)
My heart overflowed.
All too soon, we reluctantly said farewell and made our way back to Midway. We had much more time than we needed, but given the circumstances and the fact that there wasn't really time to do anything else of substance, we decided to spend our waiting time at the airport, on the other side of security. After dinner, we saw Faith off to Baltimore. Her "grandmothers" (me plus the two choir ladies) may have been a bit nervous, but she was looking forward to having a couple of hours with an airport to explore and $20 to spend.
Finally, it was our turn. After an uneventful flight and drive from the airport, we arrived home very nearly the same time Faith did.
The unanimous conclusion was that any time Porter wants to exercise his travel agent skills and organize another trip, this group will be happy to sign on again. But perhaps in a warmer season.
For breakfast, we once again opted for convenience: the Corner Bakery Café, right next to the Palmer House. (ID and vax pass required, though if we had done take-out we might have been able to avoid that.) One of the reasons Porter chose the Palmer House as our hotel was that it is right in the middle of most of what we planned to do. Our goal this morning, the Art Institute of Chicago, was only a short walk away.
We didn't go there directly, however, but stopped along the way at Millennium Park. (I only just discovered that link, which turns out to be somewhat depressing. First of all, it comes with a bright pink ad at the top for the COVID-19 vaccine. Then there's the list of prohibited items, including jackknives, pets, and suitcases. Chicago is weirder than I thought. For us, it was just a pleasant little city park with an arresting sculpture in the middle. No one asked for proof of vaccination, and we didn't even have to wear our masks. (But we sometimes did, for the warmth.)
On to the Art Institute! (ID, vax passes, and masks required.)
One great advantage of a large museum is that the art is diverse. The weird art and still weirder commentary is there, but it's avoidable. Our party split up here, for maximum flexibility.
The Art Institute hosts an impressive collection of masterworks. For me, one of the most fun was Van Gogh's Bedroom, chiefly because it meant we have now seen all three of Van Gogh's versions of the painting: one in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (2007), the next at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (2018), and finally this one (2022).
Those of us who have spent time with Porter in museums expected we'd be there from opening until the museum closed, but as it happened we all ran out of energy at the same time, leaving the museum about an hour and a half early in favor of dinner and some rest before our big evening event: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert.
There wasn't as much rest as we had hoped. Did I mention that we were visiting Chicago in the middle of winter? And that on this night a big winter storm was hitting the Northeast? While we were supposed to be resting, we got the news that Faith's Sunday flight from Chicago to Boston had been cancelled. Ours to Orlando was still good, but we were not about to get on a plane and leave a thirteen-year-old behind to spend the night alone in the airport (or even in a hotel). We batted around several possible options, including one in which one of our choir ladies volunteered to give up her Orlando-bound seat to Faith, rent a car, and go visit her sister, who lived a mere four-hour drive from Chicago!
Cooler heads prevailed, however, and as the concert time approached, Faith's mom told us firmly, "Faith has been greatly looking forward to this concert, so go and enjoy it. We will take care of the problem." So off we went, once again on foot, as Symphony Center is only a short walk from the Palmer House. ID, vax pass, and yes, masks were once again the order of the day night. By now were were getting pretty good at the drill, and Faith's extra-large paperwork was still bringing smiles.
While Faith's dad worked on her problem, the four of us had our own work to do once we entered the concert hall. Twenty-four hours before our flight time was just 10 minutes before the start of the concert. Since we were flying Southwest, that meant we were checking in from our concert seats. That could have worked out very well—except that our seats were in a wireless dead zone and the four of us were soon seen scurrying around the lobby waving our phones and searching for a signal. (I found one near the restrooms.) Finally, it was "mission accomplished" for us, and more critically, for Faith, whose dad had found her a flight that went to Manchester, NH with a plane change in Baltimore. Not ideal, with the risk of the connecting flight being itself cancelled, but if Faith and her parents were comfortable with it, who were we to impose our fears on them? Just in time, we were able to settle down and enjoy the music of Vivaldi and Handel. (Click on program images to enlarge.)
Faith, Porter, and I had special seats—behind the orchestra. We were nearly close enough to read the players' music. Most of the musicians had standard sheet music, but the harpsichord player used an iPad with a foot pedal for turning pages.
Best of all was being directly opposite conductor Riccardo Muti and able to see his skill close-up. He did not use a baton, but did all his directing with his hands. Correction—he also used his face, and did not wear a mask. What he did was as far from "keeping the beat" as you can imagine. He sculpted the music. At times he didn't appear to conduct at all, letting the musicians do their work, adding just a small hand gesture here, an eyebrow twitch there. Absolutely fascinating.
We had come prepared for a cold, cold walk in bitter wind after the concert, but it really wasn't bad at all. A balmy 21 degrees and almost pleasant. The coldest temperature I saw during the whole trip was 12 degrees, and at that time I was snuggled warmly in bed.
We had earned our rest this day. The next would bring delight of a different sort.
After getting squared away at the Palmer House, the next order of business was food. We had planned only one meal ahead of time, having made reservations for "Afternoon Tea & Samovar Service" at the famed Russian Tea Time restaurant. Pricey, but an experience not to be missed. (At the present time, it seems worth noting that the owners are Ukrainian.)
All Chicago restaurants require you to show a photo ID and proof of vaccination, which they scrutinize with exaggerated care. It makes me wonder whether there are undercover spies ready to pounce on the hapless restaurant owner who approaches the task too casually, or if the citizens themselves are eager to rat out a business they think is shirking its duty. Or maybe the culprit is bad eyesight: Our granddaughter's vaccination certificate was an 8.5x11 copy of the real thing, and its easy visibilty made the gatekeepers very happy.
Our next move was to take the train to the John Hancock Center, then ride the elevator to the 94th floor and the 360 Chicago observation deck. (ID and vax pass required, again.) Here's the view looking north.
The view itself was worth the visit, but the real reason we came was for the TILT, which tipped us over for an impressive view down the side of the building to the street below. One of us opted to skip the experience and was thus able to record it.
Here's an outside view from a STRUCTURE magazine article.
For dinner, we chose to eat at Hot Woks, Cool Sushi. It was not spectacular, but close to the hotel and enjoyable enough that we returned the following night. Except for Russian Tea Time, our focus this trip was not on food. My only regret was not having any pizza at all. How can one go to Chicago and not eat pizza? I guess we'll need to return.
Having been up at a morning hour closer to three than four, followed by a busy day, our idea of great night life was a good night's sleep. Who am I kidding? My idea of great night life is always a good night's sleep. :)
Saturday would be quite a full day as well.
Who would visit Chicago in the middle of winter?
There are plenty of reasons to visit Chicago, but the spark that inspired this particular trip was wanting to see our beloved former rector and to visit his new church in the Rogers Park area. But why in January? Let's just say that an expiring Southwest Airlines ticket had something to do with it.
Because of the pandemic, we were able to get a great deal at the beautiful Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago, the place where Porter had lived back when he was working in the city and IBM was paying the bills. Being able to get tickets for a baroque concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Muti sealed the deal.
Lo and behold, there were two intrepid women from our church choir who chose to brave the weather and take advantage of Porter's travel-planning skills. Our thirteen-year-old niece from New Hampshire—who fears neither cold weather nor solo travelling—also chose to join us. We made a happy and compatible quintet for the adventure.
After meeting up at Midway Airport, we took the L downtown, being thankful for Porter's previous experience with the system. That trip began with a humbling experience for me. I had not yet learned that Chicago L drivers are prone to leaving their stations with substantial lurches and no regard for whether or not their passengers have actually found a seat. I was in the process of moving into one when suddenly I found myself flat on my back in the aisle. I consider my balance to be very good, and actually practice recovering from such jerking about when I can. In this case, however, I had neglected to take into consideration that the substantial backpack-suitcase I was carrying had altered my center of gravity. Boom—there I was, as helpless as a turtle and in noticeable pain. My fellow passengers came to my rescue, and very soon the physical pain was much less obvious than the embarrassment. I blessed our thrice-weekly water aerobics classes with their emphasis on strengthening exactly those muscles that had sprung immediately into play to protect my spine. It turned out to be two weeks before those muscles fully recovered, but outside of a little stiffness, the injury gave me no problems the rest of our trip.
Checking into the Palmer House went smoothly—almost. That's when I ran into a problem of a different sort: a crisis of conscience. We had been warned to bring masks and vaccination certificates with us, but were still shocked at the reality that met us in Chicago.
We could have gone straight to our rooms without showing our cards, but that was all. Attempting to sit in the lobby and talk while waiting for our restaurant reservation time provoked an immediate response from a lurking vulture hotel official, who demanded our papers and, after closely scrutinizing them, branded us with a wristband like those you get at some amusement parks. I was not amused. To begin with, I hate those things. I don't wear necklaces, bracelets, or any ring except for my wedding ring; frankly, that kind of constriction Freaks. Me. Out. I hope I never have to break the law, because I will not do well with handcuffs.
But that's just me; it has nothing to do with my conscience. That comes in because I strongly believe that the division of society into Vaccinated and Unvaccinated, along with discrimination against the latter, is immoral. I like to think that in Nazi Germany I would have been among the brave gentile German citizens who chose to wear the yellow star to demonstrate solidarity with their Jewish brothers. But in this case, I caved.
After about five minutes of torment trying to find a way out of the wrist band, I decided to pretend I had entered a foreign country, instead of another American city. After all, when we visited the Gambia I wore a long skirt every time I went out in public, out of respect for the local customs. And I never wear skirts. Foreign cultures often make one do things that seem unreasonable. Armed with that insight, I was able to manage the rest of the trip, even though everywhere else we went, with the notable exception of church, public transit, and outdoor spaces, required us to show our papers (proof of vaccination and photo ID). Porter found the experience unnervingly similar to his visit to East Berlin in the 1960's.
That's enough about the bad part. In all other ways, our Chicago experience was fantastic! (More to come.)
When we were in Chicago recently, our first meal was at the amazing Russian Tea Time restaurant. It was a special occasion; if we lived in Chicago, the expense would make our visits rare. But if I were there now, I'd make a point of taking in another of their wonderful Afternoon Teas. Whatever we may think of the recent actions of Vladimir Putin, it makes no sense to penalize our Russian neighbors. This is the letter we received from the owners of Russian Tea Time.
Dear RTT patrons and friends,
We are heartbroken by the recent news; our thoughts and prayers are with those who are affected by this inhumane and despicable invasion. We do not support politics of the Russian government. We support human rights, freedom of speech, and fair democratic elections.
Украинцы (Ukrainians), the world is with you, the world is behind you. Stay strong, our hearts are with you!
The past two years have been so very hard on restaurants; they don't need any more grief.
Besides, you never know who it is you're actually affecting. The owners of our favorite place for sushi in Central Florida (now, alas, no longer in business) were Vietnamese, not Japanese.
The owners of Russian Tea Time are Ukrainian.
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It wasn't the Christmas they expected.
The shepherds weren't expecting anything. The Wise Men (who came later) might not have been surprised that the king they were seeking was a young child, but they probably didn't expect to find him in such humble surroundings. Herod wasn't expecting him, though he certainly knew how reigning kings dealt with potential rivals: Off with their heads!
Mary (and Joseph) did know, having been clued in by an angel, but I'll bet Gabriel didn't bother to include the messy details, such as going into labor away from home, at the end of a long and difficult journey to a crowded city with limited accommodations.
Despite innumerable clues throughout their history to the coming of a savior who would put everything right—albeit less clear at the time than in hindsight, of course—the religious scholars in Israel saw nothing momentous about the events. This despite having told the above-mentioned Eastern sages that they should go to Bethlehem to look for the Messiah. As was shown some 33 years later, their ideas of "put everything right" had some major misalignments with God's own; we tend to see what we are looking for.
There's a long history of Christmas not being what people expect, so I should not have been surprised that Christmas 2021 wasn't the Christmas WE expected.
In this year's Christmas newsletter, I included this line: "Sub conditione jacobaea, we will make a fifth trip, to Connecticut, before the end of the year for another family gathering." The Latin phrase is the more formal equivalent of the Southern, "Lord willin' and the creek don't rise."
The creek rose. Or rather, COVID rose. As in, two of the people we'd planned to spend Christmas with tested positive. We reflected: (1) people who are sick do not generally welcome houseguests, (2) if one is going to get sick, home is usually the best place to be, and (3) the threat of isolation and quarantine could turn a 10-day visit into 20 or more, especially if one is flying. Then we made the painful decision to cancel the visit. :( Instead of flying out early Christmas morning, we were going to be home.
Two days before Christmas I crossed "pack suitcase" of my list and added "buy a roast for Christmas dinner." We did not have a tree, but I stopped by the Home Depot tent and picked up some of their tree trimmings to add some festive and aromatic greens to our hastily-decorated substitute:
I only drove to three places that day—the post office, Target, and Publix—but came home exhausted. As I said to Porter while he was helping me unload the car, "You'll know how crowded it was when I say I elected to wear my mask everywhere I went."
Christmas Eve wasn't as planned, either, as our pastor's wife had also come down with COVID. The CDC protocols do not require vaccinated people to quarantine, but our diocesan rules are stricter, so he was suddenly out of the picture, which cancelled some of our services and altered the others. Amazingly, they found a substitute priest for Christmas Eve and Sunday, though not for Christmas itself. Nonetheless we are grateful that the bishop didn't revoke his permission for choirs to sing without masks! All things considered, it was still a lovely service, though for us the really festive celebration had been our mid-month Lessons & Carols. (Too many of our choir members travel out of town for Christmas, for us to be able to plan anything big closer to the Day.)
Since the Christmas Eve service began well after my normal bedtime, and, unlike last year we had no children around to inspire an early arising, we slept in on Christmas Day (That is, to about 7 a.m.).
Our Christmas breakfast usually includes traditional Dutch almond raisin bread and banket. Often we order these from Vander Veens' Dutch store, but this year I convinced myself that it's cheaper and better to make them myself. (I was right.) I did buy the almond paste from Vander Veen's (much less expensive than I can find at the grocery store), but our grandson makes his own from scratch, so I might try that sometime. I doubt I'll go through the effort of making my own puff pastry, however; Pepperidge Farm does a great job with that.
No one complained that the "banket letters" were selfish this year—all I's.
The day was a quiet one, spent opening presents, talking with family, and reading. Porter read one of my Christmas present books, and I continued reading Oathbringer, which I intend to complete before the Twelve Days are over! (I'm currently 2/3 of the way through the 1200+ pages.) I did manage to cook Christmas dinner in there somewhere, and it was good (especially the gravy), but I couldn't help noting that it didn't hold a candle to my brother's Christmas roast beef, which we had been anticipating.
The Second Day of Christmas was Sunday, and we went to church. If attendance was about as expected for the day after Christmas, at least the choir did not outnumber the congregation. And we had enough choristers to sing Vivaldi's Gloria!
I hope you are all enjoying a very good Christmastide.
Even if it might not be the Christmas you planned on.
I've always had a problem with headlines, which all too often distort or even contradict the content of the story they purport to summarize. It's similar to my frustration with book covers that make me wonder if the artist actually read the book itself. Even knowing this, it's all too easy to judge a book by its cover and to get our news from the screaming headlines. To get any useful information, we have to dig deeper.
On the other hand, it's possible that our State Department has simply gone mad.
One of Porter's travel websites led him to the handy(?) State Department website for its current travel advisories: a categorization of the world's countries into
- Level 1 Exercise normal precautions
- Level 2 Exercise increased caution
- Level 3 Reconsider travel
- Level 4 Do not travel
A glance at the associated map reveals that we consider the rest of the world to be a very, very dangerous place and should probably just stay within our own borders. There are thirteen places marked Level 1, the safest level, including Paraguay, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, and Togo. Not exactly places high on my list of comfortable vacation destinations. Perhaps we should go back to The Gambia; our Gambian friends can take comfort in knowing that their country is one of those few getting our State Department's blessing, along with neighboring Senegal.
On the other hand, Switzerland is Level 4. Do. Not. Travel. More than 300 other countries are given this worst possible rating, include North Korea, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic.
I am a lot happier that our daughter and her family are in Switzerland rather than North Korea, Afghanistan, or the Central African Republic. What do you think?
Fortunately, the website allows you to click on individual countries and get more detailed information about the advisories.
- Do not travel to North Korea due to COVID-19 and the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.
- Do not travel to Afghanistan due to civil unrest, armed conflict, crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and COVID-19.
- Do not travel to the Central African Republic due to COVID-19, Embassy Bangui’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens, crime, civil unrest, and kidnapping.
- Do not travel to Switzerland due to COVID-19.
Methinks our State Department could do with a finer gradation of the Level 4 warning.
Here's another interesting anomaly: Liechtenstein has a travel advisory rating of Level 3. So if you can get there, you are considered safer than in neighboring Switzerland or Austria, each at Level 4. However, they make no suggestions as to how one might get to Liechtenstein without travelling through either Switzerland or Austria, given that Liechtenstein has no airport (though they do have a helipad). Perhaps one could parachute in, though that does introduce risks of its own.
As I wrote before, we recently made our first airplane voyage since before the start of the pandemic. I was surprised at how rusty we were in what used to be accustomed procedure!
Overall, I was impressed, as I usually am, by Southwest Airlines. We flew during their recent—and never satisfactorily explained—outage, and our outbound flights were cancelled. However, we were automatically rebooked, within minutes of that notification, on a flight that left later the same day and arrived at our destination earlier, a much better situation for us. Between that and having automatic TSA Precheck, our airport experiences were problem-free. And I'm very happy about the improved cleaning and air filtration procedures, since in my experience an airplane is nearly as dangerous as an elementary school when it comes to challenges to the immune system. That part of the flight felt good.
Not that we had all that much chance to experience the new, fresher air, as masks were required to be worn at all times, even between bites and sips while eating and drinking. Fortunately, the between bites part was not aggressively enforced, but neither was there all that much opportunity for eating and drinking.
I can handle a mask, when necessary, for short shopping trips, and can make it through a choir rehearsal or a church service, albeit with difficulty. If I had to wear a mask for my job, I'd be applying for a medical exemption. I have no disability other than age, but that was good enough to get me priority for the vaccine, so maybe it would work. Fortunately, employment is not an issue.
Wearing a mask for the trip was hard. Ours was a relatively short flight, but that was three hours, and of course you have to add in the airport time on either end. Still, we managed all right, as far as I could tell.
The scary part was on the flight home, when I had the elbow room to use the sensor on my phone to check my blood oxygen. I know I'm good at sleeping on airplanes, but I couldn't stay awake to read a very interesting novel, and that concerned me. The sensor on my phone is hardly as accurate as a medical pulse oximeter, but there has to be something wrong about the fact that it consistently reads between 95% and 100% at home (usually on the high side of that), and my readings on the plane were between 84% and 90%! Pulling the mask away from my face for several breaths got it up to between 93% and 97%. But for how long had I been in the danger zone? Was the problem due to wearing the mask, or the altitude, or a combination? All I know is that when I got back home the numbers were up to 97%-100% again.
I'm trying not to think too much about the fact that our overseas family, including small children, had to endure two very long transatlantic flights for their Christmas visit here, and were forced to wear medical masks because their own cloth masks—similar to mine—were deemed to allow too much air exchange.
This won't stop me from flying again, even overseas when that is allowed. Family is too important. But at my age I need all the brain cells I can keep. Who doesn't, at any age? (That's one reason I avoid anesthesia whenever possible.) I'm more and more convinced that the harmful effects of our pandemic regulations are only just beginning to be felt.
Southwest Airlines has been getting some bad press recently, but we've recently had a wonderful experience.
I'm very disappointed that they caved in to pressure to implement a vaccine mandate for their employees. I would have respected them much, much more if they could have held out against this wrongful policy.
That said, I was impressed, and pleasantly surprised, by what happened to us.
We were scheduled to fly Southwest, and more than a little concerned about their recent cancellations, especially the news stories of people waiting several hours to get help, and not being able to reschedule any sooner than three days away.
Sure enough, the night before we were scheduled to fly, we received notice that our flight was one of the ones that was cancelled. Before we could even get through to the Southwest website, however, we receive another notification:
We have rebooked your flight for you.
Not only did it happen quickly, and with no effort on our part, but they had actually put us on a better flight than the one that was cancelled. It left three hours later, giving us a more comfortable start, yet arrived at our destination an hour earlier, because it was a direct flight instead of requiring a plane change in Baltimore. True, our new flight was packed to the gills and we were among the last five people to board the plane, but at that point we felt nothing but gratitude.
Kudos to Southwest for making a potentially terrible situation into something almost pleasant.
And many thanks to all of you who prayed for our trip!
The sheer quantity of art in Rome is unfathomable. Quite aside from all the museums and the grand churches, every time you turn a corner there's another little church, and inside that little church is more incredible art. Art that an American museum would protect with guards and high-tech security systems and state-of-the-art climate control—all at the mercy of curious tourists and the Roman climate.
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, however, has taken a step to protect its priceless artworks from one assault: smoke from the many candles burning nearby.
I'm sure it's better for the paintings. But it seems so wrong.
We spent a week in Rome this September, including a day in Vatican City. We saw fountains and pines, museums and monuments, art and history in overwhelming quality and quantity. But we did not see the Pope. Strangely, he never invited us to a private audience!
I don't consider that much of a loss, although we'd have been thrilled if he had, just as we would have been thrilled to be invited to visit almost any head of state. But seek him out? Never occurred to us.
The strange thing is how many people asked, after we returned, "Did you see the Pope?" When I visited England, no one asked me, "Did you see the Queen?" nor "Did you see the Emperor?" when we went to Japan.
It's a slightly more reasonable question with respect to the Pope, since we did go to St. Peter's Square, and the Pope has been known to address audiences there. But if he had done so when we were in Rome, we would most certainly not have been at the Vatican during that time, any more than we would be anywhere near Times Square on New Year's Eve. Not even for Pope Benedict—for whom I had a great deal of respect until he abdicated—would I brave such crowds. Certainly not for the man who might be a nice enough person but makes me rethink those exchanges that end with, "Is the Pope Catholic?"
On the other hand, Your Holiness, if you really want to meet with us, we'll be happy to consider a return visit to Rome. I still have an unused bus ticket as my version of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain.
As I've written before, we enjoy watching Rick Steves' television shows about travel, and make extensive use of his guidebooks when visiting unfamiliar places. Another resource that we found invaluable on our recent trip to Rome was a Great Courses series, The Guide to Essential Italy.
Neither, however, advises what we discovered for ourselves on our visit: Do as much as you can in the morning. For us, Rome was at its best before noon: the weather was pleasant, and the streets were delightful to walk through, with more locals than tourists in sight. Except for the most popular attractions, e.g. the Colosseum and the Vatican, crowds were low, and we were able to visit museums and churches relatively unjostled.
By noon, the crowds of tourists had begun to take over the city, and Rome under the afternoon sun suggested that we were back in Florida. The early evening mobs reminded me of taking Boston's Green Line buses during rush hour, and the threat of pickpockets became a much more serious issue.
As for eating, we found late afternoon to be a delightful time to relax in a restaurant after a hard day of walking and museum-browsing. Perhaps because Rome must cater to tourists, we found most restaurants open for a four- or five-o'clock dinner, with plenty of available tables and attentive staff. It was also still light, for better views, and relatively quiet—as it gets dark, the music gets louder, a correlation without obvious causation.
No doubt "night people" have an entirely different view of Rome, but this worked very well for us. Our only later-evening excursions were short walks down the street to the local gelato place, which soon became our nightly habit before falling into a deep and exhausted sleep.