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Travel Anxiety Is Life Anxiety: A Story in Four Parts

1. A Walk in Terminal 5

What was the weather like? It didn’t matter. What was I going for? Irrelevant. I just needed to go somewhere, so I booked a flight to South Africa—transiting first through Seattle, Vancouver, and Heathrow (whew!).

I was tired after the first series of flights, but still grateful to travel.

It had been a while since I’d passed through London, and this time I had five hours to spare. Inside Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was air-world, all Gordon Ramsey and Travelex booths. A branch of Harrod’s sold cashmere hoodies for £500. The Harry Potter store had gone cashless.

In a rare win for the publishing industry, the bookstore still sold books instead of headphones, chargers, and calendars. Mostly.

The duty-free shop advertised “all passengers leaving the U.K. could now purchase anything.” It took me a minute to remember: oh right, Brexit. That’s why “all passengers leaving the U.K.” makes sense now. I guess that’s one advantage to losing Europe.

When an asteroid hits the earth, there will be a sale somewhere that touts the benefits of civilization’s end. Everything must go, no tax on sales to passengers lucky enough to escape for Mars.


I went downstairs and walked back and forth along the long corridor underneath the train that connects to satellite gates. Above, an estimated 87,000 people pass through every day. In the walking corridor, I saw only one other pedestrian and two drivers of motorized carts.

During all that time, I walked two miles back and forth, getting my steps in to keep my streak going. Hours later—including lounge time and lunchtime—I boarded my twelve-hour flight to head south.

And then I came to Johannesburg! Another place I know well, at least the parts I’ve visited over and over.

The final flight was much better than all the others. I slept through the night (daytime back home) and had a leisurely breakfast over Botswana while watching the flight path.

Fun fact: the best movie on any flight is the map. It puts you in the zone and reminds you how special the world is.

Before I knew it, I was on the ground in Johannesburg.

2. The Well-Staffed Restaurant

When a labor market has more supply than demand, wages are low and employers can hire more people. Seems basic, but some places illustrate this fact more than others.

Since the Great Resignation hit and everywhere in the west is short-staffed, I’d forgotten the feeling of going to an overstaffed restaurant. And indeed, that’s what it’s like in much of the world. Servers end up standing around for most of the time, awaiting duties or a chance to be helpful.

In the British Airways lounge at the Johannesburg airport, I counted nineteen visible employees. It’s a good-sized lounge, but by comparison, it would probably have half that number at most in the U.S.

When I tried to get a coffee at the self-service coffee machine, an employee appeared by my side to help me press the button. Another employee presented me with a small plate and a spoon, neither of which were needed.

The next day in the city, I tried to leave a copy of the New Yorker behind when I left a restaurant from lunch. I had more issues to catch up on and thought maybe someone else would enjoy it.

This is not my first rodeo of leaving magazines behind in random restaurants around the world. It wasn’t a forgotten object; I was done with it and someone from the wait staff could either keep it or throw it away when clearing the plates. I left it in a way that seemed obvious and intentional.

Then I snuck out (having paid the bill, to be clear) during a rare moment when no one was in eyesight. It was an escape attempt with the goal of avoiding a conversation.

How did it go? I got more than a block away when one of the servers came running up to me, holding the magazine. “You left your book behind, sir.”

To which I could only reply, “Wow, thank you so much!”

Then I left it on a bench around the corner, after the server walked back to the restaurant.

3. The $2 Cortado

If you get up early in the suburb of Rosebank, there’s a place where you can get a cortado and banana bread for $2. The anticipation is enough to carry you out of a light depression and moderate jetlag. You see the sign and then walk a circle around the block thinking it over before going back.

Indeed, you are the kind of person who gets excited about flying around the world and having banana bread! With a delicious coffee included for just $2!

It reminds you of the days of staying in the cheapest of hostels somewhere before checking out and going to the airport to fly First Class. Those were the days.

The WiFi network is “Bootlegger Banana Bread.” You wonder, will this bread-for-breakfast live up to such hype? It takes a long time to arrive and for a moment you worry you’ve ordered it improperly, the South African accents being hard to place sometime. Everyone is friendly but some things get lost in translation to or from American English.

But then it arrives at your table, a few minutes after the coffee, and it smells wonderful. You realize the reason for the delay: they warmed it up! Without being asked.

It arrives on a nice plate with proper cutlery, a cube of butter in its own dish. You are not in Starbucks anymore, Dorothy. Someone has cared about this banana bread, and it shows.

4. Trip Anxiety Is Life Anxiety

If you sometimes feel anxious in life, then you’ll sometimes feel anxious when you travel. Nothing is a perfect elixir, at least one that’s effective one-hundred per cent of the time.

But that’s okay. Traveling is about feeling grateful even when you feel anxious, or even when something doesn’t go as hoped. I reflected on this as I wandered and wondered.

This week I made it to South Africa for the first time in several years. I went to some new places and some old favorites.

I adapted to a routine and kept working on my book, pausing for pastry breaks and minor adventures and running before dinner every night.

And then, a few days later, I got ready to go home. More flights ahead! More walking in Heathrow. More time to plan another trip.


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