The nature of modern living means that we are frequently forced to do the same task over and over again. One of the great things about the world is the way things subtlety and imperceptibly change but ultimately thoses changes are quite significant. So although we are doing the same thing as we did yesterday the experience is wholly different.
I recently had to drive from the UK to the Netherlands. I had made the same journey about a year ago when I moved into my apartment there, and now it was time to move out. Of course, there is often more excitement about moving into somewhere new than moving out of it; and in my case this was more so given that the apartment I lived in for a year was in the heart of old town Delft, overlooking a canal and quite simply stunning. I had decided that I wanted to live there, not because it made any financial sense, but because I needed to feel as though I had a ‘home’ whilst I was away at work. In this respect it ultimately performed magnificently, although there was a period when I was sleeping on the floor and had nowhere to sit down that I doubted the sanity of the decision.
And so, unlike a year ago when the world seemed full of promise and the excitement of living in a a fantastic apartment, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I drove across southern England, northern France and Belgium. I had the added disadvantage of the fact that last year I made the journey is a really rather spangly car, whilst this year the journey was in that ultimate ‘white van man’ vehicle; a Ford Transit. But with all of these differences what really hit me about the two journeys, and how one was so much more pleasant than the other was the time of day I drove.
Last year I left my house early in the morning, drove off into the rising sunlight and cruised through France and Belgium around lunch time. It was glorious- my car seemed to hug the road and although I got lost around Antwerp (thank heavens for Sat Nav this year) and got stuck in traffic jams on the way back, the whole trip (there and back again) was a fantastic journey. Although I wouldn’t want to do it every week I was quite happy to do it again.
This year I left my house in drizzling rain as dusk fell: The rest of the journey was to be in the dark. Due to my usual combination of appalling planning and preparation I was forced to eat at a typically grim motorway service station before, just like last year, tunnelling under the English Channel and emerging into France. And as I emerged the fog came down. I had never used a sat nav in 3D mode to guide me along a road and tell me when to turn, but I did that night; I spent as much time looking at the road layout on the screen as I did looking out the window. Obviously from the fact that I am writing this I didn’t crash and die, but I would not recommend it as a sensible way to drive. Somewhat effective in fog, but not sensible.
Later the fog lifted and the sat nav managed to take me the right way around Antwerp. As it was now well after midnight the roads were clear and the driving was easy, but it just wasn’t pleasant. It was functional, it was necessary but it was not enjoyable.
And it was only slightly different on the way back; I managed to leave earlier in the day so I was able to drive in that beautiful half light that occurs as the sun slowly sets out of a clear sky. I have heard that film directors call that time of day the ‘magical time’ because people have been working all day and are a little prone to mistakes- it makes for wonderful film-making and I think it is probably my favourite time of the day. It was certainly more pleasant than the five hour drive that I still had to do after darkness had fallen.
And it was at this moment that I realised that it wasn’t the car/ van difference that was critical to the experience, nor was it moving in or out of the apartment: The difference in the experience was almost entirely due to the fact that one journey was in daylight and the other in darkness.
I have had this experience once before: I was working on a seismic crew in southern England and we worked from 7am to 5pm, 7 days a week all winter. This meant that, wherever we were staying, we would leave it before the sun came up and come home after the sun had set. Apparently we were living in holiday homes that people would pay good money to come and stay in, but to me the houses were cold, unpleasant and nothing that I would want to visit ever again. Until one day I had to go back to the house where we were staying at lunch time. Instead of the usual dark, gloomy driveway suddenly I saw a beautiful garden, with an orchard behind it and in the distance a view across the rolling southern hills that was quite stunning. Had I never gone back to that house in the daylight, it would have remained a grim, foreboding place. Instead, although much of my time there was indeed grim I was able to see it in a far happier light.
And so it was with the drive to and from the Netherlands; had I only made that journey in the dark I would have resented the time it took, despised the inefficiencies of the route and disliked the whole experience. Because I had done it in daylight I can recognise the pleasure that driving across a continent can bring, the feeling of elation as a car powers along a road and the ultimate joy of seeing the world around us.