Renée Bintje is a travel and leisure writer, whose professional work in the environmental and humanitarian sectors saw her living and travelling across Asia, Europe and Africa. In this column she shares some of her travel sketches, which is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The Departure – Oxford
By Renée Bintje
The sky was lapis lazuli that winter morning I woke up with the intention of breaking away from everything that my life was, as known. I looked at all the stuff I had packed and repacked several times and wondered if there was still space for an umbrella. I had way too much – a large suitcase for both my arms, a heavy backpack for my back and another small rucksack to sling over the front. Their total weight probably matched my own body weight. As I looked at them, a kaleidoscope of images of me struggling in central London, then underground to Heathrow, arriving at Fiumicino, train to Roma Termini and the chaotic changes to Sabina flashed across my mind to give me a taste of reality of being burdened by my possessions.
Can I not leave behind anything else? My mind went through the inventory again and it was convinced there was not an item that has been packed could be discarded. I needed to spend the rest of the winter, spring, summer, and autumn from these. I sipped my coffee and consoled myself that I would make it. It’s one thing packing for a holiday, even a prolonged one, and another thing packing up your life so that it reduced to three bags full, giving up on all the rest, which for years and years contributed to your identity, your existence, your life, to the meaning of you. Even the coffee cup had a story of its own which became part of you. But I will leave the umbrella behind… It doesn’t rain as much in Italy as it does in England, yes, we can leave the umbrella behind.
I felt trapped in a life that, despite having a highly paid office job, nevertheless left me sterile after work. Weekends would be spent on existential chores and with a bit of luck, catching up with friends and some entertainment, but Sunday evening comes too soon for the loop of another grey week to begin. Week becomes months, becomes years. And I was still in that void that had no beginning and no end.
“No, don’t give up on everything just like that. Keep all the things that have been meaningful to you, you will be pleased to return and have those things back,” Karen advised.
“I haven’t created something, so none of this matter, I do not want to see any of these things anymore…”
“Believe me, you will be happy that you kept some things. Bring them over to me and I’ll store them for you,” Karen kindly offered.
I selected mostly gifts I have received, presents from family, friends, kitchen utensils which I was too attached to, and served my cooking passion, books close to my heart, seashells that I collected in memorable seashores, with a beloved someone, and some clothes I would not part with, for no reason I can think of.
I packed the stuff I wanted to keep in boxes and brought them to Karen.
“They have been a part of you, you will be pleased to see them on your return,” she reminded me.
“But I don’t want to return!!!”
“You think it’s so easy to arrive in Italy and create a new life out of nothing, just like that? You did not create one in Oxford for more than a decade, you think you can create one in Italy simply by arriving?” she challenged.
Sometimes I really hate Karen because she smashes my illusions before I can even flirt with them.
“No, I know it’s not easy, but at least I am not sitting in my grey office cell, dreaming about another existence. I am actually doing it…I have rung the places I would like to stay, explore and work. I have been accepted and then who knows…?” I argued, silently hoping that she would not respond, and that my optimism will see me through.
“Well, I still think it’s pointless drifting. People do that when they are eighteen, when they haven’t a clue about life and haven’t got one, for god’s sake. It’s fine if you were in that place. But you’re not, you’ve seen enough, what do you think you will achieve in six months or nine months or however long it is you are going to be in Italy?”
“Look, you can call it pointless drifting. But you can also see it from another angle. The life I have here is a nine-to-five structured, office cell trap. People accept that for the security of a pay cheque. They spend their whole lives in a known routine, too afraid to exchange security for freedom, incapable of being brave enough to face the unknown. What I have done is to make that trade,” I responded feeling rather victorious.
“Yes, it’s your life, nothing to do with me. Just that I have done all that before, and have been in that place before. I have floated aimlessly for years. I hope it won’t take you that long…. I just don’t want to see you come unstuck. Anyway, I am sure you are in a place where you are doing what is your truth,” she said.
We went for a walk in the fields and two herons flew past. “You see, your birds flew past, it is a sign”. Herons were supposed to be my birds, she says, according to native American Indian symbol. They have the patience to be still for a long time and then just grabbed that cubic centimetre of chance when it flew past. “You’ll be alright,” she said, reassuringly but I wondered if it reassured herself or mine.
Later that evening, I went to say goodbye to another friend, Diane.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked after dinner, as if it still did not make any sense to her. It would not make sense to many people, I was successful, in quotes, I just had to go out there and make it. Instead, I was withdrawing.
“Diane, I have one life and I don’t want to spend my life in a routine in office, then try to fit the society by being magazine thin and wrinkle free so that I can find a companion, have children, properties, pension plan, grandchildren and stay in this society, day in and day out, conform to their definitions, as if that was the answer to life, which by the way has a definite ending….!”
Her expression saddened.
“I may not know what I am looking for, but I do know what I do not want. I want to find out what is the meaning of all this. Why am I here? I can’t be in this ready-made, one-size-fits-all puppet in a framework of a well-paid job, car, mortgage, kids, pension plan, a few holidays here and there. I don’t want any of this structure…..”
“Hmmmm…..you know what…. you act like a spoilt brat, you know…..,” Then after another pause, she added, “A tiny, crazy, over analysing, eternally dissatisfied, spoilt brat,” adding each adjective slowly. We both laughed at the thoughtful description.
“Anyway, I am wishing you all the best and I hope you find whatever it is you are looking for”. With that she embraced me goodbye.
It rained softly, the typical Oxford rain, as I walked up the road to Gloucester Green. Here, I had a choice, to take the straight bus to Heathrow or use up my prepaid bus ride I had for London Central and then get an underground to Heathrow. I knew I was burdened, and I still decided the harder way and took the bus to Central London, knowing that there would be a ninety percent chance that the underground lines I needed would either not be in service or serviced with a serious delay. If I could not beat the unpredictable London underground, I probably would not survive Unknown Italia, I justified.
Victoria line has been not working for as long as I remember, and as expected, this time the delay was due to insufficient trains on service…. Yes, of course, you would have thought that someone at the London Underground would have done their job to make sure there were sufficient trains running in one of the busiest lines… but as I said, if there was one thing I can predict with certainty, is that there’s always something not working on the London Underground, certainly with the lines I needed.
I remember accompanying my sister, Sara back to Heathrow a couple of years ago. We sat on the Northern line through the ordeal of hundreds of stops at nowhere stations, and just three stops before Heathrow, the train came to a halt and just hung about, leaving all the passengers in full suspense. It took forever before an announcement was made, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this train stops here, and you are kindly requested to proceed by bus as there will be no further service on this line.”
As passengers grumbled their way out, asking what had happened, we were told by the security that someone had committed suicide by throwing themself on the tracks. A man protested saying that he would miss his flight and confronted the security guard with the solution for missing his flight. “Do you seriously think I can do something about your flight when someone kills himself on the line?’’ the security guard responded tartly.
Sara did not lose her flight but was nevertheless shocked by the incident and asked me all sorts of questions so that we would both digest the incident by verbalising it. “They always commit suicide on the Northern line” I said, dismissing curtly another tortured soul leaving life by staging a pronounced departure.
Out in the city with my luggage, people looked at me pitifully, two even suggested I stopped to sit down before continuing, but no one offered any help. My horror continued when I realised there was no escalator or elevator at the station for a straight ride into Heathrow. Passers-by pretended I did not exist…I carried bit by bit, step by step. By the time I reached the tracks, I was so out of breath and covered with perspiration, I secretly wished someone would steal my luggage.
I was so obviously overweight at Heathrow check in that the check in staff asked if I was hiking in Nepal for six months.
“Err…just Italy actually,” I said very embarrassed.
He looked at me sympathetically and gave me the choice of discarding the extra weight or paying an exorbitant amount for the extra weight. At this point I was willing to discard everything and carry only self. So, I left behind more parts of me. It felt painful to consciously discard parts of your life by choice, from the little you narrowed down to three bags, but at that moment, life demanded that I parted away with more…..