It’s the alertness I want back.
I was in the Musicians Quarter of Nice during a two-month trek in Europe and my clothes had the odour of an odyssey. Four blocks from my hotel — the pleasant and brightly coloured Villa Otero — was a laundromat off of rue Berlioz, near the Mozart Parking Lot, and it was run by a thin, elegant woman of 70 or so who resembled Edith Piaf. She greeted me and my questions with an easy smile, even though she must have tolerated similar conversations multiple times every workday. The creases of her wrinkles deepened as she directed me to the vending machines that sold detergent. I carried my duffel bag to the back while she returned to rippling the pages of her magazine as the warm air of July lingered in the doorway and ceiling fans thrummed above our heads, and a saxophonist with an afro paused at the street corner.
Grey machines with blue trim occupied the laundromat, whose off-white walls were pasted with laminated sheets listing instructions in at least four languages. The machines churned, even though no one else was inside. I picked through my clothes and dropped them one by one into a coin-operated tumbler that had the whiff of Tide. For 90 minutes, as I waited for the clothes to wash and dry, I sat on a bench outside and sipped a frothy cappuccino while sorting through photos for social-media posts. Now and then, I surveyed the activity on the street as the sax’s tunes drifted off to that higher plane where jazz notes seem destined to go. Locals headed for Promenade des Anglais and the beaches on the other side of it, carrying with them lawn chairs and coolers; taxi drivers smoked cigarettes and kept their hips pressed against Peugeots, several of which had the flags of African nations tattooed to their fenders or dangling from a chain on their rear-view mirror; and elderly women and men strode the sidewalk in a way that reminded me of the worker at the laundromat, dapper and casual at the same time, the French sensibility to be both approachable and reserved at once. Most of them wore hats meant to dismiss the sun.
Never before or since have I been so enthralled by the chore of washing my clothes.
Travel compels your attention and it is that attentiveness to life that I miss during this era of COVID-19, marked by the dullness of routine that has settled in like an indentation on a sofa cushion as the pandemic prolongs.
When I am travelling, I feel as if my senses have been upgraded, with dormant abilities switched on so I can feel each tingle from the breeze on my bare forearm, making me aware of a temperature shift, or pick up the distinct aroma of onions browning on a street-cart vendor’s grill whose smell for some reason is more worthy of notice than those cooked by the hot-dog seller in my neighbourhood, or feel the fibres of my T-shirts and shorts that seem new, souvenir-like, as they come out of a laverie‘s machines. When I was done with the task, I packed my bag and said, “Au revoir,” to the woman and followed the scent of salt from the Mediterranean after it darted into my nostrils to draw me in the direction of the surf that was louder than the day before. I marched over, because I had to see. Travel had turned doing laundry into an event.
The quest to see and sense is rooted in much more than human curiosity. I have wondered if it isn’t animal instinct that drives our desire to feel so much from each place we visit. When we are in the wild of newness we are vulnerable and we must know it, at least subconsciously. We become observant of landmarks, to find our way back to our temporary beds, and the change in sounds, which can signal a swing in the mood of a place. If the clamours of activity begin to fade in a district, you might wonder if you should not hasten your move away. The most danger we feel when travelling, though, is usually around failure. We don’t want to miss out on something that could help us decipher the secret to life in the locale of the moment. So we lean in for conversations that could steer us where we should go for a richer experience. Or we head where our nose takes us — towards unannounced gatherings and spontaneous outbursts that promise fun.
The pandemic’s theft of travel has stolen more than our glee for movement. It has kept us from acting on our inherent trait to seek out and hunt for something more. I have tried not to miss exploring the world. Until recently, it hasn’t been difficult.
On February 16, 2020, my family handed over the keys to our home in Vancouver, left our belongings in a storage locker, and departed on what was supposed to be an extended sojourn to South and Central America. A month into our adventures we were caught behind closed borders in Peru when a lockdown in that country came suddenly, inducing panic and paranoia. After being among thousands of stranded Canadians repatriated by Air Canada flights in March, we stayed near Toronto with my family until August, when new cases of the coronavirus had dropped to a low and we felt there was a respite from the pandemic.
We returned to the west coast, found an apartment via a FaceTime property tour, and have mostly stayed put, except for a week-long excursion to the Okanagan Valley. At the beginning, there was a sense of having found gold in the form of time: The most ubiquitous silver lining of COVID-19. There was a tower of work I could finally do — years of writing projects relegated to various states of incompletion and dozens of menial tasks that didn’t quite have any urgency attached to them. They started to get done. Staying at home for week after week after week wasn’t cringingly tedious at first. Plus, we have a delightful 2-year-old who pitter-patters out joy with his steps and his laughter. He is the greatest deterrent to grief or travel mourning.
As winter has dragged on, though, and the virus has mutated rather than relented and the vaccine deliveries have stalled, the fatigue of sedentariness grows and the wanderlust intensifies.
Travel, for me, means inspiration. It ignites my imagination. Stories are woven from the fabric of an afternoon in a Viennese museum or a Mexican terrazzo or the kitchen of a French studio, or the diaphanous light of a Tofino sunset settling into the Pacific tide.
So, I wait and fantasize about a month-long life in Tuscany and summiting Machu Picchu, finally, and diving into Côte d’Azur once more. Feeling my alertness on tilt again as daily routines turn into intense episodes of perception, and I connect to the details that make a good tale — and the indelible memories that help get you through those times when you are stuck in place, physically and mentally, and feeling lost even when, ironically, you are more homebound than ever. It’s a confounding state, to desire escape from the one position you know is safe. But our senses need to be stimulated. That’s why — when the vaccines have been delivered and the risk of infection has dimmed and we exhale in the belief it may all be over at last — we will go, searching in our travels for blissful renewal, and gratification too.