“It’s like you’ve got to get to know each other at 60mph!” Monica wryly observed as we all piled into a minibus at midnight at Vilnius Airport. We were truly a motley crew: Brits, Portuguese, Greeks all gathering for an EU funded Adult Learning Project in the Creative Arts with a couple of stray Estonian old farm ladies who looked like they’d taken the wrong bus in Tallinn and now had found themselves in an international minibus which was tentatively negotiating the ice and the slush out of the airport.
But Monica was right: by the time the minibus had driven us out of the airport and towards our destination in what felt like Outer Mongolia ( even if it was Inner Lithuania), we had all become best mates ever, swapping stories of family, football, long kept secrets we never thought we would ever tell anyone, and remarking on how beautiful Lithuania looked in the black of night when the conversation showed signs of flagging.
EU mobilities – which is what we were all examples of on that icy Vilnius night, albeit semi-comatose examples – are strange phenomena. You fly hundreds of miles, get driven to some town miles from any international airport at the wrong time of day; arrive in a hotel after the bar has shut and all the local restaurants have closed for the foreseeable future; check into a room which hasn’t been occupied in the foreseeable past; struggle to find any broadband connection and only then realise you’ve forgotten your international plug adapter. So you settle back for 20 minutes of Eastern European TV before the bling and razzamatazz of Polish sausage adverts starts to get tiresome.
You observe at 3am after two hours of no sleep that you were, in the parlance of those back in the office, ‘on a jolly’ so you may as well try and damn well jolly yourself up before the first formal session starts just after the crack of dawn (which is some 7 hours away given that we are in the northern most reaches of the northern hemisphere at this point in time).
‘Being on a jolly‘ according to those back in the office consists of dry martinis in the hotel bar at 6pm before a luxurious 3 course dinner with erudite, witty, charming, intelligent, attractive and sophisticated colleagues who were fascinated in you, fascinating to be with and whose fascinators never stopped fascinating all week long, come rain or hail, sleet or snow. In actual fact you’d be lucky to find a kindred spirit who was equally unfascinated by the porridge the hotel would serve up at breakfast – and they’d be lucky to find you dressed in anything more fascinating than what you had set off in from the UK just 24 hours earlier.
That’s another aspect of the EU mobility: time doesn’t merely stop. It stretches, shrinks and distorts in ways Einstein could never have foreseen. What happened yesterday seems like it happened a month ago; what happened just five minutes ago gives you an eery sense of deja vue; and plans for the day after tomorrow when we’re all due to go on a social trip to an obscure European forest may as well be planned for the turn of the century.
Our planning faculties desert us in those early hours of the mobility and it’s all we can do to find our bedroom after breakfast, never mind consider the challenges of getting on another minibus with our new found stranger-friends over two days into the future. That’s 48 hours away! 2880 minutes! 172,800 seconds! A whole life time of generations! Best get my laptop switched on and look like I have some important emails to attend to before the work starts in earnest.
And we are all very earnest, our gang of stranger-friends whose new found friendships have been forged across the Byelorussian plains of Lithuania. We had probably travelled along the same tracks that the Cossacks would have ridden hell for leather over from Russia, riding roughshod over farmers, labourers and land workers up to their knees in shit dealing with the latest manifesto from the commissar and the scientists of the Ukraine, driving on to commit various atrocities before hammering it back to St Petersburg, horses snorting, their large heavy bear coats steaming with the exertion and pulling their spoils along behind them in ramshackle sleds, desperate to get back over the borders before the Poles could catch up with them and exert their bloody revenge. Those Europeans certainly knew how to invade and annex their neighbours property, land and chattels in fascinating ways.
Whilst bouncing along in a decrepit minibus with 12 stranger-friends didn’t quite have the romanticism that marauding Cossacks did, we were comfortable in our knowledge that our kind of European mobility is less about pillaging strangers and more about turning them into longer term friends who have one thing in common: none of us could sleep the night before and we all got bored with the adverts for Polish meatloaf.