This story is coming to you live from the tramways, Thai eateries and new build blocks of Paris.
Yes! For the first time since December 2019, more than 800 sleeps ago, I’m not in the United Kingdom.
By my calculations, this is the longest period that I’ve spent inside the borders of the UK in my entire life. How lucky am I?
The next longest gap without stamps in my passport was between my eventful visit to pre-revolution Egypt and perma-conflict Palestine in January 2010 and cycling (and eating) around post-revolutionary Tunisia in February 2012.
You all know the reasons for the latest hiatus in my stamp-collecting. That doesn’t mean that the last two years haven’t been full of adventures.
I have completed over 3,000km of a modular reconstruction of my first flightless adventure, cycling around the coast of Britain. Last year, with Thighs of Steel, I cycled most of the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art, 2,208km of generosity and solidarity.
Confinement to the country of one’s birth is hardly a punishment for people born in peacetime.
Indeed, the first lines of William Blake’s great anti-war poem, Auguries of Innocence, can be read as a mission statement for travellers:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Travel has depth as well as breadth.
Many of my most transformative travels have taken place no more than a few dozen miles from my front door. Many of my more far-flung outings have left nothing but the merest trace of an impression on the wax of my sloppy mind.
Nevertheless, to travel beyond our borders, and beyond the hem of the common fabric of language, is to travel more easily into empathy.
Empathy can be thought of as an inverse function of our comfort zone. The more comfortable we are, the less easily we will be able to empathise with those less comfortable.
As I have written before, travelling to a foreign country is an easy way to leave your comfort zone, become conscious of the ‘intractable conditions’ of your own existence and, as I have not written before, develop your empathic muscle.
In a foreign land — the more ‘foreign’ the better — we are at an immediate disadvantage.
Even something so simple as catching public transport is an adventure riddled with peril. We don’t know the rules and we struggle to ask for help because we don’t speak the language.
Foreign travel, if we allow it, is an empathy machine.
And this was what Blake was driving at with his paradoxes: to make us feel, first gratitude for what little we have, and then empathy for those that have less.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
To capture this transformation in a single moment, as we arrived into Gare de l’Est, a long announcement came over the public address system in the unfamiliar diphthongs of a deeply foreign language:
The unexpected juxtapositions, misunderstandings, mistranslations, missteps and pratfalls of foreign travel, it has to be said, are also bursting ripe with pure silliness.
Under the very silly tour guidance of The Tim Traveller, where else, of all the entrepots, bordellos and gin-joints of the world, would we end up but here:
Tim unreliably asserts that ‘Rudenoise’ probably translates as ‘raw hazelnut’ since the valley of the Marne, in which Rudenoise is nestled, is hazelnut (and champagne) country.
So it’s entirely appropriate that, since we arrived, I’ve eaten very little that hasn’t contained noisette. More specifically: chocolat aux noisettes, AKA Nutella.
(There were, on close examination, precisely zero vegan options in the boulangerie, but I have a cure for that if you keep scrolling.)
The nut in Nutella is, of course, hazelnut. In fact, the makers of Nutella, Ferrero, use a staggering 25 percent of the world’s supply of hazelnuts, nearly 70 percent of which is farmed in Turkey.
Harvesting hazelnuts is, I never realised, a dangerous job. The pickers — most often underpaid, overworked migrant labourers from Syria or Kurdistan — are sometimes roped up to protect against a deathfall from the steep rocky slopes.
But here in the Marne, we’re a long way from the harvest — the hazels are only now showing their catkins and, besides, the fields are crowded out with rows and rows of the more profitable champagne grape.
A bridge takes us over a ditch and onto the ‘L’île de la Rudenoise’, a small nature reserve of muddy paths, bare trees, and a burbling brook.
A young woman walks past with a wolfhound.
An information board tells us that trout eggs require a cumulative 400 degrees of temperature before they will hatch. So 50 days in 8 degree water or 40 days in 10 degree water, for example. If the water is boiling, we surmise, the eggs will not hatch.
An old woman comes down the hill towards us, making her way between the neatly trained vines.
‘I can’t feel my fingers,’ she says with a grin, holding them out to us.
The crimson of her painted nails are stark contrast to the white of her blood-drained palms.
Keep your eyes locked on The Tim Traveller channel for a sunnier day when Tim will finally do some filming at Rudenoise.