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Crossing contours: The passage of time and the influence of travel

autumn

The path heaped with autumn leaves after a storm.

From the small window of the aeroplane, you could see a defined line, circling the Alps. A line more clear, more smooth than a  contour on a map. While winter has come for the bronze mountains, it has not yet reached the dark green valley.

I see no defined line, but I know that as the seasons change, travelling is changing me.

Outside the apartment, the sky is cold grey and holds a chill. Its blue shades contrast with the warm gold autumn leaves and the red brick of the square tower. Inside I’m warm. The gentle Italian man whose life I am borrowing pours my coffee. We talk about the migration patterns of birds. He comes alive as he talks.

I’m constantly delighted, yet the toll of this onslaught of experiences can’t be ignored. How many miles have I gone? How many welcoming smiles? My mind snuggles in my bed, deep beneath the covers, hiding from the chill. Who is around? What obligations have I today? My determination to have a discipline shrivels up like those autumn leaves that float down from the sky, dragged around by the momentum of the air. Whistled away.

Yet, often I wake early, thrilled to see dawn. There’s an energy that’s warm like the sun which gets into my bones. I want to write or draw before I even rise for breakfast. Everything’s bright and I’m alive.

Boundaries and walls are the art of my mind. Where are they? I want to know.

I’m painting with my questions, drawing in experience. It’s a gale. My hair blows free behind me. I’m living all at once at the excitement of the new – a castle, a trampoline, shellfish. I pull my coat around me tight, bind my scarf around my neck and tug at the worn gloves hiding my fingers. The stillness in uneasy, anxious hours of fares and tickets is taxing too. Back and forth. Weather never stops.

 

Written Modena, November 2016.

 

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Perhaps time to upgrade my travel planning technique

travel planning

Photo of a wall in Warsaw, Poland. On our Eastern Europe trip, the Midget and I did a lot of making it up as we went along.

Some people are meticulous when it comes to planning a holiday.

On taking a suitable map

The first real travelling I did was driving to Sweden with a friend. It wasn’t a long trip. We were gone all in all only three weeks and we took the ferry from Kent to Denmark, so we only had to drive through two countries.

I’d never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And this was a time before blind following of the satellite navigation propped up on the dashboard. Or a phone with worthwhile mobile internet. What we had was a road map – of the whole of Europe – and a guidebook which explained speed limits, keeping your lights on and the importance of having the right number of high visibility vests.

I drove out of the ferry terminal in Denmark, turned left across four lanes of traffic, window wipers screeching, lights on.

A surprising reality of ad hoc navigation

travel planning

“Which way up?”

That first half hour of driving felt comparable to escaping Rome (which involved an emergency switching of drivers just before hitting the Rome ring road). We stopped at a McDonalds for coffee and to breathe.

A few days later, we reached Copenhagen. It felt an impressive feat, driving in, parking, going out for lunch, and then driving out, following the signs for Sweden. Copenhagen on our map was entirely contained in four inches squared. Squinting didn’t help. We drove into Malmo, circled around a bit, found the hostel we were staying at, and parked without nothing much more than an address.

And I’ve got no idea how. In hindsight, blind faith is not a navigational technique I’d advise, but it did somehow work for us.

More miraculously, on the way back, we also drove into Copenhagen, parked in exactly the same parking spot – this is without any idea of which side of the city we were on – and went out for lunch.

On itineraries and spreadsheets

Very soon, I’m going to Portugal with the Grump. I’m getting the impression that the Grump wouldn’t turn up in a foreign city without an adequate map. I’m imagining his luggage being 50% paper print outs of tickets and plans. For me, this is going to be an education.

I wrote an itinerary and made a spreadsheet. I’ve emailed booking confirmations and asked AirBnB hosts for their precise addresses more than 24 hours prior to arrival. This is all new for me. While I’m normally pretty good at booking longer trains and planes in advance, having all the information neatly arranged is somewhat foreign.

It takes some urgency to make me think, where am I going next.

I can be adaptable and accommodating though… I think…

 

[Written mid-March.]

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“Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

prickly pear

When I first saw one of these in a greengrocers, I had no idea what it was.

“When you pick a paw paw or prickly pear.

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

Baloo, The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book

Prickly Pears in Napoli

In a greengrocer’s, in the outskirts of Naples, DeepThought and I had a minor argument about an aubergine. Apparently, I shouldn’t have bought an aubergine; he didn’t like them. But how was I supposed to know when he was busy enjoying having the delights of a fig of India, known to me as a prickly pear, peeled and sliced for him by the smiling young Italian woman behind the counter.

A prickly pear: it’s a fleshy fruit, with largish seeds which like seeded grapes remind you that what you’re eating has a purpose other than tasting sweet. You can eat the seeds. They crunch. These cacti fruits grow prolifically in southern Italy. But don’t just yank one free with your bare hand. This isn’t a fruit that’s smooth like a sweet mandarin, it’s covered in tiny spikes.

We took a couple home with us. Alongside the aubergine. And inevitably, a couple of hours later, (after DeepThought had been surprised by liking aubergine), it was necessary to dig out a pair of tweezers.

prickly pear

If you take off one of the big paddles and plant it in a pot, it grows. And grows. And grows.

Prickly Pears through History

Reading through Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay I discovered that prickly pear plants are the homes of little white cochineal bugs which when crushed make a beautiful red dye. Lipstick red.

The journey of these plants from South America is a story of this dye. A plantation of prickly pears sprung up in Madras as part of a plot by the East India Trading Company to crack the Spanish monopoly and produce the dye themselves. The plants were brought from Kew Gardens and men began dreaming of the riches they would have if only they could get hold of the live bugs. The bugs though had other plans.

Prickly pear cacti were also taken to Australia with the intention to start up a cochineal industry there. Unfortunately, not only did all the bugs die, but the cacti went wild and have since become a prolific spiky weed.

prickly pear

Harvesting tools.

Prickly Pears in Sicily

In Sicily, in the middle of a grey siesta in a break from a storm, I went hunting my own prickly pears. Sicily is a good place for prickly pears, the Sicilian variety is apparently high in all sorts of wonderful vitamins. I didn’t have to hunt very far – I found pink pears on the driveway.

I took with me the prickly pear picker (I lack suitable claws) and a plant pot in which to place my pears. The trick is to place the cup around the pear and then twist. It’s easier said than done. My pears went rolling down the drive.

The next morning, I ate them for breakfast. They taste a bit like watermelon.

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Why I travel but think you shouldn’t

travel

Another square, another equestrian statue. Lyon, France.

The words that feel the least helpful to hear as someone who travels are ‘good luck on finding yourself’, ‘running away from your problems doesn’t help’ or ‘what are you going to do when you get back?’. It kind of assumes you’re going through an identity crisis, got a major emotional problem you can’t face, or you’re having an extended holiday.

If you need to find yourself, your life or the courage to deal with your problems, a foreign country probably isn’t the best place to begin the hunt. If you want to travel for travel’s sake, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

Travelling doesn’t help you to find your place in the ‘real world’

You might be under the unfortunate delusion that travel is somehow a magic path to ‘finding oneself’. Finding oneself is aptly described as discovering who one is and what one wants to do with one’s life.

It doesn’t quite work like that. By travelling you expand who you are, but you do that whenever you face anything new or challenging. Travel is just one source of novelty. It can only stretch who you are in the way you engage with it. It can’t alter the past. As for discovering what you want to do with your life, isn’t it more convenient to discover one of the many options closer to home?

Rather than trying to discover my place in the real world, I’ve given up on it. Giving up is less poetic and doesn’t fit the ‘find yourself’ travel genre, but it comes with less illusion.

Travelling changes people, but so does a new job, a new house or a break-up. Comparatively, travelling seems a rather small agent of change.

Why running away never works

travel

Wall art in Calvi, a small Italian hilltop town.

I’m sitting in row 26, either seat A or F, a window seat. I breathe in the enhanced aeroplane air and tug my beautiful red Indian shawl tight around my body, like a small child. Inside my head, a war is taking place.

I’m supposed to be excited that I’m going home. Home is filled with people who love me, people who are desperately eager for me to return (I hope). Home is full of the familiar – my bed, my clothes, my balding pink teddy bear. It is supposed to be the place I treasure the absolute most.

Once I get back to England, I know I’m going to be fine. Once I feel my mother’s arms around me I’m going to wonder how I could possibly have stayed away from all this love so long. When I see the smiling faces of my friends as we plonk ourselves down in our seats, twisting our bodies towards each other like jigsaw pieces that fit smooth, I’m going to be so grateful to see them.

And yet, high above the clouds, there’s a battle going on in this crumpled body. When you travel to run away, all you do is postpone the inevitable. You’re still you. The enemy is still the enemy. The problem is still a problem. Hurt still hurts.

How to guarantee that you don’t belong where you are

travel

This weed does not belong in the beautifully tended lawn in front of the tower of Pisa.

Travelling can sometimes reduce a painful feeling of alienation by making not-belonging feel expected and normal.

I don’t feel I have to belong wherever I’m travelling. Fitting in doesn’t matter. I can wear summer dresses on a crowded Italian piazza where every other woman under the age of thirty is in skinny jeans. My uniqueness is what entertains people, and as the traveller with hopefully plenty of stories to tell, I can entertain. But even more importantly, you can practice your English with me, you can get your sheep fed by me and your children dragged home from school. I have value.

However, most of the time, when you’re away, you’re alone. There is nobody to disappoint when you’re alone. Nobody who is going to laugh at you. Nobody who is going to ask you awkward questions about your bank balance, your pension or your prospects. There is nobody who knows you. Nobody.

Loneliness. Is it worse to be the valued guest in a foreign tribe, or feel like an alien in your own?

While you’re busy validating your feelings of loneliness by making yourself well and truly alone, the people back home are talking to one another. They’re going to the cinema, going out for birthday meals, they’re hugging and laughing together. They’re giving each other those minute signals that say – I like you being around.

Happiness comes from friendship, not travel

Happiness, according to Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and assuming that you’ve covered your basic survival needs, comes from living in a space of friendship, finding freedom through fulfilling work and giving time to rational analysis and insight so that you understand your anxieties and needs.

Epicurus lived among friends, worked alongside friends, spent time conversing and hypothesising with friends. But Epicurus could do this because his friends wanted to live in a house with him, wanted to work alongside him and wanted to philosophise with him.

If you’ve got friends you can live in close proximity to, meaningful work to do and time to think, lucky you. Don’t waste to much time travelling.

Some of my friends enjoy a somewhat philosophical conversation. Others it makes uncomfortable. Some of my friends don’t mind me staying over a couple of nights on the sofa. Others would prefer that we just have coffee somewhere so they don’t have to worry about the inconvenience of hosting. Some of my friends would be happy to do a small contained project with me, if it didn’t get in the way of their actual jobs and actual lives and all the other things they need to get done.

Home is an unsolvable puzzle; travel is a beautiful illusion

travel

Could be an Italian lake, or it could be in Yorkshire.

I travel because when it comes to getting the volume of interaction I want from friends whilst doing meaningful work I am a failure. As is typical in our modern society, when we left university my friends scattered all over the place to build their own busy lives.

Travel provides an environment where the expectations have changed. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life travelling. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life with them. But for the time you’re there, they’re more than happy to discuss different worries and outlooks with you – your judgement doesn’t scare them. They’re happy to work alongside you and they appreciate your efforts. You’re teaching their children, cleaning their plough, felling their trees, sawing their wood. And for the short time you’re staying there, you’re welcome to a glass of wine, to sprawl out on the sofa, to eat the last slice of cake and join them for a barbeque at their parents.

It’s not ideal, but it is something.

 

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Above the clouds: thoughts on a flight

Flying by Plane

England from the sky.

The flight is full. Demonstrated by the flight attendants’ silent looks at one another as they try to get all the hand-luggage into the overhead compartments. A baby cries. A woman whines about not being able to sit beside her husband. I imagine she’s probably a little afraid of the rush down the runway to a sense defying lift-off and the screech of brakes forty-five minutes later when we hit tarmac again in Dublin.

This flight is so full that my companion is in the next flight. And in a moment of unfairness, is travelling business class.

Seatbelts on and the wheels roll. The baby cries throughout the safety announcement. Although I expect myself to find such a noise annoying, by my sympathy goes to the parents and I can’t fault the babies rationality. It takes a fair amount of social conditioning to think that being flung into the sky in a crowded metal box is a good idea.

My conscience winces at the thought of this flight and the volume of fuel it takes to rise us so high. It’s not like I can blame my actions on being ignorant of global warming. I know I’m dooming the planet to abrupt change. Yet there’s another part of me which feels free in that moment the plane leaves English soil, and with the nervousness of a first date, my heart expands with glee. I’m in the air again.

The shadow of the plane passes over school fields marked out for a game of football. As we pass over a cloud, I’m delighted to see the shadow being magnified on its fluff. Another plane passes below us. I stare so intensely that I no longer notice whether the baby cries.

I follow the roads, and then I see it. There, beyond the winding river, over the railway line, up the hills which I cycle, right at the  junction, is the buildings of the manor house of our landlord, and the tiny terrace of three. Earlier, in that middle house, I woke, ate breakfast and dressed for this adventure.

Magic.

Just in time, for thick cloud is lathered across the land, obscuring it from view. Bright white in the sunlight. Like alpine snow.

The ferocious air conditioning is on full blast.

Height: 6400 meters. Location: Cirencester, then the Cotswolds.

Complimentary orange juice and a packet of crisps.

We skirt the Welsh coast. Below us, the land is a dark, rich green. We’re too far south for it to be ‘my’ Wales, but I stare at the beaches along the coast with fond memories.

Height: 7924 meters. The sky is an amazing blue. The sort of blue that invites you to admire its blueness. Yet it has a gradient, fading towards the cloud line.

And then the deep, dark sea.

My ears pop.

My friend will be in the air by now.

Tarmac approaches.

And we’re down.

 

[From the diary.]

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An English cook in Sicily (and the commotion this entailed)

Sicily Cooking

Ok, this is the neighbours outdoor over, not the actual one I cooked on.

The morning began when I asked where the coffee was – in the fridge duh – and Maria started making tea. That is tea with rosemary, red berries and orange peel.

Maria looked at me, “Candle?”

Being English wasn’t working.

Sicilian Cooking

Ingenious or crazy?

At eight in the morning with my coffee unmade I observed the commotion in silence. What does anyone want a candle for anyway? I figured it was the wrong word, and that the ideal word was lighter. We needed to light the gas to use the hob to heat the hot water for the coffee and this so called tea. Either way I couldn’t help.

It turned out, the candle was for the tea. A lighter was, as I presumed, also required, and found. The kettle boiled. Maria poured the hot water into the teapot and stood it above the tealight – to keep it warm. A jam jar lid went on top because the original lid is missing.

That was breakfast. We worked for a while, until lunch, which Maria forgot, half started and then abandoned with flamboyance. Moving faster than I’d ever seen her move before, Maria instructed me to tell Leonardo to stop working. We were late and… the children. Until this point there had been no prior mention of any children. Missing or otherwise.

I said, “Ok.”

Confused because my instructions had been given in Italian, I went to the workshop where Leonardo looked at me and had the same panic as Maria. He ran out of the house behind her. I’m not sure either of them were wearing shoes.

The children appeared sometime later trailing behind a joyful Maria and a singing Leonardo. We ate. Thankfully. Then Leonardo made them wooden toys out of the scraps of wood that remained from making the Christmas letters.

In a moment of chaos, mid-afternoon, when numerous neighbours appeared, the children disappeared again.

I discover, that due to Maria’s need to be productive, I’m cooking dinner. But I don’t know what dinner is, or when we’re having it. Nor do I know what I’m cooking. Lentils and carrots float around in a pot.

A debate, in Sicillian/Italian/French, followed about how one doesn’t need a fork for soup. With Leonardo shouting from the workshop that Maria had to ask me how to say spoon in Italian. All I could think of was the French, which I started shouting back. At least I now knew I was making soup.

To add to my difficulties, the stove required constant feeding with wood. But hey.

Furthermore, dinner required salt. It was my job to taste the food and add the correct amount of salt. I’m ungenerous with salt at the best of times. I save it for special occasions.

And the ‘sale’ jar was empty.

If it was just dinner, or just the salt, I might managed to remain restrained.

Just as we’re sitting down for dinner, there was a commotion about the ladle. I waved my hands in despair. Some shouting and laughter. Leonardo handed me the ladle and I repeated its name three times.

Everyone laughs because I’m saying the wrong thing again.

I lift my hands in a big Italian gesture.

Now I’ve raised my voice, it’s feeling more Yorkshire.

And I’m like, “What?”

Although tempted to swear, I don’t. This is just what it takes to adapt.

As we sit down for dinner, everyone seems more relaxed. I realise it’s me. And my English restraint is as hard on them as their Italian cresendo.

What’s the most challenging kitchen you’ve ever had to cook in?

 

[Read more about my adventures in Sicily.]

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