l came late to a love of travel. A combination of an early marriage, raising children and a focus on my own front yard were the reasons for the delay. But I recovered from all three and started focusing on the horizon instead. Being well into my fifties, I knew my chances of checking off all the usual tourist destinations were slim. And for me there was only one other horizon that I absolutely had to see for myself. It belonged to a country whose cuisine, culture and history I knew better than my own: a country whose language I had studied for nine years but had never spoken on its territory. In 2015, my long-distance love affair with France was finally consummated.
Finally freed from — and encouraged by — my kids, who clearly wanted me out of the country, I joined a house and pet sitting website. I then tried to sell my husbandry skills – which didn’t exist at the time – to potential hosts.
It is difficult at the best of times to convince strangers to leave their beloved pets and their homes in your care. Doing it in a language you haven’t spoken since your college days increases the difficulty by a factor of 10. I gave up on the French site and moved to an English one whose clientele was mostly British expats living in their dream homes in idyllic corners of France. The switch worked to my advantage: During my six months in France, every house I stayed in looked like the picture-postcard cottage of my feverish, France-starved imagination.
During the two years of the pandemic, my time in France took on the golden hue of nostalgia as I watched the coronavirus decimate the travel industry and pay for the travel plans of millions around the world.
Australia’s international borders were closed for a total of 704 days. Video footage of some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations revealed the damage our travel predilections have done in the past: We love our dream destinations dearly. Ironically, the reduction in pollution from these tourist traps made them even more of a draw for thwarted travelers with itchy feet, anxiously waiting for the travel ban to be lifted. I was one of them.
With each passing month of my city’s gold-medal-winning lockdown, I found myself thinking about what post-pandemic travel might look like. The wisdom of traveling to architectural tourist traps with their virus-friendly crowds should be reassessed. Just like the damage done by hordes of tourists. These places thrived in our absence and would be grateful to us to stay away a little longer. Given how far we are from the rest of the world and how carbon intensive it is for us to get there, Australians are among the worst offenders.
The fact that my conversion to travel was late in life does not absolve me of my share of responsibility. If I want to continue on this itinerant path, I want to minimize my carbon footprint where possible. A frequent flyer charging campaign in the UK is proposing to tax travelers on a sliding scale for every flight taken in a year. Another possible solution – and my preferred option – is slow travel: “go less often, stay longer” on single-destination vacations in remote places. Getting to know the locals and living as one.
In 2015 I was given the keys to the house and the use of a vehicle at each houseit. I mainly drove to get provisions from the supermarket or one of the many weekend markets. I quickly realized how little money I was spending, without the expense of running a home and feeding a horde of starving twentysomethings. I didn’t have an expensive social life. Eating out mostly took place with my growing circle of friends, another benefit of combining solo travel with long-term stays in the same place.
This year – eager to escape the brutal Melbourne winter – I accepted a generous offer of two months accommodation in a small village in Burgundy where hardly anyone spoke English and I would be without a car. It was an opportunity to improve my rusty French and lock myself in an attic to write. I achieved my first goal, but occasionally left the attic thanks to my improved language skills and the social opportunities they offered me. Over the course of those two months, I cleared the walkways of my new home, made lasting friendships, and perfected the art of apéro. I plan to return another time to do the writing.
I have limited experience with the whirlwind world tour alternative and I know which I prefer. Slow travel isn’t for everyone – time is the one commodity we had enough of during lockdown and the one we miss the most now that it’s over. But for those with few resources other than time, it’s an affordable alternative. For the pandemic-conscious segment of the globetrotting public who want to leave as small a footprint as possible on foreign soil, it can be sustainable as well as sustainable.