WE’RE at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road in Dublin 8. Me and my three-year-old daughter, Sabela.
tall man in his early 60s waits opposite us, also waiting to cross. He wears a navy blue coat. Sabela points at him and announces excitedly: “Look! It’s Abuelo! (grandad)”.
Tears suddenly blur this weirdly familiar stranger in my eyes. Something shrinks inside my chest, as if a muscle has been pulled.
This, of course, is not Abuelo. This is a man going about his own business, maybe even missing his own grandchild. This is Dublin, not Viveiro, the town on the North coast of Galicia where I was born and where most of my family still lives.
I explain to my daughter that, although he might look like Abuelo, it can’t be him. By the time the man passes, she realises this herself. Silly Billy!
She then asks if we can go to the airport. She wants to go to her Abuelo and Abuela’s house. Unfortunately that’s not possible at the moment, I tell her.
It’s a daily question for our three-year-old.
Through months of lockdown, I’ve thought about this man many times. My mind has also been tricked by other men of similar height to my Dad, or similar walking rhythms, coats or hairstyles… several times, as I wandered our 2km, 20km and 5km radiuses.
I found myself like in that Villagers song, ‘Becoming a Jackal’ – a dreamer, staring at windows, feeling a pang of jealousy as the country slowly reopened last summer and kids got to see their grandparents, even through panes of glass.
For the sake of full disclosure, I work in the travel industry here in Ireland. Now is not the time for holidays or non-essential trips, but of course I dream of the day when we are able to explore and visit new places and countries, roaming mask-free again.
When we travelled carefree, we didn’t fully appreciate the luxury of it.
At the moment, however, l just long for my daughter to see her Abuelo and Abuela in Galicia again. That, and to stop staring at randomers’ windows.
There are an estimated 644,400 people like me living in Ireland – people who were born outside the country, according to CSO estimates for 2020. That’s 12.9pc of the population. Yet over the last year of lockdowns and travel restrictions, we have been rarely mentioned in the travel debate.
Just like many Irish living abroad, our homesickness has been at times unbearable. Countless flights were cancelled, plans scrapped, heads kept down. We waited it out. We couldn’t even see our loved ones through panes of glass.
With prospects of international travel becoming slimmer again, this feeling has become a daily struggle. Of course, we realise public health must come first, and my heartache is not comparable to the pain of those who have lost loved ones.
But our separation is nevertheless a constant sadness.
I first moved to Ireland in 2001 with two friends from college. It was a bit of an adventure – I wanted to practise English and thought it would be done and dusted within a few months. My 20-year-old self wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told her she would still be here 20 years later. But I stayed on, meeting some of my best friends (as well as my husband), and have remained since.
In that distant pre-Covid world, we used to travel to Galicia at least a couple of times a year, to spend time with my family, my oldest friends and their children, enjoying simple daily routines like going to the food market, meeting for a morning coffee or spending the afternoon at the beach.
Since Sabela was born, establishing a sense of belonging and emotional connection with her Galician side has been a personal mission of mine.
Travel is not just about holidays. It is also a necessity for so many of us living on this great little island at the edge of Europe – to check on parents and grandparents, to play with our nieces, to still be part of our home of origin and keep mother tongues alive in our children.
Yet now, it feels like travel has become a dirty word. As if boarding a plane is only meant as a luxury, that trips overseas are only about sunny Insta stories posted from the beach, or wealthy retirees sipping sangria in the Costas.
The conversation around travel has become a binary one – unpatriotic sun holidays versus wholesome staycations. There is no space for inbetweens.
For immigrants and emigrants, travel is something else, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a luxury.
We know we can’t travel yet, but how we long for the day when that man we meet across the street is not a stranger, but Abuelo himself.