So here it is: 2020, birth of a new decade. We’re back in the twenties, and here’s hoping that it’s less terrible than the 2010s… Can’t be much worse, anyway.
This decade is about be begin with Brexit, aka Britain’s act of national hara-kiri. For some reason, we’ve collectively decided to ostracise ourselves from the world. In less than 100 years, we’ve gone from being the most powerful nation the world ever knew to a rainy collection of rocks with no real importance. But hey, that’s what we were 500 years ago… What a wild ride!
Anyway, that’s all a prelude to the obvious: I have taken a trip through Europe. It probably won’t be my last, but it’s my last as a citizen of Europe. It’s my last being able to fly through airports on arrival, an immigration official merely glancing at my passport. It’s my last without having to get a visa and line up, waiting for someone to say, “Yeah, you can travel around Europe… for now.”
First Stop: Dublin
Back in China, long ago, I had a friend called Charlie. He left, I stayed, and then I left. Such is the nature of the modern world. As it turned out, we didn’t see each other over those years. When I found out that he was living in Dublin and I would be in Scotland for Christmas, it seemed silly not to make the short hop from one cold, celtic country to the other.
Thus, my first stop in Europe was Ireland. Not exactly the most European place I could have chosen, but more European than the UK’s going to be soon. *sob*
For two days, I walked around Dublin’s fair city with my old friend. Actually, those “days” were mostly evenings. He was working during the days. But I made do with an entertaining stand-up comic called Michael, who was running one of those guided walking tours that you find in most big European cities. You know, the ones where a funny and outgoing young person tells self-deprecating jokes and gives an annoyingly animated tour of his/her hometown… These tours are basically all the same except for the background, and the success of the tour is entirely predicated upon the comic talents of the guide. In this case, I got lucky as Michael was very funny. It’s not easy to make a joke about the potato famine work, but if anyone could, he could.
I had a great time seeing my old friend and exploring Dublin (not to mention sampling the best pints of Guinness ever poured), but if I’m honest it was not the most exciting city in the world. In fact, I could hardly believe I’d left Scotland. Between the greyness of the weather and the greyness of the architecture, it really felt like I was back in Dundee. When the time came to fly to the continent, I was not exactly in floods of tears.
So long, Ireland. Next time, I’ll try to see more than just the big city.
A Weekend in Madrid
The next story is somewhat similar. Long ago, in China, I had a friend… We hadn’t seen each other in years… blah blah blah.
Anyway, soon I was arriving in Madrid, trying to shake off a mild but tenacious hangover. Needless to say, Madrid bears little resemblance to Ireland’s grey capital. Immediately on arrival, I loved it. Though the streets were a little busier than I prefer, they were bustling. Street performers jostled for attention: people hidden behind silly costumes, performing weird tricks, or playing fantastic instruments. Gone were the grey old British buildings (sorry Ireland, but we know the English built most of them); we were in Spain now, and classical spires and colourful ornamentation was the name of the game.
I checked into my luxurious hostel (another one-up over Ireland) and then headed out to view the streets at night with my guide. We soon made our way to a restaurant, where we ate nearly an entire cow and downed a bottle of very fine wine, before finding an underground bar that was more of a cave. In a small archway, I saw a note signed by Ernest Hemingway. It said something to the effect of “Papa woz ‘ere, ‘59” or so I’m told. I don’t speak much Spanish. We ended the evening, oddly enough, in an Irish pub.
In Madrid, I spent my time eating and drinking and walking about. That is hardly unusual for me, except for the eating part. I’m typically sparse with my meals when travelling, but this time I had a companion that knew the menus well and that’s not a thing to waste. When she was busy, though, I took myself to the Prado, which fulfilled a goal of some years. I love art galleries and in the past two years have been privileged to visit the Uffizi in Florence and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Prado definitely fell short of those for me, but it was still enjoyable.
On my last day in Madrid, I stumbled upon something I did not expect, but perhaps should have: a dozen vegan activists lying naked on the street in sub-zero temperatures, covering in fake blood. It was a bizarre sight, but when I told my friend, she said something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, they’re always there.” Yeah.
Before I knew it, I was on my way to the bus station in the south of the city on a cold, dark morning, looking for a bus to Lisbon, in Portugal.
Taking a bus from Madrid to Lisbon is probably not most people’s idea of fun – and it’s far from being the quickest way to get across half the Iberian peninsula – but for me it was good in two respects: 1) it was very, very cheap (thanks, Flixbus); and 2) it allowed me to see the landscapes. Indeed, from the window I was able to see Spain and Portugal roll by, along with a surprising amount of wildlife. After we’d crossed the border (an invisible one, it seemed), the trees and telephone poles were all topped with massive nests that belonged to equally massive birds. They were, I think, storks.
Lisbon turned out to be a blast. Although here I had no guide to show me around and accompany me to pubs and restaurants, I still very much enjoyed my several days of wandering around the hilly city.
Lisbon is, like San Francisco, a city of hills. Unlike San Francisco, it is ancient and has seemingly rejected any adaptations to modernity. The narrow, cobbled streets do not seem capable of allowing cars, yet there are some that brave them. There are funiculars and trams and motorbikes, too, all creeping up and down the slopes and around narrow, blind bends. It reminded me a lot of my favourite city, Napoli.
Whilst in Lisbon, I got rained on constantly and the streets seemed frightening after dark. I was often approached and offered drugs by strangers in sketchy places… yet somehow all of this just added to Lisbon’s bizarre charm. It is not a conventionally pretty place. It is gritty and dark.
Above all, though, I enjoyed the old buildings. That’s something I adore about Europe. I’ve spent much of my life in Asia, where all the old buildings were torn down in fits of “progress” during the 20th century. Here in Europe, you can see a wall that was built a thousand years ago, or a house that has stood since before white people visited the Americas. In Lisbon, even my hostel was almost 400 years old! It had remained standing after the big Lisbon earthquake the levelled most of the city.
After a few days’ wandering, I took the subway to the airport and flew back home to Scotland. It’ll just be a brief stay here before I head back to Thailand. This winter trip has been a blast but I long for the weather and the beaches of sunny Phuket.