New 3QD Column

Here’s my latest travel column as it ran at 3 Quarks Daily last week: 

On The Road: Fighting Your Way To Holiday

by Bill Murray

It wasn’t effortless but we managed to mollify, sidestep and defy enough authorities to be legally resident in Finland for the month of July. Never mind shoes and belts off and toothpaste in a plastic bag. No, do mind; do that too. But add PCR test results, Covid vaccination cards and popup, improvised airport queues. And a novel Coronavirus variant: marriage certificates on demand. 

The pandemic shines stark light down into the engine room, onto the unoiled grinding of international gears. A year and a half in, the lack of coordination between countries is everywhere on woeful display.

The Finnish parliament, unambiguously and unanimously, declared that “Anyone who has proof of being fully vaccinated or having recovered from Covid within the previous six months will be able to travel to Finland without having to undergo a Covid test.”

But then a Delta Airlines official peered into her screen and told us, “it says here no one is allowed to go to Finland, period.” Whereupon the haggling began, and it turns out production of a Finnish passport and our marriage license was sufficient qualification for access to our seats, payment for which was happily accepted with no questions long ago.

Claire Bushey writes “There are some things too stupid to humour, and that includes spending time and money hunting down a Covid-19 test while I’m on vacation, even though I am already fully vaccinated.”

Both her complaint and my grousing are problems for the fortunate, it’s true, but she is still right. The TSA has had us putting liquids in clear plastic bags since 2006, though, so I’m afraid we might be in for a long haul on this Covid testing thing.

It has been striking how some governments start out more xenophobic than others, and how detached that is from political ideology. All along, clearly, the British Tory government just hasn’t wanted its citizens to travel abroad. But neither does the center-left Trudeau government in Canada want its citizens mixing with us damned foreigners. The Aussie conservatives, the center-left in New Zealand, ditto.

Barriers to entry and overdone testing regimes are frustrating for those of us who are lucky enough to be fully vaccinated, but they are transitory measures and they will change. I think, though, that this virus has changed the world more deeply than all that and more profoundly than we realize.

You can read economic scholars who argue that the pandemic “spurred businesses in practically every sector to radically rethink their operations, often accelerating plans for technological and organizational innovation that were already in the works. Overwhelmingly, firms adopted new digital technologies….” You can read social scientists who have decided that  promoting positive societal response to pandemics depends on “aligning the message with recipients’ values or highlighting social approval….”

Increased productivity, social approval, economic adjustments, progress over time. It’s all sturdy scholar talk, abstract and incremental and reassuring. But maybe what we have here is less a ripple on a Nordic lake than a rip ‘em up convolution of space-time, a gravitational wave of change.

“Hammerson (a shopping centre operator) said on Tuesday it has submitted plans to convert a former Debenhams store into new homes for rent, amid a steep fall in valuation of properties focused on the retail sector due to the COVID-19 crisis.” 

Suddenly housing prices are very high; office and retail prices are very low. That languishing suburban strip mall surrounded by a square mile of asphalt out on the highway? Maybe it’s soon to be a live/work community with a post office in Spencer’s Gifts and a cluster of Pelotons up on the second floor of Macy’s. What we have here is a 33 trillion dollar perturbation of the commercial real estate field. For one.

Generations hand off their collective knowledge one to the next in a wobbly relay of progress. The World War II fighting generation may not have had it exactly in mind, but received wisdom for would-be hippies was, after all that overseas death and dying, give peace a chance. (Sometimes there are happy side effects, like nationalism being left by the wayside, but only, as it turns out, for a time.)

There hasn’t been a pandemic in living memory. Here, we don’t have a generational passing of the baton. We have Camus’s The Plague and John Barry’s The Great Influenza, but we have no actual, living, breathing people to pass on their visceral knowledge of how the 1918 pandemic changed things. We jump ahead now without the tempering wisdom of living memory. It’s not generational change.

There is the obvious parallel of the uninhibited, roaring 1920s, and many are predicting it, but I don’t buy it. Look around and these 2020s don’t feel like letting their shoulders down about anything anytime soon. More accurate predictions call for bigger thinking.

Adam Tooze has written that after the Great War “It took geostrategic and historical imagination to comprehend the scale and significance of (World War One’s) power transition.”

The radical reordering of land use and the vast capital attached to it, the continuing legacy of the 2008 economic crash, ever increasing inequality and proliferating, widespread displays of climate change. All are conspiring to make untenable the way we’ve lived the 21st century so far, and sooner than we think. The status quo holds, until it doesn’t.

•••••

The Nordic countries have been grappling with a heat wave this summer like in western Canada:

“Extreme heat in the Arctic Finland,” FMI researcher Mika Rantanen tweeted two Mondays ago, “Utsjoki Kevo just recorded 33.5°C (92.3°F), which is not only the station’s new all-time heat record, but also the highest reliably measured temperature ever in the whole Finnish Lapland.”

For two weeks, four latitudinal degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, we’ve enjoyed an astonishing unbroken string of brilliant, dry, 30C/86F or warmer days. Lake Saimaa is warm enough that you can jump off the dock without scrambling right back out. Looking around, it makes sense to wonder when people will begin to migrate north to live among these quiet lakes and boundless spruce, birch and pine forests. It’s perfect up here this summer.

And don’t tell anybody, but even better, this summer’s heat seems to have chased away most of the mosquitoes, the brawny ones, the ones with actual weight, the ones you can feel when they land on your shoulder. The bane of Nordic summer seem to have gone north for the summer.

Praise climate change for its small favors. But pity the Lapps.

Drones Show Empty Europe

Half a Store, Half a Store Onward

“The different measures taken by Belgium and the Netherlands to contain the further spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) have led to one store only half a store being allowed to open on the border.”

– See story in The Brussels Times

Quotes: On the European Union

From Robert Menasse’s acid satire of the European Union, The Capital:

“… the general loss of faith in European institutions was a consequence of poor growth, the menacing threat of right-wing populism – clearly if there were more growth there would be no growth in right-wing populism. And how could we generate more growth? Through greater liberalisation, of course. Instead of the Union stipulating common rules, each Member State ought to axe as many rules as possible for itself. Although there would never be a real union, there would be growth, and this would be best for the Union.”

Quotes: On the Singapore Model

Street food stall, Singapore

For those who wish to see, critics warn about Boris Johnson’s hard-Brexit plans for free ports and mimicking the so-called “Singapore Model.” Angela Merkel warned of the danger to EU of Singapore-style UK on its border today. She said,

“But the fact remains that after the withdrawal of Britain, we have an economic competitor at our door, even if we want to keep close economic, foreign and security cooperation and friendly relations.”

Addressing the Singapore Model, an Oxfam report from last year notes that Singapore

“has no equal pay or non-discrimination laws for women; its laws on both rape and sexual harassment are inadequate; and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guard.”

Unless perhaps you are a cleaner or a security guard, I’m guessing that’s not exactly among the outcomes rank-and-file Brexiteers expect from a hard Brexit.

Quotes: Carry That Weight

My due diligence for a trip to southeast Asia has taken me down an obscure path. Exploring French efforts to regain their Indochinese colony after WWII has led me to Theodore White’s Fire in the Ashes: Europe in Mid Century. Teddy White went on to write the Making of the President series of books starting with the 1960 Kennedy election, books that made his career.

He started his book with a lengthy description of intercontinental air travel because then, few people had had that experience. He wrote, “in our years almost as many men cross the great ocean by wings as travel it by boat,” revealing not only a no longer acceptable sexism (“men” cross the ocean) but also that when the book came out in 1953, more people still traveled across the Atlantic by ship.

But the quote I mean to highlight comes a few pages later:

“It is obvious that new leadership in both America and Russia is now wrenching the whole course of world affairs into new patterns and perspectives. What is less obvious is that in this wrenching process Europe, forgotten through the postwar years as a factor in power, must contribute as greatly as either of the two new titans.”

The Americans have urged the Europeans to take more responsibility for their own defense for as long as I’ve been grown up. Here is an exhortation to Europe to rise up and carry its weight in world affairs that is sixty-six years old.