Seven a.m. on a Sunday morning. Glass, neon and chrome drive silently up into the dawn sky. The engine’s monotone grumble dies out with a hiss, and the far-off squabbling of a rag-tag band of revellers gives away its position on the far side of a huge, empty thoroughfare.
I’ve been on the bus for twenty hours already, and I’m hungry. I’ve only a vague idea of where I am on the map – somewhere near the north-west coast of Germany, I decide, on the way up towards Denmark’s peninsular. A brief survey of the area reveals that my choice of breakfast will extend to a refrigerated sandwich from a newsagent or one of McDonalds’ early-morning delights. I begrudgingly opt for the latter, foregoing the coffee option in favour of a singular egg and bacon McMuffin. I’m secretly angered by the fact that it’s the best McMuffin I can ever remember eating.
Fifteen hours to go, I think as I munch my way through the spongy handful of salt and fat that I’ve been blackmailed into buying. At least it’s all going to be done in one day, though, and I don’t have to spend another night on this damned bus, roaring through the incessant blackness, with nothing to distinguish between one dark blur of a crash barrier and the next, nor between one generic pre-fab service station and its thousands of identical cousins.
As the engine roars back into life and scattered passengers begin to drift together at the footplate, I look forward to my arrival in a new and unfamiliar city in the north of Europe. I take my seat behind a man who has barely stopped talking into his mobile phone for the last five hours. I wonder what my fellow passengers make of him, with his unmistakeable Middle-Eastern complexion, brash manner and exotic-sounding tongue.
I realise that I’m probably the only passenger who can tell that he’s from northern Iraq, and that he’s been using no fewer than three languages all of this time, switching between dialects of Arabic and Farsi and his native Kurdish depending on which of his seeminly vast cohort of friends is on the other end of the line. It is a strange, voyeuristic, and somehow alienating kind of feeling to have, this solitary recognition of a little-known culture in the most unlikely of places, and it strikes me how meaningless any judgement of this man would have been had I not had the opportunity to educate myself to the point where I felt this bizarre familiarity.
Daylight brings the world back into view from my window-seat vantage point. I know there’ll be a final killer slog from the bus station to my host’s flat in the early hours of Monday; stumbling through the night with a disassembled bicycle and a full complement of deep-winter cycle touring equipment hanging off my shoulders. It’ll be a slog which will bring tears to my eyes and curses to my mouth, but which I know will make that friendly welcome, that cup of tea and that first proper night’s sleep in several days all the more sweet.