The odd thing is that, viewed from New York, Britain doesn’t look like a destination at the moment. As the third wave rages across much of the United States, in New York City, a city still reeling from its spring experiences, the virus count is low and, for now, stable. Schools are not back full time and no one is hosting dinner parties, but a semblance of normal life has returned.
Or rather if you ignore the fact that no sane person will go home for the holidays. For those with young children, the months have passed, and with them a growing sense of absence. Zoom doesn’t fill the void where a grandparent should be, and one wonders how long it will be before the relationship is damaged. One year is a long time in the life of a five year old who refers to her own recent infancy as “the old days”.
For adults, the feeling 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 feeling of unease, unsteadiness, indistinct but familiar and which before I could name it summoned images from the TV of the Sunday night, fear for the week ahead, nights drawn in – oh, my god, go deeper: Brownie camp, various sleepovers, college midterm weekends. Homesickness, when it strikes, doesn’t necessarily mean a desire to go home, but rather a general feeling of displacement. After more than a decade abroad, I know that while I don’t want to go home, it’s a certainty that the further away I feel from home, the less the place I live will appear to me.
The claustrophobia that emanates from this effective travel ban, in a city where everyone comes from elsewhere, is part of a basic malaise in New York which persists despite the decreasing grip of the virus. Tension comes out in strange places. I cracked a filling this week and went to see my dentist, who confirmed the truth of a recent New York Times article on the spike in dental patients in the city reporting severe jaw strain. Every day, he said, patients complained of cracked teeth, jaw pain, excessive grinding and other expressions of stress, most of which manifested in sleep, and far beyond these. complaints before the pandemic.
There were advantages to not traveling. I don’t think I would cry if I never saw an airport again. (Not everyone feels like this, I know. In an incredible marketing from Singapore Airlines this week, the airline turned the front of an Airbus A380 parked at Changi Airport into a restaurant and sold every sits on clients who apparently missed the experience. In the city, meanwhile, where most experiences are downgraded, a few are improved. Going to the Central Park Zoo on a timed ticket, and in drastically reduced numbers compared to the pre-pandemic crowd, resulted in weird feelings of the apocalypse, but at least we got an uninterrupted view of the seals.
A general feeling of disturbance remains. “We’ll be going home in the spring,” we say, as if something is about to change. And, “We’re just going through quarantine.” We plan to go back for six weeks, absorb the jet lag and connect to distance learning from the UK, as does a member of my children’s class from Japan. But the more we talk about it, the less it seems real, like a fairy tale that we tell ourselves to comfort ourselves.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist