For the past nine months, I have sat alone in a room with a laptop for company, designing, building, and talking about software development with a disparate group of co-workers via small rectangular windows on my computer screen. Life hasn’t always been this way. In the years before everything changed, I routinely travelled around Europe — living from a suitcase, and spending countless evenings either sitting alone in restaurants or walking foreign city streets.
The following account was recorded in a travel diary during the autumn of 2018 while visiting Frankfurt, and serves as a reminder of how the world once was, and how it might be once again.
After spending the greater part of the day in an air-conditioned glass conference room surrounded by laptops, a bullet journal, and projected screens filled with code, business processes, and form designs, I took the elevator to the ground floor and walked out onto sun-baked cobblestones — weary, but happy to have chalked another day off the project plan.
Returning to the hotel to get changed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that not only had the house staff changed the bed and cleaned the bathroom — they had also tidied all of my things away into entirely different locations. I can only imagine the cleaner is an old lady, set in her ways, that arranges rooms the way she likes — and that guests have no part in this decision making process. I smiled after discovering my dirty laundry neatly folded in my empty suitcase, in the bottom of the closed wardrobe.
Taking advantage of the evening sunshine, I left the hotel and set off on foot to explore the city — passing the bearded hotel receptionist with a wave and a smile. I debated for a few moments about eating at a nearby restaurant I have visited many times before, but something about the long evening shadows and the city called to me, and before I knew it my feet were carrying me into the crowds.
Walking among the tide of people through the city streets is interesting when you have no clue where you are, and nowhere in particular to go. You wander along, keeping pace with nearby strangers, seeing and hearing all sorts of things along the way. I kicked myself for not having picked up headphones — but a few minutes later realised that music or podcasts might have distracted from the sounds, conversations, and smells of the city around me.
I followed a pretty lady pedalling a cargo bike with children sitting in the front for quite some distance. Most of the footpaths in the city are half-paved for bicycles. She hardly seemed strong enough to turn the pedals, and the children never lost interest in the world around them. No tablets, books, or phones for them — just wide eyes at the sea of strangers passing this way and that.
A little further on, the road opened up into a paved area and a well known Japanese restaurant chain emerged in the distance. It had been the first restaurant I found when walking the streets during my first visit two years before. I sat at a free table and smiled as a red-shirted waiter made his way to me.
Eating alone can be very lonely. While sitting at the end of a bench for the next hour, pretending not to watch the couples and co-workers surrounding me, I began to notice two girls sitting nearby stealing glances at me. Did I look like somebody? Was there something stuck in my teeth? Was my hair stuck up? I never did find out. I smiled as the waiter persuaded me to add a coffee to the end of my meal, before paying and setting off on foot once again.
Instead of retracing my steps back towards the hotel, I walked in the direction of the tall glass towers throwing long shadows across the city. I have always liked architecture — I know nothing about it — but I’ve always liked it. Minutes later I found myself at the foot of a forest of ten thousand ton monuments to concrete, iron, and glass, surrounded by self-important people in suits, or driving past in expensive cars. I wondered if the cars were actually populated by non-player characters, but didn’t dare press the triangle button to find out.
While walking past a grey-haired businessman standing outside the tall glass doors of a marble atrium, I realised how much I liked my little life, and wondered what his might be like. In the early evening, he seemed to be furiously pacing in a circle in the depths of the city, talking animatedly to somebody somewhere — not on his way home, perhaps with nobody to go home to.
A little further on I crossed a busy intersection, narrowly avoiding a middle-aged man with a very neat comb-over, engrossed in his mobile phone. On the other side of the road, a glass-lined bar filled to the brim with city workers drowned out all nearby traffic noise. Everybody shouted to hear each other, and everybody looked like they had walked from a magazine cover shoot. It was slightly surreal, but somehow expected — I’ve seen similar scenes in the heart of London. Again, it struck me that nobody was heading home.
While skirting another concrete and glass tower, a tall Asian girl with impossibly long legs strode past on the way to a gym class — covered head to toe in Lycra that revealed a figure that most women would either admire, or start judging themselves about. She turned sharply towards an animated sign for a spinning class and skipped through the entrance.
Half a mile on the world changed entirely. The contrast was striking. Suddenly I was passing small bars and restaurants filled with couples and families — out for the evening together, meeting up with each other, smiling, laughing, and quietly enjoying each other’s company. It struck me how much more friendly, calm, and relaxed the world had become after turning just a few corners.
Nearing the familiar territory of the central railway station, I decided to take another turn and descended a flight of stairs towards the subway. I had vague memories of the underground labyrinth following the line of the main road back towards my hotel and was proven right. A barely hidden underworld unfolded before me, populated with newsstands, fast food restaurants, and independent stores selling everything you could imagine, and quite a few things you couldn’t.
I passed a Nigerian man with quite the most impressive dreadlocks I have ever seen arguing with his girlfriend. She was tall, willowy, and really quite beautiful. She was also very, very angry. He looked at the ceiling as she talked quietly and threateningly in his general direction — her eyes burning.
Climbing back towards daylight, I dodged to skirt around a drug user who appeared to be trying to read the newspaper. He was perhaps forty years old, had long blonde hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and wore denim from head to toe. As he staggered around holding the newspaper at arm’s length, it struck me that he might have been a performance artist. I still wonder now if he was on something or mid-performance.
Turning the final corner towards my hotel, I passed a beautiful girl sitting on a stool in the street outside a bar called the “Africa Queen” with her boyfriend. They seemed to be conspiring with each other in guarded tones — laughing, murmuring, and then laughing more. I couldn’t help smiling too as I passed — reassured somewhat that there is still a little laughter and happiness in the world if only you look for it.
Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 10, 2020.