A broad taste for adventure
“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.