Summer travel wrap-up

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When I was in preschool, my daddy let me keep my dolls in his mid-century Pan Am travel bag. That early influence means staycations aren’t my thing. Thankfully after several years of lockdowns and ugly new COVID-19 variants, this has been the summer to go places and have fun!

Or at least this has been the summer to try to go places and try to have fun. Given rising inflation, cascading flight cancellations, passport office delays, ground stops at major airports, the early onset of back-to-school vibes and the rumble of a new wave of the ‘rona … that’s sometimes easier said than done.

I understand why this summer has been the summer of travel. COVID lockdown was very isolating. My bubble consisted of my elderly mother, my enormous and emotionally needy Great Pyrenees and my “ladies television watching and commiseration society” on Discord. Lonely doesn’t even begin to cover it.

This summer, I was hungry for experiences and companionship and connections with people and fun. So was everyone else.

The current wait for passport service is around 13 weeks, according to the State Department, even after the passport office brought retirees back to work. The American Travel Association reports air travel demand was up 12% from last June to this June, and TSA regional spokesperson Patricia Mancha shared data from the largest airports in Texas indicating that air travel is on track for surpassing 2019 passenger counts. DFW had 21 million passengers in 2019 and has had over 12 million passengers through mid-July.

Travel was the thing that I missed most during lockdown. Two weeks and two days after I got my second COVID shot, I was headed for the airport. Getting on a plane in 2021 was going back to a travel system that wasn’t ready for dress rehearsal, much less prime time. Hotels were barely open, airport food was scarce, and trying to get a ride out of any airport after midnight was as pointless as trying to teach a cat to waltz.

In 2022, things were inching toward normal, though I managed to get stuck at the Frankfurt airport long enough to ponder the rows of cots for stranded passengers, get a manicure and make some new friends who were also waiting on the flight to Riga, Latvia.

That same trip, Lufthansa temporarily lost my luggage. Then a one-day baggage handler’s strike in Frankfort blessed me with spending another August week in Riga in one of the new sweaters I had just been forced to purchase. I also got COVID while in Spain, so I can personally tell you that last year was not the summer of “back to normal” travel.

This summer’s trip to Spain started in 2016, when I chatted with a British dude on a press bus on the way to Salacgriva, Latvia, for the Positivus festival. Soon the bloke with the Liverpool-ish accent, a tea habit and a pre-digital musical past that included being an opening act for ‘90s band The Cranberries was staying with me during South by Southwest. He then invited me to come hang out with his mates at the Primavera Sound Music Festival in Barcelona.

Spending time with bunches of Brits has been proof of the witticism that Britain and America are one culture divided by a common language. “Paddington” and the BBC programming on PBS didn’t prepare me for Liverpool scouse. Subtitles would have been helpful.

Apart from hanging out with my friend, going to Primavera was a chance to finally see one of my favorite bands from high school: the Pet Shop Boys.

In the ‘80s, zooming past the Houston-area refineries to La Porte High School while listening to a battered cassette of the synth-pop duo singing about the London station King’s Cross, they might as well have been describing life on the moon. This Pethead never dreamed she’d Pet in person.

Pet Shop Boys was just one of the bands from my high school cassette collection playing this year’s Primavera. The lineup also included Depeche Mode, New Order and John Cale (of the Velvet Underground).

Getting to the beachfront festival was more difficult because my pre-travel Chicken Little “the sky is falling” anxiety has intensified post-pandemic. Since my emotional baggage becomes actual baggage, my overpacking is now completely out of hand.

Having COVID in Spain in 2022 amplified my travel anxiety. I’m still traveling in an emotional support mask. Due to few other people traveling in a mask, masks are getting hard to come by in airports. Coming back from Greenville, S.C., this summer, no masks were to be found for sale in the airport stores and I had to pay $12 to get an N95 out of a lonely vending machine.

While going places is fun, getting places is not. Thus the nostalgic yearning for the “golden age of travel.” The lingering glamor of an era that boasted piano lounges in coach inspired the transformation of the TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport into the fancy ‘60s TWA Hotel.

We are no longer in the golden age of travel. We are in the age of pack a lunch and don’t forget your hand sanitizer.

Even with the difficulties of modern travel, often the wonders at the other end make up for the difficulties getting there. One delightful shared experience that wouldn’t have happened during lockdown was tapas with my British friend, which led to an unexpected warble in the fabric of the universe.

We were in line before Cal Pep opened, as it’s been called both the best food in Europe and the worst-kept secret in Barcelona. Sitting at the bar in what felt like an old school diner, we ate many delicious things, some of which I could identify. Luckily, being gluten-free in Spain is completely routine, sort of like the way we accept it’s normal that teenage boys often don’t eat vegetables.

Needing to digest, I drifted into Barcelona’s Santa Maria del Mar, a Catalan Gothic Cathedral, where the cornerstone was laid in 1329 and it was finished in a mere 55 years. It even survived being on fire for 11 days during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Later that day, I did a doubletake when I got an eyeful of the Swedish death metal band Ghost’s gothic cathedral stage setup. What are the odds of hitting both an actual Gothic cathedral and a touring Gothic cathedral on the same day? One might not expect them in the Bible Belt, but Ghost has previously played Lubbock and El Paso and will be playing Houston, Austin and Irving in September.

Mishaps happen while traveling. Since I was in Barcelona because of a friend, it’s fitting that a Texas friend connection saved my holiday.

Gravity shattered the protective filter of my camera lens and the broken filter had to be pried off with tools before I could use it again. My friend Thor Harris, also of La Porte High School, formerly toured with Swans, a band playing the festival. I asked him if there was a nice Swan who could help. Swans bassist Christopher Pravdica stepped in.

Pravdica and I spent an hour together trying to navigate festival security to get backstage to his tools. Our epic, circular one-block journey involved his being turned away from the public entrance of the festival, up and down several flights of stairs and even walking side-stage right in front of an act that was about to go on at the festival’s auditorium.

During the tool trek we discussed his driving cross-country to bring the Swans to Dallas in September. He told me about his side project, We Owe, named for the ominous chant of the guards at the castle of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Meeting with Pravdica salvaged my camera and reminded me that after years of isolation the nearly forgotten importance of connecting with other people.

Heading home, a London layover led me through King’s Cross Station — just like in the Pet Shop Boys song. Trying to save a few quid, my friends and I attempted going through Harry Potter’s platform 9 ¾. No luck unlocking a wizarding transport, we paid to take the tube.

A search for cheap lodgings close to Heathrow led to a hotel in a village that was listed in the medieval Domesday Book. Straight out of a BBC murder mystery, the bedroom fireplace grate was dated 1635. The next morning at breakfast, other Americans asked me if I had heard anything strange the night before.

“It sounded like someone screaming!” one of the guests said. Alarming, sure, but I’d stay there again. The alleged ghost of Harmondsworth Hall didn’t bother me, and the living landlady was lovely.

Maybe the solution to travel being trouble is to embrace the kind of travel suggested by the Imaginary Departures art installation at Austin Bergstrom International Airport, where I landed, returning from this summer’s travels.

The brainchild of Brooklyn-based artist Janet Zweig, the interactive piece prompts you to answer multiple logical puzzles before issuing you a ticket for where you should travel to: Maybe Narnia or maybe Doctor Who’s Gallifrey?

At Imaginary Departures you see — and hear — information about departing flights to places like the Emerald City or “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

“It’s a literary piece masquerading as a super-fun piece,” Zweig said.

Imaginary Departures is a reminder that the easiest trips are those where the key travel document is a library card.

“Reading can take you somewhere else,” Zweig said.

Carrying those books home in a vintage airline travel bag is optional.

Anna Hanks is a writer in Austin. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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