Life on an overnight bus
I never really considered writing a travel diary just to put out there for the sake of it — all I really do is look at old buildings and go to cafés and stuff. Who wants to read about that? But then, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading the Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron — “Oxiana” being a poncy way of referring to that bit in the north of Afghanistan. You know the one. We’ve all been there.
Anyway, the book is utterly mundane. Byron is a privileged man — and most of the places to which he travels are well within the British Empire’s zone of influence — so he’s usually able to find some old pal from school to invite him to a party or ask him to stay over. Every now and then he gives a detailed description of an old mosque or castle and every now and then he recounts a funny story. That’s about it. But I liked the book all the same. And I thought that if he can get published for recounting not-very-much-at-all, surely I can get published on my own blog for writing about something even more humdrum?
An ode to Megabus (and occasionally National Express)
You know Menzies Campbell, the old leader of the Lib Dems? He was an Olympic sprinter. You know Boris Johnson, the guy who writes a load of nonsense in the Sun? He’s also Foreign Secretary.
I, in addition to doing whatever it is I actually do now, also have a secret ability.
I have an incredibly high tolerance for overnight buses.
No matter how long, how uncomfortable, how hot, how cold or how annoying the other passengers are.
I’m not sure if this is something that I’ve inherited from my parents, or if it’s a skill that I’ve developed over time. I think it might be the latter.
You see, I spent a combined total of about two years working two separate jobs in London. For the first of these jobs, I took the overnight bus from Glasgow to London for my interview. Then I took the overnight bus from Glasgow to London for the second interview. Then I got the job.
But the job didn’t pay very well. And I was in London. So I had no money.
So whenever I wanted to go back home to visit, I’d take the overnight bus. Perhaps every couple of weeks for about a year.
Then I lost/quit/left/got fired from the job (I tell several different versions of this story) and went back to Glasgow for my master’s. My dad drove down to London to take me and all my stuff back home. That was nice of him.
Then I did a master’s in Glasgow for a year. Then I was offered another interview in London. I took the overnight bus from Glasgow to London for the interview. Then I took the overnight bus from Glasgow to London for the second interview. Then I got the job.
This job paid a little better. Even though it was in London, I had a bit of money now.
Nevertheless, whenever I wanted to go back home, I’d still take the overnight bus from time to time. I was getting good at this now.
Then I lost/quit/left/got fired from the job (I tell several different versions of this story) and went back to Edinburgh for my PhD. My dad didn’t drive down to London to take me and all my stuff back home because he was fed up of that by now.
But my relentless thirst for acquiring boring pamphlets from public policy innovation conferences meant that I had a lot of stuff to bring back with me. So, bracing myself, I adopted a punishing schedule that would make Reinhold Messner (mountaineer I found on Wikipedia) tremble with fear:
4 August 2015: overnight bus London > Edinburgh
5 August 2015: overnight bus Edinburgh > London
6 August 2015: overnight bus London > Edinburgh
I know two bus journeys worth of stuff might not seem like very much to you but I’m an enlightened post-materialist. Apart from my boring pamphlets.
But still — three consecutive overnight bus journeys! Wow! After that I was ready for anything.
Taking it to an extreme: one week on overnight buses in France and Italy
The first year of my PhD was fun but frugal. In addition to my own work I worked as a part-time research assistant at the law school for two days each week — this was just enough to cover my outgoings but little more, so I wasn’t really able to go away on holiday as much as I would have liked to.
However, when my contract was up I received a little bit of a windfall. I was entitled to ten days off but didn’t take any of them (#workaholic), so I got all that money back in my final month’s pay. I was rich!
So I started planning a holiday. I’d found a cheap flight to Poitiers and a cheap flight back to Edinburgh from Pisa. All I had to do now was book some trains to link them together.
But I wasn’t that rich. So no trains. Overnight buses. But that was okay. As I’ve outlined previously, much like a martial artist rolling a wooden cane up and down their knees all day, I’d built up a tolerance to overnight buses by endlessly exposing myself to extreme pain and suffering. I was ready. I also invited my friend N (pre-preemptively censoring his name because he’s an intensely private individual and because I will probably aggressively fictionalise some of our interactions) along — because he was the only person I knew that would even be remotely up for spending so much time on overnight buses.
This is where the travel diary part begins. This is just an aperitif before I launch into the main story. An opportunity for me to practice a little bit and for you to decide whether you’ll bother reading future instalments.
Thurs 1 September 2016, Poitiers/Bordeaux/Pessac
Arrive in Poitiers, walk about a bit. Take a (non-overnight) bus to Bordeaux. A very strange man asks to use N’s laptop. Like an utterly pathetic, spineless coward, he acquiesces. I tell N he’s an idiot. Then we go to Bordeaux. Then we go to Pessac. I booked an AirBnB there because I thought Pessac was in Bordeaux. It’s not. I understand AirBnB isn’t an overnight bus, but this was actually the most uncomfortable night of the whole trip. According to N, I was being uncomfortable in an anti-social way. We argued about this. Argument #1.
Fri 2 September 2016, Bordeaux
I just walked around Bordeaux. I mean, it’s a nice city but there’s not very much to write about here. Nice bells?
Anyway, after a lovely long day of admiring the quality Bordeaux bellfounding we embarked upon THE OVERNIGHT BUS TO PARIS. This bus wasn’t great. It was completely packed. Too packed — it was actually overbooked. So N and I scrambled to the back to grab the two remaining seats. And what awful seats they were. Squeezed in a row with five other people, minimal legroom, too warm, no space for luggage. Poor N whined and moaned that he would never get to sleep. An elderly woman to my left decided to use my leg as a mousemat (who actually uses a mouse with a laptop?). Nevertheless, I slept fairly soundly.
Of course, when planning this trip I forgot to consider one thing of crucial importance (particularly when travelling with N): how are we going to wash?
Thankfully I was able to pick up some EXTREME PLAYER DÉODERANT at a service station. I was all set.
Sat 3 September 2016, Paris
I’d arranged to meet a friend in Paris on 2 September. As you might able to see from the dates, I wasn’t actually in Paris on the 2nd and she wasn’t going to be there on the 3rd. C’est dommage! But I’ve been a very busy man planning this trip. I couldn’t have been expected to get everything right.
N had never been to Paris before so we did all the tourist stuff. You know, the usual. The Arkdeetreeompf, Shompselleezay, Loovra and all that. But not Noaterdaym, because we’re not American.
We did go to Notre-Dame though, where I had a brief chat with some Americans. They said that they were really scared to have left the USA (3.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) for France (1.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) in case they got murdered. They wished that they could have brought a gun to keep themselves safe. Having spent some time living in Glasgow (100,000 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), I couldn’t really bring myself to sympathise with them.
TIME FOR ANOTHER BUS. This was quite a nice bus. I slept soundly.
Sun 4 September 2016, Lyon
N didn’t. He was in a cranky mood and we both ended up a bit cross with each other. Argument #2.
But then we had some breakfast and some coffee and things were okay-ish again. Phew.
There’s a really nice basilica in Lyon that sits atop a hill overlooking the whole city. It’s even better inside — it’s like some kind of Habsburg nightmare baroque chocolate box, but the chocolates are green. Photos were banned but it was so impressive that I took some anyway by hiding my phone under my shirt (But then I lost the photos. Sad.).
The food and drink in Lyon is nice so we mainly ate and drank.
THEN IT WAS TIME FOR ANOTHER OVERNIGHT BUS.
This one was going to Milan, which is in a different country. But it’s also in the EU so thankfully we wouldn’t get woken up at the bor…OH HOLD ON A POLICEMAN HAS COME ONTO THE BUS TO CHECK EVERYBODY’S PASSPORT.
SCHENGEN IS DEAD.
Some people have their passports checked twice. It seems like the policeman is carrying out a bit of racial profiling in doing so.
Oh Europe: you used to be so pure, so open, so tolerant.
“This is Brexit’s fault”, I think to myself. Everything is Brexit’s fault now.
Mon 5 September 2016, Milan
Milan was okay I guess. They have a big department store that you can climb up to the top of and catch a nice view of the Piazza del Duomo while drinking a €10 espresso. The Duomo’s nice enough. If you ever happen to be in Milan you might want to check it out.
Then it was time for another overnight bus. N was starting to struggle now. He grimaced and groaned and whined and moaned as we made our way to the bus station. The man at the bus station didn’t seem to understand me when I told him I wanted to go to Rome, so I tried it in Italian (Roma), and then I tried it in French (Rome). None of these worked, so we just got on a bus that happened to be there and hoped it wasn’t going to Bucharest or something (no offence, Bucharest).
THIS BUS WAS AMAZING
Tues 6 September 2016, Rome
When you’re living on a bus it’s important to be be adaptable and find ways to keep clean so you don’t end up getting mistaken for one of those Europeans. Luckily Rome has a massive big fountain.
We looked around at all the Roman stuff but then we had A BIG FIGHT near the Castel Sant’Angelo and N stormed off and I was all alone in a strange city. Argument #3.
Without the streetwise N keeping watch over me I immediately fell prey to a man who sold me an iPhone battery pack for €40. It only worked for a couple of hours, but in that time I was able to get some life into my iPad and take some excellent pictures. Just look:
Shame I looked like a complete pillock while I was taking them.
At the Vatican N and I met and became friends again. What a miracle! The Pope’s apartments were pretty luxe. Made me consider a career change.
Public transport in Rome is terrible. I literally had my bones shattered to pieces on the bus taking us to the station. And then it was time for another overnight bus.
Wed 7 September, 2016, Florence
Except Florence isn’t quite far away enough from Rome for the bus journey to last a full night. So N was extra cranky when we arrived. I was fine, because I’m always fine. But N demanded to go to McDonalds or something and stormed off. Argument #4.
Being a bit more … hold on a moment while I check something …
Being a bit more au fait with our Italian cousins, I went to a caffè for an espresso. While drinking I read a Jeeves and Wooster book. 1930s tales of buffoonery from the British gentry always comfort me when I’m surrounded by strange foreigners.
After that I queued for an hour to get into the Uffizi and it was absolutely worth it.
Then Wikitravel suggested I might want to walk to a car-park to take in the view. As a lover of brutalist nightmares, you can only imagine my disappointment when, rather than seeing this…
I was confronted by this:
Then I met N again, grudgingly made up and got ready for ANOTHER OVERNI…
Actually, Pisa’s only two hours away.
Wed 7 September / Thurs 8 September, Pisa
As I mentioned before, it’s important to find places to wash and brush your teeth when you’re travelling by overnight bus.
The cool thing about Pisa (as I’m sure Galileo would tell you) is that the airport is within walking distance of the actual city. With it being a beautiful, warm night, it seemed perfect to finish off our holiday with a leisurely stroll through the city.
Except I accidentally asked Google Maps to direct us to an air force base rather than to the airport.
As a result of this, N and I had Argument #5. I seriously considered pushing him into the base’s electric fence but decided against it. It didn’t actually seem to be working.
Anyway, we made it back to the airport and then we made it back to Edinburgh.
And it was in Edinburgh that we parted, awkwardly. I told N that I would never speak to him again. He was unhappy with this and then he stormed off to buy some vegan cheese. Argument #6.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Encouraged by the success of this trip, I decided to plan something similar for a wedding I was invited to in Florida later that year. Jettisoning N, flying to Boston, bussing down to Florida, then to Mexico and then (cheat) flying to Canada and then bussing back to Boston. This was the thing I actually meant to write about but I went on too long here. Maybe next time.