23 July, 2006

Twelve plus

The best summer of my life was 1994.

It was the summer between the end of school and the start of university, a bucolic buffer separating two distinct periods of weighty expectation and apprehensive socialisation, but one elevated and elongated and made that much more special by twin commitments I had agreed to only a few weeks before.

The first was to spend a couple of weeks away travelling by train around Western Europe; the second, following on immediately, was an entire month spent rehearsing for and performing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

I'll talk more about the latter some other time. The former, though of less personal consequence and emotional resonance, remains just as vivid and affecting even now, a dozen years on.

One of the undoubted reasons for this is that it remains the last time I ever went abroad; indeed, the last time I ever took what could pass as a holiday. Another reason is the way it gave me a useful introduction into the kinds of judgements and responsibilities which adulthood demanded, from overruling your acquaintances over something as rudimentary as finding a place to sleep for the night, to learning to live with someone 24 hours non-stop seven days a week. Or fourteen, as it proved here.

This point was the most potent. I found my feelings towards my immediate travelling companion flickering between toleration and despair most days. There were four of us in total; me, one of my friends from school, his sister and one of her friends. I never approved or even conceived of this particular line-up; for starters I didn't know his sister's friend whatsoever, and to be honest didn't get on with her at all from the moment we left to the moment we returned.

But that was nothing compared with the way my own friend had this habit of getting under my skin with unwavering frequency, usually over the tiniest and most inconsequential of subjects. Like whether to sit in the sun or the shade. Like whether to walk down this pavement or that. Like whether to sleep in the top or bottom bunk. Etc.

I hadn't really seen him like this before, and wasn't prepared for it either. I wasn't prepared for a lot of what I had to endure on that whole trip, in fact, right from spending the first night trying to sleep in a desperately uncomfortable seat on a ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, to spending the second night in a bunk bed with a light bulb suspended mere centimetres from my face and which remained switched on until morning.

Then there was the time I was sick in a gutter in a Paris sidestreet at 8am, more from fatigue than anything else, having just disembarked on the overnight train from Brussels and not having had anything to eat for 14 hours. Or the time I was woken up in the small hours by a host of Japanese tourists flocking into our bedroom looking for a place to sleep. Or the three days in Nice, when I thought I would never experience weather as hot as that ever again.

But the flip side were the insightful, memorable moments that may not have registered at the time but took on an ever greater resonance the second I arrived back home and the entire trip began to fade into the past.

There was the occasion I was wandering around a small church in Arnhem, Belgium, when I found a poster advertising a concert given by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, several of whom I knew from back home but who were due to perform the very night we were due to move on.

There was the weird experience of walking around the streets of Amsterdam mid-morning and seeing all the bordellos and drinking clubs and showgirls open (quite literally) for business.

There was spending the night of 14th July on the beach in Nice, watching the city's Bastille Day celebrations and fireworks.

There was going out into the Paris streets after breakfast and finding all the streets washed clean, fresh and sparkling in the sunshine, and wondering why such a practice was never pursued in any British city.

There was taking a train from Nice right to edge of the Italy, then nonchalently strolling across the border, spending an hour or so loitering in a new country, then nonchalently strolling back again.

There was the very business of travelling by train, a joy in itself, particularly across the broad, unendingly beautiful and eerie landscapes of the Netherlands, but which could just as well have been Norfolk or the Fens or some of the low-lying meadows around my hometown.

And there was, of course, the return to Britain, that wonderful feeling of accomplishment capped by the reassurance of having made it safely back in one piece, of being on familiar ground, of seeing everything just as it was and just how it should be. Of feeling at the same time both completely exhausted yet quietly exhilirated.

I had no time to recover, however. The very day after my return, I was up at school beginning rehearsals for Edinburgh. And that...no. Not for now. Summer's lease has some time still to run. Those days, and those memories, can wait a little while.


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