The thing with taking the scenic route...
Growing up in the depths of rural West Cornwall got me used to taking long journeys at an early age. When I was little, the journey to Plymouth felt like going abroad and London felt like visiting another planet. As a teenager, I was bitter about how long it took me to get anywhere outside the county, but soon getting the train or Megabus to London for a gig became a small deal. I have fond memories of dancing to an encore in Camden, legging it to Paddington for the sleeper train and arriving back in Truro the next morning, just in time for college, with a new band t-shirt to change into in the loos. Fast forward five years or so and I’m in Ireland, being given a lift to the train station to travel to Cork. There’s much joking about the journey I am about to embark on.
“Do you know where you could get to in 17 hours?! You could go to India… to Japan… to America and back again!”
In reality, I was going to end up in France. From Cork I was going to catch a ferry to Roscoff, followed by a train to Paris (where I’d stop for a night) and then onto Vittell, in the north-east. I took the jokes with good humour, but silently, part of me was dreading the journey. What had I gotten myself into? What was I going to do to entertain myself for seventeen hours?! I was being haunted by flashbacks of doodling in the condensation on the window in the back of my parents' car to distract myself from the overwhelming smell of an entire car load of people eating cheesy quavers. What if the entire ferry was eating cheesy quavers?!
Pushing self-doubt and irrational fantasies aside, I explained again my reasons for not flying. These were mostly due to the premise of my wider trip – an eco adventure through Ireland, France and Spain visiting sustainable communities and individuals living lightly on the land. My conscience (and pride) simply was not comfortable with the thought of travelling by plane.
In hindsight, there was more to it than this. I was going on a big adventure and I wanted to take my sweet little time about it, I wanted to experience everything fully – including getting from point A to point B. I wanted all the time in the world to stare at the sky, listen to music and choose the soundtrack for each memory, to write and read and doodle, to people-watch, to meet and talk and make connections, to just be.
On the ferry I made a friend called Yann, a French guy in his twenties who worked in a bookstore. Yann had a gentle, friendly tone and kind eyes. He seemed like he was naturally shy but making a special effort to be outgoing, like one does when travelling alone, or when simply trying to exist in this world. We spoke a little in the waiting room, before going our separate ways as we boarded the boat. It was the middle of the afternoon and the weather was beautiful. The further out into the open ocean we got, the more gorgeous the weather seemed to become, the sea twinkling all around us, the sky clear and warm. I found a sun lounger on the top deck and lay down to soak up my good luck and the sunshine.
After many minutes or hours, who can be sure, I decided to get up and explore inside the boat a little. Within seconds, I bumped into Yann again and together we went to the bar. As it turned out, the woman serving was an old friend of Yann’s from school who he hadn’t seen for years! We all laughed and chatted for a while before Yann and I were given free cocktails and headed back out into the sunshiney deck. The rest of the journey flew past as Yann and I chatted about music, drank (free) Pina Coladas with his friend and laughed at the cheesy ferry entertainment. Although Yann insisted he wasn’t secretly a huge celebrity in France, we seemed to bump into several people he knew – and often hadn’t seen for years – on the ferry and several glasses were clinked, many hands shaken and much laughter shared.
Yann found it hilarious that I hadn’t really thought at all about how I was going to get from Roscoff to Morlaix in north-west France to catch my train to Paris. He thought it might be hours before I could get a bus as we were arriving early in the morning. I wasn’t concerned. It was hard to be after such a magical journey full of new friendships and stories and after many successful hitch-hiking trips during my stay in Ireland I felt pretty comfortable putting my faith in the kindness of strangers and the power of positive thinking.
I was right not to worry! When we arrived in Roscoff, Yann introduced me to his father who kissed me on both cheeks, shook my hand sincerely and said some things I didn’t understand before insisting on driving me to Morlaix. My new friendship had saved me a three hour wait at the ferry port for a bus. From there, I managed to get myself onto an earlier train to Paris and even charmed my way out of the 20 euro fine I should have paid for changing my ticket. I drifted in and out of sleep on the train, chatted with a Spanish couple and eventually arrived in sunny Paris.
This trip, and others similar, gave me a taste for taking the long way around and earlier this year I did my longest bus journey yet in one stint, from Barcelona to London. It took twenty-six hours, cost thirty quid on the Megabus, and included a two-hour break in Paris timed perfectly for breakfast. When I first boarded the bus in Barcelona, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. The bus was packed and I had to sit on an aisle seat next to a woman with headphones on who didn’t catch my eye and appeared to turn away from me as I sat down. My initial thought was ‘She doesn’t want to make friends'.
Oh, and the bus was insanely hot. Within five minutes of sitting there I was down to the smallest layers I had on and was literally dripping in sweat. I was trying to wipe myself discreetly with my scarf and resist the urge to pour my bottle of water on my head, or just get off the bus. Finally, after what seemed like about three hours (but was probably thirty minutes), the driver started the engine and the air conditioning kicked in. My neighbor and I finally caught eyes as we both scrabbled for the nozzles above our heads to point the air as directly at us as possible.
Shared suffering, whatever the scale, often seems to get people talking to one another. My neighbor, Olympia and I initially connected over just how hot the bus had been, but later it turned out we’d both recently been given the same book as a gift,. The hours passed incredibly quickly as we chatted intermittently. In between I read two books, listened to music, napped and snacked a lot and eavesdropped on a couple of entertaining conversations. Olympia and I spent quite a bit of time discussing which pastries we’d like to eat in Paris and guessing how many we could buy with the euros we had left.
Choosing to travel over land and sea started as a way to save money and progressed into a way to make a small dent in my carbon guilt. Both of these are still factors , but I’m beginning to be aware that there’s more to it. Embarking on a twenty plus hour journey pretty much guarantees that something is going to happen, something completely unknown that you can’t predict or plan for. It opens up the opportunity to make the journey into part of the adventure.
Taking the long way around can also feel like a meditation of sorts, time to process where I’ve been and to prepare for where I’m going. In a society where we seem obsessed in speeding everything up, even our interactions with each other, I like giving myself the opportunity to slow things down.
Josephine Hall is a writer, musician and artist living in Brighton, UK. She is the author of the book 'Is This The Future? An Investigation Into Communal Living'.