Right now I should be in England, boring you to death on my Instagram feed with shots of London that I’ve taken before: bookstores, museums, my walks along Bankside on the south side of the Thames. It’s a place I sometimes mentally transport myself to, suddenly sitting in a cafe near the BFI Center, not far from the bookseller stalls under the bridge. I sit and people-watch, sipping a drink (like Ted Lasso, I feel tea tastes just like hot, brown water, so … sorry Brits … no tea for me), thinking about can I live here? Do I want to live here and how would that work?
I was scheduled to fly out on Sunday, Sept. 26 (today as I type this … in fact, I would be heading to the airport right about now) and to stay ten nights in London and journey on to my beloved booktown, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, for a few days and then back to London for one night and my flight home, on Oct. 10. About six weeks ago, British Airways sent me an oh-so-polite email telling me my flight to London was cancelled, so I cancelled the return flight and my hotel stays. You can’t return from a flight you can’t take, right? Some people told me, “You should still go! Fly out of L.A.!” But, no … I took that cancellation as a sign. Don’t go. Besides, it seems kind of irresponsible to take such a long trip right now. The world isn’t the same as it was last time I was over there in 2019. And I fear it will never be the same again for those of us with wanderlust in our hearts.
As a small consolation prize, I booked a flight to Portland last week, just for two nights. I wanted to visit a non-San Diego bookstore, and there’s no better one to visit than my beloved Powell’s in the heart of downtown Portland. There’s a great Hilton-owned hotel just a few blocks away in the Pearl District that I like staying at and I had points … oodles and oodles of points, plus Alaska Air mileage, so why not, right?
Well, Portland isn’t quite there yet, that’s why not. Downtown wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, but as the photo directly above shows, not that great, either. It’s hard to make out, but that’s a photo of the Apple Store in downtown Portland, looking more like a fortified border entrance than anything else. I didn’t go in. There were guards inside of the perimeter of the cage on the outside of the store. This particular store is floor to ceiling glass on one side and almost a block long. I’m sure they were taking temperature checks or maybe even checking for proof of vaccination (which I am and have been since March 1; I wouldn’t even think of traveling right now without being vaccinated). I roamed into the mall across the street from the Apple Store and that was borderline deserted. The downtown streets are quiet and I felt safe walking around, but there are some sporadic homeless encampments and the stray tent here and there. The pizza place I usually frequent had a narrow window open for take-out orders only; the pizza—which I normally love at this place—tasted and looked like yellow plastic by the time I walked it back to my hotel.
And Powell’s? Well, Powell’s is still one of the best bookstores in the country, and I believe every bookstore right now—hell, every store, period—is subject to supply chain problems. But the thing about Powell’s is it also deals in used books and they haven’t been allowing in-store selling of used books (where a person brings their books in to sell to Powell’s) in well over a year now. Sadly, their shelves show this lack of new incoming used stock. I once bought a near-mint condition 1950s hardcover edition of The Return of Tarzan, with a beautiful dustjacket that some collector lovingly wrapped in a plastic sleeve, for $4.00. FOUR. DOLLARS. That’s the kind of stuff you find at Powell’s. I would normally leave there with a stack of books in one of their signature tote bags. This time, I visited the store each day while I was there—three days in a row—and I bought two books. TWO. (On a brighter note, their current $2.50 tote bag has bright orange lettering and store logo on a denim-blue bag, probably my favorite Powell’s bag yet … I bought three of them.)
But the trip wasn’t a total loss. I have a dear friend who moved to Portland last spring and has thrived in her new home. She rents a three-bedroom house about 15 minutes away from downtown in an area called Multnomah Village. She lives on a tree-lined street and we walked into the village nearby, filled with mom-and-pop shops, including a lovely little bookstore (where I promptly found a book I wanted after about two minutes … TWO). I contrasted it in my mind with my own village here on Coronado island, which I dearly love, but seemed overly commercialized with its Panera Bread and Starbucks. Her village seemed like a cozy little blanket, and I can imagine what it’s like to live there through the rainy winter, comfortably ensconced in a warm house, reading. Ironically, I came home to a thunderstorm here in San Diego on Friday, a very rare occurrence, and cooler, cloudy, fall-like weather. But something about the gloomy Portland rain deeply appealed to me. Everything is so lush and green and fresh there, like the air is overly oxygenated or something. And the fact that my friend is paying rent for a three-bedroom house that is equal to my rent for a one-bedroom apartment appeals to me, too.
I also went to an amazing comic book shop, one that I’ve been to before, but never truly appreciated until this visit. It’s called Cosmic Monkey Comics and it’s on Sandy Blvd., if you happen to be a comics fan who finds themselves in Portland. Prepare to stay at least a couple of hours and bring your want list. It has an amazing selection of graphic novels and back issue comics. I became kind of overwhelmed by it all and had to leave before I spent too much money.
Flight-wise, everything was fine. I actually had an entire row to myself on the flight up, but the flight back was full. I flew via Alaska Airlines, using mileage I accrued from 2020 trips I couldn’t take. No airline wants to refund money these days, but they make some decent deals with points and mileage. My two trips that were cancelled ended up netting me enough miles to take three trips. I bookended my summer with trips, one to Seattle in early June and this one to Portland in late September and I’m glad I did.
But travel is never going to be the same again, at least not for me. I know this now. I think part of it is becoming so used to being at home that being anywhere else feels … foreign. I couldn’t wait to come back home, to be honest, so I don’t know how I’d feel about hopping a plane for ten nights in London right now, except for the fact that I miss the opportunity—the ability, really—to be able to get on a plane and go somewhere, anywhere, else and just escape for a few days. I semi-admire England’s realization that Covid is a part of our world now, and the only way to deal with it is to be vaccinated and to get on with life. I’m all for that even if I think Boris Johnson is a Trump-level poor excuse for a world leader.
I’ll revisit my London and Hay-on-Wye plans in a year or so. I made the original plans for this year’s trip back in the spring, when the promise of a world on the brink of recovery from Covid beckoned for later in the year. Maybe that wish will come true for next year. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I have scheduled a tentative trip in the near future … so stay tuned for another rambling travel post.
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