I know we all joke about not knowing what day of the week it is any more but this newsletter is a day late because I sincerely thought today was Wednesday. Sorry about that.
I was supposed to be on holiday
On Saturday 11th, I was supposed to go to South Korea. Yesterday morning, I was supposed to have flown to Kyūshū. Today, I was supposed to be on a train out to Nagasaki.
Needless to say, these things are not happening.
It has been, of course, a curiously stressful year, all told. All the general stress and anxiety that everyone is feeling, plus those personal stresses and anxieties that are unique to everyone, really add up.
But losing this holiday has been an odd one. It hit me surprisingly hard in one respect; it turns out that, without realising it, I'd gambled an awful lot of my mental health in the first few months of 2020 on the notion that all I had to do was make it to April, and then I'd be able to spend a couple of weeks climbing volcanos, sitting in onsen, and eating rice.
The first couple of times it was suggested that we might not be able to go, I reacted strongly, and poorly. It felt, I realise in hindsight, like being told "this" – the "this" that was occupying me in February, that is – "might not ever really be over". If my line in the sand was erased, what new marker could there be?
In the end, what I've started referring to, even in spoken discourse, as "*waves hands* all this" was a significant enough break from the norm that the old cares and concerns drifted away, to be replaced by exciting new cares and concerns, like when you scratch a mosquito bite so much that it stops being itchy and starts being painful instead. It's not an improvement, but it is, at least, a change.
In the period when I was telling myself I'd be able to go, one of my reasons was the fundamental interconnectedness of the world. "If it gets bad enough in Japan or South Korea that they close the borders," I said, to my partner but really to me, "then that means it will already be bad enough here that they wouldn't need to. Japan and South Korea are such globalised nations that it's not really possible for an epidemic to hit them but then be contained there."
I didn't know what I was talking about, of course – this was the days before "everyone's an epidemiologist" was a punchline, the heady days of March – but I was sort of right, in the wrong way. It turns out that it really was that things got bad enough in the UK that it was the cases here that kept us from going, not the cases there. But that wasn't the wishful thinking version of reality that I'd had, where a smattering of cases in the UK and Japan means that neither country sees the point in blocking travel to the other. It was, well, *waves hands* all this.
Once things actually did start getting cancelled, though, I was surprisingly sanguine about it. The three week period when it looked like we might be able to go but risk being trapped in one country or the other, or find ourselves arriving to a newly imposed quarantine, or come home to a self-isolation requirement, was stressful enough that when, in late March, British Airways simply cancelled our flights, it was enough of a relief that we accepted it and moved on.
(By which I mean "launched a multi-day battle to get the company to refund us for our tickets, rather than simply give a voucher, redeemable in the next 365 days, for the same amount off future flights." In the end, I had to use the gross method of "tweeting public complaints while having a blue tick on Twitter and 50,000 followers", which never looks good, but does occasionally get results.)
I think of all of this now in part because, well, I'm stuck in a mid-sized flat in east London, and not (checking my plan) heading to one of Japan's oldest restaurants, founded in the Edo Period, and serving a unique fusion cuisine reflecting Nagasaki's history as one of the only parts of the country where foreigners were allowed to live during the isolation era.
But also because one of the hot questions of the moment is whether waves hands all this will result in a permanent reduction in foreign travel. We're all learning to replace travel with other forms of communication right now: business trips are being replaced with phone calls, conferences with livestreams, the word "webinar" is being used by normal people. Normalish people. Normaler people.
On top of that, airlines are going to go bust; tourism and hospitality businesses will close; the infrastructure that supports foreign travel will be decimated – literally so. Heck, a 10% decline is the good end of things. Twenty-seven percent of American hotels think they can survive this lasting six months. For restaurants and bars, the figure is 17%. That means a lot of things – none of them good – but one thing it means is that travel will simply be harder to do at the other side of this. There will be fewer hotels, which will fill up faster, and charge more. The guide books will be useless. The restaurants will be shuttered. The tourist parts of cities will be ghost towns.
And yet. That might work to stave off business travel: to finally kill the broken part of managers' brains that says "flying a junior associate to a meeting in person shows they're serious about this contract, therefore they are good at business, we must do business". (Can you tell I understand business).
But it won't kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can't see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it's a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.
On Saturday, to mark the plane we were not on, we bought some Sushi from one of the local restaurants that had switched to take-away only.
It was bad, and it made us sad.