This has been a season of journeys. On the most recent trip, uncharacteristically early and unwilling to relinquish my freedom and succumb to the confines of the airport until the last possible moment, I found myself an unlikely travel companion in a young starling, feathers iridescent oily black, who had made his home at a motorway service station just off the M11 and seemed intrigued to find another living being braving the thin March sunshine and willing to share her crumbs.
He – for surely only a teenage boy could be so hungry and so blatantly willing to break all the rules of avian society by communing with humans in such a distinctly unglamourous setting, eyed me with a sideways glance and an honest direct expression.
The minutes spent with this unlikely companion were as much a memorable part of the journey as the more obvious wonder at ancient sites that followed and whilst at the beginning of this post I intended to create a travelogue of the country, on reflection maybe the very concept of travel would be a better subject.
The word travel originated in the 14th century from the Middle English travailen, travelen – to torment, labor, strive, journey and earlier from Old French travailler – to work strenuously or toil. If this all sounds somewhat exhausting, the etymology of “journey” is perhaps even more so, being derived from the Old French jornee – meaning a day’s travel, a day’s work.
In the world in which I live, time is such a precious commodity that the “mini break” is becoming the norm – micro adventures snatched between working days. I find myself longing for the “Grand Tour” of earlier times – the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means, or those of more humble origin who could find a sponsor a custom which flourished from about 1660 until the advent of large-scale rail transport in Victorian times, or perhaps even a road trip a la Thelma and Louise, with no fixed destination in mind, an open ended journey of discovery. Given neither of these are likely to happen in the next little while, my nomadic instincts need to be satisfied by more structured journeys, often involving hours of monotonous “transfers”, departure lounge dead time and inevitably beginning and ending with a 45 minute ferry journey.
Mention the ferry to us Island Dwellers, and the response will be, at best, grumpy murmurings of discontent. In reality it’s not a bad commute: 45 minutes that allow for some peace, a view of the ocean, time to regroup before launching on to the hectic race track of South Coast traffic. I’m often alone on the outside deck in the chill of early morning, looking down last summer on scores of barrell jellyfish, opalescent in the dark water and on this occasion, watching the sinking of the sun to the West of The Island, tustled dark clouds opening to stained glass red light, the ferry’s wake stretching lazily behind on a calm sea.
The key, of course, is to make the “dead time” come alive, with curiosity and open eyes. With luck, travelling may become a noble excuse – if one was needed – for taking time. 36,000 feet above Africa, there’s no pressure to type rapidly, to press the publish button – in fact this is the first entry of this blog (I feel loath to use that word – it sounds so clumsy and the very antithesis of what I aim to create), that has been hand crafted so to speak, writing as I am in pencil, graphite gliding smoothly over white vellum in a black backed notebook balanced on raised knees. The paper is already scarred with the lines of my crossings out and gaps stutter across the text where the right word seems unwilling to form, lines spreading haphazardly and slanting precariously close to the edge of the page.
I wonder what a difference this picking up of pencil will make to the writing – whether the need to slow down will bring more meaning, a more deliberate and considered tone perhaps, or whether the easy movement of the not quite sharp lead, will imbibe the work with more elegance and flow than my usual offering, hastily typed and edited on my ancient, battle scarred Macbook. Already the urge to create and complete that seems to habitually accompany my writing seems to have eased – there’s none of the relentless forward drive.
Semi awake in the darkness of a windowless airport hotel room the previous evening, I had wondered at the seamless way we’ve been accustomed to moving around the world – from climate controlled car, along mechanical walkways which funnel human traffic like sheep up a dipping race, through the consumer haven of the departure lounge where hawkers line the aisle, eagled eyed and eager as the Moroccan souk traders and my Starling friend, senses honed to detect a flicker of interest which they might convert into an impulsive and expensive purchase – or a tiny scrap of bread. The final conveyance leads through air conditioned walkways and a linked gangway until almost miraculously we file on board the waiting plane as ground staff below swarm to complete the hasty turnaround and cabin crew battle to cram oversized hand luggage into impossibly small overhead lockers.
A delay as a handful of passengers who checked in their luggage an hour previously, inexplicably failed to make it as far as the plane, gave me time to pore over the Easy Jet map of Europe and to marvel at my lack of Geographical knowledge – not enhanced by blank areas suggestive of countries that simply didn’t exist – at least as far as the airline was concerned, since they don’t fly there (yet). This makes me smile and I try hard to stop myself from bursting into maniacal laughter and frightening my travel companion, an elderly African lady forced somewhat close to me in unatural intimacy by the scale of the economy flight cabin and her ample sari clad frame.
Air travel seems to bring with it a certain lack of coherence in being flung with maximum time efficiency from one fixed point to another. In the rare moments when the schedule allows it, I relish the slow journey, gentle unplanned meandering through countries, that allow them to speak their own stories and helps me as a foreigner, find my own pace, place and rhythm. One day, in a life yet to come, I will wander the world gently with wide open eyes and allow it to show itself to me.