Stuck in my house except for very cautious walks outside, feeling the lurking presence of invisible death around every turn…I’ve been thinking a lot about the Blitz.
As a lifelong European traveler (and history buff), I can’t help but see things through that lens. And with the coronavirus lockdown tightening and everyone being encouraged to sacrifice for the greater good, it’s impossible for me not to imagine London, circa 1940.
From September of 1940 through May of 1941, London (and other English cities) lived under constant fear of aerial bombardment by the Nazi Luftwaffe. Being jolted awake by air-raid sirens in the dead of night to scurry for cover became routine. During one especially harrowing period, bombs fell daily for 11 straight weeks. More than 150,000 people slept each night in the tunnels of the Underground, trying to get comfortable on Tube tracks and platforms. The Blitz impacted everyone indiscriminately: young and old, rich and poor. By the end of it, one-third of London lay in ruins, and more than 40,000 citizens had been killed.
Like the Blitz, the current coronavirus onslaught is a battle of patience and persistence. Hitler and Göring eventually figured out that their relentless (and costly) bombardment was not going to bring about the quick surrender that they sought. Quite the contrary: Britain rose to the occasion. (In fact, British manufacturing increased.) After eight months, the Nazi war machine gave up on the Blitz and redirected their resources into the invasion of the USSR.
In our Blitz, we, too, are determined not to let the coronavirus beat us. The way we do that is by social distancing and generally keeping apart from each other. And, yes, we’ll all have to sacrifice. But over time — nobody knows quite how long — the coronavirus will be held at bay and begin to fade, until reinforcements arrive…not the Yanks, but vaccines and treatments. (That’s the hope, anyway.)
We live in frightening times. But I’m deeply heartened by the determination I’m seeing among my fellow citizens. We stand united in refusing to let the coronavirus change who we are, even as it changes virtually every aspect of our daily lives. In my world, I’m struck by how everyone is reaching out to each other, reaffirming their sense of community. Parents have more time to be with their kids. Colleagues, now working from home, are jury-rigging ways to have water-cooler conversations and virtual “drinks after work.” Our tour guides and other European friends are comparing notes about what’s happening across the Pond. We are all in this together.
Around the time of the Blitz, UK government designers came up with a peppy slogan: Keep Calm and Carry On — big white letters cast matter-of-factly against a bright red background, under the royal crown. (Strangely, although millions of these posters were printed, very few entered circulation — until decades later, when the design was re-discovered and popularized.)
This message — representing the British ideals of pluck, resolve, and stick-to-itiveness — has been a great inspiration to me, especially in my travels, where things are guaranteed to go sideways from time to time. In fact, I’ve adopted “Keep Calm and Carry On” as my personal travel motto. For years, I’ve had a tea towel with that phrase pinned to my office wall.
Last week, I experienced one of the saddest moments in my 20 years at Rick Steves’ Europe: On the last day our building was open — long after almost everyone had begun working from home — I made one last trip to my office to pack up anything I might need for the next several weeks. Of the many decorations that clutter my walls and bookshelves, the only thing I brought home was that tea towel. It’s currently taped up inside the front window of my home. (My neighbors have voiced their enthusiastic support.)
We need that message now more than ever. Like the battle-hardened Brits in the fall of 1940, we stand upon the precipice of something that will challenge us to the core. There will be countless disruptions to our lives. There will be sacrifices, big and small. The heroes in the medical field will fight on the front lines, while we cheer them on from the self-isolation of our couches. Instead of scrap metal drives, we’re collecting respirators and hospital gowns to support our troops. Through it all, everyone seems to recognize that if we come together and remind each other of what’s at stake, we will get through this.
This is how we beat COVID-19: By changing our lives to “flatten the curve” and slow down its spread — and by being true to who we are and finding strength in our connections. There is life (and there is travel) after the coronavirus. And we’ll get there if we can keep calm and carry on.
For travelers, that means doing the hardest thing imaginable: Staying home. But we can carry on with our travel dreaming. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been touched by members of our traveling community reaching out and reminding each other about the big, beautiful world out there: Sharing memories of treasured trips. Venting about the dream vacation they had to put on hold. And making plans for the next trip they’ll take, once this is all behind us.
So…where are you going on your next trip?