Optics

We didn’t see many people on the road on our way to the Madrid airport — who knows whether that’s due to COVID, or simply due to August. Parts of the airport felt like they usually do (the lines at the gates for flights to the Canary Islands, for instance), but others didn’t. It took two minutes to go through security. None of the restaurant or stores were open. Every announcement was about keeping distance from one another, and the mood felt a little somber. Our flight to Amsterdam was around half full.

The vibe at Schiphol in Amsterdam was extremely laid back. It felt like ye olde days pre-COVID, when we all blithely went on vacation without a second thought. All the restaurants were open — and none of the billboards or advertisements mentioned COVID, the opposite of in Madrid. But the further we travelled into the International Departures terminal, the emptier it got. For the first time ever in my history of flying, the only people waiting at the gate were people who held American passports or green cards.

When we got on the plane, we discovered somebody had thwarted our clever plan of having us sit in two different rows with an empty seat in between — and had reserved the seat between M and younger daughter. He was already ensconced there when we got to our seats —a young guy I developed an immediate dislike for, both because of that fact and because he was wearing one of those N95 masks with a valve that’s great for protecting yourself and utterly useless for protecting anyone around you.

One of the flight attendants made a beeline for our row and offered him a seat in an empty row ahead of us.

That’s all right, he said. I’m fine here.

I’m fine here? Maybe the fact that we all, even the two teenagers, even the flight attendant, stared at him like he was from some other pandemic-free planet made him slink off to his new seat.


About 30 minutes before the plane touched down in Atlanta, the flight attendants handed round the usual custom forms and a copied one-sheet health form that had no seal or identifying features, even though the Dutch flight attendant who announced in a very severe and serious-sounding way that they were being passed out said that once we landed, Government Officials who would be also doing health screenings would be coming on board to collect them.

This form asked us only whether we were coming from mainland China (but not Taiwan or Hong Kong), Iran, or the Schengen Area (which is most of western Europe, but does not include the UK, which, last I heard, wasn’t a COVID-free zone).

In March, this information might’ve been of some use. I’m no health expert, but right now, in mid-August, it seems like you might want to know if people were traveling from Brazil, India, the USA or Columbia — all of which have many, many more daily cases than anywhere in Europe or China.

The form also asked if we had shortness of breath or fever.

That was it. Those “government officials” never came on board to collect the forms, though two extremely nice young people wearing vests that said Public Health did collect them at the end of the gangway. No one checked anybody’s temperatures — not that temperature screening’s supposed to really do much.

But a row of more smiling young people wearing public health vests and face shields directed us where we needed to go. It’s good to be home, I told one as we walked past her, toward passport control, where the person behind the plexiglass screen said welcome home; toward customs, where nobody even wanted our customs forms — and not withstanding the strangeness of the times, it is.

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