We’re on a train from Hendaye to Paris, from where we’ll take the Eurostar home. Last night we took a hot, muggy sleeper from Lisbon and thanks to an overindulgence of beers in the restaurant car to toast our last night on the rails my head is thick and slow. We’re dirty, sweaty and tired. The journey’s almost over.
We’ve taken 47 trains, five buses, visited 23 capitals, taken 30 metro trips and one water taxi. We’ve covered 18,000 kilometres by rail. We’ve been to the Arctic Circle and the approach to the Black Sea. We’ve ridden alongside the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and dozens of lakes. We’ve crossed and sometimes recrossed the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Seine, the Elbe, the Vltava, the Rubicon, the Tiber and the Thames.
The obvious question is: why? I didn’t have an answer to that before we left, other than to say ‘because we can.’ But now I’ve done it, I do have something to say about the purpose of a trip like this. Obviously it’s not a conventional sightseeing exercise. There simply hasn’t been enough time to take in most of the sights we could have seen.
So, it must be something else. What this trip has given me is perspective. I’ve been reading Horatio Clare’s excellent book A Single Swallow on the train, among other things, and I found this very relevant passage:
At the height swallows fly, the world is a very different series of propositions, distinct from the way we understand it, composed and threaded in ways invisible to man. Villages are complete entities, towns are collections of districts, of kinds of roofs, a graph in which few structures intrude into the birds’ realm. The way the world joins up, the way the land undulates through its features and under our impositions, are all legible to a swallow.
I think that beautifully captures this kind of travel. It’s a shifted perspective, one that lets you experience the transitions between mountains and towns and rivers and valleys in a more direct way. Borders dissolve under the rail tracks, and you’re left with a very complete sense of Europe as a genuine cultural, historical and anthropological entity.
For me, this trip has recaptured Europe as something to aspire to. The word has become shabby and disrupted in the UK, beneath the hands of cynical newspapers and provincial politicians. We’re suspicious of Europe without being quite clear of what we’re suspicious. Is it Brussels, is it Paris, is it the French or the Germans or the Latins? We’re not at all clear where we fit into Europe, and where Europe even begins or ends.
After this trip, I’m perfectly clear that I am a European, and so are the Bosnians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians. We’re tied together by common histories and common aspirations, and more than anything we’re tied together with the iron cables we’ve threaded through the hills and valleys and towns. The only thing that’s really depressed me about this trip was the state of the railway in the poorer parts of Eastern Europe. If we lose those iron cables, a little bit of what holds Europe together will give way.
I’m going home with a tired brain and a rucksack filled with apocalyptically bad smells. I’m also going home a committed European in a way I was not three weeks ago. If Britain does have a referendum on EU membership, as it seems we must, it now matters to me enormously that we vote to stay in. Our future is with our friends in Bosnia and Belgrade and Bulgaria and Berlin: with the places we can still take the train to.