Other Musings

The Real Deal: Traveling Internationally During COVID-19

The Real Deal: Traveling Internationally During COVID-19

This will probably be the last COVID-related travel blog for 2020 since it is likely the last time I travel this year (unless I manage Christmas somehow).  But I had to go see my mom who has been in a home in Germany since 2017 and who needs to see my face, not just hear my voice.  She was diagnosed with Primary Progessive Aphasia, a frontal lobe dementia, when she was 65 (just 5 years ago), and she is also developing paralysis to the degree that everything has to be done for her.  I've been going every 3 months for the last 3 years but this year threw a wrench into that.  I'm sure many of you are in the same boat, not being able to see or interact with loved ones much, or at all, since March.  My heart goes out to all of you.

Because I am a German citizen and a permanent US resident, I am allowed to enter both Germany and the US without special permission.  But with my mom's home closed to visitors until June, and no rapid COVID-19 test available until August, there was no point in traveling. The "rapid" COVID test, which takes about 2 days to process, reduces the otherwise required 14 days' quarantine.  Also the home required the test result from me for entry, as I was coming from a high risk country.  I also needed to get special permission from the home's management to let me see her more than the prescribed 3x1 hr a week because that wasn't enough for me to warrant such an expensive trip. 

 

My Rapid COVID-19 Test Results

And expensive it was. To ensure proper distancing, I booked business class.  This, sadly, turned out to be a waste.  United Airlines, I love you, but at 4x the price of coach, it is unclear why the lounges had only chips and wrapped apples.  I was allowed to bring in food - not a simple matter these days since only two restaurants were open and they both actually had long lines.  But as the attendant at the lounge explained, there's no money to cook for just a few people.  This was the reason why the international Polaris lounges are all closed.  I would argue with that since an extra 10K for 4 people should provide, if not for a meal, then at least for a meal coupon for my $18 personal pizza, which is the only thing I could procure anyway.  After all, don't the airport restaurants need to survive too, so that those of us paying a lot for business class feel that their money is well spent?

 

The Understatement of the Day

 

Wow, What You Get for a Business Class Ticket

 

Better safe AND sorry

 

Wolfgang Puck Pizza, not Bad

 

Once on the plane, I found out that, unsurprisingly, it was 85% empty so I could have had an entire row in coach.  The food was slightly improved over coach class, but it is no longer plated because the contact between flight attendant and passenger is to be minimized.  All planes are cleaned with a special spray between flights, masks required at all times (I now use a bandana mask with rubber bands for the ears, and that stays in place plus I can breathe).  The NY Times reported that new studies show that if all people wear masks on a plane, the likelihood of your getting COVID is comparable to getting struck by lightning - surely an overstatement but "rare" will certainly do it for me.  This, by the way, is even if the plane is full.  The masks are apparently enough to catch your, um, debris. 

 

Unplated Food in United Polaris, No Extra Rolls, No Dessert

 

One way or the other, though, if you need to or can fly internationally, you can expect an empty airport and an empty plane.  The airlines have to fly because otherwise they will lose their spots at some of the important airports, like Frankfurt.  Obviously, you just need to know if you can fly and that is changing constantly.

 

Empty Coach Class

 

Empty Business Class (filled up a little more at a later point)

 

At the airport in Germany, I got through passport control and customs in no time at all, and after finding out that the arrivals lounge (as well as ANY other lounge) was closed, I made my way to the Square, an adjacent building that houses the Hilton, to get my COVID test.  United had sent me a link to register, I filled it out and got a bar code that got scanned.  The test was quick, like 2 minutes, no wait, and I got an email 36 hours later to sign in for results (negative as you can imagine).  There was an 800 number you could call for updates, I called it once and got to an agent immediately.

 

COVID-19 Testing in Germany

 

Duty Free Closed in Germany

 

From the airport I took a cab (plastic divider between front and back like all cabs I was told), straight to my city tower AirBnB, keys left on the steps for my contact free check-in.  I ordered a pizza for dinner and stayed in.  I rented a bike instead of a car, took a nice ride the first day while waiting, and met up with my dad in his yard, both of us wearing masks.  The rest of the time I spent with my mom, visiting my dad in between, and meeting friends for dinner.  Outdoor dining except for rainy days.  Riding my bike for a couple of hours every other day.

 

My Travel Bike

  

Klein Auheim, Germany

  

Little Ferry Near My Dad's House

There's no mandate for wearing a mask in the streets, but certain localities impose them if the rate rises above a certain number per capita.  There's an app you can register for that tells you if you are near anyone who is positive (20 out of 80 million Germans are registered).  The restaurants were pretty lax with spacing but as there are more outbreaks now this may change.  The rest was the same as here, masks indoors, limited number of people in shops, early closures for restaurants and shops, and no large events.

  

Outdoor Restaurant in Hochstadt Near Frankfurt

  

Scenes from a trip to the Spessart Forest:

 

Back at Newark, business as usual: long lines (not distanced) at passport control.  When will that ever change?  No quarantine requirement, which I found surprising.  I still kept a low profile though.  

The short of it: As far as Business Class for international travel during the pandemic goes, save your money!  But yes, you can travel safely, depending on where you go and where you are coming from.  The airports, largely, allow for lots of personal space.  We'll see if a Christmas trip works out; right now it's not looking so great because COVID-19 infections are on the rise... but at least I made it back to Germany, one more time this year!

 

Where I Stayed in Hochstadt, at Sundown

 

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The Small Apple Inside the Big Apple: The Web of Cultures in the Diamond District

The Small Apple Inside the Big Apple: The Web of Cultures in the Diamond District

Midtown Manhattan is quiet these days; subway rides are down 85%, restaurants are shuttered, food carts diminished or vanished entirely, flagship stores on 5th Avenue are available for rent, Times Square is a ghost town… But once you get to the corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street, life seems to be almost back to normal.  Most of the exchanges are open and fairly busy, and the street itself is lively.  While high end purchases are down and a number of vendors have moved out or closed, this is not something you can easily tell just by walking down the street.

When I think back to my first forays into the Diamond District, I remember being struck by how many different cultures and languages could be found on just one block, diverse groups all conversing with one another, making deals, offering and receiving work.  The people in the Diamond District have somehow survived stock market crashes, terrorist attacks, and here they are still amidst the mass exodus that has befallen NYC post Covid-19.  

The short block between 5th and 6th Avenues has formed its own varied culture in one of the most diverse cities on the planet. I sometimes think that more languages are spoken on this block than in all of New York City combined.  

The centerpiece of the Diamond District is of course the diamond trade itself. To this day, that trade is dominated by the Hasidim - Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn who speak Yiddish mixed with Hebrew and, of course, English.  Other Jewish diamond dealers are more recent immigrants from Israel, yet others, mostly those working in colored diamonds and other colored gems, are largely Indian, speaking Hindi, Gujrati and English with its own unique inflection.  Some of the colored gem dealers are Sri Lankan so you can add Sinhalese to the mix, as well.

My first jewelers/setters were from Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese.  Only one person in the entire shop spoke English.  My pearl stringer was from China, and so was the guy I knew only as "the man who drills holes" as well as doing some other simple lapidary work.  Many Chinese in the Diamond District speak only Cantonese, but you don’t need much English to communicate and even less to do good work.

Spanish is another very commonly spoken language on “the street.” My polisher and several other polishers and jewelers I know are from various places in South America.  The wax carver I occasionally use grew up in Peru.  My engraver, by contrast, is from an entirely different part of the universe: the Ukraine.

Probably the most interesting group of languages spoken in the Diamond District centers around the Armenian culture.  As my jeweler explained to me once, Armenians living in Turkey were denied entry into most professions and learning the jewelry trade was one of their few options.  In the Diamond District, Armenian workmanship is highly sought after.  

After being expelled, Armenians ended up in many parts of the world: Greece, Iran, and parts of Russia among many others.  Correspondingly you hear not only various forms of Armenian spoken in the Diamond District but also Greek, Russian, Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic, Turkish and even French.

One of the languages spoken the least (almost never actually), is, you guessed it, German.  So I’m sort of the “odd man out” both in terms of nationality but also in terms of my philosophy degrees. There are not many ex-Philosophers in the jewelry trade, lol.  One also doesn’t hear many Africans languages being spoken, though you do when you go to Tucson.  There you can add Swahili, Malagasy and many other African languages to the mix.  

For all its diversity, I have not experienced any culture or race based animosity in the Diamond District.  Many people are personal friends regardless of their background.  Because there is a bit of a subdivision of trades between cultures everyone has to work with everyone else at some point.  Disputes, when they arise, are usually settled within the Diamond District without resorting to the court room.

I’m sure my optimistic description of the Diamond District appears overly rosy to some, but I'm pleased my outlook can be on the positive side, especially these days when we all need each other’s support more than ever.

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Fiction vs. Fact? How to Evaluate What you Read about COVID-19

Fiction vs. Fact? How to Evaluate What you Read about COVID-19

Are you overwhelmed by all of the different information you are getting about this pandemic, and not sure what to make of the data?  You are probably not alone.  In a crisis like this, the amount of misinformation rivals, if not exceeds, the useful information that you need.

To help with this question, I’m going to set aside my jewelry designer hat and put my philosophy hat back on.  My Ph.D. is in Analytic Philosophy, which extensively trains you in broad based research, and I taught critical reasoning classes for almost 18 years.  By sharing just a few simple tricks, I think I can do my bit to help empower you to get a better handle on what’s fiction and what’s fact. 

  1. It is understood that you are not an expert here.  Neither am I.  We are not doctors or statisticians and we don’t know how to computer-model population migration in a time of frequent international travel.  In addition, we may not know how to read and evaluate a study for its promise.  That is one reason why the information we receive will be based on indirect evidence.  We rely on testimony from other people who we don’t know we can trust.  These other people should be experts.  If they are, you can and should defer to them. 
  1. Experts in a field should have the relevant degree and/or experience.  This relevance should be as specific as possible.  A podiatrist is not an expert in influenza or other infectious disease.  A doctor can and will have a lot of relevant information, but ideally you want to look at information written by or in conjunction with an infectious disease specialist, or any relevant experience. Alternatively, you want the person quoted in the article to be referred to by name, so that you can do a quick check to see who that person is.   
  1. The information should come from a reputable source.  Facebook, for instance is not a reputable source because it does not have a fact checking process for what is published there.  If you get your news from Facebook, then track down its origin.  If no origin is mentioned, chuck it.
  1. The source should not be biased.  The individual or news outlet that publishes it should not have a personal interest in you believing what they say.  Bias is everywhere: politicians want you to vote for them, news channels want you to keep watching, drug companies want you to purchase what they advertise.  We have to accept that bias, but we can do what we can to diminish it, for instance by cross checking via triangulation.
  1. When you use triangulation you verify the data you have received by checking with another, independent source of this data.  The more independent verification you receive, the more you can hope that the news community, medical community etc. has reached something of a consensus. The more consensus there is among the relevant expert community, the better.
  1. What about eyewitness reports and personal experience related to us in a YouTube or other video?  Assuming that the eyewitness is telling the truth (I want to set lying aside here), such information is useful but also limited.  If a hospital worker tells you there are not enough masks where she is working, or that they are asked to ration, this may not mean that there are not enough masks available.  Perhaps the hospital is stockpiling because a hospital administrator is afraid the hospital will run out.  Or perhaps not, but the problem is you don’t know for sure. Again, it depends on who is talking, and in what capacity.
  2. Another problem with eyewitness testimony is that you cannot generalize from it.  What may be true in one hospital may not be true at another.  What is true in Louisiana may not be true in Texas. What is true about how one person reacts to the virus may not be true of another.
  1. If a study is referenced in the information you read, was the study conducted by a reliable source?  Is it a large-scale study or does it only consist of a small sample (i.e. a few dozen people)?  Is the sample randomized so that we can trust that it generalizes?  If you don’t know, just consider a few facts that illustrate that generalizing information is not very easy. In Italy there are a lot of people dying right now.  Does this mean a lot of people will die in Colombia (just to pick someplace other than here)?  Probably not.  Could be more, could be less.  The demographics of these two countries are different in a number of relevant ways.  Just some of those facts are average age, average health (i.e. are there a lot of smokers), the health care system itself, available supplies and doctors, government response, etc. 

As you can imagine, I have been doing a lot(!) of reading and watching TV over the past few weeks.  I’ve talked to doctor friends, I have looked at all news media including the German ZDT and the BBC, and yes, YouTube.   Not Facebook, I’m afraid.  Not a fan (for news anyway).

Here are a few things to read and watch that I personally found helpful, and why.

  1. https://vimeo.com/399733860

The video in the link above was recorded on 3/22/2020 and explains extensively how you can protect yourself and your family from COVID-19.  The author is Dr. David Price of Weil Cornell Medical Center in New York City, which is now exclusively devoted to COVID-19 patients.  All Weil does is see COVID patients, all day, every day.  This video is worth watching in its entirety.  The presentation is very careful and detail-oriented and does not overstate its conclusions. The presentation seems both transparent and without bias.

 

Above is a CNN interview with Bill Gates, recorded on 3/26/2020.  While Bill Gates is not a doctor, he has no political or other bias in this matter, as a philanthropist he’s not looking for personal gain.  Gates gave a TED talk on pandemics in 2015 (https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_the_next_outbreak_we_re_not_ready/transcript?language=en) Gates is a highly intelligent computer scientist who knows how to hire other highly intelligent computer scientists and he has the resources to crunch data and do computer modeling.  

 

  1. 3/21/2020 New Yorker article entitled “Keeping the Coronavirus from Infecting Health-Care Workers.” 

The article above is authored by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Gawande is very well published and the winner of numerous prizes for his articles addressed at a general audience.  You will find that this very readable piece correlates with the claims made by Price.

 

  1. https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-03-22/coronavirus-outbreak-nobel-laureate

Above is perhaps the most contentious of the list of articles I have put together.  It is a Los Angeles Times Article with an interview with Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Michael Levitt.  Biophysicist Levitt won his Nobel Prize for multiscale modeling for complex chemical systems, and he argues that lessons from China show that with proper social distancing guidelines in place, the pandemic could be over sooner than is predicted.  This is iffy because the US started testing extensively and officially urging social distancing only about 10 days ago.  So we are a bit late to the game, and are right now experiencing the steepest increase in infections.  Nevertheless, according to the Coronavirus Map at John’s Hopkins, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html, out of 164,000 positive tests as of Tuesday Morning, only 1.2% had died, compared to 3.5% in China, without extensive use of hazmat equipment (obviously this is is subject to change as most of these cases were just diagnosed).

So, I included this last article despite the many variables that could change Levitt’s conclusions because it ends on a slightly more optimistic note.

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Keeping Calm and Carrying On Amidst the Chaos of COVID-19

Keeping Calm and Carrying On Amidst the Chaos of COVID-19

What’s going on in the world?! And what are we doing here in Jersey City? 

Well didn’t I get back just in time?  My 90% empty airplane touched down at Newark Airport from Germany last Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. and it’s been mayhem ever since, as I’m sure it is where you live as well.  Mad dashes into NYC to check on delayed custom orders, status phone calls with just about everyone I work with, cat food purchases, Amazon deliveries of litter and detergent, food (I did not buy toilet paper, but so far so good!).

 

"Happy you are staying home with me, Mom"

 

Then, Monday morning comes, and Boom! Not unanticipated, but no less shocking.  Closures everywhere, curfew in place, and Jersey City falls silent.  My mom’s home in Germany is closed to visitors, my little sister is working from home (in the travel industry, not ideal), my dad, who is always well prepared, is kicking up his feet and having some wine.  He did his shopping slowly, methodically, and long ago.  He will keep busy with the garden and stay away from others.  He’s 79.

With most commerce on pause, only Earth herself can rejoice.  She’s getting her first breaths of fresh air in decades.  

Grander thoughts aside, let’s get back to the ground, specifically, the several square miles that is my home and place of work.  As you know, I work from home, JC is from where I ship, run the shop, take photos, field sales, and everything else.  I have trays and trays of Tucson purchases yet to process, and if the post office doesn’t close (very unlikely, it hasn’t closed anywhere else that I know of), business  continues.  I can get shipments from vendors whose shows were cancelled and who are in need of retail sales, and I can source new gems with perhaps a slightly extended timeline.

Johanna, social media and graphic design person, can work from home as needed, as almost all our business is virtual.  Karen can partly work from home as well and we are already switching her workload around.  My travel plans have gone bust for a while, which means we have more time to go over Etsy listings, old gemstone stock here, and reorganize, upgrade and improve as needed.  

Jewelry and custom orders are a bit of a different story, so let me explain the complexities.  Behind many of the retail outfits you see, even your stores in the mall, lies a vast network of manufacturers, many of them not very large.  Cecile Raley Designs works exclusively with small artisan shops, all the way down to one man or woman shows: Pierre, Ethan, Brandy, Vasken, John, Ricardo and Claire, Alex, just to name a few, make money only when they work.  And about half of them are sole providers, so nobody else in the household makes money.  As business halts, their nosedive is immediate.  So with the resources I have available to me, I will try to prevent that from happening.  

We don’t have travel restrictions in place yet (though they make come), but we will nevertheless interact in person as little as possible.  Some people have benches at home and will work from there whenever possible.  Setting and small jewelry work is therefore not disrupted as of just yet.  Rather than going to NY, I mail things out to them.  CAD work is also not affected, as that’s in any case remote.  Brandy, who has been a casualty of the cuts at her full time gig as of this morning, is standing by to make CADs if orders come in.  Jewelry parts can be ordered online and either delivered to the jewelers by the suppliers (since they are all in the same area) or they can be mailed.

 

Video of Brandy, working on CAD

 

The weak link is casting.  Taba, my go to casting service, is closed until further notice.  This makes sense as Taba is the largest office I work with.  Everyone else either has their own office or it is shared with just one person.  Taba has a few dozen people now (they were just a few people when I started) and casting requires more heavy-duty machinery so it’s nothing you can take home.

Some other casting houses are still open, so I’m going with a plan B and sending stuff to them, but the next few days will tell us how that is going to progress.  The news changes daily, so you may hear from me more often, though in less detail.

 

Sample CAD design

 

My biggest concern, however, are the people all the way at the end of this chain -  the miners and cutters in foreign places.  Africa doesn’t have much COVID-19 as of yet – so far as we know because it’s not like they have much testing either.  But it also doesn’t have money.  If my vendors don’t sell, they don’t source, if they don’t source, the system over there breaks down.  Even faster than it does here.

Is there a takeaway message for you here?  If there is, it’s not a deep one.  I’m not going to ask you to buy gems from me when you fear for your employment.  That’s not smart (for me or you).  

What I am saying is that we are still up and running, we can ship, and with perhaps some hiccups and extensions, we can also have stuff made.  We can do CAD designs with you if you’re bored, and we encourage you to send in ideas for our "Lonely Stones" design contest if you’re home and climbing the walls.

And I will ask that you keep each other in mind, and within the limits of your particular situation, do what you can to support your friends, neighbors and your local small businesses.

Be well and be safe!

Yvonne, Karen and Johanna

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What's Ahead for 2019?

What's Ahead for 2019?
Buying within the US, and especially buying from an AGTA vendor, a retail buyer enjoys much greater safety.  The AGTA carefully vets each new member.  It takes several months to process a new membership, which is not automatic but the result of a vote, and requires several references of both AGTA members and non-members.  To be an AGTA member, you have to be a US based business and have been active for at least two years.  Continue reading