Ever since the coronavirus pandemic put us all on lockdown starting in the middle of March, I have occupied the oxymoronic position of shut-in travel writer. I’m paid to be an advocate, witness, and resource for exploring the world, yet I can’t leave my home.
On an ineffectiveness scale of 0 to Susan Collins, I figure I fall somewhere between a minister who’s lost his faith and a porn star who’s lost his hard-on. But enough about my pre-quarantine sex life.
If we were still in the Before Time, I’d be writing articles about saving suitcase space when you’re packing by rolling up each item of clothing into a tight little fabric taquito. Or—and this is what I was actually working on when the world shut down—I’d be crafting an itinerary for touring The Sound of Music filming locations in Salzburg so that you can snap photos of yourself twirling in front of a gazebo like a teenage Austrian girl in love with a soon-to-be Nazi.
You know: the sort of content that captures the glory of travel.
The last international trip I took was to Normandy. The region’s tourism office had organized a press junket to promote the latest edition of the Normandy Impressionist Festival, which was supposed to start earlier this month and last through the summer but has of course been postponed due to the pandemic.
The festival teaser I attended involved visits to several artsy sites—among them the oft-painted harbor at Honfleur, Monet’s garden at Giverny, and the Gothic cathedral in Rouen—where I dutifully tried to note the effects of the changing light that so enraptured the Impressionists and inspired them to create their blurry masterpieces. I also drank calvados, ate mushy cheeses, and manned a rowboat on the Seine.
I’m tempted to write that Normandy is a pleasant spot for bidding adieu to the world. But that feels tacky when you remember the soldiers on the D-Day Beaches or Joan of Arc at the stake in Rouen.
That’s the danger of beautiful places: They misrepresent death as something faraway and unthreatening.
Here on Planet Quarantine, with its twin poles of fear and isolation, death is fiercely present because sickness is so widespread. Yet death somehow still feels distant, too, because those who die must do so alone, kept away from their loved ones to protect them from the virus.
When I was in Normandy, one of the journalists I was traveling with was an Ohioan who had forgotten to pack her phone charger. This oversight was for her a major source of anxiety and her sole source of conversation.
She was so fixated on charging her phone, in fact, that when we pulled into Le Havre, she took one look at St. Joseph’s Church and remarked that some of the exterior decoration reminded her of a USB port.
I don’t know why she was so worried. Someone in the group always loaned her a charger when she needed one.
She didn’t have much use for what I had to offer, though, because she also didn’t have an outlet adapter for European power sockets, and my adapter—a device from Flight 001 that combines, in one colorful, smartly designed Lego-like block, four different kinds of plug-ins used around the world—had stopped cooperating.
For some reason, the European prongs wouldn’t stay in the wall anymore. Maybe they got warped? Or the EU mandated that hotels in member states install slightly larger-than-before power outlet holes?
In any case, the issue required me to rely on the kindness of strangers to charge my devices during that trip as well. But you didn’t hear me bringing the matter up at breakfast every day or comparing architectural gems to electronic equipment, I can assure you.
I didn’t throw the adapter away when I got back home. It served me well for many years, after all, and I guess it’s hard to accept that such a neat, eye-catching object no longer works.
But the truth is that the adapter is a lot like its owner these days: kind of clever, pretty well-traveled, and completely useless.