Despite the short notice, and only one advance warning on the blog, AGM XV took place as arranged last Friday. As you can see, the convocation was graced with the presence of our Honorary President - the remarkable Ada, who (as it turns out) had something on her mind...
The contingent of lesser mortals included Hildie, Gerry (aka J Arthur Smallpiece), Hilary and myself. Needless to say, the coffee and conversation flowed freely and the assembled truckshunters gave me a couple of hours to bore them to tears with tales of railways and foreign food and mountains and rivers and fields and strange and beautiful towns and cities with awesome monuments...
Thanks to everyone who had the foolhardy courage not to dream up a previous appointment and, instead, turned up to what they must have known would be Ian going on and on and on and on and on about his Grand Tour.
Speaking of which...the thing that Ada had on her mind was my so-far unfulfilled promise to lay it all before you. I was roundly berated as a scoundrel, a charlatan and a mountebank for withholding the tale of my adventures.
The reason for the delay is simple. My adventures have not quite finished yet...
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR
Everyone has a story to tell and, as someone much wiser than me - and with the ability to crystallise a common truth - once said....If you have a story to tell, the best thing to do is to start at the beginning, keep going until you get to the end, and then stop.
And that is precisely what I intend to do over the next few blogpostings. You are cordially invited to join me as I re-live my Grand Tour, my Journey of a Lifetime. It was the time of my life - it really was. And I’d like to tell you about it....
I wish I hadn’t bothered with Geneva.
I wish the train timetables had meshed together more neatly so that I could have gone just a little further (or not quite so far) and spent the night somewhere more ‘compatible’, interesting and exciting. Like a derelict barn, an unused factory or a polluted Swiss ditch.
Just think of it. Geneva. A city whose name is known throughout the world - and for all the right goody-goody reasons.
The Geneva Convention; a routinely-ignored but well-intentioned set of rules about the treatment of prisoners-of-war.
UNESCO, which, considering its role as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites, could have chosen a better base for itself, is here too.
The Olympic Games are organised and administered from Geneva.
The Red Cross (an inversion of the Swiss flag) was founded in Geneva and still operates out of its HQ there.
Even the Large Hadron Collider, which seems to be designed to ultimately give us the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, sits under the city.
And yet, and yet...
Don’t get me wrong (as they say). Geneva is not ugly like (say) Middlesbrough or Bishop Auckland. Its people are not grumpy or unfriendly like the people of, say, er...... It is not untidy or polluted like....
And, in a perverted kind of way, that’s the problem.
Geneva is unforgivably dull.
No city as boring as Geneva should ever be granted absolution and admitted to the panoply of the world’s great centres of human population. When you’re in Geneva - and despite the traffic and the trams and the buildings and the scenic surroundings ( - this is Switzerland, after all - ) - you feel completely alone. It feels as if nobody lives there, even though you can see its inhabitants being polite to each other in bus queues right before your eyes.
As I sat outside the only street cafe I could find that was open (and which was therefore quite busy, though oddly quiet), sipping an insipid lukewarm coffee and wondering why my ice-cream tasted so bland, I decided to extract my SCL and add a small annotation.
My SCL was my Stereotype Confirmation List. As part of my preparations for the Grand Tour, I decided that it would be rather jolly to make a checkbox list of all the European stereotypes I could think of so that, on my travels, I could look for evidence to verify or refute them.
How unpredictable and surreal are the Belgians? Do Germans really do as they are told, no matter how obviously ludicrous the instruction? Do Italians really SHOUT at each other, even in regular conversation? Do English people SHOUT EVEN LOUDER under the mistaken impression that this increases comprehension? Are the French good lovers? And many more.... The results of my researches will be revealed in due course - even that last one.
But right now, I have to tell you that the tick I placed in the ‘Are the Swiss as anal and tedious as their reputation suggests?’ box is in heavy black ink. My pen went straight through the paper.
I suppose it’s as well that Geneva came at the end of my Grand Tour rather than at the beginning. It’s lifelessness threw into relief the amazing towns and cities I’d seen and the fascinating people I’d met along the way.
After all, my SCL wasn’t the only preparation I’d made. I’d spent weeks scanning municipal websites. I’d posted a profile on a network for gay travellers so that I might find a friendly face when I arrived in strange and intimidating destinations. I’d asked truckshunters to offer advice on where to go and where to avoid. I’d brushed up on my schoolboy German and - even before I set out - I had given up on Italian and French altogether. (Both those languages can be almost impenetrably idiomatic; a friend of mine once told a startled Parisian waiter that he had a huge wife instead of simply informing him that he was very hungry; you can’t be too careful.)
The preparations for the Grand Tour had, in fact, been part of the holiday itself. Deciding on the route I would take. Investigating train times and buying the tickets online ( - isn’t the internet amazing?). Finding accommodation ( - isn’t the internet amazing?). Buying a few local souvenirs to give to people I met along the way. I even acquired an iPhone.
And eventually, of course, The Day Before arrives. Have you packed enough shirts/socks/kecks? Are they the right ones? What will the weather be like? Do they wear shorts in Italy? Are there launderettes there? Have you got enough euros? Passport? Train tickets and reservations (all 17 of them)?
I slurped a late-night coffee and looked at my badly-packed suitcase. The intimidating excitement made me feel almost light-headed.
For the first time in my life, I was going on holiday alone. For as long as I could remember, there had always been someone with me when I went on holiday. In Scottish log-cabins, on canal narrowboats, in Kyoto, Amsterdam, Seville, Istanbul and Paris, on the Greek Islands. (Wow - what a list. I’ve been a lucky bloke.) There’s always been someone there to consult and consider. Someone to take a photograph of. Someone to eat out with in the evening.
Not this time, though. Not for my Big Adventure. There would be no-one to make sure I got to stations on time, caught the right train and found the right seat; no-one to extricate me from any linguistic (or other) misunderstandings.
I wondered whether I would feel lonely.
I picked up the satchel Hildie had bought for me. It would be over my shoulder all day, every day over the next 15 days. My camera, my notebook (also a gift from Hildie), pens...
No, I wouldn’t be lonely.
Thirteen days later, as I sat outside my Geneva coffee bar, I put my SCL back into my satchel and looked out over the lake. I knew that I had finally realised something which most other people - or so it seemed to me - were lucky enough to learn long before they reach my age.
There is a vast chasm between loneliness and ‘aloneness’. Aloneness has an incalculable value to be treasured and nourished.
Not all those who are alone are lonely and not all those who wander are lost...