As you can imagine, my usual traveling life has been put on hold during these unprecedented times. (Oh how I miss precedented times.) All of our lives, if we’re lucky, are on hold in ways large or small. The loss and grief and pain across the world right now are staggering.
I left the US for Greece on February 10. My flight to Athens left on a Sunday night from Newark Airport, and I spent the weekend in New York City with my extended family. We celebrated my grandmother’s upcoming 85th birthday, packing into tiny restaurants and crowded museum tours and the subway at rush hour. What a world away that seems now.
A Brief Athens Break
I arrived in Athens and settled into my usual routine there: writing in small cheerful cafes in the morning while drinking espressos, going out to dinner in little tavernas with friends at night, taking in the soft sunshine and violet sunsets and anarchist graffiti as I walked all around the city. It felt so normal… at first.
We looked forward to the Easter celebrations that turn all of Athens into a carnival – the masked parties in the streets with music, the Thursday feast of meat where the whole city smells of a grill, the Clean Monday kite flying on the city’s ancient hills. But as the coronavirus spread across Europe, all those large gatherings were canceled. And we started to feel the seriousness of what could happen creep in.
At this stage of a feeling of impending doom, I had to leave Greece for two weeks because I’d run out of time on my stay. The Schengen Zone, which comprises most of the EU, allows for visa-free entry for those of us from privileged countries like the US – 90 days within a 180-day period. And I had to reset my time so I didn’t overstay my rolling limit.
I hopped the flight to Tirana, Albania I’d booked a week before to meet a friend and business partner and anxiously set off. I left a few things at a friend’s house for my return – but cautiously left only things I could live without: a heavy wool coat, some spices and rice, a $5 scarf I bought in Bulgaria on another visa reset trip two years ago.
The quiet days passed in Tirana, in my small and chilly AirBnb a few blocks from the center. I drank 80 cent macchiatos like water in the chic cafes of Blloku and ate lavish Italian meals with fresh pasta and fine wine for under $15. Albanians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met – I was reminded of Cambodia in the poverty and the hospitality.
Closures and Corona
But borders started closing, and schools, and flights began canceling too. So I decided to head back to the US from Albania after only a week there. I missed out on the explorations I’d planned in Tirana – discovering the history of a land closed off from the outside world from WWII to 1990 with its mountainous regions, beautiful coastline, Roman history, and unique language.
I hopped a bus, a plane, another plane, a train, another bus, and a Lyft to get from Albania to the suburbs of Boston where my parents live. The whole journey, I was stressed to the point of nausea about border controls, immigration questions, and the danger of indoor crowds. (I was not too stressed about eating from the lovely buffet in the Athens airport lounge, which in hindsight was perhaps too bold. But stress makes me hungry, and the whipped feta and breadsticks called to me.)
And after over 30 hours of travel, broken up only by a brief sleep in a New York City hotel only a week before that city exploded into sorrow and sickness, I was in the US again only a month after I’d left it. I spent two weeks alone on the third floor of my parents house, without human touch or even being in the same room with another person for more than the time it takes to brew a cup of tea.
A life on hold, for a moment
This was not how I pictured 2020. I had plans for my life, all now on indefinite hold. And yet I am very, very fortunate – for my timing in leaving Europe (my plane from Athens landed to the news of Trump’s vague European travel ban, which prompted mass chaos in the airport I had just departed), for my health despite those New York sojourns and that airport buffet, for the comfort of a place to go where I had a whole floor to my lonesome self.
But this is a travel blog, and I didn’t know how to write about travel once a trip to the Dunkin Donuts drive-through was the highlight of my week. (And it still is – don’t sleep on Free Donut Friday.)
I’m back in the general area where I used to live, but not in my city, and not with most of my large and close family. I can’t hug my friends or read stories to my nieces. I have no way of hugging my brother and his fiancee and kids in Ireland until we’re legally allowed in, and who knows when that will be.
I’ve been grieving these losses, and recognizing they are nothing to those who lose loved ones to this disease. There are more than 120,000 of them now in the US alone, which is a staggering toll. And rethinking how I think about travel too, as I imagine many of us are.
I’m not one for grand predictions about the future of travel. Who knows how we will all feel after our months at home?
For me, I have realized how deeply a part of myself I find (and delightfully lose) in travel. The heightened sensations, the deliciousness of getting lost, the lure of that far-off blue. The way of noticing I have gained from time alone, time in quiet contemplation.
I take those heightened senses now to the park around the corner (another way in which I’m fortunate). The birds leaving for their summer homes or arriving from their Arctic travels: tiny yellow warblers, fat cheerful robins, herons who take flight with their snow-white bodies trailing their gangly black legs behind them. I notice the slow unfurling of the maple trees, the stag horn sumac, the shad tree blossoms fading from vivid pink to perfect white to green leaves.
The chickadees chatter from the rooftops as I write on the porch. The gulls wheel silently and effortlessly in the blowing wind of a New England early summer day. The prehistoric cormorants return to the harbor, looking like little Loch Ness monsters as they dive their water-logged way to the next meal.
What do I write about now?
These little happenings are my travels now. For how long, I don’t know. Can any of us answer questions about the future right now that are more complex than what we’re having for dinner? I certainly can’t. But we will see what the future brings us, and travel how we can in the meantime.
I’ll be recommending some of my favorite travel books, because we can always transport ourselves that way. Reading is how I first discovered my love of entering into another place, another culture. And I’ll share some of my favorite spots in places we’ll all return to eventually. Thanks for joining me.