All that freedom, gone. All those opportunities, vanished. All that toilet paper, hoarded. Oh, and there's been a serious virus as well.
In reviewing the year that was, I've come to one conclusion: thank God it's over.
2020! What a year! I'm beyond excited about the 12 months to come, 12 months that are ripe with travel possibility. As the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, I find myself in San Sebastian, Spain, where I've been living for the past year with my small family. In early 2020 we're planning to spend six weeks in Rome soaking up the culture, then laze on beaches in Thailand for a month, and finally hang out in Singapore on our way home.
In the meantime, we spend January feeding our faces on San Sebastian's finest cuisine, recklessly spending all of our money on good food and drink, safe in the knowledge that my entire profession is definitely not about to be incinerated in a global dumpster fire.
What a year! What fun! We finish our time in San Sebastian and move to the Eternal City, bella Roma, for yet more reckless spending and carb consumption. We dine indoors at packed restaurants, we squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder into ever-popular tourist attractions, we do all sorts of things without first washing our hands. We go to Bologna; we visit Modena.
There's news this month of a few people in the north of Italy who have contracted a virus that's been doing the rounds in China. It doesn't seem like a huge issue, even as case numbers creep up in Lombardy, so we ignore it in favour of enjoying ourselves.
Italy has been one of the countries worst-hit by COVID-19. Photo: AP
Oh. My. God. The world has gone to hell. We watch the Italian news each day from our little Roman apartment and notice coronavirus case numbers going up and up, and those people infected creeping closer and closer to Rome. We think we'll be fine. We'll definitely be fine. And then… we're not fine. We make it out of Italy on the last direct flight from Rome to Singapore. There hasn't been another one since.
In a measure of our naivety, we think we're fleeing the virus as we leave Italy, like we're escaping, going back home to normal life. But COVID-19 follows us to Singapore, and then a few days later it follows us home. Oddly, no one in Australia seems to appreciate that fact. I also make the amusingly bold declaration that, "You can still travel over the next few months, for sure". We go into self-quarantine in an Airbnb.
A few weeks ago, I lived in Rome. Now I live with my in-laws in northern Sydney, and we watch as the world collapses around us. Australia has finally got the message and begun enforcing restrictions. States have closed their borders. The Ruby Princess has unloaded its crap-storm on NSW. Professional sport has been postponed. Gyms, bars and restaurants are all closed. And the travel industry has just ceased to exist.
I'm already pining for airline food and hotel rooms with convoluted light-switch set-ups, plus advising fellow tragics to start watching movies on their iPads at three in the morning for that sweet, sweet jet-laggy feel. I've also done a fake hotel review of my in-laws' house and given them five stars, because hello do you think I'm stupid.
The NRL season has recommenced, which seems like a weird flex. On a personal level, I've begun eating and drinking a truly phenomenal amount, including making a lasagne that is still stuck to a few arteries today. I travel all the way across Sydney for a Brickfields bacon sandwich because I'm hungry and apparently not time-poor. In NSW we're allowed to visit friends again, so "travel" for me becomes crossing the Harbour Bridge, or experimenting with homemade ramen.
In the wider world, everyone seems angry at travel agents and generally unsympathetic towards anyone who works – or, rather, "worked" – in the travel industry. There are plans to allow intrastate movement from the beginning of June. But, should we actually do that?
With incredible optimism and deep, deep delusion, I'm predicting travel bubbles left, right and centre this month. Within the next year, I'm saying, Australians will be able to visit Japan, Vietnam, Fiji, Taiwan, Greece, and even Israel. (And hey, I might still end up being right. Seems unlikely though.)
With interstate travel now allowed, I'm packing up my family and heading south, calling past the Big Merino, which has never seemed more exciting, and making my way to Beechworth to drink tasty wine and eat delicious food. Little do I realise, this will be the last time I will leave NSW for the next six months at least.
It's all doom and gloom in the travel world. There's been a COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria, and the whole place is shut down tight. All state borders are closed, even the one between NSW and Victoria. Australia seems like it's contracting into itself, with state-based parochialism driven by fear. I'm predicting that cheap travel for the masses is over. Masks have become mandatory in Victoria. Everyone is either really happy or really angry with Dan Andrews. Qantas has bid farewell to its last Boeing 747 with more of a COVID-enforced whimper than a bang.
Meanwhile, I've taken to scanning TV chef Pete Evans' increasingly bonkers Instagram feed every now and then to see which of my former favourite celebrities have been liking his insane anti-vax posts (Lucy Zelic! Nooooo!).
This is weird: Europe is open for business, with freedom of movement and few restrictions, and it's making me jealous. All those sunny beaches; all those beautiful cities. It makes you ponder, in fact, why Australians seem so relaxed about being trapped in their island home, why there's not more pushback over the miniscule number of people being allowed to leave. I declare that Australians are cool with this because we just don't need an overseas holiday right now, and I'm immediately hit with a barrage of emails from people desperate to be reunited with loved ones, to visit dying relatives, to meet young children, to re-join fiancés and spouses.
On a brighter note, I manage to make it down to Thredbo for some skiing, though someone forgot to tell the weather that it's winter and it hammers down with rain the entire time. Classic 2020.
It's clear to me, now, that there are tens of thousands of people caught in awful situations affected by travel bans and Australia's refusal to allow citizens out and permanent residents in. Families are separated. Lives have been torn apart. It's heart-wrenching and supremely frustrating, and not at all as entertaining as Pete Evans' Instagram feed. And as I write this now, just before Christmas, it still hasn't been solved.
Meanwhile, we can still travel in NSW so I'm heading out west to visit the Big Bogan in Nyngan, see the big Glenn McGrath in Narromine, and hunt for opals in White Cliffs. I don't find any, but it beats being at home.
Dan Andrews is still doing a press conference every day. He'll end up doing 120 in a row. North Face jackets become weirdly popular. Meanwhile, we're all focusing on travel within Australia, including Qantas's flights to nowhere, and the slow and steady resurrection of Virgin Australia. There's also talk, once again, of an imminent New Zealand travel bubble. It never appears. Classic 2020.
The states are being annoying. Queensland is being Queensland and refusing to budge – its border remains shut. Western Australia is also keeping its gates closed, though fewer people care about that. It's hard not to lash out at these recalcitrant fiefdoms, though I'm still advising people to resist the urge to boycott in a column that's pretty much universally misunderstood.
I now have a family of four, so I wouldn't be going anywhere even if I had the chance. I am, however, spending a lot of time at Bunnings, and recently noticed that my local store was opened in 2011 by Michael Slater and Doug Bollinger. That seems hilarious to me. And my previous life in Spain seems far, far away.
Finally! Finally, Queensland has opened its border to NSW in its entirety, Victoria has been COVID-free for yonks, and this absolute bunfight of a year will soon be behind us. By now I've forgotten pretty much every word of Spanish and Italian I ever learned, I've packed on what feels like about 60 kilos, and I still haven't been on a plane since March. Toilet paper is now readily available.
But wait… there's a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney's northern beaches! Another lockdown. Another crisis. Just in time for Christmas.
How was your 2020? Any highlights and lowlights? What do you predict 2021 will bring for the world of travel?