Brick and Mortar is Here to Stay

I have spent the better part of the last four months thinking about the future of retail – and I am not alone.  Is this pandemic the end of brick and mortal retail?  Will consumers return to stores?  Is online forever the path to purchase?  Is Amazon really going to take over the world?  These are just some of the questions swirling around in my head.
Yesterday, I lived these questions as a consumer, as a shopper.  A few things about my shopping and buying patterns to put yesterday’s experience into context.  I am not an avid shopper.  I buy quality over quantity. I have never liked malls. I am highly loyal to a few stores I love.  The last time that I was in a (non grocery) store was March 4th and I can’t remember the last time I went shopping with a girlfriend.
Yesterday, I went shopping with a girlfriend. She took me to her favorite store in Tinos, Karybu.  I was so excited about this girlfriend shopping expedition that I dressed up and did my hair.  We browsed, chatted with the owner (who happens to be from Basel Switzerland), compared our preferences in earrings, and I bought a (surprise) gift for my husband. We had the best time.  Yes we were wearing masks.  Yes we social distanced.  Yes one of the sales associates was keeping track of the customer count in the boutique. And, it was amazing.  It lifted my spirits.  It was nothing I could have experienced online.
I had the same feeling as I did a couple of weeks ago, on July 23 rd , which was my first return to a brick and mortar non grocery store since March 4th (albeit by myself).  I walked in to Apostrophe in Geneva, Switzerland, my absolutely favorite clothing store, where I have been shopping during each Geneva visit for 15+ years.  I did not enter this store with a specific need in mind – it was more of a ritual, and the opportunity to speak with the lovely boutique manager about her pandemic experience.  And, I bought a dress.  A complete impulse buy.  A dress completely opposite to every dress in my closet – patterned and colorful.  A dress the manager (who knows me and my black wardrobe) picked for me, promising me that it looked better on than on the hanger and that it was made for me.  I decided to trust her – and she was right.  I wore it to my sister’s rehearsal dinner and received more compliments than I knew what to do with.  It may
be my favorite dress I have ever owned.  I never would have purchased this online.

Online shopping will never go away.  Neither will brick and mortar shopping.  The “in real life” experience matters.  The discovery matters.  The human connection matters.

The Summer of 2020

I am writing this from Greece, more specifically from the Island of Tinos in the Cyclades. I realize how privileged this sentence is in this strange summer of 2020. As I write this, the United States is #1 in total COVID-19 cases and in COVID-19 deaths. My second home, Louisiana, has the highest of COVID-19 cases per capita in the US. Americans are not allowed in European countries – including Greece. And many remain without employment, including so many of my spa and salon friends who are still not allowed to return to their jobs. 

Considering this bleakest of situations back home, it seems surreal to wake up to the blue Aegean, on an island where life seems unchanged since my first visit when I was a child. 

It also seems like gloating. Travel envy is as prevalent these days as Zoom fatigue. I had thus decided not to post anything on social media about my current whereabouts. And then I changed my mind. My friend Kelly reminded me that “people follow you to see your life; it’s not bragging. … Also most of your followers know you vacay in Greece.”   

So instead of pretending I’m not here, I am here. And I want to tell you about my trip. 

My husband and I left the US for Switzerland on July 11. We changed this date twice, and the airline changed our itinerary three times. Finally booked on a flight that would actually happen, we flew from DC and New Orleans (respectively) to Dallas, then to London, then to Geneva. I can travel to Europe as I have a Swiss passport (so Switzerland has to let me in) and a US passport (so the US has to let me return). Edwin can travel with me, with his lone US passport, because we are legally married, and our marriage is properly registered in Switzerland. Having said that, as we were checking in to our international flight from two different cities, just getting his boarding pass printed in New Orleans was a challenge. The system would not let the check-in agent do anything with his US data, until he was able to show a letter from the Swiss Embassy proving our marriage, my record locator proving we were meeting in Dallas and doing the rest of the trip together, and a photo of my Swiss passport proving my double nationality. 

Step 1, checking in. Done. 

Step 2, boarding the DFW-Heathrow flight. We were called by the gate agent prior to boarding and had to show all of our paperwork again. 

Step 3, actually being let in to the EU at Heathrow. At the automatic transit desk, where you usually scan your boarding pass and the light automatically turns green and the gate opens to let you through, we are surprised as instead, the light turns red and makes a loud unpleasant sound. We try again. Same thing. We sheepishly head to the stern-looking lady at the “in person desk.” We show her our boarding passes, including the one from London to Geneva. She types something in her computer. “Are you married?” she asks. Yes, we respond, as I show that prized piece of paper from the Swiss Embassy once again. She looks at it, picks up the phone, and starts explaining something to a superior. In the middle of the conversation, she asks us “You wouldn’t also happen to have a certified copy of your marriage certificate, would you?”. Well, as a matter of fact, yes of course we do (who doesn’t travel with their notarized marriage certificate?). We smile and hand it to her. More conversation with superior. And then, finally, she manually scans our boarding passes. The light turns green, and the gate opens. We are officially on EU soil. 

(Side notes for those considering travel: We wore N95 masks on every plane, and surgical masks in every airport. We had shields with us but neither of us used them. We did not wear protective clothing or glasses.) 

There is nothing further to report until we get to customs in Switzerland. Once again, our marital status is questioned. Once again, the magical Swiss Embassy letter comes in handy. I offer our marriage certificate, but the customs agent nicely says the embassy letter suffices. Before she clears us, she reminds us of the Swiss government mandated ten-day quarantine we are facing upon entry (implemented July 6), and that we must register ourselves with the proper authorities when we arrive at our place of quarantine. Here, my Swiss passport is of no help. I have come from the unfortunate United States of America – and so I too, not just my American husband, must quarantine. 

Indeed, this is why we had to change our travel date to start with. The reason for this trip was first and foremost my sister’s wedding. To be “free” on the 24th, for the rehearsal dinner, we needed to have 10 days (+2 for “just in case”) of quarantine. And quarantine, in Switzerland, well, is very Swiss. We called to register with the Canton (the state of Geneva) as required. Throughout the ten days, we each received two “check in” calls, aka monitoring calls. Were we taking quarantine seriously? (Yes) Had we left our place of residence? (No) And did we have any symptoms? (No). Ten days without leaving the house was a first for me, as it was for Edwin. Luckily, we found the most beautiful AirBNB (with a terrace) to spend these ten days, Courtyard #1 at The Hamlet in the center of Old Town Geneva. Nothing to complain about, other than my inability to go for long runs along the lake as I like to do. 

We made it. We were present at Rachel and Bernard’s ceremony of love and I was able to give my speech. And then, the last leg of the trip was upon us. Zurich to Athens

(Second side note: My father is a medical doctor, and offered to give us COVID-19 tests, with results coming in within 24 hours, at any time during our stay in Geneva. We declined, because we never had any symptoms, and also because we did not know what we would do with the information should this test come back positive.)  

Similarly to our ability to travel to Switzerland, we were allowed to travel to Greece because of my Swiss (and Italian) passport and our married status. We had to fill out an online travel form (the Passenger Locator Form) 48 hours prior to boarding. This included questions such as permanent address, and where we had spent the last 14 days. Based on this questionnaire, upon arrival in Athens, we would be directed either to baggage claim, or to a COVID-19 testing area in the airport. Should the latter happen, we would have to quarantine for 24 hours until our test results came back. Luckily, we were directed to baggage claim (I do believe being able to say that we had spent the last 14 days in Switzerland had much to do with this). 

And then, we were in Greece! Baggage claim, taxi to Rafina, slow ferry to Tinos (no fast ferries are running at this time due to decreased traveler demands). And then, we were in the village of Isternia, my happy place. 

So here I am. A blend of working from home and vacationing in Europe. Life in Europe (specifically Geneva and Tinos), is surprisingly normal. Limited travel offerings (from short airport lines, a closed restaurant at the Zurich airport hotel, the lack of fast ferries) remind me that life is not quite normal. People wearing masks (mandated on public transportation and inside stores in Switzerland, and in the grocery store on Tinos) remind me that life is not quite normal. Yet mostly, people are going about their business. Children are at summer camp or at the beach. Adults are on vacation, on their honeymoons, or working their normal jobs. Is it because summers in Europe are spent outside versus in the air conditioned indoors? Is it because wearing a mask has not become a political statement? 

I cannot help but return to thoughts of my friends at home, some who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, some who are suffering from the disease, many whose businesses are hemorrhaging. I worry about what will happen when school reopens (indeed the news from counties who have begun to reopen are dreadful). I worry about what will happen when unemployment goes up more. I worry about the fall and the holiday season. I do not know why things feel better, more “normal” here. But I do know that we, Americans, can do better. 

Love + Family = Oxygen

I love love. And I love weddings. Last Saturday, my sister Rachel got married, and I was able to be there, in the beautiful vineyard Domaine du Daley, a place of UNESCO-protected vineyards (in Switzerland, after a government-mandated 10-day quarantine). 

In true pandemic fashion, this was a small affair, everything took place outside, and personalized masks were the party favor. 

In true Rachel and Bernard fashion, this was an emotional scene. My husband called it a “tear-jerker wedding.” The best man commented at the reception after a particularly moving speech “Well, it’s time for tears again – I haven’t cried in about 10 minutes.” 

Maybe it’s because there has not been much to celebrate in the past few months. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t been home with my family in eight months (a first in my life, one I wish not to repeat). Maybe it’s because of how my brother-in-law Bernard looks at Rachel. Regardless of the why, this wedding touched my soul more deeply than anticipated. 

It reminded me of the power of love, of everything that is shared between two soulmates that does not require words. A look. A kiss. A smile. A squeezing of the hand. The intimacy and team feel of a couple in love. It also reminded me that love is as essential to my well-being as the air I breathe. 

It reminded me of the importance of family. Family defined as those whom you love and for whom you will always be there. Those whose welfare you put above your own. Rachel has a daughter Sasha (Bernard is not her father). Bernard has two daughters Clara and Margaux (Rachel is not their mother). These three beautiful, strong, young women are sisters. My parents are divorced, yet as their speech to the newlyweds indicated, they are family. 

This weekend reminded me that family transcends law and biology. And that love does sometimes need to be celebrated in front of an audience.

Sisters = Antioxidants

An antioxidant is a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules, minimizing the production of free radicals, and thus protecting cells. Antioxidants = anti-aging, antioxidants both prevent and correct signs of (skin) aging. They are at the core of my skin care brand, Alchimie Forever. We use both plant antioxidants (such as blueberries, rosemary, red clover), and synthetic antioxidants (such as vitamin E, vitamin C). We always combine antioxidants in our formulations, because they have synergies. Some prevent the formation of free radicals, some neutralize existing antioxidants, some protect and potentiate other antioxidants. Indeed, in the world of antioxidants, 1+1 = 3, 3+3 = 10, and so on. This is the power of synergy. This is the power of the whole being greater than the parts. 

Over the past ten days, I have realized that sisters are like antioxidants. In the world of sisters, 1+1+1+1 is not equal to 4. Instead, 1+1+1+1 = 10. Or more. Or infinity. We, together, the four Polla sisters, are greater together than our individual parts. We are stronger together. We are smarter together. We are funnier together. We bring out the best in each other. We protect each other. Antioxidants work to prevent and correct signs of skin aging. When we are together, we prevent and correct signs of (our) life aging. I feel more youthful, more childlike than I have all year. (And my first Botox of 2020 is not until tomorrow). 

Merci mes soeurs.

Back in Quarantine

My sister Rachel is getting married next Saturday, July 25th, and I can’t imagine not being with her on that magical day. So here I am, on my third COVID-19 quarantine. Like much of the US may be feeling (closed bars, moving “back” to Phase 1), this quarantine feels like I have taken a step backward. I am not allowed to leave “my house” except for an emergency medical reason. No walks. No runs. No grocery store trips. 

Quarantine feels different in different cities. In DC, it felt like being undercover in the center of a quiet city full of possibility. In Hammond, it felt like a country retreat. In Geneva, quarantine feels “real,” particularly after the lovely yet stern conversation I had on Monday with the Canton of Geneva representative. I had to confirm my physical address, and together we counted the days until end of quarantine (just to make sure our math was on the same page). 

I am a planner, and I had a plan for this quarantine. 

  • Live in a neutral ground AirBNB with outdoor space (The Hamlet, which is family-run, is exceeding all of my expectations) 
  • Stay on US schedule (sleep in, work late) 
  • Have socially distant meetings on the terrace with my family and Swiss colleagues 
  • Spend morning hours (before the US wakes up) on creative thinking 
  • “Do Zoom” per usual 
  • Be open to what 24/7 with my husband would teach me (different from our previous quarantines, which involved space on different floors, versus sharing 700sq ft)  
  • Eat healthy 
  • Don’t drink too much 

My plan is working, other than the creative thinking, which as has been the case throughout this pandemic, is harder than it has ever been. 

I have also already learned a few things that I did not expect. 

  • I love being in Geneva “in my house.” I know this is not my house, and, I am not in a hotel and not at any other person’s home. This has never before happened in my life, and it is quite lovely.  
  • Birds help me stay sane. I feel like I am living in a tree house, with the wall to wall windows open (thank you Geneva July weather) and a constant chirping concerto, allegro at dawn, adagio at dusk. 
  • I think about leaving “the house” more than I would if I were not prohibited from doing it. (I guess like a child thinks about doing the things her parents have told her are forbidden). 
  • Smood is the most dangerous food delivery app I have come across. I can order McDonald’s (which I will not). I can order Lake Geneva perch and steak tartare from the neighborhood restaurant (which I have). There is an unlimited wine selection. And groceries from Migros are available. 

This time in Geneva brings home what I love. Not seeing my family for seven months was painful (it felt like losing part of myself). Home is laughing with my sisters and hugging my Mom (who is immune to COVID-19).

 

Up In The Air

On Monday this week I boarded a plane for the first time since March 13th

As someone who pre COVID-19 traveled about 125,000 miles per year, the last three-plus months have been strange for many reasons, including because all plane travel in my life came to a complete halt. I have had many conversations with myself about how much I have missed flying, I have loved and reposted travel memes about “walking down the aisle again,” and have told anyone willing to listen about how I could not wait to get back on the road. 

Now that I have done it, however, I am not sure that is the full truth and nothing but the truth. After imagining for so long how it would be to get back on the road, here is what I learned on Monday. ( For context, I flew American Airlines, from New Orleans to Washington National, a flight leaving at 7:30 am). 

  1. If I am honest with myself, I must admit the day leading up to this flight was filled with anxiety (which I have never had about traveling, ever). Anxiety at leaving my two kittens (who have I become?!), and anxiety about the actual travel experience. Would I be safe? Would I remember what to do? 
  2. I was surprised by the number of people at the airport. I imagined it would be deserted, yet the crowd felt relatively normal for an early morning flight.
  3. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people wearing masks. I can count on one hand those who had their masks around their necks instead of in front of their faces. 
  4. The only face shields I saw were those the TSA personnel was wearing as I walked through security. I imagine this is because they ask travelers to lower their masks (to check facial features against your ID). 
  5. Few of the amazing restaurants in the new New Orleans airport were open. Emeril’s  was… and the very nice gentleman who brought me coffee (Carlos) told me that some places had not yet reopened, and some only were open 11 am to 6 pm. 
  6. I missed random conversations with strangers, such as the one with Carlos. While I am not one to have random conversations with strangers, I apparently do so at airports, and I enjoy them. 
  7. Everyone on board wore their mask and kept it on for the duration of the two-hour flight. I wore a N95 mask, and while it was uncomfortable, it made me feel safe. 
  8. The mood on the plane was definitely subdued. Lots of empty seats, everyone being very careful with their personal space, flight attendants definitely caring more for our “safety” than our “comfort” – no food or beverage service for example. 
  9. I forgot how beautiful the clouds are from 30,000 feet up in the air. And how that view helps my creative thinking. 
  10. Overall, traveling was like getting back on a bicycle. Call it muscle memory or automatic pilot… that memory kicked in the minute I walked in to the airport. Checking in. Working at the airport. Working on the plane. I didn’t have to think about it, I just did it. I am grateful for that muscle memory. 

Did I love it? No. Do I think I will be back to flying 125,000 miles per year anytime soon? No. Will I be anxious next time I fly? No. Did I feel safe? Yes. Do I miss my kittens? Yes.