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. 

Two New Favorite Spots in Geneva

I love going home to Geneva, Switzerland, partly because I feel like the city is the same as when I left it in 1995. I love going to the same places over and over again, and have written about my favorites both in National Geographic and here.

Yet, as I leave after three days in my childhood home, to go back to my adult home of Washington DC (go Nats!), I was thrilled to discover two amazing new places that I look forward to visiting again and again.

La Comtesse Champagne & Cocktail Bar

My sisters and I had an apéro there last night, with Mom. A 6th generation family business run by the lovely Anaïs Leconte, this elegant yet cozy bar is an expansion of the core business, which is making champagne. Highlight: the champagne cocktail list is the longest I have ever seen. I will need to go back many times to try them all! 

Le Decanteur

Nestled in the Quartier des Eaux-Vives, this modern Italian restaurant and wine bar is my new favorite. Amazing pasta, amazing Italian wine list. Luca Ragnelli, the owner and master chef, has been cooking since the age of 13, studied at the Ecole Hoteliere of Geneva, spent time in Parma, and worked at the Noga Hilton (now Kempinski) before opening his restaurant. My favorite factoid? One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is inspired and named after is aunt Tina.

Alchimie Forever… The Story Behind Our Name

It is Marketing 101 that when choosing a brand name, something short, easy to pronounce and spell, and memorable in various cultures and countries is the way to go.

My sister Cyrille and I chose Alchimie Forever as our brand name, many years ago in a delightful tea shop in the Old Town of Geneva. If I had a penny for every time our brand name was misspelled or mispronounced… What were we thinking?

Watch me tell the story here or keep reading.

As we started brainstorming, we identified four guiding principles:

  • We wanted a name that started with A (first letter of the alphabet, A like Ada, who knows…)
  • We wanted a link to Forever Institut, the medical spa our skin care brand was born in
  • We wanted a word in French (elegant, Swiss, international), and a word in English (universal, American, approachable)

We started listing French words starting with A… and suddenly my sister lit up and said “Alchimie!” And then we switched from drinking tea to celebrating with champagne!

It made sense for so many reasons. Alchimie (pronounced al-shee-mee) is the French word for alchemy. And alchemy is very much at the heart of our skin care philosophy.

  • Alchemy is the medieval science that became chemistry. And how can you formulate skin care products without chemistry, without labs, without clinical studies? There can be no skin care without science.
  • Alchemy is also part magic. The Alchemists were involved in such mystical pursuits as transforming lead into gold and finding the stone of eternal youth (both endeavors somehow related to beauty and youth). And skin care is indeed part magic…
  • The Alchemists were also among the first to identify plants as having healthful benefits. And potent botanicals are at the core of our formulations.

So yes, our brand name is hard to pronounce, and hard to spell – and now you know why: science, magic, and powerful botanicals!  

Our Business Didn’t Start as a Business… Our Origin Story

Alchimie Forever does not exist because one day my father, Dr. Luigi L. Polla, sat at his desk and decided to start a skin care brand.

Alchimie Forever does not exist because a consultant ran focus groups, identified white space in the market, raised some money, and created a business.

Alchimie Forever exists because my father is a softie and can’t stand to see children suffer.

Alchimie Forever exists because 30+ years ago, my father couldn’t find the perfect product to help heal the skin of his young patients post procedure.

Let me tell you our “origin story.” (Thanks, Marc Ross, for teaching me this terminology.)

My father opened his dermatology practice in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1986, and was the first dermatologist to offer pulsed dye laser technology to treat children suffering from Port Wine Stains and hemangiomas. Parents brought their children from near and far to have Dad erase these debilitating birthmarks, an endeavor that required numerous treatments over a period of months, sometimes years.

I was already working with my father back then (at the front desk) and I remember hearing the children crying from the pain, as the laser treatment created heat and discomfort, redness and inflammation, and a burning sensation. And if there is something my father can’t stand, it is a child in pain (he switched his medical specialization from pediatrics to dermatology after realizing he could not handle seeing terminally ill children). He needed a product to help make them feel better – to help heal their skin.

Not finding the right product, he created his own “recipe.” He would send his patients’ parents to a neighborhood pharmacy with a compounding prescription, the pharmacist would whip up a magical product in little white jars right there and then, and the child would stop crying. The prescription was for what is known today as our Kantic Brightening moisture mask. This compounded product, meant to help heal the kids’ skin post procedure, smelled so good that the mothers ended up also using it, and asking for more at the follow-up appointment: “it makes my skin glow,” they would say. For their convenience, we ended up “pre-making” the product.

One product led to another, and to another, and finally to the brand that became Alchimie Forever.

Alchimie Forever exists because of what is still our hero product, our Kantic Brightening moisture mask.

Long before this mask had a name, it had a loyal following.

Long before we had a brand, we had skin care solutions.

Long before we had a business, we had a mission.

Geneva

Places to visit, eat, and play in Geneva

I am often asked for recommendations about places to visit, eat, play in Geneva. This despite the fact that I left when I was 17, and that when I go back every quarter, being a creature of habit, I mostly go to the same places.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a few of my favorite places, here. But I realized in sharing this with my sisters that it was time to update my list, in particular for a couple of friends heading that way this summer.

Here are a few more current favorite addresses.

The best view of Lake Geneva is from the rooftop of the Hotel Metropole, recently opened, where you can have an apero and enjoy a glass of champagne. Get there early to secure a seat.

My favorite steak restaurant L’ Entrecôte, closed, so I had to find another one. One of my sisters recommended Entrecôte St Jean on the Boulevard Carl Vogt, and indeed the steak and fries are to die for.

For something a little lighter, a “US-sized” salad, Twins also on the Boulevard Carl Vogt is a great option. And in the wintertime, make sure you head to the Quai des Bains for a fondue, outside, on the lake.

After dinner, head to Bottle Brothers in the Eaux-Vives neighborhood, for original cocktails and great conversation. And for late night fun, the Baroque is still the place to be to drink and dance –including dancing on the tables. Indeed, when I ate there recently, Taz’s Angels were arriving just as I was leaving… and dancing on the tables there was!

How to tell you are in Geneva…

There are many reasons I love coming back to Geneva, where I just spent three days. Family. Friends. And the inescapable feeling of being home. Still, even though it has been almost 20 years since I left.

I was struck during this visit by all of the things that make Geneva, Geneva… Perhaps not even the things, but the subtleties, the behaviors. Here’s how to tell you are in Geneva.

1. Everyone still wears a watch. Usually a very nice watch. Which means no one is constantly looking at their phones to figure out the time.

2. Everyone and everything is on time. All the time. Perhaps this is related to wearing a watch.

3. Geneva is a walking city. The alternative is to take the bus (manufactured by Mecedes-Benz, always clean and on time) or the Tram. If you must drive, you can always take out your Ferrari or Aston Martin. I rarely see as many fancy cars as I do here… (perhaps I need to go to Monaco).

4. You run into three people you know, on average, during a 5 block walk. Geneva is small, very small…

5. Everyone is well dressed, elegant, and thin. Perhaps it is because they know they might run into their former beau at any time (refer to point 4 above).

6. And everyone’s hair is always perfectly done. According to my BFF Erin who pointed this fact out to me earlier today, this is even more the case here than New York (she has lived both in the Big Apple and in Geneva).

7. While all black is known as New York women’s preferred wardrobe, women here wear a lot of brown on brown (during the colder months) and beige on beige (when the weather is warmer). This is somehow more conservative, more understated, yet more regal than black on black.

8. Lunches (including during the week) typically involve either a glass of champagne or wine. This is considered normal and lovely.

9. People do not walk and sip coffee at the same time. I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen someone sipping anything from a travel mug or go cup.

Geneva, I love you… Don’t ever change!