“Not now, when it’s all over. When it’s behind us.” So says the foxy Miss Debenham to suave Col. Arbuthnot, refusing his proffered kiss, in Istanbul at the start of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
The “it,” of course, is the upcoming, planned murder of the child kidnapper, Ratchett, on board the luxurious train. But Mary Debenham’s words might also sum up our own feelings now toward travel itself, in the age of coronavirus. Trains are halted, airplanes grounded, hotels shuttered, vacations canceled or indefinitely on hold, our best-laid travel plans in tatters.
Man proposes, God disposes.
But while plans are one thing, dreams are not so easily disposed of. Where are yours taking you? Right now, I’m “California Dreamin,’” driving out to Malibu in a rented convertible (red for preference), heading north along Pacific Coast Highway. I’m dreamin’ too of Big Sur, of the Sierra Nevada mountains, of the clean, sparkling air of Yosemite. I’m even fantasizing about the cities, the trolley-cars and steep streets of San Francisco (stopping for a chicken at Judy Rogers’ legendary Zuni Café), and the sidewalks of Beverly Hills, swaggering down preposterous Rodeo Drive in the sunshine.
Hope, they say, is a good breakfast. So, while I’m waiting, hunkered down in my little corner of the world in Westchester County, waiting for “normal” to return, I’m enjoying the full breakfast buffet of the imagination. This involves Hockney-esque blue swimming pools; palm-fringed, crescent beaches of blinding white sand; crystal clear waters; Jamaica sunsets; scuba diving in the Maldives and sipping Blue Hawaii cocktails in the Kocomo of my mind.
But don’t go getting the wrong impression. I’m not just a shallow beach bum or vacation couch potato. When COVID-19 is consigned to history, I want to learn the tango in Buenos Aires; revisit the Prado in Madrid to see those Goyas and Velazquezes that no online resource can ever do justice to; swim with the dolphins in Maui, or in Dingle Bay, Ireland — provided I can fit into a wetsuit, after days at home spent eating, with precious little exercise. I want to go shopping for all sorts of things I don’t need in the peerless, medieval souk of Fez, Morocco, or the Mutrah market of Muscat, Oman.
And, for sure, I want another beignet and a French 75 at Antoine’s in New Orleans, once we can travel as free citizens again.
In my younger and more vulnerable years (to pinch Nick Carraway’s opener in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great “The Great Gatsby,”) I used to say the time to book a vacation was the day after you returned from one. But the internet will feed any fantasy. Yesterday, playing around on skyscanner.com, I found a one-way fare of $82 from New York to Paris in June, with a 90-minute layover in Lisbon. That’s a layover I can live with — a custard tart for breakfast in the Lisbon airport and arriving into the City of Lights in time for a late lunch.
Paris is going to need our tourist dollars after the crisis and we’re certainly going to need a shot of Paris, if we’re fortunate enough to make it through this. I’m already dreaming of the Île Saint-Louis on an early summer’s day; inhaling the damp, steamy whiff of the Metro stations; snagging a table on the terrace at the bustling corner brasserie, the sweet, drug-like waft of Gitanes in the air. I’m saving up to eat a “numbered” duck, the classic dish at the famous Tour d’Argent restaurant. And I want to take a dinner cruise on a Bateau Mouche along the Seine, in a perfectly-cut suit, like Cary Grant in “Charade” — fat chance. I want Audrey Hepburn to ask me to protect her. (Steady on, we’re getting a bit carried away here.)
And let’s not forget Italy, because Italy never forgets us. We are forever in its thrall. As soon as the State Department — theirs, or ours, or both — permits it, I’ll be back for the opera in Parma, one of the world’s most enchanting small opera houses; to take the vaporetto to the islands of the Venetian lagoon (themselves no stranger to the plague, down the centuries); to window-shop the Via Condotti in Rome: or simply to fly down the Italian autostrada between Milan and Florence, at a legal 80 m.p.h., the joy of the open road.
The Greek islands? You bet. Oh, what I wouldn’t give now for an erroneous Greek shipping timetable, a missed ferry, an overcooked souvlaki in a badly lit tavern. What bliss those little nuisances seem now, grounded in Westchester, here for the duration. But what I’m really dreaming of is the pretty harbor of Patmos in the northern Dodecanese, already bustling at dawn; boozy, summer’s day lunches on the island of Corfu, under a vine-covered pergola; the great caldera of Santorini — at any time, on any day.
I hanker after Asia too — pink gins at the down-at-heel Savoy hotel in Yangon, Burma; temples in Bangkok; oolong tea, sipped in a verdant, Taiwanese tea garden. When the world is going about its business again, I want to take the Star Ferry at least one more time, from Kowloon to Hong Kong island, without fear of getting sick, and to walk down humming Pedder Street in Hong Kong Central, eyes ever skyward at the architectural wizardry of it all.
And I would like to visit the battlefields of the Somme, somewhere I have never been, except online and in photographs, to see the cemeteries of the First World War. Pristine rows of simple white crosses, interspersed with the occasional Jewish star, as far as the eye can see, a still reminder that even the worst epochs do, eventually, pass.
Today we are battening down. Tomorrow, per aspera ad astra — “through hardship to the stars.”