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The challenges of travelling abroad in 2021 (and how the pandemic extinguished the true traveller in me)

I’m worried that I’ve lost my travel mojo. The past 15 months of pandemic have changed my interests, priorities, life goals, travel style, chronotype, routine, attitude, what I thought was my identity, and more. Much of that for the better, I should add. Some things I’ve happily bidden farewell to (hello early bird!), others I think I’m mourning the loss of. Travel is one of the latter, of course. I’m sad to say that my March 2020 blog post of predictions for the travel industry post-pandemic have in the large part all come true, although I certainly didn’t think the pandemic would persist this far into 2021, and beyond.

By necessity I’ve narrowed my horizons in terms of travel destinations: a birthday weekend hiking in the Yorkshire Dales; a two-week holiday to the wild Atlantic coast of Aquitaine in France last summer; a fortnight in Cornwall quite recently; and now a month on a single Greek island, Kefalonia, where I’m currently writing this. I flick through a Condé Nast Traveller and feel like its far-flung paradises are other planets that I’ve no memory or hope of ever visiting. They feel so alien and out-of-reach, like I wouldn’t belong there now. Pre-pandemic, I spoke very casually about trips to the Philippines, Kenya, New Zealand, Nepal and work trips to capital cities – and now I feel like that jet-setter version of myself was another lifetime ago, and I don’t know how I’d fare in those places. 

Instead of cooing over the landscapes in the magazine, like my former self used to, I find myself eyeing up the decor and recipes. I’ve never been a homebody or a foodie, but the pandemic has unsurprising forced me (like everyone else) into caring more about my immediate living environment, my furniture, aesthetics and home comforts. I’ve created a home office, I’ve predictably bought a collection of houseplants, acquired new artwork, new furniture, new kitchen gadgets, I’ve categorised my bookshelves and resumed long-forgotten crafts. I’ve even started eyeing up sets of crockery in the local shops of Fiskardo for goodness sake. I’m no master in the kitchen, but I devoured my Kefalonia guidebook’s* chapter on food and I’ve intriguingly eaten my way through every local delicacy on the menu in the few restaurants that are open here, far more interested in cuisine than I ever was in the past. I’ve developed a dramatic obsession with cats following my three winter months looking after my mother’s tuxedo cat, and I would now love to have a pet – surely the most travel-inhibiting possession a person can have! This “new me” doesn’t really feel like the true me, and although I don’t mind it, I quite miss the old me – the girl who hiked up mountains and explored museums, rather than the one who now buys plates, critiques food and collects cats.

Planning travel during a pandemic has also for the first time given me a glimpse into something approaching what I imagine people with anxiety might suffer. Hear me out – I’m not trying to dismiss anyone who suffers anxiety, and I admit that I’ve no clue what I’m talking about. In the weeks leading up to this trip to Kefalonia, I became an increasingly nervous wreck. They say that half the fun of a holiday is the anticipation and build-up to it, the knowledge that an incredible reward awaits you in the future, something to look towards when feeling stressed or burnt-out. In this case, I refused to let myself anticipate this holiday in Greece, because I felt sure it was impossibly unlikely to actually materialise.

Amidst only booking accommodation with flexible cancellation terms; awaiting the UK Government’s traffic light list of permitted countries and lifting the ban on travel; booking flights with trepidation (only to find the outbound leg later cancelled, and stressfully needing to re-book an indirect flight to Kefalonia instead); researching and booking pre-departure PCR tests (and then panicking that somehow I’d test positive – which was ludicrous given how low the UK’s Covid numbers currently are); completing an endless form for arrival into Greece; seeing more and more countries ban UK travellers because of the variant originating in India; watching passengers ahead of us in the Gatwick check-in queue be turned away from the flight with incorrect documentation; and never knowing until we literally landed on Kefalonian soil whether or not we’d make it!

It sounds banal, but I honestly hyped this trip up into a near state of frenzy – trouble sleeping, addiction to BBC News, trawling the travel industry commentators’ Twitter feeds; calculating which social commitments I’d have to miss while quarantining post-Greece. I felt a continuous state of anxiety for the first time in my life. Not even during university finals or the last week of my Master’s thesis, can I remember feeling anything like the unending constant worry that I felt before this trip.

A sage friend in London very sanely stated to me three days pre-departure: “What’s the worst that could happen? You just don’t go to Greece and you spend your holiday in the UK, so what.” And that brought me back to earth, realising how OTT my worrying had become! No one would die, some money would be lost but I wouldn’t be bankrupted, I’d get FOMO but I’d find other ways to amuse myself. However, once I’d tied myself in knots into that anxious state, where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, I lost all concept of proportion or relativity. Is that what anxiety feels like?

As I’d received lots of questions about it, I recorded this video on Kymilia Beach discussing the whole process, with the calmness of hindsight having made it to Greece:

Miraculously we navigated all the Covid tests, bureaucracy, cancellation windows, and I’m now out here in Kefalonia for a month with my boyfriend. While I was working flexibly for some of our fortnight in Cornwall in early May, we both have the full 4 weeks here as annual leave. I barely took any leave in 2020, so I had a lot of days accumulated! Two days after my return to London in late June, I’ll start a new job (and coincidentally so will he), so we are effectively “jobless” – neither of us have work inboxes piling up in our absence, and it’s very liberating. I do feel extremely lucky. 

Still, my travel style has necessarily changed. My last few trips of this glorious month-long length were island-hopping in the Philippines, road-tripping through New Zealand, backpacking through the Balkans – all covering significant ground! This time, I’m spending 4 entire weeks on one single Greek island the size of Singapore – not a single border crossed or island hopped, because border crossings are complex activities these days and we’d no idea whether ferries would operate between islands. “Slow travel” taken to an extreme!

As it’s so difficult to travel right now, so few people have bothered and we have the island to ourselves: entirely deserted idyllic beaches, 5-hour hikes where we didn’t meet a single other person, and quiet restaurants where the staff tempt you back the next night with complimentary desserts, because they’ve so few customers. Since arrival I’ve swum endlessly, read Victoria Hislop’s Cartes Postales from Greece*, hiked, indulged in lie-ins and alfresco morning yoga, played cards and chess, and ignored my phone for the most part. I’ve brought paints, more books, and a laptop for a few projects I have in mind. I’m applying for a trustee role at a charity, and there are several FutureLearn courses I’ve longed to have time for in the past few months, and of course attending to this long-neglected blog of mine! I’ve never been a fan of sunbathing all holiday long, so I’ve spotted a good few hikes and I hopefully will go riding and sailing, possibly diving.

It feels and is spectacular, but I also have an element of FOMO, knowing that pre-2020 Virginia would have crammed 4 or 5 countries into these 4 weeks, ticking off travel goals one-by-one. My remaining travel goals now feel entirely alien and so out-of-touch with my new attitude to life and travel. 

One such goal was to live outside of Europe again. I’ve now no desire whatsoever to do that and be so far away from family, having seen friends further afield be separated so drastically from theirs. Instead I’m building my investment portfolio (another millennial Covid trend) and researching financial options for buying a bolthole somewhere like Italy (it’s not hugely realistic, but one of my dream projects). Another original travel goal that “new me” has lost interest in is working on a yacht in the Caribbean. Being consigned below-deck in cramped conditions to wait hand-and-foot on the wealthy now sounds absolutely dreadful! I want to be owning the yacht, not crewing it.

For someone who claims a travel blog as a side passion, this change in identity feels very unnerving. I feel like a fraud. In that sense I’m desperately hoping my footloose, adventurous, active self hasn’t departed forever and that she’ll return as the pandemic passes. I hope she’ll still take sabbaticals to backpack, that she’ll still pursue her goal of 100 countries before age 50, and that travel will continue to form a cornerstone of her identity. 

What I call “proper travel” feels very alien to me right now, and I hope the pandemic hasn’t extinguished my former travelling flame for good, like it has so many other lives, dreams and opportunities… Only time shall tell! For now, I’ll get back to my beach with my book, soaking up the moment and reflecting with relief that at least we made it. Kalispera.

Has the pandemic changed your identity in any way? Or the way you feel about travel? Have you dared to book any travel abroad yet this year, or are you holding off?

All photos in this post taken in Kefalonia, Greece.

* This post contains affiliate links and I may earn a small commission when you click on the links, at no additional cost to you, which helps support the running of this blog. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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