hidden europe 70

Travels with hidden europe: a personal note

by Paul Scraton

Picture above: image © Amoklv / dreamstime.com

Summary

Paul Scraton reflects on the experience of reading hidden europe over the years, and then in turn becoming a regular contributor to the magazine.

Early last year I called my friend Nicky with a question. It was about travelling from Berlin, where we both live, to Vienna. I queried whether the night train was worth the expense, and if she had any tips about onward routes into the Austrian mountains.

“You should go to Graz,” she said. “The overnight train from Berlin arrives in Vienna at seven in the morning. But the onward journey of that night train beyond Vienna is really beautiful. It runs over the Semmering Railway. Stay on it, and you’ll arrive in Graz at ten, have lunch, and then take the train back to Vienna. So you’ll get to see the Semmering twice.”

All I knew about Graz was that the football stadium was for some years named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I was inclined to trust Nicky’s judgement. It didn’t matter that I knew little about Graz, and in any case, the way to get there can sometimes be worth the trip on its own. Timing matters, too. A leisurely breakfast as you travel through the mountains is better than being dumped, bleary eyed, onto a platform at seven in the morning. We booked the train to Graz.

Beginnings

I first met Nicky, along with her partner and co-editor of hidden europe magazine Susanne, roughly sixteen years ago at the Joseph-Roth-Diele in Berlin. I had interviewed them for another magazine I was editing at the time and we had discovered that we lived in the same city. It was their idea to meet on Potsdamer Straße, at the bistro named for a wonderful writer, whose journalism and novels I admired. That Nicky and Susanne had chosen this place seemed like a good sign.

Our table was covered in a redand- white-chequered tablecloth. There were pictures of Roth and the Berlin of the 1920s on the wall, as well as copies of his many books. We ate something from the south. Schnitzel, maybe. Potato salad. If I had to guess, I would say that they drank wine and I had a beer. I don’t remember what we talked about. Joseph Roth, almost certainly. About how well he wrote about Berlin despite clearly disliking the place. Other writers we admired. Our respective stories, as one Berliner and two outsiders who had come to call the German capital home.

As we prepared to say farewell, they gave me a bundle of copies of their magazine. There was one question that had been on my mind throughout the meal, but I had not found the courage to bring up the issue. I had thought about asking whether they might be interested in publishing some of my own writing.

The magazine

On a bookshelf beside my desk, next to the folders that contain the notes for three of my books, is a stack of magazines. It would be nice to be able to write that it is a neat stack, but the fact that it isn’t — the fact that my collection of hidden europe is somewhat dog-eared and crumpled — is a compliment to each and every one of those issues and the stories they contain. I had an idea, when sitting down to write this article, to pick out some of my favourite articles ever published in hidden europe, but it seems that now I come to do it, it would be an almost impossible task.

And so I pull out a copy at random. It is hidden europe 14, published around the time I met Nicky and Susanne for the first time at the Joseph- Roth-Diele. It might even be one of the issues they pushed into my hand that evening, to be read with curiosity as I rode the S-Bahn home. It has certainly been read, my copy of hidden europe 14. The cover is threatening to come off at the staples. There is a coffee mug stain just beneath the title picture of Lady’s Tower in Elie, Scotland. The paper is warped, perhaps left out too long in the sun or on our kitchen table beneath the window.

I try to imagine myself, sitting on that SBahn sixteen years ago, looking down the list of contents. Lake Prespa. Belarus. An article on the soul of Estonia. Names of places. Maps of places. Borders and islands. I don’t remember that moment on the train, but I can fully imagine that as I read the editorial and a line about Fidel Castro giving an island to the German Democratic Republic, I would have known that I had found the magazine for me.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask. From the moment I started reading hidden europe it changed, ever so slightly, how I travelled. With each new trip from Berlin, whether in Germany or beyond, I now approached each journey with half a thought in mind. Maybe there’s an article here. I wonder what Nicky and Susanne would think about this. Is that an idea for hidden europe?

You are reading my tenth piece to appear within the pages of this magazine. My first came out in hidden europe 40, about a journey to the Kindla Nature Reserve in Sweden. I’ve written from Belgium and Slovenia, Italy and the Azores, on a slow train through the night and from different corners of Germany. And I realise, looking back at those articles now, how much the spirit of hidden europe magazine has really influenced how I think about travel and how I write about the places I visit. That the journey matters as much as the destination. That we need to engage with the places we visit, and most of all with people. That the most important tool of a writer is curiosity.

Thoughts on travel

Why do we travel? There are many reasons to pack your bags and head out from the sanctuary of home and into the unknown. Everyone reading this will have their own thoughts on the matter, but I would hazard a guess that if you are holding a copy of hidden europe in your hands then at least part of the reason is a sense of discovery, of learning about different cultures and communities, of wanting to connect with the stories of a place.

For sixteen years, as each copy of hidden europe magazine arrived in our postbox at the bottom of the stairs, it contained within each new issue a gentle philosophy of not only why we should travel, but how we might best go about it.

A reported conversation reminds us that it's always worth talking to the ferryman, or chatting with your fellow passengers on a train. A story born out of serendipity serves as a lesson that a cancelled train can be a moment of possibility. A local newspaper headline offers us a window into the concerns of a community, while a half-hidden memorial helps us understand how we got from there to here.

In the pages of hidden europe we learn that the art of good travel writing — and meaningful travel in general, whether you are going to write about it or not — has a lot to do with staying still. Linger over a second cup of tea in that café on the square. Sit for a while on the quayside. Visit a train station but don’t catch the train. And if you do, take the slow one, so that you can get a feel for how a landscape shifts, the church towers change their shape, and the alphabet on the advertising hoardings offer clues as to the language being spoken on the street below.

The slow way

In 2009, Nicky and Susanne published hidden europe 25, including what they titled ‘A manifesto for slow travel’. You can read it on the website, and it stands today as a set of guiding principles for responsible and engaged travel in a world that seems to be increasingly fractured and fragmented.

Slow travel is about making conscious choices. It is about deceleration rather than speed. The journey becomes a moment to relax, rather than a stressful interlude imposed between home and destination. Slow travel re-engineers time, transforming it into a commodity of abundance rather than scarcity. And slow travel also reshapes our relationship with places, encouraging and allowing us to engage more intimately with the communities through which we travel.

With this, the seventieth and very last issue of hidden europe, our journey with this magazine comes to an end. But for this reader at least, I know that the spirit of the magazine will remain with me as I continue my travels. Go slowly, be curious and be open to what might happen. Speak with the ferryman. Order that second cup of tea. Book the train to Graz.

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