July 8th – Belfast International Airport
I had the window seat and you the middle and a smaller girl –your sister I presume, or perhaps a cousin- took the aisle. Somewhere over Lough Neagh you leaned across me to take three photographs through the airplane window. Flash. Flash. Flash. Like small bursts and blooms of headache migraining down the side of my face. You didn’t ask permission. You didn’t apologise. In my head I called you ill-mannered, badly brought up, selfish, and wondered where your mother was. All through the flight I ignored you. I kept my elbows to myself on the handrest. I didn’t look at you and, when somewhere over the Isle of Man, your shoulders started heaving, I presumed you laughing into whatever you were watching on your Iphone. YouTube. Netflix. Iplayer. It was only when we landed in Schiphol and you stood to open the luggage locker that I saw you’d been crying. Hard. For over an hour. Then I felt guilty but could not place the guilt precisely or let it go.
July 9th – Amsterdam
While we were in the museum it rained. Not heavily but hard enough to shift the stale water smell from the canal banks. The city smelt of greenhouse and bathwater and indefinable cleanliness. Which made us hungry. We had a very specific hunger for ice cream in waffle cones. The streets were to damp to sit or stop so we walked through the courtyard, past the American bookshop and the place where, only hours before, the little Dutch children had been chalking the pavements outside their doors.
“Look,” you said, and we all looked at their chalk people and animals fading now from the rain and sliding towards the canal’s edge as if anxious to erase themselves entirely.
July 10th – Amsterdam
There are hundreds of people streaming in and out of the Vondelpark gates. Sleek-skinned Jans and Jaspars in lycra shorts and running shoes, first names pinned to their damp, shirt front with safety pins. Their feet make the sound of paper falling as they pass. It is hot. Too hot for half marathons or even the watching of half marathons. Too hot for anything but indoors and we are anxious for old paintings and the cool, dark hallways which house them. We walk past the Vondelpark to the Rijksmuseum but the runners are two lanes deep all the way round the Museumplein. They are both coming and going, running so fast they are little more than royal blue streaks against the eye blue sky. There is no obvious place to cross them. No bridge or subway. So we duck the barrier and slip into the stream, becoming, for one brief moment, runners. We weave and dodge and sidestep the shoal until we reach the opposite side of the road and the art and the shade, which is perfectly cut for our ease, and we do not envy those runners. Not a single bit.
July 11th – Hamburg
There is no such thing as a straight street in Hamburg. Even the bicycle lanes worm across the pavement like pale pink ribbons. The buildings bend. The river sallies and it is impossible to know whether a road will actually arrive you at a new place or simply double back on itself like someone hard to follow joke.
We become lost looking for the Botanischer Garten. There will be music there tonight and an opportunity to drink beer outdoors, without fear of Police or fine. This is Germany to us. But the street names are so long, one Strase blurs into the next on our tiny, hotel map. And, no one stops to offer assistance, and all the signs are in German.
By the time we arrive at the park all the musicians are gone and the audience is little more than a handful of drunk and amorous couples dotted across the green. The trees are still strung with fairy lights though. All their tiny, twitching lights like old men winking at us, saying, “you missed something real special here tonight, Girls!”
July 12th – Hamburg
Last night, whilst Hamburg slept, a new building burst from the muddy harbor water and stretched sixteen storeys up to scratch the sky. Miles below, the shipyard cranes tipped their heads in wonder and tourists taking chartered cruises round the canals, lifted their cameras to their eyes and snapped and snapped and snapped again.
This new building was shiny, as if still wet-glassed from the ocean, and covered with hundreds of dips and circular protrusions like Christmas baubles or fortunetellers’ globes. Those ships and industrial barges curious enough to nudge the edges of this new building soon discovered the walls were not solid but rather formed from over-sized sheets of bubble wrap- the sort of material usually kept for wrapping fragile parcels.
These plastic postules would burst up impact with a ship’s helm making a satisfying putt putt sound which gave the local sailors great and simple joy, which kept the little boats coming back night after night to play the building like a percussion section, which became something of a visitors’ attraction, which made the tourists clap their hands with glee and laugh loudly, which was not considered normal in a German city of Hamburg’s size and standing.
July 13th – Hamburg to Copenhagen
The first lady is sitting in the second lady’s seat. The second lady is becoming insistent. It is five hours from Hamburg to Copenhagen and she doesn’t want to stand. She is not wearing shoes for standing. She wants to sit down to eat her tiny German sandwiches in peace.
The first lady is equally insistent. She has claimed the seat first. Squatter’s rights. Besides, she is older and more likely to die if forced to stand up for five hours straight. The tickets are compared. Both have the same seat allocation. What a mystery!
The conductor is called. The conductor is baffled. Then, the conductor notices the date on the second lady’s ticket. September. Two months from today. Everyone laughs. Even the Danish people eavesdropping in the opposite seat. There is plenty of room in First Class for the second lady. No one will be thrown off this train today.
You are not laughing. You are remembering the time you turned up on the wrong month for flights from Edinburgh, (and Bristol, and Amsterdam), and all the money you spent getting home and the items you might otherwise have spent this money on. Books, for example.