Before I begin to post what I've written this time around, a trip down memory lane seems to be in order.
Pre-dawn in Central France… Notes from the other side of the world…
A perpetual state of transit is where I seem to find myself, a perpetual state of motion, or perhaps non-motion would describe it more accurately – another train station, another airport, another smoker’s lounge, another bar. Standing and sitting, waiting for the next leg to begin, counting the hours since I left but never really being sure if it’s right, if I am where I think I am, wondering if I’ve calculated wrong and have missed a connection and am doomed to wait forever in a foreign airport, a train station, a smoker’s lounge, a bar.
It’s hot in Singapore, muggy and thick but you only really feel it that split second you alight from the plane, the gap in the connecting tunnel just big enough to allow you a whiff of stifling air before you’re caught once more in the air-conditioning, the recycled air which is all you breath on any distance trip really. It’s been seven hours since we left, people wander somewhat aimlessly, but we seem to be OK, steady walk, taking control of a situation which really demands a horizontal position and a cold beer. We find our transit motel, a small, nondescript room, three beds, a shower, tea and coffee, nothing out of the ordinary anywhere.
I wander downstairs by myself, the need to smoke outweighing the need to lie down for now – Singapore airport is bright and modern, an architect’s dream, an artist’s nightmare. There aren’t many people wandering around and so the garish shops hawking their techno-wares, their fashion and their product, the ones pushed in the face of weary travellers, are pushing to what is a barely populated space… it’s calm, and is easy to wander around slowly, no hustle, no bustle, a languid 8pm stroll around no man’s land, as we are indeed behind customs, that odd space which doesn’t really belong to a country, a place which technically has no borders or laws, just an urge to make money and to sell, except to those of us who are already content and want nothing more than alcohol and nicotine.
The terribly titled Smoker’s Lounge is a glass cube, a room off the side of the Singapore Straights Bar, where you can get two New Zealand Harry’s beers for five euro, a room with no air except the air that’s been regurgitated from someone’s lungs, thick smoke fills the entire space, there are plants but they must be plastic and they do little to cheer this extraordinarily depressing scene. The room is full when I find it, opening the glass door at the front, the deluge of smoke unable to escape because of the curtain of cold air protecting the smoke-less citizens outside its boundaries. No one speaks, it’s totally quite, people suck on cigarettes and look at the floor, they think about god-knows what and they smoke in total silence almost, it seems, afraid to be there, to be seen there, to even connect themselves with what is, basically, a smoker’s detention centre.
It’s obvious in places like this they’re trying to phase smoking out – even a heavy smoker would think twice before going in there. I myself do a number of times, each time not finishing more than half a cigarette, but as any smoker will tell you, after a seven and a half hour flight, you’ll pretty much go anywhere – I catch the eye of a few people I see in there from time to time, and we become kindred smoking spirits, united behind the lines by something that will eventually, perhaps, kill us all.
Seven hours we spend in Singapore airport. I try and get a bit of work done, I drink a couple of beers with Pip – it’d be easy to get drunk here, quite cheaply, and I’m tempted to, given our next flight, which leaves at 11:45, is supposed to last for around 13 hours, a prospect which holds no excitement for me. But we just stick to a couple, returning to the room to read and while away the hours, leaving again to eat at a Thai restaurant overlooking the main concourse, which is beginning to fill up as more and more planes arrive from overseas destinations, expelling passengers of all shapes and sizes, of all races and denominations, of all types from scruffy backpackers to elite, harried looking businessmen. We finish eating and head back to the room, I detour for another smoke and find it harder to reach the cube as people spill every which way in an effort to find what they’re looking for – I smoke and return once more to the room.
Eventually, we leave for the departure lounge, and I wonder where all these people came from – two flights are leaving from here at roughly the same time, a flight to Heathrow in London and one to Charles de Gaul in France, and people teem everywhere, every seat is taken, small children run and scream through the isles, dodging tired feet and bags filled with duty-free booze and cigarettes, annoying anyone who is awake, which is everyone – you can’t sleep in an environment like this. It’s around seven in the morning back in Melbourne, I’ve not slept since waking up at 4:30 the previous morning – time differences are getting confusing and Singapore is only two hours behind… we wait and we wait and we finally get on the plane, taking our seats not long before take-off, the wail of the new-born next to me setting me on edge for a flight I was indifferent to, but which I’m now dreading and just want to be over. My head feels like it’s full of concrete, and luckily, as we begin our journey north and west, crossing over the continental plate, over India and Pakistan, over the middle east, the Caspian Sea, the bottom of Russia, the old Soviet States like Kurdistan, Uzbekistan and the former Yugoslavia, over eastern Europe and finally western Europe, I fall into a troubled sleep and so escape from what is happening around me and what is likely to come.
We emerge from a pregnant grey sky, an offspring born of modern technology and our planet’s ever-changing meteorological circumstance, the rain meanders down with that French arrogance, and it’s almost nice to be in such a state, so far removed from the norm it puts a fresh take on a sleepless delirium and at least eases the pain of being part of this crowd of what were once human beings. ‘Smoking in the plaza outside Gare Du Lyon’, says a line in my notebook and I was there as the sun came out and pigeons bustled around my feet and in my black suit I felt almost real for a while, and yet transit is where I was and would be for a while.
Of course, we missed the train, the inefficiency of Charles de Gaul airport, slightly north and east of the French capital, the reason why – customs takes an eternity, although once yr passport is stamped, it’s all over, you’d be pretty unlucky to get pulled over by the blue-uniformed police and yr baggage searched – once you’ve gotten yr baggage of course. We waited another eternity for our bags to appear, finally picking them off the endless conveyor, running downstairs, a taxi queue, yet another queue, but a welcome one for smokers such as me. We head to town, leaving the airport at around 8:35, local time, in the morning but we don’t make our nine o’clock train, we don’t get to the stations until 9:30 and so I’m standing out in the plaza outside Gare Du Lyon, the sun straining to break through the cloud cover – looking around the vast square, there are apartments in a huge building which curves around the northern edge, some balconies displaying banners advocating against some cause or another, too hard to read what they say though, the word ‘Non’ standing out the most, anti-something. A bum wanders around the area talking to himself, occasionally lighting a cigarette stub, occasionally talking to people standing around eating or smoking or merely enjoying the fresh air away from the stuffiness of the station, a building which on the exterior, looks magnificent, but which inside could be any huge transit hub in the world.
Young people, army recruits, none of which look older than 22, stroll around in uniform, which would be almost comical if they weren’t armed with thick, dead black German-made machine guns, in a perpetual state of languid readiness, protecting us from I don’t know what, they don’t make a sound and just walk around looking at everything instilling a slight trace of fear amongst people, although the locals, to tell the truth, don’t seem to notice. We wait for another train, which, three and a half hours later, leaves from Platform 9 upstairs and we find seats and sink into them, so close to the end of the journey and yet still on the journey and sleep is needed (only three or four hours in the past 48) but I read and look out the window as the French countryside rushes by like it has somewhere else to be and has no time to waste.
We stop at Nevers and Vichy and somewhere else and we eventually get off at Riom where the sun is shining and it’s the perfect early autumn day, central France with its rolling hills and tiny, narrow-streeted towns, basking in the sun as if it’ll never be back again.
I wake up a little before 6am in my tiny room in the middle of nowhere, it’s still dark and there’s no sound anywhere, no people up and about, total silence. The moon is full and the silvery light meanders around the edge of the window blind giving the room an eerie glow. I read for a short time and then set up my laptop on the tiny desk in the corner to record the events of the past two days.
Eventually I open my window and, turning off the light, climb out onto the wide ledge to smoke a cigarette. The sky to my left is slowly beginning to lighten, the moon to my right is gently setting, bathing the entire scene in its ethereal glow – a cat walks across the carpark below me, a shadow stealing eastwards, and a light goes on in a top floor room across from me. The sound of a delivery van emanates from the steep road out the front of the hotel and a dog barks, but aside from that I could be alone in the world, just me in a town in the middle of the French countryside, peaceful and well-rested, thinking about nothing in particular and someone specifically, a quiet scene of reflection and calm. Today will be a long day, and there are indeed many words to be written, and so around an hour later I decide to retire again, for an hour or so, until someone wakes and the day begins and we see what exactly is likely to happen next.
I'll post more of this work over the coming days, as well as whatever I manage to put together this time around.