The general feeling is that of being stuck. The biggest escape of modern times, travel, is not available at the moment. Or it is, but not in a smart way, and I like smart.
Stressed at work? Heartbroken? Simply pissed or not satisfied with the current state of your life? The answer was the same and it was easy: get on a plane. Now I see planes flying in the sky sometimes, and cannot help but wonder who is inside and where they are going. Must be in a fantasy world that these people are living.
Yesterday was different. Yesterday I craved travel for the first time in a year. I felt like some sort of hero walking the streets of Amsterdam on one of the gloomiest, windiest and coldest afternoons, at the same time thinking that miserable weather was perfectly fine when you choose to live at the North Pole.
How many times have I crossed the Amstel during my (almost) daily walks in the past year? Must be hundreds of times. I like to be near rivers. I have always lived near rivers, different ones for different stages of my life. So each time I cross the Amstel, I stop to look at the water and the boats. On a sunny day, this is pure bliss. On good days, every walk is bliss, and that is when I think of people of the past – writers, royals, anyone who could afford the luxury, really – going for the same walk each time, be it a promenade by the sea, in a park, or in a royal garden. There was no variation. Variation was not the point. The point was to be in nature for a bit. The mind was not blank and bored and in need of entertainment; the mind was set on goals, and the walk was a little break from the process of turning those goals into reality. Those people were not looking for an escape, just for some fresh air before resuming their activities.
The air was very fresh yesterday, and yet I felt I had just had enough of my Amsterdam garden. Yesterday I really wanted to be on a plane. I wanted it all: the confirmation email, the boarding pass, the gate change if we must, the pilot announcing that we started our descending to (…), the transfer, the accommodation, the promise of difference. Hell, I would have even said yes to a business trip, when “paid by the company” means I have to be available way past office hours. I would have done even that. Anything to change my life for a few days or so.
Now, I am no longer as naive as to actually believe changing landscape equals changing mind and heart. What you have in you you carry everywhere – for better or worse. But still, sometimes it is nice to simply wake up to new rooms, new scents, new coffee cups. Spending a month in Lisbon two years ago in an attempt to forever bury my corporate persona still is one of the best decisions I made. I did bury my grim corporate past there, but other than that, I still lived with myself. In fact, this was the real discovery of my short Portuguese residency: a place can only give you as much. What you make of your life is what makes the difference.
Just as valid, however, is the fact that in some places we seem to flourish more than in others. Like plants, we just grow better in certain climates, given certain nourishment, and receiving certain attention. So the call to change places is always high on our wish list. Especially now, during the gloomiest of times in our recent (privileged) history. I see people moving to other cities for a while in an attempt to put some sparks on this dull pandemic life, and I totally get it. But I also know the limitations of this exchange and still believe the real solution is to enrich your life at home to such an extent that you do not feel the need to escape from it every so often.
Oh, but the allure of the other place! The thrill of the travel-induced amnesia, when your fears are pushed into the darkest corner and all that is left in their absence is pure joy, enthusiasm, and endless dreams of possibility. That balcony facing the sea, from where you can watch the sunrise while sipping coffee or where you can finally start to write that book, paint that painting, love that lover. The walks along other facades, the crossing of other rivers, the sound of other voices. I am not sure where we, humans, get this other bug from, but it surely is running through our veins.
Last night, to get some “other” comfort, I browsed my travel archives. I was looking for some old trips, before smartphones, when I had a tiny camera that took crappy photos, which I actually prefer to the sharp, unromantic photos generated by today’s technology. I came across a folder named “Barcelona 2011” and I realised those were exactly the photos I was looking for.
A gloomy September afternoon in Barcelona, me walking alone in the harbour, my soul feeling as heavy and grey as the clouds that darkened the sky. Heartbroken during a business trip – the most horrible of combinations. Me and the guy for whom I had moved to the Netherlands a year before were breaking up, but I had to go to Barcelona regardless.
There was nothing that the city could do for me in such conditions, although I had been there before and found it quite pleasant. Not my hotel room facing the sunrise above the sea, not the room service, not the rooftop pool with views over the city, not the “free” club sandwiches or sangrias, not even the beautiful girls and handsome guys that caught my eyes on the street. I did not believe in the healing – soothing, at least – properties of an “other” place. All I could think about was that I was losing my heart.
The event I was organising in Barcelona went on successfully, oblivious to my inner turmoil, every day a mix of presentations, workshops, networking, and private crying sessions in my fancy room.
My colleague took me to Park Güell, took me to Berardo Museum, took me to drinking sessions in the city at night, fuelled by sangrias and caipirinhas, watching flamenco dancers and beautiful boys practising capoeira in squares with palm trees. The buzz of nightlife. The black and yellow taxis moving people around town. Everything seemed possible. Everything was possible – except for one thing. And that was the only thing my heart desired.
Another night, my friend in Barcelona took me to a bar with red walls and red roses painted on the ceiling. More sangria, and then I went outside to smoke a cigarette. On the street, a guy was holding and kissing two girls almost at the same time. My friend took a photo of me, I took a photo of my friend and then another one of the guy kissing the girls. I felt the irreversible magic of that moment. Later that night, my friend and I were sharing tapas at a terrace, we shared dessert, too, and out of nowhere a stranger comes and gives me a rose without a word, then disappears again. Did he know I needed that? I take a photo of the empty dessert plate and the stranger’s rose, and again I feel the magic of the moment, just as strong and irreversible. I take the rose to my hotel room and the next sunrise feels better. My heart is still broken, but for some reason that doesn’t feel irreversible. I know my heart will be back.
Ten years later and a survivor of 2020, now more than ever I believe in the restorative power of an “other” place. I am only hoping to be at the gate soon.