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Five weeks ago, New York interior designer Benjamin Huntington was on his dream project – working on the conversion of a beautiful Victorian schoolhouse in the Scottish Highlands.
As for all of us in mid-March, things changed quickly. His change, though, was an emergency. He lost the sight in his right eye when his retina became detached.
His emergency surgery was not done under anesthetic – and he praises the efficiency of the UK’s National Health Service. The surgeon worked quickly, and the entire procedure took less than 60 minutes – followed by a cup of tea and a slice of toast. How very British.
However, by this time – March 12 – he was stranded. Not by presidential decree – it’s just not a great idea to get into a pressurized airline cabin when you have a gas bubble in your eye.
So began Benjamin’s weeks of isolation. He describes the Highlands as “windy, cold, bleak – but with beautiful sunsets” The area is remote: “Social distancing is a way of life.” His only company became Hoover, the sheep in the backyard.
It took four weeks to finally get the all-clear from his doctor to fly – Tuesday last week. But how to get home to New York from Scotland while social distancing? With his gloves and N95 mask on, he set off …
First, he’d chosen a sleeper train from Inverness. Caledonian Sleeper markets its service as a “magical journey” and an “overnight rail service bringing a touch of the extraordinary to travel between London and Scotland.” It wasn’t entirely magical, but it was certainly extraordinary. His greeters at the station were two uniformed staff in gloves and masks. His first challenge: to justify that his travel was essential. His story must have worked (or perhaps they finally relented when he lay on the floor and cried uncontrollably – we may never know). He was one of two people on the train.
His home for the next 12 hours was cleaned down with anti-bacterial wipes. He’d prepared food, and had a glass of cider. He woke at 7am as the train passed the outskirts of London.
Arriving into Euston Station at 8am on Friday, his first view of the new COVID-19 cityscape was an empty London mainline station at rush hour.
Plans for an Uber ride disappeared with no internet connection and a crashing app. So he decided to risk the London Underground. The scene of 10 staff, gloved and masked (five of them actively cleaning), was reassuring. One other passenger was in his carriage, and the windows were open for ventilation.
Arriving for check in at Heathrow, he was struck by the departures board. His was one of just 11 flights that day. His grossly overweight luggage was given the all-clear with no penalty (result!) and he was ready to board.
He counted 18 people on the flight – including the crew of the United 787 Dreamliner. Spacing was generous – he had a grid of nine seats to himself. Benjamin described himself as feeling most vulnerable there: “On a flight, 80% of the air is recycled. I decided on no food, no water, and no bathroom.”
Arriving at Newark, he reports that “there was still a wait for immigration – and when through, there was still a delay getting baggage. Nothing changes, folks.”
Calling a Lyft, he was soon home to his wife Elizabeth, who’d not seen him in five weeks. Her first action (of course) was to give him a plastic bag to throw all his clothes into, and directions to the guest bathroom. Benjamin jokes: “I was grateful there was no paper suit!”
He’s now social distancing at home for 14 days, enjoying “being in the same environment as a live body, a kindred spirit.” How soon he forgot Hoover the sheep, eh!
The big takeaway from his 24-hour journey in the time of COVID-19: “What made preparation for this stressful was the thought of other people. However, on the journey, I felt a huge sense of unity from everybody – from a distance.”
Benjamin Huntington is an Interior Designer. His New York design studio is Veritate Design. He is President Elect of the NY Metro Chapter of The American Society of Interior Design (ASID).
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