Satisfying Wanderlust in the Time of Covid-19
by Deborah Loeb Bohren
As a travel photographer and writer for the past eight years, I can’t remember when I’ve gone five months without getting on a plane, exploring a new city and taking thousands of photographs. But the reality of Covid-19 with its travel restrictions and prohibitions has changed that. I find I am forced to search out new ways to feed and satisfy my wanderlust while staying safely within the confines of the four walls I call home.
Of course, I’ve never been more appreciative of technology since my return from Namibia barely under the travel ban wire in March. I have been joyfully indulging in virtual visits and lectures from museums near and far, learning to bake French breads in an interactive course live from Paris (thank you Chef Eric at Cook’n with Class) and enjoying brilliant performances from Britain’s National Theater. Sometimes, I simply open up Google Earth in street view and wander the streets of Venice or Havana or Paris, places that I know and love. Ah…there’s my favorite gelato shop!
But I’ve also discovered I’m beginning to suffer a bit of screen fatigue, one too many slow internet connections, and while literally a virtual lifeline, I am beginning to see the world confined to little Zoom boxes. My solution? Rediscovering the joys of armchair travel through books, which is how I got hooked on travel in the first place.
There is a never-ending litany of novels set anywhere and everywhere around the globe, places you’ve been, places still on your bucket list. I’ve found re-reading my favorite books by my favorite authors about my favorite places have whisked me away when a plane cannot.
Here are a few of my favorites, novels and chronicles that put you side by side with a wonderful cast of characters so you can experience the joys of being there.
A Year in Provence, Chasing Cezanne, Hotel Pastis, or anything by Peter Mayle for that matter, swiftly transports me to what has become one of my favorite places. In fact, I was introduced to Provence through the words of Peter Mayle, words that painted such a vivid and realistic picture of the area that when I did arrive a few years later it felt like I had been there a hundred times before. He captures the je ne sais quois of the area — those long and leisurely Provençal luncheons, men playing boules, bottomless bottles of rosé and of course, the scent of lavender.
When I was about to embark on my first trip to Venice for a photo workshop a friend said, “Of course you’ve read Donna Leon?” I hadn’t but I soon learned that for lovers of Venice nothing is better than being there than racing around Venice solving murders with her charming and a bit irascible Commissario Brunetti. Along the way, you get to ride a vaparetto, go to an opera at La Fenice, and play soccer in the Campo San Polo. Not to mention enjoy numerous side-trips to the Dolomites. With 29 books in the series, don’t forget to be sure and pour yourself a glass of chianti as you settle in.
The Lisbon Portfolio by real-life photographer Kirk Tuck caught my eye because I couldn’t resist an action/adventure novel where the main protagonist was a photographer. And while I came for the photography references (I could feel his pain as a bullet pierces his 35 mm Leica camera), I stayed for the vivid imagery of Lisbon: those insanely steep hills and stairs, cable cars clanging, exquisitely enameled tiles gracing interiors and exteriors, the delectable Pastéis de Nata and, of course, the sardines. Like Mayle’s books made me want to visit Provence, this book made me want to visit Portugal. Now, re-reading it during the pandemic after having visited in 2018, those steep stairs and hills feel even steeper and the sardines that much more delicious.
Paris is always a good idea, as they say in the movies, and luckily finding books that bring Paris to you is easy. One is The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz. This book was my guide when I embarked on a three-month stay in Paris several years ago — and Lebovitz was right you do not take out the garbage until you are perfectly attired. As you read, you walk in his shoes as he learns what it’s like going from being an American in Paris to being a Parisian. For an added bonus, each chapter provides an activity to help fill your homebound day: one of his incredible recipes, each a little taste of Paris.
Of course, If you prefer an arrondissement by arrondissement adventure (admit it, we all have our own favorites) join Cara Black’s private investigator Aimée Leduc while she solves crimes on the Left Bank, in Pigalle, on the Champ de Mars, in the Latin Quarter or on the Ile Saint-Louis. My guess is at some point Leduc will lead you right to your favorite bistro or patisserie for a café and croissant.
And now for two slightly different books that have taken me on a different kind of armchair travel. 1933’s Lost Horizon by James Hilton, takes us far, far away to the high mountains of Tibet. In fact, it was this book that first ignited my wanderlust when I was in junior high school. And now, given the constraints of our daily lives, what better time to vacation in Shangri-La, that idyllic (albeit fictional) utopian lamasery located atop the mountains of Tibet?
Lastly, A Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles, may just be the perfect travel tale for our times. In it, Count Alexander Rostov, a casualty of the Bolshevik revolution, is sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s famed Metropole Hotel. Towles paints an expressive picture of life inside the hotel as well as the cultural changes and uncertainties occurring outside in Russia during the first half of 20th century. But it is our hero’s resilience, creativity, and spirit that shines through. Through his decades of confinement, Rostov discovers that life is not limited by the walls of the Metropole. Instead, through books, creativity, acceptance, patience and most importantly nurturing relationships with those around him, he proves life has no bounds even when you can’t go anywhere.
I am confident that our house arrest will be much shorter by decades than that faced by the Count, but in the meantime, while our passports collect dust, we can still travel by book, no passport, mask, or hand sanitizer required.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.
I have been a big fan of Deb’s work for many years. These words are true inspiration for those of us who have, unfortunately, taken pre-pandemic travel for granted. Especially we older travelers who are forced to relinquish precious months (years?) of global exploration. Deb does a great job of putting all of that in perspective, even closing with some light of hope for the future!
As a homebound travel enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Though I’m familiar with Peter Mayle and Donna Leon, I love the idea of reading fiction set in Portugal, and Paris too! I’m adding these books to my reading list.