The Difference a Smile Makes

Riding the train across the southeast corner of England can be a rather impersonal experience. Over the course of the three different trains I have to board to reach my destination, I rarely have to say a word. A flash of one’s phone or ticket is enough for the ticket collector and human interaction tends to be limited to the odd pleasantry, such as confirming that this is indeed the train to Redhill, or some such assistance. Besides that, you can travel for three hours or so and hardly have to say a word to anyone. In any other country I suppose it would seem dreadfully out of touch, but it seems to suit the English very well. To each their own; an Englishman’s house is his castle; don’t go looking for trouble and no trouble will come to you, and other such expressions. The English love their personal space so much, it’s easy to assume that the loss of low-level human interactions in the face of the endless march of technology was welcomed here with open arms.

I might as well talk for myself. Sometimes I feel as English as the soil itself. Here I am, alone, barricaded into my window seat by my luggage and hoping the four tracksuit-wearing twenty-somethings don’t occupy the seats opposite. A damp narcotic stench, reminiscent of straw at the back of a big cat enclosure at the zoo, drifts up the carriage as they enter and I wince. I wince at the smell, and at the swiftness of my judgement; for the smell pervades long after the lads have moved on, lingering about the hawk-eyed man in the suit sitting opposite. I hadn’t even noticed him take his seat.

When the times comes to change trains, I do so quickly and willingly. I cross the platform and board the waiting train, finding a mirror-image window seat, onward-facing, back to the doors. Same seat. Same service. Same train design. It’s as though somebody just pressed the reset button on the passengers. And it’s silent again.

There are flashes of hope, though. The ticket conductor on this service greeted everybody when he got on, a cheery, wiry-haired gent, with a smile so warm you could put your feet up in front of it. He looks like a regular. At least, he knows the other regulars, anyway, commenting on a girl’s new blue-dyed hair and how he’d not be brave enough to do it himself; inquiring after a young man’s onward travel; and confirming for a second time that this is indeed the service to Redhill to a doubtful older woman. The smile does not break even once.

One of the most intelligent men I ever met was a ticket inspector. I wish I’d taken more detailed notes of his reasoning, but it was something like this: “It pays the bills, it keeps me on the road and allows me to think when the day is done”. He spoke Finnish fluently “because Finnish culture is fascinating”, had an intrinsic understanding of musical harmony and was a profligate Europhile. In another life, I should like to give ticket inspecting a go.

The sun is setting behind the white spring haze. Albion, the White Island, continues to live up to its name (insert topical Jon Snow reference here). I hope the last leg of the journey is as personable as this one has been. BB x

God in the High Places

“You can’t help but wonder what compelled anybody to build a monastery way up there on the mountain.”

For just a moment in their hour-long conversation about real estate, American sitcoms and friends who had near scrapes with cancer, a Californian woman on the train remarks to her companion on the mystery of the world heritage site they have been visiting, as it speedily slides out of sight as the train turns a corner. It lasts but a moment; within seconds they’re discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ Instagram and Oprah’s twitter feed.

I’ve always been amazed by karst ever since my first visit to El Torcal when I was a kid. It affected me so much that it became the setting for one of the main episodes in my book, and I have spent much of my adult life dreaming of finding similar geological wonders around the world. But if El Torcal was beautiful, the jagged mountains of Montserrat were impressive on a whole other level. The name itself – serrated mountain – tells of its stark, toothlike appearance, standing high above the lowlands around Barcelona. That on a clear day you can see them from the city itself only adds to their majesty.

Small wonder, then, that the monks of eleventh century Catalonia saw fit to build a monastery there, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

There was a rush for the first train at 8.35am, but on arrival in Monistrol, the town at the foot of the mountain, they all herded straight onto the cable car and rack railway services without a second’s thought. Alone, carrying my lunch under one arm and my sketchbook under the other, I began the two hour climb up the mountainside.

It was quiet on the way up. The kind of quiet I haven’t heard since the last time I climbed a mountain, now almost two years ago. Cirl buntings and greenfinches chattered in the bushes, treecreepers and blue tits sang from the woods, and every so often the croak of a raven came in on the wind. Only the intermittent rattle of the train in the valley below broke the spell. It was an old place, and it felt that way for much of the climb.

The mid morning bells were ringing as I rounded the last bend in the track and began the final ascent towards the monastery. It was, of course, like most scenic places of worship, completely crawling with tourists. Three coach-loads of French schoolkids arrived just as I did, and a huge Chinese group of over a hundred-strong with their pike square of selfie sticks made getting up the narrow walkway to the monastery grounds a slow and uneasy business. Never mind the obnoxiously loud Americans, the even louder Italians, and the ridiculously dressed young Briton, almost as red-faced as his bright red shorts as he wandered around with his sketchbook. That is, of course, me.

Not for the first time I found myself wishing I could step back in time, to a time before mass tourism, when you could stay in the monastery for around the cost of a single euro (or equivalent). When, looking out across the hills of Barcelona towards the sea, you wouldn’t see motorways and industrial sites, but green hills and church towers lining the Llobregat river. In my very British way, I pined for the pastoral glory of days long gone.

I could not find God in the monastery itself, so I gathered my things and set off up into the mountains instead. Only twenty minutes out, with the monastery still in sight, it was calm again, and I was back in the silence. Which, I suppose, is precisely why the Benedictine monks of Montserrat chose to build such a wonder so far removed from society. To retreat is to escape from the world. Perhaps that’s why it struck me as so strange that a place of reflective retreat had become such a magnet for mass tourism. But mankind is all alike, in some respects; what occurs to one wandering mind must also occur to a dozen others. And who is to say any one person has more of a right to go?

Nowadays there’s this widespread notion that God is everywhere. He loves you, so naturally he is everywhere. He resides in every man and woman, every street corner, every kiosk, every artificial tree. Is it because he’s become so much a part of the everyday that so many people have forgotten him? When was the last time you really took stock of a kiosk?

The ancients believed that God could be found in the holy places: a high mountain, a desert oasis or a tree said to be older than time itself. I wonder whether if we stopped imagining that he is everywhere for a moment and instead went to seek him in the wilderness, as the ancients did, we might at least find that small measure of peace that resides in the high places of the world. For if he is the God of love, so too is he the God of peace. The Monastery of Montserrat might have sold its peace in part to the tourism industry, but wander a little higher up into the mountains beyond and you might begin to get a sense for why it is that God of old chose the wilderness. BB x