Midnight in Glasgow 

It was one of those trips that was constantly in flux. Happy to ride the tide, altering plans as new possibilities presented themselves. In retrospect maybe a little more planning would have been wise.

I’d spent the weekend in Hastings working at a convention, and opted for the long trek home. Endless hours on a train that would traverse the length of England and into Scotland before eventually making its way to the Ayrshire coast and connect with the boat back to Ireland.

It’s not everyone’s idea of a commute, but after the ashcloud (remember that?) had scuppered a couple of flight plans I got used to taking the leisurely transit. What’s not to love? You don’t have to deal with the stresses of airport security, or excess baggage fees. And I was carrying a suitcase full of books, which would have cost me a tidy Easyjet charge on their own.

To be fair, wheeling a heavy case of hardbacks through central London as I navigated the underground between my national rail stops proved problematic. Heaving weights up and down the stairwells and narrowed arteries of the tube tunnels isn’t something I plan to repeat. I’ve no idea how young mothers and disabled persons manage it – commuters are unforgiving.

But I’d made it, and my train was en route to Glasgow. Glancing at the printed itinerary I saw that I had a six hour gap between trains – not unusual for a trip of this distance. And for a while I sounded out my brother about the possibility of visiting him in nearby Edinburgh. In the end logistically it wasn’t working so I resigned to killing the hours in Scotland’s other major city. There’s plenty of cafe spaces that I’m sure would cater to me as I killed time.

As the clocked eeked its way long past midnight and the train pulled up into Glasgow Central I could feel sleep fighting against me. I’d been on the go for most of the last couple of days, and all the water and sugary travel snacks had threatened to send me into an uncomfortable coma. I disembark, dragging my overweight suitcase and into an eerily quiet station. As I make my way towards the uniformed staff I am met with grim news. Yes, I appreciate you’re booked on another train in a few hours, but you’ll have to leave the station. It gets locked up overnight. Yes I know its cold, but tough Sir.

Oh feck. I haven’t planned ahead. My brother is long in bed, I can’t get him to pick me up now. I don’t really want to pay for a hotel for a matter of a few hours. I don’t know anyone I can call on in my hour of need. Where can I go, I ask the evil guardian of the station. In his sympathy he suggests that I might be able to go to the bus station near Buchanan Street. Its a short walk from where we are. Hmm. I’ve spent a few nights waiting around bus stations, so I figure I’ll take my chances. But as I set forth into the cold, damp, uneven streets, hemmed in by looming Victorian architecture, I am beginning to panic. The need to keep a phone charged, the absence of comfort, lack of supplies, and sheer exhaustion are all starting to crush my resolve. I stretch a ten minute walk into the best part of an hour, looking around for a possible out – a cheap hotel, a friendly shout out on twitter, anything really.

But no, there is nothing and I eek my way round to the cavernous Buchanan Street Bus Station. Its lit as there are still buses throughout the night, but this isn’t like my nights in other stations. I have spent many deeply uncomfortable nights in bus, train and ferry stations. They have a rhythm of their own, a vibe that can be worked with, a late night coffee dispensary. But the shops here are closed, and while there are glass fronts, there are also gaps, and the lack of heaters means that my entire body is slowly succumbing to the cold.

There’s a couple of other people milling around, but generally its quiet. That’s good. I look for a vending machine, but they’re in the bit of the concourse that is locked up, so I can’t even get a much-needed chocolate fix. Frustrated, I find myself a space on a row of hard metal seats away from anyone else. I bundle up as best I can, wrapping my body around my suitcase, and my shoulder bag warming my lap. I’m grateful that I wore one of my long velvet coats, and I have gloves. But I’m aware I’ve got hours to wait. And I’m aware that as a lone traveller I’m vulnerable. So I don’t really want to sleep. I’m fighting the urge, in a need to keep an eye on myself, my possessions and those around me. Please don’t mug/rape/murder me!

But it does overtake me and I awake to find someone sitting on a seat practically beside me. He’s talking to me. But I’m not paying attention. I’m working out what his angle is. And I’m very uncomfortable. I know I shouldn’t judge, but its 3am and he’s in a closed bus station. Who in their right mind would do that? Oh, yeah…

The night passes until I can take it no longer. The guy talking to himself a little way down the concourse has freaked me out and I fumble for my kit and set off back out and towards the town. Its just gone 4.30am. Surely by now the shops must be opening for the early commuters? I stroll down Buchanan Street, eerie in the street lighting. I’ve been through here so many times, but never seen it as quiet or atmospheric. Half way down is the distinctive blue of a former Police Box, a beacon of escape and hope to my mind – influenced by years of Doctor Who watching. I take my camera from my bag and snap a few shots, moving around to get some different angles. I’ve been photographing this box every time I walk past, but this visit it feels magical – and if I’ve got to pass an uncomfortable night, I want at least one good photograph as a momento.

I took this:

Buchanan Street Police Box – 29 Oct 2012. Image © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

As I make my way slowly back in the direction of the Central Station I spot a light on in a McDonalds and as I approach one of the staff tells me to come in out of the cold. They’re just setting up, but the prospect of a softer seat and some warm is unavoidable. He must have seen my case and realised I’d screwed up my plans for the evening. Say what you want about that chain, but I’ve never been as grateful for a coffee and a McMuffin as I am right now. And i relish it over the next hour, watching as the early shift workers come in bleary-eyed, contemplating the rashness of my plans the night before. Its not even dawn as I walk into the station and onto the empty train to begin the final stretch back towards Ayr.

There’s a lesson here somewhere. But I don’t think I’ve learned from it. I recently found myself having to go through the same process on a trip back from Dublin during a bus strike. Though I was more fortunate in that I was able to hide in the comparative warmth of the airport, before setting off and meeting a friend for early breakfast. But once again, I found myself harangued by a random bloke – one who spent most of his time ranting about what physical harm he was going to do, until the Garda kicked him out.

If you find yourself on an overnight in a travel spot, make sure there’s somewhere warm to hide. Ideally with food and drink options. Try to stay indoors, and somewhere with a security presence. Especially if you’re travelling alone – we’re all far too easy prey without someone to back us up. And if all else fails, head for the nearest 24 hour fast food outlet and spend a few calories. Your stomach will forgive you, and its probably safer. And if you can’t do any of that, hope there’s at least a decent photo or a story at the end of it.

When: October 2012
Where: Glasgow, Scotland

The Packing

Packing. A suitcase near ready.

I’m off on another trip tomorrow. Second of the year, and this time for nearly a week. Which is good. I spent far too long not going anywhere. But my gosh, why can I still not manage to pack my bags without sending myself into a tizzy?
I had for a while got quite good at limiting myself to carry-on luggage – learning to travel with my essentials in one small canvas shoulder bag, including my camera, notebooks and the minimum essential toiletries (though one becomes a dab hand at throwing away discount shower gels and shampoos after a while). But lately I’ve started travelling with a suitcase again, a luxury that allows me proper changes of clothes, spare shoes, multiple jackets, abundant underwear (trust me, there’s no such thing as too much underwear on a trip). And room for souvenirs.

But no matter what size the bag, or how much notice I have, I guarantee I’ll be up into the small hours slowly packing, repacking and rethinking and stressing about being over-tired and missing my travel plans the following day. If I get two hours in bed I’ll be doing well. I can’t be the only one like this surely?

A couple of months ago I watched a friend prepare her case for a trip. Jet-setting around Europe, she’s somehow become a dab hand at cramming her case with essentials for each leg of the trip, and discarding anything that didn’t fit. Oh, to be so ruthless. But I’m a natural hoarder too, so not doing that is hard.

I’ve most of my clothes packed as of last night, which is good. But there’s final decisions to be made. My case lies open on a bed. The possible contents strewn over the side. At 2am tonight I’ll still be stressing over it, and wondering why I’m not already in bed, and worried about missing my 4am alarms and my flight. Every. Single. Time.

But this is the moment before the trip springs into life. When the tension is high and potential adventure awaits. Its the moment of excitement building, the transition from the everyday to the voyage. Once the bag is zipped, the suitcase locked, then the journey finally begins.

Pickpockets in Paris

I told myself that I knew better. That I’d had enough experience not to get overly anxious. That the precautions I employed were adequate. But I was wrong. Sunday morning as I walked along the perimeter of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris I discovered the wallet I’d had not half an hour before as I descended the steps into the Métro, had gone.

A frantic search of my pockets, my bag, concluded in confirmation of what I already knew to be the case – some unknown light-fingered individual(s) had quickly dipped into my bag and lifted my battered black leather wallet, along with my bank card, provisional drivers license, keys to my airbnb lodgings and all the cash I had on me. Fuck.

I still had 48 hours until I was due to set off back for Belfast, had only a couple of Euros sitting in my room across the city in the 13e and absolutely no back-up plan. In quick succession calls went out to my bank, family, friends and my insurers. I made for the nearest police station to report the theft – a futile gesture considering I didn’t have any idea who the thief was. My smattering of GCSE French just about enough to get me through the explanations.

Seldom have I felt so stupid, so cross with myself. I’d been having a particularly positive few days, and a very good morning, and as I crossed town I’d allowed myself to get complacent and comfortable – not paying proper attention to my shoulder bag or my pockets. Too busy fiddling with my phone. Thinking that I wasn’t anywhere particularly crowded. I know better, but still I allowed myself to become vulnerable.

People crowding the Champs-Élysées.
People crowding the Champs-Élysées.

Paris is renowned for its pickpocket problem, and scam artists generally. Gangs of orchestrated thieves work the train network and tourist hotspots. Romanian groups have been getting the blame for a lot of it (and that was very clear from a couple of conversations I had with Parisians), though the truth is, they aren’t the only ones at work.

A couple of nights before I’d been dodging the flower-sellers in the streets near Notre Dame – I’d witnessed their hard sell some years before when one thrust a rose into my then-partner’s hands along the Champs-Élysées and then pursued us for money until the rose was thrown to the pavement (I gather a similar technique is used by the ‘string-men’ outside the Sacré-Cœur, putting string bracelets on the unwitting and demanding cash). Walking through the more touristy bits of the city on Saturday I’d somehow survived several scams and had grown falsely confident.

Alongside Pont Neuf, near the Louvre I’d watched a Romany-type gleefully egging on an English-speaking group as he played a card game, the participants seemingly winning and betting more and more. A classic scam that will only end in huge losses, and I was shocked anyone would be so gullible. I didn’t stick around to watch too much just in case an accomplice was working the pockets of the onlookers.

Moving through the city one finds scores of tat-sellers armed with low-quality Eiffel Tower keyrings, selfie-sticks and what not, and tempting though it may be, one is best to avoid purchasing gifts from these roaming traders, and stick instead to the abundance of fixed retail outlets.

As I moved towards the Champs I noticed a number of people out with petitions. A common enough sight on the streets of Belfast, so I wasn’t too wary. As I baked in the midday sun a young woman suddenly thrust a clipboard and a pen into my hands (its amazing how easy it is to be caught off-guard), pointed to the writing which was in English, and all I picked up on at first was something about being deaf/dumb (she made gestures indicating that she was this way), and she pointed out the names and countries on the form and I found myself signing briefly.

Looking at it again I suddenly saw the donation category, and I noticed the poor photocopying job on the sheet, and even the fact that I was signing in red pen seemed to me to be a no-no (forms back home are no good in red ink as it doesn’t copy/scan properly). I realised there wasn’t any additional badges, or information about the charity – all things I expect when I’m working with organisations here – and so I quickly scored out my details, uttered ‘I can’t’ and walked off. She looked somewhat baffled and annoyed.

I’ve learnt since that the charity collection scam is a common one – the money simply goes into their pockets and not to any organisation, and some of the on artists use it as an opportunity to raid your pockets too.

The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe

Eventually I’d found myself taking photos across from the Arc De Triomphe and witness the one scam I’d disbelievingly read about before making the trip. A slightly stooped and scruffy man was walking along the edge of the road, beside the pavement, when suddenly he dropped down and picked up a shiny object – a gold ring. He tried to make contact with me, but I ignored him and he continued across the road and down the avenue stopping down and picking up this same gold ring every time he thought he had a likely mark.

As I understand the idea is to encourage the greedy punter to offer him a small reward for finding  what they assume to be an expensive piece of jewellry, but which is no better than the rings found in an apple tart. He’s got a stash in his pocket, and the scam itself does seemingly work. My cockiness at surviving this was my undoing on the Sunday morning.

Sitting in the quiet police station I had time to make notes, speak again to my card company, and worried folks back home. And pop off emails to my host, letting them know I no longer possessed keys to the flat. Eventually I got taken into an office with a yellow filter over the windows that gave the room a sickly vibe and did nothing for my confidence. The lady officer took my statement in a mix of English and French and I was supplied with a report and a substitute paper driving license – which was odd, because my provisional doesn’t actually let me drive properly anyway. Tired, hungry, but resigned to fate I stepped back out into the now late afternoon sun and the hour+ walk back to my lodgings.

Along the dusty Boulevard de Bastille a friendly black gentleman in his 30s singled me out as an English speaker and asked me for money. He was pleasant. I might actually have felt generous, but instead I told him that someone had taken all my money from me “quelque person a prendre tout mon argent“, and bless, he seemed genuinely rattled by my misfortune.

Back at the flat my host was fairly understanding, pinning blame on the Romanians as several others had done, and supplying me with a new key once he ascertained I had no record of the flat’s address in my wallet. Visa sent me a cash advance via Western Union which I couldn’t pick up until the following morning, but at least I wouldn’t be stranded. Sitting back at the table in my room I flicked through my notebook, and dined on the luxury of a single strawberry yoghurt and half bottle of vino rouge. The day a write off, but my spirits undiminished.

When: June 2015
Where: Paris, France

Beginnings

A map, pen and notebook… what else awaits?

Everything has a beginning. All books, all blogs, all bodies. Even this gigantic infinite universe has an origin, though no amount of explanation ever gives us a nice clear moment. I digress.

This is the beginning of Don’t Want To Wander, a chronicle of adventures of a man who spent far too much time at home, and wants to spread his wings. It isn’t the beginning of those adventures however, for they began many years ago, and so from time to time I will be reflecting on experiences past as the new narrative is woven.

Some of you know me already. I’m Robert. Native of Northern Ireland. A sometime freelance arts professional. What’s that when its at home? Well, basically I have a couple of arts degrees and stubbornly stick to the idea that my money is earned through whatever vaguely artistic avenue is offered. Whether that be writing, photography, acting,broadcasting or something else entirely. It can be fun, sometimes I get to go places with work and have random experiences that make the whole thing memorable. I blog already, quite a bit, but I wanted to write more about things that didn’t really fit in with my other content. And so we’re here. Somewhere I can talk about the places and people I get to.

Not everything is about foreign adventures. Some of it is much closer to home – days on solo travels, road trips with friends, that sort of thing. But there’s also jaunts further afield. New friendships, relationships, strange encounters. You might enjoy some of that. I’m trying to do it more – I used to travel around a fair bit with work, but then that stopped for a few years, and my appetite has been whetted and is being indulged a little once more. So this may also serve to encourage me to do more things. All part of my Robert 3.0 life. I tend to go everywhere armed with a camera and a notebook, so I’ll be drawing on my images, art and jottings along the way.  Occasionally identities will be obscured to protect the innocent.

Being an arts-type (and sometime artist), I’m always working to micro-budgets too – relying on discounts, freebies, careful planning and the kindness of friends and strangers. I stress that now, because it is both the reason and the limitation behind a fair bit of what happens. If you want to play along, you can join me on my adventures (Twitter or my Facebook page will usually let you know where I’m going to be), or pop me a message if you’d like to put me up for a few days, or better still, combine a visit with work! But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, the journey begins…

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