At the risk of repeating myself, I often have these thoughts about what mass tourism has done, quite apart from spreading infectious diseases like SARS-COVID-2. I have been around some of Europe and a few times to the USA for specific purposes. My wife and I went to Venice for our honeymoon back in 2006. Our time was quite brief to suit our limited budget, and we stayed in an average hotel not far from the railway station. We frenzied around to make the best of our time, travelling by vaporetto (boat-bus) and feverishly visiting churches, art galleries and museums. We were autonomous, since we both speak Italian reasonably well. I suppose that our time in Venice could be defined as “autonomous tourism”. We managed on our own, travelling in and out by train and having a hotel reservation.
As a child, our family went on holiday each August, some years in England, Scotland or Wales, other years in France, Spain and Portugal. My father drove the Land Rover he used for his work as a veterinary surgeon, but towing a large and heavy caravan. These also were a time of education, autonomy and excitement. I approach my boat trips in the same spirit: I am not part of any group, but I just go out and explore, sleeping in my boat under a boom tent and being autonomous and self-sufficient. I have never taken my boat out of France, but these have been solitary times and almost a spiritual retreat in the “monastery” of nature. I often need to “get my life back”. My wife has been fairly realistic about our limited budget and taking a simple holiday at a campsite. When you want comfort or luxury, you get what you pay for!
I have never really understood the liking some people have for package tours, for which everything is organised and all the activities, excursions and entertainment are provided. I suppose it is convenient and people can relax without any concerns or responsibilities. Many, including our Bishop, love cruises on big cruise ships. Such vessels are somewhere between a hotel and a city. When I travel between France and England on a cross-Channel ferry, I can never wait to disembark at the port of arrival. Yet I love boats and the sea. I also hate flying, not so much because the plane might crash, but because you enter into a machine that (temporarily) takes away your autonomy and almost your very personality. You are processed, checked for anything illegal, and converted from being a person in one place to a person in another place. The aircraft is cramped and people are often unpleasant, which is understandable in such circumstances.
One thing I have noticed during lockdown is that my life has hardly changed, since I spend much more time at home than people who commute to work in a city. My village is hardly changed. The outside world exists only in my memories. If I were to go to the places where I sailed my boat just last year, I would find signs saying that everything is closed and forbidden. Like a deceased loved one, I prefer the living memories to the dead reality! Things should change for the better, and I don’t think anyone could do any better than the French government in sorting out the problem in terms of hospitals being able to care for the sick and the economy being a part of the common good. Many complain, but at this time, I don’t think the various available political alternatives would do better – to the contrary…
Perhaps next week, on the “magic” date of 11th May, many of us will be terrified to face the world, a different reality with the threat of the virus, however unlikely the probability of catching it. We have been conditioned, or have conditioned ourselves, into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. I become very anxious on going into a supermarket, which was always a challenge for me as being “on the spectrum”. Now, it is a real effort of will, being decent and polite with people, but above all getting on with the shopping so that I can pay at the till and get out as quickly as possible. Many people love supermarkets as places for socialising and conversation. They love crowds. I don’t.
The virus is going to be around for a time. There may be less probability of catching it, and efforts are being made to find a vaccine or antibodies to prevent serious illness. Experience is showing its fruit as the doctors teach each other and make scientific progress. But it will change the way we humans relate with each other – no more hugging, kissing, la bise or shaking hands. The mask makes us all into autistic stereotypes, because we can no longer see facial expressions. We will become more literal. My own experience with Aspergers is that I don’t lack empathy or understanding of non-verbal communication, but I detest sophistry and bullshit. Maybe the mask will help to “cut the crap” in human relationships, at least with some individuals. Some may even become more spiritual. Most of us are sick and tired with the contradictions and the shortcomings of those who are organising our life like a travel agent designs a package tour. There is a lot of anger, especially in the USA, but it is a fact that lifting the lockdown prematurely will allow a new wave of the disease to maim and kill thousands more souls. It’s a tricky choice in which guns and politics are impotent.
Aeroplanes and cruise ships are going into mothballs for a while, and operators are in serious financial trouble. I do not rejoice in the plight of pilots, hostesses, caterers and goodness knows who else who will lose their jobs and livelihoods. Maybe these expensive pieces of machinery can be put to new uses, but that is several years down the line. Machines at a standstill deteriorate very quickly.
My own state of mind is that I would like to continue short solitary outings in the boat, on a river or on the sea in Normandy or Brittany. I have lost the desire to go anywhere else, except “on business”, for my Church, contacts with family and friends. Just visiting places strikes me as trespassing in other peoples’ lives, in the lives of those who live in those places. My trips in a boat take up a very small footprint. How many others will come to think in a similar way? I find that tourism is simply not a priority in my life.
Lockdown has almost become a kind of “autism” to those who had other values and ways of relating before the confinement order came. For me, little changes, but there is little or nothing with which I can relate. I will see with the “baby steps” of next week. I will drive to the sea. I won’t be allowed on the beach or go sailing, but I will gradually exchange my memories for the new world opening up. More shops will open and I will be able to buy tools and materials, other “non-essential” things, but masked and keeping distances. Perhaps my own autism will give me an understanding of a “pseudo-autistic” world. I shudder to think what that will “feel” like. Will there be much “feeling” left in this concert of a virus and a state machine controlling us?
Our desire for the exotic and beauty of other places is usually disappointed by our actual experience. The Mont Saint Michel is a beautiful place, but it is now a mass tourism machine. That fact is inescapable even in winter, and cannot be ignored. I become blasé and indifferent, cynical… In the end, for a Romantic, the imagination will create a whole new world from what we find on getting off a plane after a long and cramped flight and a bus ride to the hotel!
We will certainly find our human connections closer to home. We will become less cosmopolitan and “world citizen” and more nationalist and regionalist. I will probably identify more with the Normandy where I live that even my ageing memories of the Lake District as I knew it in the late 1960’s. We need to appreciate what is within our reach and what is accessible in no more than a few hours – or less – by car or train. Above all, we live where we live and we can give more priority to caring for others around us and participating in local life.
Another thought came into my mind. We often think about getting away, “bugging out” in survivalist / prepper language. It is a thought that came into my mind when I decided to live in the country. I am already in the desired situation, and am thankful I am not in town and surrounded by the crowds. I am already part of a pleasant reality of countryside, a sleepy village and enough room to pursue my favourite activities. Shortly before the writing was on the wall with the pandemic in Italy, Sophie and I decided to get rid of our caravan at Barfleur. We will stay home this August, and go to see a few places. For more hopeful years, we can go and spend a week camping and enjoying simple things. This year, money will be short, and we will make do with less. My boat outings will be just a couple of days at a time and not too far away from home. Brittany next year!
How many others will react the way I have evolved? I think there will be more than we can imagine. There will be those who learn wisdom. Others will be angry and perhaps violent, before thinking about things a little. Courtesy of the virus, most of us will be avoiding crowds and “mass humanity” for quite some time, for longer than what authorities require from us. Christian charity calls on us to care for others and be ready for self-sacrifice. At the same time, we are called to self-reliance and being ourselves.
As always, look after yourselves, and especially – think for yourselves. Be critical. Be sceptical. Be open to the new world.