The airplanes are gone.
They used to fly over this area, on their way to Hamburg airport, their contrails crisscrossing the sky in ever-changing abstract drawings.
No longer. German airports are all but shut down. Lufthansa has grounded nearly all of its planes and only maintains an emergency schedule. Other airlines have ceased to operate entirely.
Only the birds are left in the sky – many pigeons and buzzards, some seagulls. The other day, I saw a bald eagle soar into the clouds. Loud chatter will announce a flock of geese fly overhead in victory formation, migrating east towards Finland and Siberia.
Every year, their passage is a sign that winter is retreating and spring is coming. Unlike humans, geese are not stuck in one place now but still free to roam the planet as they please.
Do I envy them their freedom of movement?
As a kid, migratory birds fascinated me. The enormous distances they covered between their winter and summer bases. Just how did the birds know where to go and which route to take? Do they really navigate by the stars? It was all a mystery to me, and it still is.
I remember the joy at seeing starlings return to the village in the spring, and the sadness when they prepared for departure in autumn, all lined up on overland phone cables, like a string of shiny black pearls.
Their take-off presaged another dark northern winter.
Later, after I left home, I started to imitate the birds’ nomadic lifestyle, moving north and south with the seasons. As winter bases, I chose places like Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Sydney. Writing required maximum daylight, I convinced myself. It seemed perfectly natural to gallivant around the globe, always seeking greener pastures and more light.
The ability to travel freely, who did not take it for granted?
For some, this meant 48-hour city breaks in Prague or Rome, where they would join the masses milling about the Altstädter Ring or the Trevi Fountain, like a swarm of locusts. For others, free travel meant going on cruises or flying to ever more exotic faraway destinations.
“Why do I become restless after a month in a single place, unbearable after two?” Bruce Chatwin once wrote in a letter to Tom Maschler, his publisher. Searching for answers in an essay on nomadism, Chatwin quoted the French philosopher Pascal who believed that all man’s misery was caused by his inability to stay quietly in a room: “Notre nature est dans le movement.”
After years of being foot-loose, I can wholly relate to this.
I spent the past year in the East Mediterranean. Full of fascinating islands and history-oozing port towns, the region is perfect for restless peregrinations. Whenever I got bored somewhere, I simply took a ferry or plane to the next place. After two weeks, repeat.
Three months ago, I went to Alexandria, Egypt, to do research for a new book. The city’s crumbling 1920s architecture and its treasure-filled library so beguiled me that I ended up staying longer than planned. One afternoon, I visited the old-town apartment, now a small museum, where the Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy lived until his death in 1933. Outside Greece, he is best known for his Ithaca poem which has long held a special appeal to me as a wannabe Odysseus:
“As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery. (…)
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—”
Today, Alexandria seems as far removed as Phoenician trading stations. Humanity has been told to stay put.
Travelling has been all but banned. There are good reasons for this. If it had not been for mass air travel and tourism, this virus would not have spread across the globe as fast as it did – as in the case of Ischgl, the Austrian ski resort, from where tourists carried the virus as far as Iceland.
Across Europe, borders have now gone back up and their crossings been closed. Within a few weeks, the EU has disintegrated into nation-states. Even between German lands, boundaries begin to matter again. Domestic tourism is forbidden, inter-state travel restrictions are in place.
In two German states on the Baltic Sea, the owners of secondary homes have been ordered to return to their primary residences. This includes old people who would be much safer in the countryside than in a city. If they do not comply with the new rules, their neighbours denounce them to the authorities.
Local police have set up road blocks and check license-plates to keep city-dwellers out of rural areas, lest they spread the virus. In the villages, there is talk of preventing “outsiders” from entering. Tribalism returns.
So how will we travel after corona?
Even after a vaccine will have been found, people are likely to travel and mingle more cautiously in the future. Some might quickly pick up long-distance travel again but others may have rediscovered, during the lockdown, the beauty of (climate-friendlier) walks and cycling trips in their own region. As globalisation is being rolled back, the world will become a bigger place again, and our radius smaller. People will travel less.
During years of wanderlusty vagabonding, there is one question I must have asked myself a thousand times, in as many places.
Should I stay or should I go now?
It was the same old question, over and over. Even at home, especially here. Ten days at most, a few walks and lunches with my mother, and I would be off to the airport again. Invariably, my shifty feet carried me away to the next new place.
Should I go now? The question has become pointless.
With no flights to book and nowhere to go, there are no options left but to stay here. And for once, that is just fine by me. I thought I would be running in circles after two weeks, like a tiger in a cage, but not so.
Freiheit ist Einsicht in Notwendigkeit, wrote Hegel – freedom lies in accepting the necessary. It is force majeure, you cannot argue with that.
I do not feel stuck. I do not feel stranded. I feel grounded.
At least for the moment.