The traveling life

I’ve always been a homebody, paradoxically because I don’t like to feel trapped. I mostly hated family vacations growing up because I had no real control over what I did and when, and I also resented how often we were trapped at church with nothing to do. Getting a car heped, but what was really intoxicating was moving to Chicago and realizing that they had a system that could get me home at any time, with no car, without waiting for a ride, without having to stand awkwardly as the driver cleared stuff out of the seat, etc., etc. And when I was in grad school, trips were associated with either visiting home (hence the trappedness again) or attending conferences (mainly the AAR, meaning the constant humiliation of the job market) — and, above all, with a high degree of financial precarity. Traveling seemed like a good way to get money extracted from me in unlimited quantities. Overall, for many years I followed Socrates’s example, never leaving the city limits of Chicago (sometimes gerrymandering in Evanston since you could get there via the L).

Hence it’s somewhat surprising how big a part of my life traveling has become. Between conferences, invited lectures, and the occasional vacation, I have several trips a year. In some cases — as in my trip to Australia and New Zealand or to Pakistan by way of Copenhagen — I have been gone for multiple weeks at a time. And I have become much more confident and comfortable traveling, even going so far as to tweet, right before leaving for Germany last week, that I actually feel very at home in airplanes and on planes and trains.

What changed? The biggest thing is probably, you know, having a steady income. That removes an element of continual gut-level fear — that I’m going to get lost and have to take a cab that will throw off my finances for months, that I’m going to have to shell out for a hotel room, etc. The fact that my vacations are now with My Esteemed Partner rather than with my family is also crucial. I don’t get to fully set the agenda, nor do I want to — the kinds of things she comes up with that I would not have are actually great. Finally, I am more established in my reputation and career, so when I go to a conference or an invited talk, there are people there who are excited to see me and hang out with me.

Nonetheless, I have had a little trouble getting back into the swing of travel post-covid. I was very anxious in the lead-up to our vacation in Spain, leading me (unfairly) to contribute very little to the planning. And when my host raised the prospect of extending my trip to a graduate student summer school in Münster to include a few days in Berlin, I was weirdly intimidated by the prospect. In the event, I had a great time on both trips and I’m unequivocally glad I went. But what has changed to cause this relapse?

There is the factor of simply being out of practice, but I think it’s more than that. I’m still recovering from burnout after last year, and more generally, the pandemic has reinstated a level of anxiety about being out of the house for any reason. It has also directly made the experience of travel less pleasant. Getting tests, especially in a foreign country, is cumbersome and anxiety-producing. Understaffing has led to many more delays and a general sense of unpredictability. Probably most importantly, sleeping on the plane has become immeasurably more difficult with a mask on — a major burden for me, since much of my facility with travel came from mastering jetlag (at least on the way to European destinations). I get the necessity of the testing (which is, for unclear reasons, not required anymore) and of masking. I wear my mask on the plane even when it’s not mandatory. But just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

This trip in particular, God cursed me for my hubristic tweets by producing stressful delays in my flights and especially in the German regional trains, which have apparently become virtually non-functional in recent months. Working on maybe two total hours of widely separated episodes of sleep, the train delays — and the necessity of trying to figure out what was happening in a language that I have primarily philosophical knowledge of — were very difficult for me to deal with. I can’t help but think that if I’d slept my usual amount on the plane, I could have handled it with good humor and aplomb.

Anyway, I’m currently in the airport, sitting in an anonymous café on my laptop, having successfully gotten here without even using Google Maps. In this direction, sleep on the plane is optional and even counter-indicated. I’m ready to watch some movies, listen to some music, and read a science fiction novel while receiving periodic drinks and snacks. It’s back, baby. Travel is good again.

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