The first one comes straight at me across the courtyard like a tiny winged bullet.
Before I even know what I’m looking at, it’s gone - responding to my presence with a truly inhuman reaction-time, vanishing into the hot blue Spanish sky before I can even blink. Then a second whips past in its wake: there and gone, all in the same moment, less an object and more a living line in time and space.
For travelling Brits like me, the swallow is the ultimate metaphor for freedom in travel. We mark the commencement of our summers with our first sightings of these tiny, mindblowingly fast birds - and the waning of the year by their absence as they leave our shores.
If you’re lucky enough to see a swallow on the ground (or perhaps a sister-species like a swift or martin), you’ll be amazed at how tiny and delicate they look, wee feathery scraps of a thing, seemingly too fragile to do anything impressive...
Then you see them in the air, ripping along at 40 miles an hour on the hunt for airborne insects - and for the first time, you get a glimpse of how they’re capable of the feat they’re most famous for.
The swallows I’m watching in my courtyard in Spain are the same ones that grace the skies above Britain every summer - despite the two places being separated by the best part of 2,000 miles. In a feat of navigation that’s hard to comprehend, swallows migrate twice a year in search of seasonal food supplies - once northwards as far as the extremes of the United Kingdom, and once to the southern tip of Africa to escape the insect-killing Northern European winter.
It’s a true odyssey: 6,000 miles each way, covering up to 200 miles per day and relying on fat reserves they’ve built during rest-months to get across the leanest landscapes and patches of ocean.
Even more incredible: their cousin, the swift, is so perfectly designed for a life in the sky that it has learned to sleep while flying. By entering a state called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), swifts send alternating parts of their brains into deep sleep while the other areas stay awake - meaning they can travel thousands of miles without stopping to rest.
Swallows, though, recharge in the normal way birds do. That’s why these ones are passing through, nesting under the broken street-lamp outside my apartment. In a week it’ll be March, and they’ll be off again, heading north to inspire (and gently torment) so many of my fellow countrymen. We see the swallows, and we want to follow. We want to be off, as free-spirited as they seem to be.
How many human winter trips in Europe started life as the sight of a swallow, swift or martin swooping joyfully in the sky? Hard to say - but perhaps in this time of great change, we should spread the wings of our imagination a bit further, and look beyond this popular metaphor for winter travel.
Wherever you look, what’s known in the travel industry as “wintering” is generally confined to one axis only. When the cold starts biting, we Brits tend to head due south, towards Spain (which explains why so many of us spend our retirements there). Across the Atlantic, the Canadian tradition of ‘snowbirding’ generally ts underway, as travellers head for Florida and other parts of the southern United States.
Like the swallows, we migrate in search of what sustains us by following the poles - and during the winter months, that means chasing a bit of sun, a bit of warm water to swim in, and maybe an all-inclusive buffet or two.
Well, maybe not so much this year. Thanks to the pandemic, few of Canada’s 900,000 snowbird travellers have packed their bags this year, and due to fluctuating border access and quarantine restrictions, much the same is happening in Europe. This year, the disrupted pattern is set - while next year, after national vaccination programmes should have freed everyone to travel, it’ll be as different again.
Not the same, though. And maybe we shouldn’t just be trying to emulate the old ways. Maybe we need to look sideways for a change.
Migrating birds are a magnificent metaphor for travel - but we aren’t birds. We have the ability to cross oceans with relative ease, and choose our wintering destinations accordingly. My trip to Spain could have been to Cyprus, or Thailand, or even New Zealand. Budget permitting, I could have chosen anywhere warm enough, including in the southern hemisphere.
This kind of freedom is going to be really important for the winter of 2021, because of what this winter has wrought in travel.
Every destination that’s been hard-hit is going to be eager to rebuild its numbers - while being well aware of the narrow north-south bias at work in next year’s tourism (as with every year). In getting used to travel again, a lot of people will be unwilling to do much more than winter themselves southwards over their nearest border...and miss what’s available if they cast their net laterally as well, across land and sea to equally accessible warmer climates on different continents. Places that see far fewer visitors at that time of year, and maybe have far more to offer as a result.
A few decades back, the biggest obstacles to this kind of thinking would have been around time and cost. Now, with the opening up of affordable international travel, different practical issues assert themselves. If you’re wanting a short winter break, isn’t it too much of a hassle to spend a day or more flying to your destination (and another day flying back) - thereby wrestling with jet lag for a disproportionate amount of your trip?
The solution here is simple - and the perfect salve to the stresses of 2020. How about removing the word “short” from the equation?
Maybe that’s one thing that swallows get exactly right. At the end of their 6,000 mile journeys, they stay in one place for months at a time, taking full advantage of everything on offer, and only leaving at a time that makes sense to their biological needs (and who knows, perhaps their psychological ones as well).
Perhaps us 21st-century landbound travellers could take this as a new inspiration for rethinking the way we see the world - to find a different resting speed, a midpoint between the popularity of weekend breaks and ‘expat’ life. Something that simultaneously offers a longer, richer experience of a place that’s so delicious after all these lockdowns, with plenty of time to rest and adjust to new timezones, while offering destinations a deeper commitment to help them get back on their feet…
And hey, who wouldn’t want to experience an entirely different kind of Christmas in all its extended glory?
So for next winter, maybe it’s time to rethink the classic winter break. What would it be like to be in a dream winter destination not just for one hurried week (or madcap weekend) of shopping and sightseeing, but for the bulk of an actual, honest-to-goodness season? What about four weeks, or six, or even more? What would that be like as a “trip”?
(We might need a different word for this, yes. Any ideas?)
It’s been a few years since I saw the swallows in the south of Spain. This year, UK-bound, I watched them darting through the air here in western Scotland, and it was hard not to envy their freedom to leave when the cold started arriving. But also, that’s what swallows always do, what’s baked into their genes after thousands of years of evolutionary training, with little wiggle-room for improvisation. We’re quite different creatures.
So how about we spend next winter acting like it?