A Journal of the Plague Week 49

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

As I was getting dressed on Friday morning, I caught sight of a glass vial half-filled with a lilac-tinted liquid on the shelf. It’s a small bottle of room scent from the Hotel Estheréa in Amsterdam, an establishment that probably vies only with the Edgewater in Seattle for the distinction of being Jessica’s Favorite Hotel. The scent is used throughout the hotel, and the last time we stayed there they left a complimentary vial of it in the room for us to take home. I use it sparingly, only on nights when I’m feeling particularly tightly wound and need some olfactory soothing before bed. I have no way of knowing how much I would like the smell if I didn’t associate it with one of my favorite hotels in one of my favorite cities. As it is, the tiniest whiff takes me right back to the cozy, quirky, over-the-top extravagance of the Estheréa.

I looked at the room spray Friday morning and thought “Maybe I’ll get back there someday”—and I think it was the first time I properly felt that our life has not just been put on hold, it has been reset, and it may never again be what it once was. A year ago, I would just have assumed that another opportunity to stay at the Hotel Estheréa would eventually present itself (we’ve only ever stayed there when Jeremy was speaking at a conference). It’s a ridiculous privilege to assume such a thing, but assume I did, because that was the shape of my life a year ago. People held conferences all around the world, and they wanted Jeremy to speak at those conferences, and Jeremy would agree on the condition that I could travel with him, and that was how things were.

I’m sure the conference business will ramp up again eventually, but I have no idea how long it will take, or what dimensions it will take, or what our place will be within it. Of course, we can travel with or without conferences (not right now, but at some point), but it was conference travel that set the rhythm of our life. It was the framework that gave shape to the months and years. There was always an upcoming trip, something to plan for, something to look forward to.

It was often disruptive, too, to be honest. We missed a lot of events here in Brighton because we were off traveling somewhere else. It was hard to keep our garden properly going when we were never around to tend to it. Text messages from friends wanting to meet for coffee typically started with: “Hi, are you in the country?” Trying to schedule a single band practice was often a huge feat of planning. Nine times out of ten, my response to any query would be “we can’t, we’ll be away”. We were always away.

Despite that, I always struggled to answer the perfectly reasonable question of “are you going anywhere nice this summer?” (one of England’s Favorite Questions, right up there with “any plans for the weekend?”). The question assumes that you have a job with an allotted amount of vacation time each year, and you are likely to take that single vacation in the summer, and (if you live in the UK) you are likely to travel somewhere sunny. But that wasn’t the structure of our life. There was usually no single big vacation. There was no real distinction between traveling for work and traveling for pleasure —it was all just “travel”, even though it was actually work for Jeremy, and more often than not I would be working, too. That’s not a situation that everyone would be happy with, and it only really worked for us because I’m self-employed and can work from anywhere. Obviously there’s a lot to be said for taking off on a proper vacation with no obligations, work or otherwise (and we have occasionally done that). But the opportunities offered by conference travel were just too good to pass up.

We spent much of Saturday exchanging photos and reminiscences with the friends who were our traveling companions in New Zealand back in February 2012 (“the Fellowship”). My happy memories of that marvelous trip have sustained me for years, and the trip was only possible because the wonderful Webstock conference got us all to New Zealand together in the first place. That’s the other great thing about conference travel: you get to see your friends. Through conferences we’ve wound up with friends around the world, and conferences make it possible for us to see them far more regularly than we would be able to otherwise. Heck, there have been times when we’ve seen friends from Brighton more often in other countries than here in Brighton itself, because they’ve spoken at the same conferences as Jeremy, and when we’re at a conference we hang out together, but when we’re back in Brighton we’re homebodies.

Well, we’re all homebodies now. So I armchair travel and dream of everywhere that is not here. I saw a picture of the Dolomites on Saturday morning and was reminded that I’ve always wanted to visit that part of Italy. I looked at a map of the area and spotted the city of Bolzano, which has been in my consciousness lately because I recently started making the Bolzano Apple Cake that was once served at Lampreia restaurant in Seattle (an establishment now long gone, where Jeremy and I had one of our first proper “fancy” meals together years and years ago). I decided that I would very much like to see Bolzano, and I noticed that it’s not that far from Venice—and Venice, in turn, is not that far from Trieste (“city of coffee”!), which is just a stone’s throw from Istria, a part of Croatia I’ve been longing to visit for ages. We were actually supposed to go to Labin in Istria for a conference last year (or this year? I don’t even know anymore), and we were thinking about traveling there from Venice—maybe overland, up around the Gulf of Trieste, through a tiny sliver of Slovakia and then down into the peninsula, or maybe by ferry across the Adriatic. It would have been a grand trip.

In lieu of that, I’ve started theoretically planning some future trip that involves sightseeing in the Dolomites followed by a train journey to Venice and onward travel, by whatever picturesque means, to Istria. Or maybe from Bolzano to Verona and then Lake Garda instead? And then a different trip to Istria, possibly starting in Ljubljana and going to Trieste from there? Or maybe we fly straight to Istria and head south to see some Croatian islands? I don’t know when or how or if it will happen, whether a conference will take us to any of these places or whether we’ll go on our own initiative, or whether it’s all just a pipe dream—my usual weekend Fernweh, when I feel drawn to every single place on earth that is not Brighton.

Maybe the probability or feasibility doesn’t really matter. I spent the weekend in travel mode, scouring maps and investigating train routes and reading up on ancient towns and looking at pictures of snowy mountains and golden beaches and craggy hilltops and getting lost in the history of Central and Southeastern Europe’s strange and ever-shifting borders (look at how the Italian city of Trieste is almost surrounded by Slovenia, and how the part of Croatia that holds Dubrovnik is entirely cut off from the rest of the country by a little wedge of Bosnia and Herzegovina—though the construction of the Pelješac Bridge will change that, as I learned yesterday). My body is still sitting here in front of my computer, where it’s been every day for the past 345 days, but my mind and heart are out there riding the rails, sailing the waves, strolling the streets of unfamiliar cities, soaking up everything that exists in the world beyond what I can see from my window. In my heart and my mind, I’m away. I’m always away.

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