Well, you know until what. But until Covid-19 struck, it had been an extremely productive and enjoyable six weeks, including two cockle-gathering expeditions (were it not for the virus, there would have been a third), a visit to the stunningly beautiful and historically fascinating Quarantine Island at the mouth of Otago Harbour, many walks in the lovely Dunedin Botanic Garden (where within a few days of arrival, I managed to get locked in trying to cross to the other side just after the gates closed at 9 pm), and making new friends at Abbey College, the postgraduate college of the University of Otago (adjacent to the botanic garden), where I've now resided for the past three visits. On this visit, I was introduced to billiards. Alas, despite near-nightly practice and the students' valiant efforts to coach me, I remained the most inept player at Abbey. Below are some photos along with a slightly-edited version of a long email circulated to friends and family immediately after the rather harrowing return journey to the U.S.
Cockling (and grilling & eating the catch)
The first expedition was with Hamish shortly after my arrival, the second with Fiona Stuart and her partner Don, who is also an avid fisherman. After the second, where we also collected edible (cat's eyes) snails, Hamish & Abby joined us for an incredible repast at Fiona and Don's place that included trout (caught and smoked by Don), cockles both smoked and turned into patties, the snails, and platters of raw tuna, of sliced pork, and of delicate lamb sweetbreads acquired from the abattoir the day before -- accompanied by a perfect Riesling. (Final photo is the amazing view from Fiona and Don's deck).
The Dunedin Botanic Garden
An (unexpectedly timely) excursion
Quarantine Island is open to the public one Saturday a month, when volunteers are invited to help members of the Trust that manages the island (in conjunction with the Department of Conservation) with clean-up, planting, and other small tasks. My Iranian friend (from a previous stay at Abbey) Ellie Torbati invited me to join her, another Iranian friend Arezoo, and Ellie's PhD Biochemistry supervisor Chris (a member of the Trust) on one of these excursions to the island, where there are many trails, a cemetery, and kayaks that are free to use. The weather was perfect, and a few hardy souls even went swimming. For more information on this fascinating place: http://quarantineisland.org.nz/
billiards at abbey college
saturday morning otago farmers market
Adjacent to iconic railway station. Hamish & Abby w strawberries & raspberries
finally (and sadly): The international terminal at Auckland airport, 25 March 2020
Photo of passengers in Hazmat suits courtesy of Clio and Antoine
The Long Journey Home (an email sent to friends & family):
I returned to Cambridge on Thursday evening and following the plea from Mass. Gov. Baker that all travelers to the state -- irrespective of where they traveled from -- self-quarantine for two weeks, I am hunkered down in my Cambridge apt. Given the amount of catching-up that I have to do, this is not a problem. (I only began to unpack and sort through my accumulated mail yesterday).
The last week has been an emotional roller-coaster -- of Coney Island Cyclone proportions. The trip home alternated highs and lows. It first seemed that I would be unable to leave the country. The NZ Prime Minister announced that NZ would move to risk level 4 (hence no international flights) in 48 hours, with the countdown apparently effective immediately. Had that stood, I would have missed the opportunity to leave by several hours. It was impossible to re-book on the Air New Zealand website or reach an agent. However, a later clarification indicated that the country would go to level 4 at midnight of the second day, which meant that my flight, scheduled to leave Auckland at 11 pm, would get in just under the wire. (Later, an exception was announced for visitors and tourists heading home, who would be given another 3 days to travel). But there was a second issue. On the way to NZ, my flight from Houston to Auckland had been delayed and, as a result, I missed my connection to Dunedin. Somehow, in the process of re-booking, my return Dunedin-Auckland flight was lost, or at least lost to view. I didn't realize this until the travel situation had already turned chaotic and I went to check my flights on the Air NZ app on my phone and then the airline website. My trans-Pacific flight was visible, but the flight from Dunedin had completely disappeared and could not be added manually. As passengers were asked not to call Air NZ (which was anyway near-impossible to reach), I emailed, only to receive a message saying that they would try to respond "within 15-20 days." Eventually, my Kiwi friend and collaborator Hamish Spencer was able to inquire on my behalf at the Wellington airport, and Jeremy Mikkelsen, a PhD student (and excellent billiards player) at Abbey College, took the initiative to message a friend at the airline; both were told that although the flight would not display for me, it was visible to agents. So I initially relaxed, but as the time approached and I still could not see the flight or add it to the itinerary, I again became anxious, so Hamish drove me to the airport in the morning. There, the situation took a major turn for the better, when a kind and competent Air NZ agent arranged for me to fly stand-by on an earlier flight to Auckland.
I then had a 7-hour layover in the eerily deserted Auckland Intl Airport, where the only two places open (take-out only) were a Kentucky Fried Chicken before security and a McDonald's after. I decided that I'd rather starve than eat American junk food in NZ so settled down to wait, a situation made much more pleasant by meeting a young French couple, Clio and Antoine, whose vacation in NZ had abruptly ended before it had really started. (We vowed to stay in touch and to get together again in Toulouse and/or Boston). But my new sense of calm was shattered soon before the call to board the flight to LA when I was messaged by Evelyn Keller's son Jeff, reporting that Evelyn (who had been staying with her sister Fran in Millerton, NY) had been taken by ambulance to a hospital in Connecticut with breathing difficulties and seizure, that she was septic, had pneumonia, and was in generally bad shape, and that the hospital needed end-of-life documents (which I was able to forward from my Dropbox). Ordinarily I sleep on the long trans-Pacific flights, but on this trip I found myself checking my phone every 10 minutes or so, unsure if Evelyn would survive the night. (The good news is that she did and indeed is nearly recovered although still in hospital with no visitors allowed). [Update on 1 April: The doctor's report turned out to be over-optimistic, and Evelyn was only discharged from hospital to a nearby rehab facility this evening]. Her advice to me when we were able to speak on the phone: "Try not to get sick during a pandemic."
The interlude in LA felt surreal. I was able to retrieve my luggage, clear immigration & customs, and leave the airport in perhaps ten minutes flat (despite all that I'd read about medical screenings causing huge back-ups at LAX and elsewhere). I had booked a room in the Embassy Suites hotel at the airport. The hotel had the same eerie quality as Auckland airport with only one clerk at the desk and hardly any guests. I hopefully said to the desk clerk: "I don't suppose that the pool is open," a question that he clearly thought so inane that it didn't merit a response. But he finally managed to say: "You can safely assume that none of the usual amenities are available." That included access to food of any kind. But here another bright spot, as my young friend Karen Guan who lives with her family in El Segundo (where LAX is located) came to the rescue with a delicious, home-cooked 3-course meal that she brought to the hotel.
I caught an early (and almost empty) flight to Boston in the morning. The passenger in the row behind me was a very large man dressed in shorts with a Hawaiian hat, who entered the plane dead drunk, refused to use a seat belt, cursed loudly ("fucking this and fucking that") throughout the flight, and stood up to remove his luggage from the overhead compartment before the plane had even begun to taxi to the terminal. That was the bad news about the flight. The good news is that I was upgraded -- on a flight costing $133(!) -- to first class and also got to watch "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." It is a sign of the mental state that I was in by then that I sobbed uncontrollably through a chunk of the film (although I never cry at movies and this one's anyway not sad).
Ok, time to stop before the saga becomes as long as the trip. For those who might be interested, within the next 2-3 days, I will post some photos of happy times in NZ (of which there were many) to the Quahog Blog on my website.
Thinking of you all -- even when I've not been able to communicate individually.
(Originally written/emailed on March 29 and posted with slight edits on April 1).
Easter is huge here, with the holiday beginning on Good Friday (a bank holiday) and running through Monday (another bank holiday). With the institute closed for four days, the other researchers either scattered or had their partners visit here. I took advantage of the free period -- and brilliant, sunny weather, with temps in the 70s -- to make three excursions, meet up with close friends of my cousins Caryl and David (from David's UN days), and further explore the city. The excursions were to the small French medieval walled village of Yviore (in France, just north of Hermance), which I reached by boat, to the also medieval city of Montreux at the opposite end of the lake from the city of Geneva, where I met with a psychologist colleague, Henriette, who lives in a 16th-century farmhouse and has written a book on the local history of one of its villages (the photo to the right of the one with Henriette is the view through her front door, and the last Montreuy photo is the Château de Chillon, made famous by Byron's "Prisoner of Chillon" poem), and to Sion, in the Southwestern canton of Valais, a city famous for its vineyards, irrigation canals, and impressive hilltop castles. Today (Monday), I finally made it to the spot in the city of Geneva where the Rhône and Arve rivers dramatically meet: https://www.spottedbylocals.com/geneva/pointe-de-la-jonction/. It was so warm that there were several swimmers as well as kayakers and paddle-boarders in the water and, along the riverbank, many sunbathers and families picnicking. (I'm wearing a jacket only because I'd left the Brocher in the early morning when it was still cool and didn't want to carry it).
pointe de la junction, monday, 22 april 2019
Yvoire (France) by boat