What Do I Like about Europe?

I ask this question as one who has a foot in Europe and a foot in Australia – in terms of ancestry, personal life, religion, and writing. I spend a reasonable amount of time in both, and definitely know how to enjoy myself in either place. But what is it about Europe?

To begin with, I suggest it is the thinly veiled barbarism of Europe that I find so attractive, a backwardness camouflaged as civilisation. It shows up at all sorts of levels. If you pay attention to the way people carry their bodies, to the way they walk and stand, how they are in the world, then a distinct awkwardness begins to show. Clothes seem like a recent encumbrance, frequent washing is still an imposition. Think of the peasant who has unexpectedly fallen into some money.

Second, there’s a deep-seated tribalism that masquerades as cosmopolitanism. People from the same ethnic group, in the same countryside, unaccountably hold long antagonisms to each other. Norwegians and Danes, Dutch and Germans, Serbs and Croats, Macedonians and Bulgarians … the list is almost endless. This tribalism is appealing in a curious way, like visiting a relic from the past.

Both the backwardness and tribalism manifest themselves in that rather amusing European habit of international arrogance. One can only admire the sheer bravado of assuming the superiority of European culture, politics, medicine, technology, scholarship. But it makes sense when one realises how recent this empty superiority is. No wonder those of more ancient civilisations – such as China or Australia – smile knowingly and shake their heads when encountering such Euro-arrogance.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect is the way Europeans are so often completely thrown by places like Australia. Expectations and preconceptions are not met; codes of living are scrambled; judgements are made hastily; not a few respond defensively and become Australophobes. I think here of a professor from those soggy isles on the western fringe of Europe who loudly proclaims – in good colonialist fashion – that the place is an absolute shithole and that he has come here both to bring enlightenment and to get out as quickly as possible. Or of the immigrant who is afraid of the bush and has not been outside a city for more than twenty years. Or of the wife who is unable to settle and demands a return “home” after thirty years, or simply walks out because she is unable to adjust. Much earlier, I have encountered it in the “explorer” journals, as the colonists desperately tried to map and claim and make sense of the place – usually to no avail.

I discussed this last point with a European who has come to Australia more recently. It is not merely the easy point that Australia is home to the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, making Europe look like a recent upstart. More has to do with the extraordinarily subtle production and negotiation of space. This is geographical, mental, and psychic. Obviously, it shows up in big skies, fierce light, vast seas, subtle seasons, and so on. It appears in the fear that so many Europeans have felt and feel in Australia: no wonder the settlers hugged the shoreline; no wonder the animals and bush fill them with trepidation (of course, we like to tell tall tales of everyday dangers). But it also shows up in the way people’s bodies negotiate that space, giving each other plenty of room. Intellectually, as some point out, there’s an almost intangible sense of openness, room to develop thoughts that are not constrained by the worn-out and mind-numbing structures of Atlantic places.

So it is always thoroughly engaging to see how visitors and new arrivals manage that space. Europeans always seem to struggle, unless they have always craved that very different and complex production of space. My father was one of these. The litmus test here is New Zealand: if someone from Europe feels at home in those two islands across the Tasman, then it is because the smallness and manageability of the space resonates. If New Zealand is a let-down, then they have already begun to feel their way in Australia. But I have noticed (and one of my daughters verifies this), that people from eastern Asia somehow “get” Australia in a way that others don’t. For anyone who has spent time in Indonesia, the two places feel similar on the skin. And the many that come from China, for all sorts of reasons, seem to take to Australia in a way that I still find fascinating. I suspect the experience is mutual.

As for me, I look forward to my next dose of European barbarism and tribalism, and seeing how the next batch manages this place.

Travel Wash

Unless you are one of the millions of people throughout history who have had only two washes in their lives (at birth and at death), the issue of how to wash while travelling will eventually come up. So what are your favourite ways of washing on the road? The easiest is of course not to wash at all. As the old Dutch saying puts it: where it smells, it is warm. Leaving that aside, my own preferences boil down to three: in the sea, while in motion, and with barely a trickle.

The Sea

At the end of a long day on the bicycle, with sweat flowing in streams on a stinker of a day, with road dirt stuck to greasy skin, with a brain threatening to explode from an overheated climb or two, with the caked on grime from setting up camp and lighting a cooking fire, I relish a beach to myself. A naked dip in the ocean, washing away the dirt and sweat and grime and soot, and then drying by the fire afterwards – the pleasure is almost indescribable. As is the feeling of drying salt in my hair and on my skin.

In Motion

Apart from bicycles, my preferred modes of travel are ships and trains. For some perverse reason, I always seek out the places to wash whether on the rails or at sea. Ships usually have a shower, although that applies only to some trains in their sleeper carriages. Here is a veritable world of difference to explore – given that the more interesting experiences on train journeys are not outside, through the windows, but inside.

It may be the small shower cubicle in a long-distance Amtrak train in the USA. The shower is usually at the back of a storage area stacked high with bags of cups, garbage, linen or whatever. Having waded through these bulging bags, you find an under-used cubicle. A pile of small soaps, perhaps a towel, a button to press – again and again, for it gives you one minute of hot water on each thump. A lurch of the speeding train on a corner, a sudden slosh of gathered water to one side of the cubicle and you suddenly realise why so many handholds festoon the mouldy walls.

Or on an Australian long-haul train you find an amazing invention: the fold-out stainless steel toilet-washbasin-shower – all in a space in which it is well-nigh impossible to turn without risking a dislocated shoulder or cracked knee-cap. Still you find surprises: the toilet-roll holder tucked away in a corner, the fold-out mini-bin, the waterproof drawer for dry storage and then the shower curtain across the door to cover your hanging clothes and towel.

A piss on your toes and the floor to frighten off any tinea that may be lurking and the shower is under way. The train may rock and shake, tip and rattle; the whistle may blow to remind you exactly where you are having a shower; someone may knock in that strangely urgent way that signals an ageing bladder. But I always feel a curious satisfaction at finishing the shower a good distance from where I began.

The Trickle

Yet not all trains have one of these seven wonders of the world. Older trains in China and Eastern Europe may have a samovar and a lever-toilet, opening out onto the rails, and, if one is lucky, a trickle of water in the toilet cubicle. Many would despair and be content to wallow in travel grime. But I prefer to fill a bottle from the coal-fired samovar, let it cool for a while and then slip into the toilet cubicle with a bar of soap. Or, if a trickle still flows from the toilet tap, I set myself for a thrilling experience.

Mind you, the cubicle is a wonder to behold. Ice may be forming blocks in the toilet chute if one is travelling through Siberia in winter; the drain on the floor may be clogged by hair, toilet paper, ice or unidentifiable substances; that bucket of hot water thrown into the room in the morning, by way of cleaning, may have blended with whatever else is on the floor. My only defence is a pair of thongs (aka flip-flops or jandals), which valiantly try to keep my feet out of the swill.

So it begins. A cup or three slowly, filled under the trickle the temperature of snow melt-water, are tossed over body and hair. Goose bumps form and shivers begin as my body suddenly focuses of keeping its core constituents warm. A rapid soap lather, all over, in order to reach the point of no return. And then the patient filling of the cup and careful discharging of its contents over each part of my body in order to rinse off the soap (careful attention to the crotch). Now for my feet: one at a time I place one in the washbasin, washing it under the trickle, while I balance delicately and desperately on the other one. Finally my hair and face, the easy parts, while what is left of my body temperature tries to dry the moisture on my skin.

Triumphantly I emerge, a piece of clothing over my crotch, in order to make my way back to my cabin. Nothing is more refreshing and satisfying than having completed such a travel wash.

Ship’s Log, Australia to Europe: Day One

A container ship cares less for its passengers than its cargo, its arrival and departure moments to which one must adapt rather than expect it to bow to one’s own tight schedule. So also with this ship, La Tour: I lost count of the changes in ETA and ETD for the Melbourne docks. So we arrived in Melbourne to find yet another alteration of schedule: instead of early afternoon, it would not arrive until later that night. We made the day our own, walked the streets of Melbourne, found some bookshops and stumbled across the Post-Deng Cafe (where I had been once before).

For most of the day we made the Stella Maris Seaman’s Mission our home. Part of a port-city’s life that is usually hidden, these missions are often staffed by volunteers, providing quiet space away from the ship, a chapel in which to worship, the soft spiritualisation of life at sea and then all manner of practical, earthly matters: bar, tea and coffee, karaoke, post office, sim cards, gift shop, money exchange, counselling, internet services, free trips to and from the ships.

Finally the call came from the port agent to board ship, so we made our way late ot the docks, where we had to wait for an offocial mini-bus to take us to the ship, clambered up up the rough and swaying steps onto what would be our home for 37 days.

On board the captain, Dranko Dojcinovic, breifly greeted us and then left again – the time at port is always the busiest. Late into the night I watched the loading of the ship from the cabin’s porthole.