April 14, 2010

The culture shock of coming home. Brno, Prague, London.

In the morning, Rita is gone. We leave her flat for a bus to Prague, where we have two hours to wander.

Prague. We mainly spend our time eating noodles in a Chinese-run traditional Czech pub full of cigarette smoke and Chris Rea. When you’re travelling constantly, cities rushing past you at a rate of three a day, you learn not to try to grab at them. It’s enough just to be stationary, present in one bar for a brief time only. If we were trying to see all the famous towers we’d lose our footing altogether.

We do have a short walk along the river, though: we see boats full of tourists slowly tacking, watched by the statues that guard the rooftops. Buildings are pink and yellow and pale blue. Billy takes black-and-white pictures of their shadows. Turning back to the area around the bus station, we find it full of erotica shops and club posters. A MacDonald’s squats under a flyover.

Time up.

We pick up our bags from the two-woman coven behind the left luggage counter, and take a moment to breathe. This is the last journey on the mission. Here are the people we’ll be spending the next 17 and a half hours with. They’re impassive, a line of shut faces waiting to stow their bags and find their holes.

“Alright mate?”

Nothing.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

Fine. We’ve become expert at shrugging off the human cold. We own the bus. Our seats at least, leathery and reclining. Our humour fills the small space and we settle in for the whole haul, ready as anything. A young woman is looking after us all, she comes down the aisle with headphones and coffee. We sort of make friends. The bus pulls away, through fancy Prague and into the cylindrical world of travel-limbo, that ventilated strangeness of snores and knees and sideways glances.

* * *

I wake rolling over smooth plains, where pylons march jockey-legged against a flat dawn sky. A sign for Dunkirke flashes by, then not long after that a sign for Calais -30km. We’ll be on the ferry soon, I suppose. I look around the coach- the other passengers are slumped in their own unlikely positions, the man to my right with his forehead against the window, jiggling gently. There are only a few of us awake.

“Boozers”

announces a sign on a supershop building,

“The Spirit Of Calais”,

and Calais appears without a word to say for itself, a spread of modern semis with no visible spirit at all.

* * *

I supposed wrong: we’re not getting on the ferry. After our last border crossing, where the French border guards animatedly bad-mouth the British ones, who tiredly wave us through, our bus ramps onto a slot on a train which in turn slides into the Eurotunnel. Within an hour, we’ve got Dover behind us and we’re travelling up the very English M20 to London.

I wanted England to be sunny, all cricket whites and village greens, but it isn’t.  We roll into London under a sky of grey flannel, past Beyonce Hair Salon and a gap-toothed crackhead, who weeps and offers a fistful of cigarettes to a hooded bloke.

Victoria Greenline Station. We emerge from the bus blinking, the last two to disembark. We can’t be arriving yet. Not yet. There’s a fast food place in the station, does it do breakfast? It does breakfast. We order one each, and there we are, sat stunned over plates of beans and chips and tin-tomatoes.

Welcome home.

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