The Psycho-delic European Trek
In 1997 I set out from Preston in Lancashire where I then lived and temped to travel around Europe for the summer. I’d saved just about enough through an extended maternity cover office job supporting rehabilitation services at the local hospital. And I’d just read Kerouac’s On the Road, inspiring me to make “not only an outward journey, but also an inward one.” So far, so predictable.
I travelled to London and from there to Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Brussels, with occasional detours, and back, on the Eurolines coach network. I carried a finite amount of cash in American Express travellers’ cheques, portions of which I exchanged for the local currency immediately on arrival at each new destination (or as near as, as I often arrived in the middle of the night). Apart from being too poor and raw to be familiar with alternative ways of accessing my money across currencies pre-Euro, travellers’ cheques were strongly recommended by travel guides as the securest and least confusing way of transporting it across borders.
Despite the encouragement of friends I steadfastly refused to bring a camera, choosing to rely on the written word and collection of ephemera for documentation. I’d begun getting notions of becoming a writer of some sort, and I would definitely get started on that novel when I returned, armed with a world of descriptions and characters, if not plot.
At the current vantage my summer 1997 journal is filled with the naming of places and descriptions of squares, streets, buildings, establishments, mostly devoid of context except my own wanderings. Where it comes alive is in sections detailing people I met, our behaviour towards each other and our interactions. Shenanigans involving strange excursions and hard partying, with passages like:
We met George. George was a pimp. He was so fucking smooth, a perfect pimp, and a contender for the character of the month! He tried to get us into his club and he said “I can only give you the prices of beers, the girls will tell you the rest.” He showed us pictures. We didn’t go.
Then he let me know that he was bi – he has a wife and 4 kids (he is 47) but he likes to give head to guys.
Reading the entire journal again recently I was struck not only by the rawness of language, bluntness of expression, blithe attitudes and other clues exposing an unformed, fragmented personality, but by how often I described people according to their nationality. This amused and disturbed me in equal measure, having in the meantime grown deeply mistrustful of the attachment of national labels to people as a primary or even a particularly relevant feature of identity.
Also recently, we had an unexpected discussion at the dinner table, having overheard my son debating with his friends during that day’s online gaming party whether their – or anybody’s – nationality depends on their parents’, even if their place of birth or entire life is situated elsewhere. Is a person’s identity in national or any other terms a zero-sum game? Are you exclusively something unless you exchange it fully for something else? Or – as I endeavoured to suggest – are you a composite of many elements, national and other, the accumulation of your ongoing presences and actions, many of which are inconclusive, unresolved and frayed at the edges, flexible and changeable? At seventeen I wouldn’t have understood the inferences either, but perhaps someone planted those questions in me. Maybe they developed as a consequence of experience.
Having studied in Manchester in the first half of the 1990s, I returned to England in 1996 following a brief interim spell in Nicosia, where I grew up. As a national of a state that was not then part of the European Union, but which was part of the British Commonwealth, I was entitled to travel back on a ‘working holiday’ visa, under whose terms I was only allowed to take up temporary, non-professional employment for up to two years. This was available to people under the age of 27, and I just about qualified. It’s the same arrangement under which many Australian nationals visited the UK to typically work in bars and travel.
Irish nationality I accepted later, in the early 2000s, my status having by then changed and having already moved to Dublin. A privilege this afforded me instantly was membership of the European Union. The Cypriot nationality I continue to hold dually was not then useful in that regard – it would not be until 2004, when Cyprus along with nine other nation states joined the EU. Anxieties regarding access and European identity permeating islands at the edge of the continent began to ease.
My travel journal also comes alive when I describe the criss-crossing of European borders. At one point, travelling from Rome to Budapest, and as we were about to cross from Austria into Hungary, I wrote:
... at about 2pm we reached the Hungarian borders. There we stayed for some time until the officials checked our passports – we were leaving the EU. Some ‘strange’ passports were taken away to be examined further, which delayed us a bit more, among them mine, of course, from that dodgy place, Cyprus.
Then, travelling from Budapest to Prague necessitated passage through Slovakia:
Had I bothered to check if I needed a visa for intermediate countries? Had I fuck! I thought: “I have no money, I don’t speak the language, if I need a visa I’m screwed.” First they checked our passports on the Hungarian side of the border, and then the Slovakian officer came aboard. He looked mean, like officers you see in films. He got to the Chinese girls in the middle of the bus, looked at their passports and shouted in his deep, rough voice: “Visas!” One of them had, the other didn’t – obviously they met on the bus. She had no money, and one other girl was acting as a translator, and they soon got off the bus to see what they would do about it. I thought that I would be in exactly the same situation. He got to me, looked at the passport and looked at me. He started going through the visa pages and I knew then that this would be a huge hassle. He looked at me again. He asked: “Student?” Quick thinking. “Yes,” I said. He looked for a few seconds more and gave me the passport. I couldn’t believe it – I was ready to ask for a translator, but everything was cool. The officer hadn’t said a word to anyone apart from the two Chinese girls and me.
Over the past two decades I have continued to visit Britain regularly, and I maintain fondness for and affinity with (aspects of) its culture. It’s where my spheres of knowledge and personality developed exponentially and the site of many important events in my life, where I still have family, and – in my professional capacity – where many of my publications, performances and presentations have been taking place. And I continue to read and watch and view the world largely through a British media lens, the more leftfield corners of it.
The final page of my journal reads:
Got to Calais and got the ferry to Dover. I slept through the entire journey. Then, in Dover, the good old English friendliness showed its face, as it does in all places where you enter the country. It was the only place in Europe where they checked the passports on the bus, but then everyone also had to get off and go through the ‘proper’ passport control bullshit. Everyone was welcomed with the question “How long are you staying in this country?” i.e. if you’re not in the EU we want you to fuck off as soon as possible. I always expect it when I get there, but it still leaves an impression on me, especially when you compare it to other EU countries.
The political shift and reversal of status brought on by Brexit seemed staggering to me at first. It probably shouldn’t have done. Britain had long represented a place carrying potent undercurrents of a progressive, even radical, social identity. Sure its imperial hang-ups still loomed large, but I chose to believe that they were on the wane. Maybe Brexit is a kind of final raging against the dying, a blip that will be ironed out in due course. Or maybe such a reading is coloured by my own experiences of living in its metropolitan areas throughout that particular pre-millennial decade. As digital social media have since demonstrated, we tend to gravitate to social circles that represent and reinforce our underlying beliefs and attitudes; so if subconsciously or not you wanted to ignore signs pointing to the reactionary mood that would lead to Brexit, you could quite comfortably have done so. Living in London at the turn of the millennium and immersed in the contemporary art world, you could conceivably believe you belonged to a wider European-cosmopolitan bloc that understood its privileges as also conferring responsibility, that knew it was multiple and decentralised and flexible and unstable and provisional and blurry at the edges – and crucially, that these were in fact the very characteristics imbuing it with huge potential for robustness and dynamism.
Currently there are no regular direct flights connecting Dublin and Larnaca, and few to/from Paphos. My infrequent trips to Cyprus over the past couple of decades often necessitated stopovers in Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Vienna or Athens, and sometimes in London. That I would now exit the EU if travelling there or back via London, potentially being questioned and having my passport stamped, only to re-enter on arrival, is something that I both recognise procedurally from the pre-millennial past, and am also baffled by in its absurd reversal of terms. I may even get to test this scenario when it’s possible to travel without restrictions again.