Photo by Jakob Owens

Where in the world

In the post-pandemic world, travel is all in the mind

Artillery Row

In Joris-Karl Huysman’s A Rebours (Against Nature), a decadent fin-de-siecle aesthete named Des Esseintes is toying with the idea of travelling north to England, via the Dieppe to Newhaven ferry crossing. 

Having dedicated a life wholly to art and beauty, and reluctant to leave his elegant Parisian villa and sensual life of the mind, he nevertheless takes the plunge by first buying a Baedeker’s Guide To London. Sheltering from the pouring rain in a bar off the Rue de Rivoli, he witnesses “swarms of English people…pale, gangling clergymen…laymen with bloated pork-butcher faces or bulldog muzzles”. 

Still with the intention of taking the night boat across the Channel, he enters into the spirit of his surroundings and finds himself gorging on plates of roast beef and Stilton, washing it all down with pints of pale ale and porter in the company of “Englishwomen with boyish faces” and “teeth as big as palette knives” before the penny finally drops: “Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food, and even cutlery, were all about him?”

Reasoning over his decision to abort the trip and instead return immediately to his beautiful house with his trunks, rugs and portmanteaux, he surmises: “I’ve been steeped in English life ever since I left home, and it would be madness to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locality.”

Should we be travelling for fun at all?

Living through endless months of lockdown has forced all of us to channel our inner Des Esseintes. Who hasn’t tried to summon up the sights, sounds or flavours of past and future journeys when faced with the gloomy backyard and slate grey rooftops beyond? Maybe you compensated for that trip you didn’t take last year by having a Swiss-style fondue evening or buying an Otavalan-style hammock on Amazon. Perhaps you joined virtual tours of “Gaudi’s Barcelona” or “Romantic Venice” online? These are very Des Esseintes responses, too, and as holiday substitutes they trump the attempts of our forebears with their clunky slideshows or Super 8 films that would light up dark winter’s evenings before the sun-drenched holiday catalogues hit the front doorstep in January. 

Now it seems we can do travel again for real. We deserve a break. Let’s dust down those grubby Samsonites, unearth those Bermuda shorts from 2019 and sod the expense of it.

But wait, the world’s moved on, hasn’t it? We’re all slightly out of practice and just about getting the hang of cottages in the Norfolk Broads. Our confidence isn’t quite what it was, and in this new post-Brexit, post-pandemic era thwarted by traffic light systems, eco disasters, global inequality and the continued threat of major terror attacks, should we be travelling for fun at all?

Knowing that each passenger on a return flight from Paris to New York generates around a ton of carbon emissions is sobering enough for anyone about to trawl the BA website. One ton of CO2 is the equivalent of driving a diesel vehicle from London to Khartoum or using 4,300 kWh of energy that’s half the monthly consumption of a home in the US. 

We never knew exactly where we were going

Then there’s our impact on these far-flung Shangri-La’s once we’re there, the rising air pollution, the environmental damage, the loss of nature, the casualisation of the local labour market and the sad decline of indigenous cultures… I could go on.

Oh, how simple travel seemed back in the last century! Barely out of nappies, I remember the formative experience of sitting alongside the autoroute somewhere north of Paris and dipping the corner of my first buttered croissant into my mother’s glass of black coffee and later marvelling at the Rococo-style flourishes of a 10 Franc note. 

As a teenager I had gorged on mid-century travelogues by outliers such as Gerald Brennan (South From Granada) or Laurie Lee (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning). During the 1920s and 30s these romantic wanderers found Spain and literally stumbled into the Middle Ages. Even at the turn of the last millennium, the wider world remained fair game for anyone with an ounce of curiosity and the money for a return air fare. 

We had The Rough Guide or Lonely Planet to tell us which hostels to stay at or which parts of town should be shunned. Their writers came across as itinerant Che Guevara’s imbued with positive political ideals, whether promoting safe sex or dishing out tips on dealing with the local racist cops. They certainly weren’t after our money, what little we had of it.

We never knew exactly where we were going, in a visual sense at least, as these earnest, text heavy tomes carried few photographs inside and you certainly couldn’t access a website or Google Earth image in the event your accommodation adjoined an abattoir or municipal dump. If you wanted to rate a restaurant you had just dined in, there was no Trip Advisor app with which to vent your spleen after a terrible meal. You had to ask the maître d’ to direct you to the kitchen where you had it out face-to-face with the chef.

In hindsight, it was a kind of golden age

In those days, independent travel still represented a genuine form of escape with no glancing at news updates, local weather reports or live football scores from home. On my first trip to New York for instance, I discovered the unlikely outcome of the famous 1981 Headingly test match over a week after the event, while chatting to a middle-aged Australian couple on the viewing deck of the Empire State Building. “Your bloke Botham came in and smashed it all over the park,” they explained as I listened incredulously.

Going abroad therefore contained an element of risk and disappointment. There were pitfalls aplenty but it was, in hindsight, a kind of golden age. 

Now that we’re firmly back within our own borders, we must continue to create travels of the mind instead of pressing the green light on yet more meaningless jaunts. So let’s take a leaf out of our fictional fop Des Esseintes and put his philosophy to the test.

There’s a cobbled side street that I pass almost every day. Why shouldn’t this be Montmartre from a Brassai print circa 1932? Then there are the local woods that we sometimes go to with the dog. Let’s imagine we’re in a giant forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, I think we’re getting the hang of this. Even the graffiti-strewn railway bridge on the way could, in the right kind of sunlight, be mistaken for north of Central Park or Shibuya, Tokyo.

If this doesn’t work, there’s the option of some pavement dining, a Caffé Affogato from the new place on the high street, or perhaps another Ottolenghi recipe to be knocked up at home. Where do you want to go next?

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