Return to sender? The strange tale of the slow travelling notebook…
I travel a lot for work. And I mean a lot. The life of an itinerant ‘insultant’ is a life on the road, and mainly on the rails in my case (I have a bit of a decades old, pre-’flygskam’ obsession with slow travel) and I cover a lot of ground. This year alone I think I have given talks in Madrid, Lisbon, Brussels, Zagreb, Oslo, Stockholm, Tallin, Riga, Copenhagen, Berlin and Helsinki to name but a few. I get about.
A non-uniformed French customs officer once approached me as I stepped off a sleeper train from Madrid in Paris. I had been happily greeting a tail-wagging black Labrador and I looked up to see him and his equally burly and surly colleague standing over me. ‘Anglais? Francais?’ he asked. ‘Anglais’ I confirmed. ‘You know this dog is a “sniff”?’ he enquired. ‘Er no. I just thought he was being friendly’ I replied. ‘Passport please’ the first officer requested whilst the other began delving in my bag. The panting black lab looked on expectantly.
I pulled out my battered document which had accompanied me on my flight-free adventure around the world during which I had travelled through 33 different countries. Needlessly to say it was festooned with visa stamps of every colour, size and arcane description, from Mongolia to Guatemala, everywhere inbetween and more besides. Flicking through the travel-tattooed pages the customs officer looked at me and deadpanned suspiciously ‘You travel a lot. You go many places’. Indeed.
It turned out the waggy black labradorial ‘sniff’ was only interested in a length of pungently paprika’d chorizo nestling in my backpack, and apparently disappointed that they hadn’t just caught some global overland cocaine-smuggling Mr Big, the solid servants of the State let me pass. I’d had a similar experience in Japanese customs in Kobe coming off a ferry from Tianjin in China where some dodgy Vietnamese rolling tobacco and some poorly timed photography on my camera of me in a ganja field by the Great Wall in Shanhaiguan, had nearly got me arrested for marijuana smuggling. But that’s another story.
The point is when you travel, stuff happens. Stories are made. Adventures are had. And as the Princes of Serendip, the old name for Sri Lanka and from which Horace Walpole took the inspiration for his coining of the word ‘serendipity’, intuitively knew in order for the magic to occur, first you had to put yourself in the position for the wondrous to be realised.
Earlier this year I spoke at ‘Fixing the Future’ the absolutely brilliant event in Barcelona from the heroes of tomorrow at the Atlas of the Future. It was a typically mind-bending, heart-wrending, gut-wrenching and hope-wringing couple of days and after dinner and drinks several of the speakers and organising crew found ourselves going for some good old middle-aged clubbing fun. I still had my sunglasses, jacket and notebook on me from the event, so for safe-keeping put all my stuff in the rucksack of a great friend and lunatic hedonist as she checked it into the security of the club cloakroom.
Gyrating geriatrically on the dancefloor later I couldn’t see aforesaid friend or her partner, so dashed around the club, realised they must have left, panicked momentarily then decided it was all fine as I could catch up with them the following day. Exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure I went back to my hotel.
‘We woke up having been asleep in the street’ read the text from my friend the following morning. ‘the last thing I remember is having an argument. Then we woke up in a doorway and my rucksack had gone. I am so sorry’. Stay classy Barcelona.
Most people would probably say the loss of my huge ‘Italian woman’s’ sunglasses was a good thing. The jacket was an old blue cotton one of no real value either material or emotional. But the notebook on the other hand was irreplaceable. I’m not an obsessive archivist but I have kept the dozens of notebooks, mainly but not exclusively cardboard covered Moleskines, I’ve filled over the last twenty years.
Always my current and most recent notebooks are a vital source of inspiration, challenge, reference, logistics of all my most recent thoughts, poems in progress, provocations and insights drawn from the vast array of expertise and experience I am lucky enough to engage with. They’re pretty priceless. To me at least. I am resolutely analogue in this sense. So losing it I was bereft, not least because all the incredible things I’d heard over the previous two days of the event had been captured in it for future cogitation, digestion and reflection.
Despite visiting the club (it was possible my friends had actually left without the rucksack and left it brilliantly carelessly in the cloakroom) and the police station the bag never turned up. We all gave up the ghost, got over ourselves and moved on.
Cut to this morning, Sunday November 24th, a full five months later, and I receive a text from someone I’ve never met before. ‘Hi Ed, my nephew found your notebook in London whilst coming to me (Winchester). Will post tomorrow. Angus’. That’s weird I thought, I can’t remember losing a notebook recently, so I thanked him, confirmed my address for posting and asked if he minded sending a quick photo of it please?
When the image pinged up I was astonished to see it was the distinctive silvery cover of the notebook I’d lost in Barcelona. It was instantly recognisable as it had the word ‘Posti’, the Finnish Postal Service who’d given it to me as a gift after a gig, distinctively emblazoned on it in bright orange letters.
‘This is going to seem very very weird’ I texted back to Angus ‘But that book was lost in Barcelona! Where exactly did your nephew find it?!’. Moments later the response: ‘Ahhh, yes he was in Barcelona! I must be confused as he is always travelling. He refuses to fly so catches boats and trains and cycles everywhere. Takes him days to get anywhere. He is currently on a ferry back to Spain’. A man after my own heart.
Suffused with gratitude at the prospect of being reunited with my long lost notebook I offered Angus a signed copy of my book ‘Only Planet’ as a reward for his nephew for returning it and asked him to connect us via email. Beyond expressing my thanks I was also intrigued — where had my notebook been for five months I asked him? Aldo the nephew duly responded:
I’m going to try to reconstruct the event.
It was probably the 9th of June, very early in the morning. I had been clubbing in Razzmatazz and on the way back home (I was living in Raval by that time) while walking with a friend we found this luminescent silvery notebook on the street floor next to the bin (maybe the rucksack has been thrown there but I cannot ensure since I didn’t check it). I estimate that the place was Born district or anyways somewhere in between Marina and the Gothic.
Being endowed with a fair dose of curiosity I insisted with Peppe to be the one in charge of delivering that reliquia back to his owner but not before having given it a glance. So that same morning, after we separated I stopped at a cafeteria of Raval and started reading it through. I remember fondly is that your calligraphy enchanted me and I felt a sudden resonance since the very first pages. The more I leafed through it the more I was impressed by how much those sentences in the diary were matching my reflctions of that (dreary) life period I was in. At that point, instead of just labelling all this story as curious coincidence and archiviate it by doing the right thing (delivering back to this English guy) my mystical side (which I generally tend to hold off) took over and I interpret that founding like a message the universe wanted to send me. Or maybe the message that this particular guy wanted to send me, by leaving on purpose a window to his mind in a public place in the hope that it would end in the right hands.
From that moment on I had two possibilities: either print a copy of the notebook and send it right back to his author or borrowing the original for a limited amount of time and afterward giving it back, hopefully in person.
I opted for the second one. That notebook has seen wonderful places, it was part of my gear during my cycling trip along the Via de la Plata (a Santiago path) [you can easily spot it in the attached picture].
Now that I look at it from far apart I feel I have been unfair in having given fast credit to mad intuitions without balancing out your possible urgent need of those memories. On the other hand I didn’t imagine you were (amongst other identities) a professional writer (for which such an object constitutes probably also a worktool).
Anyways I hope you won’t blame me too hard and I’m truly happy to hear you so enthusiastic about your memoir recovery :)
“Only Planet”, Oh it sounds like the title of the next book I’m going to read! thank you very much :D
You could send it here :XXXXXXXXX
After a couple of days in Barcelona I will be heading to Lisbon. From that harbor, I will then try to hitchhike a sailboat toward Brazil. It would be cool to bring that book along my turn of the world on skate.
It was such a beautiful, thoughtful message to receive. The unlikely narrative of my notebook being dumped unwanted by rather than in a streetbin in the early hours after it’s theft. For Aldo’s sharp eye and curiosity to pick it out, and then actually pause to read it. And for him then to find common ground and succor in my musings and witterings, so much so that he took the book with him to read on his own slow travel adventures, a passion which we both clearly share. Humanity, as my friend Mark always says, ‘is a co-inspirational network’.
The story doesn’t end here. My notebook is on its way back to me in the post via Angus. A signed and dedicated copy of Only Planet is on its way to Aldo in Portugal hopefully to accompany him on a sailing trip across the Atlantic to Brazil. One day I hope we shall meet in person. And somewhere in the travel ether three ancient Sri Lankan Princes nod their ethereal heads and smile sagely ‘There really should be a word for this’ they murmur.