A broad taste for ad­ven­ture

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

“ABROAD is bloody.” This quote, at­trib­uted to George VI when Eng­land was still hang­ing on to its em­pire, swam into my head dur­ing a re­cent visit to my mother’s home in Eng­land. Con­ver­sa­tion­ally, I had be­gun, “I’m go­ing to Berlin next week.”

“What on earth do you want to go there for?” she re­sponded with alacrity, and no small de­gree of sus­pi­cion. “I’ve never been,” I of­fered.

“I don’t know where you get your travel bug from,” she sighed. “It’s cer­tainly not from me.”

For my mother, a trip from her home in Devon, in Eng­land’s deep­est south­west, to my sis­ter’s in dark­est London, is a trip to be en­dured, not en­joyed. The fact that I, her first­born, now live in Aus­tralia is one of the many mys­te­ri­ous and re­gret­table things about me, ap­par­ently. But her re­cent be­wil­dered re­ac­tion took me back to my first trip abroad.

I was 18. It was an ex­change visit to Paris. Oh, such so­phis­ti­ca­tion! La belle France! And so it was that a bunch of London col­lege girls (and please be­lieve that my 18year-old self equates to a 15-year-old-know-it-all to­day) gig­gled and screeched our way to Paris via train and ferry to be taken into the bo­som of French fam­i­lies with daugh­ters aged 20. Yes, the two-year age dif­fer­ence was deemed nec­es­sary, given the “ma­tu­rity” (or per­haps street­wise sen­si­bil­i­ties) of the Lon­don­ers vis-a-vis their Parisian coun­ter­parts.

It was my first visit to France. And it was not a happy time. Note to Brigitte: “If you are read­ing this, sorry, it was not your fault.” The as­sem­bled Brits met the gath­ered French out­side the lycee at which we were to study, and we were in­tro­duced to our hosts. My best friend Geral­dine found her­self swept away by car into bour­geois lux­ury, into a house with many sa­lons and all man­ner of lux­ury, con­ve­niently sit­u­ated near the cen­tre of Paris. (So not fair!) And I was headed south, with Brigitte, to a sub­urb that my mind re­fuses to re­mem­ber. Her wel­com­ing par­ents and their un­fail­ing hos­pi­tal­ity were not enough. There I was in a tiny house where no one spoke English and, worse, I was ex­pected to share a bed with the afore­men­tioned Brigitte. And her dog.

What is French for “claus­tro­pho­bia”? I had not signed up for this.

Lest, dear reader, you think me an ab­so­lute snob, let me ex­plain. In my house­hold in Eng­land we did not do sit-down meals; we came and we went; we am­bled along; we ate when nec­es­sary, oc­ca­sion­ally to­gether. It was not a reg­i­mented life­style. And we had our own rooms, and our own beds. And no dogs. And now, here I was shar­ing a bed with Brigitte, wo­ken up in the morn­ings by the pant- ing ar­rival of the iron­i­cally named Bi­jou (Jewel) ; stum­bling through break­fast with many a lin­guis­tic faux pas; catch­ing the train into Paris, to fall upon the English and dis­cuss the hor­rors of our ex­is­tence. “Yuk! Have you been eat­ing garlic?” And other eru­dite and ed­u­ca­tional ob­ser­va­tions. I can’t re­mem­ber a sin­gle French les­son in the lycee; I re­call watch­ing tele­vi­sion, night after night, and un­der­stand­ing barely a word.

In due course, poor Brigitte ar­rived chez moi, to our dys­func­tional house­hold in sub­ur­ban south­east London, and, for all I know, has never again aban­doned the se­cu­rity of her home­town. Fish fin­gers and baked beans, one of the ex­otic plats du jour on of­fer, would have been rather a shock. Ev­ery un­happy ex­change stu­dent can be mis­er­able in their own way. But did it put me off trav­el­ling? Mais, non!

For rea­sons my dear mother will never com­pre­hend, I am driven to ex­plore, to see other places, look at the same sky and stars from dif­fer­ent points of the earth, un­der­stand a lit­tle of strange ways and cus­toms, try to speak other lan­guages.

There are those who are con­tent never to leave the place they are born, and good luck to them. But for me abroad is not bloody. More of­ten than not, it’s bloody sub­lime.

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