The travel landscape is changing at warp speed these days; so much so that when I organised an interrailing trip across Europe four weeks prior to departure, all countries involved were beckoning me onward, open-armed, promising zero travel restrictions and shaking their heads in merriment at the very idea of any sort of quarantine.
I would speed my way across the continent to Rijeka, Croatia, before spending a day apiece in Munich and Paris upon my return. On the way out, the sleeper train from Germany would pass through Austria and Slovenia, equally unproblematic.
But oh, what a difference a month makes in a pandemic-tainted summer. First to be axed from the government’s list of travel corridors was France – lovely, cheese-laden France! – followed by Croatia and Austria, and then Slovenia. Only noble Germany stayed the course, head held high, while around her bordering nations toppled like dominos.
If it had been any other trip I might have postponed, what with the prospect of a mandatory two weeks of self-isolation to look forward to upon my return. But this was a multi-destination trip in which I’d coordinated with around five different parties to finalise the itinerary. It was already my second time reorganising it after the pandemic swept through and made my original April dates untenable. I just couldn’t face doing it again.
And so off I skipped, putting the dreaded Q-word out of my head as I swam in the Adriatic, quaffed tankards of Weissbier the size of my head and strolled the banks of the Seine over the course of six idyllic days. Returning to my cosy flat as our Indian summer choked its final breath, I had no regrets about my decision to travel against Foreign Office advice, to be honest. What was another two weeks of lockdown? It wasn’t so bad back in March, after all.
But here’s the rub. Back in March, everyone was doing it. Back in March, there was strength in numbers. Back in March, there was a feeling of camaraderie as you settled in, leaving notes and baked goods for neighbours, playing online quizzes with friends, teaching your mum to hold her iPad in such a way that you couldn’t see up her nostrils during video calls. We were “all in it together”, valiantly saving lives and protecting the NHS by doing precisely nothing.
Quarantining alone is a whole other matter. First-off, people forget that you’re quarantining, and so I continued to receive a flurry of invites from friends keen to make the most of the fine weather as late summer shimmied off its bikini and swapped it for the chunky knits of early autumn. I kept seeing messages proposing exciting plans and felt my heart lift at the prospect, before it clanged back down to earth when I remembered such frivolities weren’t for the likes of me.
Secondly, although two weeks may not sound like a long time, it certainly feels like a long time. Hours drag their feet, like children putting off getting to the school gates in a bid to miss assembly. I would normally describe myself as an outgoing introvert – I love people but they zap me of energy. Yet as each day went by, I found myself feeling a low-level exhaustion I could only attribute to being trapped inside, with access to neither nature nor the invigorating conversation of those whose company fills me up. I wasn’t expecting to feel so low; I wasn’t anticipating that the isolation would permeate my usually irrepressibly chipper mood like a black cloud. By day 10, I felt tired and useless, hovering on the verge of tears from some unformed sadness.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or hyperbolic – it’s just that I was genuinely taken aback by the effect that a mere two weeks indoors had on me.
It’s different to lockdown too in that you can’t go outside at all – the daily constitutional walk that kept so many of us mentally buoyant the first time around is off limits, as is a nip to the shops to pick up some milk when you run short. The dampening of joy meets the vulnerability of being dependent on others for everything. At one point, I took a deep breath and splurged on a “Waitrose Rapid”, which offers same-day grocery delivery for an exorbitant price, purely because I wanted to cook and couldn’t face asking for help again.
For me, my time under house arrest is finally over (unless, of course, we hit lockdown number two). If I could go back in time, I would still embrace my European adventure, but the unwanted aftermath would make me think twice about travelling again – and I’m a travel journalist. I’m in the lucky position of having a job I can do easily from home, and being surrounded by people who can bring me shopping, and it still felt like too much of a sting in the tail to contemplate repeating the process unless absolutely necessary.
The takeaway, for me, is clear: the current quarantine policy has already brought the UK travel industry to its knees. Unless something changes soon, it’s on course to destroy it completely.