I saw a vapour trail in the sky last week. A rarity these days. The white streak across the blue sky reminded me of a series of paintings by Budapest-based Scottish artist Jim Urquhart. Minus the buildings of course. His paintings have buildings. I was perfecting what the Japanese call boketto – the art of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking. All I could see were trees. All I could hear were birds. All I wanted to do was be on that plane.
In the lead-up to the inevitable lockdown, I’d been complaining about the amount of travel I was doing. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to accept any workshop bookings or take any trips in June, July, or August. I was going to stay put. I was going to enjoy the garden. I was going to pick and preserve my fruit. I didn’t want to go anywhere. Nowhere. Nowhere at all.
And then COVID time took hold and June moved back to March. I’m now in what should have been July, the final month of the three travel-free months I asked for. The fruit hasn’t come. The chutney isn’t made. And the smaller of my two quince trees has died.
I look at my suitcase and wonder when I’ll get to use it again. I check my passport to make sure it’s not due to expire. I try to make a list of places I want to go when my world opens again. Ireland tops it, of course. I want to see my parents. But after that? I don’t know.
As if it senses that I’m getting antsy, Big Brother is flooding me with ads and emails offering me amazing deals to places far afield. Qatar has a deal right now from Budapest to Penang, Malaysia (July-March dates) for €398 return. That cheered me up. Not because I want to go to Penang, but because planes might be back in the air by July. Or I could drive to Vienna and get to Cuba for €367 with Turkish Airlines (Sept/Oct). EasyJet was offering one-way flights in Europe for just €3. I’d like to go back to Sicily, maybe. The government there will pay half my flight and one night’s accommodation to entice tourists to the island.
But given that I’ve wasted hours trying to get a cash refund from RyanAir for six return flights I’d booked for April and May (all now cancelled), I’m loath to give any airline my money right now. Yes, of course, I got vouchers that I can use to fly in the next 12 months but vouchers don’t replace hard cash. Tamera Thiessen, writing for Forbes recently makes a good point: How can airlines like WizzAir and their ilk offer flights in May to countries that still have travel bans in place? How can they sell flights to countries that are still in lockdown? Are they privy to information the rest of us don’t have?
Remember that piece Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote for The Guardian back at the end of March? The one where she warned us what life would be like? She predicted what we’d all do, from finding social networking groups that would tell us how to make the most of our free time, to reading all those books we’d never had a chance to open. We’d eat, she said. We’d not sleep well. We’d worry about democracy. We’d have an amazing social life, online. We’d think about those we might not see again and we’d call people we hadn’t talked to or seen in years. We’d feel vulnerable. We’d take up fitness training when our clothes started to shrink. We’d donate to charities, volunteer if we could. Gratitude that the planet was getting into better shape would be diluted by concerns about paying bills. We’d see how the rest of the world was coping, with virtual concerts, music from balconies, synchronised clapping. Her letter was a long long one. And it was true. All of it.
Towards the end, she made the point that while we might all be weathering the same storm, we’d not all be in the same boat.
Being locked up in a house with a pretty garden or in an overcrowded housing project will not be the same. Nor is being able to keep on working from home or seeing your job disappear. That boat in which you’ll be sailing in order to defeat the epidemic will not look the same to everyone nor is it actually the same for everyone: it never was.
As I write, a poem by TomFoolery is trending on social media. The Great Realisation is written to be read as a bedtime story. It tells of a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty, a world where anything we dreamed of we could get in a day, with a click. Then the virus came and everyone was told to stay inside. To hide from it. And while they hid, the world outside changed.
With the sky less full of voyagers, the earth began to breathe
And the beaches bore new wildlife that scuttled off into the seas.
I’ve been writing a travel blog since 2008 – www.anyexcusetotravel.com. Himself overhauled the design recently and had me check it for bugs. I’d been ignoring it. I still haven’t finished blogging on my last trip – to Sicily – back in February. I just can’t muster the energy it requires. As I re-read the many articles of the places I’ve been to, my great realisation happened. My travel habits will change. I’ll look at every destination and ask myself if it’s somewhere I’d like to be stuck, indefinitely, should something happen. And if something does happen when I’m away, not having citizenship in the country I now call home, will I always worry if they’ll let me back in? With each passing week, the world is getting bigger again. Distance is reclaiming its reality. And the face of tourism is under the knife.
First published in the Budapest Times 15 May 2020