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where the history comes from

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8 June: Checked into the hostel yesterday afternoon, as soon as my train arrived. It was rather unpleasant going straight from a boat to a train — the motions are so different, it’s disconcerting. I was only too happy to walk from the station to the hostel. The girl at the front desk was very nice, and gave me plenty of tips on what to see when I was in town. Should be enough to keep me occupied for a few days at least.

I don’t really know what to think about this gap year thing, yet. I think I’ll have to try it out for a while longer to really get the hang of it — wandering aimlessly around Europe, getting some life experience before I have to go be an adult. I hear life experience may be important if one wants to write for a living. I’ll have to keep careful track of the bits I obtain, in case they prove necessary for my future career.

The pillar is pitted old stone, with a bronze sculpture of a sad, ragged child standing next to it. The inscription reads Commune de Gentioux, Guerre 1914-1918, and above that Maudite soit la guerre — Cursed be war.

It’s a rather unconventional war memorial, Scripps thinks. And it doesn’t seem to be very popular, either; no flowers at the base, no other tourists around snapping photos. Scripps himself only stumbled across it by accident — the girl at the front desk of the hostel had been directing him to the public gardens on the outskirts of the town, and the monument just happened to be along the road she’d told him to follow. If he’d taken the next street over, he never would have known it was here.

“Il n'y a plus beaucoup de monde qui visite, maintenant,” says a voice behind him. He turns to find an elderly woman, dressed in black from head to toe. Her hair is wispy and white, her face a mass of wrinkles and folds, but she stands straight and firm, her back unbent. “Ce n'est pas tout le monde que aime cet endroit.”

“C'est différent des autres mémoriaux que j'ai vu,” Scripps says. His French is rusty, and the words seem to slither their way from a long-unused part of his vocal cords.

“Quand on l'a bâti, c'était différent de tout autre mémorial,” the woman says. “Mon oncle était le maçon, donc c'est lui qu'on a choisi pour le sculpter. Quand on l'a demandé de graver l'inscription, il crut les avoir malentendu. Il n'avait jamais imaginé qu'on dirait tel chose. Il m'a raconté que ses mains tremblaient lorsqu'il fit la gravure -- c'est pour ça qu'il y a cette petite fissure, juste là.” She steps up beside Scripps, points to a thin, jagged crack just above the inscription.

“Il avait du courage, pour avoir accepté,” Scripps says.

“Tout le monde est courageux qui dit la vérité,” she agrees. “Mais pourquoi venez-vous ici? Vous êtes touriste?”

“Oui,” Scripps says.

“Vous avez une mine plutôt jeune.”

“Je suis - j'était un étudiant,” Scripps says, correcting himself. “Je viens de graduer.”

“Ah! Félicitations,” she says. “Qu’étudiez-vous?”

“L'histoire,” he says, and the old woman nods solemnly.

“Vous vous retrouvez au bon endroit, dans ce cas,” she says. “Afin de vraiment trouver l'histoire, il faut partir là où se trouvait la misère et la peur, et voir ce que le peuple en ont fait. C'est de tout ça que sort l'histoire.”

She smiled at me then and walked away. I went on to the public gardens, which were lovely but not nearly as interesting. They were mostly full of tourists, for one thing, and I didn’t talk to anyone there. I suppose rose bushes are objectively more beautiful than that memorial is, but the memorial has a fascinating story behind it. I didn’t notice anything behind the roses except more grass.

***

17 July: I’ve run out of things to do in France, believe it or not. On the train to West Berlin as I write this. Excuse the handwriting, these tracks are proving a bit bumpy.

Now I’m asking myself to excuse my own handwriting. Wonderful. I think this journaling might be better left to times when I have other people to interact with, so I don’t get too absorbed in my own thoughts.

At the same time, though, I’m sure I’ll be glad I’ve written all this down in forty years when I’m working on my autobiography. The seemingly insignificant details always seem to turn out to actually be the most important, and when it comes to those, memory is unreliable, witnesses scarce. I need to make a record as I go along to have any hope of preserving the truth of my adventures.

It’s late in the evening when the train gets into Berlin, and Scripps has to go to three hostels before he finds one with room for another guest. The city is full of students and travelers, the front desk clerk tells him in accented but serviceable English. Unlike her Eastern sister, the only protests in West Berlin are the complaints of tourists when the city’s accommodations grow too crowded.

Scripps deposits his suitcase in his room, squeezing past other guests in the narrow hallway, and leaves the hostel to go get a bite to eat. There don’t seem to be any proper restaurants along this stretch of road, but there are plenty of bars and nightclubs, pulsing with music and glowing with neon lights. Scripps selects a relatively quiet-looking establishment and goes up to the bar to order a beer. His pocket German phrasebook can handle that much, at least.

The crush of bodies is less intense here than it seemed to be in some of the other clubs, just crowded enough to be comfortable. Scripps hadn’t realized how much he missed being around big groups of people; the French countryside is all well and good, but there’s definitely something to be said for friendly human interaction, or at least proximity.

A slim blond boy who looks about Scripps’s age sits down on the stool right next to his and says something friendly-sounding in German. At the puzzled look on Scripps’s face, he smiles broadly and switches to English.

“You are new here, ja?” His voice is low and smooth.

“Yes, I am,” Scripps says.

“And English? You are traveling?”

“For a bit, yeah,” Scripps says, swallowing the last of his beer before he finishes answering. “I just finished university, and I thought I’d take some time to see the sights. Find out a bit more about myself, perhaps.”

“A time to find yourself, hm?” The boy looks amused, and Scripps isn’t sure why. “You have come to a good place for it, then. Berlin is a very welcoming city. You can come, be who you want, then leave without anyone remembering. Well,” he amends, “Maybe just a few people.” He brushes his fingers along the inside of Scripps’s wrist, his touch soft but pointed.

Scripps is really glad this guy speaks English, because his trusty phrasebook is unlikely to know the German for “I’m sorry, but I’m actually not homosexual, as you seem to have assumed.” A closer look around the room makes the cause of the misunderstanding clear: nearly the whole place is filled with men, dancing together to the pulsing music, talking or cuddling or outright snogging in the booths around the sides. Oh, Scripps thinks.

“Sorry, mate,” he tells the boy. “But I think I’m in the wrong bar.”

The boy eyes him skeptically (and with no small amount of disappointment), but withdraws his hand. “Oh, you tourists,” he sighs. “Always such a source of confusion.” The way he rolls his eyes is obviously exaggerated, though, and when Scripps apologizes in a equally dramatic manner he laughs and buys Scripps another beer. Scripps orders a basket of chips to go along with that, and they get to talking. It transpires that the boy’s name is Kurt, and he’s currently working in a bookshop but would really prefer it if he could make a living off his drawings. He wants to hear all about Scripps’s travels so far, and has plenty of suggestions for places to visit in West Germany. The conversation is probably the friendliest Scripps has had since he’s been traveling, and when Kurt catches the eye of a man on the dance floor and excuses himself, Scripps is sorry to see him go. He finishes his chips and leaves a few extra marks with the bartender, instructing him to see that they’re put towards the next round of drinks for Kurt and his conquest.

I wonder if having handsome German men try to pick you up because you’ve wandered into a gay bar by mistake could be one of those significant formative experiences for a writer. Those usually seem to be traumatic, though, and this was just good fun, so maybe it doesn’t count? If all my defining experiences are going to have to be unpleasant, though, the stuff I end up writing is going to be unbearable. I’ll have to throw in some of this good stuff just to lighten things up a bit.

Anyway, despite the brief awkwardness at the beginning of that encounter, the bar was a perfectly nice place to spend an evening. The music was good, too. I think I’ll go back tomorrow.

***

9 August: I realized yesterday that I’ve been traveling for a full two months. I rang my parents while I was in Cologne, so I know they’re not worried about me, but it’s odd to have been so far from home for so long, and on my own, as well. When I thought about taking a gap year I always sort of thought about going with someone, maybe Dakin, maybe one of the boys from university. Trust them all to have got jobs right out of school. Oh well, all this adventuring has made me that much more well-rounded. I’m sure I can spin “wandered aimlessly about Europe for a while” into something that looks good on a CV.

Today I’m heading south, en route to Barcelona. I know relatively little about the city, except that everyone says it’s beautiful, and that they speak Catalan (and Spanish, but Catalan is closer to French and so I’m hoping I have a chance of being understood). I’ll see what I find when I get there. It’s been working out well so far.

The Sagrada Familia is a behemoth, its round, latticed towers soaring towards the bright blue sky of Barcelona. There’s scaffolding over parts of the unfinished facade, and even as Scripps walks up to the building a huge crane lifts a pallet of materials up to the workmen near the top of the structure. A triumph of architecture, marrying Gothic elements to Art Nouveau creativity, and plenty of beauty and oddness still to come as the rest of it is designed and constructed.

Inside there’s more scaffolding, but Scripps finds a place in a pew far away from the work and just sits for a while. The ceiling is tall, of course, but in a way that echoes the curve of the sky more than most stone ceilings manage. When Scripps look up, he notices that the pillars look like trees, their branches supporting the roof gently but sturdily. Someone walks by, snapping pictures of the windows, and their footsteps echo all the way up to the roof. The drifting bits of sound that are left over are like whispers, faint messages floating around, waiting to be heard.

Scripps thinks it might just be the best place to talk to God he’s ever seen.

But really, as corny as that may sound, the design of the place combines all the best parts of religion. You have the classic, the ancient, in the Gothic parts of the architecture. You have the new and abstract in the other elements, which inspire an equal mix of awe and confusion when viewed. It’s full of symbolism, references, key words — I tagged along behind a group of American tourists for a while, and their guide pointed out Greek letters and whole words in the stonework. And then you have the struggle between nature and the manmade world, things that look natural but upon closer inspection were clearly created by someone. In general, it’s all a bit of a crazy, confusing mess, but somehow it pulls together in a way that makes it beautiful. Exactly like religion.

***

18 August: And so I now venture towards home, back to dear old England. I’ve added up the sum total of my life experience gained on this trip, using a points system of my own devising, and have found that I am a little over 300 points more experienced than I was when I left. Now all that’s left is to consider how much returning home after a journey of self-discovery ought to be worth. Nostalgia is three points, although I’ve been adding that as a bonus on top of other activities, given that it’s generally experienced while doing something else. I think nostalgia may be a major component of this exercise, if not the principal component. Maybe if I square the three and make it nine points?

Scripps strolls down the road at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and sounds of Sheffield. Everything’s familiar — he grew up here, how could it not be? — but it’s like he’s seeing it all from far away, or through some sort of veil. Things are just slightly different than when he left, the trees a bit greener, the sidewalk a bit more cracked, and that little bit of distance makes it all seem surreal.

He turns off the main road in the direction of his house, fully intending to go straight there. His parents know he’s coming home today or tomorrow, but he hadn’t had a chance to call them after buying his ticket back to the UK, so they don’t know he’s back in the country yet. He’s hoping to surprise them, see the looks on their faces when their son walks in out of the blue on a Saturday morning.

He only gets a few blocks, though, before he spots the wall outside the church where Posner used to sit and wait for him, then the intersection where he would have to dash across the road in between gaggles of speeding cars. The road is much more calm than it used to be on weekday mornings, and he finds himself turning, crossing behind a solitary, trundling station wagon and heading down the lane towards the school.

It looks exactly as he remembers it, down to the hastily-painted-over graffiti on the walls. Someone’s left their bicycle propped against the railing on the stairs, handlebars wrapped in fraying leather and seat on just slightly crooked. Scripps walks up the front steps, pauses, walks down a few steps, walks back up again. Then he sighs and sets his shoulders, marches up to the front of the school, stands with his hand on the handle of the door.

He pulls. Locked, of course.

He walks back down the steps and sets out for home.

I knew it was going to be locked. It’s the weekend, why would it be open? And even if it had opened, I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, exactly. The rest of my year, magically transported back to the sixth form? The teachers, the headmaster all in their usual places? And if I had got inside and seen all the classrooms changed, different boys’ exam results up on the wall outside the office, I think I might have been disappointed. Ridiculous, I know, but there it is. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and horrible to live with when it’s been thwarted.

Ten points, I think. At the very least.