We Brits used to snigger at how few Americans had passports. Apparently, in 1990, passport ownership among Americans stood at just 4 percent. It’s grown massively since then, of course, but even now less than half of all U.S. citizens have the basic documentation to leave their own country.
The contrast with Britain couldn’t be starker. I’ve never met a Brit who doesn’t hold a passport. Many of us used to travel abroad at least a few times a year. And we ventured far and wide. Wherever you went in the world, from Hanoi to Hong Kong, Honolulu to Havana, British people would be hanging around, enjoying the sights, making themselves at home and often getting disgracefully drunk. I doubt if there’s a nation on Earth, per capita, that traveled more than we did. In fact, figures show that British people took an average of two foreign vacations each in 2019.
The reason, of course, that so few Americans travel compared with their British counterparts is that America is enormous and spacious, while Britain is tiny and crowded. If I were an American, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have a passport either. You could spend several lifetimes exploring each state, one by one, and still not see everything. So why bother going anywhere else? As for Britain, frankly, by the age of about 30 I’d seen the lot.
No wonder, then, that Brits dash to the airport at every opportunity. Yes, we usually head south towards the sun. But anywhere will do. Just give us a change of scene and we’ll be delighted.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very fond of Britain. For a small island, it’s achieved a lot. It’s an incredibly stimulating business, cultural, and educational environment, which is why immigration levels are off the scale. The countryside — or what’s left of it, as our population continues to balloon — is gorgeous. And, generally speaking, it’s safe, friendly, and tolerant.
But it can also be a bit like sharing a small, damp apartment with about 15 other people. Those 15 might be fascinating company. You might love them all dearly. You might even share a bed with one or two of them. Even so, every so often, you’re itching to get away.
That’s why it’s so profoundly cruel, unspeakably vile in fact, of Boris Johnson’s government to prevent us from traveling anywhere at all because of this pandemic — even those of us who have dutifully got ourselves vaccinated. This must be how it felt to be barred from leaving East Berlin. We have to stay in our small apartment, by law, cooped up with those 15 others. However desperate we might be, we’re simply not allowed out.
To say the least, it’s getting claustrophobic.
In Roald Dahl’s most famous book, poor little Charlie presses his nose through the gates of the factory to breathe in the delicious chocolate aromas emanating from within. Well, driving past Heathrow the other day, I did something similar. I lowered the window, raised my nose skyward, and breathed in the aircraft fuel. Lovely, it was. I imagined that plane taking off westward, banking left, and heading towards France, Switzerland, and Italy. I dreamed of Tuscany and Provence. I dreamed of sitting beside a bistro table with a glass of juicy red on the terrace of the Hotel Pescille, as the sun goes down, and feasting my eyes on the medieval towers of San Gimignano standing proudly against the gorgeous blue skies of Chianti. I dreamed of Geneva and the snow-capped Alps rearing high above that ancient city with the lake shimmering into the distance. I imagined driving along the Amalfi Coast and stopping for a cappuccino and a croissant to admire the view of the Med and the coast of Salerno beyond.
And then I dreamed of Boris Johnson. And I thought: You bastard. You utter, utter bastard. It’s your fault, all this, and you should feel blooming ashamed.
Okay, to be fair, Boris is only doing what just about every other government in the world is doing. I get that. I’m actually quite a fan of his on most issues. And, of course, we don’t want this wretched virus to spread faster than it has to.
But we’ve also got to consider people’s basic emotional well-being. For Americans, traveling is an optional extra; for Brits, it’s a lifeline. Denying us foreign travel is like denying a Labrador a walk. It’s close to being a basic human right.
So, spare a thought for us on May 17, when Boris announces when we can start traveling again. Spare a thought for us as we eye that suntan lotion and stare longingly at the lightweight fanny pack. Because a few months more being holed up in Blighty is more than many of us can bear. Please, Boris, see reason: let us out.