Not long – and long enough – to call a place home. I have lived in over a dozen places in the last 27 years, including New Haven, Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, Bucharest, a small town in southern Italy, a valley between two lakes in the English Lake District, and finally, Dublin. I can temper any romantic notion of voluntary rootlessness with the staggering reality (reported by the World Economic Forum in 2017) that ‘One in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee.’ As countless forced migrations have faded from collective memory, if they ever registered at all, so has the movement of people, and the reconfiguration of land, along the Romanian-Bulgarian border.
I first went to Vama Veche because I thought that, in order to remain legally in Romania as a US citizen, I had to cross the border every three months. I intended to walk. Long before I read W.G. Sebald or Rebecca Solnit, walking held for me a subversively radical appeal, like an outmoded technology secretly known to be superior to ones that had superseded it. It had happened to vinyl, celluloid and organic farming (which, in my grandparents’ village in Romania, is still called, simply, farming). It happens frequently to silence and solitude, both of which one tries too often, to one’s detriment, to improve with words and company. The silence and solitude I mean are not of a common kind, but the kind in which one no longer differentiates between thought and time and what the light is doing with a leaf.
The young guards at the border let me, but not the two Romanian friends with me, pass beyond the barricade. By law, citizens who hold (only) Romanian passports are not allowed to cross the Bulgarian border on foot, the guards explained. They may drive. They may ride a pony or a moped. But they may not walk, which compels one to consider assumptions made about humans who use their legs to get around. One of the two men with me that day would go on to become an award-winning Hollywood cinematographer, but what does that matter when you’re standing at a border, your passport is the wrong colour, and a bored, excessively armed customs guard juts his chin at you with a ‘Nts’. That’s ‘no’, without the bother of language, a gesture somewhere between speaking and spitting. The new plan, then: I would cross the border, buy a bottle of whisky from the duty-free shop, and we would all walk back to Vama Veche.
Walking held for me a subversively radical appeal, like an outmoded technology secretly known to be superior to ones that had superseded it.
Only in moving to Los Angeles years later would I experience another space so clearly designed to be used by humans and so strictly ill-suited for being traversed on foot (anyone who’s ever walked up to a drive-through window will understand). The Romanian officer stamped my passport, looked at me quizzically and informed me that, since I was born in Romania, I was a Romanian citizen and didn’t need to cross the border to remain in the country legally. However, now that he’d stamped my passport, I had to follow through, by law, to the Bulgarian side. He described the matter as though I’d set in motion some mechanism that was beyond human will. It was really out of his hands. Immediately upon reaching the other side, I learned that, again, by law (and there’s no accounting for this one), I had to spend at least one hour in Bulgaria.
An hour can be a lot of things. On the New York subway, it’s a trip from one end of Manhattan to the other – for those, like me, who can’t read in public, it’s an hour spent studying strangers’ faces. In the small stone church in the Lake District where I attended Sunday services regularly for the first time in 15 years (first, to meet people; then, for the light through the stained glass; then, for routine, the architecture in time that ritual creates; then, for the beautiful speaking voice of one of the parishioners who regularly read in the service; then, I couldn’t say anymore why I went, ever resistant to the language of the liturgy and hymns), an hour was a finite unit of time during which silence and solitude swelled beneath the words and people around me, with a will to break through and flood us all with – whatever it was, it never happened. On the Romanian-Bulgarian border, that no man’s land of curdled asphalt and architecture blanching like discarded eggshells, a vaguely holy and bureaucratic spirit moved through the cracks, while lazy arrangements of poplars gave the impression that the flora, too, had wandered back and forth across the old border, finally putting down roots willy-nilly; sitting still for an hour in that place was inconceivable.
That single road stretched from the border to Balcik, Varna, further to Istanbul; these and unnamable places between them bloomed on the blowsy canvas of my mind, the image-making motor turning over all of those imagined arrivals and departures, carrying me further in my imagination than my feet ever would. Balcik was the nearest destination on the road sign, too far even if I walked all day; but I could follow that road for a while, I thought, and, eventually, surely, there’d be a turn off to a beach where I might be able to crown this end-of-summer afternoon with a swim.
I walked alone across that strip of land between two countries, part of neither, and cut a sharp left down a dirt path that parted a sea of sunflowers, led by a strange sort of directional faith, to the actual sea. As I walked, something was happening – to say I noticed something was happening would be to speak of a common kind of perceiving, like ‘I noticed a hawk tearing at entrails’, or ‘I noticed the heat was intensifying’, and this noticing was of a different sort, more as though something that was happening was taking notice of me. It entered the rhythm of my breathing, extended the length of my gait, quickened my blood’s commute to my temples. I walked and then I ran, not in a hurry, not to get there (where was there?) but out of an instinctive need to animate further a new energy circulating inside me. The air was thick with the yellow breath of the sunflowers, and the shimmer ahead seemed to approach me, and not the other way around.
After the fact, the mind can try to parse the layers of an experience, an act of remembering that itself is both experience and not – thinking and writing can inform what I felt, the feeling that happened to me, on that walk to the sea, but it can’t, in a very real sense, retrieve it. Maybe the purpose of this kind of remembering is to make bearable the ordinary life that must necessarily surround moments of unmediated experience: instances in childhood when I flew or shape-shifted, first love, second love, the astonishing discovery of love without object, the first death to touch me, and all the deaths that first death loosened, which will come tumbling, one by one; and, finally, these rare, unanticipated, unsought (except that we are always seeking them) unions with – what? God, or with ourselves, or both – accelerating towards the place where all there is is an unending present. I say the remembering makes ordinary life bearable because we can’t live in the thunder of encounter at all times without going mad.
Returning to Vama Veche years later, I calculated that I’d walked, in total, eight and a half miles to and from the Bulgarian lip of the Black Sea just south of the border. I had been surprised to learn, when I rejoined my companions (bottle of whisky in hand), that I’d been gone nearly five hours. I’d had no precedent for such a ‘loss’ of time and space, or for what had found me in the middle of it – and, until more recently, no antecedent.
Ten years later, almost to the day, I was living in the Lake District, and fast approaching the precipice of yet another transatlantic move. Imminent departures from places, almost as much as recent arrivals in them, can trigger a zeal for movement and discovery; I was walking five to eight hours a day three or four days a week in my last months in the Lakes.
On the day in question, I’d woken to the early-hours probing of an encroaching fear, the formless, existential kind I often feel in cities, but which long walks, occasional companions and the practical, solitary necessities of rural life had all but abolished during my months in the English countryside. Saint Jerome said we are ‘never less alone than when alone’, but here I was alone, alone, and the only relief from this fear was walking. So I walked the whole day (if Cumbria were in North America, the Lakes would be a good nine or ten hours north of Montreal, that’s how far north it is – the day was long). I reached the tarn just as the sky behind the Southern Fells was catching fire, but there were hours still before it would be too dark to walk home. I panted up the steep hillside and gasped as the tarn revealed itself, a place unwitnessed, as it were, except by me, in that moment. I could sense the stillness of this place beyond the horizon of my perception, as if I were no witness at all. As if I weren’t altering the place by being there.
There’s a lag from the moment of impact to the need to name and describe it. Maybe that’s the distance we can never close between ourselves and some great otherness.
These words ‘tarn’, for ‘lake’; ‘fells’, for ‘hills’; ‘beck’, for ‘brook’; and ‘thwaite’ – not used alone, but at the end of place names, Finsthwaite, Satterthwaite, Haverthwaite – meaning ‘clearing’, go some way towards making stranger the language I’d like to use to describe something for which ordinary language is inadequate. But that necessary strangeness comes only after the fact of the experience. There’s a lag from the moment of impact to the need to name and describe it. Maybe that’s the distance we can never close between ourselves and some great otherness.
Without breaking stride, I peeled off my clothes and walked into the glittering water. The surface was the temperature of my skin. There was no wind, nothing was rippling, nothing was swaying, nothing was taking notice. Much like during the experience at the Old Border a decade before, the individuated self I recognised as ‘I’ dissolved, and what remained was an explosive joy mixed with utter terror, a fear of death, insanity and loneliness: no witness and no mirror. It didn’t matter if death was imminent or years away – my awareness of it was suddenly, overwhelmingly unmitigated. The joy had something to do with the marvel that one could have such an experience and go on living.
Then, just as quickly as the experience seized me, it released me again, like a wave breaking. I came out of the water, dried off in the sun and air, put on my clothes, tied up the laces of my shoes, and walked home.
‘Ten years had passed; ten summers, with the length of ten long winters!’ (to echo that other poet who famously wrote from these parts). Ten years to forget the encounter at the border, so as to be found by it again.
Image: The Poacher by Rik Rawling
Black ink on white paper
Inspired by a childhood growing up on the ragged fringes of Leeds, where thecouncil estates fell away to farms and woodland, where Sunday mornings rang with the sound of not church bells but shotguns. Dead crows and magpies hung from hawthorn trees. Plastic bags like grave rags tangled in barbed wire fences. A landscape that defies romanticism.
Rik Rawling is a South Gloucestershire-based artist with 30 years of experience in all forms of print media. For the past decade he has focussed on paintings – landscapes, portraits and wildlife – that express a more personal vision. rikrawling.co.uk