Paris, Sunday 9th December 2012.
This, racing across the northern flats of France, out of Paris at two hundred kilometres an hour, is the end.
I’m dangerously trying to put a meaning, a conclusion, to my trip, a deeper insight attached to the distance covered. Something short I can claim to have learnt, a small piece of personal philosophy to give to anyone who asks: “How was it?”.
The problem is the narrative is always written in retrospective. Our minds need a story to link everything together, otherwise you have a random, incomprehensible stream of events; no history, just one thing after another. But this can create cause and effect where there is none, linked lies where there were only scattered truths.
My mind runs a thousand bad plots through the last fortnight, looking for a storey arc that fits, but there isn’t one. All I wanted to do was go, see and feel what there was in the cities and the countries. I shouldn’t ruin that with creating a post-event fiction.
And if I all I wanted to do was go and see, what did I see? With an outsider’s eye I saw more similarities than differences and borders that fit people badly, but borders that would be ill placed anywhere.
In Britain we are spoilt by the clear boundary of the sea. A salty roar that proclaims loudly and clearly a discreet limit. Even in high speed trains that burrow under the channel we still sit in a black subterranean nothingness for twenty minutes that clearly separates the island from its neighbours.
What I feel I’ve seen in the last two weeks is a world of more fluid cultural identities, small changes of beliefs and cuisine, blurring and mixing into each other. Only occasionally is there a hard cultural border, and these often feel artificially exaggerated.
Perhaps it’s because many of the countries I travelled through are relatively young in their current incarnation, having previously been part of some larger political entity and given little freedom to explore their own identity. The sometimes small differences are now being seized on, either by the people or the state, to rapidly build a distinct identity, something to clearly separate them from their neighbours.
In the Britian I don’t feel this same need to define yourself, show the clear separation from others exists. (Perhaps this exists to a greater extent in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland; but I’ve never lived there, so I can’t claim to know.) Maybe it’s not the sea, but a consequence of not having been under someone else’s control in a very long time and even the decolonisation of the empire, while not simple or easy, happened on reasonably good terms; they were not forcefully taken by some single competing empire; rather returned to their scattered rightful owners. It’s probably a mix of the two effects.
Whatever the mechanism, even amongst the pomp and pageantry of London’s most royal exuberances, it never seems like the UK is proving who it is, pointing out the differences between itself and everyone else.
It would have been nice to spend some more time at each of my stops, get to know some local people and get beyond the brief tourist encounter, to try and see if the real distinct differences emerge with time, but that’s for another trip. This time it was about the stretches between the towns, the rolling, rattling views into the night between the bright spots of cities, the unassuming landscape where borders hide.