I step off the train into chaos. The station is busy enough, but it leads into a long shopping mall (or the lower-key British equivalent) which stretches over the river running through this sleepy town, and that’s just thronged with people. Argh.
My destination is a few miles away - a vaccination centre, for my first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. I’m still playing it safe, and avoiding large gatherings - but my route requires crossing the river, which as far as I can see is only bridged by this mall, unless I took a huge detour, which I don’t have time to do. It’s no good. I have to dive in and weave my way through that crowd over there.
But then I stop and shake my head. Crowd? Do you really think this enormously spread-out scatter of people is a crowd?
I look again. Oh dear. I count maybe twenty people milling around, most wearing masks, and all of them (through conscious wariness or newly-unconscious habit) easily keeping their distance from one another. It’s hardly a “throng”. And maintaining a safe space from everyone is going to be a piece of cake.
It’s a sign of how much my social awareness has changed - and it’s not the only indicator. I’m utterly fascinated by everything and everyone. I have to stop myself from staring at people. And all these open shops! Isn’t an open shop amazing? You can just go in and buy things!
What I’m experiencing, in the weirdest fashion, is an intensified version of one of my favourite parts of travel: your second day back home.
It’s like this. Being wise, you’ve taken an extra three or four days off work for a post-holiday holiday - just enough time to iron jet-lag out of your system, sort through the mail and potter around pleasantly in the garden for an afternoon or two. The very first day is all about sleeping – but on the second day, still exhausted from travel in much the same overstimulated brain fog you get after drinking too much coffee, you lurch into town…
And rediscover it.
By going away, you’ve unfamiliarized yourself with your own home. For just a little while, you can truly see it again. Because familiarity makes the world – disappear. When you know exactly where you are and where you’re going, you tune out. Your thoughts turn to fresher-seeming topics and your eyes shift to cruise-control. Out of mind, out of sight.
This “re-seeing of the overfamiliar” is exactly what’s going to happen to all of us, as the world opens up again. Not only will travel once more become possible (and feel ten times more alluring than it ever did) - we’re also going to see our neighbourhoods and town centres and suburbs come alive.
More people. Shops opening. People sat outside restaurants and bars. Things lighting up again at night. The old sounds coming back, the old smells. It’ll be the same local world we’ve lived quietly in for the last year - but also, it absolutely won’t be.
For a few amazing days, maybe even a week or two if you’re lucky, so much will feel refreshingly new, so you’re intensely aware of it like you’ve only experienced when you were away travelling or living elsewhere for months or even years at a time.
You may even find you fall in love with your hometown all over again.
I know. This may seem impossible, having spent so long being locked down here, unable to escape. But - this won’t feel like where you were locked down. This’ll feel like somewhere else. So if you want to have fun with your brain during this bizarre transition period, I suggest you do what good travel writers do upon arriving in a new place.
FIrstly, do some research. Yes, on this place you live, as if you’ve never been here before. What have you been missing all this time? Pick up a Rough Guide. Pick up a Frommer’s, or a Lonely Planet. Read a novel set in your region’s past, present or future. Peruse the thoughts of other people on topics you take for granted.
This may feel very strange. Isn’t this kind of reading supposed to be all about escapism? We all want to read about Ligurian olive groves, or what Michael Palin is up to. Not here, not home, with its sheer….ordinaryness?
Problem is, that’s you talking. The You who has spent years and possibly decades looking out of the same pair of eyes, and thinking about what you see with the same brain. The You that just came out of lockdown. That’s your unique perspective, and for good or bad, you can’t escape from it without help. So pick up a book and learn about someone else’s view on this corner of the world you think you know.
Secondly (and here’s one we’re all already looking forward to), go out of your way to encourage some visitors from out of town to come visit.
Isn’t it always the case that when people come to visit you in your oh-so-familiar corner of the world, you do things you don’t normally do? It’s a special occasion, so you go to that restaurant you’ve always wanted to try out, you visit that museum that you realise you’ve never been to (even though you’ve been living here [x] years and it’s only just next door, for pity’s sake) - and at some point you sit by the river or another local landmark with an ice-cream, turn to your friends and say “hey, why don’t I do this more often?”
Excellent question. Why is that?
Visitors are a very welcome excuse to do things out of the ordinary. So fill that social calendar, and let friends and loved ones help you re-appreciate just how much there is to do around here.
Lastly, you could try the first thing that most travel writers do upon arrival: check into a local hotel.
I can understand how this one may seem…a little weird. But here’s the logic behind it. It’s all very well trying to rewire your experience of a place during the daytime, but if at the end of it, you go home to the same house you’ve spent multiple lockdowns in, it’s going to be difficult to maintain that fresh new view of things.
The solution is simple: don’t go home. Book a bed & breakfast, or a hotel room, or go camping somewhere within walking distance. If it’s not far away from home, well, that just adds to the exciting, thrilling oddness of it all. You’ll wake up in a place weirdly familiar, but from an angle you’ve never experienced before.
(I speak from recent experience: since there’s a stretch of Scottish coast at the end of my road, I chose a clear night a few weeks ago, took my tent out and slept on the beach. Best night’s sleep I’ve had since the pandemic began.)
A tip for booking ultra-local accommodation, though: if you need to fill out any paperwork, use another address than your nearby home – say, your parental home elsewhere. Or lie! Just pretend you don’t normally live just down the road. People will think you’re eccentric. Or more accurately, their immediate suspicions that you are eccentric will be fully confirmed.
As for me, I’m only halfway-vaccinated right now, so I’ll be curtailing my urban exploration for now. By the time I get moving, I hope everywhere in Scotland is fully opened up, so it’ll knock me flat. “Was it always like this?” I’ll think as I stagger around, eyes wide and senses pummelled by the fascinating, unfamiliar energy of it all.
Yes, it was always like this - but I won’t be aware of it for much longer, and after that, I won’t see it again until I return from my next trip. Maybe the greatest gift of travel is appreciating how lucky you are to have what you already have - if only you could find some way to see it.