This post encompasses five countries: Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. One of these I’d visited already on this trip; none of them were new to me. Ever since crossing the Himalayas I’d sensed the cultural pull of the West – Central Asia had looked to Europe rather than to India or the Orient – but now on the last leg of my trip, familiarity reigned and I could blend in as a native, no longer the outsider, adopting the cultural norms of me and my own.
Europe is made up of a patchwork of pocket-sized countries, oh so similar and yet subtly different, ever more integrated and yet still maintaining their own distinct characters within a collegial alliance. Their own national mores remain but they share enough in common that as I drifted from state to state, and until I stopped to eat and found the language had changed, I’d hardly notice the borders. Not that those borders are obsolete, for in this pocket-sized diversity lies one of Europe’s great strengths. All of the big monolithic states I’d visited; the US, China and India; had suffered ‘big country syndrome’, an inability for citizens to see the world from a perspective beyond their shores. In America, I’d often mused that “In Britain we can hardly move for falling off into France”, and that this taught us a valuable lesson: we were used to the idea that just a few miles away, people lived under a different set of rules, spoke a different language – and that was okay, because our laws were not the only laws; our language, our culture; there was life outside of those norms. If we wished to understand people in far off countries, it helped to have a reminder of our own particularity just down the road.
Writing up my last trip before this one – to Kyrgyzstan – I’d intended to write about how visiting far-flung locations was very fine, but that I’d never visited Scandinavia, never seen Spain, and had spent precious little time in the north of Scotland. My message, as I imagined before I wrote it, was that there is a world of beauty and adventure on our doorsteps, which I had neglected to explore, and which I now intended to give its proper due. By the time I finished writing though, I had already embarked on the world tour, and that ending didn’t fit.
Now, at the end of my next big, far-flung adventure, I re-entered my long-neglected home continent. Over the Alps, up the Rhine, through the quaint canals and mills of the low countries and across the sea to Yorkshire; my camera, under-used for weeks, started clicking again as the castles, barges, hills and cities piqued my interest as they took turns to pass me by. From the rural life of Bavaria to the industrial might of the Ruhr, from the peaks of the Alps to the lions of Flanders and the shores of the North Sea, I rediscovered a truth about this region I had left a year before: the deserts of Nevada might have been very grand; the snowy Altai stunning and the madrassas and camel trails of the Silk Road very impressive, but this was their equal. You can pine for far fields but you shouldn’t forget your home, because you live in a beautiful part of the world.