Kate is a friend, former travel companion, and the 2010-2011 Mary Elvira Stevens fellow. She has been traveling, primarily on buses and trains, from Central America to Patagonia for the last 9 months. She’s a writer and you can read about her trip here.
I’m writing this from blustery, busy, gray London. People seem tired, they wear black, and I’ve never seen so many men in suits. Men and women rush through the aisles of the grocery store bumping into each other, barely acknowledging that they’ve jammed the plastic edge of their shopping basket into another person. There are so many vending machines and fast food restaurants. With the exception of Spain, this is the first time in three months that I can understand the conversations around me. Last night I sat alone at a restaurant, trying to write in my notebook, but instead eavesdropped on a conversation behind me between two young men, probably just a few years younger than us. Their conversation was full of British terms and slang—“I reckon,” “brilliant,” “I’m taking the piss out of you.” I tried to stop listening, but I couldn’t. One of them was in love with an American who lived in Boston. He explained to his friend that Boston is a great place to meet women, a town full of college girls. This made me smile.
I miss all the other countries I traveled through this summer. Places where I sweat, slept outside in my tent, spent days alone, and got lost. Places that are a part of me now. You asked me if I’m homesick and I’m not. I’m not sure why. Europe is vastly more developed, clean, and less foreign than most of the places I’ve traveled to in the past. There isn’t such a clear divide between belonging and not belonging because I can pass as a European. Remember the Bandu Market by my house in Chaing Rai? The Bandu vendors knew us, and they liked us, but we were always the farang to them, even after months of living there. Walking past all the stalls, absorbing the bustling, positive energy of the market was always the best cure for my homesickness in Thailand. I spent so much time at that market. There was always something new to look at. I liked the steam from the noodle broth, I liked the swarms of bees that would gather around the freshly cut bags of pineapples and mangos, and I even liked how the butchers would gut pigs in front of their stalls. Delicate, young Thai girls—unfazed by the gamey smell of raw flesh on a hot day—would walk right past the pale carcasses hanging by their feet. Eventually, I also was unfazed. I once was stung by a bee while I was at the market and an old lady ushered me into her knick-knack stall and rubbed Tiger Balm all over the red welt that had quickly formed. The Bandu Market was how I escaped in Thailand, but I could never really disappear because I was always the farang. I always stuck out.
I’ve spent countless hours biking through cities on this trip. A part of me fades into the city when I’m on my bike. I become part of the constant flow of traffic and movement. Watching street life and weaving around cars and buses that are stuck in traffic has become a strange form of urban meditation to me. My city biking excursions, like my trips to the Bandu Market, are usually born out of a need for something, like floss. But, it’s really just a pretense. The floss is just an excuse to get on my bike again. Getting floss today took me several hours because I biked past dozens of convenience stores and pharmacies—and crossed the Thames on four different bridges—before I actually stopped to make my purchase. There was so much to see. I know I should go to the museums, but all I want to do is ride down the streets. When I finally stuffed the mint floss into my pannier I thought about how buying a piece of fruit at the Bandu Market would sometimes take me 45 minutes because I would stop and explore every stall. Is this what Mary Elvira Stevens meant when she stipulated that fellows should have a “deep love of beauty?” Has traveling alone impaired your time management skills?
I like trying to learn how to get around a new city without constantly relying on my map. I start small and learn the neighborhoods surrounding the place I’m staying. Then I venture to new points and eventually I’ve created a web of routes taking me to different points. It’s like memorizing a poem. You learn it line by line and then eventually you’re able to recite the entire poem. Paris is the city I became the most familiar with. I spent entire days looping and cutting across the city exploring every neighborhood I could: the expensive neighborhoods where people wore $400 sunglasses and drank champagne in brasseries; the touristy parts of town where grumpy teenagers rolled their eyes as parents read aloud from travel guides; and the seedy outskirts of the city where buildings were vacant, windows were broken, and prostitutes stood on street corners.
Saturday was my metaphorical poetry recital. It was one of those horrible days of traveling. You know them all too well, I’m sure. I realized when I was five trains into my trip from southern Switzerland to the UK that my transfer in Paris wasn’t going to be as smooth as I thought. The train I was on took me to Gare de Lyon and the next train left from Gare de Nord. The two train stations are only about five kilometers apart, but I only had an hour. I couldn’t get lost. I got off the train, gave myself a few minutes to visualize the city in my head, and decided I felt confident about the general direction I needed to go in. I could have asked for a tourist map at the train station, but I liked the suspense of relying on my memory. I wanted all that biking in July to be worth something. I wanted to feel like an insider. When I first realized that I was going to need to bike between the two stations I was irritated, but as I started biking a wave of nostalgia hit me. I thought about the carefree days Sean and I spent together in Paris. I thought about how alone I felt after he left. I thought about how I got dressed up on the morning of my 27th birthday, determined not to be sad that I was spending the day by myself. I thought about how the nice Parisian guy I sat down next to in the park, Olivier, ended up asking me out on a date. He wasn’t even close to my type, but he spoke English, he was sweet, and I think some higher power didn’t want me to eat dinner alone on my birthday. I thought about how late I’d stay up while I was in Paris—writing short stories that no one will ever read, researching bike politics, and drinking coffee.
Brown, dry leaves were cluttering the Paris bike paths on Saturday. It was hot, but it smelled like fall was coming. I reminded myself that it could be years before I’m back in Paris. “Soak it up,” I told myself. I ended up asking a friendly-looking couple if I was going in the right direction and they said yes, that I wasn’t too far away from Gare de Nord. I still felt good about my navigation and told myself I would have made it without asking them. I guess I don’t have the Paris streets totally memorized yet. I ended up having time to stop at a fruit stand a few blocks from the train station to eat a juicy nectarine.
I got on my second to last train and sat next to a college kid. His girlfriend stood on the platform smoking a cigarette, looking like she was on the verge of crying. When the train was about to depart they each pressed a hand against the thick glass window and were staring even more intently and longingly at each other. The scene seemed so French. A little too dramatic, perhaps, and yet I couldn’t help thinking about how many times I’ve started crying during goodbyes in driveways and at airports. Goodbyes make us face the rigid laws of physical distance. We abruptly become aware of the things phone calls and e-mail messages will never be able to transmit—like how the smell of the people we love makes us feel calm and safe.
I think of you often, Kate. Thinking of you reminds me to let myself be reckless sometimes. Just a little bit reckless. It’s easiest, when you’re a woman traveling alone, not to trust anyone. When I start to feel this way I think about how you trusted people when we were traveling together and how it’s the people you meet along the way that make your experiences so rich.
I finally got off the seventh and final train of my journey on Saturday in a small working-class town in northern France called Calais where there was a ferry to Dover. A pack of guys pulled up to me while I was riding to the ferry terminal and started yelling things—obviously inappropriate things—at me in French. I didn’t look at them and kept biking, wishing I had worn pants instead of a dress. It made me feel vulnerable and scared. The ferry terminal was a concrete maze full of 18-wheelers and hundreds of cars. I felt exposed on my bike, like I didn’t belong anywhere. A ferry attendant told me to get in the long line with all the cars to go through boarder control. I got in line and then another attendant came over about five minutes later and told me I could cut to the front. I was glad. I was getting cold and breathing the exhaust from the cars was making me feel lightheaded. I pulled up to the border control window and I could tell the agent didn’t like me even before I said anything. I handed her my passport and she asked me a few questions. I told her I was going to London for about a week and then would be biking up the east coast. I would be camping, staying with friends, figuring it out as I went. She looked incredulous and said in a thick British accent, “what you’re doing is very peculiar.” She told me several more times how strange it was that I was entering the country on a bike and asked me when I would be leaving the UK. I told her I wasn’t sure yet. She told me I needed to go inside the customs office and speak with one of her supervisors. Her supervisor was a healthy-looking, middle-aged guy who asked me all the same questions she did. I told him about my fellowship and what I had been doing over the summer. I said I didn’t know when I was leaving the UK because I hadn’t quite figured out the next phase of my trip. I made a joke that I was of Scottish decent, even took Scottish dancing lessons as a kid, and was expecting a warmer welcome. He laughed. He asked if he could see my bike and we went outside together and he looked at it. He told me he was a biker too and apologized for his colleague. He said she must have misunderstood something. Then he told me, sincerely, to be careful. “People drive like mad here,” he said.
The ferry was delayed. I put on several more layers, leaned against the brick wall of the dingy ferry terminal snack bar, and tried to read. I felt unsettled. I was happy when a man with a bike walked up to me. We chatted for a little while about biking—he reminded me of my friend Dana’s dad. When we finally boarded the ferry he suggested that we lock our bikes together since there was nothing else to lock them to. We sat next to each other on the ferry and he told me about his daughter who was at a private all-girls school in New York. I could tell he missed her. He had just come back from a three week trip with her to look at colleges. She didn’t want to go to Wellesley.
I told him I was going to stay in Dover and he looked concerned. He told me Dover wasn’t the safest place. A British couple I met earlier in the day on a train had insinuated the same thing. “It’s very industrial,” they said politely—not wanting to throw a wrench in my plans. The truth was that I was thinking about camping there. I’d found a campsite online the night before. I learned about the cliffs of Dover in a geology class at Wellesley and thought it might be a nice place to spend a day. It was dark now and I was exhausted. The man, Geert, said he could drive me to London if I wanted. I told him my reservations in London were for the next night, but that there would probably be room at the hostel tonight. I decided to trust him and accepted the ride to London. He and a group of friends were planning to do a group ride the next morning along the waterways of London and to a flower market. He invited me and I said I’d like to join.
We arrived at the terminal in Dover and the bright, florescent lights of the ferry boat illuminated the sheets of rain that were coming down from the black sky. I could just barely make out the white cliffs behind the port through the haze of water and fog. Geert and I had to bike about 20 minutes to his car. We both got soaked, but as we were riding he looked back at me and said, “this isn’t so bad, is it?” It wasn’t so bad. We started driving. He told me about how he worked for Accenture for years and how he has his own consulting business now. He gave me some career advice and told me that in life and in work we need to focus on what makes us feel positive. The heater in the car was going full blast and it was just after midnight. The drive to London was over an hour. I started to fall asleep in the car.
Five of us rode together the next morning. A South African couple who are both vets in London, a young woman from New Zealand who works for the New Zealand Trade Commission, Geert, and me. We drank coffee together in the morning at Geert’s house, stopped for a mid-morning snack in Little Venice, and went to Brick Street for a lunch of rich Indian food. We went to Camden Market, the Columbia Flower Market, Kensington, and ended the day back at Geert’s house for more coffee and cookies. They gave me a full tour of London and we all shared a lot of stories with each other about our lives. They are all bike commuters and told me about some of the progress that is being made in London with infrastructure. I didn’t leave Geert’s house to go back to the hostel until almost 7 pm. The fall weather made me feel like I was in Boston. The moon was out and the streets were relatively peaceful because it was Sunday night. Total strangers had been so kind to me. Strangers have been kind to me all across Europe throughout the summer, but I had really been in need of kindness when I met Geert at the ferry terminal. I thought about how it’s important, especially when you’re travelling alone, to be cautious, but it’s also important to allow yourself to trust people. Something about the weekend reminded me of a quote from a book I read when I was 16—Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri . I read the book during a very lonely semester abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico and this quote seemed to help me make sense of why people travel, say goodbye to the people they love, and give up the comforts of home.
“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
I hope you don’t mind that I responded to your e-mail on my blog. I just figured maybe my readership (i.e., my mom) would find our correspondence interesting. I’m sure you’re making Mary proud.