Europe: A Love Story
We never visited mainland Europe when I was growing up in England. While a very few school friends might have taken summer trips to France or Spain, my family went ‘home’ to Ireland instead. We would set off from Sheffield in ‘the wee small hours’ and drive up to Stranraer in Scotland, for the early ferry crossing to Larne, in Northern Ireland. Years later, I would ask my dad why we didn’t just drive to Liverpool, which is much closer to Sheffield, and cross to Dublin from there. His answer had to do with borders and checkpoints and the Troubles; issues that have sadly re-emerged into relevance post-Brexit.
Those childhood visits to Ireland were marked by finding and savouring difference. Certain sweets could be bought in Ireland but not England; Twirl bars, Brandy Balls, Clove Rock, Dulce. Language was different; Mum and Dad’s Derry accents were stronger when they were “back home”. Even the mountains had more dramatic shoulders than the soft slopes of the Peak District, where I grew up.
But if we loved playing Spot the Difference between Ireland and England, I always had an understanding that continental Europe (Proper Europe) would be different again. More different.
My first trip to mainland Europe, aged fourteen, was on a school trip to visit the battlefields of World War I. I remember a purse full of clinking francs; the cliffs of Dover glowing in the pre-dawn; dew soaking up my flared jeans from the immaculate green lawns, as we walked the rows of white stone crosses. At every single monument dedicated to The Missing, I searched stone carvings for the name of the boy I fancied at school. I tried to imagine him dead and lost to the sludge of Flanders fields, in a fickle attempt to feel the tragedy more keenly, to make it more real.
We were fourteen. So, the things that mattered were; fresh croissants, Belgian chocolate, photos, swapped CDs and scented lip balm. Still, I remember roadside poppies in dying autumn sunlight, turned into bright red Chinese lanterns. I recall standing in Railway Hollow Cemetery, where the fallen had familiar Sheffield surnames, and were from the streets we grew up in. When we got back to school, I wrote an article about the trip, which found its way to the local newspaper. Aged fourteen, my first trip to mainland Europe also yielded my first publication.
Zebra fish can heal their own hearts. Imagine if humans had that capacity, in the romantic sense. Whenever my heart was broken as a youngster, I fled to mainland Europe. It was my own personal healing zone. A place of clean slates. New beginnings. Delicious distraction.
Running from heartbreak, aged nineteen, I waitressed on the Costa del Sol for the summer with some college friends. We lived in an Irish/English enclave of tourists and expats, and I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable about this mini-colony. I would escape into the local town whenever possible, to hear Spanish being spoken and to escape the soulless concrete of tourist-ville. This was the first time I experienced the phenomenon of being Young, Abroad and Irish. People stared at me in the street. My hair at that time was flame red, my skin a rather sickly white. It was the first time I have ever been aware of sticking out. Later that summer, in crowded Barcelona taverns, my two friends whispered to each other in frantic Gaelic; comments about passers-by, warnings to stay clear of certain individuals. It can be useful to have an underground code language. It was my first experience of living and working in mainland Europe, and the escapism of it was addictive.
On leaving Trinity, lost in a post-Arts-degree vortex, I enrolled in a course on Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Two months later, I left Dublin for the town of Vic, in the mountains of Catalonia.
Autumn in Ireland, in Catalonia it was still summer, the fronts of buildings around the Plaça Major were cheerful slats of yellow, ochre, primrose, peach. Everything was a novelty. The ATM that swallowed your passport-style bank booklet, stamped it, and spat it back out again. Siesta, when I went home from work each lunch time and stared at the ceiling, unsure whether to sleep or eat or what exactly I was supposed to do. ‘You must eat your dinner in the middle of the day,’ people told me, ‘and another dinner at like 9pm.’ But for an Irish person this is very difficult. My pervading memory of this time is: hungry. I also remember sleeping a lot; deep, comatose slumber, which I put down to the extra mental exertion required to constantly switch between languages. “It is exhausting,” a Catalan friend told me, “to live your life in translation.”
Vic, the heartland of Catalonia, seemed to be a pretty hard-working, sensible place. Apart from when they indulged in the tradition of Human Tower Building, where adults stand on each other’s shoulders in a swaying pyramid, and a child climbs to the top. Perhaps each culture in Europe has its own slightly bizarre traditions. Things that seem normal to the locals, and are only perceived as odd by visitors.
Is it possible for me to write about Europe without tripping into the sentimental? I've never lived on the continent for longer than a few months, so it still retains a honeymoon glow. We all have an album of Best Moments we turn to on cloudy days. I've come to realize lately that so many of my Best Moments are set in mainland Europe. Moments that now, at the height of lockdown, seem impossible.
Like visiting Paris on the cheap, to see a college friend, who lived in the world’s smallest attic apartment near the Champs-Élysées. Kitchen, bath and bed were all in the same room. Everything was too expensive, and we were cash-strapped students. A night out consisted of sitting on a bridge over the Seine at sunset, tearing a baguette and drinking cheap white wine, wearing hoodies and runners, our long hair loose, swapping stories. I have never spoken a word of French, but my friend was fluent, and steered me around the city. I remember the luxurious bubble of being unable to understand what was being said. Free from the fabric of language.
Faith and Hope
Europe is the edge of possibilities. For those of us lucky enough to be EU citizens, Europe provides both a landing mat and an escape route. This I discovered during the recession in 2008, when I left Ireland for Malta. Having exhausted all options in Ireland, I fled to Valetta, taught English to Italian teenagers, and lived in a crummy apartment in Msida Creek.
Like Ireland, Malta has a slightly anxious relationship with Europe, and holds remnants of its British colonial past. Red post boxes. Decaying bandstands. Certain streets remind me of others. I can turn a corner in Dublin and see the rollercoaster sweep of Valetta streets and laundry hung between Msida balconies. Faith, Hope, and Charity were the three fighter jets that defended the island of Malta during the first weeks of World War II, against the entire Italian air force. Still scarred from the war, Malta reminded me of the stories my granddad used to tell about when he was stationed on the Bay of Sorrento in 1942. (Decades later, I made a journey to the town of Ravello aged twenty-five, walking across the piazza in a heat-haze, imagining my grandfather there. Again, trying to reawaken history.)
In some ways my experience of Europe is mostly connected with trying to trace the long-faded echo of events I can barely comprehend. In mainland Europe, I escape into story/herstory/history.
Whatever I conjure when I think about Europe, it isn’t where I currently live or work: in a whitewashed country school at the bend of a crossroads, underneath the leaning elbows of an ancient oak tree. With a hurling pitch out the back, where sometimes local sheep are found shyly grazing, and tractors rumble past, between the fields. To me, Europe is somewhere hot and dry, where sandals lisp on pavement tiles and palm leaves ripple with a sound like water.
Europe has proper weather. Like the fog in Catalonia; not like Irish mist, but a total white-out. Or the heat of Sorrento in July, a haze over the Bay of Naples. European cold makes me think of mid-January in Paris; a boat-load of Sheffield teenagers being carted down the Seine against their will, arms folded, scowling against the bitter wind. European cold is dry, sharp, crisp. It’s elegant, not like the messy chaos of Irish weather, subject to the wild hormonal frenzy of Atlantic weather systems. People in Spain or Italy or Greece do not go to the beach wearing wellies, hats, gloves, full rain gear. I remember trying to explain to a group of Italians the concept of a ‘wind-breaker’.
Every trip I’ve taken to mainland Europe has yielded inspiration in some way. Perhaps this is purely due to the luxury of the new. The thrill of being out of your comfort zone.
At school I studied Spanish, and a few years ago I spent the summer in Seville with the intention of brushing up on the language. However, the quick slip of Sevillano Spanish completely evaded me, and I can’t say I learnt too much. Instead, I became absorbed by the history of the city, the flamenco guitar festival, the old gypsy district of Triana, and the Arabic architecture.
One hot evening on my way home from class, I got completely lost and found myself in the middle of a religious procession being held to celebrate the feast of the Virgen del Carmen. The crowd pressed close together, drums pounded, and a towering statue of the virgin rounded an impossibly tight corner on a bed of white roses. As the temperature soared over forty degrees, my dress clung to me and I was hypnotised by the candlelight, the ripple of hymns, and the marching band in their pristine gold-tasselled uniforms. Eventually, I stumbled home with the scene scalded onto my retinas. This would become a short story “Under the Jasmine Tree”.
Seeing scenes of European cities deserted during the pandemic has made me realize something more clearly. Europe is its people. Any joy or escape or excitement I have experienced when travelling in continental Europe have been due to the people who live there.
Working in Vic, I made friends who were truly a balm to the soul. The type of people who keep popping up in my short fiction. Friends who, when the pandemic hit, I emailed straight away to ask a panicked ARE YOU ALRIGHT? “Well yes,” they replied. We had not spoken for years and yet conversation resumed, as though one of us had just stepped outside the tavern in that small Catalan town in which we found ourselves, all those years ago.
Equally, I feel as if I have ‘visited' many places in Europe by proxy of the people I met as a TEFL teacher in Dublin. For many summers, I taught classes of Italian teenagers, who had come to Ireland to learn English. Day One, they would usually arrange themselves in the classroom along the fault lines of their various regions. Sicilians in one corner. Romans in another. They would spend two weeks in Ireland, learning English whilst also managing to teach their teacher Italian. I used to often wonder who was teaching whom. Trying to get the attention of a rowdy class one day, all English instructions failing utterly, I remember shouting, “OY! RAGAZZI!” It worked. My class stopped talking and clapped, utterly delighted. Mission: successful. They had not learnt any English, but their professora had learnt some Italian (which, they told me, was a better language than English anyway).
Their impressions of Ireland were generally negative. “The pasta is too much cooked,” they told me, “and the coffee is full of water.” They pointed out of the window to the overcast Dublin sky, “and this?” they said, “You call this a summer?”
People from Europe are allowed to live and work in Ireland indefinitely. People who are not from Europe are not allowed without a good reason. In some ways it is more complicated, in others it is as simple as this.
When I lived in Malta, migrant boats were frequently tugged into Valetta harbour. I remember the heightening tensions, headlines referencing ‘Fortress Europe,’ and the ensuing arguments between Malta and Italy, each abdicating responsibility for these desperados who’d had the audacity to almost drown between countries. There’s a place in Lampedusa called The Boat Graveyard, full of shards of vessels that didn’t make it, along with shoals of children’s shoes. It was 2009. This was the first time I really became aware of Europe as a refuge. Europe as a place of privilege.
In Dublin, non-European migrants must register at the GNIB office on the quays. The system has now changed to involve an online booking system, but five years ago, the only way to get an appointment with an immigration officer was to queue from four in the morning. Accompanying a friend, I remember the queue wrapping the building, a line of people endlessly mutating like an Escher sketch. Inside, the place was hot and airless. You could feel the nervous tension as people awaited verdicts. Would they be allowed to stay?
It is only at moments like this, I become fully aware of the slightly uncomfortable privilege of being an EU citizen. Travelling all over this continent, I’ve never had to worry about my right to be in a different country. There is a weight that comes with this entitlement. I grapple with the unfairness of being treated differently on the basis of where you are from.
At the most extreme end of this scenario, those who arrive in Ireland claiming asylum are currently forced into the abhorrent system of Direct Provision. Contained in a type of indefinite lockdown, the severity of which makes the Covid-19 lockdown look like a national holiday, these individuals may be forced to wait in limbo for years. Without cooking facilities, unable to work, living in cramped conditions, it is tantamount to imprisonment. And yet for years this system has gone relatively unquestioned. Asylum seekers of Ireland have been nameless and faceless, as if their lack of EU status makes them invisible. One of the more positive stories to emerge from the pandemic is that Direct Provision is now being more openly questioned, and will hopefully become a thing of the past.
Europe is a pause between heartbeats; a space to reflect. I haven't been in mainland Europe since I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, four years ago. At that time I went to Vigo, in Galicia. Plans to walk part of the Camino de Santiago upended by my pregnancy, instead, we walked the city’s steep, cobbled streets, watched Atlantic-battered trawlers chug into the harbour, and took a boat trip out to the Islas Cíes, a paradise-like national park of pristine beaches and eucalyptus forest – one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
It was the summer my first book had just been published, and the whole unknown adventure of motherhood lay ahead of me. Even back then, I knew that motherhood and writing would fight, like oil and water. Life would divide and subdivide and become very difficult. But for that single beautiful moment, I sat on a white sand beach, on an island that smelt of eucalyptus leaves, and let reality fall away. Writing this, I feel myself salivating for the tranquillity of that quiet expectation.
I've also come to realize during these difficult days of lockdown that so many of my dreams for my daughters involve Europe. I want them to step off a plane into a different language. To sit on a bridge on the Seine with friends. To always have the option to heal heartbreak with new faces, new food, new customs and ancient stories. For, while Ireland might on surface level seem a million miles away from the suave café-culture of Proper Europe, in fact being European and having the gateway of Europe open to me has greatly enriched my life. During these uncertain times, I do not take this for granted. It has been a beautiful gift.