The author is a free lance conference interpreter living in Geneva, Switzerland. Her professional life has been hard hit by lockdown measures and travel restrictions. All international conferences have been put on hold or are held remotely with the help of internet platforms such as Zoom.
Since the first lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, we have all learnt to slow down, to do less, meet fewer people. Traveling now belongs to days long past, it is no more than a faraway memory…
Self-employed workers like myself are among the hardest hit by the current pandemic, but lo and behold ! Unexpectedly and quite last minute, I got a contract for the EU in Luxembourg, which implies traveling and staying in a hotel. Heavens ! The last time something like this happened was in January : you might as well say eons ago.
Less than a week before my assignment I realized there no longer were any direct flights on the eve of the beginning of my contract, a Sunday. There wasn’t even a single direct flight in the entire weekend. Airlines have had to cut down their activity for lack of customers. Indeed, with the pandemic and lockdowns galore, traveling has simply been impossible for several weeks ; now it has become possible again but with quarantines upon arrival and/or return, enough to discourage even the most hardened adventurers. So rather than flying Geneva-Rome-Luxembourg, I chose to spend a day on the train, for about 600km and 7-8 hours. I’m used to traveling the Geneva-Strasbourg route for the European Parliament, so it’s just three more hours, no big deal. All I need is something to chew on, that is enough reading material and a sandwich or two. A great advantage with this itinerary was that I could elude border controls upon arrival and nobody would bother me about the rate of contamination in Switzerland, which is considered a Red Alert Zone by Luxembourg - the same goes the other way ‘round, especially for Geneva. I could have justified my travel with my work contract upon my return to Switzerland as well, and thus escape quarantine.
Once at the hotel door I had to ring the bell to get in, no open house here. Disinfectant gel was available for the hands of anyone who claimed a right to enter the premises and the reception staff were hiding behind a plexiglass wall. No bar in the lobby, the restaurant area opened for breakfast only. In order to avoid unnecessary contacts, no maid was going to clean my room during my entire stay, which was fine by me. I was more than glad to be on my own given the circumstances. I even avoided going to restaurants and had cozy picnics in my room instead while watching the news on TV.
As everywhere nowadays, the elevator was limited to one person at a time in order to limit contagion. But once a man who probably thought he was Very Important barged in, asking Do you mind ? but came in before I could even answer. What could I say ? I have been brought up to be polite, even with rude people, and didn’t react quickly enough. Next time I’ll be ready with Sorry, I don’t know you and yes, I do mind. Or I’ll walk out of the elevator, passive-aggressive style, and give way to Mr Macho Man. Covid-19 will be with us for still some time, so I might as well learn to get things straight without ifs or buts.
Upon entering the premises of the EU Court of Justice everybody has his/her temperature taken by a camera-type device. Masks are compulsory in the entire building, and hands have to be disinfected with gel. Everybody sits or stands at a safe distance from others. Interpreters work one per booth. This time, almost all parties to the hearing were present except for one, visible on a screen. In other words, work went on as usual, which goes to show that it’s possible, all you need is enough space for everyone.
In Luxembourg City, everybody wears a mask, even in the open air, on the streets. People are very calm, disciplined, and they seem to understand that it’s in everybody’s interest to follow the rules. I was probably taking less risks there than in Geneva.
On the way back home I could fly as in the olden times. The departures hall was spooky, not a soul in sight (almost…) no boutiques nor cafés. I was the sole passenger…. until another Very Important Man nearly pushed me aside at the baggage deposit counter. Would you like to go before me ? I asked him politely. The irony was completely lost on him. Yes ! was his answer, devoid of any Hello’s, Excuse-me’s or Thank you’s. Couldn’t I see his uniform, with stripes and all ? The lady behind the counter was used to this kind of behavior. Pilots …. she said. But come evening and they take off their fancy jacket, they’re just like us, aren’t they ? Well yes, almost.
After passing security, I did find an open bar, and the duty free shop was also open. Almost business as usual, except that there weren’t that many customers. A given route had to be followed through the shelves, which didn’t exactly encourage shopping. We were only six passengers on board the plane, and I was the only woman. Of course, Luxembourg is a destination for bankers and businessmen, this goes to show that those still are very male-dominated sectors. When I checked in, it was impossible to change my seat. Indeed, I thought the airline wanted to seat us according to the prevailing sanitary rules. But no ! We were all forming a wonderful cluster right in the middle of an otherwise perfectly empty airplane. We scattered, of course. Luxair kindly gave us masks and disinfectant in addition to the traditional snack and drink.
I found the same post-apocalyptic decor in Geneva, not a living soul (almost…). It was like walking into a science-fiction movie : empty corridors, automatic doors, walkways rolling for no one, ads selling products to intergalactic emptiness and a lonely cleaner making rounds on pristine floors. Here, I also found an iron curtain protecting wares nobody was longing to buy. It felt like curfew and times of shortage. Two flights only were announced above the luggage conveyor belts.
The door to the arrivals hall opened onto a conspicuous void ... Nobody was waiting for anyone, no wagging tails, no hugs nor flower bouquets. I didn’t even need to elbow my way to the bus stop but bumped into my neighbor instead, a cab driver who was listlessly waiting for a hypothetical customer with his buddies. They were the only little crowd gathered near the coffee bar in the hall. I asked him jokingly if he would like to give me a ride back home .... but his work shift wasn’t over yet.
I should have felt safe once I was on Swiss soil again, given I had just left a red alert zone. But the infection rate is now skyrocketing in Switzerland and more particularly in Geneva, even though we’ve been doing our best for the past six months to avoid this. So there’s nothing left to do but keep on washing our hands and staying at a bargepole’s length from everybody. We’ll get used to it eventually.
Edit : the rate of contamination is now so high in Switzerland that the authorities have given up on quarantines. On the 7th of November 2020, Geneva has become N° 1 in Europe as regards contaminations with Covid-19.
The original version in French : Voyager au temps du Covid-19