Thoughts on Travel, Climate, Coronavirus & Change

A summer sunset over Lake Michigan from downtown Chicago.

This is kind of a depressing time to be a traveler. I started this morning in a cold, dark hotel room in the Midwest, binge reading the New York Times’ coverage of the coronavirus. And wondering why this room was so cold and dark. Seriously, the window is tiny and paper thin and letting in the Michigan chill, but not much light. It’s raining. The lamp doesn’t work.

I’d like to be somewhere cozier, but I’m not sure where. Home is a loose concept. A year ago, mine was a drafty apartment in Milan, but at least it was usually drenched in light. It had high ceilings (like most apartments in Italy – at least 10 feet) and bright yellow walls in the living room that made the place feel sunny even when the sky was covered with the gray clouds Milan is famous for.

If we hadn’t moved to Chicago last spring, we would be on lockdown in that apartment right now.

Inside Chicago's empty Pritzker Pavilion concert hall.
An empty concert hall (the Pritzker Pavilion) in downtown Chicago last fall.

How Am I Not In Italy Right Now?

Everything just feels so uncertain right now. My old home is on lockdown and it’s kind of incomprehensible why I’m not there and a part of it right now. Like this past year has been a dream, and I’m waking up wondering where I am and why the world is freaking out particularly hard today. My mail is delivered to Chicago now, but Italy still feels more like home, and we’re in touch with people there every day.

The gyms in Milan were one of the first places to close, and they’ve been shut for weeks now. So our capoeira group (who we used to train with several times a week) has been holding virtual classes in the Brazilian martial art via Skype, with students joining from all over the world. We’ve taken their evening classes in Italy during our lunch break in Chicago. And it’s made us feel a tiny bit closer to our friends at a time when, for those on lockdown, it probably doesn’t really matter if you’re down the street or across the world – you’re still alone, but at least you’re in it together.

An empty street and church in Milan in January – before the arrival of coronavirus in Italy.
An unusually empty corner of Milan. (I snapped this in January, before the virus had arrived in Italy.)

Last weekend in Chicago, everyone seemed to have the nothing-can-touch-us attitude that Chicagoans are known for, coronavirus or no coronavirus. It’s the “city of broad shoulders,” of tough guys and hard work. But I still couldn’t find a bottle of hand sanitizer on any store shelf in my neighborhood.

Today in a bookstore in Ann Arbor, I overheard one employee ask another how she was feeling. “Uhh, I just got off a plane so I just feel, like… nervous.”

Meanwhile in Italy, every shop and restaurant should be closed as of today. (Pharmacies, grocery stores, banks and – based on anecdotes from friends working in Milan – some factories and industrial operations are still open.)

Two weeks ago, I was ready to buy tickets to Rome for a friend’s country wedding in the fall, but it’s suddenly become so hard to make to plans. I have trips coming up (work trips, but exciting ones) to Mexico and New Orleans this spring, and it feels like a safe bet that one or both of them will be cancelled.

Getting Used to Uncertainty

As you may be noticing at this point, I don’t have anything particularly useful to say today. I’m just here working, washing my hands every hour, and wondering if it’s only the virus that’s making things feel so uncertain. Or if the virus is just giving people a reason to confidently declare that they don’t know what is going on with the world lately.

Maybe this is a good reminder that we should always be a bit more uncertain. Or that life is precarious and the risks are always out there – we’re just paying more attention to this one.

Especially in travel, there are always risks and uncertainties. Most major US airlines are the waiving fees for changing any flights booked in March. And Amtrak – the US train company – is doing the same through April. So that’s nice, but it’s not a reduction of the risk so much as an acknowledgement of it. (And an acknowledgement of the airlines’ cash flow problems.)

Sunset behind a nearly empty street in Milan, Italy, in the summer. Now with coronavirus, Milan is even quieter.
Milan in July, short on traffic. By mid-August, the city half-way shuts down for vacation, but friends are telling us this week has been a new level of quiet.

So this is also a reminder that, during the travel boom of the past decade or so, we’ve slipped into a false sense of security and ease. A lot of people have been traveling a lot more, and a lot more casually, than they used to. And maybe they’ve forgotten to have a steady base to go back to. I know I have. But I don’t know if that would give any surer a sense of security than the false confidence we can get from scrolling through Instagram that travel is all joy and luxury and sunsets.

It’s a little cliché to blame all the travel industry’s problems on social media, but all those enticing photos certainly don’t remind us that travel inherently is uncertainty. We call it mystery when we’re feeling romantic. We call it surprise when we’re feeling upbeat, but it doesn’t take much to turn that into the world is big and scary.

Learning from Uncertainty

I suppose one silver lining might be that this current crisis is proving how flexible we can be when times call for it. Stocks are crashing and business is being put on hold; that’s not ideal. But at least we’re seeing that people can actually change their behavior when they have to.

And times are probably going to call for it again. I’m thinking about climate change, and about environmental disasters in general – which inevitably become human disasters – and the human intransigence that causes them.

Most predictions are that coronavirus will reduce emissions for 2020, especially from travel, but the big picture is that the numbers will likely just bounce back as soon the virus goes away.

But I’m thinking more about the effects of virus on the way we see our ability to change. If we can get people to change not only their travel plans, but their day-to-day routines – everything from working from home instead of commuting to finally cleaning the damn subway on a regular basis – then at least we know it can be done.

Of course, it’s a matter of making us believe we have to change. Which seems to require imminence and loosely containing panic.

But maybe this will help us get the kinks out. Help us practice for the fact that we’re going to have to make some big, inconvenient changes. And at least this virus is reminding us that we can change.

A traffic barrier in front of Milan's Duomo, painted by environmental sustainability activists, says "there is no planet b."
A message in front of Milan’s Duomo.

PS: Writing this reminded me of a couple of other posts that felt similar – about kind of gloomy times and looking for change:


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2 Comment

  1. Kara says: Reply

    Loved this post Ketti. Read it while waiting in an airport in Spain trying to get home. As I pour over Coronavirus news articles and predictions, it was so refreshing to read a perspective about how this negative disaster might give us a glimpse into something positive – an awareness of our ability to change. Keep writing!

    1. Ketti says: Reply

      Thank you, Kara! I’m glad you found it useful, that’s my goal.

      And I hope you get home safe and sound – and soon! Did you already have a flight booked for today? How’s the mood in the airport/ in Spain?

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