Posts Tagged ‘hitch-hiking’

Travel: youth vs age

September 20, 2018

I’m in the middle of reading Klaus Mann’s (son of Thomas Mann) autobiography; in his early twenties he travelled quite widely, fairly randomly, with an open mind and a free spirit. I was reminded of myself at that age; I’ve been travelling again recently – in my sixties – and I also found myself thinking about the differences in my experience then and now.

In my twenties I was carefree and poor. As a student, I saved my pennies and a hundred quid would sustain me abroad for a month in the summer vacation, once I’d got myself across the Channel; then I’d hitchhike wherever the whim and my lifts took me. I travelled light: tent, sleeping bag and rucksack with a few clothes and basic kit was enough. I met lots of different and interesting people who gave me lifts to all sorts of places, and some of whom were generous as well to a not-very-well-off student. I saw a decent amount of France, Germany, the Low Countries over several summers. I fell in love with Provence, and the Loire Valley, and Hessen in Germany. I treated myself to a different cheese every day, as well as cake and ice-cream.

In my sixties, as back then, my time is my own and I can go where I please, but I crave – and probably need – rather more comfort, using basic hotels for overnight stops and renting studios and holiday apartments for longer stays; obviously I drive and I take rather more kit with me nowadays: phone and tablet keep me in touch with home – never bothered about that in the old days! – and I take music and books with me, and a selection of maps and guidebooks… as a student I allowed myself one doorstopper of a novel for my entertainment in the evenings, by candlelight, in my tent. I still treat myself to a bottle of beer in the evening. And what I want to see is still the same: I go for places with a history, and an atmosphere, that I can explore in a leisurely fashion, taking as much time as I like. There’s nothing like spending a couple of days wandering around a town or city for really getting the feel and atmosphere of the place, and I think of all the places I’ve done that – Carcassonne a couple of years ago, where I deliberately got up early to walk the place and take photos before it was swamped by hordes of tourists; Lübeck, GdanskLeipzig, Arles very recently, and I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve spent over the years walking the streets of Paris just to see what would turn up around the next corner.

So, organised tours are not really for me: too quick, and being marshalled off to the next place before I’ve got to grips with where I am today is not for me. I like to be able to spend ages wandering around looking for the perfect spot for photographs, and I like to be able to get up early for a photo session before a place gets crowded out with tourists. Yes, I know I’m one, too!

When I was younger, I think I stored up mental impressions, along the lines of, “I really like this place, I’ll have to come back one day!” whereas now it’s all rather different. Without being too maudlin, there is more of a sense of, “Well, let’s enjoy this place because I might not see it again…” And there is a developing perspective, from all the stunning places I’ve seen (and I’m not that widely travelled, as I don’t fly) that humans have made beautiful and wonderful things and live in such a beautiful world, so why are we ruining it, and treating our fellow humans so abominably? It makes me rather sad, really.

And there are almost no hitchhikers any more: they vanished in the mid-1980s, as I recall, with the advent of cut-price coach, train and air travel, and sadly, as a driver I’ve never been able to repay all the kindness I was shown back in my student days; I can count the number of people I’ve picked up on the fingers of one hand…

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Books that changed my life

August 9, 2018

A fellow-blogger recently posted about books that had changed her life, and I realised I’d never thought about my reading in those terms. Turning to my bookshelves to remind me of such books wasn’t very helpful: I’m a lot older than my fellow blogger, and I realised that I’d actually got rid of a lot of the books that had changed my life, precisely because they had changed me, and I therefore didn’t need them any more… so it became a thinking exercise instead.

41wLBBhi15L._AC_US218_Gordon Rattray Taylor: The Doomsday Book

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, ever since I bought and read this book when came out in the early 1970s: the first book I ever came across that provided detailed evidence of a pollution crisis that was changing the planet. Since then, of course, we’ve had the greenhouse effect, global warming, plastic pollution, CFCs, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and I don’t know what else; we’re still filthying our own nest and denying it. I’ve always thought that small changes collectively make big differences, so I do what I can and preach when I can.

51C7lWT946L._AC_US218_James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This was an A-level set book. It was also about a young man growing up and rejecting the shackles of the Catholic church at the same time as I was growing up and questioning that faith, which I’d also been brought up in. It was about someone who was faced with all sorts of hard choices, and found the courage to take the leap. I was in awe of someone who could decide, in one fell swoop, to leave family, faith and country behind, because he felt they limited and restricted him…

51WlQxTGLFL._AC_US218_Jean-Paul Sartre: Roads to Freedom

This was an incredibly influential trilogy for many in my generation: existentialism (so out of fashion nowadays!) and a stunning BBC television dramatisation that for some unaccountable reason has never been shown again. You are responsible for your life, and the choices you make create your existence, so do something, be something, get on with it. Political engagement was the thing, and though I’ve always been political, I’ve never had much faith in politicians or political parties, I’m afraid.

317RC0nV1EL._AC_US218_Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

The personal is political, said the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies, and that chimed in with what I was realising about my life and the choices I was making about it. I pick this novel as representative of the numerous feminist texts and novels by women I read at this time and which influenced me in different ways. It’s a feminist science-fiction novel and feminist utopia, too, which pulls no punches.

51K2ncM1zsL._AC_US218_Jack Kerouac: On The Road

I was also a hippy in those days, and Kerouac’s book was our bible: self-discovery through travel. I never got to hitch-hike across the USA, but this book inspired me to do lots of travelling around Britain and Europe using the power of the thumb. Thousands of miles a year, many practical – as in saving money while a relatively poor student – and also many on holiday in Europe. France was always a bugger, usually because of drivers’ insurance rules; Germany and the Low Countries were a lot friendlier, as was Switzerland, although every Swiss person who gave me a lift emphasised how bourgeois and unfriendly their nation was, while treating me very kindly… I met lots of really interesting people, too. Sadly, by the time I got a car of my own, hitchikers had largely disappeared, due to cheaper bus and train travel, and Thatcherism.

51ZOka6wyzL._AC_US218_W Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge

Another of my reads as a teenager, this was about the need to explore one’s spiritual impulses, featuring characters in the nineteen-thirties who travelled widely, including to India, which was where many went much later in search of enlightenment. It opened my eyes to possibilities, which I have never lost sight of completely, though I may have been temporarily sidetracked.

51d-U+XeXPL._AC_US218_Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

Every hippy and many students read Hesse in the seventies; most of his books still grace my bookshelves, though the appeal has narrowed itself down to this single volume to which I have returned nostalgically a number of times. Set in mediaeval times it focuses on two friends’ life journeys. One fixes himself in a monastery and devotes himself to contemplation and the spiritual life, the other goes out into the world to make a life and a living. Their paths cross and re-cross for a lifetime as they both seek and find satisfaction, and are thwarted by the frustrations of their choices. To me, that is life. I love this book.

41CD6F0HV7L._AC_US218_Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

Only one book has joined the list of influential ones in my middle years. This quietist novel, written in the aftermath of the Great War when everyone was sickened by what it said about us as a species, seeks rest in isolation, and satisfaction with little in material terms, focussing on the inner life and looking for where contentment may be found. I like it very much, because it came along at a certain point in my life when I was beginning to realise the need to slow down, and accept that I’d ‘ambitioned’ enough, as it were; it was time to become more reflective about what I had achieved, and contemplate the next, and different, stage of life.

It was an interesting exercise, putting this list and summary together. I think I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned changed the way I looked at the world and the way I think about it, or the ways I look at myself, and so have, in various, often indiscernible ways, changed my life.

 

My travels: H for hitch-hiking

January 21, 2017

Students didn’t have much money in my day; true, you were given some, in the form of a grant, rather than lent more to saddle you with debt at an early age as today’s students are, and you could sign on as available for work and claim supplementary benefit during all the vacations. This was in the days before cheap coach travel and the invention of the student rail card, so a goodly number of us resorted to hitch-hiking as a means of travel. It cost you the bus fare to the edge of a city and then thumb out, with a destination sign to be helpful if you were organised, and off you went… Some days you were lucky and reached your goal as quickly as if you had been on a train, other days it was a slow and painful collection of short lifts, perhaps standing for ages in poor weather.

But most of the time it was fun: I met lots of interesting people who stopped to give me lifts, both lorry drivers and car drivers. Conversations were interesting: justifying one’s existence as a student of English Literature to a lorry-driver who was supporting me through his taxes could be a challenge… My one regret was I never got a lift in a Rolls: I met several people who had. I’m aware that it was probably safer for males, particularly travelling alone as I did most of the time; nevertheless I did meet solo female hitchers fairly often, and they always got picked up first. And in all my years of hitching – about ten, in all – I can only recall two dodgy lifts.

I used to hitch around Western Europe during my summer holidays. It was relatively easy in Holland and Germany, OK in Belgium although the police were quite heavy about where you happened to be standing, and in France it was very variable: it could take ages to get anywhere, or it could be very quick, but lorry drivers never picked you up; I gather this was something to do with insurance over there. There was a great feeling of freedom: with my necessary worldly goods – tent, sleeping bag, snacks and water – in a rucksack, I’d set off in the morning with an idea of where I intended to get by the evening, but willing to be flexible. I sometimes encountered great adventures: once, heading north from Provence I got a lift with several students, intending to stop off and look at Montelimar. I was told Montelimar was dull and boring (I really don’t know, as I’ve never been there) and invited to join them for a few days up in the mountains of Savoie. Why not, I thought? And had a marvellous time, ate fondue for the first time, went above the snow-line for the first time, stayed in a lovely free campsite near the Italian border, and did some marvellous walking.

I’ve been fed for nothing, offered spare beds for the night, discovered places I’d never otherwise have gone to, had fascinating conversations, spent a drunken evening trying to outwit the French Foreign Legion (not on my own, I had a drunken Belgian companion)… it was truly a marvellous way to travel, meet people and have fun.

And then suddenly, there were cheap coaches, student train fares and Thatcherism, and almost all the hitch-hikers seemed to disappear, certainly in Britain. And as I got older and slightly wealthier I managed to be able to run a small cheap car, and kept a look out for kindred spirits, but found very few of them…

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