We are not tourists. We are journalists. We fly out from Heathrow, Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle to foreign airports where we are met by charming multilingual individuals employed by the holiday companies that pay for our trips. They whisk away our luggage and usher us through customs, ensuring that our initial impression of their country is not of queues and body-cavity searches, but easeful efficiency. They escort us around galleries, museums and examples of local industry. They arrange courteous meetings with experts in many, many fields. We eat eight fine meals a day, and everywhere we go we are presented with plastic bags full of information leaflets, promotional videos and the detritus of marketing: logo hats, boggle-eyed mascots, optimistic stickers.
Collectively, we are treated as delegates from a distant kingdom who may – if pleased – bestow great largesse. We leave behind most of our gifts, considering ourselves to be above such currying of favours. We know the hospitality we want: it involves the bar. We know the stories we want: they involve the authentic, the real, the colourful. They must also be photogenic, accessible and easily cut-and-pastable. Do you have some fun facts about the region? Do I have to write them down or are they on the press release? Could you fax that to me when I’m back in the office? Your English, by the way, is excellent.
I was among them once. Some of you were there too. It was the last decade of the twentieth century and we could put things on expenses.
During a five-day tour of Hungary we become furious when an elderly reporter from the Birmingham Post insists on interviewing the curator of a porcelain museum. What can he possibly want to know? It’s all in the leaflets. Just take the leaflets and go.
‘Rural Hungary looks like Somerset,’ says a man from The Mirror as our courtesy mini-bus trundles past thatched cottages, ‘apart from the fact that a freakishly high proportion of the population is selling paprika.’
We can’t figure out the preponderance of paprika and we can’t figure out the natural mineral bathing pools, where great herds of Eastern European tourists bob about in adult-sized rubber rings, tipping and yawning like seals in milky, sulphuric water.
Most of us just want to go back to Budapest, which we saw as we left the airport, and it looked like a place with bars, but we are timetabled to undergo Traditional Health-Giving Treatments. For these treatments, we must lie naked on marble slabs as Mineral-Rich Mud is applied everywhere but our groins and breasts, which are left obscenely clean and revealed, provocative objets d’art (‘Hungary boasts both traditional and modern experiences,’ we will later write, trying not to remember the exposed pudenda). Simultaneously appalling and entertaining, the Health-Giving Treatments are the kind of story we love, not for our readers but for our fellow hacks on the mini-bus. Which of us will get to tell it first? We caper back to our media brethren, and we are children running in an egg and spoon race, balancing before us our comical, wobbly offerings.
It is 1996. Britannia, we’ve told ourselves, is cool. The rest of the world is Quirky Capitals and Stunning Stag-Do Destinations. Invited by travel companies and tourist boards, we freebie Brit journalists gad about in a giggly ramshackle way, scuffing round cathedrals in our trainers. In Hungary, we run away from our guide to a Budapest nightclub, where the music jumps dementedly between decades and each song is greeted with a ferocious post-Communist roar from the crowd.
‘That’s what your new-found freedom from Soviet dominance gives you,’ says The Mirror, ordering tequila shots,’no understanding of the musical canon.’
But we love the fact we are dancing to Sinatra and Blur and 10cc on the banks of the Danube, and it is right that one of us – perhaps it was you, or perhaps it was me – should kiss the bloke from The Mirror in a spirit of joyful camaraderie, and it is right that he should mention in the taxi back to the hotel that he is married because we are no longer operating in a world we recognise as real or consequential. We’re in Europe! It’s so cheap!
Afterwards, we may wince, for we offered ourselves up as freely as a small souvenir bag of Genuine Hungarian Paprika, yet despite our best efforts, we will not be mentioned in any subsequent write-ups. What happens in Budapest stays in Budapest. Yet there are moments – on long Tube journeys or in tedious editorial meetings – when we remember the slow deliberate stunt-fall of moving to the hotel bedroom floor; we remember hands pressing over mouths, and a glad bestowing of all our clean, obscene parts; we remember someone pausing on their haunches, stopping to view the body presented before them as if it had simply been supplied, like the five-star hotel room too good not to use; we remember the sticky sweat that divided backs from fronts, and the sound like Velcro as we unpeeled, each from each.
But we do not stop for long. We hunt in packs, seeking out Exclusive Getaways, Perfect Boltholes, Hidden Havens; the world wiped clean of fingerprints. We drink lager elbow-to-elbow in crowded departure lounges, scribbling in our notebooks: ‘There’s nobody here but me and the sea – that’s the real beauty of the magical Mediterranean’.
In Switzerland, we rise god-like up mountains, riding cog railways to villages where the air is so sharply clean it’s colonic irrigation for the lungs. It seems an affront to smoke as we stand outside our latest hotel, but five of the six of us do (a woman from The Scotsman, a man from The Guardian; a woman from a women’s magazine, a man from a men’s magazine, and you, I think you were there that time).
‘The entire Jungfrau region will be polluted,’ says The Guardian, a broad bear of a man in these dizzying mountains.
‘What does Jungfrau mean again?’ you ask. You have lost your welcome pack.
‘Young girl, maiden, virgin. One of those.’
‘One of those things is not like the other,’ you say.
As if sensing your lack, Rolf, a charming guide, immediately bounds towards you armed with copious welcome packs and complimentary chocolates. ‘Willkommen! Bienvenue! How do you do! So much to see!’
What do we do? What do we see? Many illustrative things. We visit a glacier, where tourists photograph ice, cameras held to their faces like masks. We Find Out About Fondue; we Sample Swiss Schnapps – it’s a free schnampling! we say. We’d write all this stuff down but our hands are full of chocolate and an over-enthusiastic bienvenue to the schnapps means our shorthand is fucked, but what does that matter when there are Exciting Ways To Enjoy The Alps? Rolf is delighted to strap the more adventurous among us to his capable chest and leap from mountaintops so we can Witness the Wonders of Paragliding. It is silent in the sky, merely the faintest hiss and crackle as the paraglider swoops like a swallow on the updrafts. You were up there. You could hear the others talking far below as you hooned about in the sky.
‘Now we descend! Make the running with your feet!’ instructs Rolf. So, as the two of you head towards the ground, your crotches strapped together by plastic clasps and sturdy fabrics, your dangling legs run about madly, waiting for the earth to rise up and take your weight. You become a four-legged insect with a joint thorax and a beautiful wing-span and you jog, jog, jog, cycling your many legs until you hit the Swiss turf, and it is sudden and thudding and you are there again and the voices are approaching you, not beneath you.
‘Good?’ asks The Guardian, reaching to unstrap your helmet, his hands efficient about your face like a parent, a line curving upwards around one side of his mouth like a vertical smile.
You wonder if he has a flat in Notting Hill; you wonder if it has a view of rooftops from an attic window with a sill you could lean on while he stood behind you, his bearish teeth at your neck. This was 1997; you were still quite young then. You considered both property-owning and relationships to be achievable.
But a blonde woman with plaits and a leather apron is coming towards you with a cow on a lead. ‘Yo,’ she says.’Let’s say “yo” to yodelling.’
‘The worst thing,’ says Rolf, later, ‘was that the early climbers who died on the Eiger became an attraction for the tourists. Peoples would come here – to this peaceable hotel terrace – and pay to have a view through telescopes like this one, so they could watch peoples fighting for their lives. Why you would want to view such a thing, I do know not.’
We shake our heads in disapproval, take sips of wine. The Guardian asks Rolf, sotto voce, if there is a local climber he can interview. Quietly, we each take a pointless picture of the telescope. A little act of distinction.
Later still, there are more drinks and mini-bars and you – or was it the woman from the women’s magazine, or the man from the men’s magazine – found yourself beneath The Guardian’s great bear-weight, pushing you backwards like a reclining chair until you were half-horizontal on your hotel bed with your feet in their walking boots still on the floor. One half of you lay recumbent beneath the human heft and thump, the other tried to appreciate your proximity to the famous Eiger. It seemed important; it seemed filmic. But it wasn’t until he flipped you over that you could bury your face and really open your eyes.
The next morning, while curing our group hangover with an unlimited buffet breakfast, we read in the complimentary newspapers that a climber died on the Eiger during the night, but that is not something our readers are interested in, so we leave it behind as something that happened to other people. We don’t have to do anything at all. We don’t even have to tip – Rolf has that covered.
Besides, we journalists always enjoy a meaningful aftermath, and there’s plenty of that in the Alpine Breakfast Room, where the woman from the women’s magazine exchanges knowing looks with the woman from The Scotsman as waitresses in traditional Swiss costumes serve milk squirted fresh from a convenient udder, while others of us sneak glimpses at those who swapped glances over last night’s Fondue Feast. Outside, the scenery is hyper-real, fantastical: snowy peaks and freshly-laundered air. It is Lord of the Rings meets The Sound Of Music. It is some film meets some book.
At the airport restaurant, The Guardian says: ‘Every meal in this country is served beneath a layer of cheese. What are they hiding from me?’ He’s funny like that. We’re all funny like that. We never have to see each other again. He promises some of us commissions, but we know not to believe everything we hear. The only thing we take home is Duty Free. That’s the kind of thing we say.
In Dubrovnik, the sea is translucent, the locals surprisingly tall, and the Irish photographer overly keen on sexual faux-fighting. In Paris, students sit on the Pont des Arts drinking wine by candlelight, while the Mancunian freelancer in the executive suite burrows his way between our legs like a mole. The settings for all our encounters are typically top of the range, but each different dawn – whether in Prague, Vienna, Cape Town or Bonn – finds us as people have always been: apart on a floral coverlet, uncertain about room service. However we begin, it is always like this, so we go back to the start where things are easier. We find our clothes, pack up our bags, look fondly at the regionally-specific snow-globe someone whose name we have forgotten gave us yesterday, and from deep in the timeless gloaming of a hotel room a voice will say: ‘Do you remember what time they served breakfast?’
In the gaps between trips, we go back to Blighty and miss our deadlines. The travel features we wanted to write have – between take-off and landing – become dull exercises in obligation; things we should do, things we owe people. We should be grateful but we can’t do much with gratitude. It doesn’t sit well with us. So we skulk around strip-lit offices, and slope off early to sticky-carpeted pubs where we pocket bar receipts to bulk out our expenses claims and badmouth the latest management-level rumblings – nonsensical talk of restructuring and website development. Sometimes we end the day snogging colleagues in disabled toilets, but it’s awful having to chat politely by the coffee machine the following morning. We sort of hate each other too much for that.
There’s nothing for us at home that hasn’t already been done. Houseplants, relationships wither. Our beds as unmade as Tracey Emin’s in the Tate, scattered with socks and pens, fags and novels, the props and crutches of the self alone with the self. We do not give our own beds the meaningful backward glances we give hotel beds. Those beds are where the real stories are, the meat of them. Our own are absented, less than.
Even when we get our fancy new work email system, all we do is flirt and parry with the reporters across the room. We remain at our desks in a facsimile of industry, while unseen messages go pinging about, humming and vital as a laser maze, an intricate spider’s web of sexual brinksmanship, and exactly that delicate, that insubstantial. When we go home at the end of the day, we walk straight through it.
Loitering by the fourth-floor cigarette machine, we watch planes flying over the city. Seeking some real meaning, some true authenticity, some tautological sustenance, we head for places with dramatic back stories (‘Images of Israel are not usually those of golden, sandy beaches’, ‘Behind the bad news headlines, Belfast is a city of great vitality’). We go to Berlin with a German Jew called Tobias as our guide to get a New Perspective on This Most Infamous of Capitals. We find the trains efficient, the streets spacious. We tour the Memorial to the German Resistance, carrying our presentation packs folded against our chests like choirboys carrying song-sheets. Afterwards, our mini-bus driver informs us that a nearby statue commemorates a famous German victory. ‘What victory was that?’ says a woman from Cosmopolitan. Tobias laughs. We all do.
We sample currywurst in Potsdamer Platz; Tobias tells us he has a Jew-dar that senses fellow Jews. Cosmopolitan asks if she could be a Jew and he says she needs to gesticulate more. Over glasses of hot glühwein, Tobias explains that the bunker where Hitler died is nearby, but they prefer not to tell visitors exactly where so it doesn’t become a creepy shrine. We understand. We weep over a display of letters thrown from trains heading to concentration camps; we weep because the letters now form a display; we gesticulate more; we ask to be taken to the Führerbunker because we are not just any old visitors. Later, we attend a cabaret in a half-ruined synagogue. A woman sings in Yiddish, which sounds strangely German. It is Mulholland Drive meets Cabaret. It is tragedy meets tragedy.
A woman from Teletext says: ‘I can’t believe the Germans bombed a synagogue.’
‘Actually, that was the British,’ says Tobias. ‘You were aiming for a munitions base.’
She says: ‘Our intentions were good?’ It is hard to know exactly where our guilt lies. It is hard to know when to be serious and when to look for the bar. Tobias buys us dark malty beer and one of us takes him to bed because he is a German Jew in Berlin: the youngest city in Europe and the oldest place in the world. How could we not? Everything has meaning here and we are so hungry for meaning. We perform in the dark and we believe in our roles. Despite this, the pre-dawn light finds us as people have always been: apart on a floral coverlet, etc etc etc.
But a Jew in Berlin: that’s something to never tell the non-existent grandchildren. We file copy that begins: ‘Berlin’s Christmas markets are a perfect start to the festive season’; we leave out the more unpleasant war stuff; we feel pleasingly sentimental around synagogues. What do we really remember? What do we try to forget? That we kissed like we were drowning. That there was a place we went to in the darkness, and we believed in it. That this desperate consumption is a small candle we hold up while we search for something in the dead of night; that we only have as long as we can stay awake to search; that at three in the morning, the black holes of hotel rooms can create a portal to somewhere else. That there was something there we wanted; that it slipped away.
Summer getaways. City breaks. Lesser-known gems. A flavour of the real Denmark/ Portugal/ Cyprus/ Lithuania. We have pages to fill. We have terrible skin. We need destination options for an incredible Millennium Eve and we are flying first class to Egypt, select emissaries chosen to bolster the country’s holiday trade, which has dropped off somewhat since sixty tourists were massacred in Luxor. ‘Don’t come back dead,’ say our funny funny pub mates. From the windows of the aeroplane, the country below is dried-up bark, a desiccated landscape: orange and craggy.
‘It’s like that planet where the sand people live in Star Wars,’ says Loaded magazine.
‘Tatooine,’ replies The Economist.
‘Was that filmed here in Egypt?’ asks Loaded, thumb clicking on his biro.
In our exclusive, all-inclusive Sinai resort there is nothing but the desert, the Red Sea, a hotel, and all the accessories of steady state relaxation: sun beds, thick cotton towels and a Natural Salt Water Swimming Pool. The only visible life forms are some strangely slimmed-down crows. The security is tip top – we’re guarded like rock-stars. We wear symbolic rubber wrist bands that mean that everything we want to eat or drink is given to us for free. This disconnection between food and money is puzzling. Without financial transactions, we feel unable to be our usual extravagant selves. And we are not allowed glass bottles. Beer is poured into plastic glasses by the all-male staff and given to us. We find this infuriating, but we are too exhausted by our enforced leisure to complain.
‘I’m beginning to believe,’ says The Economist, ‘that the most vital of all Western freedoms is the freedom to pay for a bottle of beer and be allowed to hold it.’
During the evenings, a few Russian tourists, uncertain about enjoyment, waltz to an instrumental version of Hotel California in the hotel lounge, solemn as judges. And every night, staff members empty the Natural Salt Water Swimming Pool in order to clean it. There are men out there at midnight – we see them from our balconies – men down in the darkness, scrubbing the bottom of the pool with brooms, as far away as the seabed.
The world here is split in two along the horizon: in the upper half, nothing but bare mountains and the heavy silence of people sleeping on sun loungers, but when we summon the energy to put on our snorkels and go underwater, there is a teeming metropolis of busy life. Coral shaped like cabbages, brains, peanut brittle, modern art; multicoloured fish like a million scraps of paper in a gale. We hold our breath and swim downwards to get a closer look, passing through shoals of luminous yellows and purples.
Looking above us, we see our fellow humans swimming on the surface: pale, slow-moving, cycling their legs, oblivious as bait. From below, the underside of the water looks like a silk parachute filled with liquid. You were down there, remember? In the depths of the Red Sea, turning in the water, slow and balletic as a manatee. Sometimes, you would swim out to the edge of the coral reef, where the ocean floor dropped away into blackness. Large bubbles from scuba divers passing deep below would come wobbling up to meet you, silver flying saucers that split apart like mercury when you put your hands to them. You hung there, waiting, listening to the sound of your breath echoing in your snorkel, looking down into the bottomless darkness, looking for something – what? what? – until fear rose up from nowhere and gripped you by the throat and you kicked your flippers and went back to the shallows.
Over dinner, an agency reporter from Brussels reveals with a wink that he has heard of you through a colleague and the world suddenly closes in around you like a playground, a snare. You call your contacts. We all call our contacts. The blank face of the Egyptian desert has made us introspective: every morning, we bump into each other in the lifts and our eyes are glazed. All night we’ve been submerged in aquatic dreams, looking up at the faraway sky through the swaying skin of the ocean.
‘Northern Finland,’ your contact says. ‘Arse-end of nowhere. Ideal Millennium Eve get-away-from-it-all destination.’
‘The travel company are setting up a genuine Millennium Eve party in November, so you can experience everything the punters will get without actually having to go to Finland on Millennium Eve.’
‘When some computer bug thing is going to make planes fall out of the sky.’
‘Exactly that. Apocalypse party time. I’ll email.’
Finland, oh Finland. We have a mini-bus, a guide and a timetable. We admire reindeer; we eat reindeer; we ride snowmobiles across frozen lakes and through moonlit forests where the only colours are blue, black and silver. The enormous night skies are a 3D representation of the whole universe and it has all been gifted to us, in its endless entirety. But what do we care? We’ve seen the Nokia headquarters, and found some native reindeer nutter who lives in a tent and is happy to be interviewed. We have free bottles of vodka and complimentary party hats. We are drunk enough to cry. We are so far away from it all.
You ask: ‘So what brings you to Finland on this fictional Millennium Eve?’
‘I’ll do anything,’ I say, ‘I have no qualms. I’m a qualm-free zone.’
You look at me, stretching the tape measure of your gaze along the extent of my volunteerism, then snapping it back with an approving smile.
We have naked saunas; we drink liquorice liquor; we learn two words in Finnish and they are not ‘thank you’; we brutally dominate the karaoke machine; we spill things and we break things; we toast the year 2000 in November 1999; we have never laughed so much in all our lives; we love each other; we have only just met.
It is when I am lying on my back in a snowdrift outside the hotel, gazing up at the vertiginous night sky, and you put your feet on top of my feet before pulling me up by my hands, that I know that this is as good as it gets. These unrecorded moments of fiction, of frisson, of brief unspoiled contact, are as crystallised and limited as the snowflakes falling upon us: perfect, minuscule, mortal. They fill the sky like a flock of swirling starlings, a shoal of shining fish, millions of individuals rushing towards us, landing on our faces, our hands, our brand-new free salopettes; only existing for seconds, vanishing when we try to hold them. This is as close as we get.
‘To look up at falling snow is to fly through space,’ I say.
‘Nice line,’ you say. ‘I might steal it.’
‘Do. I’ve used it before.’
Our auto-pilot copy reads: ‘Finland is ideal for individuals who opt to go “off the beaten track” this Millennium Eve.’ We have become estranged from our own hands, their movements, their intentions. We shrink-wrap our trips into consumable chunks, and we include some fun facts, but not the other facts, never them, because who knows what would happen if we told the truth. And on the plane home, we put on our complimentary quilted eye masks and forget each other. We start again.