Not for the first time, I have been tempted to compare myself negatively to Lord Byron. Like a large proportion of the young men of his time and class, the Romantic lothario spent the years 1809 to 1811 on a Grand Tour of Europe, absorbing the cultural, artistic and military history of tourist hotspots from Spain to Albania. Not being of Byron's time, class or talent, I went for the next best thing - three weeks of Interrailing between Oslo and Frankfurt. And as I sit in Frankfurt Hahn Airport, a mere two hours from the city itself, with a single carry-on bag of no greater dimensions than 20 by 40 by 55 cm - many of Byron's contemporaries returned with ships laden with artistic treasures, while the morbid Lord himself was content with four Athenian skulls - it's tempting to wonder how deep the similarities run.
The fruit of Byron's travels was 1812's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a best-selling and lengthy account of what reads as the world's most depressing gap year. Of the three poems I have written while travelling Europe, by contrast, one was a pastiche of Frank O'Hara knocked off for a postcard to a friend ('so here I am in the Konstmuseum in Gothenburg/and isn't it funny' etc), and one was inspired by a photograph of the penis of the Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch. Writers in interviews often say things like 'If I knew where the ideas came from, I'd go there more often!' In this case, however, I know perfectly well, and I'm happy to never go back.
Literary comparisons aside, in many ways it would have been hard for me to recapture the Byronic experience. For one thing, I don't have the money, or the classical education. Whereas most Grand Tourists set out on a pilgrimage to the sites of Ancient Greece and Rome to complete their schooling in Homer and Tacitus, my ports of call were mostly namechecked in the indie-pop songs of the last two decades; I follow Jens Lekman's 'Do You Remember The Riots In Gothenburg' to the Swedish city of the same name, and Berlin's Museum Island brings to mind the English folk singer Emmy the Great, who once insulted me live on stage for praising her adaptation of a Samuel Beckett short story. I relish the bittersweet memory, in typically Romantic fashion.
Grand Tourists were often accompanied by older tutors, men of deep learning and respectability who kept the younger scholars on the straight and narrow. My travelling companions, on the days I had any, included two Australian lads with whom I explored a shop named 'Wizard Games' before being asked 'What are the women like in England?' (a question Byron surely faced with aplomb) and a teenage Austrian beach volleyball champion.
One moment brought me closest to the experience of a Romantic poet abroad, when a friend took me swimming in the Regnitz river in the medieval Bavarian town of Bamberg. Having been in the water for a full twenty seconds, I realised I hadn't been swimming in at least five years, and could no longer remember how to do it; ten minutes of heart-racing panic ensued before I pathetically heaved myself, gasping, up onto dry land. I lay exhausted on the wooden decking for some time, before thinking: Shelley drowned, didn't he? You could write a blog about this.
Having failed to perish by water in an apt conclusion to a life of tragically wasted beauty, I assessed my current situation. My feet were grazed, the gravel was harsh beneath my feet, and I was stumbling with a glazed expression, like a sole survivor emerging from the woods at the end of a horror movie. I was alone in a park in the middle of a city I had never been to, where I barely spoke a word of the language. I had no phone, and no glasses. I was wearing nothing but my underwear.
At this point, I began to think a better comparison would be with a Romantic who didn't engage in such spectacular travel - John Clare, the 'peasant poet' who lived and died within about a thirty-minute radius of my house in South Lincolnshire, and whose first experience of life outside of the village of Helpston was enough to send him mad. After all, we can't all be Byron. I found my glasses and a towel, and headed home.
Follow Richard O'Brien on Twitter: www.twitter.com/notrockyhorror