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.