I have written elsewhere about my reasons for doing this walk, and some of the things I learned (including in a series of dispatches for Dark Mountain). What I want to offer now, eight years after I took off my broken boots in Istanbul, is an audio field guide to ‘How to Walk Across Europe’. Accompanying this set of instructions are some of the sounds I captured on the way, using a digital recorder for no more than a minute a day: birdsong, church bells, flowing rivers, roaring traffic, my footsteps swishing through wet leaves or crunching on snow, drunken singing and conversations in various dialects, folk music, political rallies, furious dogs, cow bells, the patter of rain, the call to prayer, waves breaking on a beach.
Before we hear those sounds, however, I would like to share a few other ways in which to understand a walk.
I can think of this walk in terms of numbers: it took 221 days, something like 2,500 miles, eight countries, three seasons, two major rivers, two mountain ranges, seven languages, countless conversations and one pair of boots (by the end of the walk there were holes in them so big it was almost like walking barefoot). But numbers don’t mean much to me. Every few days someone would ask me my average mile-count for the day, or exactly what my rucksack weighed, or how many calories I ate, and I never had any answers. I could simply say it was one walk, and that’s the only number that counts, but even that would not feel true; it is only my own definition that separates those 221 days from all the days I had walked before, and the days I have walked since. The numbers are imaginary lines, like the borders between countries.
I can think of this walk in terms of colours – brown, white, yellow, green, blue – which, in retrospect, came to define my progression through Europe. Brown for the lowlands of Holland and northern Germany in a mild, rainy December; white for the sparkling fields of snow in Bavaria and Lower Austria, and for the frozen Danube, and for the snowcapped Alps to the south; yellow for threadbare Slovakia, and the dust and semi-arid grasslands of the Great Hungarian Plain, which seemed to go on forever, and drove me slightly mad; green for the hills of Romania, which restored my sanity, and for the Carpathian forests and the mountains of Bulgaria; blue for the glittering Black Sea, which meant – if I kept it on my left – that for the last few weeks I could not possibly get lost.
Or I can think of this walk in terms of the random images that still flash into my mind at unexpected moments. They are mostly the most insignificant things: the corner of two quiet, sunlit streets in a small town in Bulgaria; the bloody teeth of a road-killed polecat on the verge of a road in Hungary; the interior of a house that someone let me sleep in one night (but no memory of the name or the features of my host); the quiet delight of smoking a cigarette under a mulberry tree. These aftershocks of memory tell me that something inside me is still walking the shadow-landscape of that journey, eight years on. The walk never really finished, and maybe never will do.
And then I can think of this walk in terms of the three great doors – partly real, partly symbolic – that have slammed shut on Europe since I left from the Hook of Holland. First the refugee crisis at the peak of the Syrian War, to which governments across Europe responded with razor-wire fences, tear-gas, internment camps and the closing of borders. Then the Brexit referendum of 2016, with its explicit rejection of the very principle of open borders and freedom of movement, suddenly framed – like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ – as dirty words. And now, of course, the lockdown in response to the covid-19 pandemic, in which aimless wandering from village to village, town to town – whether by foot or by any other means – feels like a quaintly nostalgic act from a bygone age.
This audio field guide, then, is not so much a memory of a walk I did eight years ago but a series of instructions for walks that are to come; when closed doors open up again, and one of the oldest and simplest of human activities reestablishes itself as naturally as breathing. Some of the stolen sounds are faint, so I recommend you listen through headphones or speakers. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the walk.
Our walking series continues next week with a journey into the New Jersey Pine Barrens.