11 September 2011

Note to self

Melbourne at sunrise-Craig
When I was seventeen, finished with high school, deferred from my university degree so I could grow up a bit, I went travelling.  I had taken a job as a junior accounts clerk to earn some money, and with that money I bought a one way ticket to England.  The rest of the money I took to the bank and got a bank cheque made out in pounds sterling, to be deposited in England when I got there and had a chance to open a bank account.  I suppose there might have been credit cards, though I wasn't aware of them.  There must have been travellers cheques but for some reason I thought the bank cheque made more sense....There were no such things as mobile phones.

I bought the cheapest airline ticket I could find, which was on Pakistan Air.  I had a stopover in Singapore and stayed with the family of a friend I had made at work.  Her name was Hen.  Her 8 year old niece took the day off school and accompanied me on a bus tour of Singapore.  At the end of the day her parents took me out to a seafood restaurant as a special treat.  My experience of seafood up till then had been fish and chips on Saturday nights. The waiter brought a glass pot to the table, filled with live prawns.  He poured in boiling alcohol and covered the pot.  The prawns jumped around, cooking and dying simultaneously.  The dish was called drunken prawns.  Even my horrified 17-year-old self knew enough to realise that this was an enormous treat and it would be unforgivably rude not to try them. 

After a night with Hen's family, I flew to London, via what seemed to be a hundred other places.  It took 5 days to get there.  I was met in England by a school friend (I'd spent a year in England in 1985), with whose family I stayed.  A few weeks later I took a ferry to Rotterdam.  On the ferry I drank lager with some boys I met.  We napped on the ferry floor and overslept and I missed the connecting train to Dusseldorf where another school friend had moved with her family.  My friend was waiting to meet me but I wasn't there.  I had left her phone number in England and couldn't call her to explain.  Eventually I found her address and my way to her house.

I don't remember ringing my parents, except at Christmas time.  Calls were expensive and I had very little money.  I did write lots of letters.  I had my first kiss in Germany, with the ex-boyfriend of my brother's ex-girlfriend with whom I also stayed.  Later she took me to West and East Berlin about 6 months before the Wall fell and we had no idea at all.  East Berlin was terribly depressing.  We had to change a certain number of marks into East German currency, and were not allowed to change it back. I think it was the equivalent of $20 but it was impossible to spend it all in one day, not because everything was so cheap (though it was quite cheap) but because there was nothing to buy.  The shops were nearly empty.  We had lunch in a restaurant and the food was terrible.  My German friend was quite scared the whole time, especially of the guards at the checkpoint and on the Wall.

I got a job in England as a hotel chambermaid.  I lived in a tiny room and earned the approval of Irish Mary, the head chambermaid, with whom I would spend breaks discussing cleaning products and tips to remove stains from sheets.  After a while I started working shifts in the bar, pulling pints, even though I wasn't yet 18.

My school friend in Dusseldorf went to university in Paris, so I went to meet her there.  I stayed in a tiny hotel run by a Turkish woman who let me serve breakfast in exchange for accommodation.

Later I took a train from London to Athens to meet my brother, who was also travelling.  On the way an old lady pressed oranges upon me.  A young man opened up a small suitcase and took out bread and meats which he shared with us.  Later, dozing, I woke to find his hand on my breast.  I protested and he removed it good naturedly. There was some sort of strike which disrupted my plans and I was a day late to Athens.  There was no way to communicate with my brother and I had no idea where he was staying.  Our plan had simply been to meet at the train station on such and such a date at such and such a time.  He turned up the next day hoping I'd be there and I was.

Later again I took buses around Turkey on my own.  I was 18 by then and felt myself an experienced traveller.  I was invariably seated next to old women or by myself.  The women always gave me fruit.  The men smoked heavily and I developed a (passive) smoker's cough. 

One evening in Paris, I stood on a street corner, smiling with the delight of being alive and a young man stopped his bicycle and kissed me on the lips.  I was sort of shocked and sort of not.  He said "It's Paris" in English and rode on. 

Lockerbie happened while I was travelling.  The Berlin Wall came down, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and, shortly thereafter, withdrew from existence.

I had considered the idea that, if I didn't return to Australia I could easily be more 'something else' than I was Australian.  In a supermarket in San Francisco I heard the news that there had been an earthquake in Newcastle.   It was time to go home, I was Australian after all.

There was much else besides, but even these bare bones astonish me. I am sure that my naivety kept me protected.  My fresh little 17-year-old-and-never-been-kissed face attracted all sorts of interesting and caring and protective people and no real creeps.  I felt taken care of, often. So many incidents that could have ended up going horribly, just didn't.  I came home believing that people were wonderful and generous and hospitable.

I am so grateful that my parents encouraged me to go.  My father later told me that he had considered forbidding it, but at the time I remember him telling me, when I hesitated, that I would always regret it if I didn't go.

And when my children consider taking their own journeys into this big world, will I be as brave as my parents were?  Will I let them go with my blessing, disguise my unease, be unobstrusive in my interest and let them leave?  If this blog still exists, if the internet still exists, if I still exist, let this serve as a reminder to me.  DO IT.


  1. What a great post.

    I was on my way to Newcastle when the earthquake happened - also 18 and taking a year off to travel (around Australia.)

    I hope I remember to read this post when my kids get to be that age too.

  2. What an amazing post, and what an amazing adventure you must have had. My husband and I both regret that we didn't travel for a while after leaving school. We don't regret the meeting, falling in love and getting married thing. But then it was children and responsibility...now travel will have to wait.

  3. Hello Melissa, how nice to hear from you. The wonderful thing about travelling is that it is always there, whatever age we get to (or at least that's what I tell myself).

  4. Thanks Jules. Wonderful to read these memories of a trip I didn't know much about (or have forgotten). Reading this makes me wish I hadn't been the classic older sister who went stright to university aged 16 1/2...but I couldn't have been other than I was at the time. Just great to hear your stories!