Last weekend I went to the Japan Centre, on London’s Panton Street, in search of kombu and gochugaru to make ramen (“essential” food shopping, you understand). Surrounded by the unknown smells and textures of unknown foods, labelled in an unknown language and an unknown script, I felt, briefly, as though I was on holiday.
The last time I left the UK was for ten bright, dusty days in Morocco in November 2019. If I’d only known what was to come, how I would have relished even the stalls of sheep’s heads, the riads without locks on the bedroom doors. Now, as virus mutations and mandatory hotel quarantines make international travel unthinkable and unaffordable for most, I long for the joyous lottery of the biscuit aisle in a French supermarket; to sit at a narrow metal bar in Barcelona and drink halves and eat olives; or to swill wine at a vineyard in Tuscany and describe every glass as “oaky”, because I know nothing about wine. To say “hello”, “yes” and “no” in a language in which hello, yes and no are the only words I know how to say.
A lot has been written about the pandemic habits we’d like to keep: flexible working, more time outside, the death of the commute. Flying less is not among them – but perhaps it should be. Covid-19 is an environmental crisis, both caused and spread by human expansion without limits. During the first wave of lockdowns, global carbon emissions from the aviation industry were reduced by 60 per cent. Such a brief period of change is not, of course, enough to have a significant overall impact on climate change. But the forcible grounding of flights creates a moment of pause to question how, and why, we travel, before we swiftly and totally resume our pre-pandemic ways.
I went on my first trip abroad when I was seven months old; it was to France, and my mother remembers me sucking on melon skins for pain relief from teething. Now I have all my adult teeth, we take an annual trip together – usually something faintly hare-brained: driving the entire way around Iceland in a hire car that frequently refused to start; travelling from Cairo to Aswan on local Egyptian trains because the tourist ones were too expensive.
I have grown up, as have many of my generation and class, to view travel almost as a right: it is a presumed, ingrained part of life. The beach weeks and city breaks that punctuate my year are as much a part of its rhythm as turning a year older in January. Travel is, particularly for the young, considered edifying and enlightening: we go on gap years to “find ourselves”, as though we are not really present in the places we live. It makes us adventurous, romantic, freer, deeper.
We forget that air travel only became a viable option for most in the late 1950s; that what we in rich countries have come to consider an incontrovertible part of existence has become so within the span of a single human life. I may have visited the Dordogne when I was just a few months old, in 1992, but my grandmother, who was born in 1934, went on her first holiday abroad, also to France, at the age of 45. To her, a life without international travel – or at least with less of it – is not unthinkable.
Of course, there is a limit to the impact of unconnected, individual choice; climate change is an issue of wealth distribution and of legislation. But we should also question why a week in Suffolk simply isn’t enough of an escape, and why we need to escape at all. If we lead such harried lives that they must be left behind entirely to find respite and pleasure, is spending a year’s savings on ten days in Thailand really the answer?
My boyfriend often asks, when I’m trying to explain what I’m writing about, what the conclusion is, to which I invariably answer: “There isn’t really one.” And there are no conclusions here. Only questions – about the strains of life that we accept for 350-odd days of the year; about the interplay between personal and planetary well-being. And also the gasping desire to meet a stranger in a hostel; to butcher “dos cervezas, por favor”; to forget entirely, just for a week.
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy