Friday, 20 August 2010

The Splugen: from Sophie Marceau through Wesley Schneider to Billy Idol, and back

In the only Thusis bar with hints of, er, modernity, it is small, very dark and chalet-ish inside. The outside terrace, part glassed, looks out on to the rail tracks. Which is slightly unfair as the mountain view is splendid.

I am the only guest. It is 7.15 on a Friday evening. Whatever happened to that Friday afternoon seque from lunch to happy hour? The arcade game on the terrace is "Bermuda Triangle". Just below the darts. On the soundscape is early Madonna, then Billy Idol - who hasn't really had a late phase yet.

Thusis is bookended by a gardening centre at one end, and a kid's clothing shop at the other. In the centre is Blumen Frigg, yes, which is a flower shop. The furniture in my bar terrace is plastic wicker, which makes me as sole occupier the Wicker Man. Is it fortunate that I am neither a Presbyterian Policeman or a virgin? Only time will tell. Thusis may well do a good line in fertility cults.

Inside the bar is tiny; the smallest I have been in since a place in Ushuia, on the Darwiny tip of Argentina, where I bonded with my dad and various young Argentinian tax exiles.

As I start to think about my day, and perhaps even Tom's, the barman comes out to watch the train come in. The last time, in 2007, I'd made it as far as Chiavenna, around 40 kilometres away over the Splungen in Italy. There in a downpour, with a dodgy Apple, I decided to take the bus over the pass and on to Chur. It was too fast a transition from Italy into Switzerland. I never quite hit the Swiss Mode.

Today the mis-steps are more subtle. My Ipad clock is an hour slow; I miss the early bus to Splungen. When I take the next I discover I should have gone on to the Splungen Pass. I decide to nip up there. It is a three hour walk up, up, up. Johnny in the sports store sells me Factor 50+ and selects a hat. "Too posh" I say. Johnny says he likes that word, heard it a lot in London. But he couldn't live there. NYC is great though - for four days.

Nipping up there means my back turns into a IPOD Sweat Shop in China. I even stop the smokes. My path cuts across the road that leads to the pass, and Italy, and from time to time I hear the whine of the Dukati-Entitled. There are cows as well. At the top they sit with serene indifference. The view is great; not San Marco great, where it can seem after a beer or two that every mountain shy of Everest is in view, but pretty good.

I check my mail, feel guilty, and turn around to descend back to Splungen. Finally, at around 1.30 I am facing the same way as Tom, doing what he did. I begin to attempt the exorcism of the morning's allusiveness: I keep thinking about James Bond. There had been a long flat panorama and isolated petrol station that brought back memories of Connery and Tilly Masterson zooming around in Goldfinger land. Tilly wanted to kill Goldfinger because he'd painted her sister in gold, which was not good.

Then a helicopter flies over, low, with something hanging on what appears to be a short bungee-jump rope. On close inspection - really close - it turns out to be a dustbin, I think. Anyway, I start thinking about helicopters in Bond, then Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough, and then that NBNW rip-off at the end of From Russia With Love. I breath in, have a fag, and break my espionage ADD by fixating on a guy with walking poles who, with a terse "Bravo" has set off back to Splungen ahead of me. I give him thirty seconds and suddenly he's three hundred metres away.

I'm hating him now for his youth, his Wesley Schneider haircut and looks - I mean he may have won the Champions League, and almost the World cup, but he announced his engagement to his WAG on the intercom of the plane he was flying on. I hate him for his poles, particularly. Everyone has poles up here, everyone except me and the bikers. Wesley is my hare, but I force myself to let him run free: at my age a day one heart attack is really not cool, Tom didn't have one, neither has Rory Stewart (more of him later, I am sure). I walk in a stately manner appropriate to a man in McQueen jeans.

30 minutes later all animosity drops away as I turn a corner to find Wesley stopped and catching his breath.


En passant I say "hi" in the Charles Ryder manner, emphasising all three syllables in a long-vowel drawl I learnt in Manhattan, being English. I move past Wesley and hear him start again, but there's only one man in this race now. I have a moment of religious awe. Then laugh a bit.

The English religious exiles from Tom's time and before, back to Henry's Big Switch from RC to P, must have seen their share of mountains on their way to Rome or Zurich or Validoloid. I make a mental note to map their routes, post routes, I am guessing. For Tom, as for everyone before Rousseau, it seems, mountains were not alluring sites for contemplation or snowboarding but brigand-heavy fearful places of in-breeding and banditry, a bit like the houses of our own Royal Family, I suppose. Tom's seen his share of mountains by now, and from the Splungen anyway, it is downhill at least. Is he still thinking about the courtesans at Venice; Palladio's Vicenza? The glanced but out of bounds Lake Como (pre Clooney). Or is he getting excited about Zurich, Basle and Strasbourg? It is possible.

Back at Splungen I announce to the tourist office that I am to walk to Thusis tonight. It is 4pm. "Eleven hours, minimum," says an officer. I find no joy in thinking about a triumphant return to Thusis at 3am, and neither I am sure do my very correct hoteliers. I walk to Sufers, take in the lake, pass a woman cycling the other way with a kiddie mobile tied to her rear tire, and a sleeping child, and catch the bus back to Thusis with 26 seconds to spare. On the bus I check email, and - somewhat sadly - read the cricket score at The Oval.

On my hotel's terrace I keep seeing Dick Cheney. This is bad. He is ill - or is he?

At the grotto bar with the rail track view Harry the barman tells me that 80,000 people are travelling as we speak to Chur - where I am supposed to be in two days - for a "rock" festival. This explains, he says, why I am the only customer in his bar. He used to have a discotheque on the top floor of the hotel I am staying in. "For twenty one years," he says, raising a multi-wrist-banded hand to his lips and kissing his fingers. "It was very nice." Today the top floor is a sauna-centre. I haven't been. Harry whistles along to Madonna's Holiday with a hint of bird-impersonator, a chaffinch I think. There would have been a career for him in vaudeville once upon a time.

It is 8pm now and Madonna and Billy Idol vie with the church bells. "Rebel Yell" starts again and it is time to eat.

Actually, it is "White Wedding". Same thing, really.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Thusis and Learning to slow down

Three years ago my progress was pretty stately. Osyters in Whitsable, a night in my father's cottage near Dover, a Channel crossing; Calais in the rain. This morning was a blur of home-printed plane tickets, no check in, an Orange store at Zurich airport selling (very reasonable) pay as you go SIM cards for the IPad. In London it is a contract affair with a 30 day credit rating wait. Here the SIM costs 10 francs and comes with three free days unlimited 3G access. I'm checking my emails and sending Facebook messages from the platform of Zurich aiport's railway station in minutes.

As the succession of on time trains take me back towards the mountains and Thusis I can at any time click on my wikihood app and a google map based service tells me not only where I am, but what the nearby buildings are that I can't see. The idea of a paper guide book seems suddenly absurd. The downside, of course, is that there is more screen time than sightseeing as we cruise towards Chur. The far away hills, the nearby lake, the plains, all merge into a backdrop for my emailing and posting. I'm having a dose of empathy-lack.It is as though I've caught ADD.

`I sit at a cafe on Thusis high street, pretty much the sum of Thusis, and read Tom using my new Ton Coryat link app. I have to slow down, the rest of the day must be a process of slowing. "Alles gut" the waitresses asks the assembled groups of women taking coffee and ciggies. It is, they say, as one. This isn't the start, it's the prelude.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

My Tool for this Trip

All this and more. It better bloody work.

Some thoughts on returning to Tom Coryat's Walk

Three and half years ago when I started this recreation, this walk across Europe, I had a laptop, a portable hard drive, and a lot of material typed in the British Library. Plus my Merrells. Now I have an IPad. I turn it on and the GPS, plus my wikihood app tells me where I am, what's around, and who has been here; then it maps it out for me. IBooks and a Kindle app let me read a myriad of out of copyright books - I'm weightlessly weighed down with Goethe, Cervantes, Erasmus, Homer, well the list is long and old skool. I can write, read, communicate, shop and learn with a thing about half the size of a baking tray. Is it the future? No, it's the here and now, and will - has - change travel forever.

Perhaps it is good that I start near the mountains: perhaps the signals will be down, and I can move into the mood more slowly. My mood is different from 2007 anyway, and I'm sure it will show. First thing: a flight to Zurich at half past horror tomorrow morning. Thusis by lunchtime, I think.

And I still have the Merrells. UCL want me to donate them afterwards in a Coryat-ish gesture.

The Letter Goes Out, the rains start pouring in London

Hello everyone,

Tomorrow, August 19, I'll be restarting a walk across Europe (with some
fuel-powered assistance) that I began in May 2007. 402 years after the
event I'm again following in the footsteps and barge paths, inscriptions
and "inns" of Thomas Coryat, Jacobean oddity, English wit and global
traveller. Tom crossed Europe by foot in 1608; in 1611 he wrote a day by
day account of his trip: I'll be on his trail for around six weeks. This
time it is the "north" I'm taking on, Switzerland, a touch of France,
Germany and Holland. I start in Thusis, Tossana as was.

In 2007 I made it from Calais to Venice, turned around and crossed the
Italian mountains into Switzerland where, in the spa-cum-casino town of
Bad Ragatz, my beloved Apple gave up the ghost among the drunken gamblers and Lycra'd cyclists. As one point of this journey is to use modern technology to enhance the experience of living Tom Coryat's walk as closely as is possible, I stopped walking with the death of my computer. So did the Betwixt Europe blog.

It is back.

Now I'm armed with a miraculous IPad. The wonders of the books in the
Humanities One reading room at the British Library, and the gloved secrets of Rare Books still, as ever, inform my thinking, but this time so do GPS based apps, e-books from Amazon and Apple, and, crucially, the ideas of a history Professor from Harvard.

Dan Smail, the author of On Deep History and the Brain, very kindly wrote
to me recently in response to a question I had about my doctorate. I'm
looking at the way two events of terror were "told": these are The
Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. Dan
suggested that I start thinking about how I might infer the ways in which
the "aggregate brain" of 1605 is different from that of 2001.

The idea frightens me too. But I'm hoping that walking this half of Tom
Coryat's route - from Thusis in Switzerland to Flushing in Holland - might
help that process of inferring just a bit. Tom was a post-terror
traveller; now we all are. And Dan's book was my first e-book for the IPad, so I can just keep re-reading it until I get it.

My route is essentially the Rhine, taking in places including Zurich,
Basle, Strasbourg, Baden, Heidelberg, Worms, Mainz, Frankfurt, Duysburg,
Bommell and Flushing. The full list will be on the blog from tomorrow.

For those who prefer to follow by Facebook feel free to become my friend, I'll be cross posting:

There will be Twitter too, I fear.

Finally, if any of you know people along the route who are friendly,
insightful, or both, do let me know, by email or Facebook message. In this
era of the frightening Foursquare app, people who know people - to quote
that venerable academic and pan-Europeanist, Barbra Streisand - are the
luckiest people in the world.

Many thanks,