Wanderlust ain't what it used to be. Remember how, pre-COVID, we'd all feast on salacious shots of fat, juicy lakes engorged by Toblerone mountains or marvel at the epic nothingness of Bolivia's salt plains? Well, change is afoot. Over the space of a few months, we've become a global community of normads, more interested in experiencing normality (as we remember it) than we are cartwheeling through the world's most sublime landscapes.
Fellow early adopters of normadism will be au fait with WindowSwap and Take Me Elsewhere, two painfully retro-style websites which sprung up as travel shut down earlier this year. They're both similar concepts - simply click and a new, bog-standard view will pop up. Click. You're in rural Hampshire. Click. You're in the little-visited town of Aargau, Switzerland. In seconds, you zigzag from one person's normal to another's, using an interface so noughties you half expect Crazy Frog to trill maniacally in the background.
Though in the early days of lockdown we all longed to escape the confines of quarantine, something about these projects' sheer mundanity caught the attention of lonely, homebound travellers in a way no craggy peak in the farthest-flung corner of nowhere possibly could. But why?
Each blurry motion-picture postcard is not only a ticket to a new destination... but allows you to connect with a fellow normie
The crappiness of both gimmicks is what really got me going. Each blurry motion picture-postcard is not only a ticket to a new destination - literally anywhere would have made for light relief in the pits of lockdown - but allows you to connect with a fellow normie and to see it from their humble perspective. The bang-average cherry on top of the unremarkable cake? The quite frankly archaic web design, the type that makes you nostalgic for a time when things were just a little more, well, normal.
In the physical world too, nostalgia has held us in a choke-hold. Not only have people feasted on "blitz spirit" by clapping from their windows for those on the "front line", but small businesses such as Earl of East, known by discerning Londoners for pouring candles that smell as good as they look, have tapped into our desire for the everyday, no matter how objectively gross or unglamorous that might be.
Earl of East's Scents of Normality Collection | Photos by Earl of East
Sticky carpet, cheap rosé, recirculated air; those are just a few of the notes that take centre-stage in Earl of East's Scents of Normality collection, an olfactory ode to the pub, the cinema and the festival - the linchpins of our social calendars that we didn't realise we'd miss so much.
"Scent has a unique way of conjuring memories and transporting us to places we'd love to be," says Paul Firmin, one of the brand's co-founders. "Our core range of scented candles are all inspired by travel. While we can still dream about these far-flung destinations, we found that during lockdown it was the places closer to home that we missed the most."
"Using fragrance to conjure up feelings of nostalgia has never been so important and it's been great to see this project spark joy in other people."
Time for an interjection, if I may: what exactly does normal mean? Before lockdown, it meant boring at best and ignorant at worst. Now, normality is a luxury. Normal is popping out for lunch, hopping on public transport, muttering "cheers, mate" to the bartender before hobbling back to your table with a beer and, as Earl of East has so masterfully conjured, the palimpsest of spilt drinks that makes that wonderful tapestry of human interaction often referred to as "sticky carpet". It's about people.
There's no shortage of studies to show that we're social creatures who thrive on human interaction and, since lockdown, the psychological ache of human isolation has taken its toll. In a world paralysed by paranoia - one in which hotels and homestays have become tarnished with the corona-brush - some platforms such as Human Hotel are resisting the mainstream and encouraging people to physically and figuratively lean into new friendships.
Human Hotel isn't about fumbling about in a safe box for a front door key and dodging your host as much as possible; it's all about hooking sociable travellers up with welcoming hosts and laying the foundations for solid relationships. The business has been going for close to a decade, but this year it feels undeniably, deliciously punk.
It all started in 2009, when thousands of activists eager to lobby the UN's COP15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen tried to find lodgings en masse, explains Sixten Kai Nielsen, one of Human Hotel's co-founders. "This was the days before Airbnb and there was no easy way to rent rooms from locals," he says. "Camping or tenting was out of the question - it was a freezing Scandinavian December."
Human Hotel hosts, Alexander Chernousov and Daria Infante | Photos by Maria Ionova-Gribinа
Stuck for resources and with the convention looming, Sixten approached the City of Copenhagen and proposed a plan to match visiting activists with local Copenhageners.
"The project became our proof of concept. While the politicians failed to find a solution at the climate summit, we helped 3,000 activists find free housing. The kindness and generosity of thousands of hosts was overwhelming. Thousands of new friendships were formed. Unexpected collaborations were launched."
Human Hotel is normadism at its best; it's how Airbnb was originally, before "Airbnb host" became an unofficial occupation in itself. Checking in to the Human Hotel, so to speak, means seeing a city from your host's unfiltered, everyday perspective. To the locked-down denizens of 2020 the whole concept could be perceived as a tad problematic, but Sixten sees an appetite for Human Hotel beyond the pandemic.
The kindness and generosity of thousands of hosts was overwhelming. Thousands of new friendships were formed.Sixten Kai Nielsen, Human Hotel
"At a time when homelessness is on the rise in major cities around the world, 30 per cent of Airbnb listings are owned by people with more than 25 properties," Kai points out. "That isn't homesharing, it's home hoarding. Travel should be about people instead of profit, it should enrich both the travellers and the places they visit, and it shouldn't destroy our planet."
Sixten's observations are pertinent. As our worlds have shrunk, so too have our expectations. The planet, our wallets and our general sense of wellbeing have all to gain from us cutting back on those "wow" experiences and cherishing the little things. At the core of normadism is the idea that travel isn't about schlepping to and fro; it's about introducing a change of pace, wherever you may be. For the socially starved, that means returning to those harbingers of normality that transport you to a happier time.
Wanderlust ain't what it used to be - and that's not a bad thing.