lights in the windows at dusk looked familial, but the canals, the cartouches, the towers, the churches, the black bicycles, the gilded shops—all of it only left me more lonely or, to put it a different way, exposed to myself. By those old and fetid European waters, black as they were with commerce and fever, I felt saddened and stripped. This kind of glum interiority is often the province of solitary travelers, but I was feeling plowed under by my mother’s presence wherever I went, and when parting with every guilder I spent. I was trading her for this—for the Oude Kerk and its carillon chimes and for herring sandwiches.
One morning, I walked over to the train station with my pack, a bag of rolls, my journal, and Swann’s Way. I must have looked like hundreds of young travelers who pass through there each summer—all wearing intrepid expressions as shields against the world and, I would have to guess, pretending to an experience of life they don’t possess. I took a train that went through Antwerp and in Brussels transferred to a different train, antique and slower, with scarred wooden seats, and this one went to Liège and eventually to Trier, where I got off and walked around noticing things, stopping now and then to write down impressions of the Porta Nigra, Trier’s Basilica, the hue of the Moselle, and so on. I was face to face with my own vagrancy after that, and got more comfortable adrift. I became attached to train travel—to seeing the grimy backs of the buildings along train lines, the fenced industry and hung laundry. I slept in train seats. I learned to opt for the rear car, so that in long bends, in open country, I could look ahead and watch the engine pass particulars of the landscape. And in the interim between the engine’s passing of, say, a half-fallen brick pumping station and my own passing of it, happiness inhabited my journey. It was like the feeling I had on station platforms sometimes just after sunrise, when no one else was around and no train was expected for an hour or more, and an express had just gone through at high speed a minute or so before, the passengers in it flashing past like the kings, queens, and jacks in a thumbed deck of cards, ephemeral as thoughts. I put down my reading when that happened and enjoyed the absence of the train’s noise, the silence of a station in the countryside. To be awake in the cool of morning on a bench near train tracks, hungry, with a little breeze blowing, and whatever book you were reading open in your lap, was a little like listening for something you thought you might have heard a moment before. I suppose you could say I felt the sweetness, then, of being alive and in good health. At the same time, my romantic spells were curtailed by the sight of garbage near the rails, or by a wandering dog raising a leg at the corner of a building. I just didn’t have the psychic wherewithal to incorporate these images into my affection for living; I let them dispirit me, as the heat of the day and the crowds on the trains dispirited me, most days, during the afternoon. And then, for no reason, my interest in this brand of transience waned, and I took to foot travel. In San Sebastián I bought a tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, cartridge stove, and cooking pot, and set out toward the Pyrenees with a long French loaf strapped to my pack and an English-language edition of The Wings of the Dove stuffed in a side pocket alongside my journal. It was what I expected: the smell of goat dung desiccating in the dry heat of the plain, and the dust lifted even by the passage of a bicycle as someone rode toward me out of the mountains. I stopped frequently, in whatever cool, furtive place offered privacy. I spent half a day beneath a stone bridge reading James, until some sheep came down through the cork oaks behind me to drink from the stream there. I’m making my solitude and the liberty I had abroad sound pleasant and pastoral now, but the truth is, I felt