Source: Ben Owen

As strict Coronavirus-related restrictions relaxed, the days drew ever longer and warmer, and people dared to dream of the coming summer, it was very tempting to think that life had well and truly returned to normal around June in the UK. The three preceding months had been torturous – indeed, the very words ‘one form of outdoor exercise per day’ still evoke a visceral dread – but now was the chance to cherish a privilege many took for granted: being able to go to pubs, to visit friends, and, in my case, to travel abroad. Twice.

Source: Ben Owen, Annecy, France

My first change of scene was a surreal yet highly successful affair. Many readers will recall that the start of the infamous air bridges coincided with airline seat sales, specifically conceived to lure in holidaymakers apprehensive about travelling in a global pandemic through the prospect of a bargain. I convinced myself that with face mask donned and hand sanitiser on standby there was nothing to worry about, and sure enough found myself walking along the eerily quiet corridors of Heathrow the day after non-essential international travel resumed.

Despite the unique buzz of tiredness and anticipation that only the start of a holiday can elicit, I admit that sitting in what felt like illegally close proximity to other passengers on the flight was unnerving. Yet the glorious weather, beautiful landscapes, and unforgettable moments I enjoyed in Annecy, France, easily made up for any doubts.

Source: Ben Owen, the empty departure halls at Heathrow

Initially, the second trip I made was the mirror image of the first. When my sister and I discovered that flights departing from my local airport for a mid-August long weekend in Bordeaux could be had for under £50, the opportunity seemed too good to be true. Finding equally cheap accommodation quickly sealed the deal. Against all the odds, summer 2020 would have a sequel.

The plethora of booking confirmation emails were still fresh in my inbox when an icy news headline unravelled the feeling that Europe’s worst Coronavirus days were now in the past. Spain, it reported, was experiencing the first signs of a second wave and would therefore be removed from the UK’s quarantine-free travel corridor scheme with immediate effect.

I was stunned: the decision came unexpectedly. Mallorca was the number two destination on our shortlist and had only just fallen behind France on the grounds of flying times alone. Any sweet sigh of relief for having dodged a metaphorical bullet quickly gave way to the sour realisation a similar situation could happen elsewhere. It was just a matter of time.

The first night in Bordeaux was exceptional. City squares buzzing with life late into the night, imposing architecture illuminated by the friendly hues of French-style streetlights, music, conversations from all sides: you would be forgiven for forgetting Covid-19 even existed. The return to reality that followed was predictably swift as on only the second afternoon of the trip, whilst relaxing in the air-conditioned train carriage en route home from a scorching afternoon by the seaside, reports emerged that France might be the next victim of the UK’s quarantine list.

The uncertainty was palpable and frustrating. As we pulled back into Bordeaux’s central station, both my sister and I agreed that no matter how inexpensive the trip was, we would never have booked had we known that fourteen days locked indoors could accompany our return. Yet just two weeks previously, the British government was still reassuring the public that travel corridors were here to stay. Like we later saw in the case of local lockdowns and university arrangements, inconsistent, unclear communications have disallowed people the chance to make a well-informed decision over the course of the pandemic, and ultimately left them to pay the price.

After a tense forty-eight hours with one eye always on the news headlines, my return flight touched down in the late hours of Monday. Just four days later, France joined Spain on the quarantine list. Safe to say, I do not see myself travelling again for a while.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.