On February 21, 2020, we returned to London following a short winter vacation to sunnier climes further south – first a couple nights in Marrakesh, Morocco, and then a few nights in Lisbon, Portugal.
That’s the last time we’ve been out of the UK. Seventeen months, almost to the day.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had planned a lot of international travel during our time here in London. Last year alone we wanted to hit Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, along with the usual trip to the United States, but those plans got thwarted by the coronavirus.
The traveling we’ve done since the coronavirus first hit has all been within the UK – Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, Cambridge in England and, most recently, Belfast in Northern Ireland. We just figured with so many international travel restrictions that seem to change daily, it was better to stay in the UK.
I’m guessing this is the longest period of my life that I have not roamed outside of a geographic area the size of the UK. Even as a kid, we would travel to other states and sections of the U.S.
In terms of square miles, the UK is smaller than 11 U.S. states. It’s not a huge place, and it’s landlocked. I find myself getting claustrophobic after 17 months here. I find myself wanting to hop in a car and drive several hundred miles to some completely different geography and climate, like we used to do back in the States.
That’s no easy option here. For one thing, you need a car (we don’t). For another, there are only two countries you can drive directly to from the UK – Ireland and France – and you have to jump through about 450 travel restriction hoops to go anywhere outside of the country during the pandemic.
Now, in the context of a global pandemic that killed millions and put many millions more out of work, not being able to travel outside of your home country seems like a pretty small problem. I acknowledge that.
But not every problem has to be a Big Problem to take on some level of importance in our lives. Otherwise, nobody would ever bitch about poor Wi-Fi reception, or limp French fries, or the loud neighbors, or that idiot driver who won’t stay out of the fast lane.
Coronavirus restrictions took away one of the chief advantages of being over here: You have quick access to so many other countries and cultures. We took advantage during our first couple of years in London, traveling to Brussels, Paris, Strasbourg, Zurich, Milan, Amsterdam and Barcelona before the Marrakech/Lisbon trip. But all that seems like a long time ago.
And all bets are off in terms of when we’ll be able to do it again.
Now we are gearing up for a two-week trip to the States, and I’m guessing we will get a crash course in international travel, pandemic style. We’ve already seen part of how the world has changed.
This morning, the whole family had to pop down to a mobile COVID-19 testing unit near London Bridge to get something called a PCR test, which you need to pass if you want to travel to certain other countries, including the U.S. It didn’t take that long, thank God. The lines were short, and all they do is swab your tonsils and nostrils with a long Q-tip. But it didn’t come cheap, either. We spent around 400 British pounds for four tests. That’s around $550 U.S. We spent a little extra for the next-day results, but not the premium price for the same-day results.
I expect all of our tests will be negative, and we’ll be able to travel. Three of us have already had home-type tests that have all been negative. Anyway, we’ll see.
I have no idea what surprises are in store for us when we reach the United States. We are flying into North Carolina (a state in the Southeastern U.S., for you non-Americans out there). Next, we are flying to Nevada (a state way out West, right next to California). Next, we are flying to New York (in the Northeast). Like many Americans, our family and friends are spread out all over. I figure we’ll spend about 4,500 miles in the air just in the United States alone.
From London, you might fly across a couple dozen countries in 4,500 miles. That’s about the distance from London to Mumbai.
That’s the thing about being from a huge country like the U.S., China, Russia, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, etc. You can drive for days and weeks and not see half of it. You can be in a dense, humid swamp one day, and three days later you might find yourself in a flat, dry desert where the sky seems to stretch forever – all without ever needing your passport stamped.
I’ve taken a few cross-country drives in the U.S. The first time I did it, I drove about 600 miles from my home in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Memphis, Tennessee. This drive took me through green mountains and valleys, where the plant life is thick and lush, and you can feel the air when you step outside in it. The next day I put in about 720 miles and ended up in Amarillo, Texas in the dead of night. When I awoke the next morning, the world had changed. The earth was flat and brown. The sky was huge. There were hardly any trees. It was dry and arid.
And I was still only halfway across the country.
You miss that vastness during a global pandemic. You miss a country so big that you can drive and drive and drive without hitting a border or an ocean.
You miss other things, too. I don’t remember the first time I flew in an airplane, but it was more than 50 years ago. I’m pretty sure you walked right inside the airport and right up to your departure gate, without having to go through security, show various forms of ID, have your luggage scanned, take your shoes off, take your hat off, take your watch off, and then show your ID again before you boarded.
You walked inside with a big bottle of Coke and a huge hunting knife, walked to your gate, gave them a ticket, and boarded, where passengers were smoking and there might not have been seat belts.
That world really existed.
Not only that, but there once was a time when you could sail to another land halfway around the world and step foot on its soil without one human telling you what to do, where to go, and how to conduct yourself.
Those days will never return. The world turns, and change happens. Shit happens. You have to accept it.
Coronavirus changed the world. We’re not going back to travel the way it was before COVID-19. I might not be sure of much, but I’m sure of that. Once a global mindset takes hold, you will play hell trying to shake it loose.
I now understand why rich billionaires want to fly to the moon. Nobody is on the other side, stamping your passport, checking your test results, and saying sorry, but you’re not allowed here.