September 18, 2021

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Can Travel Be Fun Again?

3 min read

In early May, I took my first commercial flight since travel restrictions have eased and my vaccination reached full potency, to visit my daughter in Texas. I didn’t feel wildly unsafe; it was psychologically uncomfortable, but I have always disliked airports and planes. I ate and drank nothing onboard, and my mask was tightly fixed on my face.

Still, there was also a feeling of festive nostalgia attached to reclaiming the skies, a feeling I usually associate with returning to a university where I once studied, or revisiting the scene of childhood summers. As we broke through the clouds into that stratosphere of private sunshine that is so familiar to jet travelers, I felt the uneasy joy I discovered when I first hugged friends after being vaccinated. The quarantine had given me extra time with my husband and son, days to write, and the comforting patterns of repetition. But breaking out of it was a relief, nonetheless.

Even with the dread that may accompany it, travel is a liberation. The things and places and people I have loved and will love have been out there all this time and I am no longer chained to New York with a leg-iron. In September, I intend to return to London for a friend’s 50th birthday and see my seven English godchildren. I’ve currently been away from Britain, where I have citizenship, for longer than I have at any time since I was 12.

The question of travel is not merely a matter of fun. Travel is a necessary part of our continuing education. The 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Much as the boundaries of our bubbles drove many of us slightly mad during quarantine, so being locked in our own country has been devastating for many of us. Every country’s success depends on the inquisitiveness of its citizens. If we lose that, we lose our moral compass.

Equally, much as I yearn to go elsewhere, I am eager to welcome people to these shores. It’s eerie to walk through the great New York City museums and not hear the din of 100 languages. Travel is a two-way street, and let us hope that it will soon be bumper-to-bumper in both directions.

At the end of “Paradise Lost,” Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, and John Milton makes no bones about their anguish at being cast out. But he does not end on that sour note, because banishment from one place meant an opportunity to find another, however tentatively that process was undertaken:

Some natural tears they dropd, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

That will be how we return to the pre-Covid realms of possibility. As the virus comes under control, we will set forth with renewed vigor. The world is all before us. We may start with wandering steps and slow, cautiously and uncertainly. But think of it. A year ago, many of us feared to venture farther than the grocery store; now we are given back a whole planet to explore, however gingerly.

Andrew Solomon, a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, is the author of “Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World.”


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