The longest I have gone without seeing England is two years, a hiatus taken after the birth of my children, when I couldn’t face the flight. I must’ve missed the place: I remember bingeing old episodes of Inspector Morse as if they were home movies. But like everything from that period not directly involving babies, I can’t quite retrieve the memory. Besides which, my homesickness was mitigated by one major factor: people came to visit me.
No one is coming to visit this time. For many of us with family living further than a drive away – particularly those living abroad – the advent of the holiday season marks the 12-month anniversary since any of us went home. It is one thing to stay away because you can’t be bothered to travel, and another to have that option removed. Technically, it’s doable; a few friends in New York have cracked and flown to see their parents in Britain, factoring in the two-week quarantine. But for most of us, even if we can overcome the fear of exposure on the flight, the restrictions on arrival aren’t practical. What’s the point of trekking home if you can’t see anyone when you get there?
The strange thing is that, viewed from New York, Britain doesn’t look like much of a destination at the moment. While the third wave rages across much of the US, in New York, a city still in shock from its experiences of the spring, virus numbers are low and, for the time being, stable. The schools aren’t back full time and no one’s throwing dinner parties, but some semblance of normal life has returned.
Or rather it has if you ignore the fact that no one with sense will be going home for the holidays. For those with young children, the months have clicked by, and with them a growing feeling of absence. Zoom doesn’t fill the gap where a grandparent should be, and one wonders how long it will take before the relationship is damaged. A year is a long time in the life of a five-year-old who refers to her own recent toddlerhood as “the olden days”.
For adults, the sense of loss is less tangible but perhaps more alarming. It took me a moment to identify it: a sudden drop in mood accompanied by a queasy, unsettled feeling, indistinct but familiar and which, before I could name it, summoned images of Sunday-night telly, dread for the coming week, nights drawing in – oh, God, reaching further back: Brownie camp, various sleepovers, mid-term weekends at college. Homesickness, when it strikes, doesn’t need to mean a desire to run home, but rather a general feeling of displacement. After over a decade abroad, I know that even if I don’t want to go home, it’s a certainty that the further away home feels, the less like home the place I live in will seem.
The claustrophobia that emanates from this effective prohibition on travel, in a city where everyone comes from somewhere else, is part of a background unease in New York that has persisted in spite of the waning grip of the virus. The tension comes out in weird places. I cracked a filling this week and went to my dentist, who confirmed the truth of a recent piece in the New York Times about the spike in dental patients in the city reporting serious jaw strain. Every day, he said, patients came in complaining of cracked teeth, jaw pain, excessive grinding and other expressions of stress, most of which came out in them while asleep, and far in excess of these complaints before the pandemic.
There have been upsides to not travelling. I don’t think I would weep if I never saw an airport again. (Not everyone feels this way, I know. In an amazing piece of marketing by Singapore Airlines this week, the airline turned the front end of an Airbus A380 parked at Changi airport into a restaurant and sold every seat to customers who apparently missed the experience of air travel.) Within the city, meanwhile, where most experiences are degraded, a few are improved. Going to Central Park Zoo on a timed ticket, and in vastly reduced numbers relative to the crowds pre-pandemic, brought with it eerie feelings of the apocalypse, but at least we got an uninterrupted view of the seals.
A general feeling of disturbance remains. “We’ll go home in the spring,” we say, as if anything is likely to change. And, “We’ll just sit out the quarantine.” We make plans to go back for six weeks, absorb the time difference and log on to remote learning from the UK, as one member of my kids’ class does from Japan. But the more we talk about it, the less real it seems, like a fairytale we tell ourselves for comfort.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist