“Come join me”. My friend’s voice crackled through the phone. He was sitting in a Belgian field, some 300 kilometres away, sipping an ice-cold beer: “it’ll be fun”.
It was the 20th of July; Coronavirus cases were in the low hundreds, the sun was shining, and I had precisely zero plans for the coming week, other than perhaps rearranging the furniture or walking around my village for the hundredth time. 24 hours after that phone call, I had checked into a hostel in Brussels and was at the start of a week of travel like no other.
Equipped with little more than my passport and hand sanitizer, I started criss-crossing across Belgium, stopping briefly in the Netherlands before hiking across the border to Germany, on my trip of five days, four cities, three UNESCO world heritage sites, two 7-hour bus journeys, one national holiday and many, many waffles.
Arriving in Brussels felt like stepping onto another planet. The streets were packed, with large crowds gathered in the squares, piling into restaurants selling moules frites before flocking to the royal palace. I had inadvertently arrived on the Belgian Fête nationale and the city had a celebratory atmosphere that felt almost entirely alien to 2020. Bruges, too, proved to be a bizarre experience; I arrived in the evening and had a leisurely stroll through the town, remarking how few people were wearing masks.
By the time I left my near-deserted hostel the next morning, the whole town was wearing masks and, embarrassed, I quickly followed suit. Whether a new law was passed over night or everyone had just forgotten their masks the night before, I still don’t know. The Netherlands was a similar story; the southern city of Maastricht was buzzing. Cafés spilled out into the streets, the market was lively, and bars were doing a roaring trade. Masks were donned and hand sanitizer was given out when going into shops, but it felt more like people were paying lip service to the rules than anything else, which is perhaps why cases started to rise by the end of July and why southern Belgium is now one of the worst affected regions in Europe.
Even after entering the border town Aachen in Germany, there was hardly a concerted effort to maintain social distancing and there was no form of contact tracing whatsoever. The authorities seemed more concerned that I might be taking photos of Charlemagne’s cathedral without their permission than potentially spreading a deadly virus.
The question is: was it worth it? Backpacking across Europe as a student is seen by many as a rite of passage, but in a year where interconnectivity has led to a disease spreading rapidly across continents and national borders was it justifiable for me to risk public health for some sightseeing? Looking back now, the thought of sharing public transport with people coughing for hours on end, staying with strangers and going abroad with no real plan on how to get back fills me with dread.
However, as cliché as it sounds, I’m so glad I did. Travelling solo and being spontaneous taught me so much about being independent and allowed me to visit some absolutely beautiful places and have exciting new experiences. Obviously, I wouldn’t do the same in this current climate of widespread transmission and I was always careful to follow local rules, but going travelling gave me the freedom that I had so desperately been craving during lockdown.