We emerge from the Channel tunnel into hills that roll just as they do in Kent. The rain still falls. Graffiti adorns trackside walls. People stand on station platforms clutching mugs of coffee as we flash by. By being on the ground we see others, the homes they have built, the infrastructure that facilitates their lives, the land they farm. The roofs are different shapes, but they are roofs. The bricks are different colours, but they are bricks. Folk carving a living from the country in which they live. It reminds us that we are all the same.
As we roll from Belgium to Germany the landscape shifts subtly. There is not much to separate the lowlands - this corner of western Europe is small enough to be topographically similar. What shifts more noticeably is the culture. We are greeted in French, then Flemish, then German, the compulsory English translation that follows an uncomfortable reminder that we are far more lazy than our continental neighbours. Futuristic radio towers adorn distant hills. Cathedrals stretch elaborately towards the sky.
We stop at our first interchange, an opportunity for coffee and to breathe the local air. Everything is cosmopolitan, a melting-pot of cultures. Seating stretches outside each bar. Beers are served in elegant glasses. Despite our best attempts, it’s obvious we are English. The waiter switches effortlessly into our mother tongue. In our short visit we have glimpsed a culture that is different from our own, and tomorrow we will hear other languages and meet the people who speak them in their own cities.
As passengers alight and depart, the make-up of our train carriage changes, one by one, our fellowship morphing until it becomes Danish. By the time we arrive at our destination we will feel less alien, more included, more educated in the culture of the place towards which we have been travelling. Not for us the bubble of recycled air and the shiny welcome gates that parachute-drop us into a new culture.
The continental landmass is huge. It’s important to remember that. We take for granted that we can traverse the globe in a matter of days, but to be travelling overland reveals its true size. We have populated the sky in a way that disregards the true scale of our earth. Surface-level travel takes time, as it should. Air travel is time travel. Our bodies resist it; jet-lag is a rebellion of our being extracted from one location and moved to another at a rate significantly higher than that at which the earth spins.
It’s human nature to focus on the destination, a trait perpetuated by air travel. We want to be there as quickly as possible; we demand instant gratification. Life is too short to waste time in stasis, transiting between places. Such is the message of our non-stop lifestyles. But the journey is how we grow, how we learn. In focussing purely on the destination we miss out on a huge chunk of life.
By the time I reach Copenhagen I have learned, experienced, seen so much more than I would in the inside of an airport lounge and a 35,000ft high metal tube. The experience of that journey has changed me. And as my good friend David Charles once wrote, the only interesting thing that happens on a flight is that it might crash. And you definitely don’t want to be on that one.