In my last entry (link here), I wrote — somewhat breathlessly — that “Americans are traveling again, and I’m among them.” Although I wasn’t claiming victory over the pandemic here in the U.S., I did suggest that we were returning to some semblance of normalcy that included a fair bit of travel.
Well…not so fast.
A month later, the highly contagious and potent Delta variant is changing our tune, vaccines notwithstanding. A lot of folks are putting the brakes on ambitious travel plans, instead adopting a wait-and-see attitude. And they’re placing on hold a lot of aspirations for more extensive face-to-face socializing.
In the meantime, schools at all levels are re-opening. Many of them are returning to live classroom instruction after being online for roughly a year and a half.
This includes my university. On Monday I returned to the physical classroom for the first time since early March 2020, with vaccination and mask requirements imposed for students and faculty alike. My first meeting with students felt weird, a bit unsettling, despite that I’ve taught this subject for years.
The second time I met with the same group, we started getting back into a groove. I was more directed and centered, and the students were responding with comments and questions. I left the classroom feeling energetic and buoyed. That was a stark contrast to teaching on Zoom, when I gave maximum energy into teaching online, but often felt exhausted once the connection was turned off.
I dearly hope that we’ll be able to continue teaching in face-to-face mode through the 2021-22 academic year, though I understand that circumstances largely beyond my control will determine that matter.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I look forward to enjoying the beckoning fall. Here in Greater Boston, it’s the nicest season of the year. In fact, I think of a traditional New England fall as capturing the heart of Americana, with its seasonal bridge from hot-to-cold, plenty of autumn color, and historical sites waiting to be explored.
The ongoing presence of the pandemic may temper some of those qualities, but I don’t think it will be able to douse them.
Although I’m not altogether confident that we’ve whipped this pandemic here in the U.S., it has become eminently clear that Americans are traveling again. Witness the photo above, the passenger security line at Terminal A of Boston’s Logan International Airport, just two Thursdays ago…at 8:00 a.m.! Alas, yours truly was at the tail end of this line. Without going into unnecessary details, let me say that I reached the gate with minutes to spare, the closest I’ve ever come to missing a plane flight outright.
Indeed, with my vaccinations in tow and a mask ready to go (hey, I made a rhyme!), I’ve been taking some shorter trips, such as hopping on a plane to Washington D.C. to help out a dear friend with an apartment move (hence, the Logan line) and to revive a periodic breakfast tradition with a group of friends, taking a commuter rail trip to Salem, Massachusetts for sightseeing with friends and researching the 1692 Salem witch hunts, and boarding an Amtrak train to Manhattan for a visit with family and friends.
I am grateful that I managed to get through this period of semi-quarantine in a state of solitude rather than loneliness. In some ways I benefited from the extended time alone. Socially distanced outdoor meals with two long-time friends in my neighborhood, trips to favorite stores, and various types of digital and social media helped to melt the isolation.
But I am enjoying connecting and reconnecting with people in person, and I look forward to more of the same during the coming months. That said, I am not overly sanguine about the public health situation. It appears that once again, numbers of new COVID-19 infections are creeping up, especially in locales with low vaccination rates. The Delta variant is the latest to present challenges, and we cannot assume that current vaccinations will be effective against future variants.
Of course, for Americans, this is a First World state of affairs. Many other nations are experiencing severe spikes in infections and have little access to the much-needed vaccines. Wrestling down this pandemic everywhere must be a shared global priority, and right now it isn’t. So, I accept as blessings my current ability to travel in relative safety, while hoping that we can safeguard everyone from this virus much sooner than later.
Have you ever moved to another part of your city, state/province, or country? Have you ever relocated to another nation? Why did you do it, and how did you get there?
NPR’s TED Radio Hour had me contemplating this topic during a feature on migration (link here), exploring why and how people have uprooted themselves from their original surroundings to less familiar ones. If you’ve made a big move or two during your life, or are contemplating doing so, this hour offers an interesting set of reflections and insights.
Location and the pandemic
Of course, the idea that location matters has become very significant during the coronavirus pandemic. One’s experience of this pandemic and public responses to it are based in part on where we live. Infection rates, medical and public health resources, population density, and beliefs in science and prevention vary widely by location.
Here in Boston, after a brutal year we are allowing ourselves to take literal and figurative breaths of relief. Our vaccination rates are trending upward, our infection rates and fatalities are in decline, and we’re gradually moving towards some resumption of living more normally.
Yesterday, however, I was on a webinar with law students and lawyers in India. I knew very well that they are reeling from a terrible surge in infections that, for now, shows no signs of abating. We may have been in the same virtual room together, but our experiences of that event were no doubt shaped by our respective perceptions of safety and health.
During my lifetime, I’ve made two bigger moves, a temporary move abroad, and a smaller move that felt like a huge one.
Going in reverse order, the small move that felt very big was leaving my hometown of Hammond, Indiana to attend Valparaiso University, all of one county and a 45-minute drive away. To an 18-year-old young man who wasn’t very worldly, it felt like I had moved halfway across the country, even though I remained squarely in northwest Indiana.
The temporary move abroad was in the form of a collegiate semester spent in England. As I’ve written before on this blog, those five months opened the world to me. Even before that study abroad experience, I had aspirations of moving to the West Coast or East Coast for law school. My semester abroad basically cemented that intention.
A year after returning from England, I would pack my bags for a much longer stay — twelve years in New York City — starting with law school at New York University. In 1994, an opportunity for a tenure-track teaching appointment at my current affiliation, Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston, prompted a move to my current hometown.
With New York City and me, it was love at first sight. I will never again be as taken with a sense of place in the way that New York captivated me. With Boston, it has been more of an evolving affection, marked by the city’s insularity and parochialism slowly giving way (uh, sometimes kicking and screaming) to a growing cosmopolitan culture. It also helps that Greater Boston remains a place where ideas, invention, creativity, and books still matter. (Two years ago, I reflected on a quarter century of living in Boston. You may go here to read that.)
Many academics, even tenured ones, opt to be somewhat nomadic, moving from university to university as perceived greener pastures present themselves. While I’ve received periodic invitations to apply for teaching jobs elsewhere, I’ve opted to remain in Boston. Whether or not any more big moves remain for me, I cannot guess. But over the years, I’ve also taken countless plane and train trips to places far and near, and I expect that I’ll resume doing so as public health circumstances permit.
With vaccinations on the increase and safer travel becoming a realistic possibility during the months to come, memories of past sojourns have become prominent in my nostalgic mind. Chief among them is my final undergraduate semester in 1981, spent at Valparaiso University’s study abroad centre in Cambridge, England. I have written with great affection about this formative time on this blog (e.g., “First-time sojourn across the pond,” here) and highlighted that experience in a reflective essay on my college years published in the university’s literary journal (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, here). Suffice it to say that seeds planted during that semester took hold in so many ways, shaping my sense of vocation and personal culture for a lifetime.
This writing finds myself contemplating a specific set of memories about that semester. Forty years ago this week, I was spending a part of our spring break in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time were marked by “The Troubles,” a span of great and violent political and nationalistic discord over the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My brief visit occurred during a period of hunger strikes by Irish prisoners being held at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, known as “H-Block” because of its physical configuration. Ten of these prisoners would die of starvation.
Upon arriving in Belfast by bus, I felt very lost as I gazed around, with map in hand, wondering how to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay for a couple of days. Apparently I looked very lost as well, because a man approached me and asked if he could direct me somewhere. I explained that I was looking for the hostel, and he offered to give me a ride there. I readily accepted his offer. (Keep in mind that hitchhiking was a common practice for students studying abroad back then.)
In the car, I introduced myself and added that I had become interested in the political strife surrounding Northern Ireland. Well, that opened up a conversation. It turns out that this fellow was a BBC reporter, and he explained that he had just finished interviewing members of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that was challenging British rule in Northern Ireland. He then asked if I had a few minutes to spare, offering to take me on a quick driving tour through parts of working class Belfast where he had talked to IRA members. Being a college newspaper scribe and fancying myself as a sort of foreign correspondent, of course I said yes.
I took the two snapshots above during that impromptu tour. To this day, I understand that this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to see parts of Belfast that I never would’ve ventured into on my own, during a violent and painful time in the city’s history.
Belfast felt like a proverbial war zone during my visit. Security checkpoints screened entry into the city centre. Stores and movie theaters employed guards to search bags. One afternoon, as I walked back to the youth hostel, I saw a British troop car ahead of me. Soldiers were exiting it quickly, while their leader was focused on looking across the street. As I passed by, I asked what was going on, and they told me in a terse tone to just keep walking. I followed orders, briskly so. I have no idea what, if anything, happened later. However, I did manage to snap the photo above.
From Belfast I traveled south to Dublin, via three hitchhiked rides. It was Easter weekend, and this marked the 65th anniversary of the historic Easter rising, an armed insurrection by Irish nationalists challenging British rule. Dublin was at the center of the insurrection, which led to nearly 500 fatalities and some 2,600 wounded.
Obviously, the current H-Block hunger strikes gave this anniversary considerable meaning. I took these photos of the Easter weekend protest march and rally. Above, the young man pictured struck a pose for me. (Note also the titles of movies playing at the city cinema!)
The Old Post Office and Bank of Ireland buildings, both of which were occupied by Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising, were prominent sites for this rally as well. I got snapshots of both.
Looking back, I now grasp how I had dropped myself into places that could’ve made for dangerous situations. At the time, I was sufficiently young and ignorant to assume that if any bullets flew in my direction, they would simply miss me.
That I visited Belfast and Dublin during this tumultuous time was a bit of a twist. You see, among our student cohort, I was not the most adventurous of travelers, often preferring to spend weekends remaining in Cambridge, while many of my fellow Valparaiso U students traveled around the UK.
Happily, though, the days spent traipsing around Cambridge did stick with me. I did not have plans to pursue a career in academe at the time, as I intended to go to law school as a prelude to entering the bloody world of politics. But the time I spent drinking in this historic, medieval university city worked its magic on me and contributed to my opting for the bloody world of academe instead.
In any event, my ongoing gratitude for that study abroad experience leads me to dearly hope that international study programs will recover and revive as we get through the worst of this pandemic. As I wrote last May (here), “(o)ne of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities.” We need to restore these chances to have life-shaping experiences.
A couple of weeks ago, our study abroad group from college met for a Zoom-enabled happy hour/mini-reunion. It was the latest gathering of our spring 1981 semester abroad cohort from Valparaiso University’s program in Cambridge, England.
I can think of no other chapter in my life that so instantly flips on my personal nostalgia channel. I’ve written about that special semester many times on this blog (such as here, “First-time sojourn across the pond”). Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
One of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities. Right now, it’s highly questionable whether their main campuses will even be open for residential classes in the fall, much less offering study abroad options. Even when those possibilities begin manifesting themselves again, a lot of students (and their parents) may understandably be hesitant to take the plunge.
I dearly hope that a combination of smart public health practices and new developments in medicine will control the ravages of this virus sooner than later. Saving lives, preserving health, and re-opening our economic and civic society are, of course, our main priorities. The return of life-changing opportunities to spend meaningful time in other parts of the world would be welcomed, too, along with a renewed sense of adventure to take advantage of them.
It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.
Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.
It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.
As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.
The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.
So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.
In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.
Until now, that is.
This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.
Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.
During the last week of July, I found myself in the grand city of Rome. This first ever trip was occasioned by the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, a biennial global gathering at which I participated in panel discussions and other activities. (Go here to my professional blog to learn more.) Although I am not the best travel planner, Rome had been on my bucket list for many years, so beforehand I actually talked to people who had visited before and read up on sightseeing options.
More than with any other great city destination, friends and associates urged the importance of good tour guides to maximize the experience of a Rome visit. I picked up a copy of Rick Steves Rome 2019 (Steves has been my European travel guru for decades) and checked his listings for guided walking tours. There I found a company, Context Tours, that promised in-depth, small group tours conducted by guides who were genuine experts (often scholars) on the sites covered. Given my characteristic lack of patience for shopping, I decided to go “all in” with this company and signed up for three of their tours: Introduction to Rome, the Vatican, and Ancient Rome.
All three tours turned out to be excellent, led by guides — thank you Lauren, Jade, and Giulia — who are scholars of the city. It is the Ancient Rome tour that I’d like to spend some time talking about here.
The Ancient Rome tour covers three tightly-clustered sites, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Giulia, our guide, met up with her five guests (myself plus a four others who were traveling together) at a café across the street from the Colosseum, and we proceeded from there.
Let me just say that had the tour started and ended with the Colosseum, I would’ve considered myself fortunate. This is an imposing historic structure, a marvel of engineering. Moreover, there is a very haunting quality to it. Imagine some 60,000 people packed in there, watching and cheering for various spectacles and sporting competitions. Some were pretty gruesome person vs. animal and person vs. person fight-to-the-death contests, including gladiatorial combat so often depicted in pop culture portrayals of historic Rome.
Once you learn about the Colosseum, you instantly grasp the origins of today’s modern sports stadia, including seating according to status, the ancient equivalent of tailgating parties, and even access to restrooms inside the building.
At the conclusion of our walk around the Colosseum, this small group tour suddenly turned into a private one, as the other guests had to depart because of a schedule conflict. Although I enjoyed their company, this would be such a blessing for me, as my tour with Giulia became a sort of walking conversation, facilitated by a Ph.D. in archeology who has actually led and participated in digs in this very area.
From the Colosseum, we walked over to adjacent Palatine Hill, the locus of Rome’s origins (according to ancient lore) and site of the Emperor’s Palace. It took all of a few minutes to get there.
As you can see from the photo above, it felt as if we were whisked away from the city and dropped off in a pastoral getaway setting. The contrast was kind of magical. I have felt that effect in other big cities, such as visiting the Cloisters in New York City — the big difference being, of course, that the medieval look & feel of the Cloisters was the 20th century result of the Rockefeller family donating money to create this old-looking structure. (OK, so maybe that’s not much of a difference at all, if you get my drift?!)
Now we’re getting into the ruins of the palace. Closer looks at these structures would reveal a variety of designs and colors, using raw materials imported from other parts of the world. This was a way of showing off one’s wealth, not to mention an early example of globalization. This reminded me of the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th and early 20th century American social scientist, to capture how rich people during the Gilded Age would buy things for the primary purpose of displaying the size of their bank accounts.
Indeed, as I learned more about the cultures of ancient and Renaissance Rome during my trip, I was reminded over and again that human motivations have not changed much over the centuries.
So here was a major revelation to me: Ancient Rome wasn’t a constant display of white marble! The photo above shows an example of the colorful designs that adorned many buildings and structures. According to Giulia, many of the buildings would look a bit kitschy by modern standards!
The photo above shows the front of the palace’s long dining hall, marked by an elevated dais for the Emperor and his family. Food and drink would be brought up from a lower level by servants, who also lived below. This prompted us to make comparisons to the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of old English houses portrayed by the likes of the popular “Downton Abbey” television series!
If you’re trying to picture what mealtime looked like in this palace, don’t imagine tables and chairs. Instead, try to visualize these folks eating in bed! Yes, that’s right, the rich and powerful dined in the comfort of beds.
Thus, if someone ever treats you to breakfast in bed, then know that you’re dining in a fashion fitting for a Roman Emperor!
Here we’re still on Palatine Hill, now looking over at the site of the Circus Maximus, in the background. Folks, this is where they held chariot races.
There’s not much left to see except for the outline of the track itself, but it’s still fun to imagine the scene many centuries ago.
The Forum was the site of government and the courts. If you look closely you can see the bases for lots of pillars. Imagine them supporting a huge rectangular structure.
For someone like me, trained in law and public policy, looking over this historical site was breathtaking.
I would be remiss if I did not include a photo of Giulia, whose deep well of knowledge, easy going manner, and sense of humor made the tour feel like a walk with a long-time and very intelligent friend!
Before my trip to Rome, I figured this was a one-and-done visit. I knew that I could squeeze in some quality sightseeing while participating in this conference, and I assumed that would be plenty enough to satisfy my curiosity about the city. But after sampling some of the city’s history and culture, not to mention consuming a good share of gelato, pizza, and pasta, I now understand why Rome attracts so many returning visitors. Perhaps one of them will be me someday.
Like many folks, I generally don’t like being at hospitals. It has nothing to do with the dedicated health care professionals who work in them, but rather because I associate hospital stays with serious disease or injury. Nevertheless, last week I joined a guided tour through historic parts of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and it was very interesting.
The tour was sponsored by Old South Meeting House, the non-profit organization based in the historic Boston building of the same name. Old South (the building) dates back to colonial days. A public meeting hall, it was the site where rebellious patriots planned the Boston Tea Party (1773) in protest of taxes levied by the British crown. Old South (the organization) maintains the historic site and hosts programs and talks devoted to Boston history.
I learned that MGH was founded in 1811 and is the third oldest general hospital in the U.S. The “general” hospital distinction is important, because it means that (1) its services are open to all; and (2) it treats a full range of health conditions.
The highlight of the tour is a visit to the “Ether Dome,” the name given to the operating theatre that hosted the first public demonstration of anesthesia in 1846. The space is still used for meetings today, and it has been maintained to look as it did during the 19th century.
This 2000 painting depicts the historic event, which you can read about at the Wikipedia page about MGH:
And here’s my snapshot of the location shown in the painting:
Yup, we were right there. It gives you chills.
For reasons stated above, I probably won’t be signing up for many more walking tours of hospitals, if at all. But MGH is a historic site in Boston history and a significant institution in the history and ongoing delivery of health care in America.
The tour was also a reminder to me of how much fascinating history is present in Boston. Even as a history buff, it’s easy to take for granted how much evidence of early American history is all around me. I’ve decided to spend more time exploring that history, and toward that end I recently renewed my membership with Old South Meeting House. It’s neat to play tourist in my own hometown, and I want to do more of that.
This really cool eight-minute 1950 United Airlines travelogue of a Boeing Stratocruiser flight from California to Hawaii pushes nostalgia buttons for an age that preceded my earthly arrival. It harkens back to an era of commercial air travel before the jet airliners arrived. The post-WWII years featured powerful propeller-driven aircraft capable of making the long Pacific flights. And as the video shows, it was a pretty special experience.
For many, this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It called for dressing up, even if seated in the main cabin (i.e., coach). The flight alone was an event. Watch the video and feel your mouth water at the plated meals and pre-landing buffet! (It’s easy to forget that even domestic flights within the continental U.S. often included a hot meal for everyone.)
The contrasts to the present are pretty obvious. There is nothing romantic or adventurous about standard-brand air travel today. Oh, it’s still the case that a trip to an exotic locale or to see cherished family and friends can bring excitement and anticipation. But otherwise, hopping onto a plane for a flight is a more practical experience designed to get us from point A to point B.
Of course, modern air travel is also less expensive than it was back in that day. With luck and timing, a plane ticket can take us a long way and back at relatively affordable prices. Vacations and reunions still await us upon landing. For the flight itself, just expect cramped seating and swap out that in-flight entrée for a bag of chips.
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
It sounds like pure paradise to me.
You might logically assume that creating this vacation should be easy for someone who enjoys the flexibility of an academic schedule. But in reality, academic work has a way of collapsing work-life boundaries, such as they are. So long as you’re checking your work inbox, or opening a Word file just to peek at a draft of something, you can get sucked back into it in a second.
This geeky vacation fantasy also reflects a considerable downsizing of my travel bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to visit some pretty cool destinations during my life. And there are still places that I’d like to visit or revisit.
But I’m not yearning to spend more time on the road (or in the air). Right now I travel a lot to see friends and family, and to participate in conferences and other work-related events. I look forward to these trips, but I’m always happy when my calendar shows several approaching weekends that don’t involve printing out boarding passes.
Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.