Thoughts From The Far End Of Europe (Part 2)

I wrote Part 1 of this article about three years ago. I’d just crossed the south-eastern border of Bulgaria. Landscape and society was shaded with new colours, and the whole panorama of history looked increasingly unfamiliar: Byzantines and Arabs battled in place of Normans and Anglo-Saxons; exotic Assyrians ousted the quaint familiarity of the Celts. Islam began with the coming of Mohammed, seven hundred years after we had settled on the birth-date of Christ, so in my next destination, Iran, the year was 1386.

Istanbul's Golden Horn

Coming back to this once-familiar continent has been a shock. Not in the sense that leaving was, because everything new for me now was once normal, so it’s more of a punch in the belly than a slap in the face. Two weeks in Italy has dredged the depths of my memories, and floating to the surface are the deeply-sunk taken-for-granteds, the ingrained attitudes and the styles of living I’d been perfectly used to in what now feels like a distant and quite childish dream.

Resting in town square

Well, it was always going to be like this. On previous, fleeting visits such as when I hitched home and back to Armenia last summer, I was on a mission. I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on what I saw. Yes, everything looked cleaner, shinier, richer, of course, as it flashed past the window of the car or truck or train.

But fully immersed in a slow bike trip, it’s hard not to linger on the differences. Europe feels less like a deserving home for me and the fellow inhabitants than it did before. Instead it feels like an enclave, a fenced playground; on one side, the rest of the world, those with nothing, Europe and the tiny lofty West coming to them – one-way, daily – through television news and subtitled Hollywood. On the other side of the bureaucratic barrier – that’s the 1,792 border control points, the infra-red cameras, the razor-wire fences and the men with guns protecting the European Union from the ungrateful hordes of asylum-seekers whose companions have died in deserts and at sea in the hope of living in a chipboard box attached to an abandoned building in an Italian port – people seem to wander around, half-asleep, distracted by iPhones and Facebook and owning a small car and where to buy the cheapest tomatoes.

Evening outdoor market

Why are we, here in paradise, unaware of the opulence surrounding us and simultaneously fostering unmeasurable, planet-wide resentment? Why is every square inch of land sliced into little designations for every conceivable human use, except for freedom? Why does each of these little parcels of ground come with a big, obvious list of common-sense things that are forbidden, as if society was composed of anarchists and zombies? Why has no-one heard of a Schengen visa and the paperwork and criteria to be fulfilled in order to obtain one? Why can’t I find anywhere to put my bloody tent for the night?!?

Goodness me, this is going to be tougher than I thought. In between margherita pizzas and cappucinos (of which there have been many – call me a wimp, I’ve earned them), these questions and more fester and, even though the answers are at the same time blindingly obvious and non-existent, I can’t drop them. I’m still not old enough or wise enough for that.

Real ice-cream

It’s ironic, thinking of those butterflies in my stomach as I camped stealthily in a field just over the Turkish border, wondering if anyone would boot me off their land, seeing as I’d had to spend 4 months seeking out likely-looking souls in rural areas of Europe – usually younger, dressed a little alternatively if possible, looking like they might occasionally pack a bag and sit round a fire in the woods with some mates on a nice summer’s evening – who might latch on when I offered them the opportunity to help a traveller looking for a square of grass on which to spend the night, to ensure that I would be undisturbed and not causing anyone offence.

Ironic, because I quickly learned and never again questioned, while I was crossing the Middle East and Africa and west Asia, that I could ask pretty much anyone in the countryside and camp there and then. Often, delightfully, I would be invited enthusiastically in for a spot of tea and miming as well. I was indignant to ask a couple of old ladies, sitting on little wicker chairs outside a villa in an expansive olive grove such as is common here in Puglia, if I might put my tent under a tree; to be met with frowns, tutting, a very firm shaking of heads and the kind of narrow glare from behind a pair of spectacles that brings home instantly the fact that you have committed an unacceptable breach of etiquette; that you have dared to suggest inviting yourself onto sovereign land, the sole and private enjoyment of which somebody has worked endless years in order to acquire and to defend. To put it bluntly, I felt like a piece of shit.

More questions as we cycled on through endless olive fields and vineyards. Why are those who have the most so unflinching when it comes to denying anyone else access to their riches? Why in this post-Enlightenment cornucopia can’t we enjoy the proven life-enhancing experiences of sharing and connecting with each other, unconditionally, such as our traditional religious guiding principles or otherwise atheistic morals would tell us to do? Who wants to be called a scrooge, a miser, a miserable old fart; to say openly that they would deny help to a person in need? Would I myself act in the same way, if put on the spot, because the society I grew up in dictated that this was the right way to behave?

Road kill

Again, the answers are both obvious and non-existent. And I’m sure that it will take me a long time to untangle this mess of thoughts and emotions. It’s my reflex reaction, my culture shock, and really everyone here is just going about their life, as in the rest of the world, and really I just need to express these frustrations. Because travelling independently in Europe is, contrary to popular belief, relatively difficult. Unless you conform to the standard recipe of suitcase / train / hotel / repeat, it really takes some getting used to, to know how to wiggle through the system in a different way.

To take an obvious example, “camping” does not mean sleeping outside out of necessity as part of a journey. In fact it doesn’t seem to involve sleeping outside at all, nor giving up electricity or anything else to which you might have access in a more-or-less comfortable home. I can count the number of tents here today on the fingers of one hand. Goliath mobile-homes (or camper-vans, or RVs), on the other hand, consume the view in every direction, complete with sun-loungers, 4-burner stoves, electric lighting (indoor and out), and wide-screen televisions.

A single camp-site on the Adriatic coast has a range of facilities outstripping entire nations.

The journey recounted in this archived post is now the subject of the award-winning documentary film Janapar: Love, on a Bike.

Click here to watch the trailer in a new tab →

9 Responses to “Thoughts From The Far End Of Europe (Part 2)”

  1. Fearghal

    You should get in touch with Julian Sayarer when you get back, judging by this post you two angry young men would have lots to talk about ; )

    Seriously, I shared many of those feelings heading back west. Whats truly worrying, is how fast the indignation fades away, and how quickly you slot back in, soon new and shiny will be normal.

    Reply
  2. Alastair Humphreys

    Hi Tom,
    Many of these sentiments resonate with my own thoughts upon returning to Europe.
    But I did differ on one point: you talk about the opulence of Europe, a “fenced playground”. I see your point. But the way I saw Europe when I first returned was “wow – this place is so amazing. This shows the rest of the world what can be achieved. This is the potential.”
    Is the ‘civilisation’ of Europe worth it as a trade-off against a mentality that won’t let you camp in their field (and all that that attitude represents) versus the warmth and openness of most poor parts of the world? It’s a hell of a hard question. And I suspect one’s answer to that depends whether one is a rich European on the inside of the playground romanticising the simplicty of the poor world, or whether you’re a poor person out of Europe thinking that all your problems will be solved if you have an iPhone and all Europe’s riches…

    Reply
    • Tom

      It’s a hard question indeed. You are right of course about Europe being an example of what can be achieved. That’s the slap in the face I mentioned. But it also begs the question – to what end? And at what cost? Is Europe rich because of its own intrinsic qualities, or because of its historical and present-day plunder of third-world labour and resources? And in that context, can the third world ever really catch up?

      Writing this from Rome, it’s bewildering to see what was achieved over 2,000 years ago now crumbling under footsteps and graffiti…

      Reply
  3. Liz Allen

    Interesting and insightful comments above.

    A thought – perhaps you would not be doing your journeying had you not been born into a Western society.

    Your travels have been challenging and enlightening not only for yourself but for us too.

    Enjoy the rest of your time on the road. Take care.

    xx

    Reply
  4. andy

    A really cool blog post. I enjoyed it! I think that ‘people are a product of their environment’ applies strongly. If you have less, you have to worry less about protecting it. If it’s raining outside, you’re more likely to go into the garage and build something complicated.

    I think that we have to look at Europe and say, this is what happens to humans when they have access to resources in abundance combined with various occurences in history. I think there is a lack of enlightenment in a way, but people work so hard in their own contexts, that it’s difficult not to see how much good, wonder and will there is to make things better.

    Education, Education, Education and slow evolution.

    If the science turns out to be correct then we’re in for some big big changes within our lifetimes which are sure to shake things up a bit.

    Chill and enjoy yourself! Say hi to Tenny!

    Hope you are having lots of fun

    Flowers grow better in the sunshine…..

    Tell me if i’m missing the point.

    Where are you in the photos? I want to see you and Tenny and the ice-cream in a photo.

    Reply
  5. Mike Millar

    When did campsites become the preserve of mobile homes. Cycling down through Europe I was often the only camper and felt I was an intruder in a middle age or elderly colony who were just recreating a home somewhere else.

    As for your comments on Europe becoming a fenced in area intent on hanging on to its wealthy privileged enclave, I couldn’t agree more.

    For all that enjoy the trip back home.

    Reply
    • Tom

      I don’t know – I looked in on a couple of campsites which ranked as some of the most depressing places I’ve ever been! Needless to say I didn’t stay. I seem to remember school camping trips involving a field and a tent – not a mobile home in sight. Guess I’m getting old

      Reply

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