We've been on holidays.
Real ones. In an airport. On a plane. Queueing at passport control. Blast of heat outside the terminal. Heavy bags. Light sweat. Steering wheel on the wrong side. Olive trees. Brown earth. Weird insecty sounds. Indecipherable signposts.
It has all been there, waiting for us, all this time. People have been living their Covid lives in these towns and villages all over the world, in places we have been dreaming about going to and they have been dreaming about leaving. Once we got there, we broke the spell. What we thought was gone, unattainable, vanished forever, was actually just there all the time, doing its own thing. Swimming pools with splashing children. Evening beaches with cooling sands and light lapping Mediterranean waves. Supermarkets with huge peppers, bright red watermelons, giant hanks of jamon, massive jars of olives. Cava so cheap it feels like a mistake. Searing heat on the roof terrace, cool breeze in the leafy shade of the restaurant canopy.
Of course, I was absolutely terrified. Packing bags with extra masks and sanitiser, printing boarding cards so that I wouldn't have to hand my phone to the airport staff. Shrieking at the children to stay away from the next person in the line. But passing through an airport that has 30% or less of its usual passenger numbers was actually (obviously) an absolute dream. No queues. Plenty of seats. No hustling or bustling. Plane row to ourselves and empty rows in front and behind. New rules about cabin baggage mean you can check in your luggage for free, so no fiddling around with decanting the suncream into 100ml aliquots. Online catering choices reduced to tea, coffee, fizzy pop and chocolate, which made it feel like a school tour pitstop in a backwater garage.
It was another story on arrival into Palma de Mallorca airport, with gazillions of people everywhere and so much noise, even though it too was probably only at 50% of its normal July traffic. We had all our important pieces of paper ("digital" covid passports being about as digital as a bus ticket) and an antigen test result for the over-12 child. It all worked. The people took our details and our temperatures (imperceptibly) and shooed us on. We were in. We had made it. Arctic expeditions have had lower expectations of failure than this.
Our trip was booked in October 2020, when it seemed like a reasonable expectation that maybe the world would have returned to normal by the summer. By May, things were looking up; July 19th had been announced as the likely date of resumption of normal EU travel, and the case numbers were coming down. General practice felt a bit more general. It was possible to eat food prepared by someone else, and not have to wash up afterwards. You could walk into a clothes shop without an appointment.
Then the Delta whispers started to get louder and louder. Countries that had thrown their doors open scuttled to slam them again and lock the shutters. The rumours of double-vaccinated ICU inhabitants gained pace. Stories of tourists locked in or out of their home countries, spending fortunes on mandatory hotel quarantine. My siblings and their families were travelling from four different countries, gathering together after 18 months of separation, to celebrate my father's 80th birthday. The odds of us all being permitted and able to travel at the same time seemed remote. In the few days before our scheduled departure, my cold feet turned even icier. It seemed like complete folly to be leaving our bubble that had kept us safe for so long. And for what? Sure couldn't we just have a family Zoom? The temperature in Ireland was tropical. We had a badly inflated paddling pool in our back garden. The beaches were packed. Why would we need to go anywhere else, and expose ourselves to a miasma of insidious greek-lettered virus particles?
In the end, after changing the flight (ridiculously easily and for free) to allow a few days for the icy feet to defrost a bit, we wheeled our dusty suitcases into the courtyard of the apartment complex where my family were scattered in various swimming pools and balconies, three days of sun and swimming and barbecues already under their belt. I wasn't able for hugs just yet, but within a few minutes it was as if the last 18 months had never happened. We were able to sit and chat and eat and drink together, and rehash old jokes, and rekindle old banter, and catch up on a couple of years' worth of news. Another batch of PCR tests before our departure reassured us that we were all still relatively safe, and 10 of my dad's 11 grandchildren were able to clamber around him to help him to blow out his birthday candles. We were very sad to be missing one from that generation and two from mine, but to have succeeded in getting that many of us in one spot after all this time was a minor miracle.
Foreign travel might never be the same again, but it still felt so good.