1. Eurostar

"To change scenery; to abandon London and England and set out across Europe, like a pilgrim or palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight!  All of a sudden this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do."

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts



Soon we will be rent from the bosom of Europe and before time's unwinnable referendum rents me from the bosom of my relative youth, I've decided - to quote Peter, Bjorn and John's Amsterdam - to put a little money into travelling. But while the subject of that luscious hymn to mild wanderlust spent 'four, five days by the big canal', I will spend 10 weeks by (and often nowhere near) canals, and other bodies of water, big, small and of volumes in between.

I’m writing au Eurostar. ‘Au’? ‘En’? I never properly grasped the intricacies of French prepositions at school; perhaps this trip will occasion an improvement in my grasp of the Romance languages, or perhaps, more likely, I’ll just slip through Paris, and the rest of Europe, like a Euro coin through the slick inner workings of a major train station toilet turnstile, gaining no technical knowledge whatsoever, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, accruing a little if not worldly-wisdom then at least, perhaps , some... continental poise.

In the carriage around me Baby-boomer Brits snooze and do puzzles. Children find solace in device-mediated content. Some business-people in business-wear do a bit of business on laptops. A pair of kiwi mother-and-young-daughter combos talk excitedly about their Parisian Airbnb. I smile as I enjoy a couple of Cans for Corbyn and write my post.

We’re underground now, maybe even undersea, and the blackness of the tunnel reflects the carriage back at itself with a dim sheen. In the toilet there is a winking Mona Lisa. ‘La Joconde. La Loo-Vra’ Vachement drĂ´le!

This undertaking - inter-railing basically - is something an eighteen year old might do. Or Dobby in Peep Show (although she never actually went inter-railing as far we know – Mark wasn’t up for it, and also I forget whether it was meant to be a bit of a joke that she wanted to go inter-railing as a grown woman, or whether we were meant to take it as an actually quite cool aspiration that Mark (that interminable dork!) lacked the derring-do for). Point is, I feel it necessary to justify this enterprise somehow, perhaps even to myself, and this blog (which in itself feels a fairly naff thing to be doing: ‘writing a blog’, again like an 18 year-old, or someone’s uncle) will be the medium for my summer-long self-exoneration.

I forget now, when the idea was conceived. Perhaps it was, in part, a symptom, or an effect, of that kind of frustration that must be familiar to many people of my age and station: years go by, your bank balance ebbs and flows a little, but never to an extent that makes all the projects that one’s very late twenties were rumoured to be designed for seem any less impossible. Leave all that – houses and babies and forward-planning - to the more bloody-minded of your school pals, and the luckier of the uni lot. A couple of years go by and nothing much changes and then one day, after ploughing your bittersweet freelance furrow for a while, you’ve got a few grand in the bank and a mortgage deposit is still light years away and you think fuck it, why not go round Europe on your own for 10 weeks, and stay in Airbnbs and eat in Trip Advisor recommended restaurants and see a few paintings and towers and things and drink a few half lagers in the town squares as you find out how all your old anxieties and pre-occupations stand up across a fairly narrow span of time zones and climates? Who knows, perhaps there’ll even be time for an epiphany or two along the way.

So there was a touch of impetuousness about the decision to go, although I appreciate, to a contingent amongst my generational peers, an elongated train journey round the major European cities will seem about as adventurous as a trip to Whole Foods, but I’m pretty unworldly is the thing. I was meant to go round South East Asia for a bit a couple of years ago, with the flights being paid for by an Australian arts festival I was due to perform at, but then I broke my heels after falling off my house and I had to cancel the trip. So call me Eurocentric or just a meek little div but when the opportunity to travel came round again it felt remiss to venture to less familiar climes without first having seen my native continent - like drinking rum and then moving onto beer, or a less annoyingly sub-Hemmingway-ish simile. The other six continents will always be there (various geopolitical threats notwithstanding) and if I carry on in my current fitful financial vein there’ll be a few more a few grands to throw at them and, meanwhile, no mortgage or children or grandly designed future to dissuade me from doing so.

And then of course there was Brexit… ‘I must’ I internally exclaimed ‘see the continent before the Will of the British People is implemented and it becomes a tiny bit harder for even middle class white British men with a bit of disposal income to waft around the Schengen area! Now where’s my ironic Hawaiian shirt!

With the idea resolved I became obsessed with certain forebears in this kind of travel – Leigh Fermor, Laurie Lee, George Orwell. All men, boringly. Recommendations for women who’ve written about mooching about in Europe very welcome. And, of course, they all made their way may years ago, and all (to varying degrees) in a tramping tradition by which middle class observers could experience working class life first-hand. A tradition, which, owing to social, economic and infrastructural changes is, all but over. Poverty, homelessness, itinerant labour all persist but the plausibility of rustically-appealing (and perhaps voyeuristic) immersion in alternative forms of European existence, available to those dead old males, does not.

How sterile and over-organised my comprehensively-insured, digitally-supported foray across the corporate-owned continental sharing economy must seem to the ghosts of the lonely wanderers of old. And, let it be said, to certain of my braver and more selfless living contemporaries.  A stay in Thessaloniki might afford an opportunity to volunteer at a refugee camp, but, for the most part, it will take effort to see beyond the narrow contours of tourist Europe, (metropolitan liberal elite Europe we might call it), all the while avoiding the Charybdian dangers that my mother, even as I approach my 30th birthday, still feels it necessary to warn me against.

And really my telos here is not reckless or even really very hedonistic (forever ago now seem the Amsterdam mini-breaks of my early 20s). Here I seek edification - cultural, social, perhaps even political. Though maybe my timing is bad; I consign myself to ten weeks on a continent sliding into extreme centrism just as my homeland reaches the brink of socialist revolution. Perhaps if an election is called I'll come home, but for now here I am.

May my day-old Guardians bring the spirit of radicalism to the terraces of the cheaper Parisian Bistros; may my illiterate smile give Post-Brexit succour to Spanish taxi drivers; may I find life-changing days on a budget in Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and beyond; and may I not suffer some creeping two-month panic attack across a series of indistinguishable town squares under sterile tourist skies.

And just quickly: I do appreciate my good fortune in being able to do this. And I will make sure to enjoy myself. It is my last intention for the import of this blog to be ‘I went on holiday for 10 weeks and I didn’t even like it that much’.

Until Paris.