At the start of the year, as I always do, I wrote about my 2020 travel plans.
The travel plan I was most looking forward to, unsurprisingly, was returning home to Scotland for Easter. With my brother’s school holidays coinciding with my visit, we would be at home in Lewis together for the first time in years, and I’d have enough time for a weekend trip to Glasgow too, to stay with one of my oldest friends and have a good old catch up like we used to do when we both lived in the Outer Hebrides.
Maybe I was in denial, but I still thought I might be able to travel, right up until last Thursday morning. Already working from home in an effort to contribute to “social distancing,” as I watched the news get progressively more concerning by the hour, I knew I wouldn’t be going home in a few weeks’ time. I knew I needed to cancel my flights.
Like everyone else, I’ve known about Coronavirus for months. A good friend of ours who lives in China made it home to London before the country went into lockdown, and I was vaguely aware of a case somewhere in Arizona when we flew there for a long weekend in February. But back then it still seemed like something distant, something we didn’t need to worry about quite yet. (I’ve been sanitizing my hands after being on public transport ever since I moved to New York, so I wasn’t altering my behaviour these past few weeks so much as noticing other people were starting to do the same.)
It’s funny how fast things can change, though. As The Sunday Times’ Travel Editor wrote this weekend, “while a week is a long time in politics, it’s an age, we’re discovering, in a pandemic.”
At the end of February, I listened to “The Coronavirus Goes Global” episode of The Daily podcast, then promptly upped my hand washing and desk disinfecting. In the first week of March, at a book launch I attended for work, people were already elbow-bumping instead of hand shaking. Other than that, life went on as normal: Mr. Stories My Suitcase Could Tell and I went out for dinner for my birthday, and we celebrated that weekend with friends in our apartment.
Then last Monday, the Governor of New York cautioned people against using the subway. As a daily subway user, it was that announcement that made the situation feel distinctly “real.” On Tuesday, I learned that a containment zone was being put in place around a town just outside of Manhattan, and I noticed that rush hour on public transport was eerily quiet.
On Wednesday, my company told employees they could work from home if they wanted to, and the atmosphere in the office as everyone packed up their desks and said goodbye to each other, not knowing what was going to happen or when we’d see each other again, was incredibly strange. That was the night Trump addressed the nation, announcing a travel ban to and from Europe; by Saturday, that travel ban included the UK, while more and more European countries began instituting lockdowns. In the space of a week, we’ve gone from trying to avoid the subway to watching the world close its borders.
I haven’t left our apartment since Wednesday, except to do our regular weekly shop – which was an experience in itself, as people eyed each other warily in nearly-empty aisles.
I’m not sick, but social distancing is the best way to stop the virus from spreading, so along with many others, I’m voluntarily staying at home. As someone who lives far away from friends and family, I’m well-practiced in keeping in touch virtually, although I can’t pretend I’m not sad about being unable to see my family anytime soon.
With all that said, I’m doing my best to keep busy online and off. I’m still working nine-to-five during the week, although my commute from the kitchen to my desk is much shorter and nicer than the one I usually take on the subway. My book club is going to keep “meeting” through WhatsApp; the friends we watch Outlander with are going to press “play” at the same time as us so we can watch it “together” on Sunday evenings; and my family and I will keep in touch daily as we always do.
I want to keep in touch with you, too.
I love the little community that’s built up here, so I’m still going to write about travel on Stories My Suitcase Could Tell. There are plenty of stories in my drafts just waiting to see the light of day, and without being able to go anywhere, I should theoretically have plenty of time to finish them!
We may not be travelling physically right now – or anytime soon, depending on how this plays out – but eventually, we will be able to get out and experience the world again. Maybe these suitcase stories can help you dream of future travels, or provide a form of escapism; I know reading books and travel articles will help provide that escape for me.
I also know I’ll be getting on a plane to the Isle of Lewis as soon as it is feasible to do so. Destinations that rely heavily on tourism, as the Outer Hebrides do, will need your support when the time comes. In the meantime, let’s all stay in touch, and support our communities, even as we have to physically stay apart. These are strange times for us all, wherever we are in the world, and the best thing we can do is be there for each other in whatever way we can. So stay safe out there – and don’t forget to wash your hands!