Thomas Denney

Visiting the EU

For the last year international travel has been all but impossible. Travel anywhere, for that matter: I last left London 9 months ago. I’ve missed exploring. Adventure. I haven’t been to the EU since the UK left last year, but the pandemic couldn’t stop me visiting the EU

I start the day early. The streets in St John’s Wood are empty — it’s a bank holiday in the UK — and Regent’s Park is too. Here I notice the first problem of the day. Although the sky is grey and unthreatening, the wind is my concern. It’s stripping the trees of their blossom. Pollen is soon in my face and catching on my clothes. I took an antihistamine before I set off; I hope it’ll be enough to see me through.

I reach the Latvian Embassy first and immediately deviate from the route I planned (it would’ve been number 3). The idea and the route for this run emerged months ago. I put it off: I knew that jogging to every EU embassy in London would be close to a half marathon. 27 stops, with navigation between them, was going to take its toll too.

From Latvia I make quick progress: Croatia, Poland, and Sweden are all in north Marylebone. I also stop at Switzerland, because even though it’s not a member state, I still miss it.

Mayfair and Marylebone are built on a grid around squares created by wealthy landowners in the Georgian era. Navigation is easy and it takes me no effort to find Italy in Grovesnor Square. I often jog around this corner of the West End. Malta and Cyprus aren’t far. I jog around St James’s Park to Slovenia.

Lithuania is on Vauxhaul Bridge Road. Not counting my warm-up jog I’ve already covered 10km but I’ve not even covered half the embassies. The road is the busiest yet and the pollution is getting to me.

Ireland is round the back of Buckingham Palace. I hit my stride as a few streets in Belgravia get me to Ireland, Belgium, Romania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Spain, Norway (bonus), and Hungary.

In Belgravia a grammar emerges. Each EU embassy flies the EU’s flag and the country’s own flag too (except for Ireland with flag poles but no flags today). The embassies are deceptively large: I discover entrances around street corner that reveal the site must occupy more houses than the front entrance alone. If cars are parked out front, they’re uniformly black and German. Some embassies — or ambassadors themselves, perhaps — opt for short personalised number plates. It’s a nice touch.

Denmark is my favourite. The building, which also houses the Icelandic embassy, starkly contrasts with just about everything else on Sloane Street. Almost all other Belgravia embassies are white houses with pillared porches. Its size surprises me: Denmark has a population of less than 6 million. Other larger countries have much smaller embassies.

I jog past Harrods. Influencers pose for identikit photos all along the street. I’m guilty too, I think to myself: I’ve been taking poorly framed selfies in front of flags all morning.

By the time I reach France I’m flagging. I keep my eyes peeled for a Pret, or anywhere that could serve up a snack. To my slight surprise the bank holiday has kept them closed. I catch my reflection in a shop window: my posture is poor.

I run out of podcasts to listen to; my mind wonders. Many of the embassies are closed, either due to the bank holiday or London’s lockdown measures. Some hadn’t opened in months, according to signs outside. As I document my journey, CCTV cameras outside the embassies do too. Who is watching this? Hidden deep in the embassy are there security officers? Spies?

I jog north through Kensington to Estonia, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands. A Dutch guard notices me, but he’s disinterested. I navigate to Greece through Holland Park using my phone and the printed maps I have with me. The embassy is at the top of the hill. I’m not happy, but I am forgiving: I’m close to the end now.

Surprisingly, it’s not until the Czech Republic that anyone asks me what I’m up to. I explain to the guard, he’s bemused. He’s wearing a white mask with a Czech crest. He tells me there are more embassies in Notting Hill. I know, I tell him. I know.

I finish at Slovakia. For obvious-in-retrospect reasons it shares a building with the Czech Republic.

I’m exhausted. I still have 5km to jog home but I stop twice to grab snacks. A gingerbread man from the Starbucks at Marble Arch gives me a sugar rush but leaves a strong ginger aftertaste in my throat.

Over the morning I ran just over 30KM, 20 of which were between the embassies. My Apple Watch reports that I’ve completed my move ring 720%. I wonder if I needn’t move for the rest of the week.

The morning made for a curious and tiring adventure. This wasn’t really an exploration of Europe at all, just west London. I jogged down streets I’ve never come across before, and perhaps never will again. At times I knew precisely where I was. At times I was lost. I learned a little but saw a lot. As travel restrictions, perhaps I’ll see much more. Perhaps.