(As promised the whole of Going East in a single package with just a few corrections. It was originally conceived as an introduction to a children story about dragons, which I may still write someday…)
I do not know you, I have to say, young one. I don’t even know if you are a girl or a boy or what your exact age is. In truth I only know this: that one fine Spring night – at least I hope it was Spring – you left your parents’ house, somewhere in England, and walked away and never came back. I don’t even know if you sneaked through a window or simply opened and closed the front door without waking anybody up.
I do know that you went East, obviously, and that over your shoulder you were carrying a small bag. No, no, you weren’t seen! It is just that, some time later, the bag’s disappearance was eventually noticed.
And yours too, some time after that.
So you went toward the East – on foot as you will be from now on. Why East? There again I do not know. And I will not try to guess: I care not to offend you by guessing my way into your head. I only know that, to the West, there is nothing but the sea, and in this day and age nobody goes to Her for adventures anymore.
And maybe you were not so much looking for something new as trying to leave something old behind. Some, who seem to travel, are merely fleeing…
I do not know and it does not matter. What really matters is that you made it, young one. During the days, when the police and their helpers and volunteers and all these people who thought they were helping, when they were looking after you, you slept in barns and disaffected buildings. (Isn’t it strange, you may have thought, all these empty buildings when they always say the country is full?) You slept in a church, once, also. They are mostly empty too. And you walked only at night.
And how fast you walked! Soon you were out of the search area but you didn’t stop, did you?
No. You went on.
It’s been a week. You left them behind and you are still walking. They will not find you so easily now. You are going East, young one…
I do not know either how you crossed the water that some still call the English Channel (as if water, endlessly running as it does between the poles, could ever belong to anybody…) It is true that sometimes people hide themselves in car boots and under lorries when they try and smuggle themselves into Britain. Maybe you did that too? And maybe you had an easier go of it because everybody was looking the other way: for people trying to come in rather that out.
So there you are: in a country called France. You may have visited before, with your parents or your school. Maybe it is true what they say and that the people there smell and mostly eat cheese and drive very fast in very small cars, but by then, if you didn’t for some time already, you find suspect a lot of what they taught you. Anyway you will not stay long enough to find out. You must go East and not waste time: you do not know it yet, but there is a long way to walk.
First, you will cross into Belgium. A small country, but densely populated where it is hard sometimes to hide. People in this place – for Belgium is more a place than a country – eat mostly chips and drink beer. A bit like home really, even if you do not understand their language, and if they, somehow, seem happier there. But, even on foot, Belgium is soon left behind and now, just ahead behind Luxemburg – which itself is more of a city than a country – looms Germany.
The Germans work in steel and iron, and they speak loudly. But by now you have learned not to pay attention to the fact that you do not understand the language and that you need to start to understand people. Do not be afraid! The road is long still, and crossing Germany will take several weeks – it is a big country. So do not hesitate to ask for food or shelter : here they are kind-hearted, for all their strange ways and their horrific history, and they will feed you sausages – of which they eat prodigious quantities.
Next comes Poland and by then you have been walking for quite a while and are starting to get used to it. Used to sleep in bushes by the roadside, often, and to wash in streams, sometimes. Because you have learned now that washing is important, and so is keeping your clothes relatively clean : people ask fewer questions that way. Each morning, you look to the rising Sun to find the East before getting on your way. You are something of a seasoned traveller now, and it does not take you long to learn the few words of Polish you need to ask for food as you pass through towns and villages. It does not take you long either to wonder what these people used to eat before they found out about potatoes…
Now, if you started your ‘adventure’ at the beginning of Spring – which, once again, is something I would recommend – it will by now be high Summer, and if you fancy a quick side trip you could do worse than veer to the North and the Baltic States. But, please, do not dally! You only have about thirty days to visit the place : it is very cold there and the whole country is encased in ice 11 months of the year.
There you will learn that, during the long Winter, everything freezes, the trees and the grass, the Earth, the animals and even, eventually, the people. I imagine that the first visitors to these countries must have hoarded as much as they could and tried to outlast the winter. They were soon to know better, though, the Baltic Winter always wins. Better to go with the flow and accept its embrace and wake after eleven months ready for the short summer to come.
Do not pity them: they are quite used to it. To them it only means that everything we do over a long year, they have to pack in a month. Imagine that! A month only to go to school and to work. A month to eat and go to the loo. A month to get married and make babies before the frost comes and everything stops again.
So they are rather tired toward the end of July and are actually looking forward to the coming of the long Winter, when the lovely ice will come and take them over, and they will sleep, and have slow dreams, all snug and nice, and frozen.
And what do they eat? I know you are worried about that, little traveller! Well, mainly fish, as a matter of fact. For it is a strange thing but alone in these regions the Baltic Sea never freezes over, even if the fish inside her do. They freeze during the winter months and come bobbing to the surface of the waters like ice-cubes in a drink.
So, when July starts and the people thaw at last – or, as I should say, at first, because they are hot-blooded – the first thing they do is to take their boat and collect as many of the fish-cubes as they can. And that way they have food for a month!
But enough of the Baltic for now: come back South. July is soon over and you must be on your way. Besides, you must have had enough of fish by now!
Now Russia, and the language has become so strange you cannot even recognise the letters on the signposts. It’s not that much of a problem for you as it seems, though : you are going East, the landscape is mainly one big countryside, and as long as you remember to face the Sun in the morning…
Russians eat cabbage mainly and of that too you will tire soon. They eat cabbage pies and cabbage soups and cabbage stews, And they drink vodka and beer which, for all you know, they could very well make out of cabbages.
But, nonetheless, you should be able to walk fast, fuelled by a steady diet of cabbage and the occasional dried fish – if you remembered to keep any. ( Please, tell me you remembered to keep at least some!) By the middle of September, if everything went according to plan and you didn’t end up dead in a ditch somewhere along the way, a large chain of mountains should be standing in front of you.
It is called the Ural and some think it marks the end of Europe. Crossing it should take no more than a week or two and hopefully it should not be too difficult. It will be cold, though, but hopefully you will be motivated by all these cabbages behind you.
By now our maps, which for the last few hundred miles had grown unreliable, have become downright eccentric and cannot really be trusted. Suffice to say that you must head East still, but also a little South, towards warmer climes, for Winter is coming. Soon enough, even if I cannot tell you how soon, you will find the country of which I talk.
It is rather green, this place : rolling hills and deep, dark forests, and meadows and deep, dark lakes. The people there you will soon meet : they are few but generally happy. A man lives here, a woman there, there is a homestead by the river and a family farm further along in the valley. To go from one house to another most of the time take most of the day, so they don’t see each other as often as maybe they would like. Villages exist, but they are even further apart, with at least forty or fifty miles between them. Like you they mostly go by foot and only occasionally use horses. They tend not to keep cattle. The rulers of this land do not eat meat anymore but there is no need to take risks, is there?
Because, if on the whole this country is kind to human beings, it is not a human country.
It is something else altogether.