Puppet outside a gift shop, Oaxaca. 16:9clue via Flickr.

Every morning my toddler wants to go upstairs to our guest room, to stare up at shelves of books interspersed with a few cherished items: a piece of petrified wood I brought back from a reporting trip to Myanmar, a worn mannequin hand I purchased deep in a Mexico City flea market, a 1950s cocktail mixer printed with recipes for classic Cuban cocktails, filled with ballpoint pens from hotels where I stayed in California, Vermont, and Portugal.

My son makes toys out of these objects. He shakes the mannequin hand and laughs. He removes the pens and puts them on the floor, where we make a grid out of them, and then he puts them back into the cup one by one. When he’s done, I arrange, rearrange, and clean these items, thinking of the places that live most vividly in my memory: markets in Mexico and furniture shops in Havana, the souk in Marrakech and the cluttered streets of Myanmar. In this year when I have spent more time at home than ever before, I know I’m not the only one toggling between pandemic nesting and mourning a way of life, and investing old objects with new meaning along the way.

Even before the pandemic, I was rarely venturing as far from home as I’d have liked. A baby had begun to change the career I’d built around writing and reporting from far-flung locales. But the pandemic made my experience of this new rootedness suddenly near-universal. People around the country and the world experienced a shift in identity born of the swift impossibility of travel—a much-loved pursuit that is, for many of us, more than just a hobby.

For women in particular, solo travel is a hard-won and comparatively new freedom that has reshaped how we interact with society. Throughout the pandemic, female photographers and writers, travel entrepreneurs and podcasters have reported a shifting sense of self, a deep grief, changing relationships, and an inner rootlessness as they are fixed in place. Travel can be a way to relate to the world around us. To lose it so abruptly feels like defeat.

Lately, I’ve scrolled through Twitter threads filled with daydreamed trips, from people imagining everything from a short drive to another state to a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. They list their five favorite cities in a nonsense thread of urban reverie, each tweet like a five-word koan (“Buenos Aires, Miami, Los Angeles, New Delhi, New York”) that previews the personality behind the handle. Others consider first post-vaccine trips: “I know I need to visit a few folks but I need a never done before trip first…” writes one person. “The first trip I’m taking after my vaccine I’m not sleeping,” says another. And in my conversations with friends, two seemingly opposed subjects come up again and again amid the more generalized stresses of work and family. We talk about how much we miss traveling; we mention home improvement projects. These subjects float to the surface of our conversations so frequently that I’ve begun to notice how deeply these two things—the nest, and the flight from it—twine together.

I live far from most of my close friends; my relationships these days are mediated by phones and computers. Over texts and emails and phone calls, I ask them about the souvenirs they keep in their homes. A psychotherapist friend tells me that she loves the photos she’s hung from her travels because they remind her of who she was in each moment and place, a slightly different person than she is today, at home. A reporter who lives in the suburbs these days sends me a list of cherished items that includes an oil lamp from Greece, blankets from Guatemala, straw baskets from Senegal, and a rug from Turkey. I examine the transcripts from interviews with former international flight attendants I conducted for my recent book, rediscovering the stories they’d told me about antique samovars smuggled from the former Soviet Union, brass peacocks from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and a first duty free purchase of an enormous Waterford crystal ashtray.

These items serve as visual mnemonics, in a way: talismans of accomplishments and aspirations, a jab of the special and unusual within the mundane. A former flight attendant bought the ashtray thinking it was a candy dish; too attached to its story to just set the crystal aside, she’s used it as such ever since. In my home, I have the pillows over which I haggled in Morocco on a trip with my sister, a cribbage board that’s tracked vacation competitions in Croatia and Maine, and a teacup and saucer by a Malian potter my parents admire. I look at that teacup and trace my parents’ collection of painted bowls to my aunt’s diplomatic career among the first wave of women in the Foreign Service.

During the pandemic, women have been pushed out of the workforce en masse. And I’ve wondered, as I wipe dust and fingerprints from my souvenirs, if choosing to be invested in these things is falling into an essentially anti-feminist trap. Home décor and the more quotidian shopping and cleaning tasks of housekeeping—not to mention childcare, my god—have long kept women tethered to the home realm. Even without a pandemic, small children take so much energy from their mothers, working or staying home, traveling or not. But the items we bring back from trips away from home, near and far, remind me and others of just how much space we can and should occupy. Claiming independence and movement within the demands of home life becomes a form of resistance.

Now the weather is turning warmer. My son and I venture outside to play in the mornings just as often as we go upstairs to the guest room. I watch him explore the landscape around our house, a small realm to me that’s infinite to him. A dirt road up a hill, surrounded by trees, banks of soil and roots he loves to scramble up. A paved road toward town, driveways into the unknown of other people’s houses, even a covered bridge if he toddles far enough. In our yard he sweeps the porch and digs trowels into the dirt as I make mental sketches. I want some outdoor furniture, and I think that perhaps installing a fence between the yard and road will allow me to sit and read more often while he plays. In time, those additions will become their own physical reminders of this long year we spent entirely at home.

Identity is a strange and shifting thing that adapts to its surrounding circumstances. I’ve chosen most of the changes in my own life in the past two years; other challenges have been forced upon us all. Last February, I’d just begun make plans for being both mother and traveler, either taking my son with me or leaving him behind for a spell. Over a year of a pandemic, as I spent so many days at home wrangling a toddler rather than traveling and writing, my petrified wood and mannequin hand showed me there was a world beyond my walls—and gave me a tiny bit of the joy I feel being out in it.

Today, as I slowly begin to move toward a re-opened world, I watch my son play. The items he turns into toys tell me who I was, and who I still am.

Julia Cooke

Julia Cooke's essays and reporting have appeared in A Public Space, Salon, Tin House, Smithsonian, Best American Travel Writing, and Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. She is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba (Seal Press, 2014), narrative nonfiction on youth culture in post-Fidel Havana; and Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin, March 2021), a nonfiction account of the lives of international stewardesses of the 1960s and 70s.

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