The bonkers magic of KonMari

‘Sorting out the house’ was mentioned several times when I asked friends what they would do with a few months off. I’ll look back at May 2017 as the month of decluttering. Like many others, I tried the Marie Kondo book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, aka the KonMari method.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and now bestselling author. She sounds insane when you read her book – she was addicted to tidying up by the age of eight – and her methods are no less bonkers.

But… it works.

I still can’t quite believe how folding your clothes so that they stand up has actually transformed what I wear simply because I can now see it all in one go. Or how asking if something ‘sparks joy’ has allowed me to emotionally, rather than practically, let go of things I’ve kept for decades – from university research papers to my 1990s Thelma and Louise denim top that never came back into fashion.

It could be procrastination from other more creative work or it could be life-transforming as the book promises. I’ve cleared out so much crap, I do feel lighter and freer, and more pertinently for an allergic person, the house is becoming easier to clean. The really sentimental things are to come but that’s why you practice with your socks and pants first. It gets easier.

Here are some before and after photos. Sorting is done by category – another trick that helps massively when facing a big clear out.

TOPS

BOOKS

ACADEMIC PAPERWORK

The nice thing about this is the focus is less on throwing things away and more on only keeping things that you love. But possibly the biggest lure of the KonMari method is that you only have to do it once. We’ll see if that is true in time but my socks do remain firmly folded for now.

Overland to Eastern Europe: Kotor to Dubrovnik

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik

It’s raining heavily on arrival in Dubrovnik and it’s freakishly cold. We are wearing all the clothes and hats. This is not the only shock. The taxi from the bus station to Ploče charges a £12 set fare to go a couple of km, it’s £18 just to walk the town’s bloody walls – that’s each – and, worse still, a medium glass of so-so wine costs £7. Come back Zurich, all is forgiven.

“Everything is better is Croatia,” my Croatian ‘sister-wife’ Anita, the UK-famous inventor of the chocolate crumpet, repeatedly tells me – and I want to believe her. An old guidebook tells me the walls cost only £3 for access not so long ago, so this is probably the Games of Thrones effect. There really should be a different Dubrovnik price for non-GOT fans.

Being British, we of course mention the weather to our host Stijepo at Apartment Love and Hope and thank him for waiting for us in the torrential conditions.

“I would be happy if this was my biggest problem!” he exclaims, several times – a reference to being caught up in the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik with no electricity or water and weeks of bombardment by Serbia/Montenegro. After that, we pretty much shut up about the weather and the price of bread.

Once the storm clears, it is indeed truly lovely inside the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, so clean. I mean, really clean. (Well, all that tourist money has to go somewhere I guess.) We enter it at sunset so that we can immediately leave it, as Stijepo has sent us for a sunset drink at Buza, a well-known drinking hole on the rocks outside the wall. Pete nearly chokes on his £6 GOT-priced Leffe but it’s the view we are paying for and a ringside seat for sunset in the Pearl of the Adriatic.

Day 13: Lokrum Island

Stijepo recommended this nearby island as a lovely spot for a picnic, with botanic gardens and an old fort – but, who are we kidding, we mainly go because he told us there were loads of friendly rabbits roaming freely about there. There are. Here is a bun the size of a banana…

… and also an array of randy peacocks parading and trying to win over peahens to the point of fighting.

It’s quite something to watch baby bunnies hopping around giant prickly aloe vera succulents while peacocks shimmer and shake erect feathers next to the deep blue Adriatic. Only unicorns could have topped off the fairytale if anyone has Photoshop skills to add one here…

Day 14: Dubrovnik

We check the cruise ship timetable and head into the Old Town as the passengers leave. After a picnic on ‘the outside’ wall by the harbour, we randomly bump into Hannah and Myk who, being super-speedy Americans, have caught up with us despite leaving Belgrade four days later. Their Podgorica train journey, taken on May Day weekend and packed with students heading back to Montenegro, makes ours sound a Four Yorkshiremen sketch – luxury. The next day Mark from the Belgrade apartment will fly in as we fly out. More travel connections in time.

We buy a Ferrero Rocher-flavoured ice cream from Stijepo’s recommended childhood ice cream parlour Dolce Vita and sit once more outside the walls, on a tiny beach that has the most beach glass I have ever scavenged in my life. You know when you start a collection and become enslaved? Well, mine is a worldwide beach glass collection and this tiny beach just tripled it – as well as producing two rare pieces in blue.

Pete and I discuss biting the tourist bullet and paying nearly £40 to walk the 2km city walls but it comes down to this on our last day – we can either walk or eat. So we eat: a tuna pasta and beer and wine and chocolate feast on our Love and Hope balcony overlooking beautiful Dubrovnik.

A male voice choir carries up the steep hillside from Banye Beach as the sunset does its glorious hazy coloured spectacle thing, and we have a little last-night-of-the-holiday dance on the terrace because we’re married now and it’s legal.

I may not be as enamoured of travelling as I used to be, and I can’t wait to see our own little floppy-eared dudes and the rest of the human-eared family, but I sure could do with a little bit more blue sky, sea and sunshine in my UK life to be happy.

Perhaps everything is better in Croatia after all.

</The end of the Balkan blogging beast. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. Other blog posts are available. > 

Overland to Eastern Europe: Podgorica to Kotor

Day 9: Podgorica to Kotor

A bit of perspective arrives overnight and my appetite comes back for a full English breakfast out on the Hotel Hemera’s street terrace. No generic continental breakfast buffet here.

We have one hour to look around Podgorica’s sights – a bridge, a river, a statue of a Russian rock star – before we have to get to the bus station. Our local street of  bars and cafes, which closed around 3.30am last night, are all open and packed with people by 11am.

Our bus to the Bay of Kotor takes a 2.5-hours and the journey is a pretty one with snow-capped mountains, Lake Skadar in the distance and dizzying views down to Budva and Sveti Stefan beach resorts. We arrive into Kotor into an apartment overlooking the jade green bay and the Old Town, and sit on the terrace. We have a whole three days here.

One week into the trip, the holiday feels as if it about to begin.

Day 10: Muo, Perast 

It’s 24 degrees and we are wearing shorts and sun cream and sun hats. This has been the hardest trip to pack for: just a week ago I was up in the snow-covered Alps. We spend almost all day at ‘home’ in our Muo apartment, lounging and reading and writing and admiring the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and the Unesco Heritage Site of Kotor with its walled, almost triangular Stari Grad (old town).

We are about to leave the apartment when Pete gets the news that his Arts Council England grant application has been successful, which means he will have his first solo exhibition this autumn at Birmingham Open Media. We celebrate by hopping a one-euro 13km bus ride to Perast, a small Venetian-style village further up the bay, for an afternoon beer and sandwiches by the waterside.

A cruise ship enters the bay on its way down to Kotor, ready to disgorge several thousand people into its tiny port. We have learnt to timetable around them and I’m relieved to be in quiet Perast, wandering its tiny alleyways and stone staircases, while Pete 3D-scans a church square bust. Such is our life. We often enjoy our own little worlds, like our rabbits, each somewhere in the vicinity of the other.

Day 11: Kotor

No cruise ships today so Kotor Stari Grad is clear and we can explore at our leisure.

In truth I am ready to go home; yet when I am home I dream of being away. Both realities are perhaps tainted by a rose-tinted perception of reality.

Yesterday I came across another younger backpacking Brummie called Fiona on YouTube who is travelling for three years (as I did at the end of the 90s). I think of her at the future version of my past self – except she is vlogging her travels, advice, inspiration and reassurance. I simultaneously I admire her and think that I can’t go back in time to my own days cross-crossing Asia. I don’t envy the pressure she is under having to serve up daily content to an audience of followers. I remember how great it all was but now find myself annoyed by the narcissistic, self-focused, singular, young backpacker’s viewpoint. And yet… so fascinating and familiar that I think I must hate myself.

Solo travelling felt (still feels) like such an achievement for me, a shy Brummie who fell surprisingly in love with solo travelling as a teenager on a US road trip, enough to later hit the backpack trail to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand…

Travelling opened up my eyes to new lands, people, religion, cultures, perspectives, politics, ways to live, ways to die, ways to think. I even learned the value of my own country when I had the chance to leave it permanently. And later I began to change how I moved through the world, more aware of the impact of travel and tourism, and my own privilege involved in traversing someone else’s land. Travelling humbled me in many ways.

So the other Fiona, the one I found myself watching dispense travel wisdom on YouTube, arrived as an echo from another time and place. She reminded me that I am no longer her and can’t go back to that youthful time and place. That is her present, my past. I am now a traveller who has to some extent settled down. And that makes me question who am I without it? Is there such as thing as being a ‘post-traveller’? How do I travel now, if at all?

Other Fiona is asking for volunteer vloggers to expand her coverage and I’m tempted to offer as Future Fiona – a potential talking futurehead from two decades on. Or just leave her to get on with it. She’ll figure it out.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I am caught in another time travel loop of see my own future 24 hours ahead. I have connected with a friend’s Instagram friend who was in Belgrade, took the train to Podgorica, and arrived in Kotor a day before us. Each day I check her Instagram feed to see where she has gone, before posting variations of her photos a day later. She is currently staying across the bay in Dobrota and that we have probably taken a shot of each other’s apartment. I wave and wonder if she is waving back. From this yester-stream I know we will be climbing to the Kotor Fort and I find it comforting to folllow in a future traveller’s footsteps, at least until the near connections across multiple dimensions via the internet start to melt my brain, for behind us, Hannah and Myk from our Belgrade dinner, will be following us a few days behind.

Climbing the 13oo or so feet up cliffside steps to the Fort is painfully slow but we press on despite the jellylegs and panting for breath. I’m nearly 50, losing my balance and not the fittest but I did it. I got all the way to the top, where the mountain goats frolic and the kids graffiti and the soda sellers sits. I can still do it. I feel good.

At dinner, we toast scaling the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, the success of Pete’s funding and the longevity of us – eight years together, coming up to three married. Achievements.

Tomorrow we cross our final border and my eighth country of the tour, into Croatia. As with all journeys, it feels as if it is ending before it has ended.

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik

Overland to Eastern Europe: Belgrade to Podgorica

Day 8: Belgrade to Podgorica

Goodbye Belgrade – we head for the train station and get in the long queue to catch our replacement bus service.

The trains have got progressively shitter as I’ve gone further east and, when we finally reach it, this one is the worst yet. There is no dining car or even a coffee bar, the windows are graffitied some to the point of obliterating any view, and second class is both dirty and stewing warm. To be fair, the 10-hour journey costs just over €20, or around 40p an hour, which is a bargain even by Brummie standards.

The reason we are doing this is that the journey is a seat61.com top pick – “one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides” – as it will take us up into the mountains of Montenegro, in and out of around 400+ tunnels, across 200+ bridges and over Europe’s highest viaduct before descending into the capital Podgorica.

Thanks to Mr Popovic we know the train has been declassified so we quickly shift to first class, which is slightly nicer with reclining seats and a clear window. We settle down to pass the time, me looking, Pete reading.

We are sharing our old-school six-seat carriage with a guy who looks like a sexy hitman, and things are pleasantly quiet until three burly old Serb fishermen enter. Their conversation doesn’t pause for several hours. I have no idea what they are saying and very soon want Sexy Hitman to finish them off. Serbian should be a lovely language to listen to with its soft shmuzhy consonants and zhuszhes and itzas but any language spoken relentlessly is a form of travel torture. We three quiet imprisoned passengers all resort to headphones. Too late, local touts board the train selling beer and soda and an alternative option for escape.

The busy carriages and few remaining functioning toilets hum with the smell of sweat and sewage. Smoke fills the corridors and pervades the carriages. The air is oppressive and I find myself counting down the hours, not to Podgorica but to smelling fresh air again. But, of course, there are the dual border checks and the train randomly stops for nearly an hour en route and so we are once again running late. This is how a 300-mile journey takes 11 hours.

Fortunately, the general discomfort is more than outdone by the fact that we are travelling through a green version of the Alps, and even here the train climbs high enough to venture above the snow line.

I spend the last hour out in the corridor, staring far down into the valley at tiny moving cars a thousand metres below and muttering ‘inconceivable’ and ‘unbelievable’ at how the hell this crappy commuter train got up here and wondering if we’ll essentially be riding a rollercoaster down into the valley.

We arrive into Podgorica in darkness. Taxi touts swarm around, crossing the tracks to chase down business. We follow the hotel’s instructions to look for Halo or Red cab companies and soon we are enjoying our splash-out boutique hotel (£68 for two inc full breakfast), with the best monsoon shower and an unexpected mirrored ceiling. I didn’t see that in the reviews.

The joys of comfort and cleanliness and fresh air last only 30 minutes before I realise my small purse with my currency and Visa card in is missing, possibly lost in the back of the cab or back on the train as I packed up. After a long day I feel overwhelmed with emotions and having to deal with stopping all the credit cards. I want to kick myself for being so lax.

After all the cancelling is done, we go out for French fries and then a beer in Bar Berlin over the road to unwind, listen to music and not talk.

I am besieged by thoughts that I am a much less robust traveller than I think. I contemplate all that work planning the trip, organising the different currencies, checking Google Streetview, making a spreadsheet – and how I’ve just gone and fucked it up.

Day 9-11: Podgorica to Kotor 

 

Overland to Eastern Europe: New Belgrade

Day 7: New Belgrade (Novi Beograd)

It’s the bit I really want to see –  the dormitory of Belgrade – built to house the expanding population. Many of former Yugoslavia’s buildings are also here and seem forgotten or neglected or barely maintained. That’s not much of a sell but it’s bloody great for tourists from Birmingham.

There’s the classicist, modernist Palace of Serbia, still a government building but with no water flowing in its fountain….

The 1970s brutalist Genex Tower, aka the Western City Gate, which is half empty, one residential tower attached to an unrented commercial tower by a two-storey bridge and revolving restaurant (both closed)…

In Blok 28, the Televizorke (TV sets) building, with concrete windows  moulded in the shape of TVs, is very much like a Serbian Barbican…

It overlooks a futuristic UFO-shaped concrete kindergarten…

Novi Beograd is so spacious and easy on the eye – if you like blocks and rectangles and grids – after all the fancy buildings of Budapest. Despite unlit subways, empty fountains and crumbling mosaic tiles, the place is feels full of real life and there are people and small cafes and hairdressers on every block.

We sit on the crumbling graffitied unloved fountain plaza of the Genex Tower. It’s a strange holiday place to soak up a rare bit of sun but needs must. A nearby young woman reads her book. Anna, a student dentist, turns out to be a resident of the Tower, and we feel like the luckiest tourists in Belgrade when she invites us in to ride up to the 30th floor for a quick look-see. The building inside is surprisingly nice and cared for and the views through the round window at the top are fine but it’s the building itself that is truly spectacular. It really is a crying shame that Belgrade appears not to care for for it. Anna agrees but “they don’t listen to the young people who have some idea about this kind of stuff”.

From Novi Beograd, we catch a bus slightly further out to Zemun, a very different, almost Mediterranean municipality of Belgrade with a distinctly holiday feel. People are feeding the swans by the Danube, eating ice creams on the promenade and dining on riverside terraces. We order gibanica – cheese pie – at one of these for just a few dinars.

Afterward we do the must-do of Zemun and climb the Gardos tower for a panoramic view of just how big Belgrade is (Zemun is just one of its 17 municipalities). From here we spot the distinct stepped constructions of Yuri Gagarin Street in the far distance. Maybe next year.

We’re leaving tomorrow, having barely touched the surface of Serbia’s capital city. Tomorrow we’re on the train again and it’s going to be a long one.

Day 7: Belgrade to Podgorica

Overland to Eastern Europe: Belgrade

Day 6: Belgrade

First thing – well, noon – we change apartments. We now live here for the next 48 hours, in the roof bit, where Pete is pointing. The lift is thankfully much nicer and less weighty on the cables.

We’re sitting in a chain café called CoffeeDream and Pete has been served a salad in a glass storage jar and told to shake it. The look on his face…

People are smoking in here because there are no EU health and safety regs to tell them not to. Also, everyone smokes. For me, this signals the start of a week of heavy passive smoking, sore throats and stinky clothes. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t resurrect that one.

We wander the cold blustery city, go to the fort, snap Serbian cyrillic characters and cat graffiti, walk along the Sava River and then go to a machine learning art exhibition as part of Resonate Festival. Aw.

Mid-afternoon, we meet two more single-syllabled friends of Pete, Mark and Dom – Ash and John (it took me a while but I think this is correct) – in a smoky pub for cheap local beers called Lav. Once more we are all somehow enraptured of Belgrade’s failings and quirks as much as its marvels.

In the evening, we dine with Hannah, a machine-learning artist, and her fiancé Myk at ‘the organic café’ (there are dishes without meat!) where the conversation is suitably intellectually geeky – about bias in datasets and ways to make that more transparent.

The wrangling of information is very relevant to my interests after several decades spent in fact-checking journalism for mainstream media and chasing objectivity in the representation of a story’s facts, according to the NUJ’s Code of Ethics. But as the evening goes on I become more aware that mere humans are no longer up to this task. Machine learning is obfuscating the nature of the source data and its biases are often not obvious – until you fall outside the algorithm, at least. Who is checking the input data for bias, accuracy, context, relevance? So many parallels with journalism and the rise of fake news. One interesting thing…  Wikipedia is launching https://www.wikitribune.com with paid fact-checkers because news is so broken right now.

Anyway… it was an interesting evening.

More than this, I love that this stuff is taking place in Belgrade and that people are coming from all over the world to discuss this here.

Here! Crazy!

Day 7: New Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Budapest to Belgrade

Day 5: Budapest to Belgrade

Panic at Kelenfold Station – it is 10.55, the Beograd train says 11.04 but I was told it leaves at 11.37. I run with my backpack up the stairs to the ticket office where a man tells me “Table! Watch! Number!” increasingly slowly and loudly before finally writing it down and slamming it up against the window. “TABLE! WATCH! NUMBER!”

Okaaaay.

In case the Avala is leaving early, I run to platform 14 down this corridor…

Thank God for Milos Rabbit (amazingly his Serbian surname translates as rabbit) – an English-speaking Serb with a Thai wife who works in Vienna but is on his way to the border to see his mom and also visit the dentist. He explains that 11.04 is the arrival time (which makes no sense) and that we shall leave at the appointed hour, (which we do).

It is only 15 euros to travel for nine hours on the Beograd Special from Budapest. We talk for five hours straight – about Brexit, NATO, Putin, Trump, North Korea, China, and where to go in case of nuclear war (New Zealand). Also infosecurity, as he is an IT manager. And how I mustn’t panic when the train tilts after Novi Sad and the rickety bridge after that – “Don’t worry, it’s normal.” He gives me his number to call in case I need anything translated once I get to Belgrade.

At the border, we sit on the train for an hour, traverse no man’s land, then enter Serbia. “Welcome to THE LAND OF MAN!” he announces.

“We’re not in the EU anymore!” I add, and nearly burst into tears at the double meaning.

I see flat farmland, a horse-drawn plough, old women working iron machinery, bombed out buildings, chickens, goats and snoozing farm dogs, backyard subsistence crops, and maize flowers growing up through the tracks. I’ve been told that Serbia is a bit ‘Wild West’ but I thought because it was struggling post-war not because it is actual frontierland.

“Serbs are direct, honest and very hospitable,” says Milos. “But also they don’t care. If people in Serbia cared, it could be a great country. But we would rather be poor and free.”

After Milos leaves, I head for the white tableclothed dining car to spend my leftover florints. I have enough for goulash and a Chardonnay. I am the only person in the dining car. The chef puts his book down and shows me various plastic wallets of food before firing up the microwave.

Arnold, the subversive industrial-music-loving, spiky-grey-haired Hungarian chef, gives me a free beer once I’m done and we chat as darkness falls, all the way into Belgrade. The train is late once more and we toast Mr Popovic of Wasteels Travel Agency, who is waiting for me at the other end to pay for the next set of tickets to Podgorica. Poor Pete is not toasted as, being the husband, he has to be there to meet me. The conversation gets drunker and the toasts more frequent, and I arrive quite merry into Belgrade thinking how very wonderful solo travel is.

Sadly I don’t get to meet Mr Popovic as Pete has already paid him and collected the tickets by the time I arrive. I’m told he looked suitably like a kindly gnomish owner of an antiquarian occult bookshop, but taller. Later, I arrange to buy him a Lottery ticket as a thank you for waiting. He says, if he wins, he will buy a new car. I love Mr Popovic.

Pete, meanwhile, is in a panic after asking when the train from Bucharest came in and being told to go to the other side of the city.

I had thought Belgrade would be flat being by the Sava and Danube rivers but he walks me up, up and up into the old town area, through higgledy-piggedly barely lit streets and broken staircases. The hill finally plateaus into a pedestrianised high steet with al fresco seating. But the tone has been set. Belgrade reminds me of the Birmingham Bull Ring in the gritty 70s, and I feel safe and strangely at home.

The lift to ‘WOW’ Apartment is decrepit and clanking; its walls lined with molten effect something or other. It drops down half a foot when we enter. Despite the shady common parts of the block, the apartment itself is indeed very wow with a giant chaise longue sleigh and dark bachelor pad colours.

I meet Mark and Dom, who are also here for their fifth Resonate festival, but all anyone can talk about is how bonkers Serbia is, from the supercheap prices to the meat dinner lurking at the bottom of a pasta dish to gigs in old abbatoirs to the 1970s Brutalist Western City Gate crazy architecture.

I’m happy to be back in the land of conversation. The solo first half of my trip is over. Now for ‘the holiday’.

(Mr Popovic and I do not win the Lottery.)

Day 6: Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Budapest

Day 3-4: Budapest

I’m staying in the catchily-titled 4YOU Citycenter Apartments, actually in the company’s old converted offices on the fourth floor of an inner courtyard. There is a pull-up bar on the door, tea in the cupboard and a gift chocolate bar on the table from Gabor, called Balaton Bum.

I sleep until noon and am overcome with the strongest feeling NOT to venture out into a new and strange city. I just want home comforts and familiarity of which there is none here – the light switches flick up for on, the doors open outwards and the language is impenetrable.

“It’s Finnish,” explains Gabor.

“Ah,” I say, feeling like a bemused jetlagged Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

It is also unseasonably cold and raining. “This is a tragedy,” says Gabor, with stereotypical Hungarian pessimism and woe.

I spend the day running for cover to places recommended by the always good Spotted by Locals app: Soos Foto (10 old Hungarian photos for a florint!)…

…Café Noe for melt-creamy square-stacked Jewish pastries, the BP Shop for BUDA FCKN PEST t-shirt designs, Retrock for some (actually really nice) vintage designer clothes…

…the Hotel Gellert’s thermal spa (“like bathing in a cathedral”), the No2 tram for a cheap 15-minute riverside tour…

…and finally Semmi Extra for burger and beer supper in a converted cinema whose name translates as ‘No problem’.

The Fitbit hits a record 23,000 steps.

The next day is fretful. It is half taken up sorting out my onward ticket to Belgrade – engineering works mean the daily Avala train is leaving from Kelenfold suburban station not Keleti – meanwhile Booking.com has also decided to glitch and not accept payment for a future booking and is going to cancel it. I end up hanging on a customer service line to the Netherlands and burning all my phone credit.

The afternoon doesn’t improve much. I’m looking forward to relaxing in the Szechenyi Spa but I’m in the water less than 30 seconds when a Hungarian silver fox called Steve says “You have nice body”, “You want a massage?”, and then follows me into another pool where British stags are pointing out a spray of suspicious brown bits floating in the murky green water.

The place feels icky after that and I bath-hop an endless series of pools watching the watchers ogle, running away from Steve and feeling dispirited.

Four days without a decent conversation is wearing thin. Do I still enjoy this solo travel thing? I guess. But Budapest does not fill me with that feeling of “THIS IS IT! There is NO PLACE I’d rather be right now and nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

I settle my bill with the every-helpful Gabor and we arrange that he will buy a Hungarian Lottery ticket with my tip – if we win small, we’ll give it all to the homeless; if we win big, it will be spent on “cancer solutions” and buying a Budapest apartment to rent out that he will manage. I love how the idea of a Lottery win connects people across the divide and decide to buy random Lotto tickets for others I meet on the trip.

(Gabor emails me the ticket as proof. We don’t win.)

Day 5: Budapest to Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Zurich to Budapest

Day 2: Zurich-Budapest via the Arlberg Pass, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna

Back in the UK, ‘Maggie’ May has called a snap election and it seems my best hope is for a coalition of chaos. The world is shifting direction, going forwards but travelling backwards.

I’m travelling backwards, as instructed by Seat61.com. I’m also in second class until Innsbruck when I can get a cheap upgrade to first class; dirty windows the length of the train know no such divisions. At Buchs, the train reverses and I’m looking forwards at last.

Soon after we start to climb, and climb, into the snowy treeline towards the Arlberg Pass. Sun on snow is blinding, firs sag, black rocks are frosted, snowmelt cascades here and there into the valley. Winter-spring is surprisingly vivacious here. I see the cold everywhere around but cannot feel it, only view it through the glass like a high-speed Lady of Shallot.

Skiers join the train at St Anton am Arlberg, letting in fresh cold Alpine air and piling up the overhead racks with oversized kit bags. Luggage – the most mundane icon of the journey, carriers of things, our precious little transporters.

Night falls. I’ve been on the OBB (“Erbaybay”) Railjet for nearly 10 hours. There is little to see once through the Tirol except for a few snow flurries as we pass through Vienna. I watch a vampire comedy on the iPad and fall asleep.

The train is late – again. Gabor, my Hungarian apartment manager, meets me from the train at Budapest Keleti station so I don’t have to find my way late at night on my own. He briefs me for nearly 45 minutes but lends me money for dinner. I venture out into Erzsébetváros in search of a midnight feast.

Day 3-4: Budapest

Overland to Eastern Europe: Birmingham to Zurich

18 April 2017: Birmingham-London-Paris-Zurich (everybody talk about pop muzik)

It feels great to have the world in my backpack again and leave all responsibilities behind. Leaving is, as usual, hell. I feel a huge sense of lightness and relief to be on Bournville’s Dairy Milk purple platform.

Staring out of the window. Why do so many English people have a ‘fear of foreigners’? Travel is about crossing boundaries and meeting ‘the other’. Who we meet (or don’t meet) is what defines how we feel about a place. Travelling inevitably makes us feel more united than divided.

Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon – a recursive mirror, a steamship fresco, olives so plump they are almost sweet, couples with luggage and leg-age. A mother and two daughters request my spare chair and I suffer the lot of the solo traveller: to be endlessly exposed as alone. In defence, I write in my book. I fulfil my role of being a solo-travelling, diary-writing cliché.

From Paris to Zurich, each landscape unfolds more beautiful than the last. Vivid yellow rapeseed farmland, golden herds of cow drinking in sunset glades, hills start to roll in homage to future Alps which arrive in darkness. Paris is full but France itself is strangely empty; not a single soul anywhere with villages seemingly under curfew. It is only at Dijonville once darkness falls that there are signs of life: a light in a house, some tail-lights in the distance.

The train is running late and you wonder what the fuck you are doing on this empty last train to nowhere, blackness out of the window, a tired reflection and an anxious midnight walk through unknown Zurich still to come. You even wish yourself back home with all those obligations you so loved shrugging off earlier. This is the bore of travel.

Switzerland arrives – a new country! – despite the dark aloneness, this is somehow something to celebrate.

Day 2: Zurich to Budapest