NIGHT TRAIN TO SEVILLE:
I was a lethargic late-developer,
hiding away from life in books.
Books were my world; they contained the world.
I scoffed at travellers; their vain hopes to win,
from mere outward forms, secrets within
the human spirit, the recondite soul,
when there were books that really had it all:
the inherited wisdom of the ages,
secreted within their rustling pages.
This delusion dallied within me.
I remained blinkered, until that first
journey abroad: that night train to Seville.
Dover to Calais failed to rouse me.
Paris was a greasy, inedible steak;
a fetid Metro, reeking of garlic.
The pages of my books remained
inviolate; refusing, even, to flutter.
Then, that train. All the way down,
through France, Spain. The “couchette”;
cramped, confined, but bursting with
joi de vivre. The golden young couple
opposite me: pouting, teasing,
jousting, squeezing. Their kisses, their
laughter, permeating, long after . . .
The crowded corridors, teeming
with gypsies, bohemians, travelling
without a care. Pungent aromas,
suffusing the air. I clambered
over bodies, stopping to stare.
Could I live like these people?
Would I ever dare? The train stopping,
starting. Even more people aboard.
Shouting, singing; loud guitar chords.
Passports examined; the border crossing.
Climbing into bunks; turning, tossing.
The chill of the night; yet a warm inner glow.
Waking in the morning, to the overnight snow . . .
The winds of life blew through that train,
tearing the books from my grasp.
A lesson learned, one I hoped would last;
my life could never be the same again.
The world offered itself; so much to give.
I left the books where they were; started to live.
I recently finished reading “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. An all-time classic of British travel-writing, it recounts how the author set off on foot for Constantinople; walking across Europe, as an eighteen-year-old, in 1933. As I was reading it, my mind occasionally drifted back to when I made my first-ever trip abroad. At the time I was growing up – my teenage years in the 60’s – foreign travel was a relatively novel idea to most British working-class families. The only holiday I was accustomed to was an annual trip to “the seaside” at Blackpool or Bridlington. I was a bookish, lazy, lethargic individual, who valued routine, privacy, and home comforts – particularly my mother’s cooking. I associated “travel” with disorder, unease, strange people, in uncomfortable surroundings, wanting you to eat unfamiliar – and usually unpleasant – food. Why people were supposed to enjoy the whole experience was baffling to me. Even more baffling was the question of why would anyone want to undergo the experience in a foreign country, where, in addition to the fore-mentioned problems, one had the even more disorienting experience of being in a place where you couldn’t understand a word of what anyone around you was talking about!
Fortunately, my closest friend happened to be a lover of foreign languages and foreign travel, and one year – having just spent a year teaching English in Seville, he inveigled me to join him for a week’s holiday in the south of Spain. I went along reluctantly, but, by the time I got off the “Night Train to Seville”, my naïve attitude was beginning to change, and I was finally getting an inkling of what travelling abroad was really all about.