A warm, rather stormy, welcome from Dubrovnik.
It’s been a long journey for me to get here, to this single room seaview apartment, somewhat infested with opportunistic antlife.
First I cycled from Glasgow to Bristol to Paris to Geneva to Milan, then I roadtripped with C. from Pisa to Lucca to Lake Bolsena to Posta Fibreno to Mattinatella to Trani to Bari, then I — well, then I gathered material for today’s story — then I caught a ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik and finally I cycled, yesterday morning, in the heartbeat between rains, up the hill to where I now write, the twin bed in this single room seaview apartment, somewhat infested with opportunistic antlife.
One of the things that some people know about me is that I don’t use aeroplanes. I don’t fly.
Well, turns out that I do. Sometimes.
It’s a long story, but last Friday I flew from Bari to London, and then back again a few days later. It was my first flight in over five years.
The last time I caught a plane was in February 2018, which itself broke an eight-year absence from the skies. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Not flying has been a part of my personality for so long and I’m only a little ashamed to say that sometimes I’ve felt quite smug about it. What part of me am I destroying by flying again? This flight feels sometimes like an obliteration of self.
Today’s story is about how things have changed for me in the past thirteen years of by-and-large not flying.
For starters, flying last week did not feel like an obliteration of self. I don’t feel like I’ve dropped and smashed my favourite teacup. I panicked for a day or two that maybe I had done, but then I remembered something Bob Dylan once taught me:
1. Don’t Confuse What They Think With What You Know
As humans, we make choices.
After getting back from Egypt in January 2010, I didn’t fly again that year. It wasn’t really for any reason other than I couldn’t afford to travel at all, let alone book a flight.
I spent that summer hitchhiking.
As one year of not flying turned into two and three, it dawned on me that overlanding was not only making me much more imaginative about how I travelled, but also taking me to more beautiful places, introducing me to more wonderful people, giving me more adventurous experiences, and inspiring much deeper, more satisfying stories.
Cycling around Britain and around Tunisia. Catching rides with strangers to Lille and Barcelona. Pilgrimaging to Canterbury and Winchester. Sailing the Jurassic Coast.
By the fourth year, the idea of taking the plane was absurd: I didn’t have any need to fly, as some do, for work or family, so why would I do anything so limiting with my precious travel time?
But we are human and some of our choices can be misinterpreted by others.
Some people heard about my quitting aeroplanes and assumed that it was because of the crazy carbon emissions involved. Some of these people thought that going overland was a very noble thing to do, a sacrifice I had made for the sake of our environmental greater good.
Because of what they thought was my noble sacrifice, some thought of me as an example to be followed, some even suspected that I was a morally superior being (🤮), some admired this choice, some seemed to resent it.
Don’t get me wrong: one of the upsides of not flying is lower carbon emissions. That is a great thing. It’s not why I stopped flying, but it’s still a cool reason not to fly and part of the reason why I continue to not fly (most of the time).
Choosing not to fly was never a sacrifice for me, though. And certainly never a moral choice. Never.
Choosing alternative overland and sea transport has always been an essential part of the adventure — not the lesser of two evils, but the vastly greater of two joys.
Now to the reason why I’m telling this little story of how some people have misinterpreted my motivations for not flying: sometimes other people’s ideas of us can be so compelling, and repeated so often, that they get confused in our minds with our own idea of ourselves.
And that’s when the trouble starts.
The opportunity to take this flight came up a couple of weeks ago. It was a surprise trip: not in the calendar, but not one that I wanted to turn away.
With less than a day to get from Bari to Suffolk, and less than a day to get back for the ferry to Dubrovnik, travelling overland in either direction was impossible.
I’ll be honest: I got into a right tizz.
How could I both spend the weekend doing important things with people I love AND stay true to who I am, the person who doesn’t take aeroplanes?
It was a simple choice between love and principle.
Except that the principle — never fly — wasn’t really mine. It was one that I had internalised from the way that some people had interpreted my actions over the past decade or more.
This is no shame on them: we’re all abundantly free to take whatever we can from the way others behave. All power to the thief — I do it all the time.
But the lesson for me? Don’t confuse what others think about you with what you know about yourself.
I think Bob Dylan said that.
Not taking aeroplanes is still something that I believe in. But it’s not always the most important part of who I am.
I said that.
2. I’m Lucky I Found Something: Three Epochs Of Air Travel
My flying history falls into three epochs:
- Childhood, 0-18 years old: 24 flights
- Young adulthood, 19-28 years old: 53 flights
- Grownupness, 29-41 years old: 4 flights
Strangely, this neat division marries with the stories I tell of myself to myself.
Although I made what I call my first adult decision in 2007 (to study Arabic in Egypt, hang the academic consequences), it wasn’t until 2010 that I committed to what I think of as my grownup career and homelife.
Similarly, it was only after I stopped using aeroplanes that travel, and the writing that came with it, became essential: life-giving.
Shamefully, I can’t actually remember where most of those flights took me during those jetsetter years. Not like I remember those David-defining hitchhikes, pilgrimages and cycle tours of 2010-2013.
Aeroplanes got in the way: youthful, erratic, timid. A noisy distraction from the heart work of discovery travel.
That ten year burst of flights in my twenties mirrored the way I felt, the way a lot of people feel at that age: grasping, flailing, stretching, neurotic, near panic, reaching, twisting, begging, praying for what they might become.
I’m lucky that I found something and could calm down a bit.
(p.s. I’m not saying that this is what air travel means for everyone, only what this graph looks like for me, in retrospect.)
Since 2010, terrestrial travel has become me. It’s grounded me and grown me up. A divining part of everything.
Aeroplanes can’t do that for me.
(Doesn’t mean they won’t sometimes pop up on a graph😝)
These stories have been written to the soothing accompaniment of Listen To The Cloud, live air traffic control chatter set to ambient music.
I have so much to unpack about my recent encounters with aeroplanes, but I’m going to split the stories over two emails because, frankly, we all have lives to live.
Coming in a future episode: reverse vertigo, delirious cabin crew and grounded spaciousness. Plus how you can get paid for flying… 🤑