No Place Like Home

As his trip concludes, Fayes T Kantawala reflects on the joys and the dark underbelly of Europe

No Place Like Home
Eight apartments, seven cities, five airplanes, four trains, one month and countless gelato intakes later, my European vacation is finally at an end. I arrived back in New York so deeply exhausted that I now need a vacation from my vacation. As is often the case with travel, the 31 days I was away seem like several months. I changed traveling partners so often during my trip that it really does feel like I was on seven different vacations, which in a sense is true. Hours on holiday are, like time in Narnia, different than in the real world. An afternoon touring sights, visiting museums or even sipping the bubbly can seem so much longer than the five minutes it seems to take to binge-watch an entire season on Netflix, and for that trick of the mind I am grateful.

I am also glad to be back. I timed my return to the beginning of a weekend and have spent the first three days glued to my couch catching up on Chinese takeout menus and the latest season of Transparent. Not to claim a false equivalence between the Vatican and a bowl of Lo mein noodles, but sometimes takeout and TV can be a transcendental experience. The one thing I did fear was getting on the weighing machine to see the damage I had wreaked on myself. Plot twist: I lost two kilos! This modest achievement was not without hard work, considering how I watched my intake on holiday and tried to live by the rule of not eating badly two meals in a row. Yes, I know it must be muscle and yes, I realise this sort of obsessive compulsion to record one’s weight implies a deep psychological attachment to unrealistic and frankly unattainable beauty standards that will only lead to a lifelong feeling of unfulfilment and self doubt. But I lost 2 kilos after a month surrounded by ice cream, pasta and fried calamari, to say nothing of European sherbets, so you can stuff your judgment like the cannoli that I so adored.
"Ilegales" I heard a woman whisper to her companion. Because of the assigned seats, I imagine the police knew exactly where the two boys would be sitting

I gave a similar speech to the woman at the checkout counter on my flight back to New York. Gloria had the foulest expression on her face as she stamped both my suitcases with large red stickers crying “OVERWEIGHT” in judgmental white letters. Obviously, we had got off to a rocky start, which explains why she gave me a window seat next to a fat German fellow (who knew they existed?) for my eight-hour journey home. It will take a while to unpack both my belongings and my memories from the trip. Many I have already told you about in these pages. There are a few though that it has taken me a while to thread into a coherent story mainly because they are so... flashy. Touring in any country is not really the same thing as being in it. One is sequestered in a bubble of restaurants with English menus and good online reviews or else hustled around in a tour group of similarly displaced people. The sights are clean and impressive, the streets washed and sparkling. Here they wish to present life as LIFE – charming and harmonious.

There were several times in my trip where that veneer of joy briefly cracked. Sometimes it was when I turned a corner and went into a neighbourhood without souvenir shops in Barcelona or Florence, and saw a very different standard of living compared to what they usually project. You’ll occasionally come across a person prostrated on the street with an empty bowl in front of them, but for the most part homelessness and poverty are carefully sequestered from the camera-wielding visitors. The same is true of migrants to Europe. Arguably one of the biggest stories to come out of the EU in recent memory, I understand one is unlikely to see evidence of the crisis on a beach or in the touristy parts of the city.

From a tourist's perspective, life in Europe can be very charming - pictured here, Lucca, Italy

On one of my last train journeys, I was seated in coach 3 on a window seat. Everything was on time and I was deeply impressed by how the Europeans (particularly the Spaniards) use assigned seats on trains, a marked difference to domestic travel in America which is more like The Hunger Games of overfed peoples. About midway through the journey the conductor made an apologetic announcement that the train had to make an unscheduled stop at a station. Several uniformed officers came on board with resolute faces. They made a beeline for two terrified-looking black teenagers who were seated a couple of rows ahead. They were wearing T-shirts and shorts but carried nothing else. Their eyes widened as the policemen swarmed around their seats, and I saw one boy reach for the other’s hand before I lost sight of them behind a phalanx of uniforms. From the snippets I could understand the police were asking for their passports and papers, but the kids kept silent. Even though they couldn’t apparently speak Spanish, it looked like they had half been expecting this intervention.

“Ilegales” I heard a woman whisper to her companion. Because of the assigned seats, I imagine the police knew exactly where the two boys would be sitting. And I do mean boys; the older of the two couldn’t have been more than 15, the other probably 12. They were escorted off in handcuffs, and I saw them being led on the platform towards the small station. I was gazing at the older boy and we locked eyes through the window as the train began to pull away and soon I lost sight of them, this time permanently. As the train turned a corner, a woman came by with a trolley of coffee and people had already returned to their conversations. I have thought about those two boys often since I saw them and about how lucky I am to be able to travel freely to places like Spain or Italy (or as freely as a Pakistani passport can let me.) My privilege – that buzzword of my generation – of being able to migrate and to travel is something that so many of the people in the world value even as so many others take it for granted. Movement is perhaps the biggest luxury of our time, along with classical food, shelter and clean water.

This was not the only time that I saw the policing of migrants in such a manner, but I still remember the elder boy’s eyes. I remember what it made me feel and what I tried to imagine he was feeling as he was being led away. Because though to travel is to wander, it is ultimately only traveling if you have a home. And I am grateful for mine.

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