Novelist Yun Ko-eun reimagines wanderlust during a future stay in a strange city.
Delivery held life together during the time of corona—for me and for my neighbors. Early-morning grocery deliveries from companies with optimistic names, like New Star Nutrition or Rocket Foods, arrived daily. Even now, if I order before 11:00 p.m., my purchases sit at my door by 7:00 a.m. the next morning. In normal times, my need to travel can be measured with about ten inches of a ruler; thanks to early-morning deliveries, three inches of those ten are taken care of. If one of the five reasons I have for visiting Lisbon is to eat Portuguese egg tarts, home delivery satiates the craving. As I eat an egg tart, delivered while I was asleep, I lose about three inches of wanderlust.
On YouTube, I can take a city tour, my ears calmed by the urban hum. I watch a clip called “Walking in the Rain in Manhattan”; half my body melts into the New York City streets. Alternatively, I could stop by a VR cafe in downtown Seoul. Remote sightseeing, virtual reality… another three inches of wanderlust placated. Now I only have four inches left. I could visit the airport—not to fly, but as an excuse to dress up in my finest travel-wear and utilize the airport’s amenities. Seoul’s Incheon Airport has an ice rink, a theater, and all sorts of restaurants, so it’s a fitting venue for a date. My friend’s five-year-old son even thinks that “Incheon Airport” is a foreign country right next to South Korea. The desire for travel decreases three inches further. One inch to go.
But that last inch makes people board planes: those hopeful travelers with a single inch they can’t get out of their minds. I’m one of them. By the time I check in at my hotel in an unknown city, I’ve passed one hundred checkpoints. Airplanes no longer serve in-flight meals like they used to. My smartphone is home to a QR code that contains my medical history. Having made it through the security measures, I enter a room full of antimicrobial surfaces. I see a note from the hotel’s management:
In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “The essential is invisible to the eye.” Perhaps. But we sanitize the surfaces in your room to kill all unseen viruses. —Hotel Management
The message is written in cute lettering on green paper. I chose my accommodations well. Recently, I read about an unfortunate hotel that put globes in the guest rooms, each decorated with ten red flags. Guests said that the shape reminded them of the coronavirus. Instead of disagreeable props, my hotel greets visitors with beloved literary passages. There’s a second green message on the desk:
“Nevermore!” crows Edgar Allan Poe’s raven. Wondering if we’re still worried about coronavirus? Nevermore. —Hotel Management
I’m supposed to be changing my clothes for dinner, but I find myself looking for more of the green messages, almost missing my reservation. Only ten people are allowed at a time on the elevator to the rooftop restaurant. One of the ten sneezes. Twice in a row, and then a cough. The elevator falters for a moment on its journey to the roof. We reach our destination in a few seconds, but I spend those seconds fixated on the two sneezes and one cough. My brain splits my thoughts into smaller and smaller segments, until they’re nanometers of worry. As soon as the elevator door opens, a hotel employee hands a green message to the person who sneezed. I wonder what it is, but I can’t see the words. Could the note say this?
“It’s not my fault,” writes Albert Camus in The Stranger. Coronavirus isn’t your fault, either, but we need to stop strangers from entering our property. —Hotel Management
Our focus is stuck on the pathways of our feet, our words, even our saliva. The coronavirus pandemic may be over, but this new habit remains in an era of anxiety. We live our lives atop semiconductor chips, focused on micro-movements.
All I do in this unknown city is watch the sun set from a rooftop restaurant. Some consider traditional travel, the body moving through space, to be a sign of recovery. I’m relieved to see the recipient of the green message enter the restaurant safely. I’m relieved, sitting in this unfamiliar city, watching the sun set as my fellow diners eat, drink, and rub shoulders with strangers. There’s a green slip of paper on my table, too. I pull my chair forward an inch to see what it says.
Yun Ko-eun is the bestselling author of The Disaster Tourist. She is currently based in Seoul, South Korea. Translation by Lizzie Buehler.