I think the phrases “I ended up…” and “I found myself…” are the reason I travel.
On the last weekend in July I ended up in an “Australian” bar at one am in the port town of Antibes, drinking Côtes du Rhône and trying to explain relationship fundraising to Italian engineers. We were there because most other places were closing, and because my new friends were now in possession of an authentic Australian, which made it all deeply amusing.
A couple of weeks ago, at a similar time of night, I found myself doing shots with the bar staff of Cafe Oz Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. Antibes’ “The Australian Bar” won points over Cafe Oz for having eschewed fake Indigenous artwork and inflatable kangaroos, but had failed to replace cultural appropriation with anything else; it was a nondescript terrace with a single “No Swimming – Crocodiles” sign affixed crookedly to one window.
When you come from the ends of the earth, you spend a lot of time answering the question what’s it like there? or at least, in my case, disappointing people by not having any kind of neat answer at all.
When people ask about the ends of the earth, they don’t want to hear about high quality of life and high median house prices and cricket and systemic racism and tortured children and terrible public transport, so I invariably add that it’s stupendously beautiful and full of animals that are definitely trying to kill you, which generally mollifies my audience. But, they add. Australians are so friendly. So laid back. Well, I prevaricate, picking at the chewed skin around my nails. Some of us are.
I don’t know if I find it impossible to encapsulate Australian culture because there isn’t a single cohesive one, or because it’s my own culture and I’m too involved in it, or because I am deeply suspicious of generalisations. Maybe it’s because when you’re looking from the outside you’re more likely to see all the wrinkles and loose threads in the fabric. Maybe it’s all of the above.
My friend suggests that my willingness to keep being talked into going to Australian bars is in itself a cultural artefact. I hope it means “openness to experiences” rather than “endemic alcoholism” but it’s hard to say.
In early August I catch the slow train to Burgundy, to stay with my friend in the house her parents have owned since she was born. Her brother and his children live just around the corner in the same tiny village. Her surname is etched proudly on the side of the building that contains the family business, and if I can’t find her, she says, I’m to ask anyone where F’s daughter is. In other words: she’s a local.
She takes me through narrow streets lined with stone houses and along winding roads between fields of Grand Cru vines, intensely green as they march off into the distance. We follow her German Shepherds up a rough trail to a lookout point and gaze out over hallowed ground, home to names even I, plebeian drinker that I am, recognise with awe.
On the Saturday afternoon we happen upon a village wine festival, where five euros buys you a wine glass and a stamp on your hand to wander the closed-off streets, filled with stalls of local winemakers, and I find myself tasting wine while patting a baby goat (they’re presumably there to entertain the children while the parents sip, but I line up with the toddlers and giggle as happily as any of them).
On Sunday I end up helping to run a stall in a village flea market. Locals stop to kiss my friend, and her nieces and nephews manage the stand for us while we go to buy ham sandwiches and chips and beer from the food tent, run by chatty volunteers. The kids aren’t sure about this giant Australian their aunt has introduced to the region, and I wish I could reassure them: this place, your little village, it feels like home to me. Culturally, ‘small town’ weighs more heavily than ‘French’ or ‘Australian’.
In the afternoon I find myself floating in a backyard swimming pool, toasting in the surprisingly fierce Burgundy sun. On the train back to Paris, my hair dries stiff and tangled down my back and I fall asleep on my backpack, worn out by wine and sun and late nights.
Last month I found myself running ten kilometres through the rain in Manchester, England, wearing an elephant suit. The month before that I ended up singing the Marseillaise with drunk football fans on the Champ de Mars. Next month, hopefully, I’ll find myself turning 30 on a boat off the Croatian coast, accompanied by old friends and new.
I don’t think life is about Finding Yourself. It’s about finding yourself, over and over and over again, in moments of joy and wonder and hilarity and novelty.
Ending up is what keeps me going.