Friday, 2 May 2008

Spirit of exploration

Yesterday, just as the air became dark with evening, I walked down the street, between terraced red brick houses, and heard a blackbird singing.

A song dark and mellifluous, hollow, endless. A song that seems to open on to other worlds. A song that might echo through the centuries.

And I saw him. Just a little black bird, sitting on a terracotta chimney pot, next to the TV arial.

Exploration is like that. Your virgin territory is someone else's back yard. A potent mix of the romantic and the everyday.

I see a little girl leaning out of her window above me in the back streets of Istanbul. She smiles. I smile back.

What do I really see? I think she's cute. She's a travel memory. Something to be put in my notebook, photographed, used, the way I'm using her in this post. But behind that, she has a life, friends, dreams, ambitions; and she's looking at me, a monstrosity on show, a freak European lost in the hillside tenements of Fener, just as I'm looking at her. So we've met, and then again, we haven't; we're both figures in each others' narratives.

And if you're an explorer, you think that through. And then you move on.

You always move on.

The blackbird's song makes me think of travelling. It's a footloose, itchy desire to be somewhere. It's not about taking a vacation, two weeks in Europe, let's see the Leaning Tower and the Changing of the Guard. It's about wanting to be moving. Wanting to open up to new experiences. A certain dissatisfaction that keeps you always moving on - in life and in geography, both.

I have a list of places I want to go. This year I crossed Istanbul of it. I'm hoping to cross off Iceland, too. But I'll never reach the end of the list, however long I live. Or if I do, I'll start a new list; places I want to go back to.

When I walked to Santiago de Compostela, I was always hungry. Explorers always are.

And then exploring is also about finding that one perfect moment that you can't plan for, that just happens, zen-like, miraculous. The green ray seen just once off Formentera as the last sliver of the sun rushes below the horizon. A rushing ice-cold fountain in a square in Spoleto. Alone, in moonlight, in St Mark's Square, flooded by the spring tide. The blackbird singing.

That blackbird could be singing in Herat, perched on a ruined minaret. Or in a rose garden in India.

Or here, in Norwich. But that melancholy, liquid song makes me yearn to be travelling, always moving on.


  1. Hi, I just read this beautiful post and also looked at your podcast site. Very inspiring indeed!
    Ruth Kozak, Travel Thru History

  2. I love your entry! Voted "5 stars" for you!