Talking to strangers and travelling fearlessly

We are standing on the railway station in Sighișoara on a cold morning in April. It was 19 degrees the day before, as we wandered round the citadel, and now the temperature has dipped to 2 degrees. There is no indication of why the train is late, no announcement, nothing on the board. The train is coming from Vienna, so plenty of opportunities for delay, and our journey back to Bucharest will take five hours.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

A small crowd of people cross the track to the warmth of the waiting room, either knowing something that we had been unable to discover about the delay, or being used to this sort of thing with Romanian trains. The six of us left on the platform decide to follow them. We are a party of three, and then there is an older couple from Belgium, plus a young man with a rucksack, travelling alone. ‘Shall we dance?’ I say, in an effort to keep warm. The Belgian woman laughs, and joins me in a few steps. Her husband has hair the colour of the glacial water in the mountain streams that we have seen from train windows on our journeys through Transylvania. The couple intended to go to the Black Sea, but with the turn in the weather, they are heading for Brașov. The young man is touring fortified churches, and hiking when the weather allows. He tells us of a place in Moldavia he has visited. ‘It’s like a living museum,’ he says. ‘The people live in wooden huts built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s really hard to get there by public transport.’ It transpires that the young man is also Belgian. He and the couple are from the same village, but have never met before.

A sudden chime from the speakers, like an Alpine tune played on handbells. Our train is arriving in three minutes. The locals have already gathered this, ahead of the announcement, and have crossed to Linia 2. This is a theme throughout the trip: foreigners are just supposed to know, in the way Romanians know – where to find a kiosk to buy bus tickets, when trains are late. There is little information for tourists.

This is me, travelling fearlessly, with my husband and my friend. A pledge I took in my sixtieth year, to do sixty things for the first time, with a running theme of going to places I hadn’t been to before. All my life I have been fearful of travelling. My parents had migrated from Ireland to England, and the only trips I knew, growing up, were the long journey by rail, sea, bus and taxi to County Clare each summer, and the occasional journey to the Sussex coast. I had my children young, then had little money, and it seemed the opportunity to travel had passed me by.

Romania was quite a challenge, but I was attracted by a non-touristy destination, and by the fact that my brother’s boyfriend is Romanian, the two of them having made a similar trip through Transylvania. I was able to get advice from them – on how to buy bus tickets and train tickets (no point getting an Interrail card, as trains are dirt cheap in Romania), on bringing food for long train journeys, as there is no buffet. I learned some Romanian through an app, Duolingo, which taught me many useful phrases, such as ‘You are men. You have children,’ and ‘The owl eats insects.’ My friend, armed with a Berlitz phrasebook, and I, armed with six weeks on Duolingo, managed to negotiate buying train tickets and ordering food in Romanian, and even my reluctant husband ordered a taxi and learned how to say ‘Multumesc’ (‘Thank you’).

The memories I hold of that trip are not only of visits to castles, the beautiful scenery, of storks in flight and nesting alongside railway lines, but of the conversations with strangers. On a train journey, Teodora, a medical student on her way to university in Cluj Napoca, told us of her parents’ experiences, living in the time of communism, when they had to get up at 4.00 a.m. to queue for one loaf of bread for the week for the family. She explains why the younger people speak good English, but the older ones were only taught Romanian and Russian in the time of Ceaușescu, which explains why we have trouble conversing with older taxi drivers and people on buses. Nonetheless, the older Romanians we encounter are willing to show us how to stamp our bus tickets, and to reassure us that we are travelling in the right direction. There is friendliness and good-naturedness all round.

The Belgian couple we meet on the train platform think we are Romanians, at first. Coming towards the end of our stay, we no longer look like bewildered tourists, and I am no longer a fearful traveller.

A well-turned ankle – thinking about feet and walking

I have just finished reading Baggage, A Book of Leavings, by Victoria Field. A memoir of walking the Camino de Santiago as a way of reflecting on and recovering from the end of a marriage. Earlier this year, a friend rang to say that he was going to be walking the Camino, or part of it, as he only he had two weeks in which to do so. ‘Are you going to find yourself?’ I asked, only half joking. This friend had been through a major health scare in the previous year, as well as his wife’s treatment for breast cancer the year before. He needed this trip. I followed his progress on Facebook, recognising the pain of blisters and fatigue, but also with envy. I couldn’t ‘do’ the Camino, unless someone offered to carry me in a sedan chair or on the back of a motorbike.

I realised that I had to make changes, make my own pilgrimage. And I keenly felt my inability to walk far, how I still miss going out for a trek 19 years into an illness that ‘put a halt to my gallop’, as my mother used to say. My mother died earlier this year. One of those things that makes you stop and reflect on your life. In the past two years, I have moved house, my husband had a heart attack, and I have lost a friend of a similar age to me. Lost as in died: let’s not sugarcoat it. I also lost the ability to write for a long time – now happily returning to me like an old friend whose company I have missed, but who often annoys the hell out of me.

Whilst reading Victoria Field’s book, I have thought a lot about feet as well as walking. There is a pilgrim with boots made especially from a mould taken of their feet, who nonetheless finds himself in excruciating pain. There are blisters, feet with flayed skin, and an account of a man who devotes himself, unpaid, to tending the feet of pilgrims by the side of the road. Before her pilgrimage, Victoria decides on a pair of ‘cheap and nasty’ boots that she has been wearing long before her trip, rather than shell out hundreds of pounds on a ‘good pair’, and these boots serve her well.

Maria at college, in her walking days

I have been writing recently about the difficulty of finding physical and psychological space, living in a large family in a small house when I was growing up. And I realised that I found that space when walking. It was always with a purpose, rather than going out for a stroll – to work; my Saturday job in Woolworth’s, or to college when I decided to leave the grammar school and go to an FE college to take my A-Levels. The school was yards from my house, and I had never experienced the bus journeys to school of my classmates, having also lived within a short walk of my primary school. When I told my mum that I was leaving the sixth form, during the first weeks of term, she firmly said that she would not pay my bus fares to college, so I walked at least one way every day – some three miles. I did this in plimsolls or flip-flops when it was warm enough to wear them. I had never had fitted or expensive shoes, and there was no question of buying good walking boots.

I got a certain rhythm whilst walking, and would pride myself on how far along the road I got before a bus passed me. Neighbours would often say that they had seen me ‘going hell for leather’ as they had passed on a bus. It was the only space I had to myself, between home and work, home and college, and I often walked late at night, coming back from parties or nights out. I was only ever bothered once, during these late walks, by some lads at the hot dog stand in town, and when one came over to me, I just mentioned my older brother’s name, hoping that they might know him, and was left alone to continue my journey.

Into my twenties and thirties, I continued to walk with a purpose, and found, after my marriage had broken up, that walking by the river and across the Rochester Bridge would help me to sort out things in my head. My body would loosen, my mood lift, and more often than not, something I had been trying to figure out would resolve itself as I walked.

Then illness struck and, slowed to a snail’s pace, I still walked until I reached a point of near collapse, like when marathon runners hit a wall, except the distance I covered was minimal. I was deprived of my way of creating space for myself, solving problems, feeling better. I dreamed of it still, of running for a bus, of walking, jumping, skipping.

I am treating my toenails at present. Stripped of their summer clothes of brightly-coloured varnish, I am tackling the thick and discoloured nails with a twice-daily lotion, applied like nail varnish with a brush. I have noticed that the nails on my right foot grow faster than those on my left. I have noticed the stripes on my feet from wearing the same sandals all summer: two broad white strips across the lightly tanned skin. The second toe on each foot is longer than the big toe. Someone once told me this is a sign of being psychic. My feet are quite long and slender, and I like the look of them. I think of the phrase ‘a well-turned ankle’. I think it was used at a time when women showed little of their legs, and a flash of an ankle could drive a man, or woman, to desire.

My ankle was well-turned in a fall down the steps of the house I used to live in. I sprained the ligaments in my left foot, which swelled up and turned from black to blue to yellow as the bruising progressed. This was some fifteen years ago, and I still get pain in that foot, that ankle, from time to time.

I no longer wear plimsolls or flip-flops. A year ago, I decided to take better care of that foot and ankle, and to buy better shoes. I spent £80 on a pair of comfortable yet stylish shoes, which are serving me well. My feet deserve it.

As for a pilgrimage, walking the Camino is not for me, but I am going to do some travelling in my sixtieth year. By train, mainly. I never had a gap year as a teenager, never went interrailing or grape-picking, and have seen little of the world. My aim, as part of my Sixty Firsts, is to ‘travel fearlessly’. The trips may be short and not as ambitious as others might undertake, but I shall be broadening my world, flexing my feet, and showing a well-turned ankle..

Sixty Firsts – Eating Gözleme in London Fields

Gözleme, a Turkish flatbread made of flour, water and oil, cooked dry on a hotplate, stuffed and folded with a choice of two fillings: potato and onion; spinach and cheese.

There are two women sitting on the floor in the window of the Saray Broadway Café, legs outstretched, making flatbreads, which they cook on a hotplate. The café has plastic chairs with tube-framed legs fixed to tables, which are also screwed to the floor, in the style of a greasy spoon. These women are not in headscarves in the window during the week, but the Broadway Market is on a Saturday with its artisan breads, cheeses and vegan brownie squares at £4.50 a go.

The market is crowded on a hot day. The sun is in its third or fourth week of belting down relentlessly, turning the grass yellow in nearby London Fields.

Radu, Jamie and Maria in Greenwich, 2017

We are four: my husband, my brother, his boyfriend and I, and we opt to take our Gözleme into the park, to sit in the shade of the London Plane trees. The Gözleme are £3 each. We buy cans of drink in a nearby international supermarket. The hot wraps are stashed into brown paper bags inside a blue plastic one. Even with the walk to find a combination of bench and shade, then opting for just shade, the Gözleme are piping. Jamie, my brother, advises eating the edges first, to allow the filling to cool from its volcanic temperature. It’s delicious, the spinach and unspecified grated cheese. Jamie and Radu, his boyfriend, are vegan, so have the only other option: potato and onion. As I suspected, filling enough without the vegan cakes that the boys had added to their lunch menu.

People are out on blankets with small children and small dogs, the latter occasionally invading our circle of folded legs and stretched out bodies to sniff and say hello. Balloons are attached to trees and party food is carried across the grass to other circles of bodies all over the park. Buff, tattooed young men, stripped of their shirts, display their athleticism on the outdoor gym equipment. The entrances to the Lido and café can be seen in the distance; a film crew set up by a row of houses at the edge of the park.

Jamie tells me that Broadway Market was very run down when he first lived in Hackney, before the hipsters moved in and property prices soared. A patch of wasteland outside his low-rise block of flats, where foxes once roamed, is now filled with new apartments, with the obligatory ‘affordable housing’ going for upwards of £450,000 for a one-bedroom flat. The social housing element of the development, what we used to call Council Housing, has a separate entrance to the privately-owned dwellings enclosing a gated square.

We stop by the building that used to be a Housing Benefit office, now called Mare Street Market, an open space of café, cocktail bars and small businesses. The hubbub is unbearable, with diners sharing long, canteen-style tables and paying £5 for a half round of bacon sandwich. On artisan bread, of course.

Back in Broadway Market, there is the odd café that has survived gentrification, including F. Cooke, an eel pie and mash joint, like the one I knew when I lived in Woolwich in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with white-tiled walls. An older man sits by the door at the end of the counter, waiting for a single customer to cross the threshold.

It is forty years since I first moved to London, thirty years since I moved on to Kent. The landscape has changed beyond recognition. As we drove from Kent to Hackney that morning, the crane-like roof structures on the O2 came into view on the East Greenwich peninsula, which was mostly derelict and empty when I lived nearby. The shining towers of banks and hotels rose on the other side of the Thames as we entered the Blackwall Tunnel. Some of the places where I lived where once considered undesirable. Bathrooms shared with other tenants, water heaters, cookers and gas fires condemned as dangerous. Now houses in those streets are beyond the reach of locals or students (as I was) staying on beyond the end of their degrees.

As for my brother, nearly twenty years in Hackney, his local authority rent is controlled and his tenancy protected. He would no longer be able to live in the area if he were to start over, find a new place to live.

Sixty Firsts

I shall be sixty years old in September 2019. I am aiming to do sixty things for the first time before that date, many of them small. This was the first time I had eaten Gözleme, and my first visit to London Fields.