Podcast #168 — Surviving Quarantine Theater; Traveling for Food

My mission is clear

Trying to recover from a long weekend of eating and drinking through the neighborhoods of South Philly. Our movable feast reminded me that food may be the one experience of a place left that can’t be easily exported and bought on-line. We talk about the FBI’s cybersecurity warning to work-from-home types using hotels for getaway offices, and are a bit amazed at how fast last year’s “flight shaming” gave way to “flights to nowhere.” And we think about “quarantine theater” — how cities and states are focusing on activities to signal they are serious about COVID, but that most folks know aren’t really effective. All this and more – download the podcast file, go over to the Subscribe section on the right to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #168:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after a long weekend of eating and drinking and eating some more with friends in Philadelphia, a family we’ve traveled with before – South Africa, Singapore, Spain… and now, with COVID lockdowns, Philly. And while we’ll do a cultural thing or two, what we really like to do together is eat. It is the kind of group where comments like: “OK, we need to stop eating at 1:30 because we have 5:30 reservations” and “We’re only going to order the half-kilo of barbacoa because we’re eating again in 4 hours” are met with “Yeah, that’s a good point,” and “makes sense” rather than “I think we have a problem here.” 
  • And Pennsylvania’s reopening regulation about needing to buy food when getting a beer didn’t help. After sneaking in a cheesesteak right before that 1:30 cutoff, we had to order some food with our afternoon beers — the beer, of course, not subject to that 1:30 deadline because it’s liquid, so it’s not really food, so it doesn’t count. But we had to order some real, solid food with our beers. So we look at the menu — ah, brussels sprouts, it’s a vegetable, that’s kinda healthy. Five minutes later, our beers arrive with a wire basket full of deep-fried brussels sprouts doused in a sweet chili sauce. So much for healthy.
  • But some of the bars, the smaller ones, the neighborhood ones, gamed it — as these places are wont to do — by putting a $1 food item on the menu — 2 hard boiled eggs at one bar, a PB&J at another. The best, though, was the Pop Tart we had with our last beer at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly. That one won the prize.
  • Which we found because we skipped the usual downtown/Center City/Society Hill hotels and grabbed an Airbnb in South Philly – kinda sandwiched between the older Italian neighborhoods and the newer Little Saigon area. We spent a lot of time outdoors, walking the neighborhoods — and walking off our food — and stopping in at neighborhood joints. One day, we’re picking up salamis and cheese from the Italian Market; another day, we’re buying banh mi’s from a Vietnamese bakery. I’ll write up a list of our favorite places for the TravelCommons website in a couple of weeks — after my cholesterol level gets back to some semblance of normal.
  • Bridge Music — Another Girl (instrumental) by duckett (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/duckett/23334 Ft: fourstones, miafas

Following Up

  • First, a big “Thank You” to Gary Learned who goes by Denrael on social media for his review in Apple Podcasts. Gary is a long-time TravelCommons listener. Indeed, he’s pointed me to some great restaurants in places like Seattle and Memphis. Gary wrote a couple of weeks ago:
    • “When people ask where I live, I usually just say airports and hilton. As someone who lives the life of the road warrior, I find this podcast strikes an all-to-familiar chord with my own experiences. A definite must-listen to understand the life of the traveller.
    • “I wrote the above a number of years ago and it is as true now as it was then, I look forward to Mark’s take on travel, it’s more about the journey, and cannot count the number of times when I’ve shook my head, laughed and said “yep, been there.”
  • Gary, thanks for that. And thanks for staying with me this long.
  • The FBI pushed out a consumer alert last week to remind folks about the risks when using hotel wi-fi. We’ve talked about this many times and I think most frequent travelers know the drill when accessing any shared wi-fi, whether it be in a hotel or an airport or a bar or a Starbucks. Nothing new there, so why the FBI alert? Because the “FBI has observed a trend where individuals who were previously teleworking from home are beginning to telework from hotels. US hotels, predominantly in major cities, have begun to advertise daytime room reservations for guests seeking a quiet, distraction-free work environment.” So people who used to work in offices and have been working from home since March, are looking for a change of scenery, but either can’t or aren’t keen to go back to the group office setting. Enter downtown hotels, many of whom, we mentioned last month, are slouching towards bankruptcy because of low occupancy. Don’t want a bed for the night? How ‘bout a desk for the day? I just got an email from Omni Hotels pitching just that — “Trade up your classroom for everything you need for a productive day of work plus downtown Los Angeles views.” I guess the FBI thinks these displaced office workers, used to working on secure corporate or home networks, might not be as careful. But even for frequent travelers, the alert is a good read:  talking about the dangers of an “evil twin” attack, logging onto what looks like a hotel wi-fi but is actually a hacker’s network; logging into the actual hotel wi-fi which has been compromised through exploits in out-of-date or unpatched network hardware. The FBI’s top recommendations are ones we’ve repeated numerous times – use a VPN when you connect to public wi-fi, or avoid them altogether with a mobile hotspot. Even when I’ve had a corporate VPN, I’ve always used one of the top paid VPN providers – NordVPN, PIA or ExpressVPN – because their software is so much better. I’m using NordVPN now, and whenever I’m not on a private network, I fire up the Nord client and it handles everything — connects to the best server, reconnects automatically when I open the lid to wake up my Mac again. I don’t have to think about it. Indeed, half the time I forget to shut it off at home, until I’m wondering why I can’t move a file to another PC. Also, only access secure websites; I used to say “look for https://” but I guess that was too geeky, so you need to look for lock icons instead. And, of course, enable 2-factor authentication whenever you can. Nothing new, but a good reminder nonetheless. I’ll put a link to the alert in the show notes, but you can also find links on the TravelCommons Facebook page and Twitter account.
  • OK, I gotta ask “what happened to Greta Thunberg’s ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shaming’ — the 2019 existential travel threat? Because the whole Asian thing of “flights to nowhere” — EVA Air from Taiwan filling up its “Hello Kitty” plane, All Nippon doing a fake flight to Hawaii, and then Qantas selling out a 787 for a lap around Australia. Singapore Air scrapped their “flight to nowhere” at the last minute, instead turning one of their A380s into a pop-up restaurant. I have to tell you that, honestly, I just don’t get this. For me, the flight is a means to an end — something I’ve got to bear to get where I want to go. Getting on that American 737 in ORD last week didn’t fill me with joy; it was just simple math — 2 hrs in a plane vs. 11 hrs in a car. And all that I just said… goes double for the idea of voluntarily buying airplane meals to eat at home. Words fail me.
  • At the end of September, the CDC did an early release of an article slated for the November issue of their peer-reviewed journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (and I thought Walden Pond was a cure for insomnia). The article analyzed the in-flight transmission of coronavirus from one business class passenger to 14 other passengers and a crew member on a 10-hour Vietnam Air flight from London to Hanoi. Most of the reactions in the press and on Twitter were “Yikes! Single passenger infects 15 people!”. While noting the CDC’s disclaimer “Early release articles are not considered as final versions” (which I didn’t see mentioned in any of the press articles), I came away with a less-than- “Yikes” after reading the whole paper. The flight was on March 2nd, so while the world was still trying to figure this novel coronavirus thing out and way before mandatory in-flight masks. And the passenger was symptomatic with a cough and a sore throat. Of the 14 passengers infected, 12 were in the same business class cabin and of those, all but one were within a 2-seat radius. And the authors aren’t sure if the 2 economy class infections were from the business class index case or from a different source. My takeaways: 1) Don’t let symptomatic people on planes – even if temperature checks aren’t perfect, it might catch some folks and will certainly make people think about their condition before flying; 2) Because this appears to validate the risk of being kept in close proximity to an infected person over a prolonged period; 3) Which, to me, justifies the airlines’ no-excuses mask requirements; but 4) In spite of a symptomatic un-masked passenger coughing away in the front of the plane, no non-adjacent passengers got infected — so maybe the airline execs’ confidence in HEPA filters kinda justified. I’ll put a link to the CDC paper in the show notes. It’s not that long. It’s interesting to read the source document rather than just a headline or a short USAToday blurb.
  • Having said all that, I’m in no way, shape, or form justifying the “hygiene theater” that the travel industry seems to be trying to use to bring folks back. I talked back in the July episode about the “Hertz Gold Standard Clean” sticker Hertz is slapping across driver-side doors. And there are some hotels now scheduling cleaning during the day rather than overnight so guests can see it. And then, on my American flights between Chicago and Philly last week, the banner across the top of the American Way magazine cover in the seatback pocket – “This magazine has been treated with an antimicrobial process” — which I guess means “Please, feel safe to open it up and look at the advertisements.” I dunno, it feels a bit like the “security theater” we all went through after 9/11 – it was less about actually making things safer and more about making us “feel” safer — and so, more willing to get on a plane. But maybe if I’m an airline or hotel exec facing down the pain of laying off thousands or tens of thousands of people if travelers don’t come back, that distinction is meaningless; I’m just trying to survive.
  • Bridge Music — Rise Up (Like the Sun) by Snowflake (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: Bluemillenium, Sackjo22, Martin Luther King, Kara Square

Quarantine Theater

  • While some folks in the hospitality industry are talking about “hygiene theater”, what about “quarantine theater”? Back in the August episode, I talked about the complexity local and state travel bans and quarantine measures are causing for people trying to plan some sort of travel. 
  • My son Andrew and his significant other headed out to Portland, ME last month for work. The week before they left, the Marriott emailed him a form – “Please certify one of the following is true – I have received a negative COVID test performed no later than 72 hours prior to my arrival, or will quarantine for 14 days upon my arrival in Maine.” Since they were only going to be in Portland for 4 days, they trundled down to the nearest testing site for the quick test 2 days before they left — where they got chewed out by one of the testers. “We’re running out of the quick tests. You should’ve planned better.” OK, how long to get results from the other test? “5 days” But that won’t meet Maine’s 3-day requirement. Tester just walks away. But they got their negative test results and got on their plane to Portland — where no one in the airport or the hotel asked to see it.  OK, not harm done other than the discomfort of a Q-tip probing their sinuses and a random bit of yelling, but waste scarce testing resources?
  • Chicago’s quarantine is also a bit of kabuki. Once a week the city’s health commission gets in front of the press to scold another state or two — this week was Indiana and Wisconsin. There’s now 25 states and Puerto Rico that if you’re traveling from there to Chicago, you’re supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days or face fines up to $7,000. More interesting is that Chicago’s threshold for getting on the list is 15 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. On this week’s tally, Indiana is running in the 20-30 range, but so is the state of Illinois. You could call it hypocritical or pragmatic or keeping its powder dry for when the city needs another bucket of money from the state, but Chicago hasn’t put the rest of Illinois on its quarantine list.
  • Now, I’ve yet to hear of anyone who has actually self-quarantined and as of last week, no one has been rung up for not doing so. But last month, a friend told me about how Chicago’s quarantine theater hit her last month. She finally got ‘round to taking some vacation at the end of the summer. She lives in Chicago, but is a big outdoors person; looking at airfares and tossing some darts at a map, she decided to go hit Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Southern Utah. So she’s down there for a couple of days when her boss calls her. “They just announced that Utah is going on the city’s quarantine list. It’s not official until Friday, so I guess if you get out of there by Thursday, you won’t have to quarantine for 2 weeks before coming back to work.” And, it didn’t need to be said, those 2 weeks of self-quarantine wouldn’t be paid. My friend is unique in that she works for maybe the one company in Chicago that takes the city’s quarantine order seriously. So my friend fought through lousy cell coverage to see what she could salvage of the back half of her vacation. Luckily, she has friends in Oregon, which isn’t on the city’s list. So Thursday, she cut her hiking short, schlepped the 4½ hours back up to SLC and caught the last flight out to Portland — which let her come back to work and make some money the next week.
  • Theater isn’t a new thing. If you’re, say, a mature traveler, you got to play a bit part in the security theater that premiered after 9/11 and the underwear bomber. While not a perfect analogy (and really, nothing ever is), we can see some similar theatrics — government agencies (TSA then, health departments now) investing in activities that signal they are serious, but that most folks know aren’t really effective. For me and I think for most frequent travelers, the security theater ended with TSA PreCheck — it seemed, again to most of us, as a reasonable balance between risk and getting on with our traveling lives. I don’t know what that looks like for quarantine theater, but I sure hope it doesn’t take the 10 years it took to figure out PreCheck.
  • Bridge Music — release.JOY.release by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: essesq, Haskel (hej31)

Traveling For Food

  • I talked at the start of the episode about eating my way through Philadelphia a couple of weeks back, and it was just that. We landed Thursday around 11:30a and were hitting our favs at Reading Terminal Market by 1:30p. I went straight for Tommy Dinic’s for the roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe while Irene and Claire made for the Mennonite pretzel place and Termini Brothers for fresh-filled cannolis. And then as we were leaving, I swung past one of the PA Dutch stands to buy a 1-lb block of scrapple for breakfast the rest of the stay.
  • Back in the August episode in the interview with Emily Thomas about her book The Meaning of Travel, we talked about a chapter on global homogenization. One of the bits that I edited out was the observation that, back 10-20 year ago, it was fun to go shopping and bring something unique back home. But now, with globalized e-commerce, there’s not much that you can’t find easier (and often cheaper) on Amazon or Taobao or Rakuten. And so, for me, food is the one experience of a place that can’t be easily exported and bought on-line.
  • On our trip to the UP — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — along with the biking, hiking, and kayaking, we were also on a bit of a pasty tasting tour. The UP is pretty well known — in the Midwest at least — for their pasties, brought over by Cornish miners working the copper mines. We had traditional pasties filled with steak, potatoes, onions, and rutabagas, and breakfast pasties. We worked our ways through the finer points of pasty critique — picking out the pasties made from lard-based doughs, and fillings that held together so you could eat the pasty with your hand but weren’t just complete mush.
  • It’s funny how these comparison dishes can crop up on a vacation. On a trip to Phuket, Thailand, Andrew ordered pad thai everywhere we ate. On a trip to Hungary, Irene searched every menu for halászlé – a spicy fish soup – after having a great bowl of it at lunch with her cousin in some little town on the shores of Lake Balaton. And again Irene, in Spain now, searched every city we visited for salmorejo, not quite soup, more of a tomato and bread and olive oil and garlic purée. These sorta horizontal tasting, some would be planned — like our pasty tour — and some would just come up, like Irene’s halászlé hunt. But it’d be fun, getting a feel for what the base of the dish is, what everyone agrees on, and what people put their own spin on, because usually for these core dishes — dishes that everyone around has eaten all their lives — everyone has an opinion about them. And that’s part of what makes the broad/horizontal tasting fun.
  • And also, these dishes don’t seem to be “industrialized.” While I’ve had mass produced pasties in the UK, grabbing something out from the West Cornish Pasty hut in Waterloo Station while running for a train, the pasties in the UP were much more — not “artisanal” because I don’t think anyone making pasties in the UP would use that word, but “family made”. At Miners Pasties in Munising, which came out top in our pasty ranks, the woman helping us at the counter said the lard pastry recipe came from the owner’s grandmother and only 3 people know it — the granddaughters and their niece. And only those three make the pastry each day.  We sat back and enjoyed those pasties because we knew we wouldn’t be eating them again unless and until we found our way back to this bench again some day.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #168
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