I was a 7 year old revolutionary when I learned my first few French phrases; ca va? je m’appelle; j’habite; je suis. Instantly hooked by the fantooshness, there commenced a lifelong fascination of the foreign and exotic. In P5 at Crieff Primary School I’d a wee notebook of French vocabulary and I recognised then the excitement and interest of strange tongues, different cultures, varied ways and customs entirely at odds with those of Presbyterian Scots. We left our Crieff caravan for a cottage in the Hillfoots of Clackmannanshire; our destination must have been preordained and written in the stars for the wallpaper in my bedroom there, 100 years old at least, comprised the icons of Paris – there was a yellowing background with the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and Montmartre. I was in my element until my parents papered the room and I could view Paris again only when I keeked inside the meter box which they had left untouched. But there remained the certainty that one day I would indeed visit that most enchanting of cities.
Ten years later my pal Christine and I bought tickets at Stirling which took us by rail to Harwich, the Hook of Holland, Brussels and Paris. In Brussels we met a nun and at her request took photos of her with her family, brought the spools home to develop, then sent the photos back to Brussels with wee notes written half in German and half in French, with a smattering of pidgin English; we exchanged cards and letters for years afterwards, using our own form of Esperanto. In the underpass at the Arc de Triomphe Christine and I made friends with a Glaswegian busker, went for dinner with him, laughed at how clever we were to have managed an expedition to the continent, and observed Russian diplomats dine with their European counterparts. The world was indeed our oyster.
Another decade or so hence Jen and I travelled through Ireland, when peace had been restored; we encountered ginger headed wee bampots full of cheek and fun, demented landladies who thought a vegetarian breakfast comprised a tomato and a yoghurt, and a pub landlord who refused to sell coffee after 11am. I bought my first pair of Docs in Dublin in 1995 and nursed the greatest ever Irish coffee in The Quays Bar in Galway that summer. Happy European days.
In between times I’ve jetted off to pastures new, got burnt to a frazzle on the Costa Del Sol, had birthday dinner celebrations there, in Nerja, with prawns and creme de menthe frappe, sang into Cola bottles with Alison in the Silver Bar and ate Maltesers in Malta while dancing the Gay Gordon with Gordon. There’s been marvelling at Monet’s gardens with Catrina, lovely dinners and trips to French markets with Stephanie, and Matt, Matthew and I have crossed France into Switzerland, Italy, and back to Spain; we were speechless in Guernica and Bilbao, though I confess to a wee mad mental chorus of “Fernando” maybe once or twice.
And you know where this is heading of course – I cannot see my son, his friends, this country’s children, the offspring of this nation, denied the opportunities, excitement, challenges I had. It’s abundantly wrong to lock the doors. Travel broadens the mind and by Jove that’s exactly what the people of the UK need now, perhaps more than ever. Instead of travelling to overcome, overrule, overtake, conquer and hurt, Great Britain needs to learn how to contemplate, consider, respect and understand the ways of the wider world. It’s well past time to keep the drawbridge down and meander a two way street. The converse is the path upon which this bedraggled Union seems set, the road less travelled whereby awaits only bigotry, exclusion, and the theft of the dreams of our youth.