I have a cold, which I’m pleased about. I could hardly say I’d made the most of my tour, coming back to London and not a vessel for a fresh batch of euro-germs, ready to be unleashed upon my unsuspecting friends during the mandatory round of homecoming hugs. I’ve paced it pretty well though, managing to remain healthy for the majority of the trip, before stepping up the demands on my immune system in the final couple of weeks through a disciplined regimen of well-earned bad self-care. So, just as the last few days have, logistically speaking, entailed an especial level of focus during a prolonged, foggy and mucus-clogged marathon of coaches, trains, admin and dutiful sight-seeing, this last post requires me to just get my head down and slog it out.
I’m not yet actually on the Eurostar. I’m in the waiting area. I’ll still be writing when I’m on the train and, for something like purity or circularity’s sake, I want to be done (mandatory tidying up notwithstanding) before I get off it. Plus I want at least an hour to sit back and listen to the New War on Drugs album and maybe look through my camera roll and really just reflect, you know. So that gives me maybe two hours of typing time to round things off and try and express something, if not epiphanic then at least worthwhile.
I suppose the thing to do is to answer some of the questions, actual and implied of that first post, asked all those weeks ago in this mystical, sub-channel womb-space.
One question explicitly posed concerned whether I would gain a better grasp of the Romance languages. Strangely enough, my Paris Airbnb host, to whose mild bosom I returned, 10 weeks after my initial visit at the commencement of the tour, remarked that my French had gotten better since she last spoke to me! This was immensely flattering given that I hadn’t spoken any French in the interim. I swagged it out, telling her I wished us to communicate only in French for the rest of my stay. Then, a little while later, I mixed up the words for lunch and dinner and she spoke to me only in English from then on.
Another question: ‘would I pass through Europe as smoothly as a Euro coin through the slick inner workings of a train station toilet turnstile?’ Well, forgive the labouredness of the simile and let me tell you: yes, it was a piece of piss. That’s not, though, to say it wasn’t worthwhile, thrilling - I’ll say it - life-affirming. But, in the main, I followed the roads most travelled, recommended, infrastructurally supported by. I didn’t get anywhere near emulating the wild passage of Orwell, Leigh Fermor et al and I rarely felt - to borrow a term from James Buzard’s ‘The Beaten Track’, the 60 euro book I skim read in Madrid – much like an ‘anti-tourist’.
It’s my last intention to become the kind of louche perma-traveller, reliably found in the hipper hostel bars of any given major city, lounging in nonsensical apparel, rolling eyes at the very suggestion of going to a popular museum, and drawling, in a geographically transcendental accent, about how Cambodia is just not chill anymore. I only intend to suggest that ‘getting off the beaten track’ might require me to be more adventurous, more spontaneous next time.
Another question related to how ‘my old anxieties’ would stand up across some different environments, and the answer is two-fold:
On the one hand, they’ve persisted. Along the way, I’ve felt lonely, at times: angry, jealous, rejected, pessimistic and fearful. Just like in London. It’s strangely reassuring to discover your proclivity for emotional strife remains pretty consistent, whatever the longitude.
BUT, that said…they’ve, in some ways, diminished. This might just be the jouissance of my wanderlust talking. And in fact I’ll stop and caveat what I’m about to express by adapting a claim my friend M. made just before I departed: it’s pretty normal to feel, perhaps delusionally, optimistic about your life before you go away because you haven’t really got to deal with it for a while; I’ve not yet returned to the trenches of adult existence, of cold, wet, dark, London days, of whole weeks passed without sunshine or fifteen euro meals or 3 euro pints, or conversation unanchored from the tedium of domestic or working life.
However, reading back over my early posts now, I wonder what the hell I was getting so worked up about a lot of the time. What the hell have I been getting so worked up about all my life? Wouldn’t it be funny if the main outcome of this trip was the vindication of those people who’ve been kind/cruel enough to offer criticism of my creative output these last few years on the grounds that it’s excessively self-pitying, pessimistic, angry and whatever else? It might put me out of a job. But then, I’d be fine with that. For, I have now some new and deep conviction that everything will be more or less okay (consider my privilege comprehensively checked here). It’s as if the relative ease with which I’ve processed this summer has convinced me that (my) life is less hard than I’ve hitherto suspected, and the splendour of what’s been seen along the way that it’s much richer, much more valuable than I ever dared speculate.
I’ll scrutinise it no further, this new equanimity of mine, lest it collapse like a vainglorious empire.
It’s not like I’ve expanded my horizons really. The true horrors of contemporary Europe remain as digital-only as they would have if I’d just stayed in London. But the raw details - the number of people being allowed to drown in the Mediterranean; the index of inequality in Macedonia; the reduction in Spanish harvests due to climate change; the electoral turnout for the AfD in Germany and its implied effects – well, pat point, but they all help me prevent my anxieties - over e.g. having to find, six years after bidding a hubristic goodbye to conventional employment, a temp job to put myself back on an even financial keel - from spiralling into actual self-pity.
THAT said, I’m also not trying depict anxiety as a silly delusion you can just shrug off by reading one Guardian article about real suffering. As if managing to get on lots of coaches has made me realise all panic attacks are a fantasy. I know weeks from now, when the trees are stripped and the afternoons are dark and some as yet undreamt of horror is being bombastically mediated all around, I’ll be as susceptible as I ever was. So, in the end, I don’t know what I’m saying really. Nothing, I suppose.
And, really, wouldn't the best way to convey a new-found inner peace be to offer an impressionistic description of the English sky, now visible and dimming, through the window of the hurrying train, rather than spending ages trying to explain the exact nature of said internal state while simultaneously questioning its validity? Yes. Mea culpa. Mea culpa, once again.
Isn’t is stupid that I’ve spent the entire final post discussing the developments in my own mind and not those in Europe? The biggest implied question of that first post was, surely: what about Europe then? And that is a big question. An obtusely phrased one too. And a hard one to answer. I’d like to tell you it, i.e. Europe, will survive. Survive and prosper. But don’t hold me to that.
Now the sky shows in every colour a sky can and it calls back to the literally hundreds of paintings of evening skies I’ve seen these last 10 weeks. Sunlight courses through the clouds like mountain water through ancient rocks. We’re pulling into Ebbsfleet and the conductor is explaining a few things in French over the PA. The War of Drugs new album has reached its final track.
“I'm at the sea, and I can hear the trains
Winds of change, so new”
I’m listening to these lyrics and in my mind I’m going: ‘I’M on a train !! I’M quite near the sea!! I’M particularly given to applying classic meteorological metaphors to my apprehension of coming change, personal and global!’
In Flims, Switzerland, as I sat with my friends by the side of a glistening lake, a late middle-aged couple approached us with their severely autistic adult son. They were friends of my friend’s parents, who owned the apartment we were staying in. We chatted for a while and they caught up with my pal and told us about a forthcoming documentary about their son’s band. Before they went off to swim we shared some observations about the general beauty of the scene and the boy’s mother said: ‘you’ll think of this, when it’s cold and dark in England’.
Yes, I will. And a hundred other scenes besides: the evening romance of Parc de Bercy, Paris; the sultriness of afternoons in Toledo, city of three cultures; impossible sunsets in the Aegean; the hallucinatory steadiness of U-Bahn trains, mocking the old bifurcations of Berlin; the Danube; the Rhine; the North Sea and northern weekenders bearing down on Amsterdam; cool late-summer dusks of Edinburgh – all elements of a strange continent, which, in all its sickness, still yields wonders, like unexpected beauty in a fever dream. Maybe I’m getting carried away.
I edge towards London. Tired. Full of cold. But equanimous. Very equanimous. Equanimous like never before.