Covid testing to enter the USA
If there’s a place to start a journey of thousands of miles it’s not a dormant car park by the North Circular Road at Brent Cross pressed into use as a COVID-19 test centre, but here we are as a family, needing five negative tests the day before our visit to Belize. The nurse assures us we are all fine and I relax, but only four results out of five are emailed through when we get home. After fretful hours pacing, talking, debating replanning the whole trip, the final one pings into my inbox. Coming back from Belize, the swabbing nurse vaguely introduces my nostril to the cotton wool bud and pronounces I am clear of infection. I ask her when she last had someone test positive, preventing them from undertaking their expensive and timely journey home from vacation in this Central American idyll. ‘Been a while.’ she deadpans.
Half term, on a bike in the Yorkshire Dales. The bike is propped up against a drystone wall. I’m resting for a bit on a bench bearing the dedication ‘may I always see green’.
Rotterdam & Amsterdam
June. On an orange bicycle, an increasingly irrelevant distance into riding round the endless warehouses and wharves of Rotterdam’s Europort, with the sun feeling like summer. Water, big ships, trucks, space. Later on, having a drink outside a bar in Amsterdam awaiting an evening departure from Centraal on the night train to Zurich. As the train leaves the old city views immediately fade, the tracks instead shadowing an outdoor terrace filled with young people enjoying the warm evening. In a common theme of the year, my train sat for a little too long outside the station after that.
An Italian waterside
Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, here for the unimaginable luxury of two fresh water swims in the same day. The town sits glamorous and rolling down the hill from the station to the waterside. A small, stony beach is just right for half an hour, looking across the lake to somewhere even more heavenly. From here it’s down, down, down to Milano Centrale and a sweaty walk to the Duomo, astonishing all over again. Somewhere along the line I’ve given up going in to places like this, content to wander and admire from the outside, and avoid the crowds, queues, x-ray machines.
Overland to Hamburg
Aachen, on-board the notorious and ill-fated ICE 15 from Brussels to Cologne. All summer this train has run when it felt like it, which wasn’t often, yet it was a key part of our journey from London to Denmark. Like a parody of itself, our delay in Aachen is first announced as being ten minutes, then 45, then indefinite. We jump off and run down and up stairs to make an alternative, a local train puffing along via Monchengladbach then, eventually reaching Dusseldorf, have two options of late-running trains to Hamburg. Boarding the train we were supposed to be on, we continue north as the Ruhr gives way to the rural flatlands of the north-west, the sun dipping to turn the fields golden. A thread of sunshine leads from there to a happy evening dinner a long way from home. Again, we made it and I am relieved, exhilarated, exhausted.
The jungle in Belize provides an immersion that is immediate, and incredible. From our balcony Winnie points out a toucan. She spots it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. To me it is a revelation. I feel like I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child and to stare for hours at pictures of their colourful beaks at a table at home. Here are two, real, clacking away, looking impossible but also real. I feel lucky to be here and hope this moment never leaves me.The whole world looks like a jungle from the top of a vast, steep-stepped Mayan pyramid.
Late September in the summer with the evening setting over green hills outside the Kydunapark in St Gallen, Switzerland. I’ve come a long way to watch Arsenal, who are having a good season. Not for the first or last time this truncated season I’m not sure if I want to be there. Or rather, once here I’m looking for the door. At half time the Queen died, not long after I decided to head back for my home for the night, talking with some Englishmen who had made Switzerland their home, for reasons I didn’t ask and found in my lack of knowledge envious and unfathomable.
Late into rainy Cork, and getting last orders for something to eat at what still feels like quite an early time, but anyway. I nose around for a few hours feeling as confused as ever about being in Ireland, loving the differences and the similarities and the puzzle of the whole thing.
Istanbul, overwhelming in its wonder and sense of singularity, disappointing in that it’s not still the capital of Byzantium, and that her guardians today don’t seem to want mosaics, littering capitals, old railway stations. I walk for far too long, looking for something. Eventually I see what it might be – the suburban railways emerging from a tunnel outside the Theodosian walls, the night sleeper to Sofia passing Edirne, subtly lit up past midnight.
Walking through Liverpool
Walking back into Liverpool from Anfield. I knew from the map that Everton was a kind of escarpment over the maritime plain, but being here at night offered a lovely view after a fun night in the safe standing Anfield Road end. A timeless place, heavy with legend no matter how many times you might come here and lose. Two home fans whizz by on scooters. I relish every step back to the waterfront, with ghosts for company still pacing along, looking for the streets of gold, the next day following their tracks south.
Swimming in Hamburg
Hot, hot, hot. Hamburg is baking as we stop off here bound for Denmark. There’s a swimming spot right in the heart of the city we aim for, just opening, not too busy. Finding a small patch of shade, we take it in turns in the water. There’s a slide you can swim to and distant view of a grand but unremarkable schloss. It doesn’t feel like home, it’s the reward for our exertions the day before getting here.
Arriving in Rome from Perugia in the rainy darkness. It isn’t cold. Termini is full of life and fast trains. In Rome you can quickly duck back in time, to the preferred Italian era of 1984 or possibly much earlier, when things, you feel, had a flavour of being just so at that point and not really worth moving from. Ambulances wail occasionally, cars and motos rumble over so many cobbles. Walking through Monti the buildings are yellow, red, orange, vast baroque churches appear visibly squatting on top of ancient predecessors, pavements are dead-ended by scooter parks and walls over to what? Then just like that I pop out at Trajan’s column, the forum, that huge Italian reunification memorial, the Tiber, Trastevere. It is wonderful, workaday, the best there is. It keeps raining.
Kapikule at 2am, Europe’s hard edge, a clock already ticking as the queue moves slowly along. It’s dark and locked in time here, 1987, or 1995, or something. Impossible to sleep at the place where Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria meet. The locomotive creeps through the frontier, to Svilengrad, perhaps Bucharest would have been a better choice, perhaps next year. This journey worked for me.
Across the sea
As the fast boat speeds across the Caribbean Sea the water gets bluer and bluer until its a kind of parody of a pirate film. In turn I become a stereotypical holidaymaker, yes I will have another cocktail, blunder getting my family off this boat, fail to tip properly. No matter, even if I still feel bad about the tipping. Caye Caulker is beautiful, the sun is shining, we have made it.
Geneva has a beautiful lake, a lovely stretch of fast-flowing river and an air of constantly, lovingly admiring its own arsehole. I can’t get away fast enough. Changing trains in Montreux the Golden Pass train blows my mind, softened slightly by the knowledge that it would, all the way to Spiez – via a change at Zweisimmen – where the view is even better than I remember and real people live and go on holiday. Being in Switzerland is like having honey poured over my eyes, and my anxious head being stroked by an endless chain of on-time railway departures.
Before the night train
Another European city that makes my heart ache. Hamburg in late September is still a kind of sit out on the pavement kind of place. Altona in the hours before my train makes me happy. The anonymity of sitting quietly with a quite incredibly good beer – maybe the moment more than the taste, I’m not sure – and the promise of the night journey on to Stockholm, is there anything better than being here, bound for somewhere?