Travels and travails, 2020 in the rear view mirror

Writing about other places, other countries, other cultures amid lockdowns and travel restrictions is essentially an exercise in existential crisis management. Yet, it would be tone deaf to complain of a lack of travel opportunities in a year when the pandemic has meant people losing their livelihoods, struggling with physical and mental health, and suffering the deaths of friends and family. Everything else is largely irrelevant by comparison.

Travel-related industries were the first to be affected, and many thousands of people lost their jobs as a result, yet millions of people not travelling has been a public and public health good. While travel was still possible, even encouraged, millions of us got to be much more intimate with our immediate locales. I now know my apartment like the back of my hand, although the spare bedroom is still something of a foreign country. Berlin is much more ‘mapped’ than before.

Government advice about the spread and dangers of COVID-19 was inconsistent when, at the end of February, we had to decide if we should get on a flight to Venice. We arrived in a city emptied, on a plane carrying fewer than twenty people. I won’t lie, it was wonderful to spend time in a city that is a poster child for the ills of mass tourism without the tourists. Far less so for Venetians who make their living from those same masses.

A week after landing back in Berlin, we closed our office and everyone began a mass experiment in working from home. All things considered, it’s gone remarkably well. Although I, like many colleagues, have struggled at times with the isolation, lack of human contact, and additional work pressures as a result of the pandemic. The same week we got back to Berlin, we had to cancel a trip to London for a friend’s birthday and a trip to southern Italy. Berlin became our whole world.

There were some unexpected upsides. By late spring and early summer we were roaming Berlin on foot, exploring distant areas and off-beat neighbourhoods that we may never have visited otherwise. Outdoor restaurants reopened, as did beer gardens, and it was actually possible to see people in person, albeit at a 1.5m distance. Our walks around Berlin allowed us to uncover more of its fascinating and complicated history.

Then, in June, when Berlin had started to feel like a prison, we were allowed to travel within Germany again. It felt like some sort of normal as we arrived in Nuremberg late one evening and, with plenty of restrictions still in place, were able to make our first ever visit to Bavaria. These new ‘freedoms’ would be time limited, but this was the first of several trips that proved Germany is larger and more diverse than I’d previously appreciated.

In September we made a trip to Saxony and Wroclaw in Poland, and a longer road trip to northern Italy. In the words of the poet, William Blake, this second visit to Italy proved to be a “fearful symmetry” of the first. Throughout our trip the news grew increasingly bleak. Returning to Berlin things had gone from bad to worse. Infections and deaths were on the rise, and lockdown restrictions were back.

I’m glad we went to Italy, if for no other reason than Berlin’s second lockdown came hand-in-hand with winter. The darkness, cold and isolation have made it harder than the spring lockdown. Christmas markets were cancelled, followed by a true hammer blow, the banning of glühwein stalls and the wintertime comradery they generate. Berlin has rarely seemed to have less joie de vivre, although the post-1945 generation may take issue with that statement.

Memories of hiking the Cinque Terre coast, Bologna’s culinary delights, Mantua’s rich history and the brilliance of Lake Garda have helped keep our spirits up. Lockdown has made me more appreciative of the privilege of travel, and the way it can enrich our lives. It has also made me appreciate the value of home, and better knowing the place you live.

Things are unlikely to return to normal any time soon, yet this has been a year if not to forget, hopefully never to be repeated. Hope, they say, springs eternal. So tomorrow, even though Berlin remains in lockdown, I’ll raise a glass to 2021.

12 thoughts on “Travels and travails, 2020 in the rear view mirror

  1. Prosit to 2021 indeed. 🍻

  2. Happy New Year to you. We will be staying up tonight to make sure 2020 is consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves as we sit here in Tier 4 isolation, in a country that has cut itself off from its friends in the idiocy of Brexit. I’m frankly heartbroken by what we are doing to ourselves, and loathe the current “government” more than I thought was possible. I have no hope that 2021 in this plague-ridden, idiot-run country is going to be any better than 2020.

    1. Europe’s new ‘sick man’, and not just for its utter failure to deal with the pandemic. I’ve gone through so many Brexit phases: optimism, disbelief, anger, denial, anger (again and again), despair, fury, and sadly, finally, these last few weeks, defeat. It’s been an exhausting emotional rollercoaster. I sincerely hope, but have few expectations, that those responsible for the lies and deceit will be held accountable one day.
      Still, here’s to a better 2021, Happy New Year!

      1. It’s not over. The campaign to rejoin starts now. If they think we’re going to shut up after they whinged and moaned and bitched for forty years, I have news for them. It’s time to return the favour in spades.

        1. Count me in. I’ve been a British EU citizen virtually all my life and don’t feel in the mood to give it up just yet.

  3. Australia has not been as affected as some other places, although Victorians have had a rough time. I count my blessings even amongst the angst of needing to stay in South Australia. Thank you for your always most interesting posts.

    1. Thank you and I hope 2021 will be a good one for you. There seems to be no immediate end in sight here, but I have my fingers crossed. All best wishes.

  4. We have similar feelings about this past year — a loss at not being able to travel abroad but a welcome feeling about seeing things closer to home. You’ve used a phrase I want to adopt — the privilege of travel. I guess we just took it all for granted and, once gone, we missed the flights, the new places, the food, people, etc. Maybe next year. But until then, Happy New Year and best wishes for more great posts to come.

    1. A Happy New Year and a great 2021 to you also. Looking back on this year, it almost seems laughably naive to remember the many plans (both personal and professional) we had at the start of 2020. Still, things have been a lot worse for many, so I remain optimistic for 2021. Best wishes.

      1. I agree. Plans out the window for 2020, but new ones are flying in. Whether we’ll be able to do any of it remains to be seen.

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