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How does a travel section work without … travel?
Four months ago, when I packed up my sunny apartment in Sydney, Australia, and relocated to wintry New York City with my husband to join The Times’s Travel section as its first social editor, I expected to face some hurdles, but that was one I didn’t see coming.
Over the past month, our team — led by our editor Amy Virshup — has been staring down the barrel of an existential problem. What does travel journalism look like in a grounded world?
But really, I kind of think of myself as a bridge between the reader and our hard-working editors and reporters. And that bridge has two-way traffic. I bring the journalism to you, wherever you might be receiving it. I also listen — to your criticism, your praise, your questions — and that feeds our journalism, too. And sometimes, when we need it, your voice is the journalism.
By mid-March, it was becoming clear that Travel’s bread-and-butter — pleasure itineraries in the Swiss Alps and adventurous dispatches from Indonesian jungles — was looking more like a ridiculous dessert.
By then, our “recommendation” to work from home had become a companywide order. I had moved across the world for the privilege of strolling into The New York Times building every day. I craved being there in person after nearly three years working in The Times’s Australia bureau, which, while wonderful, felt so distant from the beating heart of the New York newsroom.
Yet here I was in New York, but remote again, confined to my bedroom next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway with our roommate’s unblinking Pomeranian for company.
But back to our problem: Travel’s weekly 36 Hours feature, a longtime staple, was a clear example of business that could not go on as usual. For nearly 20 years, the column has helped readers plan weekends in cities around the world. The #36Hours hashtag has nearly 20,000 posts on Instagram. The itineraries have been collected in a series of books — one of my eagle-eyed colleagues even spotted a stack of them on Larry David’s coffee table in the new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
So what to do? Let the column go dark quietly, unceremoniously?
On March 16, I suggested in our team’s morning video call that maybe instead of dropping it, we could lean into the situation — maybe we could call it a “36 Hours from Home,” or something. Amy suggested that we crowdsource it, recalling doing something similar for the Sunday Routine column in 2011 when she ran the Metropolitan section.
So I published a callout, inviting people to contribute to our first reader-generated 36 Hours. Submit one activity idea — something that embraces the spirit of travel — that your fellow readers could do from anywhere, it said. Be specific (don’t suggest “reading”; tell me which book and why it transports you). Be inclusive (people are quarantining in a range of scenarios and many are experiencing hardship). And upload your own photos and video!
I was worried we might not receive enough replies to fill a 36-hour itinerary. Before I knew it, I had more than 1,400 responses.
I poured myself some Scotch (hey, I’m in quarantine too), set the Pomeranian on my lap and read through every single one until the early hours.
The truth is, they were addictive. Each felt as if it were a little vignette from behind a stranger’s door. Mia Gonzalez in San Diego suggested recording a piece of music and sending it to an older friend. She had filmed herself playing “Ave Maria” and sent it to her adopted Nonna in Italy. “You made me cry,” Nonna Augusta had replied to her.
One submission from a man who “fully immersed” himself into his cat’s life, following her around on his hands and knees, made me almost do a spit-take with my Scotch.
Other suggestions: Make Zuppa Pavese, a dish from the hard-hit Lombardy region. Venture to check on the neighbors you haven’t met and see what they need. Be matched with a pen-pal in another country.
The final story was titled “36 Hours in … Wherever You Are.” This project — and this greater crisis — forced me to consider what travel actually is when movement is stripped away.
It’s about curiosity and an adventurous spirit — a willingness to feel out of your depth. But mostly, travel is about empathy.
One of my favorite writers, the late A.A. Gill, was actually talking about travel writing when he said this, but I think it applies to thinking about travel itself, too: “[It] isn’t really an exploration of where you’ve been, so much as an explanation of where you’ve come from.”
For a while, we’re going to stay put. It might feel antithetical to the notion of travel, but if we stay open to the experiences of others even while stationary, we might be moved all the same.
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