The best review of a hotel I think I have ever read included pleasant remarks about the towels and staff, but noted in the ‘negatives’ section that ‘the streets outside were full of strangers’.
I was having a conversation recently with my Mum and younger brother about the urge to travel. My brother has no desire whatsoever to go off and out of the country, a fact which has caused much and mutual bafflement over the last decade or so, and constitutes reason #798 we sometimes wonder how we can possibly be related.
‘Hhm,’ I said, as he began the process of brewing tea (we have that overarching pursuit in common, at least) and immediately began to proselytise (quite predictably; the kettle my backdrop) about how massive the world is and how I want to see it all and how I want to experience different things and alternative ways of living and how there’s so much to see…. and blah on and blah forth… (The conversation had started with me casually mentioning my latest dream of spending a few months around south/east Asia, an idea for which I am tentatively using ‘writing retreat’ as a working title.)
Nodding politely, and after some consideration, my brother has diagnosed me with ‘the travel gene’, which, after three seconds of deliberation, we then established has almost certainly been passed down from my father; as my Mum pointed out, he did move from one European country to another to be with her.
Here in Brussels, certain that I should branch away from Mr Falafel* (who has twice fried his heavenly balls for me – after which one helps oneself to salad and houmous while he disappears to have a smoke and his baby gurgles in a pram by the cash counter – and whose fares come highly recommended even by someone who usually finds falafel bland and dry), I took myself for a dinner this evening of veg pasta pesto (not boring thankyouverymuch; a firm fave) and ordered a cup of tea. The penne came as spaghetti, the broccoli came as cucumber and the tea came as Moroccan mint decadently infusing itself in a silver teapot (as lush and nirvana-inducingly sugar-rich as anything I ever had in Morocco, and with the impossibly impractical glass glasses to match).
(I briefly forget why I’m talking about food here; I am sure there is more to life than combinations of mint, basil and garlic, though not much… Ah yes, the unexpected. Those strangers on the streets; everything being unpredictable in ways which range from bemusing to alarming.)
I think I am developing a theory: I think my addiction is to displacement as much as it is to the new experiences that inevitably come with travel.
It has occurred to me that I like almost everything about feeling displaced, somehow (obviously I’m very much talking about the fun and voluntary, non-political kind, in case clarification needed…). It’s as if I’ve put myself through a sort of training, however unconsciously, over the years – to feel content in the midst of instability; to thrive against an unsteady backdrop. And now I happen to feel absolutely the most free when I am slightly detached from – yet (crucially) deeply in – my surroundings.
I like feeling as though I could get lost at any moment (and I frequently do) but that there is a ‘safety net’ of helpful strangers all around to ask for help at any moment – that is the luxury. People are fundamentally good. You feel this most when alone in a new place.
Granted, I have a particular set of, ahem, skills (of the directionally-challenged variety) that mean I get to feel this more than most; only I could get lost walking to my hotel when dropped literally two minutes from its entrance. I went down the wrong side street in the dark, bizarrely (only in hindsight) adamant that the door to the reception was down there, and so walked directly toward a gang of men who looked precisely like they were waiting for a stray tourist to efficiently murder. So I did what any fatalistically-blissed-out-from-pesto traveller should do and smiled ‘bonsoir’ at them as I walked through the centre of the group to the hotel door.
Of course, the door was utterly not there, and I had to do a pantomimic circle of disbelief in their midst (the streets had clearly shape-shifted since I last left the hotel). They smirked, enjoying the perfect arrival of their next victim (one of them bothering to stub out his cigarette to aid the effect of his wildly flickering eyebrow), and…
…promptly asked me if I needed any help. Terrifying. Terrifying, I tell you. (And in case anyone is wondering, I found my hotel in the end – quite independently, even, though I can’t promise I have never suggested to a female friend that she pretend to be lost when she was complaining of never meeting any locals; perhaps I have never needed to pretend, but I can recommend the technique either way, if one is feeling adventurous, and preferably in daylight.)
I even love the displacement affected by language barriers. I quite like the international language everyone slips into for efficacy. The superfluous is stripped away until only the bare minimum (nouns, pronouns, physical mimes) which carry tangible meaning are worth anything at all, until I find myself cheerfully thinking in broken English with a French accent.**
Anyway, when everything is unfamiliar about a place, things quickly become ‘local’ and familiar (even falafel). Even your overpriced room (which is far too small in which to usefully effect any downward-facing dogs, however good your intentions were, and even if you packed purple leggings especially) becomes a haven, and even spending half an hour lying on your bed against deeply uncomfortable pillows (seriously, there is no spring) listening to Massive Attack, Zero 7 & Morcheeba while you catch up on your hideously-overflowing inbox starts to feel both exotic and like you could be anywhere at all, or like you could be floating. These moments of not-muchness are just as liberating as the ones spent out in the streets looking at things. (I wonder if that will make sense to anyone; probably, I just [ironically] need to get out more.)
En route to today’s photoshoot, I saw that Brussels is full of patrolling police, army and tanks in the wake of the recent threats/violence. (I saw a man being handcuffed at one point, though who knows if that was related.) The stranger danger may be real, but it is resolutely ignored by the splendour of the Christmas lights and dazzling trees*** in and around the always-and-unashamedly grand Grand Place. And nearby, a sprawling Christmas market found accidentally (having turned left at the wrong tree) is full of laughing women in fingerless gloves, men swapping mulled wine and backslaps; and also hosts a woman at a jewellery stall who convinces me that wearing a silver filigree-lace ring a certain way up makes my little finger look elegant, and that it is, also, shaped like a bird with its wings open.
*May not be his real name.
**I do wish, though, that I could master the ability to arrive in a French-speaking place and converse immediately without first cycling through my German and Spanish. This never happens. My French is perfectly decent-ish, but I insist on saying ‘si, vielendank’ when offered a menu for the first 24 hours of any francophone trip, while spouting forth in magnificent frenchisms in the south of Germany, etc. (and by the time I get to the Flemish part of Belgium, i.e. tomorrow, I am confident that my français will be in full flow).
***Note to future self when navigating: ‘turn left at sparkly tree’ doesn’t really work as a note to self when a city is full of trees bedecked in electric glory.