Summer travels

I was on the road for most of August and September in the U.S. and Finland. It was primarily for work, but I snuck in a short vacation as well. It’s the first time since late 2019 that I’ve traveled internationally.

I was not sure what to expect. Before the outbound flight, I had read about how chaotic the summer had been for international travel, so I packed light and strategized about how to fit a 3-week trip to Finland into a carry-on luggage. (It gets easier as I’ve gotten older. Now there are few things I can’t travel without.)

My initial flight was Shanghai to San Francisco, with a curious stoppage in Seoul – the plane was on the ground for ~90 mins, passengers did not disembark, and United changed out the crew. This is one of those precarious Covid travel compromises between China and carriers; I don’t fully understand the rationale/mechanics, but it somehow minimizes or avoids quarantine time in China for carrier crew.

I think the last time I was in San Francisco was 2016. It felt a bit surreal to be back, after reading about the city’s various woes in recent years. After a couple of days in the city, the most dramatic takeaway was how the pandemic has upended the downtown retail landscape. The financial district was eerily quiet on a late Sunday afternoon. On Apple Maps, many retail results were listed as “Permanently Closed”. The empty storefronts and boarded-up windows around Union Square relayed the same impression. I also found several (perhaps all? I gave up after 2 stores) of the Starbucks around Union Square to have no seating at all, which really breaks one of the brand’s core value propositions.

All of this was juxtaposed against the bustling Union Square Apple Store, which was busy as ever. The day I visited, the store had its jaw-dropping 2-story sliding glass doors open (I never realized they could slide!). The sun shone through, and on occasion you could feel a gentle breeze.

The other store that had remarkably long lines was Ross Dress for Less on Market Street – there was both a wait to get in the store, and a 20-minute check-out line. I was bargain-hunting for a piece of replacement luggage, and this was the first time I learnt that Samsonite has various SKU-lines priced below $100 that are exclusively available at Ross. Apparently they have been doing this for a long, long time – maybe a good example of a brand having their (premium) cake and eating it (extending to budget consumers) too?

Both Apple and Ross had SF police presence (apparently daily) out front. And across the street from the Apple store, there was a police mobile command center (permanently?) parked. Some of the police milling about were dramatically dressed in tactical gear.

I saw similar scenery in downtown Seattle, with lots of retail vacancies and reduced business hours for those that remained. My wife said downtown Portland was the hardest hit, of the cities she visited on this trip (she traveled around the US while I went onwards to Finland in late August). She said many of the restaurants we visited in 2017 were either permanently closed or only open a few days a week.

My US friends cautioned me not to read too much into this. Downtown areas with high-density commercial real estate have been precision-hit by pandemic restrictions and the shift to work-from-home. It’s not clear to what extent they will recover or what the new paradigm will be.

This was in contrast to what I saw in Finland. It had been a warm summer there. In late August, Helsinki was tees-and-shorts weather, more so than San Francisco. There were fewer signs of visible retail distress. Perhaps this is related to the size and layout of the city. Helsinki is small and highly walkable, with lots of urban apartments, so even in a work-from-home scenario the impact on retail foot-traffic would be less dramatic than US downtowns where people lived in the suburbs and drove in to work.

The other contrast was in the attitude towards masking. In Helsinki if you wore a mask (either indoor or outdoor) you really stood out. In the 3 weeks I was there, I could count on one hand the number of locals I saw masked – 2 elderly folks in supermarkets, and a passenger on the metro. In San Francisco, I was honestly surprised by the mask rate, even outdoors; and it wasn’t that uncommon to see shops or venues still have mandatory mask requirements.

What felt consistent in the US and Finland was the sense that “life has moved on”. Not necessarily in the sense of “Covid is over” – given the vigilance some displayed towards masking and getting the latest booster shots – but that “we’ve reopened and this is the new normal”. There are some debates still, but the big picture is clear. Most of Asia is headed in this direction too.

The elephant in the room is of course China – I happen to be writing this from my quarantine hotel in Shanghai. I’d say the “Covid-zero” policy was largely a net positive in 2020 and 2021, but its effects in 2022 are questionable (to put it mildly). Unfortunately it’s both a divisive topic and a hard position to navigate away from, so I’m generally not optimistic of big changes soon.

Oh, I almost forgot to write about inflation. Part of the “new normal”, in the US at least, is a complete reset of my price expectations. I struggled to find ramen that was priced below $15 (whereas my old anchor was $10-13). Regular gas was ~$5/gallon in Oregon, and got progressively more expensive as we got closer to San Francisco – the peak was $7.60 outside SFO airport.