Flying to Rīga

(ecology is a luxury)

Place: Brussels Airport
Date: April 16, 2018
Travel time: 20 minutes walk, 20 minutes train, 2 hours for check in, 145 minutes flight
Reading time: 7 minutes

I will never be able again to look at the air, the beauty of the clouds, that line of smoke left by a passing airplane just a few seconds ago. That innocent look is long gone. Something is happening and I’m part of it. These thoughts of Bruno Latour in Facing Gaia follow me when my Baltic Airlines flight BT603 takes of to Rīga. Yes, dear reader: you read it right. I went to Rīga by plane. There is no excuse, even if Ilse and I checked quite some alternatives. We tried to go there by boat from Hamburg. I was there only two weeks ago. It’s a 28 hours boat journey, but that we didn’t mind. The problem was that we would arrive, not in Rīga, but in Liepāja, 250 km away from the Latvian capital. There is a bus going there, but only the next day. Which means we had to look for a hotel, find it in the middle of the night, make sure we could get in and get up in time to catch the bus the next day. So we looked for other, less complicated ways to get there. Ilse made the suggestion to drive a car together, all the way: 1949 km. I thought it was too much and proposed to take a train to Warschau and continue from there by car: still 659 km to go. But Ilse could not find a rental car company with insurance to drive from Poland to Latvia. There is a bus going from Warschau to Rīga. It takes 11 hours to get there. But I get easily sick on a bus. So that was not an option either. So we checked how to do the whole journey by train. It is possible via Minsk but it takes at least 2, sometimes 3 days to get there. And then you need a visa for Minsk and I don’t even have a valid passport, so that would have taken me again a few days, if not weeks to do all the administration and my schedule for the Grand Tour does not leave much space for changing the dates. So we gave up. And here I am, sitting in an airplane, flying from Brussels to Rīga.

Do I feel guilty? Not really. This one seat in this one flight will not make a big difference in the future of the planet. Do I feel disappointed? Maybe yes. This Grand Tour started as a game to show that another way of traveling is possible. Taking this flight is easy, but it consumes more or less as much CO2 as all my other nine journeys by train taken together.

I check in at Gate 30. Gate 31 is the flight for Ljubljana. I will go there in two weeks to meet the Beton Collective. I will take the night train from Paris to Venice. My plan was to continue from Venice by train to Trieste, where I would, after a short walk through the park, take a tram to Villa Opicina where I would have taken the train to Ljubljana. I would have done it, I looked forward to it, but last night I got an email from the Beton Collective. They return from a residence in Santarcangelo on May 3rd. They proposed to give me a lift from Venice to Ljubljana on their way back. Do I feel guilty for that? Not really. I’m grateful and look forward to share the car with Branko and Primož and Katarina. Our meeting will start there.

Do the people who take the flight from Brussels to Ljubljana on the morning of April 16 have to feel guilty? I don’t think so. Who am I to tell them what to do and what to feel? Who am I to tell them not to take a quick and cheap flight to Ljubljana instead of buying a ticket for Paris and then take the night train to Venice and continue by train, foot, tram, foot and train to Ljubljana? I think the choice is quickly made for many people. Being ecological is a luxury. I have the time and the budget and Ilse to look for alternatives. The problem is not the people taking the flights, the problem is the system that organizes the flights. What we need is a system change. We need a system that prevents highly polluting ways of traveling and makes more ecological ways of traveling accessible. What we need are taxes on fuel (for boats), on kerosene (for planes), on diesel (for cars) and use the income of these taxes for eco-friendly public transport, not for more roads and more airports. And do I still look forward to my journey to Ljubljana? Sure I do. Call me a romantic. I love night trains. I will take another one when coming back from Zagreb via München. And another one when traveling from Hendaye at the French-Spanish border to Lisbon. I’m lucky to be able to travel like this. It’s the pleasure of the romantic joy but also of consuming less CO2 of course.

Did this project that promised to make all my journeys by train and bicycle fail? I wouldn’t take it that far. I will continue traveling that way from now on: all my tickets are booked and ready. Traveling and ways of traveling are an important theme for this Grand Tour. And this plane to Rīga will put that back on the agenda. It will make ways of traveling even more part of my story. If it makes clear one thing it is that being ecological depends a lot on where you are and how you are. It’s easy to travel ecologically when you live in Brussels with good and easy train connections to the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands and further on from there. But imagine. Just imagine, living in Rīga. Would you start a project like this Grand Tour with the promise to travel only by train and bicycle? I should have thought twice before accepting this tour and the conditions that came with it. I could, for instance, have imagined living in Rīga before accepting this tour.

Why is it that when I have to take a train in the early morning, I’m too nervous to fall asleep, afraid not to wake up in time? Why is it that when the world is warming up and oceans are rising we just live on as walking sleepers? I wonder why I have to walk so long – and still half asleep – to reach my gate if it’s not for the shops. What is so exciting about going shopping at 7.30 in the morning? People do that. We all literally enter Brussels airport through the shop. No other possible way. At 7.30 in the morning. And they’re all open. Airports are so not sexy.

Traveling ecologically is a luxury. Flying is not. There used to be a time when it was the other way around. Once I get in and fasten my seat belt, I feel trapped in an airplane. No comfort, no space. No space for my legs, no space for my head when I get up to go to the toilet, no space to look through the ridiculously tiny window over the shoulder of my neighbor whose arms and legs are constantly bumping into mine. I mean, I am tall, but I have the feeling that he is more like a giant. I’m trapped in a noisy flying box. Actually, when I think about it, there has not been any traveling. Flying gives me everything but the journey: I can’t see a thing, can’t feel a thing, everything is the same. I didn’t travel to Rīga. I took a plane.

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