In recent months I have visited New York’s nightclubs, wondered at the expanse of Canada’s wilderness, journeyed through English countryside by rail and spent time on a Queensland cattle station.
Obviously, my tourism has been of the armchair variety rather than the physical, as Victorians have been locked out not just of international travel, but also of crossing Australian state borders, due to an outbreak of COVID-19.
This kind of travel might seem like the perfect way of dealing with being indefinitely confined to my home state, and possibly soon, my home.
And it is true that my heart has soared at the idea of walking the hallowed grounds of London’s law precinct (in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act), exploring the Big Apple’s nightlife (in Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls) and feeling Canada’s vast, wintry splendour (in Vicki Laveau Harvie’s The Erratics). In reading of the magnificence of these places, I recalled the joy of visiting far flung countries, and the different sights, smells and sounds – the feel – of being somewhere different.
Writer Katrina Mayer said, “A book is a magical thing that lets you travel to far-away places without ever leaving your chair.”
To a degree, that is certainly true. However, I fear Mayer was writing at a time when travel was possible in a way that it isn’t at the moment. I’ve found that rather than curing my travel bug, reading has made me more acutely aware of what we have, at least temporarily, lost. It is hard to be reminded of all those streets, cafes, opera houses and bars that are now empty of tourists.
Travel is my bliss, and I love to walk along cobbled streets that are new to me, but have been trammelled for hundreds of years. I love biting into pastries and sampling impossibly delicious carbonaras. I love airports and taxis and my friends laugh at how much I love hotels or motels or Air bnbs. Even before leaving home, I love trawling through Tripadvisor, Skyscanner and Trivago to find a deal, flicking past photos of tiny, characterful rooms and expansive resorts. I love the newly extinct breakfast buffet and the croissant on the go. I love seeing how people live – the Vietnamese who stooped over pho in the mornings, the French who queued patiently to buy cheese, the Balinese who gently laid down their religious offerings and the Italians who carefully selected biscuits which they paid for by the gram.
While books offer a taste of the way travel feels, it is clearly not the same, and now armchair travel serves as a reminder of what is no longer on accessible. In the past, I liked to think that if there was a place I desperately wanted to visit, it would be possible if I saved up money and planned carefully. Since COVID-19, that is no longer the case. As an Australian, it feels more than ever like we are a long way from anywhere.
For a while, I lived in London, and I loved the sense of being closer to the centre of the world’s action. I wandered past the places where my literary heroes had lived – from Australia, these people had seemed like ghosts but here was a physical reminder of their existence; they had walked these same streets.
In England, it seemed to me that the politics, entertainment and money were all on a larger scale – the whole city area of London was dedicated to banking and money management, the celebrities were more famous and the politics was more dynamic. It was the land of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Moss … the Queen!
However, I must remind myself that Australia’s very distance from these places is one of the reasons why we have been relatively safe, so far. We are lucky.
And I am well aware that not everyone is lucky enough to have experienced the joy of travel even in pre-COVID times, and that there are far worse implications of the pandemic than not being able to travel. My stymied wanderlust is a measly complaint, and ultimately, I am pleased that governments have closed borders in order to stop the spread and protect their citizens.
So, if it is just books in which I travel until the borders open and the aircraft take to the sky, that is the way it will be. My heart will swell and fall as I remember the wonders I have seen and which still exist for me between the pages. Most importantly, I will see how others live, from afar. I will learn about different cultures and religions and come to understand how characters were formed. Recently, I read about growing up a strict Mormon in the mountains of Idaho in Tara Westover’s Educated, and of a Nigerian woman dreaming of freedom in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah – lives far removed from my own.
In books, I cannot look into people’s eyes, but I can learn about what is in their hearts. It is possible to find out more even from seeing less.
Writer Laurie Helgoe drew a link between reading and travel when she wrote:
“Reading is like travel, allowing you to exit your own life for a bit, and to come back with a renewed, even inspired, perspective.”
For now, that is more than enough.