It was about halfway through researching pictures of the Amalfi coast while putting this issue together that a member of the How To Spend It art team finally cracked. So many images of immaculate beaches lined with sun loungers and nubile, tan-limbed youths, rocky pathways down to crystalline seas, the balcony vistas. It was all too much. “This is torture,” she texted. She promptly booked two days’ holiday. To not very far away.
So, yes, we hemmed and hawed about doing a travel issue at a point in time when, for most of the world, even the most basic of journeys is completely out of bounds. But when dreaming of escape occupies so much of our energy, we decided to go ahead and do it anyway. At the very least we can still travel in our minds.
Besides, sometimes the most profound journeys are the ones that don’t require a trip at all. Talking to How To Spend It travel editor Maria Shollenbarger about what to feature in this issue, we initially discussed putting together an overview of the great adventurer journals and photographers who had historically transported us elsewhere. But it felt a little staid. Maria, one of the most tireless and enthusiastic travellers I know, was at that time quarantining with her parents in Monterey, California, having recently left a relationship in Asia and a new-found home in Rome. “Here I am,” she told me. “Locked out of Italy. Half my stuff still in Asia, the other half in Europe, with a suitcase I packed for a five-day trip that’s now tasked with seeing me through three months. Sleeping in my old teenage bedroom. Newly single after calling off a wedding. About to turn 50.” Was this a subject I thought might work?
Reader, I snatched her arm off. The late literary idol Nora Ephron famously said that, with all life experience, “everything is copy”. And Maria’s essay about her bittersweet homecoming, the rekindling of her love of California, and the curative power of one’s parents’ unconditional love is testament to that. Her situation was quite horrible, but the story is superb (“Splendid isolation: the long way home”).
It also reflects on the spirit of wanderlust that lives within us all, especially in recent years and in the culture of “where next?”. Travel, the most democratic luxury of the modern age, has allowed us to roam freely all over the world for years now. This period of prolonged isolation has found many of us rooted in one place for longer than we can remember. Will this period of lockdown see us reconcile with stasis? Or will we leave the crisis on the first plane we can get?
I certainly don’t expect travel writer and author Sophy Roberts to sit still for very long. Another restless spirit, earlier this year she was invited to join a clutch of immensely privileged people on a helicopter-based safari to the Ennedi Massif in the remotest part of Chad. Her trip upholds the very purist ideals of travel, while her writing evokes the heroic optimism of the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who first ventured to the region in 1938. I’m not sure I possess the same chutzpah to romp around prehistoric ruins in one of Africa’s more volatile hotspots, but her story makes for an epic armchair adventure nonetheless (“Splendid isolation: a trip to remotest Chad”).
More ephemeral pleasures are observed by John Gapper, who experienced an unusually quiet sakura season in Tokyo (“Splendid isolation: a surreal sakura season”). The annual flowering of the cherry blossom ceased to be a local event with the advent of Instagram and the subsequent arrival of millions of tourists, all eager to capture the moment on their phones. This year, witnessed in relative isolation, the season took on a strange, surreal charm. “Sakura means everything in Japan… Not just love and renewal, but evanescence and the fleeting nature of existence,” writes John. This season there were no tourists, no selfie sticks – and some unexpected snowfall. The prevailing mood was anxious. But, as John says, the flowers were as beautiful as ever. A quiet reminder that the world does keep turning, and that the seasons, and the chance to see them in all their exotic, Technicolor glories, will return to us once more.