I have one more indulgent, Christmastime listy-post, then I promise the next one will transport us to the golden sunshine and killer rosés of Provence.
I had a policy on my travels that I haven’t told you about yet (the first two, for those just tuning in, being ‘use every public toilet’ and ‘Choose Adventure’). This one was ‘no music’. I wasn’t allowed to put my headphones in at any point during my walks, because I wanted to be present and to give my thoughts free rein, and music tends to carry my mind far away. I live for music, though, and always have something or other stuck in my head, so I found that certain songs followed me across Europe or took on a particular meaning for me as I journeyed. Some happened to be played in public at just the right time. Some came to encapsulate a particular moment or feeling. I think of this as my mental playlist.
Perhaps confusingly, this is by no means a list of my favourite songs to walk to. I don’t even like some of these. But they’ve all taken on a new significance since my adventures, and together make up the soundtrack of my musicless autumn abroad.
Elbow – Weather to Fly
Hands down the anthem of this whole thing, and it came straight out of left field. I love Elbow, but hadn’t really listened to them in a couple of years before heading to Europe. It turned out, though, that their sound perfectly captures the tranquil beauty and pensive melancholy of this sort of travel. Whole albums of theirs would run through my head. This one isn’t even my favourite of their flying-related songs, in fact, but it was always the first song to pop into my mind the moment my plane started taxiing onto the runway. It would then stick around persistently, on a maddening loop, every day that followed until I flew back to Prague.
The lines ‘pounding the streets where my father’s feet still/ ring from the walls, etc.’ became particularly resonant while I was in Dorset, walking through mile after mile of my maternal grandfather’s home county.
Elbow – Dear Friends
One that I had never appreciated until I found myself far away and homesick. I would see some breathtaking sight, or make a colossal ass of myself in some way, and I would have no one to share that moment with. That’s when I would miss my friends so much it hurt (though they would hear all about it on facebook within a few hours. But still). And as I would walk along, mentally composing the narrative of that day’s mishaps, the lines ‘I’ve got bluster enough for the sails of a clipper/ and the truth never frays a good yarn’ would inexplicably dance through my head.
Bing Crosby – White Christmas
One of two Christmas songs my brain subjected me to; the other was the festive botany lesson that is The Holly and the Ivy, since Europe is full of holly. I don’t really like this song, and would rather not have it in my head. I don’t know why it followed me through England and Italy before we’d even reached December, but imagine my surprise when I heard it playing in public constantly, everywhere I went, in 25°c Provence. I mean, come on, a warm, sunny Christmas is good, too. (As I write, my hometown is bracing for a massive Christmas blizzard. Any provençal who wants to trade places is welcome to contact me.)
Filhos de Bimba – Não Pode Cair
Bit of an obscure one. I don’t have a recording of this to share with you, but it’s a song from my capoeira school. It’s about how capoeiristas from my school can’t fall. Inexplicably, this was the song I would whistle through my teeth while creeping along clifftops high above the sparkling sea in the Calanques…
Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
Though I am a private-room karaoke fiend, I had never performed karaoke in public until the Saturday before Halloween, when I got shitfaced with a bunch of strangers in Wool and blew the roof off with this little number. All I really remember is not being able to read the lyrics, and being assured by a very kind person afterward that he’d thought he was listening to Michael Jackson…Anyway, unrelated note, I’m never showing my face in Wool again.
The Killers – Mr. Brightside
Sticking with this theme, if you go to karaoke often enough, you’ll find that there are certain songs you must sing with particular people every time, no matter what. My friend Deech and I have sung this together so many times in Toronto that I hear our voices singing it in my head. One night, walking through Weymouth in search of food, I overheard someone singing Mr Brightside very poorly in a pub karaoke. I sat on a bench outside and let their confused warbles wash over me, missing my Deechi and wishing that I could jump around and sing like an idiot with her again.
The Beatles – Penny Lane
At the end of my Dorset walk, upon arriving in Seaton, I marched straight into the first pub that would have me and ordered a cider. As I sat there I watched a small child, maybe 4 years old, entertain himself with a Scrabble game while his parents talked about grown-up things at the bar. My heart went out to him as he sat chatting with himself and occasionally being scolded for daring to ask a parent to play with him. I thought they would probably be annoyed if I went and hung out with him, so I hung back wishing I had the nerve to go join him. Anyway, Penny Lane came on the radio. The boy proudly announced to no one in particular that he knew this song, and he sang along in his tiny voice while my heart melted. His father did come over to play with him eventually, in case you’re wondering.
I next heard Penny Lane a few weeks later in Italy, as I stood in line at the Arco Chrismas market. Another lonely scene, pushing myself to get over my linguistic bashfulness and to interact with other humans. It seemed so fitting to hear this, the quintessential people-watcher’s song, lovingly narrated from a perspective just removed from the action.
Maroon 5 – Moves Like Jagger
Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give You Up
Well, these two are obvious if you’ve been following along. The Sticks Jagger & Astley named themselves – I did not know what I to call either of them until we had walked a little ways together – and they picked their own theme songs. I don’t like either of these songs, but I couldn’t say no to my boys. (Regrettably, this means that my brain rickrolled itself pretty much constantly throughout the Italy trip.)
Gordon Lightfoot – Sundown
This song would pop into my head whenever the clock ticked over to 4pm and I was still wandering in the wilderness of some foreign country trying to find my destination for the night. Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me would also come up from time to time, but the former has a certain sinister edge to it that resonated a bit more as darkness was starting to descend.
Pippin – On the Right Track
It’s funny how often this song was in my head, considering the amount of time I spent on the wrong track…My effort to ‘find myself’ while unsuccessfully navigating poorly-marked trails made this one feel awfully fitting, though; it’s just that instead of Ben Vereen leading me through slick Fosse routines, I had handsome French outdoorsmen pointing me toward the next town and asking about my funny accent. Not a bad trade.
(Tangentially related: bootleg videos are bad and all, but if you haven’t watched the love of my life Andrea Martin singing No Time At All in the Broadway revival, we can’t be friends.)