Portugal was wiped off the amber list with little warning about a month ago. I didn’t feel much sympathy for the people mobbing airport counters for flights to beat the quarantine deadline, any more than I feel sorry for people who fail to win the lottery each jackpot draw. The Scottish summer has been a washout, grey weeks of 12 degrees, and I’m craving proper warmth and sunshine, but even with two jabs in me now, I wouldn’t get on a plane. The travel industry is screaming but really, do we want to import the latest variant?
Brits are so desperate for their summer sun that they’re going to Gibraltar for holidays. (The other amber-list options include British Antarctic Territory, the Falklands, Pitcairn Islands and Israel.) Gibraltar! A bizarre colonial hangover, populated by pensioners flying Union Jacks and reading the Daily Mail over full English breakfasts. Australia the Hermit Kingdom is on the green list and as a citizen I’d be allowed in, if I could get a flight and afford quarantine, but on the same basis, I wouldn’t be allowed out again, which ranks high on my list of nightmares.
As the second year of covid swings by, oddly accelerated—what the hell, it’s July in a few days’ time—frustration mounts up at the lack of overseas holidays. When did several foreign holidays, jaunts and ‘work trips’ a year become an entitlement? My childhood holidays were weekends in a rented caravan by the Ovens River in Porepunkah or Talbingo. The farthest afield were two bus camping holidays, one to central Australia and one up the Queensland coast, sleeping in old Army-style canvas tents. Flying to Sydney or Melbourne was expensive, forget about rich-family holidays to Bali, the nearest exotic (as opposed to New Zealand) destination.
I arrived in the UK in 1999, the era of budget airlines in hot competition (remember Go?), a strong pound against the euro, and weekend ‘city breaks’ enabled by £5 flights to second-rank airports or repurposed US military airfields. I took full advantage, even when 9/11 rendered every passenger a potential terrorist suspect, treated as such by airport security.
Once you acquire a sense of entitlement, it’s hard to shake off, as former prime ministers keep discovering. The glory days of days of book-and-go changed my sense of what is normal. I now feel, like much of the British population, ridiculously deprived because I can’t head off to Greece, Portugal, Spain or Italy for a holiday.
In the modern world, we all ‘deserve’ holidays. Not because capitalism is kind, but because travel is a billion-pound industry. Pre-capitalism, our peasant ancestors made do with getting bladdered locally on religious feast days. Compared to our pitiful allocation of bank holidays, feast days totalled about three months a year. Would you swap two weeks on Corfu, a long weekend in Madrid and someone else’s wedding on Ibiza for three months’ worth of bank holidays? Now there’s a question.
In my years of singledom, I longed for a partner to accompany me on holiday. I went on organised walking tours rather than go alone and envied the couples I spied reading maps in cafes, bus stops or mountain trails. My one attempt at a solo beach holiday, on Naxos, was merely an expensive refinement of my usual solitude with a change of scene. When you live and work alone, going on holiday alone isn’t much of a holiday.
And what if you and your partner are holiday-incompatible? What if your partner is bored silly by the prospect of lying on a beach (or on a shady terrace overlooking a beach) with a stack of books, or finds hiking ‘slow’ and ‘pointless’? What if your partner prefers to explore cities on their own, unencumbered by someone who goes to bed at 10pm, before all the real urban fun begins?
The wisdom of separate holidays is divided. Google ‘holiday without my partner’ and you will find warnings about the need to ‘create shared memories’ alongside smug testimonies of how separate holidays have saved marriages. In a normal summer, my academic-poet friend R. (comparative literature) emerges from Fife for a ‘continental wandering’ to France and Germany without his partner, a Hellenist. Modern Greece holds no charm for her, and she’s happy to stay at home with their collection of classically named cats.
In any case, the early 21st-century habit of frequent, democratically affordable overseas jaunts is due to be nixed by global warming (an almost abstract notion in the still underheated British Isles), if not the global pandemic. As with car ownership, should a person renounce them now, for the sake of the planet, or make the most of it while they can? Motorways and airports at the start of school holidays suggest an attitude of carpe diem, and when the world opens up again after COVID, I’m not going to judge.