Red Rock, by Alessandro Pozzolo

I sat on the raw wood bench outside the hut. The sun had yet to show from behind the rugged peaks, and the whole big mass of Mount Cevedale towered over me. Jagged peaks and crevices carved themselves into the twilight, ridges and gorges cut through the rock with surgical precision. The glacier’s soft fur draped itself over these shapes, white amidst the black and grey. I had an urge to reach out with my hand, perhaps to feel the texture of the icy coat.

A creak of tired wood. Good morning Bear Grylls, said Mattia. He was holding two steaming Styrofoam cups. What counsel are the mountains bringing today?

I smiled. They look so close. You feel like you could touch them.

The only feeling I have is I wanna get back in bed, Mattia said.

It’ll shake off as soon as we get going. I took a swig of coffee.

We sat for a while, our breath rising in plumes over our heads and into the crisp air. The only sound was the roar of the many streams coming down from the ices, passing on their way to the green valley below.

You’d think we’ve fallen into a postcard, if not for this racket, said Mattia.

It’s part of actually being here, and not in the postcard.

Mattia lifted his arms and stretched. I don’t know. It unsettles me.

I went inside and packed the jackets and the emergency thermal coat and the water flask in my bag. I thanked the German maid and walked out. Mattia was sat on the bench, wiggling his leg as he scrolled through his phone. It says there’s loads of minerals in this region, he said.

Nice. I shouldered my backpack, my eyes on the Cevedale. You ready?

As ever.

Let’s go. I clipped the strap across my chest and we set off.

We trundled up the dusty path, stepping over rocks and down narrow slopes and twisting into the face of the mountain. Our boots thumped on the hard soil like the beating of drums, and this gave us pace and drove us on. Our breaths clung in the cold air like daggers, and they rose over the rumble of the gorges. My heavy and deep breaths, Mattia’s fast and quiet ones, like a constant whisper.

Mattia stopped. One moment, he said. This right here. This is agate.

I looked back. Are you sure?

Mattia was turning a hand-sized stone an inch from his eyes. He squinted at it. Nah, probably not, he said finally.

OK. We have to keep moving.

Mattia chucked the pseudo-agate and it rattled off the slope.

You know not to throw stones downhill, I said. The rattling stopped.

Especially precious stones.

Funny.

I looked at him. Come on, we have a while still.

I think that’s the peak right there, Mattia said.

Could be. Maybe it’s the one behind it. Let’s go.

It can’t be that much further. We’ve been going on for a while now. The maid said two and a half hours.

I sighed. I unslung my bag and put it on a boulder. I took my flask from the side pocket. Water?

We drank and set off again. Stretches of trail appeared in front of us past bends and boulders. My calves screamed with each step, but I relished the pain. Sweat dripped crimson on the red stone and crawled into my eyes. We talked. We felt the textures of each other’s lives. The sweat and the tightness of the path drew our souls out for scrutiny, as if teased by the limpid air. We sensed where they converged and where they differed, but they wound together nonetheless against the hard mountain.

Surely it is that peak there, Mattia said.

We’d flanked a valley up to an escarpment from where a murky gorge scarred its way down. The path zigzagged up the valley’s left wall.

Could be.

Dull thuds as he caught up. We walked. The peak wasn’t this one, and it wasn’t the next one on, either. We crossed that same gorge further upstream, jumping from stone to stone over the rushing water. I held my bag tightly against my body. Mattia eyed the gaps between the rocks with suspicion before taking each leap.

They didn’t think to build a bridge, did they?

Why don’t you build one?

We made our way through a murky flatland of melted ices encased in red stone, a swamp piled with afterthoughts of the land. Here the water’s grumble subsided, but a cold wind swept down from the glacier as if screaming at the two intruders.

I think we gotta cross this.

What? Mattia took the opportunity to stop.

The glacier. The maid said we gotta cross it.

We’d climbed a shelf over the flatland and could now see a great white tongue of ice licking down from the left. Beyond it many peaks chiselled bits from the sky. They were trimmed in white by the recent snow.

I put my bag down and took out Mattia’s jacket. Want it?

Mattia looked ahead. Yeah, sure.

I gave him the jacket and took mine and zipped it to my chin.

Fucking glacier, he said.

I looked ahead, squinting at the sunlight that reflected off the ice.

I pointed at the highest peak in the crest. That must be Cima Rossa di Saent, over there.

Mattia grunted. And that the pass. He squatted to look at a pile of stones.

Damn bloggers find minerals everywhere. Don’t know where they find them, he said. Let’s go?

I lifted a hand to my eyes. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re gonna cross.

How about right through the middle.

I looked at Mattia. What?

Right there, grey line through the middle. Thin air working on your brain? Mattia patted me on the back and started walking forwards.

Shit, you’re right. I slung the bag onto my shoulders and started after him.

We set off across the ice, which was crumpled into small gleaming clusters. It crunched, but our soles left no imprint. We crunched on, and the wind swept across the alien landscape. The going was choppy and the distances ephemeral. We were trapped in this maze of white and the pass loomed above us.

Mattia stopped. Man, it looks like we aren’t making any progress.

We’ll get there. Look behind you.

Mattia turned back. The grey trail cut through the ice straight and true, a downhill reflection of the way forwards. He put his hands on his knees.

This ice just gets me out of the mood.

I lifted my gaze to the Cevedale, peeking out from behind the red rock.

What, said Mattia. What’s that face?

I don’t know, I like this place.

Me too. We could build a nice igloo and come live here. What do you think?

I smiled. Come on, let’s go.

We set off once again. Step by step, we crossed the vastness and soon the rubble wall beneath the pass was upon us.

Almost. There.

Last few steps, I said.

We stepped onto the muddy rock and our mountain shoes gripped the soil as if grateful to be out of the ice.

Whew. Mattia was looking the way we’d come. It wasn’t even that far, after all, he said.

Really.

Imagine skiing down. You’d be at the bottom in like a minute.

Sure you would.

Thirty metres separated us from the top of the rise. We walked halfway up, to where a landslide had torn away a horizontal section of path. The rocky soil was muddy from the ice and when I put my foot forward, a hand-sized stone dislodged and tumbled down.

Careful here, I said. The soil gives way.

Mattia chuckled. I can see that.

I grabbed the side of a large rock which jutted out of the muddy wall and used it to keep my balance. I moved sideways, as if negotiating my way through a thin crevice. There was a small lump of soil sticking out from the steep rubble drop, and I put one and then both feet on it. It sagged under my weight but seemed to hold. I looked at the path ahead.

Jesus –

Falling rubble. I turned and Mattia was crouching low and leaning against the muddy slope. One foot was firmly planted in a depression in the earth, the other was swinging limply in the air. A shower of stones tumbled down the slide, onto the ice twenty metres below.

I crouched and leaned forward. I put my right hand on the stone I’d used to aid my passage and reached out with the other.

Here. Give me a hand, I said.

No. I’m good, man. Don’t worry.

I looked at Mattia’s eyes, two dark spots in his taut face.

Seriously, I got you.

I said don’t worry.

I pushed back and got my balance again. I turned around and scrambled on. My feet sunk at every step and the soil threatened to give way. I flicked a glance ahead and took a last leap to where the path emerged from the rubble, but my hands gripped a rock which came loose and fell past my face. I lost my balance and flew backwards.

Whoaaa. I tore into the muddy side of the cliff with both hands, digging deep with my nails. At last, I came to a halt. I pulled myself back up.

Fucking hell, I said. I was panting. I looked at the stones racketing down.

That could have been you, man.

Mattia was right behind me. He dug his left foot into the side of the cliff and tested the hold, then stepped easily onto the path.

That’s right, I said. That could have been me. I wiped my muddy hands on my trousers and looked at the drop.

We walked up the last stretch in silence. At the pass a wooden pole had been dug into the ground and set firm with a circle of rocks at its base. The sign read Bocca di Saent sud – 3121m. On the other side of the pole, an arrowed sign pointed back the way we had come and read Rifugio Cevedale. Beyond, the path walked into nothing, and under that nothing were the vast floodplains a thousand feet below, where wild grass grew and a stream, pregnant with glacier water, cut through the green.

Finally, Mattia said. He collapsed at the base of the sign.

I set the bag down and looked around.

On either side, the jagged line of the crest carried on and rose and fell like the spine of some prehistoric creature. It curved inwards, enclosing the sea of white out of which we had come. Mount Cevedale towered proudly above it all, gleaming in the dazzling light. Everything else in the sky-blue day was red rock.

What a place, I said.

Sure. Can I have some water?

There isn’t any. I grinned.

Very funny. Give it, fast.

I raised my eyebrows. I reached down and pulled the red flask out of my bag.

Mattia took the flask and started tipping it over his open mouth.

I’ll be damned –

Mattia stopped. He looked at me.

I’ll be damned if you don’t let water fall out that way.

Mattia tipped the flask once again. He kept his gaze on me as he let the water trickle into his mouth, drip by drip, then he puffed his cheeks and gulped it down.

Here you go, he said. I figure you earned it more than me.

Oh yeah? I took the flask.

You got damn close to not drinking any more water in your life.

I shrugged, then took a swig. You know I’m going up to Cima Rossa.

Mattia studied the pile of rocks at the base of the sign. He picked up a small one and frowned at it. You sure that’s a good idea?

I took a long swig. Positive.

Alright then. Mattia chucked the stone. Well, don’t ask.

I’m not asking.

Good.

To the left of the path, the jagged rock crest rose and then dropped out of view and then rose up again to Cima Rossa. White patches of snow winked on its surface.

You want the last of the water? I said.

You’re gonna need it more than me.

I screwed the cap back on. Thanks.

We sat for a while. Wind gushed through the pass, as if trying to drive its two ridges further apart. I stood up.

So here we split, Mattia said.

Yeah.

We lingered for a moment in front of each other, then I turned and slung my bag over my shoulders. I faced the crest, then turned to look at Mattia.

So I’ll see you in a couple hours.

Yes. See ya.

I clipped the strap on my bag shut.

So how am I meant to get down from here?

What do you think?

Well, you’re the one who brought me here, so.

Just follow the path.

He sighed. Alright.

I started walking off.

Hey man, Mattia said.

Yeah.

Be careful. Your mum already hates me.

The hell she does. I pulled on the straps and looked at the ground. Don’t worry.

I began climbing the layers of red rock which laddered their way up to the first rise. I turned. Mattia was trotting down the path right before it bent out of view.

Mattia?

The tiny white face looked up.

If I’m not at the hut in a couple hours, tell them where I was headed.

My voice rolled across the rocks. Mattia raised a hand and was gone.

I made easy progress to the first rise. The crest was several metres wide, and it curved down gently on both sides. There was no path, so I could walk wherever I wanted. My breath coated the silence and I trod across thin patches of snow. They were flaky under my feet, and wet. I looked ahead, and the many fragments of red rock gleamed like shards of glass in the sunlight. Sahara waves were coming off them. I opened my jacket, but no wind blew through it now and I lifted a hand to my forehead. It came off wet, too.

I followed the crest, negotiating my way past jagged rocks. The sharp edges left imprints on the insides of my hands. I scrambled up a shelf which jutted out diagonally, struggling to find grip on its flat, rugged surface. I looked behind me but there was no trace of my passage along the crest. Pink Floyd played over and over in my head, Nick Mason juggling with my heartbeat.

Hello?

Is there anybody in there?

Leather fibre, slithering on rock. I recoiled and lost my footing. I set my left foot behind me, and the stones ground into each other under the sudden weight. I waited, my ears a shower of falling stones. My foot held.

Just nod if you can hear me.

I looked at the steep dyke to my left, fifty metres down to the glacier. Stones were toppling down and Nick crashed on the drums. A rock twinkled in its fall. Perhaps a mineral.

My eyes darted from surface to surface, and every crevice and depression held a hissing menace in its shadows. Tentative steps brought me forwards as I reached out with trembling hands. The mountain. The hard mountain where you are alone. I scrambled on. I passed a small depression in the crest, and then the final climb to the top lay in front of me. Down to the right, the floodplains lay like a dream, and what had to be Rifugio Dorigoni was a tiny black speck in their middle. I pulled myself up onto a large boulder, and a few metres away was the cross, jutting out with a general defiance to the outdoors, its wooden poles held together by a rusted metal wire. I wavered forward like walking barefoot on gravel. I reached. I touched the cross and banged against the faded wood, then I just leaned on it with closed eyes. The summit was only a metre wide, with a sheer drop in every direction. I took a few steps pawing at the ground and reached a tiny pile of rocks. I collapsed with my bag to the side, putting an arm around it for fear that my sole companion would topple down.

In every direction, layers of mountains stretched out under the sky’s blue vault. A narrow, steep gulley cut downwards to the sea of ice. The flatland we had crossed lay beyond, and further still, the land dropped into unseen valleys and rose again to the grey and white forms of the Paganella. Mount Cevedale scrambled out from behind the red ridges which encased the glacier, as crisp as ever under the sun’s slow rays. A gleam on the white summit, perhaps the metal cross. To be there would mean to tower over all.

Compelled by a sudden urge, I started grabbing hand-sized bits of red rock and piling them into a small tower next to where I sat. This barren land would bear witness to my passage. I shoved stone over stone.

A far cry. I leaned to look below. A tiny black dash was cutting through the ice, racing across with uncanny speed. It quivered, adjusting its wings, then dove out of view. I looked from the half-finished pile of rocks, to my palms. A trickle of blood was snaking down the side of my hand. I licked the cut.

The wind had stopped now, and for a while I just sat there, my irises reflecting the dazzling colours. Then I looked down at the whole big mass of the glacier stretching out below like spilt milk. My mouth was parched so I took out the flask and raised a shaking hand. I took a long swig, but the water tasted metallic like betrayal.

My phone buzzed. I marvelled that the connection would work up here. I pulled it out and opened the last of four new messages. A picture of a stone split in half flashed back at me. Inside it, a maze of soothing patterns of violet and purple velvet.

I found an agate! the message read.

Making Macarons in Paris, by Isobel Kay

A Short, Sweet Lesson in French-Muslim History

Parfait, Alice!’

Our instructor Guillaume, a French pastry chef, claps his hands in rapturous satisfaction. My twelve-year-old daughter carries on whisking the ganache, hiding as best she can behind her long ponytail, trying not to let the blonde tip fall into the molten chocolate mixture.

Macarons have become uber-trendy recently, and we are cracking open their secrets in the stuffy basement of a Parisian cooking school. In two hours, we will learn how to perfect the round meringues, filling them with a white chocolate and espelette pepper ganache.

It’s my daughter’s first visit to Paris. ‘No museums, no tours,’ she had stipulated. So I searched for an activity that encapsulated the refinement of French culture – its finesse, elegance and endurance. Macarons seemed to fit the bill.

A final burst of summer sunshine bathes the city when we arrive. We drive past young Parisians sprawled along the canal, their gestures languid in the late afternoon heat.

The taxi driver points to a row of restaurants. ‘Le connaissezvous?’ he asks. I read the sign above the boarded-up shop front. The Bataclan nightclub. Yes, I reply, I know all about it. I watched all the news coverage. My daughter asks me what we are chatting about.

How much do I tell her about the terrorist attack that struck at the very heart of the city, a symbolic blow against a culture and its youth, leaving 130 dead? I give her the bare bones, torn between educating her about world events and scaring her. I don’t want to replace the beauty, history and romance with fear. But Paris is still on high alert. Am I being reckless, putting her in unnecessary danger?

Guillaume’s passion for pastry shines brighter than terrorist acts of hate, and my worries fade as I mix and weigh. He shows us a few tricks (fast-boil the cream and don’t stir, start whipping the egg whites when the sugar water is one hundred and eight degrees, tap the tray three times before putting it into the oven). Alice’s piping is much better than mine. Her shells are consistent and evenly spaced. ‘Parfait, Alice!’ becomes Guillaume’s constant refrain.

Her confections represent more than just her culinary success; they’re a sweet step in the long courtship dance between Arabs and Europeans.

Medieval Muslims brought an almond-paste dessert wrapped in dough over to Sicily. From there it spread, in an adapted form, throughout Italy, Spain, France, even into the UK. Several centuries later, two Benedictine nuns, driven from their convent after the French Revolution, developed the dessert further, embracing the little pastry into the heart of French cuisine. They started a shop, Maison des Soeurs Macarons. House of the Macaron Sisters. It still exists in Nancy today. And then, in the late 19th century, two Parisian bakers took the credit for refining the sweet treat into what we are trying to make today – two shells sandwiched with a ganache or paste filling. Commercialisation of this little colourful meringue biscuit was finalised in the early 20th century by the tea salon Ladurée, now a famous brand.

Guillaume wrinkles up his nose when he hears the name. He encourages us to visit instead the patissiers Jacques Génin or Pierre Hermé, the latter renowned for his Persian-inspired Ispahan filling of rose, raspberry and lychee, a reference to the macaron’s Muslim heritage.

We finish our three-day trip to Paris with a DIY, mapless late-night journey, when the City of Light lives up to its moniker. We use the Velib bikes, the free bike hiring system (illegally as it turns out – minimum age is fourteen). We watch the Eiffel Tower’s hourly spectacle of sparkling LEDs from the Trocadero and freewheel down the cobbles of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. We negotiate traffic in the Place de la Concorde, linger at The Louvre and ethereal pyramid, and float past Notre Dame Cathedral, in all its medieval glory.

‘That was brilliant!’ Alice says. I smile and thank Paris for creating memories that will last a lifetime.

The next day, when we are back home in England, the Parisian police find an abandoned car with seven gas cylinders near Notre Dame. They think it was a test run for another terrorist attack. In the comfort of my own kitchen, I listen to the details on the radio and pick up the last of our home-made macarons. I bite into its glossy meringue shell that gives way to a slightly chewy centre. It melts in my mouth – a filling as rich and complex as its history. ‘Macaron’ possibly comes from an Arabic word. And on the radio, I hear the Italian prime minister’s response to the last attack. ‘They imagine terror; we answer with culture.’

Parfait indeed, Guillaume.

Keeping Up the Training, by Alisha and the Duck

Trains. They are still the love of our Japanese life! Since the duck and I take trains pretty regularly now, we’ve had lots of opportunities to make mistakes, and learn from them, and to assemble a rather random set of experiences – and photos of the duck posing at train stations. (What a weirdo).

 

Duck photo 1

 

In fact, we have enough individual notes on train-related ideas, observations and experiences to fill a whole feature-length screenplay – for the most boring movie ever made. Anyway, this time, let’s focus on a few of the mistakes and educational experiences the duck and I have made and had in our earlier train days:

Some Cor-Track-Tions

Is this title too far-fetched? Well, even for the bad-pun-phobes among you, I’m pretty sure that the following paragraphs are pretty self-explanatory, even without a good title. (When did we stop caring? I don’t know).

#1 Sleeper Trains

Or, rather, sleepers on the train (‘Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf****** sleepers on this motherf****** train!. Anyone? No? Also, my feelings toward train-sleepers aren’t that strong, really – I just thought this quotation to be fitting). I mentioned before that sleeping seat neighbours who subconsciously try to turn your shoulders into a temporary low-grade pillow are pretty common. (If you’re a comfy, feathered duck, however, good luck trying to escape from the surprisingly strong grip of exhaustion from your shoulder-pillow-users who’d prefer to make the encounter a rather permanent one). I still support my theory that some time spent on Tokyo trains can cure a mild fear of contact. However, I have since experienced a new kind of fear: the fear for my very life! Let me elaborate:

I am fortunate(?) enough to have rather short legs and, if there’s a back-rest, I tend to sit pretty upright. Because of that, my shoulders have the perfect height for short to average-height train-sleepers. Sometimes, however, if my sleeping seat neighbours are much taller than me, I experience the occasional fear for my safety; I’m sure you’ve seen people who are about to fall asleep, observed in amazement how their heads seemed to turn into bowling balls being pulled down by the force (some might call it ‘gravity’) with only the last remnants of a waking state abruptly pulling their heads back up, on occasion. This sudden motion that is usually so entertaining to watch – from a distance – shows its ugly face when you cannot escape; pair that with the regular shaking of a train and you get a final-destination-type death ball! See, unlike the duck I do not have a feathered safety cushion around my whole body, so a journey next to a train-powered heavy-weight death trap comes with a healthy portion of adrenaline. I wrote ‘cannot escape’; technically, I could, but, in reality, sometimes seats are more important than safety (*gasp* – some people would be shocked to read this sentence from me)!

 

Duck photo 2

 

#2 The Seat Game

Flashback to Saturday afternoon: I was working on the draft for this post while I was sitting on a train that had departed at busy Shinjuku; I had gotten on a stop after. This might not look like something to be too excited about, but, according to the rules of the seat game, a lot of knowledge (and, admittedly, a healthy portion of luck) had gone into my securing a seat in that particular situation. A few weeks back, when the duck and I were still pretty new to the seat game, we found ourselves on a rather rural train where most passengers were sitting. Still, during our 40-minute ride, we had to observe several seats being taken by other passengers. Only for the last stop did I summon up my courage and almost jumped into the freshly vacated seat, still warm from the previous user’s butt-heat (I didn’t have to go there … but I did. Oh well.), that the duck and I would be sharing for five minutes – too worried had we been about being those foreigners who embarrass themselves (unsuccessfully) rushing to catch a seat as if it was their life’s top-priority (which, it is, but not everybody needs to know that).
In the past few weeks, however, the duck and I have been studying the game’s rules religiously:

Unless you’re one of those characters who like to film ‘the ever-changing scenery steadily passing by while contemplating life’,¹ i.e., a lost cause, your goal is to ride the train as comfortably as possible. The closer you are to the first station of a line and the sooner you get to the train station, the better your chances are of securing one of those attractive seats. But oftentimes you cannot easily influence what station you use and even if you are the first person to arrive at that station – gosh, you could even camp there overnight – that will not guarantee you a seat. (Well, actually, getting a seat before rush hour shouldn’t be too difficult but that’s beside the point). So, if you are in a position where you can choose your standing place on the train there are two options: Either you are optimistic – in that case you go for a spot right in the middle of a row of seats in the hope that somebody will get off and leave their seat to you soon. Or you are pessimistic – in that case you go for the spot right next to the door. There you can comfortably lean against the little compartment wall on the side of the seats and, if you pull in your stomach enough, you don’t have to worry about others not being able to get off the train. Except, of course, there is a big stroller right next to you blocking the way to the door during rush hour. Then you will probably lose your beautiful door spot to a sneaky person who just got on the train and does not mind the angry glares you are sending over. Not for nothing is it said that trains are where 86% of life-long hostilities are born. The popularity of the line and time of day, of course, also play a crucial role in the seat game. But this paragraph is already too long.

 

Duck photo 3

 

#3 Learning from Mistakes (Twice Made) / Becoming Train Smart

In my last post about trains I pretended to have learned everything (or at least a little) about planning out journeys and reading the whole route suggestion. I yet had to learn, however, that once the planning is done you should not turn off your brain. Sometimes (though rarely) a train will be late and leave you to decide in seconds which course of action you’ll take next. During the notorious early train days I found myself in such a situation, and, a bit too confident in my notice board reading and understanding skills, I took the wrong course of action. My journey planner had told me to change onto a certain train at a specific time at one of two particular platforms. The info board at said platforms, however,  did not show that train. So, I decided to just get on the train that would leave the soonest going more or less in the right direction. I would have to change at the next station anyway. Well, let me tell you how that turned out: the train I was meant to take was a local one. The one I had gotten on, however, was not. So, my train skipped two stations, I got off at the next possible stop, took a special rapid back into the other direction, passing the fateful station of wrong decisions, and made my way to central Tokyo for a different route to my destination – the one I had initially decided not to take because of delays. Now those delays were my saviour! Fortunately, there are often several connections to get you from A to B so that, if you are lucky and early enough, there is some room to err. (You might end up paying more, though – which is a good incentive to still arrive at your station punctually, plan in getting-lost time and keep your eyes and brain wide open).

 

Duck photo 4

 

That shall be it for today, but, be warned, there are many more where this came from!
Until then, we’ll be keeping up the training (50 bonus train points for instant-pun-recycling)!

 

1 Some weirdo in a video.

 

Reproduced, with kind permission of the author, from: https://theduckin.wordpress.com/.

 

Why Every Motherland Needs Wandering Bards, by Rosemary Kay

I am a better person for living alongside Syrians, Italians, Libyans, Spaniards, Egyptians, Germans, Afghans, Nigerians. And of course I am a better person for having helped other humans in need. Just as I am a richer person having visited Rome, California, Belgrade, Istanbul. My work is better, my health is better, my family is better, my brain is better … And our society is better when others come to our country and we go to theirs

I am a writer who loves to travel. I am a reader who likes to read about travel, about other people, about other cultures. If you’re not interested in other people and their cultures, you can’t expect them to care about yours. And sometimes it’s by experiencing another culture that you can understand who you are and where you come from. How many times have you come back from a journey, time spent away from home, and realised when you opened your own front door, what it is that you missed? (I once spent four months in hospital and it was only when I came home that I realised how much colour there was in my house. And that it smelt of wood and lemons, rather than Dettol). Travel does that – it re-introduces you to your own life, allowing you to see it with fresh eyes.

Even if you’re not a fan of travel yourself, you’ve got to accept that a world without travel would be a poorer place. Even if you only walk a hundred yards down the road to get a bag of oranges, then you’ve travelled, and the journey will have been of use and probably some interest. And those oranges you bought, well they travelled too, they have a story to tell, a story from Seville, or maybe California. And if you hate oranges and only travel as far as your local newsagent’s to get a packet of fags – well where has the tobacco come from?

Even if you’re not a fan of travel yourself, you’ve got to accept that a world without travel would be a poorer place

So no one can really say they don’t approve of travel, per se. What some seem to be saying, of late is that they don’t approve of other people travelling. They want the right to movement if it concerns themselves, but people moving towards them, into their own spaces, that scares them. I don’t know why it should. There are always bad, exploitative or scary people, in every demographic, but having travelled is not a condition for being bad, exploitative or scary. You’re as likely to be endangered by a native with a grudge or an agenda, as you are by people who’ve been on a journey. And travellers have great stories to tell, although it does help if they are interesting people, which travellers usually are. Of course, some people can make a trip to the Galápagos Islands sound tedious, and yet others, like my eighty-year-old uncle and aunt who visit the same place in Fuerteventura every year, are delightful raconteurs. Mind you, their Canary Island retreat is a nudist resort …

What some seem to be saying, of late is that they don’t approve of other people travelling. They want the right to movement if it concerns themselves, but people moving towards them, into their own spaces, that scares them

But isn’t telling stories about journeys part of our culture? Classical literature, upon which our own is built, was all about epic journeys. Look at the narratives of Homer, for example, The Iliad and The Odyssey. And then there are Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare, who set twenty-nine of his thirty-eight plays outside England (Venice, Athens, Lebanon, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Yugoslavia, Turkey…). And what about those seminal novels like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Bottom of the Sea? You could argue that all literature is taking us on a journey from our own world, into another storyworld, and all the work celebrated in The Wandering Bard will do that, but it will also chart modern day odysseys, by contemporary Wandering Bards.

I want to read the work of any writers who have stories of travel to tell: the writers who got on a bike, or a boat or a plane, landed in an alien culture, and made their home among us, and who are now entertaining us, enriching us, nursing us, teaching us, or mending our boilers; or the travellers who have fled their homelands and who tell stories of that terrible flight, who look back with yearning and nostalgia to their lost motherland, and might recreate and explain their memories for us; or those travel writers who have the wandering bug, who can’t stay in one place for long, but crave to be moving, diving into experiences anew, with such an eye for the nuances of new places, that they can take us to transformative worlds just through the power of their words. Indeed, I embrace any writer who has stories about the places they have known, people they have met, the food, the music, the geography, the joys and agonies, the moments of humour and humanity.

And what such writing impresses upon me, is that no matter how exotic the journeys, how different another culture might be from our own understanding of who we are, there is always a deep connection between reader and writer, because these stories of foreign lands, or journeys from place to place, tell us what it means to be human. Every culture has its own idiosyncrasies, but some elements of humanity persist, wherever you live. The further away we travel, the more obvious it is that humanity, in essence, is the same, whether it’s in Rome, in Montana, or in Vladivostock.

So anyone who disagrees with travel, who thinks that everyone else should stay in the place they were born, is either not being honest, or not understanding how travel enhances their lives, or using a fear-of-things-new to corrupt democracy. Recently some agitators, intent on moulding public opinion to benefit their own agenda, claimed that the majority of British people don’t approve of travel, don’t want to be part of any community where there is movement of people. Which of course is nonsense, since the majority of people in Britain travel on a daily basis, from town to town, for work perhaps, or to visit the new out-of-town mall, and often, they might even go on holiday. And let me tell you, even if you take your holiday somewhere in Britain, you are still travelling into alien territory. Whether it’s from Devon to Cornwall, from Manchester to Liverpool, you are still crossing from one culture to another, to places where you will be treated as different. I lived in Cornwall once, and was of course a foreigner, because I came from the frozen north, somewhere near Buxton; and even though I was welcomed warmly as some exotic species of interloper, I was often made aware of their suspicions of anyone ‘from across the border’, by which they meant the border with Devon.
Indeed, to truly experience the implications of travel, you need to live in a place much smaller than Cornwall. I was born in a tiny Pennine village called Wincle (pronounced like the shell-fish, and yes it’s a real place) and it was so tiny it consisted of no more than twenty households. Despite its size, however, its sense of community was large. The inhabitants had deep-rooted suspicions and suppressed hostilities for the next village up the valley, the equally tiny, Wildboarclough, (yes another real place, idyllic part of the world). And the boundaries between the two villages were strong – we might as well have been separated by the English Channel. Yet, we all had to share the same school, the same river, and my best friend lived not in my village but in the next. So the enmity had to be jovial.

Every culture has its own idiosyncrasies, but some elements of humanity persist, wherever you live

It really isn’t so very different from the jovial love-hate relationship between France and the UK, or Germany and France. We all feel pride for our own community, we all need to feel we belong to a ‘tribe’, a place we call home, but that shouldn’t stop us from travelling from one place to another. Because sometimes you need to nip over to the next village, because their village store is better stocked on a Friday than yours (better liquorice whirls). The journey itself will provide stories, especially in winter, when the roads fill with snow. And the clash of cultures could provide plenty of lively stories in one of the many pubs, (there were more pubs than houses in Wincle, whereas Wildboarclough only had three. Mind you, their Rose-Queen Pageant was always better than ours, although we had a vicar who rode an antique motorbike-with-sidecar, and they couldn’t top that!).
But in the end, when we all got on the coach to Big School, into the seething metropolis which was Macclesfield – well that was when my best friend from Wildboarclough was no longer the girl from the next village, but my sister-in-arms. Me and Liz against the world! Our eyes were opened and it was a new world to explore, things we didn’t even know existed. Like the taste of Chicken Madras.

But we were never really against the world, my childhood friends and I, because in truth, once we had escaped from our village-life, we realised, all the world is there to explore. And all the world wants us, and we want all the world to come and explore our neck of the woods. And as long as we respect each others’ lives and cultures, respect each village and town and country, each tree or canal, it is a positive experience for all. As long as, in the process, we don’t destroy that which we are journeying to find of course, which should be the travellers’s lore.

It isn’t possible to stop people travelling. And only an idiot or a despot would try. You can’t stop the cross-fertilisation movement creates either. From village to village. From village to town, from town to city, to neighbouring country, to nations across the globe. There are people who are trying to stop such movement and, to be honest, it’s getting tedious now to have to keep repeating something so obvious. You can’t stop the human desire, and sometimes the need, to travel. You can make it difficult for travellers, and watch them die trying. You can try the Eastern Bloc Stasi technique and build a wall around them, or the Trump-theory, and threaten to build a wall to keep them out, or you can try the Daily Mail, loud-mouthed, mind-washing tactic, and it will work up to a point, but in the end, it will fail. Human beings will move around, cross borders, immigrate, emigrate, and re-settle. And a good thing for the survival of humanity it is too.

It isn’t possible to stop people travelling. And only an idiot or a despot would try. You can’t stop the cross-fertilisation movement creates either. From village to village. From village to town, from town to city, to neighbouring country, to nations across the globe

And here’s why. Apart from the enjoyment, the desire, the curiosity, the cultural, educational, economic and personal benefit of any form of travel, human beings have a biological need to travel. If you’re one of these people who think immigration is a bad thing, think about this. If there had never been immigration into your village, way back in your ancestry, your head would be the shape of a rugby ball, or you’d have some other form of hideous inherited mutated deformity, and you’d be so inbred you wouldn’t be able to boil a potato (which came from a different land by the way, thanks to people who explored the world). The Egyptian rulers kept their gene pool small, and their heads became lumpen and their brains ineffective. Any community which insists on keeping its gene pool small dies out eventually. We need immigration, and we need emigration, and we need travel. The human drive to travel is biological, part of the instinct to survive. If every one of us stayed at home, in our own street, and only mated with the people next door, our DNA pool would become so small that we’d start to pass on each others’ ugliness and weaknesses.

Apart from the enjoyment, the desire, the curiosity, the cultural, educational, economic and personal benefit of any form of travel, human beings have a biological need to travel. If you’re one of these people who think immigration is a bad thing, think about this. If there had never been immigration into your village, way back in your ancestry, your head would be the shape of a rugby ball

That’s why there have always been wanderers, people who had the nerve, the guts, the need to move. And they would toddle off to the next village, find themselves a new partner who wasn’t quite as inbred, and bring home new blood, new DNA to enrich the community. And then if the community was lucky, they’d have quite a few wanderers (bards if they were really lucky, who would sing stories of great derring-do), coming to their village from really far away, with a whole plethora of new and healthy DNA to donate to the village.

So when people tell me they hate travel, and that’s their excuse for why they voted to ban movement of people, I’m sceptical. Of course it’s their choice if they choose to stay locked inside narrow parameters they themselves have drawn, like the woman who said she’d never left Yorkshire and had no intention of leaving Yorkshire, especially if it meant crossing over to Lancaster even if she did need a new hip. We live in a free country (just about). But if you want to stay indoors, which is your right, don’t ban everyone else from moving about. We all need others to cross-fertilise our communities, culturally, economically and biologically. The argument against movement of people is so bogus it is hardly worth discussing. The biological need for travel is not in doubt. We need wanderers. And we need Wandering Bards to tell us all about their journeys.

We need them to enrich our culture. And we need them to tell us why they’re here, and how they came to be here. We need to welcome strangers into our motherland, especially those who have been displaced from their own motherlands. It’s obviously the moral thing to do, which is what drove the Kinder Transport of WW2, by which we in Britain welcomed those fleeing Hitler. But it isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do (to paraphrase the mayors of New York and London). I am a better person for living alongside Syrians, Italians, Libyans, Spaniards, Egyptians, Germans, Afghans, Nigerians. And of course I am a better person for having helped other humans in need. Just as I am a richer person having visited Rome, California, Belgrade, Istanbul. My work is better, my health is better, my family is better, my brain is better … And our society is better when others come to our country and we go to theirs.

Long may it be possible to embrace the cultures of others through travel, either by moving around ourselves, or by encouraging others to come to us – people like the powerful Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who should have the last word when it comes to talking about movement and Motherlands:

Motherlands are beloved, no doubt; sometimes they can also be exasperating and maddening. Yet, I have also come to learn that for writers and poets for whom national borders and cultural barriers are there to be questioned, again and again, there is, in truth, only one motherland, perpetual and portable.
Storyland.

Three Daughters of Eve (Penguin 2017)