Five days in early June

St Pierre and Miquelon is a tiny French territory (a “territorial collectivity” in administrative parlance) located rather improbably off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, where Fortune Bay meets the wider Atlantic. France’s Caribbean territories are better known than St. Pierre and Miquelon; few seem to have heard of the archipelago. And because it sits off Canada, people often assume that the islands’ Frenchness is linguistic, not territorial; that the islands are a francophone bit of Canada and not a constituent part of the French state.

I have wanted to visit St. Pierre and Miquelon for as long as I can remember. Each time I tried to put together an itinerary I was scared off by exorbitant airfares. This is in large part due to the transportation monopoly imposed by Air Saint-Pierre, the only airline flying to the territory. When I lived in New York it was cheap to get to Montréal but then super expensive to fly from there to St. Pierre. It was only from St. John’s that flights to St. Pierre were reasonable, yet it was typically very expensive to get to St. John’s from New York. The same dynamic materialised after I moved to London, just with dramatically more expensive flights.

And then in 2016, the Canadian no-frills low-cost airline WestJet began to fly between various Canadian cities and London, and suddenly everything fell into place. My transatlantic ticket set me back £392 and my Air Saint-Pierre ticket cost €246, which by my estimate is a savings of around €900 (or £820 or so) from what it would have cost before WestJet entered the market. Here I have to pause to recognise that this is, in fact, how I often end up visiting places I have long pined after – once the low-cost airlines move in.

On the Air Saint-Pierre plane from St. John’s I meet a woman from Strasbourg whose father was born on St Pierre. She’s come for three weeks to spend time with her grandmother. “Are you going to Miquelon as well?” she asks. I tell her that I am. “Good. St Pierre can be hard to penetrate. Miquelon will feel more open.” As we talk the plane lowers its landing gear and she twitches, looking panicked. Outside the fog is thick. Two peaks rise from the fog, disarmingly close. We talk for another few seconds and then I see the ground, more or less precisely at the moment we land. Her name is Lize. I knew I would see her again – on an island of 6000, visitors tend to find each other. After passing through immigration I watch her bound toward a circle of people, all bundled up. It may be June but it is cold: 4 degrees, according to the posted temperature, and fogged in.

St Pierre and Miquelon is France. Its currency is the euro. A member of the National Assembly for St Pierre and Miquelon sits in Paris; there is also a single Senator for the territory. France imposes a grid of standardization on its overseas territories that makes them immediately recognizable as France. In most of overseas France, you can’t ever forget that you are in France – the bakeries produce exceptional croissants, the street signage is uniform, the supermarkets are full of French products, the attitudes, with local adjustments, are French. I have now traveled to all of the French Caribbean, to French Guiana, to Réunion, Mayotte, and New Caledonia. It’s hard to find a bit of these places that is not recognizably France.

There are exceptions. There are some towns in French Guiana rubbing up against the Amazon that feel less obviously like France. (French Guiana itself has such a hostile, unforgiving geography that its territory often feels remaindered, forgotten.) Another is Mayotte, where a widely practiced syncretic Islam sets its islands apart from mainland France – and whose poverty reflects historical neglect at the hands of the metropole. But by and large single one of these territories truly feels like France. This is why, for example, Canadian and American travel writers will laud the boulangeries of St Pierre, and celebrate their baked goods with a kind of dumbstruck joy: France in North America!

Yet I discover that St Pierre is actually at deep odds with its Frenchness. People are sturdy, mostly descendants of fishermen from Brittany, Normandy, and the Basque Country, the flags of which regions appear on the unofficial St Pierre and Miquelon flag. Their culinary tastes are solid, not trendy. “Somebody opened a pintxos restaurant,” offered the waitress at a crêperie. “But it wasn’t popular. It just wasn’t part of the local culture.” She herself hails from Bayonne in France’s tiny Basque triangle, and she always seems to have a faint, bemused smile on her face, as if she hasn’t quite managed to figure out why she is living here.

Since the 1870s the population of St Pierre and Miquelon has ranged between 4000 and 7000. For long stretches of its history, the fishing industry – since a 1992 court decision all but wiped out – and alcohol smuggling during the US Prohibition years, lifted the economy. Today government jobs provide the most stable incomes; many of these jobs are contract-based, employing workers on temporary assignments from the metropole. Visiting police live in a shiny modern building at odds with the rest of the town of St Pierre. The population doesn’t rise because most young people leave, and the absence of a dynamic industry has left the population frustrated and instinctually left-wing. This is Mélenchon country. The far-left, anti-EU firebrand came in first in the first round of the presidential election in May.

But it’s also, in slightly greater numbers than the French average, Le Pen country. Marine Le Pen visited St Pierre in March 2016, tacking on a quick visit to the territory to an official EU trade visit to Quebec, which she fulfilled as an MEP. The reception she received – in distinction to her experience in Quebec, where the establishment shunned her – was not altogether bad, and it has allowed her to occupy in the minds of locals a more important structural position in French politics than she actually has. One local, recounting the various politicians who have visited St Pierre, said “Le Pen came, you know, the lady,” before complaining that Macron had never visited – Macron, who had just won the presidency a few weeks prior. Perhaps it is fair to say that St Pierre is not the sort of place that instinctively warms to a precocious, super talented banker turned president.

“We are like the French Newfies,” a young hotel receptionist tells me. I recoil; France is France. But clearly there is something to his self-assessment. Much of the food comes from Canada; the huge supermarket, an all-purpose megastore that sells a massive range of consumer goods, is supplied in large part by Sobey's, a Canadian supermarket chain. Most of its goods are North American, not French. It is reminiscent of similar stores in remote, northern places. Houses smell like North American houses, people – especially the men – dress like North American men, and even the cigarette smoke smells like North American cigarette smoke. People drive North American cars – pick-up trucks and SUVs – and they drive them quickly and loudly down the narrow streets. Many of these have been purchased in Canada and brought over. (This is an expensive operation, but it is much cheaper than buying a car within the territory.)

For three days the fog remains low. I cannot see the peaks above the town; I can barely see to the end of the town’s streets, or far above the low buildings. The streets of St Pierre are on an incline; in the cold, low fog, the wind piercing in early June, the sky feels compressed. The doors of the wooden houses, most in dramatic, splashy colours, are closed. The owner of my gîte is helpful if taciturn. Breakfast sits on her kitchen table in a basket: one croissant, two slices of baguette, one pain au chocolat. Butter and confiture in glasses. American drip coffee in a thermos. There’s not an egg or a slice of smoked salmon in sight. She scrolls Facebook on her tablet. The television is on but we sit mostly in silence, breaking for conversations in a warped, pidgin English-French.

The tiny Cessnas that fly between St Pierre and Miquelon do not take off in the fog, so I cancel my reservation and book a ferry to Langlade. The tourist office takes care of this for me. The staff are efficient and good at English. They also book a gîte for me. The ferry motors near the island and then we are all don safety vests and are helped into a Zodiac and brought to the beach. We stumble ashore, some more gracefully than others. The owners come and pick me up in Langlade, driving me 25 kilometers from wet Langlade to their little house in the village of Miquelon. This road is unpaved in places; in others it follows the beach itself. A big friendly dog prods my hand from the back seat. I sleep in the basement. My room has an enormous yin-yang symbol on the wall. They built this house thirty years ago. They tell me that land is cheap in Miquelon but pretty much everything else is expensive – house construction materials, food. They watch Quebecois and French television.

Miquelon resonates more deeply with me. It is a desolate, quiet town consisting more or less of two roads. It is lonely and it never allows you to forget this, but the skies are big and claustrophobia is the last thing on your mind. The island’s little village also boasts the technologically up-to-date Maison de Nature, a beautiful multi-media museum devoted to the natural environment of the territory. It just opened this year, and it is truly grand – projections on maps in relief, a section devoted to the smells of the archipelago, a long video with locals talking about the fragility of the local nature.

On Miquelon I hike around the northern cape of the island. The land is lying in wait for summer, marshy, not yet fulsome. It is magical, like other places I've been in the north that are anticipating summer – its wooded areas, its scrub, the clean air, almost painful to breathe. When the gîte owners drive me back to Langlade I see stickers for Marine Le Pen on the back of street signs.

Back on St Pierre I take a gregarious tour guide up on his offer of a tour. He introduces me to the traditional food of St Pierre. We eat tuna pâté (canned tuna with boiled potatoes, mayonnaise, ketchup, and shallots), duck pâté, foie gras and bean pâté, dried fish, and a super rich île flotante, merengue laced with hard caramel, bobbing in cream. We drink a fine red wine and a sweet local birch beer. Everything is hearty and delicious. He shows me the port, various coves, and much of the island. His English is great – he lived in Canada for many years – and I ask many questions. It is, I realise, the first time I've talked with anyone in any depth in five days.

I board the plane the next day, realizing slowly the oddest thing. I have not once seen Lize. The island really does keep itself indoors. It is, as she said, hard to penetrate.

 

 

 

                                               

Please stay

It’s terrible to have such strong feelings about an upcoming referendum but not to be able to vote in it. When this referendum was announced I thought that only nativists and unreconstructed Marxists would vote to leave – the first for the glory of nostalgia and the second for the incitement to revolution.

Yet here we are, the polls tight and variable and apparently moving toward Leave, anti-immigrant sentiment more common than at any point in my five and a half years in the UK. (It’s another terrible feeling to watch social fractures previously barely visible to me become more pronounced.)

The risks are huge. Yet somehow, despite the absolutely overwhelming evidence from economists – notably from Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – despite the near-certainty that Scotland will vote to leave the UK in the event of a Leave vote, despite the massive uncertainty that will descend upon Northern Ireland’s economy and its borders, despite a report by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics predicting annual household real income losses post-Brexit of between 5.7% and 13.5%, the polls are seesawing and the mood on the street is terribly conflicted. The Leave campaign has done a great job of muddying the waters, making it look as if leaving the EU will not have terrible economic and social effects on life here. It will. (And we are right to pose a million logistical questions: How would we deal with the agony of extraction? Is separation even possible? Is this country really going to leave the single market? What kind of economic suicide would that be? And if not, is belonging to the EEA and adopting almost all EU law as it relates to the single market without being able to vote on it really the answer?)

The far right across Europe will be deeply encouraged by a Leave vote. Austria just came within a hairsbreadth of electing as their President a man from one of Europe's most successful far-right political parties, a man who co-authored his party’s platform in support of pan-Germanism, a party that is trying to open linguistic wounds in South Tyrol. France's Marine Le Pen – who herself wondered aloud not too long ago if the French-speaking part of Belgium might be absorbed by France – does well in presidential polls. The question of absorption of neighbouring countries along linguistic lines is no longer such an absurd prospect in Europe; in Crimea in 2014, we saw the seizure of territory by a neighbouring county in the name of linguistic and cultural unity. (Austria's FPÖ and France's Front National are both huge supporters of Putin. Imagine that.) The governments of Poland and Hungary are in the hands of populist right-wing parties. These are Leave's bedfellows across Europe. These forces have succeeding in convincing many that refugees, immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, and various others are the enemy. Leaving the EU empowers them.

This is what I want to say, as an immigrant who came to London because he had a dream – a European dream – to live and work in what just may well be the world’s best city. This is your Trump moment. It may not seem like it – there are few public figures in the UK who are as hateful as Donald Trump, after all – but the choice to vote Leave is about ignoring the sober predictions of apolitical economists and experts and rejecting the impulse toward solidarity in favour of chaos. It is a choice to jump off into space with no sense of when or how you will land, encouraged by the most amorphous of objectives.

The European Union is boring, tedious, and plodding. It needs reform. It should be less opaque and more nimble. At the same time, the EU is remarkable. It makes our lives better and it makes this country better.

Please, let's stay.

The meaning of one discarded photograph

For Christmas my sister gave me The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. The book intrigued me from the moment I unwrapped it – and this despite having spent the entirety of my adult life recoiling from self-help books.

It is indeed a remarkable book. It does what it says on the tin. It is in fact life-changing. My distillation of the argument, which the author calls the KonMari Method, is this: we in the (post-)industrialised world have too much stuff. This stuff drags us down and imprisons us. We accumulate and possess blindly, without understanding our motivations.

The antidote is to tidy up seriously, and to retain only those items that spark joy.

Kondo leads us through her method: her order of discarding by category (clothes, then books, then papers, then komono [miscellany], and finally mementos); her imperatives (among others – don't share process with family members; touch every object before making a decision); and the results she expects from readers (more beautiful living spaces; happier and more responsible clients).

In January I began the process seriously. I tore through my possessions. I made a slight adjustment to Kondo's method in that I discarded miscellaneous items before papers and books. Given all the paper (newspapers, brochures, and my own writing and notes) and books (guidebooks, travelogues, fiction, and so on) in my living space, I knew that the miscellaneous objects in my life would be easier to tame. Aside from that, I committed to the book's method as fully as possible. I even began to fold my clothes along KonMari Method lines.

The process was pretty easy. It felt good and right from the beginning. At the start I discarded so many of my clothes that I began to wonder what I would be left with at the end. I wondered why so few of my clothes sparked any joy at all. What was wrong with me? But I was ruthless. I continued. An old winter jacket, an expensive gift, no longer fit me. Why was I holding on to it? And what about my maternal grandfather's bathrobe? My grandfather died in 1995. I'd held onto his bathrobe for almost twenty years and not once had I worn it. Its emotional weight was a great distraction. I'd felt that allowing it to find another home was a type of disloyalty. No longer.

By the end of the process I recycled volumes of paper and electronics, gave away 50 bags of books, households items, and clothes to Oxfam, and threw away those objects that were neither recyclable nor of potential use to anybody else. The upshot: I now live in a space that engages me. Objects have breathing room. All my papers, books, notebooks, and files are well-ordered. There is a place for everything, and nothing is crammed or cramped. It is a deep pleasure to spend time at home.

There were other benefits to the effort. As my discarding process continued, psychological value often trumped spatial benefit. I had great insights about various familial models for storing objects – how, for example, the retention of well over a ton of paper (interoffice memoranda, multiple copies of articles, letters from students, handbooks, manuals, multiple paper drafts of articles) represented a version of security to my father, a safe-guarding of his ego in the form of his life's work; or how another relative effortlessly casts off objects she doesn't need – healthy, right? – by giving them to people – oops! – who often neither want nor appreciate them.

As I expected, mementos were the hardest things to sort through. Old photographs were particularly difficult, even given the family tradition of taking seven bad photos of the same thing – a chicken, a lake, a monument, a cross child. One night, exhausted but determined, I threw away a photograph of my father posing in front of his old workplace in Vienna in the mid-2000s, a good two decades after he last lived in the city. It wasn't a very good photo; he'd obviously asked a passer-by to take it. The next day I tried to reconstruct the photo – the faint smile on my father's face, his raincoat, the pedestrians in the background. I deeply lamented having thrown it away. How could I have tossed this thing away, this pure sign of the way my father treasured Vienna and his time there? A few weeks passed. The pain didn't disappear. It hit me that the depth of my regret was an important reminder of how much I miss my father, a reminder also of our shared affection for that complicated, strange, and atavistic city. After it was discarded – and in fact, because it was discarded – the photograph gained another life.

Across Belgium in three hours

One train journey traverses more or less the entirety of Belgium. It travels from Ostend to Eupen by way of Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Leuven, Liège, Verviers, and Welkenraedt. It passes through Flanders, Brussels, Wallonia, and the German-speaking part of Belgium, linking the country's three language communities. It is a properly federal institution, and as such, it is notable. Belgium is famously fractured, with six parliaments – seven if the EU’s parliament is included in the count. The train makes its way across the country in just over three hours, the first train leaving Ostend at 04:40 and the last at 18:40, running every hour in between at 40 minutes past the hour.

Ostend is the towering hub of Belgian coastal tourism, sitting almost directly at the midpoint of Belgium's coastline. There are signs for rent and sale throughout: flats and houses alike. It is windy – when is it not? – with seagull histrionics piercing the air. The Sint-Petrus-en-Paulus Church anchors the town's core. It is Neo-Gothic and of a suitably grand scale, with an enormous square in front of it. It is cold at 5C, but somehow more refreshing than bracing. With fancy bakeries, well-loved cafés, and fastidiously maintained flats, Ostend is bourgeois. It is not, however, without its oddball elements, which include a dusty little shop selling seashells and other treasures of the sea. The very wide sweep of the promenade along the beach is chilly in early March; still, one can easily project the warm weather appeal of Ostend.

The train station is grandiose, with an enormous bicycle park to match. The station itself is in the midst of a massive renovation. (In this it is not alone; many train stations across Belgium are being spruced up.) Passengers walk out from the ticket hall toward the tracks through an open area, a disassembled wall on one side. The roof has been removed and the windows are missing their glass. A long, unused red walkway connects the train station to the port. There may no longer be any regularly scheduled ferry services to or from Ostend, but the infrastructure remains.

The platforms are long and curve gently. The Ostend-Eupen train consists of twelve cars and I board the final of these – the first car, that is – barely accessible from the tapering platform. The car is empty, and I remain the sole passenger until Bruges.

It is flat and industrial heading out of Ostend. The train moves slowly away from the coast, almost precisely due east. The fields look marshy, waterlogged. About four kilometers outside of Ostend the train begins to speed up. There are canals everywhere – between fields and alongside the train tracks. The fields themselves are quite muddy, with little mounds of dirt and tall dried blond grasses along their edges.

Approaching Bruges, a striking brick mansion appears beyond a tree-lined driveway; shortly thereafter, there are light industrial buildings and the E403 motorway, and then, quite quickly, the town itself: the towers of Sint-Salvator Cathedral and the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, prim brick rowhouses, modern duplexes, and the greenswards of the Koning Albert I park. At Bruges, five people enter the car and settle down to sleep or work.

Following Bruges the train arcs slowly toward the south and then picks up speed. Very quickly the landscape starts to look rural again. By Oostkamp it is wooded; open fields follow. There are tree-lined single-lane roads. Beernem appears in clusters, with one notably modern house, grey and angular. Sound barriers appear, followed by wooded areas, trees insubstantial and diminished in late winter. After Aalter, proper farmland resumes for a bit. At Bellem, Mariahove, a manor house graced by a pond, peeks out between trees. (Once a family estate, it is now a Christian retreat centre.) Hansbeke catches the eye with a neo-Baroque steeple at odds with the plain neo-classisist church beneath that justifies its existence.

At Landegem the train crosses over a wide canal that flows on to Zeebrugge. And then Ghent announces itself with huge tower blocks, the first sign since Ostend of a real city. The railway yard is huge. It feels as if the European rail network begins in earnest here. On the far side of the railyard is old Ghent, but the train station itself is more immediately impressive: a gleaming platform with pink signage and lots of steel and light. (The rest of the station, currently under construction, is dire and dark, delivering a strictly and not particularly engaging utility.) After departing Ghent, the train glides through the city at about a third-story level along a graceful stretch of rowhouses. The outer reaches of Ghent consist of some factories, a house with a large covered swimming pool, modern villas, new unfinished brick houses, empty and devoid of doors and windows. Across the Ringvaart canal, the villas thin out and anonymous suburban developments predominate.

And then suddenly we’re back among fields and gargantuan wind power turbines. For the first time the track bed dips, almost hiding a town’s steeple. We stay in this little ravine for some time. When the train comes up for air, around the village of Mere, before Aalst, we see the journey’s first piece of rolling landscape.

The outskirts of Aalst are indistinct: warehouses; big trucks; a building with solar panel slapped on it like thick stickers. The train skirts the town to the south, revealing houses with vegetable plots, duck ponds, and farming equipment. The conductors finally materialise to check tickets, then sit down to converse and sip soft drinks. In Sint-Katherina-Lombeek there are glowing greenhouses and one spectacularly collapsing farmhouse, with open agricultural fields and wind turbines on the far horizon. There is farmland here again, and hills – not really hills; rolling land. Platforms and cement blocks running alongside the tracks are covered with graffiti.

Brussels is visible from around Schepdaal, though the surrounding area continues to feel rural. Just before the train runs alongside a golf club with the fancy name of the Royal Amicale Anderlecht we enter Brussels Capital Region proper, and it quickly begins to feel as if we are in a big city. In no time we are buried in graffitied concrete. The destination board turns bilingual. There are massive train yards, light industry plants, and empty office parks. The train slows.

At Brussel Zuid/Midi four people get off and two board: a young guy with big eyes and a tall angular man, who removes his jacket and stacks his bags neatly. The conductors leave, walking in collegial unison. Several tracks away, the Eurostar tracks are protected by tall fences. As the train moves on sex shops and a big boulevard are visible. The track runs through the city, along the unkempt backsides of residential buildings. In contrast to the fastidious museum piece perfection of Ghent and Bruges, Brussels appears as a raw urban cross-section, with nothing on intentional display. And then we are plunged into darkness, long neon tubes providing an almost nightclublike atmosphere. Centraal/Central station is underground. Unlike Zuid/Midi, this station is in good condition.

A new arrival speaks in French to a man on her mobile. Lots of mmms. We emerge into very bright light reflecting off huge glass towers.

Noord/Nord has an art deco charm, with well-designed benches. More new passengers filter in. Next we speed by Schaerbeek's beautiful old station. This is a very industrial stretch, full of abandoned buildings. We leave Brussels and cross back into Flanders, skirting the airport. As if on cue, a LOT Polish Airlines plane ascends steeply on the left. The suburbs are dense. Zaventem has a small, modern station; airport ground lighting systems follow, and then the suburbs gradually taper off. A huge lot of new cars appears at Kortenberg. Agricultural fields return. A horse rubs up against a green building, unaware of her symbolic role in signifying the return of the countryside.

The landscape is quite anonymous for some time. Stations are empty, suburban, new. Some beat-up greenhouses in back gardens provide a measure of grit. In Herent, close to Leuven, there are shiny, stylish apartment blocks. And then on arrival in Leuven the landscape boasts ridges – another break in the flatness of the landscape, this one predictive.

Leuven casts very different impressions than Brussels. There are few signs of industrial heritage along the track leading into town. At Leuven the conductor asks a passenger to modulate his speaking voice. The destination board lists the next stop, the francophone Walloon city of Liège, by its Dutch name: Luik. (Following the bilingualism that prevailed in Brussels, the destination board has reverted to unilingual Flemish.) A row of trees along a ridge suggests the changing landscape to come. There is no mistaking that, topographically at least, we are leaving the Lowlands. Leuven may sit just 28 meters above sea-level but the terrain is shifting quickly. For the first time my mobile phone loses its signal.

Rather unfortunately, it is at this point that it becomes difficult to track the landscape, between tunnels and the partially submerged track. When we reemerge around Boutersem the main feature is the major European route, the E40, which shadows the train. The E40 extends well into Central Asia, covering almost 5000 miles in total. The next town, Tienen, is hard to see over the E40. This is, it must be said, a fairly unappealing vista. To the south is Hoegaarden, though it’s impossible to see it, as the track dips again. When the train resurfaces the highway is predominant.

We will soon be saying goodbye to Flanders, though it will not go without a fight. The track dips into Wallonia, then back into Flanders again, then into Wallonia, then Flanders for a last time, and then, just before the village of Berloz, into Wallonia for good. (Technically, for a few meters, the track pierces Flanders twice during its first passage through Wallonia, but them’s the stuff of pettifogging jurisdictionality.) Once we’ve crossed into Wallonia for good, announcements begin in French and are followed in Flemish. We’re still following the E40, which continues to be the primary feature of the line of sight. The train passes a rest stop, with signs for a Total petrol station and a Lunch Garden restaurant. It remains difficult to track the countryside. Here and there the track arches somewhat to permit views of muddy fields and glimpses of small-scale agriculture, villages, and squat houses.

And then, mercifully, we lose the E40. The landscape alternates between monotony – a rubbish/recycling facility – and treats – Awans, a gently sloping village. According to the map on my mobile phone, just beyond Awans, invisible from the train, is an IKEA. The train approaches Liège on what feels like a steep downward incline, an urban valley crowded with houses, many streets facing the train track on a diagonal. The cross-section is attractive: a sharp grassy gore; backs of bricked buildings, some nicely renovated; a residential roof teeming with greenery. We descend into the extraordinary Liège-Guillemins station, designed by Santiago Calatrava. It’s a monument to modernism, soaring and bold. Leaving, we cross the Meuse, first alongside a very modern bridge, then adjacent to a cement bridge in poor condition. The superficial impression is of a city caught between showpieces and neglect.

After Liège the train really begins to climb. The terrain opens up to reveal modest river basins. In Trooz a lone factory stack rises over uniform roofs. Worn plastic bags cluster along the banks of the Vesdre, or Weser. There is evidence of mining further on, with stone bluffs appearing as if they have been sliced vertically. The train sails past a village called Basse Fraipont, just its roofs visible. At the edge of Nessonvaux a beautiful mansion is visible. At its helm is a widow’s walk guarded by a wrought-iron fence. The landscape gets increasingly dramatic. We are climbing from Liège, at 65-odd meters above sea level, to Verviers, which sits 200 meters above sea level.

The railway skirts the Vesdre and passes through several hillside tunnels. The river is hugged by buildings in a consistent if not unbroken type of ribbon development. At Verviers, the rest of my fellow passengers alight. It’s just me now, along with a single conductor. Verviers' ornate neo-classical building, the city’s Grand Theatre, is the most interesting structure in spitting distance.

From Verviers on to the town of Limbourg is an uninterrupted stretch of developed territory; north of Limbourg this changes: hillsides, the occasional farmhouse, and an overpass. Then a slow arrival, on a tilted track, to Welkenraedt, another train station midway through renovation. An austere church keeps watch over three teenaged boys playfully kicking one another.

The final stretch has come. The train continues to climb to Eupen. Dramatic riverine valleys have yielded to a plateau of undramatic moorland, a smattering of industrial facilities in between. The stretch from Verviers on to Welkenraedt and Eupen is undersubscribed. Welkenraedt offers a service across the border to Aachen, but Eupen is a cul-de-sac as far as the train network is concerned. (Anyone wanting to travel quickly between Brussels and Aachen would probably hop aboard the Paris-Cologne Thalys, in any case.)

By the train station, Eupen is unassuming. Just beyond it however there are narrow hillside streets that lead down to a cobblestone square. I stop in a bakery and order a coffee, in German, which I drink under a portrait of Belgium’s Queen Paola. I have a conversation with a man that follows a very familiar organizational logic. In no time we are deep in the minutiae of consumer goods pricing – washing powder singled out in particular detail – with a digression devoted to Sunday shopping hours on both sides of the border. We may be in Belgium, but the mode of approach is German.

Eupen is the seat of Belgium's 75,000-odd strong German-speaking community. The community’s parliament is housed in a new, grey building on a hill at the outskirts of town, adjacent to the headquarters of Belgischer Rundfunk (BRF), Belgium’s German-language public broadcaster. In the lower town there are two Fritüren, or frites shops. This spelling is a direct Germanification of the Dutch Frituur and the French Friture and, as far as I can tell, is unique to German Belgian. Online research turns up a clutch of Fritüren across German-speaking Belgium and none in Germany, and German dictionaries refer to this spelling as obsolete. (I have never seen a Fritüre in Germany, though I realize that I’ve never really been on the lookout for them.)

All the while I'd thought of Ostend as the major artery and Eupen as the cul-de-sac, but Ostend has become a cul-de-sac as well. Not a single passenger ferry sails between England and Ostend these days. The city sits against the channel, the sea a wall. Belgium's federal train travels from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac. In its steady doggedness it is a form of persistence.

Four years in London

“As foreigners we can ignore all those implicit obligations which are not in the law but in the general way of behaving.” Michel Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,” in Foucault Live (372).

The freedom I felt when I first moved to London was the freedom of not being known, the freedom of not being understood – either in clumsy schematic terms (the way people think they can read people they don’t know) or with laser-sharp acuity (class, region, town, origin, accent, slang, education). I floated around London those first few weeks, in love with where I was and how I could interact with people. Nobody knew who I was, culturally speaking, and it felt outstanding.

It retrospect, though, that time was full of painful moments. I remember inviting people I’d just met to a housewarming party. One couple in particular made such able, gentle conversation that I wanted them at our housewarming party more than any others. One was an artist and the other was an academic. How nice, I thought. This is like the West Coast, not New York. (I’d just moved from New York, where bursts of kindness are common but friendliness is typically seen an alien.) People are far friendlier than their reputations in London, I thought.

But then none of them came to our housewarming party, and in time it became clear that nobody invites people they’ve just met to their housewarming parties. Inevitably, I feel some shame now when I think about that encounter and a few others like it. I was not behaving like a Londoner.

What happens when we stop being fully foreign? The freedom to ignore implicit obligations – or the freedom to not even know that they exist – disappears when people decide to stay for a while, or for good, in a new place. When people stop being foreigners and become immigrants or expats – the choice between the two determined by what is legally and culturally possible as well as personality among a host of other things – implicit obligations can no longer be ignored.

And by the point at which they can't be ignored, the vexed, bruised foreigner-turned-resident will probably have developed a different mindset. She will have learned to avoid the gaze of their next-door neighbour in the morning; he will have felt, authentically felt, the horrors of queue-barging. The resident will have become, possibly without perceiving it, a different person.

Recently I ran into the artist-academic couple in the very same pub where we’d first met, at a get-together hosted by the same mutual friend who first brought us together. It took me a few minutes to recognize them. A flash of annoyance, a memory of rejection passed through me – nothing big enough to spoil a nice evening of conversation. And then, as the evening went on, that feeling dissipated without me even realizing it. Later, after I’d made it home, I understood why. With the advantage of four years of living in London, with the benefit of cultural context,  I was able to come to the conclusion that they weren’t my kind of people at all.

This is my new blog.

I started a blog back in 2007. As the years have gathered, I've contributed to it with less and less enthusiasm.

Work got in the way. Twitter got in the way, too. I discovered that Twitter was better than my blog at lots of things: finding good people, having interesting conversations, bringing attention to things I find noteworthy, and promoting my own work. But really what got in the way was me. I never settled on what it was that my blog was supposed to do. This troubled and constrained me.

First it was a budget travel blog. It had a name: Spendthrift Shoestring, which cemented my foolhardy philosophy of spending money I barely had on the most budget-minded travel imaginable. It was a budget travel blog because all my life I’d travelled on a budget. It was what I knew and what I was good at doing. Plus I was finishing up a long stint working at EuroCheapo, where we spent most of our time thinking and writing about ways to travel places cheaply.

But then I discovered other ways to travel, and I liked them. More disposable income opened up horizons that hadn’t previously existed. I liked indulgent lunches that lasted for four hours. I liked learning about food and wine and gradations in business class service. I liked knowing about trends in travel – budget, sure, but also luxury – or at least knowing which trends I liked and which I did not. I came to appreciate truly fine hotels and understand the difference between luxury and excess, between good hotel design and cookie-cutter opulence. In my budget travel blog, such diversions would often be prefaced with an apology.

And then came other types of drift. I wrote about lots of things that didn’t fall under the purview of travel per se. I liked popular culture, and Eurovision, and other forms of pop music. Sometimes I found myself reflecting on how countries and cultures might change over the course of a decade. I reviewed magazines and products and occasionally attacked editorial policies. Because the blog was purportedly about travel, these subjects didn’t seem to fit exactly. More than once I changed my blog’s tagline to compensate. But nothing really held.

Sometimes it’s best to start anew.

What I really needed all along was to write a public notebook, something I could shape without fearing mistakes and contradiction. So here it is. Welcome to my notebook. I’ll be writing about travel. And ideas, cultural objects, and other stuff.