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January 31 is a dark day

Europe, European Union, Flag

I’d never been abroad until I left school, when I hitchhiked to Istanbul with a mate. I can’t remember how it came about – maybe one or other of us suggested it in jest and having agreed neither of us dared pull out. Somehow we found ourselves on the Dover-Calais ferry, from which we miraculously managed to get a ride to somewhere in the middle of Germany. Off the Autobahn we found ourselves on a country road that looked distinctly unpromising for hitchhiking. But it wasn’t long before a huge beer lorry rumbled to a halt and the driver beckoned us in, reaching behind him for a couple of bottles. This was a proper country.  A day or two later in deepest Bavaria I opened the youth hostel window at first light to see the Alps. We’d arrived the previous night and hadn’t even known they were there. Awestruck doesn’t cover it. Then over the Brenner pass, crossing the border with sufficient German to understand the guard’s joke to the driver about how my hair was too long to tell which sex I was. On down through the Dolomites, crawling exhausted one night into a small building that revealed itself in the morning as a disused toilet. Eventually arriving in Venice and encountering not only canals but something called pizza. We made a mental note to start a pizza stall when we got back to the UK (we forgot, sadly, but we would have been years ahead of our time). On to Jugoslavia as it then was, burning a tic out of my leg after a night in a field, a train ride to Sofia with lovely Slavs sharing their food and drink, then a mega lift across Bulgaria from a German smuggling shirts in the false floor of his Volkswagen estate, who stopped at a mountain spring to treat us to fresh water (the only English words he understood), yoghurt and pickled cucumbers. Finally Istanbul itself, the bazaar and the cisterns, changing money on the black market, crossing the Bosphorus so we could say we’d been to Asia and jumping fully clothed into the Sea of Marmora.  Nick and I decided to have a race to Athens. I went via Bulgaria, having been assured that no Turkish driver would take me to Greece.I walked over the border in darkness and asked the guard where the nearest youth hostel was. There wasn’t one but he fixed me up with somewhere to stay the night.  Nick went the quick way and won.  A few days later we were lying on the harbour smoking who knows what before I set off for Corfu and the long journey home, my money getting precariously low. My first lift, most of the way to Delphi, was in the back of a Lambra, those tiny three wheeled trucks the Italians call Ape. The driver was taking fruit to market (at around twenty miles an hour for several hours).  He plied me with wonderful apricot-like fruit which I thought he called something like ereeks and which I’ve never seen since.  Then the Brindisi ferry and several lifts across the baking Italian south, eventually reaching amazing Rome to be greeted by a fantastic firefly display in the youth hostel gardens. Total magic. Then on to Florence and up through France. I met a couple of Israelis who asked me which country I thought they came from. Israel was somewhere in the bible so there was no chance I’d have guessed. We spent the night in a ruined castle sharing stories. They were on their way to England for some final fun before compulsory military service. It all sounded very grown-up to me. By the time I got to Calais I was surviving on a baguette a day and was horrified to discover when I changed my last pounds that I was several francs short of the ferry fare home.  As I was wondering how on earth a penniless teenager could get across the channel who should appear but my Israeli friends of a couple of nights before, and who gladly helped me out.  I probably never knew their names for more than a few minutes, but thankyou guys! On the other hand, maybe I’d still be there…

I went back to a bit more hospital portering before going on to university. In time I became a musician and I got to work not only in all those countries I’d visited on that riotous trip, but in all but two of the countries of Europe. My first working trip was in the Belgian Ardennes where I was introduced to iced radishes and neat gin, then with the BBC to France where we emptied the hotel kitchen into the swimming pool (proper rock ‘n’ roll but as this was classical music we were banned from the hotel), I was in Berlin just after the wall came down (and have a bag of bits to prove it). I’ve been paid in hockey sticks and ice skates in the old Czechoslovakia, I’ve belted out Finlandia at four in the morning with a load of happy Finns before jumping naked into the snow, I’ve been in restaurants in old Estonia where I hardly knew which way up to hold the menu (and in Israel, come to that) with serendipitously delicious results, in Sweden I was introduced to the startled children of a friend of mine as the man who’d never ski-ed, before being taken cross-country skiing, I’ve seen storks nesting in chimneys in Latvia, sung on a forklift in a former armaments factory in the Ruhr, a power station in Norway, a Roman amphitheatre,  dozens of abbeys in  France, Austria and Switzerland, half the cathedrals in Germany. Talking of Germany, that country where the kindly truck driver gave us free beers all those years ago, I’ve worked there more than anywhere else and have more friends between Berlin and Munich than here in York. The Hilliards did hundreds of concerts in places I’d never heard of and I even got to teach at the legendary Akademie für alte Musik in Bremen for a while, commuting on the now-defunct Air Bremen flight from Stansted.  I discovered that in German churches you could find photographs of wartime destruction (usually behind the altar), and that so many of those beautiful old towns had been rebuilt brick by brick after the war. A dear friend of mine, on hearing of Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders to Syrian refugees said it was the first time in his life that he was proud to be a German.  21st century Germans are surely the first true Europeans.

I now work a lot in Spain with a Swede who has a Norwegian husband, a German Jewish  American with an English wife, and an Italian Russian Jewish Argentinian with a Spanish partner. They are fluent in more than half a dozen languages between them but we speak English to each other because I live on this  tiny island off the European coast and can only splutter a few words in their languages.

My wife Penny (60% English,  28% Welsh, 8% East European and 6% Iberian) gave me a DNA test for Christmas. I’ve just got the results: I’m 60% North West European and 15% Scandinavian, and only 25% English. I know it’s all approximate and random but I’ll happily take 75% European.

What on earth are we doing leaving the most civilised (and civilising) geo-political entity the world has seen? Get a grip people.

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