I have always used music for entertainment, distraction, therapy, combating loneliness and so on, so when I started travelling solo in 2014, a killer playlist was an absolute necessity. I took my – now officially vintage – iPod classic because it had a larger memory than my phone, and these were the days before Spotify was such a big deal, and it cost £2000 a minute to use data overseas (seriously, HOW did we manage before the EU roaming waiver?!).
I wish my iPod was still in this condition.
I have what can be considered a varied taste in music, so it was a quirky selection of happy summer tunes mixed with teen angst confined into 3 minute bursts. I set it to shuffle, and as Paul Simon burst into song, a new character in my writing repertoire was born, and I called him Al.
The first photo I took on my first solo trip in 2014 – I look like a foetus.
If you listen to the lyrics of the song You Can Call Me Al you’ll see why this resonated with me, travelling alone for the first time. Firstly, my nickname is Betty (in fact, the full name is Betty Chicken…), something that I’d never paid much attention to in this song before, but secondly for the eerily specific third verse:
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says, “Amen and Hallelujah!”
So much of this was true for me, it was my first time in the places I was going, I didn’t speak any of the languages of the countries I was visiting, and I hadn’t yet gotten any cash out, so technically I held no currency. I had wanted to get out and see the world for so long, but had been hanging on for promised company who never committed, that arriving in a new country was a real hallelujah moment for me, as I was relishing finally not waiting around to be let down, and doing what I wanted as I wanted to for a change. Brussels was my first destination, and I am so in love with the place that I’ve been every year since, and am going again next week for my birthday. I was hoping to make it to the Christmas markets, as that is one dream destination I’ve yet to achieve, but alas they start precisely one week after I fly home. Sod’s law indeed.
Grand Place, Brussels, Summer 2018.
I was so blown away by the beauty of the city that I wrote a very lengthy post about it on Facebook, which was received so well that I decided to write a mini travel journal each day whilst I was away. I wanted to have direction to my writing, rather than shouting it to the ether, so I explained to my online friends that, although I hoped they would enjoy the blog, I was mostly writing it for myself and my own memories, and so I was writing it as if it were being sent to an old friend who I have a somewhat savage relationship with.
2014 vs 2018 – I like to think I look more grown, but no less ridiculous.
Fast forward a week or so later and I was in Vienna, at a cat café after a night spent on the torture that is the night train, when an American guy came in and started a conversation. I ended up spending the day exploring the city with him, and it was the first real conversation I’d had since leaving home. His name was Alex.
I don’t know if I believe in fate and all that jazz, but the strange odds of it has never escaped me, that I was writing to an Al I didn’t know, and inadvertently stumbled into a real one on the way.This weird twist of fate, combined with the positive reception of the posts made me decide I should seriously consider putting these ‘letters’ down on digital paper to be published. My travel experiences will always be some of the most important ones I have, and I want Al on this journey with me; because really, Al is me – the way I talk to him, the sarcastic condescending sympathy-seeking nonsense is mostly actually what I say to myself every time I do something ridiculous. So to know Al is to know Betty, and for that treat you can thank Paul Simon.
The album that started the blog, a must listen.