12 April 2007

Nomad

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:52 pm

Nomad picture Nomad is a novel about a couple of backpackers making their way around Europe, meeting and losing each other as they sort themselves out.

Damon is Australian, trying to escape the career that has been mapped out for him back home. Stacy is American, trying to get over the tragedies of her own life.

They live on trains and in youth hostels from Amsterdam north to Copenhagen and Hell, Norway; east to Berlin, Prague and St Petersburg; and south to Paris, Barcelona and Rome. They drink cheap vodka and smoke hash through Coke cans; they devour art, music and a lot of bread and cheese as they try to come to grips with the world and themselves. It’s a romance and travelogue and features talking angels, sex in bunk beds, and Neo-Nazi Depeche Mode fans.

Nomad was published by Hyland House in 1997. It is not currently in print, but can often be found in second-hand bookshops and—for some reason—on eBay. That’s a picture of me working on the book in Germany, and is from the back cover, which I think is the better cover by far. It was taken by Alissa Pohl.

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It was raining in Amsterdam. The square in front of the train station had disappeared beneath a broad rippling puddle, and the criss-crossing tram tracks glistened in the dull light like parallel slug-trails. Through an electric web of power cables, the unbroken slate-grey of the sky hid the sun and made guessing the time impossible, but it was about five in the afternoon.

Damon pushed a clump of sodden hair out of his eyes and peered over the top of his glasses. The world had retreated into a defocussed blur, colours leached away by rain and myopia. Streetcars jangled their bells impatiently as he stumbled across the Stationsplein, unbalanced by the weight of his backpack. He found an empty bus shelter, let his pack slide to the floor and collapsed on a folding seat, breathing heavily as the rain drummed against the roof.

On snapping open his backpack he found that the rain had seeped through the stitching and soaked the uppermost layer of his worldly possessions, including his new budget travel guidebook.

“Shit,” he said, trying to separate the waterlogged pages. Half the section on Salzburg came away in his hands. “Shit!”

Most of the weather had penetrated only as far as Finland, and once he had carefully thumbed his way through to the Netherlands the pages were only damp around the edges. He skipped through the general information and scanned the accommodation section for somewhere dry to stay. The first few youth hostels in the listing were run by Christiansw and had midnight curfews, which seemed to defeat the whole purpose of Amsterdam. The next couple were out of town, and would have involved negotiating the public transport system. But there was one just down the road in the Red Light District, which seemed perfect. He heaved his backpack onto his shoulders and stepped out into the storm.

The city looked like a different planet through the rain, alien and impenetrable. Shop signs began in English and then dissolved into inscrutable Dutch, bewildering him. Strange creatures with umbrellas for heads scurried by occasionally. Everything was cold and grey. He tried to remember what it was like to be dry, but was unable to in this strange liquid world.

Eventually the youth hostel sign leered at him through the rain. He went inside, dripping apologetically across the floor to the counter. his glasses fogged up immediately and he spent a while looking for something dry to wipe them on before giving up and taking them off altogether. The receptionist told him that dorm beds were 23 guilders a night, which sounded expensive, but the hostel was warm and dry and desperately immediate. He handed over a fistful of cheery Monopoly-set notes and headed down the corridor towards his room.

The dormitory stretched hospital-white before him as he turned the key and swung the door open. Most of the beds had backpacks tipped against them, and some were occupied by prone figures who nodded at him as he walked down the aisle towards a vacant top bunk. His backpack crashed to the floor and he ran his hands through his dripping hair, closed his eyes and took a deep breath of warm, dry air.

Returning to himself, he rifled through the pockets of his leather jacket and removed the debris that had collected there. A tube ticket from Earl’s Court to King’s Cross. British Rail to Dover. A ferry ticket to Oostende. His Australian passport, and—thanks to immigrant parents—his EC passport as well. One pound seventy pence in coins which he would never spend and couldn’t exchange. His wallet, which he transferred to the back pocket of his jeans. His glasses, which he wiped on his bedhseet and returned to his face.

He peeled off the empty jacket and hung it from a metal bedpost, where it sent tiny rivulets sliding towards the floor. His shirt was wet around the collar and the sleeves; he wriggled out of it and slung it over his jacket. His T-shirt was merely damp, clammy, but his jeans were soaked. He popped the catch on his backpack, loosened the drawstring and took a selection of clothes and toiletries into the communal bathroom further down the hall.

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