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Carolyn West

Melbourne, Australia

From Jet-set to Stock-still: Carolyn West on Lockdown in Melbourne

Last week I had a mental breakdown at the gym. The fact that I can have a menty-b outside of the confines of my apartment is a luxury in itself, after what feels like 127,483,275 days spent locked down in Melbourne throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what may be even more of a luxury is the catalyst for my breakdown: a YouTube video about flying in airplanes.

It has been two years since I flew to Australia to visit family for what I thought would be a 2.5-week holiday.

In many ways, this time has flown by faster than a 787 Dreamliner, but in other ways, the months have dragged, dawdled, and drawn themselves out in a true snaillike fashion. During this time I have achieved a graduate degree, produced three seasons of a web series, virtually hosted a conference, lectured to undergraduate students, attended the funeral of my best friend through the unfortunate magic of Zoom, dated someone who didn’t work out, made unexpected friendships despite a five-kilometer travel limit imposed by our state government, FaceTimed with my beloved dog of 18 years the morning my parents took him to the vet for the last time, signed a two-year lease agreement, and attended 40 psychoanalytic therapy sessions with a psychiatrist—the latter obviously being much needed after experiencing all of this.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST

So why the mental breakdown over plane travel? Perhaps one of the more bizarre and unexpected results of the COVID-19 pandemic for me has been a stripping and a loss of an aspect of my identity: my life as someone who travels. While I may not marvel or measure my success by the number of passport stamps or countries traveled to, I have been a location-independent person for the majority of my life. So much so that the two years I have spent in Australia since the onset of the pandemic has been the longest period I have stayed in one place since 2015. During three very depressing days in March of 2020, the year that I had planned around plane tickets, visa applications, and events evaporated into nothing. My freelance business came to a sharp halt for the first time in 10 years. Australian borders were shut indefinitely, and at age 25, I found myself sleeping in a corner of the music/study room at my parents’ house in suburban Australia. I had become completely rooted overnight. Physically, financially, and mentally.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST

I was three weeks old when I flew in a plane for the first time. My dad still has the infant plane ticket filed away in the garage. I will not claim that I remember this occasion, but my formative early childhood was marked by plane travel as we semi-regularly commuted from west to east to visit family. I learned to love what many people dread about planes: the tiny modular food trays; the two seats at the back of the plane next to the toilet (they’re the best for long-haul flights); spending hours on stopovers in liminal airport terminals watching people leave, go, and come back again; sleeping on armchairs, in hotel airports, on the ground in a dark corner; comparing flight prices with the same vigor of a competitive sport; and, of course, feeling your stomach lurch the moment the wheels of the plane leave the tarmac. God, I’d do anything to feel that again. “Integral to my personality” just doesn’t cut it. Travel and I are in a long-term, committed relationship. Codependent, anxious attachment, borderline toxic kind of committed. Sure, it may be an open arrangement, but I find myself constantly longing for it. Even when I’m already on a trip, I’m often longing for the next.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST

To not only be fixed in one place but also have a swath of new relationships with people who never knew my broke-ass backpacking self has been unsettling in ways I am still unpacking in therapy. When you travel frequently, many of your friends share in your unhealthy relationship. For example, I didn’t need to explain to my travel friends why the first place I wanted to go (after the five-kilometer travel radius was lifted) was the airport, despite not having a flight booked. White-picket fences are rejected in favor of white fuselages, and going home, wherever that may be, always gets a little harder as your friends there move on with their lives while you’re busy moving, full stop. Preferably at a cruising speed of 900 kmph.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST

To be brutally honest, out of self-preservation, this is the most I have allowed myself to write about and reflect on travel since the pandemic began. I’ve felt this loss so deeply that last week, after watching that dumb YouTube video, I called my friend in London and choked out the words, “I miss the life I had before the pandemic.” A realization as much as a guilty confession for the unbearable level of dissatisfaction I get from working from home at a desk.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST

I have a sticker of a yin-yang on my computer. Every day when I sit down to write, I see this symbol, hugged tightly by a symmetrical green and blue lotus flower. I got it from a bookshop near my apartment here in Melbourne that I affectionately call “the esoteric bookshop.” It’s a place where I can buy incense, pendulums, and tarot cards alongside books by Judith Butler, Sigmund Freud, Jaques Lacan, and Karl Marx. Many of us are familiar with the symbol of the yin-yang, representing a point of duality, harmonious opposition, supreme balance, an inner world and an outer world. Without getting too Eat, Pray, Love about it all, much of my insignificant existence on earth has been about finding my point of balance between different life forces: routine or spontaneity, family or faraway places, comfort or discomfort, black hair or blond hair. As the Australian borders begin to open up again and global mobility is eased for those of us with privileged passports and triple vaccinations, I find myself having to reintroduce who I am to people in my life. Hi, I’m Caro. You might know me from university, but did you know that in 2019 I lived out of carry-on luggage and traveled to 19 countries? (Technically 20 because I illegally walked into China once…) It’s nice to meet you! And while I am personally itching to be dragging a backpack around the world again, I know there is a small part of me that will miss the time I have spent in isolation in Melbourne: frequenting my regular coffee shops, seeing my friends play gigs in dive bars with sticky floors, popping down the coast in my van every time I have a moment o work, living in my apartment (the first I have ever lived in without housemates!!!) and, of course, the easy access to my gym downstairs for regular mental breakdowns.

PHOTOS BY CAROLYN WEST