An imagined journey to Tromsø in the time of Corona or... a meditation on mobility in the performing arts
At the beginning of April. I was due to board a plane with my youngest son bound for Europe. It’s strange to think of it now, when we are in week 5 of physical distancing, locked down for COVID-19. Now, I have to be isolated from everyone except my immediate family. Looking back, I was so carelessly excited about an adventure that would have brought me into contact with thousands of strangers. I was even looking forward to starting the journey nestled uncomfortably shoulder-to-shoulder for many hours on a silver flying machine hurtling us across the planet. I don’t live too far from Sydney airport and now regularly ride my bike along the Cooks River to the eerily quiet terminals in search of signs of life.
This trip was already different. Rather than dashing from Australia to a distant European city for a week, something I have done many times before, I had planned to undertake 40% of the return journey from Sydney to Tromso (in the Arctic Circle) by train, and would have been away from Australia for almost 5 weeks.
I had already been experimenting with how to reduce carbon emissions and stay connected to the IETM. This International European Performing Arts network has given me so much professional community, insight and inspiration since I joined in 2009. I joined to enhance my understanding of Europe and my professional place in the world, as I toured shows and made international co-productions. This new travel plan was motivated by a passionate belief that we have to change the way we conduct international relations, interrupt ‘usual’ behaviour and rehearse new possibilities, rather than close borders and stop engaging compassionately with people and cultures that are different from our own.
The first thing to say about this very different excursion is that it was only possible due to an Australia Council for the Arts travel grant and a gap in my regular work. Travelling slowly requires interrupting ideas about efficiency and affordability, something people are likely to understand in this Corona Virus reality. I know, and am reminded by friends from poorer countries, that I have enormous privilege to be able to even think about conducting travel in a different way. I don’t do that lightly.
My plans had to fit in with my partner’s research trip, son L’s annual Easter scout hike, Australian school holidays and a need to see family and friends in the UK. So, with some time restrictions, I had planned to fly into Istanbul with son A and then train across Europe to London as the first leg of the journey.
Istanbul seemed like a good gateway port, as the city straddles two continents with the mighty Bosporus Strait connecting them. My family had been to Istanbul on a holiday adventure before we moved to Australia from the UK in 2013: an epic train/ ferry journey which started in Athens, with island hopping across the Aegean to Cesme, Turkey then by train to Istanbul and across to Sofia, Bulgaria. The kids were 7 and 9 years old, they are now boisterous teenagers, limp and sullen under lockdown. It seems a lifetime ago.
In 2013 Istanbul was reeling from the violence that had erupted following peaceful protests in Taksim Gezi Park in May. By June, when we arrived, there was still palpable fear in the community and cautionary advice for tourists. Regardless, we loved the irrepressible life of the city and felt warmly welcomed there. What followed was a hilariously memorable journey by sleeper train (and replacement coach) to Sofia which included the Bulgarian border check at 2am and being woken every hour for more passport and ticket inspections, until we finally woke mid-morning to find our carriage stranded, without an engine, in the middle of the Bulgarian rail system. There was no catering car, but the unsmiling Turkish guard cooked us bitter coffee on a tiny portable stove and sold small potions of bread and cheese to sustain us until an engine arrived and hauled our carriage on to Sofia. We arrived six hours later than scheduled, ending an eighteen-hour journey our children will never forget. According to friends, we could have driven the distance in 5 hours. Needless to say, I am no stranger to the challenges and unforeseen delays of overland travel.
By the end of February 2020, Turkey’s President Erdogan was threatening to open the border to Europe. This was a loaded plea to the EU for help following a series of attacks in Idlib, Syria, which resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing the area and heading West. We had watched the refugee ‘crisis’ from afar in 2015, and I had learnt about the impact at an IETM Budapest meeting the autumn after that fateful summer when over a million arrivals journeyed into Europe. Budapest artists shared a poetic encounter for IETM participants, to Budapest train station where they told stories of the makeshift camp, of the many generous citizens who helped feed and entertain refugees when the state authorities failed to act. We visited a local detention centre in the suburbs, heard from refugees detained on their way to Germany, still living in limbo. We also heard from a Syrian man who’d been settled in Hungary for many years, but whose family had started experiencing unwelcome racist attacks due to poisonous hate propaganda broadcast by the right-wing media and stoked by nationalist Government policy.
Given the current political unrest, I was concerned that tensions between Turkey and the EU would cause delays to our journey. Instead, we decided to fly to Athens as an alternative gateway through which to enter Europe. From there, we could travel straight from the airport to Patras, board a ferry to cross the Ionian to the Adriatic Sea and land at Bari, Italy. The train carves a neat line through Italy to Switzerland or on to Germany and across to Paris or Brussels to join the Eurostar to London.
I have been committed to train travel while moving between European countries for some years, as are many of my European colleagues. I try to undertake a range of activities when visiting from Australia to justify the carbon cost. So, I have already travelled between London and Northern Italy several times, once to the Bergamo IETM meeting in spring 2015. I so clearly remember that journey from London, the dash across Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, followed by an 8 hour journey across the snow capped Alps to Milano and then trundling by local train, alive with graffiti, to Bergamo. I walked with my bag from the train station and ascended the old citadel hill to stay on one of the charming cobbled streets in a boutique hotel nestled in the walled town sailing high above the sprawling modern city below.
By March 2020 the Corona Virus had taken a firm hold in the north of Italy. Dear friends shared news of lockdown and a rising sea of sickness. There are beautiful hopeful videos of opera sung from balconies into the empty streets. That route started to seem unfeasible and quickly became impossible. I changed our plans again, thinking that instead we could arrive in Belgrade, the proposed site for a future IETM meeting later this year. I have never been to Serbia and this new plan whetted my appetite for a new adventure.
I started dreaming about the meeting next October, and thought to perhaps meet local artists in April to lay some groundwork for exchange ahead of the international gathering that would arrive months later. By flying into Belgrade, deep in Central Europe, our schedule was still tight despite landing 1000km towards London. I wondered if, perhaps, I could even convince a Serbian artist or two to take part of the train journey towards Zagreb with me and son A, in the spirit of meaningful transit, to enable deeper connection. One of the gifts of these international meetings to the local arts scene is being encouraged to imagine the stranger’s eye on your place. This is much anticipated and leveraged by local organisers to get support for the meeting. There is something wonderfully human in welcoming strangers to your home.
Over the years, I have become troubled by the ‘FIFO’ nature of cultural gatherings. In Australia, this expression, FIFO, describes the lifestyle of miners who Fly In and Fly Out and don’t settle or contribute much to a local community because they belong somewhere else. Our Government is still trying to open new coal mines with the promise of jobs for local people but history shows that corporate agendas and FIFO culture doesn’t deliver on this promise. Global tourism, enabled by cheap flights, means we can travel long distances fast and frequently, ignoring the impact on the communities we visit or the impact of burning so much fuel on our warming earth. The arts sector has found favour with governments in this agenda, intent on increasing tourism to boost economic growth. Australians are known as intrepid travellers and see flying as a right to traverse our sparsely populated continent and then the world. People FIFO to make a weekly commute to work thousands of kilometers away. There are no fast trains between major cities. I know many artists and arts workers who are truly nomadic with all of their work in cities and countries far away from where they call ‘home’. So they stay on the move with barely two weeks in any one place. That lifestyle is being radically challenged by COVID 19, with people stuck in foreign places without support or means to live.
As travel has casually increased and accelerated professional activities, those of us wealthy enough to participate have built social pride in excessive busyness. I also have a cumulative sense of loss for the connections and contexts I visit. There never seems to be enough time to return to a captivating conversation or get lost in local culture with space to make new discoveries. It’s increasingly felt like skimming rather than diving. More time spent in generically designed airports - glass and steel atriums - with seasons constantly disrupted by flying in and out of each hemisphere. This fragmented future I have been rehearsing was a self-fulfilling prophecy, becoming more real as the planet’s weather systems have become more disrupted. I got very good at navigating jetlag and transit lounges. My family who tease me mercilessly keep that 'international traveller' badge of honour in check. It reached peak ridicule when I received a gold frequent flyer card. Son A, made up this haiku:
The Frequent Flyer
Burning fuel rewards
Legroom and excess baggage
My gold class mother
They are good at calling out my contradictions, in this case being so intent on environmental activism while still flying around the world to work. I have taken time away from family to work away since my kids were born. It has been both a relief and a kind of torture, freedom to focus solely on work with the acute pain of separation. We have all become very active in the school strikes and I fear for their future. I guess the double life of a parent with double standards had to end. I never imagined it would be so abrupt or how much time we would have to spend together in lockdown.
Back to the trains. Following the journey from Belgrade to Zagreb, the aim was to travel via Germany to Brussels and on to London. Post Brexit I have become ashamed of my once coveted British passport and the xenophobia cultivated by ignorant nationalism there. I wonder whether my Australian passport will become a preferable tool in Europe. It’s a luxury to have a choice. Our time in the UK would also utilise the rotting rail system that the British were once so proud of, now a mess of disconnected privatised services. We knew we would travel from London to Tonbridge, Brighton, the West Country and possibly Manchester with frequent cancellations and delays.
As it was planned, on Friday 24th April my partner and children would fly home to Sydney for the new school term. With almost 6 days to get from London to Tromso, I had dreamed to take an adventurous route, in boats, from the UK and up the coast of Norway, but it was expensive and there simply wasn’t time. I reverted to Eurostar to the Netherlands where I would take a moment to visit elderly relatives. From Amsterdam, I would train across to Hamburg, up to Copenhagen to spend the night, before taking a local train to Malmo and then on up to Stockholm. Arriving there Tuesday lunchtime, I was coordinating an afternoon with friends who I haven’t seen since the Stockholm IETM meeting in 2011, before catching a sixteen-hour sleeper to Narvik. A strong objective in the travel plans was to maximise opportunities to travel by sleeper which saves both time and money. One of my favourite travel experiences was in a shared couchette with five strangers, none of whom spoke each other’s languages, resorting to hilarious games of charades.
After arriving in Narvik, the last stretch of travel was by bus to Tromso. On closer inspection, the feathery Nordic coast is a complex web of roads and bridges through the fjords. Arriving in Tromso was a vibrant dream, to meet the IETM community in the fierce wilderness of the Arctic Circle, in partnership with Sami people, the traditional custodians of those lands. One of the organising partners, DanseArena Nord, had previously hosted Amrita Hepi, an Indigenous Australian dance artist and me. We had the great privilege of visiting their studios in Hammerfest, another leap north from Tromso, in the depths of winter 2017 following the IETM meeting in Brussels. Even travelling by plane, we were conscious of the vast distance, first flying from Brussels to Oslo and then on two connecting flights to Tromso and Hammerfest. DanseArena Nord Director, Susanne Naess Nielsen had driven us all over the arctic region to visit the Sami Parliament inKarasjok, the regional Sami Gallery where I bought a work by astonishing artist activist Máret Ánne Sara,and to Beaivváš Sámi Našunálateáhter - Sami National theatre. It was a journey I will never forget, especially because I saw first-hand the vital importance of First Nations people meeting each other to share a world view consistently persecuted by contemporary governments. The strength of solidarity I witnessed there is so much more than I can express here. I am deeply sorry that the Tromso meeting will not share this with a wider gathering and we won’t experience the exciting program of performance they had planned. The world's First People hold many keys to unlocking a sustainable future. Any opportunity to listen and learn is priceless.
Each proposed version of my trip demanded a lot of research and complex planning. The journey out of Tromso was proving difficult to arrange as many of the local buses and train services are infrequent and do not connect with each other, particularly across borders. I was still a little undecided about how I could get from Tromso to Moscow in two and a half days. I wanted to stay at the meeting until Sunday morning and be on the trans Siberian express late on Tuesday night for the weekly departure. Its was almost doable by rail and road, almost. I never had to decide and in this imagined journey I can speed the course and make it possible.
The trans Siberian railway offered a great opportunity for a long overland journey towards home. I have never been to Russia. Any imagination for this part of the trip is informed by culture; starting with a part in Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths at drama school, various film and TV classics including Dr Zhivago and many versions of Anna Karenina, the impressive physical ensemble from Maly theatre of St Petersburg who I have seen perform many times over the years plus various Chekov plays. A more contemporary view is informed by Pussy Riot, the stark brutality of Andrey Zvyagintsev'sfilm ‘The Return’ and the sweet sad music of Tatan Australian singer Zulya Kamalova. These, together with endless shady Russian villains in USA and UK movies, embellished by stories of Russian occupation from colleagues in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, culminate in a pretty dark view of Russia. I was so ready for these shadows of reality to be replaced by smells, tastes and teeming life in Moscow and then sitting on a train for days across vast lands that I have no impression of at all. The prospect was thrilling.
I was originally planning to take the Mongolian route to Beijing. It takes six days. From there an 8-hour train to Hong Kong. One of my primary sources for sculpting this journey has been a British website, the man in seat 61 dot com. He offers helpful advice about travelling by train in most parts of the world. It was only when China became a no-go zone and I had to shift from the Mongolian Route to the Siberian route (Moscow to Vladivostok) that I appreciated our different attitudes to travel. The man in seat 61 enthused about the Mongolian route as more fun and lively because it attracts more tourists, whereas I was fascinated by the Siberian route as a service for local people. There, I imagined, I could gain some valuable impressions of Russians through all the cultural and language barriers and my very Western gaze. After six nights on the train I would fly home from Vladivostok via Japan.
That was then. At every change of direction or response to new news, as Covid-19 has impacted the world, I would hopefully plan some new pathway until it became impossible. Now I am at home all day every day, going nowhere except for daily exercise in my neighbourhood, on Wangal Land in the Eora nation, with a cycle track leading to an empty airport. I’m enjoying the quiet of more birds and fewer planes in our skies. The last time I experienced this was at the IETM meeting in Berlin 2010 which co-incided with the ash cloud from the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. No planes means less pollution as we are forced to reduce our emissions. I hope it lasts. I am finding new connections to neighbours and local places at home. I’ve reflected that my focus away has inhibited these local connections. Now the world I have been lucky enough to journey through is closed and everyone is at home and on zoom.
I obsessively check online as the covid-19 case numbers fly up global counters. With so much opinion and fake news in the feeds, they are perhaps inaccurate but a constant reminder of a very real toll. Australia is doing OK. Today Italy and Spain are doing better but the States and UK are still seeing rapid increases. So many sick, too many dead. After China, this has hit the wealthy ‘west’ the hardest so far. Seeking views beyond the bubble of my networks, I heard a reporter from South Africa say that despite weak health systems their experience of Ebola has motivated African states to be prepared for this pandemic. I shudder to think what might still happen if Corona Virus sweeps across the developing world, across many countries I have often flown over and ignored. Social inequality weighs heavily now as we know the disadvantaged are always hardest hit - by Covid as by climate change.
The disease, all theatres dark, has annihilated the arts world and the fight is on for recognition – and sufficient government support - for our casualised work force. We are all trying to navigate the rapid changes and what it will mean in the future. Professional identities have been splintered. What is the role of the arts now? Despite well crafted talk about the economic benefit that the arts bring to society, there is much work to be done in convincing politicians and communities of its value, despite the fact that everyone at home is watching more TV, playing more online games, reading more books, listening to more music. In Australia, the challenge is to retain quotas for local content. Here we have been intravenously fed USA and UK culture for decades. The local performing arts community is suffering terribly. As our government spends unprecedented amounts of money and scrambles to retain control but leaves out casual workers. While police patrol Sydney’s streets and closed beaches to encourage physical distancing, the need for local culture to develop empathy, live experiences and imagination for other lives couldn’t be clearer. According to our experts Australia has flattened the curve but is unlikely to open its borders or theatres any time soon.
Of course, the purpose of my complicated train trip was to reduce carbon emissions and covid has delivered that aspect of this venture most successfully. An imagined journey is very efficient. My family grieve the trip that would have connected them to their other home in the UK. Looking ahead, where there are no tracks to follow, we can only dream of how the world will be when we re-emerge into public spaces and can start to travel. There is a lot of talk of a 'snap back' return, but the system was broken before. I want to know how this terrible disease can deliver benefits to more people and to our precious planet? That mission has found renewed vitality in lockdown. Sadly, the media in Australia are not joining the dots between our summer of devastating fires, over a billion species dead, record breaking temperatures and Covid-19 as predicted symptoms of Environmental Crisis. Instead there is outrage as one of the two major Australian airlines has collapsed. Perhaps it is good news, though that is of little comfort to thousands of workers. Until leaders offer vision and a roadmap to a NetZero future, it is surely the role of the arts to step in and help people dream it so.
I wander around my house amongst mementos from past trips away during a period that may become known as peak globalisation. The orange peel earrings from a Bucharest market, Hungarian painted wooden eggcups bought in the airport for my kids as I waited for a plane, hanabi (firework) festival print from Japan, a glow in the dark lunar clock from Chile, a lot of fridge magnets, the artwork from Norway. I am mourning my long journey to Tromso, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, to explore art and activism in situ. Instead, through IETM, this corner of the international performing arts community will continue to gather virtually, stay connected and be a vital support to each other. We are deeply committed to a mobility of ideas, to creative exchange and freedom of expression, ideals threatened by opportunistic regimes in these dark times. Until we can gather again this disruption is resetting our imagination so can we travel together towards a sustainable future.