I’ve been helping out at an environmental organisation in Tilburg for two days a week, which means getting up very early in order to catch the train. The journey takes about an hour and a half, which gives you a sense of how small this country is, since Tilburg is right down in the south, close to the Belgium border. I’d say Amsterdam is in the north, but I suppose it is really in the middle – I’ve become a midlander again. One of the people I work with is from the north. I mentioned to her that my boyfriend and I are planning to do a summer cycle tour round the Netherlands. She told me that the north is quite boring and flat and that she prefers the south. Flat, I thought, how can it possibly get any flatter than this!
Although I don’t feel a particularly strong connection to Manchester, northerness and being from the north has always been important to me. It embodies a landscape and mindset I wish I had a stronger connection to – mountains and moors, resilience and toughness. I know what being from the north of England means, but not here. Once again I’m reminded that even a short hop across the North Sea can unbind you from all that familiar structure, the stuff that helps you read the land – I can’t even distinguish flat from flat.
I like to think of myself as an early riser and I probably am compared to a lot of people. At sleepovers I’d always be awake for hours before my friends finally got up, and back home I was usually the first one up in the morning. I like getting up early too. There is something enchanting about mornings and the simple routines – putting the kettle on, opening the curtains, tea in hand, inspecting the weather. There are hours and hours stretching before you and the possibility of being something new. I like the quiet of mornings too. It is sacred time.
The last few mornings I haven’t had time to enjoy it in the way I usually like to, no time for reading by the fire or checking Twitter. Instead I had to rush around and get ready, before leaving the house to catch the train. But I have been enjoying a different side of the morning. It is still dark when I leave the house, but the sky is turning pale grey in the east and the birds are starting to sing. Delivery trucks are being unloaded at the supermarket, the greengrocers are putting out their fruit and vegetables and the smell of bread drifts from the bakeries. Other, quiet, huddled commuters are making their way to the train station. We stand under the bright lights of the platform, waiting.
For the first half of the journey I close my eyes and try not to fall asleep as the rocking of the train and the scrunching of newspaper soothes me. Commuting is supposed to make you unhappy, but dozing on the warm train, I can’t see why. The sky is a much paler grey by the time I finally force my eyes open and look outside the window. Flat fields and canals, farm houses and rows of trees – planted to break the wind. Yesterday I noticed an area of wetland, long grass interspersed with pools of water from which mists were rising. A flock of birds took off into the air. Well now you’re just showing off, I thought. But it made me feel as though the land was welcoming me in.
By the time I reach Tilburg, the other commuters have woken up a bit too. The sun has risen and the day has started, but the magic of the morning has been broken.