On social media, the holiday photos have started again. They are more muted now, not so brash and boastful. More tasteful views of the sea, less infinity pool luxury. Still, I feel a benevolent sort of jealousy. “Lucky sods,” I think, whether they are in Cornwall or the Costa del Sol. Like many others, I have been walking the same streets since March, but I’ve been dreaming of the Greek sea. I miss its particular clarity; shades of glittering aquamarine. Salt on my lips washed off with delicious cheap, thin white wine. Last year, I was there, reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey as I watched fishermen shell prawns on the harbour front. It feels like a hallucination, now.
Holidays are a luxury. As with gardens, the pandemic has demarcated the haves and the have-nots. Some people have lost their livelihoods, others are able to carry on holidaying as usual. There will be some anger at those who travelled abroad, but I also wonder how many of these censorious types have second homes, or can afford preposterously expensive UK holiday lets.
After encouraging people to go abroad without there being any comprehensive airport testing in place, the government now wants us to take a “staycation”, a term which used to mean staying in your house while not working, but which has now been rebranded as taking your holidays in the UK. Yet again, citizens are blamed for the decisions they have made, when the government’s message has been muddled and inconsistent and without thought to the reasons why Brits, at a time when many people are struggling financially, are opting for cheaper foreign getaways.
There are powerful arguments against going abroad at the moment. But who am I to condemn say, a care worker, who wants two weeks in Benidorm after a fraught and hellish few months? Does the person who delivered your groceries really deserve to be shamed for his Jet2 jaunt to Paphos? At the same time, in Snowdonia, where I grew up, lots of lovely middle-class people have flocked there and are busy littering and freaking out local people, many of whom are still trying to shield from the virus.
It wouldn’t be Britain if there weren’t a class double standard, but it still makes me sad. We’ve all been through a lot, and most of us have made sacrifices for the safety of others in our communities. Now we are all being instructed to make our own decisions, and others are casting judgment. Of course there are those who are behaving as though it is all over, but most of us are doing our best to weigh up the risks of everything we do.
Growing up, we didn’t go on holiday much, though one gorgeous trip visiting family in Donegal is imprinted on my memory – white sand and silverfish, scorching sun, my first kiss outside an old workhouse. It was too expensive to go abroad, and my brother is severely disabled. He has never left the country. Sometimes I dream of making it rich and taking him to a villa (we would need two carers), just so he can see how warm and clear the sea can be abroad. Like me, he loves swimming. As a child, I would get brochures from travel agents and spend hours perusing the all-inclusive hotels with their giant pools and their waterslides, their all-you-can-drink pineapple juice and karaoke bars. I wanted to go more than anything.
We were lucky to grow up where we did, around lakes and forests and beaches, where at least we could get some of that holiday feeling at home. Many people live concrete-paved lives. They long for beautiful scenery, but mostly it’s the time. That’s what holidays are about, really: time. The hours we work means that we can spend months living alongside other people and feel that we have not really seen them at all. Put us on a cheap flight to Crete and after a few days we relax into ourselves. The stress dissipates. We look across a taverna table at their pink faces as they nurse a cold Mythos and shove courgette fritters into their gobs and we feel, well, love.
In the past few months, I have come to realise just how much I relied on holidays to keep me sane. Yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and yes there’s the climate emergency to consider, but the draw is strong. I wouldn’t go into a pub in central London right now, but Greece is beckoning me (“come,” my Greek friend said, “we need your British pounds”). It’s a case of cognitive dissonance, in the absence of effective government policy.
Will I go? It depends on the risk at the time to me and the risk I’d pose to the country I would be visiting. Should they close the borders, I would not complain. Not if it saved lives. An ITU doctor I interviewed, exhausted from watching patients die, cried when she saw the photographs of packed beaches.
I understand her perspective, just as I understand the people (some of them doctors) who are desperate to get away, who feel strung out and sad and they just want to have a fag on a sun lounger while they watch their kids play in the spume, their crappy airport novel abandoned, its pages greasy from lotion. We all want a break from Covid-19, delusional as that may be. We all want some respite from the fear of this horrible disease. We all want to forget that it might be here to stay. It seems we just haven’t accepted it yet.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist