Not Quite There & Back Again

I set out to complete the 3,200-mile roundtrip from London to Tiranë without getting on a plane. Or so I thought.

Perhaps naively, I entered #FlightFree2020 optimistically and eager to embrace the challenge. Until the end of 2019 I was flying regularly: short-haul, long-haul, personal and business travel – racking up the air-miles, and watching the increase of that alarming counter British Airways uses to show how many times you’ve flown around the world according to your mileage…

For whilst I’ve enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of a remote working situation for many years, which has enabled some fantastic international travel, I have recently grown tired of air travel and all of its baggage. This prompted the decision to adopt a year of flight free travel, which I felt was better aligned to my goals at reducing my carbon footprint as well as reconnecting with the joy of the journey itself.

So how, 2.5 months into the year, do I find myself finishing this article once again at 38,000 – uncomfortable in cramped seating and tired from an early start and inconvenient layover procedures?

I had planned a number of trips for the first half of the year, a short hop to Brussels, a longer trip to Beijing, and mid-distance excursions to Albania. Of course, a lot has changed in the last few weeks with COVID-19 now labelled as a “pandemic” by the World Health Organisation, which has in turn had an impact on travel plans. Yet, all of this seemed manageable when my husband and I boarded our first train on the three-day journey to Tiranë 7 days ago.

Albania remains shrouded in mystery for many unfamiliar with the region, and with tourists slow on the uptake, it can be complicated to get there without relying on the major airlines – particularly as infrastructure in the region can be unreliable. However, it’s a country that I travel to regularly for work and to visit friends.

Sitting relaxed in our couchette on the ÖBB NightJet from Cologne to Munich, we were confident at our ability to handle this trip. In a few short hours, we had made it to Germany via Brussels from London, and even had time to stop off for a quick dinner in a beer house opposite Cologne station. As the conductor came to check tickets, he smiled at us after checking our passports:

“English is best, yes?”

Was he trolling us?

“It is for us…” I replied, “danke”, I hastily added to prove that I had some linguistic ability. The more I travel, the more I’m made aware that my worldview is immeasurably altered by my ability to communicate in virtually any country I choose to visit. It’s both humbling and shameful.

Our journey continued the following day crossing the border from Germany to Austria to Croatia, and as I stood brushing my teeth in the cramped yet dazzlingly clean toilet on the ÖBB service from Munich to Villach, I noticed that I was tired after a sporadic nights’ sleep on the overnight train. Yet it was the fatigue that comes from travelling a new route and felt all the more wholesome and rewarding for it; vastly different to the kind of exhaustion you feel after a relentless work schedule or endless queues at airports.

On crossing the border from Austria to Slovenia, and then on to Croatia, our passports were checked as a result of the reintroduction of border controls in Croatia following the refugee crisis.

“Where have you been?” A question always asked in that most comedic of stern ways. I answered by listing the countries we had stopped off to this point.

“Italy, maybe?” He probed a little further.

“Nope, not Italy.” I replied. Firmly. It was an uncomfortable insight into a dystopian future that was in fact only a matter of days away for us.

After a night spent in a hotel in Zagreb, the following day we munched our way through our own supplies purchased along with our tickets before we boarded the train and watched the stunning scenery of Eastern Europe roll by as we trundled our way towards Serbia. At this point I was also well on my way to finishing my second book of the trip, another advantage of taking the slower and more mindful alternative to flying.

Travelling on the Belgrade – Bar railway is an opportunity not to be turned down should you be presented with it, and whilst we opted to travel overnight as it best suited our schedule, the daytime is a stunning combination of dramatic scenery and complex engineering. The two-bed, slightly dated sleeper car is perfectly comfortable, and I slept well – despite our 3am border crossing alarm clock. We dutifully hand over our passports when there was an audible “British” muttered under the breath of the officer. Here we go again, I thought to myself. Grabbing a piece of paper with multiple languages printed across it our officer attempted to read the section written in English but instead I signal that I might read it instead:

Have you come into contact with the Coronavirus in the last 14 days?

“No.” I replied.

“Contact? Contact?” The officer asks.

“No.” I reply again, not sure if my voice thickened by sleep is all that convincing.

The door closes abruptly. That’s that then, I supposed, and rolled back over to sleep, only to wake again the following morning as we approached Podgorica.

Unfortunately, the arrival into either Podgorica or Bar does not offer the ease of a train transfer – as there are currently no international (or even reliable national) Albanian trains. It’s simple enough to jump on a bus at either destination, making your way across the border via a direct service straight to Tiranë – but there are also options to Shkodër, the major northern city in Albania.

As we spent time visiting friends and enjoying the cosmopolitan and varied sights of Tirana, a city very much on the ascent, it quickly became apparent that the global situation was rapidly changing around us.

“Have you heard of the Coronavirus?” We were asked by a waitress in a favourite coffee shop, Komiteti, as reason for their early closure and the source of my inability to slowly sip a mug of steaming çaj malli with my third book.

Our plans rapidly changed after that, as Tirana quickly became a city on lockdown, followed by the country at large. We hotfooted our way back to Montenegro the evening before Albania closed all land borders, in addition to the maritime. This border crossing offering another brief insight into our privilege as White, British passport holders; for our only other bus companion, a French resident travelling on a Chinese passport, was questioned in detail, whilst my husband and I were waved on with token questioning.

We sought refuge in a beautiful hotel in the hills of Stari Bar, presuming we could continue by train and follow the same journey back. However, as the hours passed and further reports of Croatia enforcing 14-day quarantines for international travellers, and finally Serbia closing its land-border with Montenegro, it was clear that we were stuck if we didn’t get on a plane.

Confronted by finite time and money, we booked a flight bound for London via Belgrade the next day; as I attempted to reconcile myself to the feelings of failure and guilt having not been able to find a way overland.

Which brings me back to being at 38,000 feet, the world speeding below me: unseen, unheard, unfelt. I’m disappointed and frustrated, whilst reminded that none of us are ever truly in control. I’m reminded of wisdom parents might give their child before a big exam or sporting event: “just do your best”. Even taking every measure possible to try and do right by the planet, sometimes all we can offer is our best effort and to keep trying when all doesn’t go as planned.