(Tumbleweed) On the Road by Ben Aitken
Any account of travel ought to start with a description of the weather, so I should say that it was generally overcast in Paris on June 13. Before heading east to Nancy, we dropped by the bookstore (where we had all met as Tumbleweeds) to say goodbyes, and maybe procure one or two sleeping bags. As I parked-up illegally next to the second-hand books, several members of staff clambered uninvited into the back of the campervan and started making pretend cups of tea and playing with the fridge. Another staff member presented us with an emergency tin of sardines, which, thank god, was never required; and a volunteer at the shop offered some home-made biscuits, which came in useful when we had to scrape ice off the windscreen. As I tethered our national flags to the van, Davy asked why he had been attributed a Nigerian flag. I explained that Ireland hadn’t qualified for the World Cup, and therefore the Irish flag wasn’t available anywhere in St. Michel. He looked unsure. “But I look the opposite of Nigerian.”
Stuck in traffic near the Gare du Nord, we each used different phrases to express impatience. To onlookers, we must have resembled a small, filthy version of the United Nations. Davy had arrived in Paris from Lagos, Nigeria, with nothing but a guitar case (no guitar, just the case; he had planned to sleep in it if there was no space at the bookstore). Peter, by nature restless and melancholic, had arrived from Seattle, USA, inspired by the Waterboys’ song Fisherman’s Blues, whose protagonist wishes he “were a fisherman / tumbling on the seas / far away from dry-land / and its bitter memories”. Sadly, no one had told Peter that Paris was landlocked. Santiago—well, as far as we know Santiago was on the run from the police. And for my part, I’d arrived in Paris the previous Valentine’s Day, having taken a long empty bus from London Victoria, killing the nine hours eating a box of discounted chocolates.
You are likely to see things when you travel. We saw the flat yellow fields of eastern France, the undulations of northern Italy, innumerable service stations— all very nice. And you’re also likely to do things. We made music in the squares of Bologna and Budapest, swam in polluted lakes and got fined 600 euros at the Croatian border for having a pouch of cannabis in the kettle—again, all very nice. You might also, god forbid, learn something. We learnt that Dante fled Bologna because the pasta was shit, that during WWII the Balkan countries carried out a more efficient genocide (per capita) than Germany, and that if one guy gets lice, the rest are fucked.
For sure, these were all nice fleeting things to have seen, done and learnt. But somehow it was the constants—the invariables—that made the moving wonderful. It was the van, it was the boys, it was reading The Hobbit aloud on the freeway. It was the involuntary spooning, the larking, the wondering. It was busking disco covers for our daily bread (Lisa Marie’s Feels Like I’m In Love— Google it—paid for the cannabis penalty on its own). In short, it was the road.
To be honest, being on the road was a bit like living at Shakespeare & Co. When you Tumbleweed, it is akin to entering a family. The limited space, the shared responsibility, the sense of excitement—all contribute to bring everybody together. A similar alchemy was at work in the van. An unnatural, and most likely unhealthy, tolerance developed. All ideas, habits, ticks and needs were welcomed and shared. If Peter wanted a shot of whisky with breakfast, well, we all had one. If Davy wanted to practise pilates on the roof of the van at dawn, we all got up there. If Stan wanted to chain-smoke while swimming, we all sparked up. We became parodies of one another, ludicrous versions of our regular selves. By the time we got back to Paris, we must have been positively repugnant to anyone but each other. As if to illustrate the fact, in Geneva, Santiago got an email from his parents explaining their decision to cancel his allowance. “You’re a road dog now, honey. You’re too far off the leash. There’s nothing we can do.” I started the trip with 80 friends on Facebook and a dozen more on Tinder. Now I’m down to 37.
As inevitably as they start, journeys end. As we crept back into Paris through the south east of the city—Vincennes, Nationale, Place d’Italie—we knew that our curtain was starting to draw. To announce our return, we thought about pulling up outside the shop and maybe doing a skid and jumping out and swinging our polluted flags around our heads. But then we reasoned that such behaviour would have been indulgent, given that the shop had closed an hour earlier.
Instead, we humbly rung the bell of the small studio attached to the shop where the Tumbleweeds hang out in the evening. The plan was to ask to use the toilet and see the cat. Of course, someone answered. Someone always does here. As we climbed the stairs and entered the studio, taking in its familiar look and smell and promises—a cheap meal bubbling on the stove, open wine bottles, damp towels—our faces all seemed to be saying the same thing. “You know what, boys? I could do another few months here.”
Ben Aitken lived at Shakespeare and Company from February 14th 2014 to May 1st 2014.