She has gone.
Alicante was quite commercialised - the immaculately paved esplanade presented McDonalds, Burger Kings as well as tiny ice cream boutiques to the beachside walkers, and the cranes of a port hunkered over the horizon to the south of the main town.
We walked around the back of the rock outcrop and wound our way up to Castillo Santa Barbara, taking about three hours. From the top the view of the city was dusty and hazy, the sounds of the many construction sites a few blocks behind the seafront wafted up to the battlements.
The castle was ruined, and quick to explore apart from a few fallen arches and shallow dungeons which broke the place up a bit - there was a visitors' centre but it was closed. We wandered back down into the town and bought some food for the evening's meal, wanting to take advantage of the kitchen in the pensíon.
31st May 1999, 2302hrs, Monday, Night. Dark-duh. On Alicante pension roof. Alicante is like a tourist island town. It’s the gateway to the Costa Blanca, and whilst comparatively quiet now, is still a bit of a hectic building site/crumbling building/demolition zone 3mins walk away from the beach. We took the un-logo-ed option on the screen from Barcelona, which turned out to be worthy of a logo. 2200 peseta supplements ahoy. The train was really comfortable, and we got given headphones for the ‘in-flight’ films they were showing! Today we climbed the hill/mountain to ‘El Castillo de Santa Barbara’ above the town, went to the beach, put together a package to send home, made a pasta, tuna and sweetcorn dinner and enjoyed a couple of San Miguels each on top of the pension, looking up at El Castillo and the huge rock outcrop it rests on, brilliantly illuminated.
I have seen dawn and sunset on moors and windy hills Coming in solemn beauty like slow old tunes of Spain
John Masefield, 'Beauty'
30th May 1999, Sunday 1502hrs. Bright. Still Barcelona! I'm writing on a bench in Barcelona-Sants – one of the city's principal stations as people queue for tickets, hurry for trains, wait for trains and generally make geographical progress. Which is just what we're not doing. I got the train times for Valencia yesterday (which just happened to be the last day of that timetable being valid). Our Interrail ticket says supplement fares have to be paid on IC (Intercity high-speed trains) and Talgo (v. posh intercity).
Everyone here says supplements are payable on just about everything, including non IC or Talgo trains, and to top it all off, IC and Talgo make up 99.9% of trains that cover any kind of distance at all. The atmosphere between Gemma and I is terrible. We feel trapped. I expect an inspector to come along in a second and denounce me for not having paid the bench supplement. We can't afford to start paying supplements for travel – that’s why we bought the Interrail ticket in the first place. I haven't got enough money for this! There's a train in about two hours (we've been here since midday) to Alicante which is on the monitors as a regular train but stops in Valencia. If you get off in Valencia, you have to pay a supplement. If you don't, you don't. I think.
Hardly anyone speaks English, and everyone who works here that I've asked, "Hablas Espanol?" of has replied "No.". We’re IN SPAIN! MY comprehension of Catalan and their comprehension of my Spanish, AND my vocabulary and ability to actually speak Spanish in the first place are all being stretched to the limit.
Anyway, we’re going to (try to get to) Alicante.
Yesterday was a really enjoyable day. We had a bit of a lie-in after being severely sleep-deprived at 'Camping Cala Gogo', got up, breakfasted and walked to Gaudi's masterpiece and ongoing 100 years in construction, 'La Sagrada Familia'. Only eight of the designed 18 towers are standing so far, and construction started in 1887. It was breathtaking, and awe inspiring to imagine the finished spectacle. We then caught the metro to 'Parc Guell' and Gaudi's house. It was fantastic and I got a bit snap-happy! A new film was about £2.20 so no worries there! From there we went back to the Pension to get changed for the evening.
Barcelona, the night before the Grand Prix, on Saturday night. Oh yes.
We went down to the 'Telefonica' F1 tent and a band called the Azucarillo Kings were playing – they were mad. English and American songs with Spanish lyrics – Blur's 'Girls and Boys' (Un hombre sexual), REM's 'Losing My Religion'...
Met a great looking ½ Italian, ½ Swiss Spanish student – danced, walked...cool. Got to bed at about 2:30am.
We descended the grey marble steps of the station and caught the train, full of uncertainty as to our destination and the supplements we might have to pay.
We had to pay. The train was incredibly smooth and fast, racing along the coastline which danced back and forth as we travelled. Sun through trees which lined the track and the glinting of blue water in the distance is my overwhelming memory of the journey.
The colour of the country was changing. France had been lush green paling as we moved south, and the hills of Spain were a bleached tan brown, with rocky protrusions from the crests of the land. The heat was in the air now, not just from the sun in the sky. The warmth of it surrounded you, flowing around bare limbs in breezes and rising from the earth or the tarmac of the cities.
We arrived in Alicante and emerged from the train station in the early evening onto a wide boulevard packed with flowers, and we caught a bus into the town centre to the pension we had booked. After that nightmarish night in Barcelona trying to find somewhere to stay without calling ahead, we weren't taking any chances. Our second floor room had rich red terracotta tiles on the floor, white walls, and the orange pine framed windows opened above a central courtyard in the middle of the building.
The best thing though, was the roof terrace. The pension was about three blocks back from the seafront esplanade, and towering above the town on a bulging sandy coloured rock outcrop, was a castle.
The heat and our exhaustion from the previous spent night under canvas in the landing path of Boeing 747s meant we slept late.
We emerged from our pensíon with its dark inlaid wooden decor into the clean-feeling cobbled streets of old Barcelona which had that coolness you get in the morning shade of things when the day is going to be hot.
We grabbed a bread and cheese breakfast and caught the metro to La Sagrada Familia. It is Barcelona's most distinctive landmark, the one which adorns postcards and paintings of the city - Gaudi's cathedral - designed to have 18 spires... It was enormous. It was expensive to go up the spires or go into the cathedral, so we decided that we would gawp from outside for a while and enjoy the outside views of the place, from the front which was built in Gaudi's timeand looks a little like it was made by dribbling wet sand into pointy piles, and the back - the more recent facade which is made of a brighter...more concrete-looking stone, where the sculptures are more angular.
We descended into the metro system again to head towards another Gaudi landmark - Parc Guell. Less well known than the cathedral, Parc Guell was another area where the people of Barcelona appear to have allowed their resident architectural enfant terrible run riot. And it was marvellous.
Everywhere was tiled - sculpture, buildings...with glazed coloured tiles and rough clay or earthy colours, but everything looked crazed and fractured. The landscaping was brilliant, hiding the works of art and of environment away behind lines of trees or the lie of the land so that you happened upon them all at once. The park was on a number of different levels and one curling overhang of land rose back away from the path that ran underneath it and broke overhead like a wave, supported by pillars in the forms of female figures, horses, spirals and strange shapes...all in tiny brown earthy tiles and stones.
Another wide flat open space near the top of the park was lined with seats in white glazed tile and the undulating rim of the seating area was decorated in thousands of colours. Underneath it, giant pillars continued the theme and the arched ceiling enclaves of the tiles met in between them in round bosses, set with broken bottle glass and more colour. I laid down on the floor underneath it all and exhausted my film.
We ate a lunch of baguette and small sausages called Snackis on a bench underneath the shade of trees on a dusty path near Gaudi's house, attracting a huge number of feral cats.
We walked back into the old town from the park, enjoying the atmosphere of a city that was preparing for a Saturday night party. We were feeling good, and the evening was looking even better than we felt.
28th May 1999, Friday, 1905hrs, Sunny! Barcelona! I write in ‘El Cafe de Internet’ while Gemma replies to her mail. I’ve done mine. Yesterday when we arrived was a complete disaster. Not only were the two pensiones that Gemma and I discussed completely full, but every other place in the Lonely Planet and a few that weren’t were full as well. A manic 45 minutes ensued to find this out, with me trying them all and getting the same answer – "Estamos Completo". NOT good for the old travelling confidence. Still, we hadn’t checked the campsites, so we did. There was room, but the Lonely Planet put the nearest one at the end of a 9 kilometre bus ride. The buses were running, so we caught one. Some of the inhabitants of Barcelona don’t speak Spanish as I learned it – they speak Catalan, which as far as I can gather is a fusion of Spanish and French with something else thrown in for good measure. So I couldn’t understand the bus driver when he kept miming some bizarre act and saying ‘Dos kilometros’ all the time. We found out.
The campsite was two kilometres from the closest bus stop. Two very long kilometres, to boot. Near the international airport. In mosquito hell. And it wasn’t particularly cheap, either.
We’ve got a nice pension now – 4000pesetas a night. Tomorrow we’re going to do the touristy bit and see the Gaudi Cathedral.
As Gemma so eloquently put it, "You can only take so much culture before you need a piss-up." – we had a piss-up at Carcassonne, so we’re going to stock up on culture...
I’m sitting here looking at the clocks for Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Barcelona, and I feel a lot better. There's a world out there that I haven’t seen any of – I’m seeing this bit and I don't feel so vulnerable. It's weird, but talking to the 'folks' (many American tourists' influence, sorry) earths me in a personal way, but the clocks earth me in another – they comfort me that life goes on – the world is turning and people out there are living their lives.
We spent the day recovering from a terrible nights' sleep at Camping Cala Gogo, and as the day wore on I was getting increasingly worried about my left forearm. As we put up the tent the night before, we had taken very great care not to admit any more mosquitos than we could manage. This entailed one of us poised on the door zips until the other was ready to throw a bag, and then opening and closing the zip with lightning speed. The same procedure was follwoed for our own rather ballistic entrances. But some of the little buggers got in. We spent ten or fifteen minutes armed with our torches and cans of mosquito-cryogenifying deodorant trying to clear the tent, and we settled down to sleep exhausted, uncomfortable, and bothered. I think I slept with my left arm out of the sleeping bag.
The next morning it was raised in a shocking series of bobbles from my wrist all the way to the elbow, a rash or something. If it had been the mossies, and, if after our extermination exercise there had been, say, ten of them left, they should have been large enough to spot waddling throught the tent flaps. As it was it brought an element of unease to the start of the day.
We caught the bus back into the city and nabbed a spot in a great pension (or guest house) just off the main promenade of old Barcelona - La Rambla. Barcelona was packed out with football supporters - FC Barcelona were playing Manchester United that night. La Rambla was a wide boulevard lined with stalls selling tourist nicknacks, animals - dogs, cats, exotic birds, paintings, caricature artists, playing music, portrait artists, photographers, jugglers...all lined with lively bars and cafés in tall balconied buildings, as La Rambla itself sloped gently down to the harbour and the statue of Columbus, pointing, as far as I could gather, at Algeria.
A large glass-roofed arcade with light pink and green fretwork in the glass sprouted off of the boulevard, leading to an enormous fruit and fish market, where Gemma and I bought a huge slice of watermelon and got the woman at the stall to cut into two for us. We were walking amidst the thronging stalls as Gemma took a bite from her slice before handing me mine, one piece in each hand, and a group of men in Manchester United shirts went by.
"Cor! Lovely Melons!"
Gemma cracked up still eating the fruit and the rest of the group of football supporters burst out laughing because the guy who called out suddenly looked serious, and as they dragged him off I could hear him protesting over the others' laughter.
"Sorry! I didn't know you were English, really!"
We siesta'd - and really needed it, and found to my relief that the Spanish for 'Calamine' was the none-too-difficult to guess 'Kalamina', so I had some cream for my arm. I dressed in my only long-sleeved shirt so as to cover it.
We ate frugally in the heat in our white-walled room on the tiny linen covered bed, and fell asleep in thanks for civilised accommodation.
Oh, lovely Spain! Renown'd romantic land!
Lord Byron, 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'
27th May 1999, Thursday 1305hrs. Cloudy but Windy. (Somewhere between Narbonne and Port Bou – the Spanish/French border)
Camping de la Cite took a while to find, but it was worth it and then some. Practically deserted and pleasantly hot and sunny, with – a swimming pool which we took FULL advantage of in the afternoon for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, in order to use the swimming pool, I had to change into one of the pairs of trunks provided by the campsite. Gemma swanned past in her own costume, and I disappeared into the changing rooms after selecting the least stained pair that looked anywhere near my size. The pool was worth it. I don’t think I’ve contracted anything. We met an English couple from Southampton, who invited us over for a drink in the evening. We took the tour of La Cite, sadly in French. The guide mistook my frowning concentration for rapt and total interest, rather than the confused loss of any understanding that it actually was. He kept gesturing at me, and instead of telling him, I opted for the wimp’s way out, and nodded, looking interested occasionally as thought something surprised me. I didn’t want to get caught out, so I slunk near the back of the tour group, hoping like hell he wouldn’t ask me anything. We walked the half-hour bus ride to the train station in twenty minutes, bought some very cheap Kronenbourg 1664 for 26F and went back to the campsite for a convivial drink and chat till about 1am. As it was our last night in France for a while, we had a great, freshly made and baked before our eyes pizza each, which was a bargain for 50F seeing as it was about 14” across, was covered in cheese, bacon and hams with an egg in the middle and tasted divine. Today we woke up in good time for our train to Barcelona, discovered our luxurious campsite cost half what we thought, and headed into Carcassonne to get some pesetas. Which, we found, was impossible. We’re heading into Barcelona, in fact the whole of Spain, without a single peseta. Should be interesting... 1230: Gemma and I have sighted the Mediterranean! We’re also in the shadow of some mountains high enough to have snow on them, if not exactly snow-capped. The journey so far has been great fun, and I’m really looking forward to Spain.
I'm pootling off to Heathrow in a matter of hours.
Krissa is already preparing to go to JFK.
I have a knot of pure glee nestling somewhere near my stomach - it's not quite butterflies...but it's close. The only thing missing is the negative aspect of all that goes with nervousness....
...and I have to go to sleep like this.
So the plans for the weekend have come together nicely - Gemma of gap year travelling fame, has returned from a long trip to New Zealand, and will be attending the mammoth barbecue on Sunday, along with Dave, James and Sharon (no link - in her own words, she's sensible)..as well as a supporting cast of tens.
I really cannot wait to show Krissa the Island. I know I berate it mercilessly, but it really is a place apart, and a time apart as well if you submit to my theory that the Isle of Wight is at least 20 years behind the rest of the country.
Anyway, enough typing.
Time to try and sleep.
26th May 1999, Wednesday 0915hrs. Hot. Carcassonne. I write on the top bed of a bunk of a bed in our first Auberge de Jeunesse in Carcassonne. The view from the window takes in the towers of a medieval castle – Le Chateau de Comte, which the hostel is just outside of. It’s inside the fortress-like walls of La Cite, however, and walking round last night was like stepping back in time. We said goodbye to Nick and Suzanne and caught the train to Toulouse at 1215. At about 3pm (still on the train) I realised that despite being bloody huge, Toulouse wasn’t in my Lonely Planet guidebook, and on top of that, there wasn’t a Youth Hostel there. So, uncertain of getting anywhere, let alone anywhere cheap to sleep, we checked out the other places the train stopped at, by leaning out of the window at one of the stops and trying to write down as many places that were announced as we could. From our mishmashed list, we spotted Carcassonne, double checked both the fact that it had a hostel and looked interesting, and agreed to get off here instead. And bloody beautiful it is too.
Last night we had a slap-up chicken and chips after arriving at 6:30 (6hrs 15 on the train!) and then enjoyed a Kronenbourg on the cite walls which were spectacularly lit (and blindingly so, close up) . We’re being evicted at 10am, as the nature of our unexpected arrival meant we had no reservation, and the hostel is full tonight. We’re going to look for ‘Camping de la Cite’ which sounds close, but you never know...
Now for smaller towns, we had no map in the lonely Planet, and because of our unexpected arrival we had no tourist office map. We asked directions in the youth hostel, and loaded up with all our bags (large one at the back, day pack over the front...oh how stylish) and trundled down the cobbled lanes of La Cité and out of the front gates.
And we turned right.
Half an hour later we were standing on the wide crest of a hill covered with vines, looking over the tops of the bright light green leaves on the frames of cane and wire to the distant pointed black towers of the citadel wall. I'm not entirely sure how we got there.
After forty-five minutes' exhausting walk in the hot sun, and having gained a great photo opportunity for long distance shots of the citadel, we found ourselves twenty feet away from where we had started, on a path marked 'Camping de la Cité'.
Such is life.
Along this leafy little wandering track we passed sheep grazing under the castle walls, and a little stream which flowed directly under them before coming to the campsite, which was deserted. we wandered in and pitched our tent, and eyed the gloriously cool-looking swimming pool. After our epic trek around the surrounding hills and pitching out tent, there was nothing we wanted more.
An attendant arrived.
He sat loungingly in the office and kept an eye on us as we dug out our swimming kit and aimed for the pool. Gemma changed quickly and was out dipping her toe by the time I had translated the notice in the men's changing room. A small box full of stained and torn speedos sat underneath the sign.
I had to make a decision. The guy in the office came out and wandered over to the pool.
If I wanted to swim...I had to wear the trunks provided. I prodded through the box, found the least skanky looking pair, and swallowed my pride. The campsite was practically deserted, anyway.
Thirty seconds after I got into the pool, we were joined by a lovely couple from Southampton.
We got on quite well and they invited us over to their tent for a drink that evening.
Feeling suitably refreshed we wandered up to the main castle in the citadel to take the tour. Unfortunately the last English language tour of the day had gone the previous hour. We would have to take the tour in French, or not at all.
In any group listening to a speaker, there is always one who appears to be listening the most intently. It is human nature for the speaker to focus on this, their principal listener. Unfortunately, it was me, and I was concentrating because I had no idea what the hell the guy was talking about. But every so often, he would gesture in my direction as we clambered around the high castle walls and expect a reaction. I am ashamed to say that I wittered noncommitally and generally tried to react to his tone and facial expressions. The French part of my brain gave up after he said, "Hello Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Castle of the Count."
Still, we got the marvellous views of the jumbled up rooftops of the citadel buildings and the vineyards around the town, and the new town as well which curled around the walls of the old fortifications as if embracing it.
We ate a huge pizza on the way back to the campsite, bought beer to bring to the campsite revelry, and got thoroughly drunk - four people from the South of England sitting in a tent under the walls of a medieval citadel in the South of France, surrounded by goats and vineyards.
It was a wonderful evening.
The next day we were heading to Barcelona.
Bad: Having a song stuck in your head
Worse: Having a song stuck in your head that gives you the urge to sing
Terrible: Having a singing song stuck in your head on the day of a big meeting
Deadly: The song being Blink 182's 'I wanna fuck a dog in the ass'
So, Krissa arrives on Thursday morning.
That's this Thursday.
The day after tomorrow.
As adults, we get very good at containing excitement. It just doesn't do to run around in circles throwing your hands in the air and shouting 'Yippee!'.
So I won't.
But I want to.
I'll talk about something else instead. Relating to Krissa, of course. I think that we've done brilliantly these last few months. We have spoken to each other multiple times a day without breaking the bank, we've shared a lot, and made great progress with our plans.
I've fallen in love with her every single day.
I know that I will see her on Thursday, and I'm thrilled, but lurking underneath that joy is the knowledge that she'll be leaving again on Monday, but I'm trying not to think about it, because we will again go from spending every waking moment together to just...speaking multiple times a day, sharing as much as we can, and making daily progress with our plans.
This is breeding a curious kind of tension in me, one which centres around a frustration in the day to day. This crazy turn my life has taken has meant that at times I have seemingly infinite patience - I will wait in queues without annoyance, I will wait for absent buses with never an evil thought towards the company, I will accept work for people and help and not mind when a days' work is lost to a change of managerial whim.
But these last few days all of that is gone and this tension is rising...but just talking to Krissa at the beginning and the end of each day just drains that feeling of tension and frustration from across my shoulders, and from the first laugh, it is gone completely.
So now you know why the running round in circles might not be out of order.
I'm seeing the love of my life on Thursday.
We wanted to get to Spain.
We wanted to see the Mediterranean.
So we aimed South and caught a train to Toulouse.
The Interrail tickets that we were travelling on allowed us to be very free and easy with our travel arrangements. As long as it wasn't an express train, or any other kind of premium service, we could catch it...for free. Well, not strictly speaking for free as we had to pay £180 for the tickets back in the UK, but the freedom they gave was magnificent. If we hadn't had any sort of plan, we could have strolled to the train station and picked a destination off the departures boards...and we would be there later that day.
So this great attitude towards travel led to us settling down on the train to Toulouse, eating lunch, writing letters, listening to music, talking about why yachties have this strange allure, and then, about an hour outside of our destination, looking it up in our small array of books.
And it wasn't there.
Which came as a bit of a surprise, seeing as Toulouse is bloody enormous, but we cross referenced the Lonely Planet with the YHA Guide to Europe, and found that, should we alight there, we would be without LP guidance in a town with no youth hostel.
I have to defend my younger self at this point. He was a bit panicky about money, more than a little worried about arriving in a city with no idea of where it would be a good place to look for a good place to stay, and while he seems overly dependent on the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is only a crutch he's had for a week or so, so don't judge him too harshly.
We began to panic. In a bid to find somewhere our train passed through that was in the guidebooks (yes, this is entirely the wrong way round) we were sticking our ears out of the windows at train stations, trying to decode -sorry, translate- the announcements over the bustle of people hefting their bags in and out of the carriages.
"Did he say Nice?"
"That's miles away!"
"Yes but did he say it?"
"SSHHHHH I'm trying to listen!"
"...grablewonky *crackle* hohnheehohnheehohn *sound of child having suitcase dropped on its foot* munkey makaa *crackle* Carcassonne *crackle* Merci. BING BING BONG!"
"Did you get any of that?"
"Is there somewhere called Carcassonne in the book?"
"Hang on...yes! Place where Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was filmed...castle...hostel...looks good. Wow, actually...Stuart, read this."
And so, two hours later, we scrabbled off the train into a train station at the top of a hill, and caught the first bus with 'La Cité' on the front. We didn't know how long it would take or what La Cité would look like when we got there, so we both stood with our backpacks on, trying not to swing around and broadside venerable old men on their way home after a hard day's boules.
So when the single decked bus swung around the crook of another hill and we found ourselves plunging across a stone bridge and into a gate that had the spikes of a portcullis lining the top, we were suddenly glued to the windows with our mouths open as we passed into a cobbled square and then swung again, impossibly widely in the tight medieval streets lined with tiny gift shops up the slope of the hill. The bus stopped, and nobody moved. The driver pulled himself round in his seat.
"L'Auberge de Jeunesse, Monsieur, Mademoiselle."
It was early evening and the sky was paling. It was cool, and swallows were dipping and looping overhead. We walked up some steps and into an open garden courtyard bordered with small red and black tiles and found that there were just two beds spare for that night.
This should have started to ring alarm bells, but it didn't. We just thought we were very lucky. We dumped our things in a communal room with yellow pine bunk beds and went out to walk the streets. We ate a good meal and bought two very cheap small cans of Kronenbourg and went and sat on a wall on a tree-lined path outside La Cité and drank them watching the moon above the brightly-lit fortress walls.
"This is pretty good, isn't it?"
24th May 1999, Monday, 1015hrs. Reeeally sunny – La Rochelle We opted for a bit of non-Med seaside sunshine at La Rochelle, and seem to have arrived in the middle of the French equivalent of Cowes week – the yachties make Gemma feel at home! We got here via a 3 hour whistle-stop in Poitiers. Bit of a boo boo – the first train we caught to try and get to La Rochelle went about a mile from Tours taking about five minutes, stopped, everyone else got off, and then we went back to Tours. Oops. Still, we’re here, we’re camping, the weather is gorgeous and we’re going to Toulouse tomorrow. Last night when we arrived, we met a couple of German fellow-Interrailers off the train, which was cool – Nick and Suzanne. We took about an hour to find the site, so Nick’s almost-fluent French came in handy! We’re going to hire a couple of bikes today as La Rochelle seems quite flat, and the area beautiful. Last night we treated ourselves to a half-litre of Stella each. 1 Stella cost 21F, but our bill for two was just 22F – we’re going again tonight!
La Rochelle was baking ever so gently underneath the sun and the slowly waving palm trees which lined its streets. A small alcove sunk into a road island was home to a hundred bright yellow bicycles, two of which we hired and, whilst pedalling wobblingly around the circuitously looping one way traffic system of the town we broke off the roads as soon as possible and headed off along the coast.
Gemma and I were skirting down the sandy coast south of La Rochelle on a winding and hedged path which rose and dropped like the grassy dunes to our left and the distant blue of the waters of the Bay of Biscay to our right on a fine sunny day with a gentle breeze whipping sand across the stones of the track we rode on.
Like joggers and other people who take up recreational exercise on the highways and byways of the world, there appeared to be a sort of casual brotherhood of the bike which we were all of a sudden a part of. Cyclists heading in the opposite direction to us nodded and smiled congenially, stopping to let us pass.
We rode down the coast for a couple of hours, and turned back when we began to feel tired. In the natural order of all things, this meant that by the time we got back to La Rochelle our legs were only good for quivering occasionally and giving way whenever we put weight on them. It’s a kind of law.
The evening meal was a baguettes and brie picnic, eaten on the grass outside our tent under the palm trees...and we walked around the town in the evening, which was lively and vibrant with the festival. We found ourselves by the beach.
It was twilight, the sand was gritty and grey, The bench we were sitting on was a white cool smooth concrete, the wind was blowing warmly off the sea and towering clouds hung over the horizon in a hash of orange red and grey. Out of sight on the beach someone was playing bongos and the sound of it grew with the blowing wind, taking the thrill of realisation and hurling it onwards in the imagination to the months of travelling ahead. We were tired but relaxed. We were still, sitting and looking at the sea, and we knew exactly where we were.
We were off.
I want to tell you about the weekend.
That's the whole sodding point of this page.
But I can't.
Firstly because too much happened, and secondly because much of what happened shouldn't, strictly speaking, have happened at all, and almost everything happened in places it shouldn't have.
But, in much the same way that the Roman élite having orgies where they ate their fill, vomited and ate their fill again was an indication of sound agriculture, great wealth and the slide into decadence and the fall of empire, I can pick a few things that may give you an idea of the kind of weekend I had.
- I slept a combined total of 6 hours over the Friday and Saturday nights
- I ache all over
- There was a cow who strutted past our tents to the rhythm of Beyoncé's 'Crazy in Love' and seemed to like it when we sang it as she went by
- One of the many times I woke up, I was leaning with my back to the ancient stones of a castle wall on a hummock of grassy earth with both the dawn sun and the nose of a golden labrador in my face
- There were a lot of sausages
- I didn't experience a single moment of hangover
That should just about do it.
We thanked the couple at L'Hôtel Vendome, and laughed dutifully at a repeat of the Dance of the Jolly Mexican as we left.
The weather was glorious, the air had that crisp quality of the early summer, and our packs were heavy but bearable as we bought baguettes and cheese for the day. The trains awaited. After a cheerfully short enquiry as to the platform for the next train to La Rochelle, we were directed to a small but comfy train on which we bagged seats with a small table where we laid out our breakfast things. The train filled up, and started off. Gemma and I were encamped behind our daypacks, happily munching breakfast sandwiches and talking as we pulled into a station about five minutes later. The train emptied. One man came up to us and fired off a stream of French so fast and so very emotively that neither Gemma nor I understood a word of what he was saying, and before we could ask him what he was talking about, he leapt theatrically off the train. The platform slowly cleared, and our train started up again...heading back to Tours.
Everyone else had jumped ship to change onto the express train to La Rochelle; the TGV. Our Interrails weren’t valid for it, so even if we had known what was going on, we wouldn’t have been able to change trains. All we’d really done was find a train on which to eat breakfast. We got off in Tours trying not to look too embarrassed as we passed the moustachioed platform guard for the second time in ten minutes, and after a longer and slower conversation with the lady in the ticket office, discovered that the slow train to La Rochelle left in an hour’s time.
The journey was hot but not dull – we changed lines in a town called Poitiers, which seemed to be wedged into a valley two sizes too small for it, and we explored a bit in the three hour wait for the next train.
The air on our faces was warm and blowing hard, stepping out of the doors of the train station in La Rochelle. With eyes downturned to the grey blue marble of the pavement, we tacked our way to the nearest bus stop. It was time to crack out the tent for the first time, and by the looks of things, we might have been looking at pitching it under the swaying fronds of palm trees. They were absolutely everywhere. It was the Atlantic Coast attempting to get away with masquerading as the Pacific Coast, and I loved it.
Pulling to at the bus stop in the gusty yet warming gale were another couple of backpackers that we recognised from the train, so we got chatting. Nick and Suzanne were German and smiley. Very German, and really, really smiley. Their English was superb, their plan for their few days in La Rochelle sounded brilliant, and Gemma and I desperately dragged the conversation around to superstitions and car license plates to avoid a looming sense of inadequacy.
Our four monumental backpacks took up both wheelchair spaces on the bus as we grinned at each other and snapped our heads around to see as much of the town as we could while speeding along a wide flat boulevard. When we got off, Nick stopped a passing couple and asked, in accented and seemingly flawless French, the way to the campsite. The couple looked flummoxed. Nick asked again, insistent. The elderly gentleman turned to his wife.
"What do you think he’s saying, love?"
"Something about camping, er..."
Nick finally got an opportunity to demonstrate his excellent French, and we found the campsite. It was next to the main road, under trees and with a gentle rolling hill hiding the toilets and showers. We pitched the tent some distance away from Nick and Suzanne. They really were phenomenally friendly.
The wind meant there weren’t that many insects, and we finished our baguettes and brie sitting on the grass under a couple of towering pines as the afternoon came to an end. Nick and Suzanne came over and asked us if we wanted to go out for dinner. We smiled, waved our baguettes, and let the offer pass.
There is no sound in my mind more evocative of the sea than that of halyards clipping masts as the swell rolls boats in a harbour. The pink-pink-pink noise that they make practically smells of salt and lazy windy afternoons. Gemma and I went for a stroll along the promenade that evening and were stunned at how busy it was. Hundreds of tanned men and women in rugby shirts and shorts with leather deck shoes were wandering around the town, drinking and laughing. There was something...familiar...about it all. We passed a sign before entering an enclosure of some sort, announcing La Rochelle’s International Sailing Festival. Gemma’s voice rose an octave.
Gemma lived and grew up in Cowes, on the opposite tip of the Isle of Wight to myself. It is home to the Cowes International Sailing Festival With The Admiral's Cup Occasionally Thrown In For Good Measure, or, as we like to call it, Cowes Week. It is seven or ten days of vicious sailing rivalry, swaggering in expensive sailing clothes, drinking Pimms and enjoying the sunshine, rounded off with a night of fireworks. We found ourselves in Cowes' curiously Gallic clone.
Amongst all the palaver, we found ourselves a little bar and ordered two beers, while a group of yachties played foosball in the corner. We began to chat to them. When they found out we were from the Isle of Wight, they became enormously friendly and they asked where we were from on the Island. My own answer passed without comment, but Gemma’s announcement that she had grown up in Cowes, the home of the Cowes International Sailing Festival, brought a round of exclamations and smiles. When Gemma was away, at the bar or the toilet, I asked one of the group, who were French themselves, why they were so pleased to hear where Gemma was from. Had they sailed at Cowes?
"No, no. But everyone knows that girls from Cowes are...how do you say...very friendly."
"Easy?" I asked, unable to hold my eyebrows down.
"Yes!" he smiled, and took a swig of his drink.
You could have knocked me down with a feather. Here was I, living on just the other side of what this Frenchman seemed to regard as a halcyonic haven of sailing and sex, and no one had told me. Girls from Cowes seemed just as unlikely to be 'very friendly' as girls from everywhere else. Maybe it was the yachties. Maybe the secret was in the rugby tops.
I couldn’t help but grin widely at Gemma on her return, but she managed to restrain herself for the rest of the evening, and we made our way back to the campsite without her hurling herself at the nearest man in deck shoes.
Tours itself didn’t seem to have too much that grabbed our attention, but it sat in the Loire Valley, a region of rolling green countryside and, judging by some of the leaflets we picked up in the train station, medieval chateaux every twenty yards. The next day we wandered back to the train station and decided to catch a train to one of them. Seeing as we had our Interrail tickets, it didn’t seem too bad an idea to take a day trip on the trains, what with them being effectively free from now on.
Chenonceau was one of the more famous, apparently. The guidebooks were full of off-the-cuff comments like this, and I’d never heard of it.
It was beautiful. The Chateau had its own small train station surrounded by fields, with a single road approaching from up the valley. We were two of only a few people that got off at the station, which was a raised concrete platform with a single bench, with steps leading down to a path under enormous leafy trees leading to the Chateau. The sun was out, and slid between the branches high above our heads as coaches rolled ponderously out of the car park and disappeared over the brow of the hill.
There were grounds with wooden sculptures dotted in glades outside of the paid-for areas, and we wandered around these for a bit before going inside. Inside, everything was so perfect it was as though it had been given a going over by the historic equivalent of a manicurist. The paths were even and swept, the grass was uniformly cut and pleasing to the eye, everything was clean and the arrangement of grass and flower, tree and shrub was hugely calming and pleasing to the eye. That was just outside the gift shop. The gardens themselves were even better.
The chateau sat on the banks of the river Cher, and one long halled room spanned the river itself, making the building a bridge as well. The main path led up to the gates of the chateau between an avenue of trees, and there was a garden either side of it. Both were ornamental, but they took on new meaning with a bit of background history. The one on the left was planned and planted by an owner of Chenonceau, Diane de Poitiers. (Don’t panic, there’s more to this than just names and dates) She was the mistress of the King, Henri II (told you), and on his death, she was more or less kicked out of the place by Henri’s actual wife, Catherine de Medici, who then planted the other garden. Standing on the path between the two, when one was planted to be a beautiful garden, and the other was planted to better it, it was difficult to make up my mind which I preferred.
The chateau looked strange from the outside. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Big gate, check.
Stone walls, check.
Towers with arrow slits in, check.
It wasn’t until we got inside that I realised what it was. Somebody told me. I won’t try and claim figuring it out all by myself, because if I was going to start doing that then this entire exercise would get very tiresome very fast, and what would be the point? I might as well have sat at home and written to you personally telling you I was very clever. You wouldn’t have believed me then either.
It was all fake...well, not fake as in ‘not real’, but fake as in ‘there for effect only’. It was all scrunched up, as if trying to give the effect of a castle that’s routinely used to fend off local mobs etc. and not quite succeeding in giving that impression. It was as if a mad-for-it castle enthusiast had been left a sizeable country house in the will of an old uncle, and then crammed everything in the ‘Castles R Us’ catalogue onto the outside.
Apparently this sort of desperate medieval affectation is called a ‘stylised’ chateau.
Inside was really impressive, and there were markings on every available flat surface. As far as I can gather, Chenonceau was a famous chateau as far back as the days of Diane and Catherine and their gardening wars, which was part of the reason why Catherine, understandably a bit miffed that Diane and Henri had been having it off behind her back all these years, didn’t just rip Diane’s garden out and sow the ground with salt. Chenonceau was a national jewel, but from those days to this, there appeared to have been a very laid-back approach to dealing with graffiti.
Why is it, when something beautiful or famous presents a flat surface at eye level that people throughout the ages have felt the need to carve their way into a kind of vandalistic immortality? Fair enough, that’s a question that answers itself, but something else has always nagged at me.
Next to ‘Cheryl and Baz woz ere 1998’ scratched into the wood/stonework in writing that looks as if Cheryl and Baz woz bleeding to death at the time, there will be a graffito from hundreds of years ago (and considering dungeons and torture and whimsical monarchs, it was more likely that the person who carved it was actually bleeding to death) and the script has all the measured grace and elegance you’d expect of a master stonemason. Did they train people to do this, or did the upper classes always carry a mason in their entourage just in case they felt like defacing something?
One of the rooms silenced even the loudest and most crass of the visitors, (possibly me) apart from a breathed ‘Oh,’ on entering. The walls were black, the wooden floor was black with age, the bed was black, the curtains were black, all of the furniture was black, and there were hundreds of tiny drawings on the wall in fine silver and grey paint. After the death of her husband, another woman of Chenonceau - Louise de Lorraine - spent ten years in the bedroom with a large supply of grey and silver paints quietly and slowly going out of her mind. The drawings were of hearts, and shovels, and skulls, and...yes. Well, it quietened us all down, anyway.
Outside in the muted sunshine, Gemma and I started on the gardens, and I risked life, limb and camera to try and get a photo of the chateau from a slippery upstream bank, of the river, escaping with only a soaked trainer. Gemma and I were standing admiring the gardens when out of the blue and with no warning, a tall Germanic-accented man in his twenties came up to me.
“You are very pretty,” he said.
And we ran...
22nd May 1999 1930hrs Sunny, Saturday. MUM’S BIRTHDAY
Going to have to sort out these title things.
We missed the 5:15 by miles – caught the 7:20 instead. Arrived in Tours at 9:30, found the campsite was 5km away without any bus there, all the hostels were closed. So we came to Hotel Vendôme, and a phenomenally friendly welcome. Room’s cheaper than the hostel, so that’s alright!
We went to Chateau Chenonceau today – by train (free! Interrail tickets are great!). Very picturesque and steeped in history – (it was weird seeing graffiti from the 15th century) but a bit stuffy and one of the rooms was stiflingly depressing. A nice day out – the weather (oh, and different country) means that we saw lizards and a snake on our strolls. Gemma and I are undecided as to where to go tomorrow – La Rochelle on the coast or somewhere in Le Massif Centrale? We’re both really looking forward to reaching the Mediterranean, but France hasn’t really had a chance to grow on me yet. WENT TO IRISH PUB (CAFFREY’S!) HAD CHINESE. LOST AT OTHELLO.
Getting back to Tours, we wandered around in the evening and I decided that maybe we’d done the place an injustice by spending the day somewhere else. Streets alternated between cobbles and tarmac and at night the restaurants and cafes were alive and we bought a tray of Chinese food each from a stall and ate it on benches in the middle of a brightly lit cobbled square, where bands could be heard in the bars and people were dining at tables on the cobbles. The atmosphere was full of energy, and the noise of people talking, laughing and singing filled the air under a black sky. We cajoled each other into an Irish pub, and sat under rickety black wooden roof beams with a half-litre of Caffrey’s as Gemma taught me how to pay Othello.
We decided to go to La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, the next day.
This afternoon to I am off to the wicka-wa, wicka-wicka-wa, wicka-wicka-wicka-Wild Wild West of Wales.
To camp. In tents. And eat, in all probability, fish and chips.
If pressed and in possession of mess tins, a penknife and a stove I can live off the land quite happily, but after living through one long weekend on nettle soup and thicket fruit in my life already, I'd rather not do it again. I forgot my rations, and only did it to impress the younger cadets, anyway.
So, whilst braving the horrors of Gower and it's internationally feared Sheep of Death, if you miss me, you can always read some of the Gap Project, which will of course keep going, day by day, over the weekend.
By magic, probably.
Extra super-duper-wowser-extra-mega-mega-white-thing-lager-lager-lager-shiny-spinky bonus points for anyone who guesses what the acronym in the title is.
Usual spiel, in a good mood; prize of secondhand book or random mix CD yadda yadda yadda best suggestion/idea of silliness. I'll be impressed if anyone gets it. I'll post the answer/winner before I bog off to Leek Country.
Gnats! You're all lame.
Well, it is Friday, I suppose.
Thank Random Fluctuations In The Spacetime Continuum It's Friday...as opposed to those other well known sayings; Thank God It's Friday/Thank Jehovah It's Friday/ Thank Allah It's Friday.
It's an atheist's relief for the end of the week.
And with that, this atheist is off to Wales, hopefully avoiding any vicious roving bands of men who terrorise the valleys with close harmony singing...
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
Robert Louis Stevenson
21st May 1999 1300hrs Sunny again! Friday. Paris. Last night was great – very chatty evening, good food, good wine, good beer. Good, really. We only had a few strolls around Nanterre (where Herve’s flat is) ‘cos of the rain. We’re off to Tours today, at 5:15 from Gare d’Austerlitz. We’re gonna pop the keys back to Olivier later. Au revoir to Paris, listening to Air: Moon Safari, Herve’s flat....ONWARDS! Ha-ha. The open road beckons...With the train out of Paris so late in the day, there was no need to rush. We leisurely tidied Herve’s flat and strolled from the metro station to Olivier’s flat to return the keys. On the excruciatingly slow metro journey across Paris from Montmartre to the large southern train station we realised we were running late.
We missed the train. The one after it was two hours later, and took an hour longer, meaning that we’d arrive in Tours, our destination for the day, at about nine o’clock in the evening, well after most normal people have already sorted out where they’re going to stay.
Getting onto the train and wedging our backpacks into the overhead luggage space for the first time was deeply exciting. This was the first leg of a journey on rails that would take us around Europe and back again in the course of the coming weeks, and we were hyperactive with. We read the guide books voraciously, stared with intense pleasure at speeding scenery which was not all that dissimilar to the British countryside but we just didn’t care, wrote postcards home, and ate our food still in the atmosphere of excitement. Then it stopped, and the scenery going past the window darkened and faded to black. We started consulting the guidebook in earnest, weighing up our options. Had we caught the earlier train we would have been in good time to choose; to catch the bus to the campsite 5 kilometres south of the town, to the hostel 5 kilometres south of the town...the options were there for us to choose from. Standing at the bus stop outside Gare de Tours, we realised all the buses had stopped for the night, and all the fun was happening, for some reason, 5 kilometres south of the town.
The Hotel Vendôme was some way down the list in the guidebook, which normally seemed to run on a cheapest-places-first basis. We called ahead, and they had rooms free, the first place on the lists to say so, and so we trundled around the train station to the address, down a wide dark boulevard with sycamore leaves waving above us in the streetlight.
It was pitch black by the time we arrived and the hotel was in a terraced row of tall narrow town houses and the door opened as we climbed the rounded stone steps. A balding moustachioed man with a huge grin reached out to help with our packs, which we had to take off in order to get through the door. He started laughing at my hat, which so far on the trip was not an unusual reaction, but then he started prancing around doing impressions of flamenco dancing.
“Vous ete un mexicain? Oui oui?”
You couldn’t help but laugh with him, and then his smile got bigger. His wife, a large dark-haired woman in a floral print dress, came out into the marble-floored hallway and rolled her eyes at him, but she smiled underneath. They were the perfect antidote to hours of nervously wondering where we were going to sleep, and they ushered us up the staircase into a poky little room, most of which was taken up by a double bed and a wardrobe big enough to contain any magical kingdom you care to mention and still leave plenty of room for clothes. There was a tiny window set high in one of the walls, which we could just see out of if you stood on the bed. There was a bit of roof, the side of a tree, and blackness. It might have been a better view in the day, but the bed made ominous creaks and sagged hugely when we stood on it, so we didn’t chance it again. It was a wonderful place.
We ate a bit of the baguette and Brie we’d bought for lunch earlier, and fell asleep on the sagging and slightly crumby bed (- top to tail this time, removing 50% of the potential for an awkward morning).
Money shouldn’t really have started overshadowing things yet, but I was aware that Gemma had a more comfortable sum to travel on than I did, so I got a bit anal about it. The hotel worked out, once again, to be cheaper than a hostel, and was only 140FF, or about £14, for the pair of us. I resolved to be careful, but not to start worrying about money so much that I didn’t enjoy being where we were...
20th May 1999 Thursday, 1109hrs Heavy Rain! Bit of a lie in today. After lounging in the Jardin Tuileries for 5 HOURS on Tuesday, we went to get the keys for the flat. Olivier invited us in, gave us beer and we had a chat. It was great. He invited us over for dinner tonight. Wow. (Gemma’s a tad smitten) Hervé’s flat is fantastic. One large room with a futon and sofa bed, kitchen and TV, stereo and another little room with a shower and stuff. Very modern, and the kind of decor with wood ceiling framework and polished wood floor that I’d like one day. (Only bigger!) Yesterday we were prevented from doing the museums by a Ministry of Culture strike. Good luck to them, but we didn’t get to see the Mona Lisa. Both the Louvre and D’Orsay. We went to the Eiffel Tower. For about 4 hours. We stayed at the very top for about 2, and the rest of it for the other time. I rang home from the 1st stage, and watched the sunset, enjoyed a Kronenbourg...nice. Gemma and I have got the hang on the Metro system now, and I went shopping yesterday and didn’t use a ‘mot d’anglais’! Quite proud.
The next day we woke up to torrential rain outside the windows of the flat. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount else we could do in Paris indoors, that wasn’t a museum and/or expensive, so we stayed in, watched TV, periodically ventured out to buy bread or wine, and generally waited for it to stop. There was more thrill of being somewhere so exotic as Paris and doing normal things, like running to the shops in the rain, or tumbledrying your jeans for a few hours, or reading robot comics in French in just your shorts whilst waiting for your jeans to dry. We listened to Olivier’s CDs, which were Air: Moon Safari, which was fast becoming the soundtrack to our stay in Paris, (especially the track with the rain at the start) and another CD that I can’t remember anything about other than the group sounded like an angry French version of The Levellers. We stuck with Air.
The day crawled by, and the rain stopped an hour or so before we went to Olivier’s for dinner. We were greeted very warmly, we handed over the bottle of wine we’d brought as a present, and Olivier cracked out the Kronenbourg. I had anticipated an evening’s smug grinning as Gemma had been swooning over Olivier ever since we met him, but the minute we sat down in the lounge, one of Olivier’s friends came in, and I had to spend a minute or so rummaging underneath the table for my jaw. She was gorgeous. This fact wasn’t lost on Gemma, who lost no time at all in beaming a few of her own smug and eyebrow-raising grins in my direction. I have no idea now what her name was, but she was beautiful. That’s just about all I can remember. She had long dark hair, olive skin, green eyes and a smile that hiked my pulse up by a hundred beats a minute every time she used it. She had been to Morocco, so she gave us a few points on what it might be good to see. She recommended some waterfall, somewhere...I can’t remember what it was called. Sorry. My attention was elsewhere.
Dinner was great, and wine flowed after the beer. We ended up talking all evening, and missed out on a promised stroll around Montmartre, where their flat was, but the evening was amazing. It felt brilliant. Here we were, heart of France and all the rest of it, and we were sat, chatting and drinking with a couple of French people only a little older than ourselves, chatting about travel, politics, philosophy, love, life, jobs, study, that and the other, anything really.
Most people will say, if they take the time to think about it so simply, that travel is about places, and they’re right, but people are what makes travel great. A place without people is an empty, soulless thing, and maybe, in the absence of museums packed with art of all kinds, without five star international comfort and multi-lingual hotel staff, without any money at all really, we’d got a bit closer to the soul of Paris than the average three-day-stop tourists.
Maybe. I had a terrible hangover the next day.
Out of the blue, I have been invited to go camping in Wales this weekend.
Gower is, apparently, stunningly beautiful and the perfect place to roll up with an entourage of tents and alcoholic beverages to indulge in nature's gifts.
At least I suspect that is what some of the group would tell the police, if pressed.
It is the birthday of a good friend from university, and the last chance I will get to see him before he buggers off to Australia on the first leg of travelling around the world for as long as he feels like it.
He hasn't met Krissa or spoken to her, but he encouraged me to hurry up and get myself to New York so he has somewhere to crash when he eventually gets there.
Wonderful to know you've always got your friends for support, isn't it?
After a strenuous day’s sitting the day before, Gemma and I woke understandably late on the Wednesday. We packed up our small bags and headed back into Central Paris on the RER to see the museums. We strolled up to one of the doors to the Louvre and smiled at the attendant blocking our path.
"I am sorry," he said, in accentless English, "but you cannot enter today. We are on strike."
"What, I mean, pourquoi?"
"All of us. It is a Ministry of Culture strike. All the museums are closed. We feel that as custodians of the treasures of France, we should get the same pay rise as other government workers."
Gemma and I were a little put out by this, but we wished him good luck in our best French and wandered off to regroup. According to rumour (we bumped into another group of displaced art lovers milling around next the huge glass pyramid in the main courtyard of the Louvre) the only museum that was unaffected by the strike was the Museum of Eroticism in Pigalle...so we cut our plans to do museums and headed for the Eiffel Tower instead. The tower is not culture, apparently.
Despite the Hollywood legend of each bedroom in Paris having a view of the tower being widely dismissed by even the most romantic visitors, it was hugely visible above the city, appearing down wide streets and boulevards, and helping us find our way around the city. With a river and a bloody great tower to judge with, Paris is quite easy to blunder around in a vague sense of surety of direction. It’s reassuring that you know that with those few points of reference, it is difficult to get lost.
The tower was just across the river from the Louvre, so we walked across the bridge with the golden winged horses and watched the tour boats and barges chugging along the Seine underneath our feet. There were gardens surrounding the base of the tower with trees and ponds with koi carp, and there wasn’t a queue. We wandered, necks craning back, underneath the foursquare legs and took photographs of the tower at weird and wonderful angles. After we’d got concept photography out of our systems we slipped through the turnstiles and strode enthusiastically for the stairs.
There was a lift, but we were in the strange frame of mind in which people climb mountains by foot rather than taking a train/car/bus, on the unspoken basis that a view you’ve had to work for is better than a view seen after stepping off a train/car/bus. The view got steadily better with each mezzanine as the pale buildings of the city spread out and unfolded through the brown metal struts, but by the time we reached the first stage of the tower, we had progressed to the frame of mind in which people sit down for quite a long time and then head for the lifts.
In fact, rather than just being a glorified viewpoint, there was some really interesting stuff in the tower. There was the museum of the Eiffel Tower, which seemed to be unaffected by any strikes, a restaurant and a cafe, and, best of all, a remote-controlled camera on one side of the tower, which relayed its pictures to a big screen in a room behind the café. This was a fantastic toy, and Gemma and I played with it for ages, zooming in on different bits of the city, watching people sunbathe on the ledge next to the river, eat lunch in their flats and generally nosing in on the life of Paris. No one else who has been to the Eiffel Tower in the past few years that I have spoken to has ever even heard of this, and I can only come to the conclusion that we found it purely because we spent so long on the tower because all the museums were shut.
We took the lift to the second and third stages, staying at the top and taking huge numbers of photographs for about two hours. The sky had greyed, but there was sunlight creeping under the clouds. The sky was dark, but the buildings lining the Seine were shining cream, and the city looked gorgeous. A rainbow appeared briefly in the distance, and forty Japanese tourists and myself attempted to catch the moment on film. I like to think that, just like me, they all got home to forty slightly blurred pictures of a grey cloud, lending the moment a touch of camaraderie.
On the way down the tower later on that afternoon, we Sat on a bench on the first stage, and watched the sun go down over the crest of the buildings across the river, an earphone of Gemma’s personal stereo each, listening to Air’s ‘All I Need’. It was a good day.
Many people tell you about the attitude of Parisians towards tourists, how they are seen as cash-bearing cattle that can be afforded courtesy, but never quite seem to. People will tell of snotty concierges, snooty waiters and shockingly rude taxi drivers. Waiters, concierges and even taxi drivers were well out of our price range, but I was left astounded by someone who sold me baguettes.
Our first day in Paris, on a trip away from the bags and chairs in the Tuileries, I tried out my best French buying a couple of baguettes from a little shop on a subway under one of the main streets.
Me: Ah, Bonjour. Doo Baggit, Sill voo play.
Baguette Seller,(with scorn): Of course. What filling would you like in those?
Me: Oh right, sorry. One cheese....etc.
I felt a bit of a tit, but then you do when your best efforts at anything are scornfully rejected and bettered by anyone, especially when you’re meant to be the one doing the buying. The next day, I wandered up, and the same chap was behind the counter. I’d swear it was him because I don’t think there was another moustache of such quality anywhere in Paris, whereas I was just another tourist in an extravagant hat.
Me: Hello! Two baguettes please, one chee-
Baguette Seller (interrupting, with scorn): Monsieur! Je ne parle pas Anglais! En Francais, s’il vous plait!
Me (stunned): But, but...(recovering)...ok, oon baggit avek fromarj, et....etc etc...
I was still shaking my head at this hours later. Speaking English to make you feel stupid was ok, but if you assumed he spoke English, then he would be as monolingual as he bloody could, just to show you, you arrogant foreign tourist! Now, I’m not one to point a finger at the whole of France and say, 'They’re a load of buggers!', because they’re not. But there are an awful lot of stories like this, aren’t there? Stereotypes don’t spring up overnight, right?
That’s all I’m saying.
I love this weather.
I'd almost forgotten how good spring and summer feel.
Last night, wandering idly around the garden, barefoot and in shorts, talking over a cosmology exam housemate Khalil had taken that afternoon, with Khalil's rabbit, Bunny, frolicking gleefully in the flowerbeds, the sun was setting and the sky was darkening and the skyline was a light, rising pink. The air was cooling, the grass becoming damp. The dew was falling.
An ever-so-faint cry of "Shit!" drifted down from above.
A hot air balloon had snuck over the horizon and crept up behind us as we watched the sunset and talked of gravity lenses and estimates of marks and grades. The hot hiss of the flames punched in and it drifted over the terraced houses of South Hatfield, frantic motions of the silhouetted people in the basket showing that the stove wasn't doing much to slow their descent.
People came out of their houses to see it float by.
A memory of a TV show featuring a balloon safari in Africa swam through my mind, when the sight of the balloon wafting over the savannah had startled wildebeest, fazed giraffes and made elephants curiously indifferent. Was that what was going on in the basket?
"Darling darling look! One of those old Ford Fiestas! The angular ones! Incredible!"
"Oh darling what a shame, I'm out of film. And it's up on bricks as well. Damn."
I woke up the next morning in the hotel bed on my side with my arm resting over Gemma. I pulled it back quickly in panic, visions of misconstrued advances rocketing around my barely conscious brain. We were sleeping in the same bed, fair enough, but that was all part of our cheap-as-you-can-legally-get trip ethic.
It was our first night travelling, and the last thing I wanted was for her to wake up to find her purely platonic bed partner hugging her with a rather prominent morning glory. After something like that, the other two and a half months might not go too smoothly.
Down the tightly winding wooden hotel staircase, a huddle of rabid and growling Americans were occupying the place where the shower used to be, so in the interest of Transatlantic relations, I decided to opt out of the morning’s communal ablutions. Gemma and I made do with a brief and demurely-looking-the-other-way wash in the sink in our room, which supplied a neverending stream of...of..brown fluid...and checked out.
Wandering around a morning Paris fully loaded up with our backpacks, we called Olivier – our local contact - from an open booth in the midst of the stormy bustle of Rue de Rivoli. We would pick up the keys to our very own city pad in the evening, it was an absolutely glorious day, and we were at large in Paris.
We caught the metro to Place de la République, and emerged blinking into the sunshine at the black-cobbled former site of the Bastille like the comedy tourist pack horses that we were.
The battle lines were drawn - it was our sightseeing enthusiasm versus the backpacks. Another quick metro trip to Place de la Concorde, and we walked (admittedly slowly) up and down the Champs-Élysées, our natty army green and grape red backpacks lending a certain je ne sais quoi to the fashion parade. It took a very long time for our shoulders to intervene and declare a 1-1 score draw, so we compromised by collapsing somewhere scenic.
Jardin des Tuileries – Tuileries Gardens.
18th May 1999 Tuesday, 1710hrs. Gorgeous Weather.
I write seated incredibly relaxedly drinking in the scene in front of me. We have arranged to pick up the keys for the flat this evening, but in the meantime we are hindered by our bags. However, even just walking we’ve still managed to see l’Arc de Triomphe, le Champs Elysees, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Concorde, and we’re currently seated in Le Jardin Tuileries, facing le Louvre. Not bad, considering! Tomorrow, when we’ve got the flat, we’ll do the museums – Louvre, D’Orsay, l’Orangerie (maybe). Judging by the size of the Louvre, we’ll be lost pretty quickly.
At this point I think I was a bit confused by mixing French and English together, as can be seen by the exaggerated and nervous over use of ‘le’.
We sat with our feet up on our bags next to a large round pool with a dormant fountain, sitting in metal chairs which were dotted around the maze-like grey gravel paths under the trees.
The chairs were very, very comfortable. They tilted you backwards slightly to a perfectly relaxed angle and suggested through your derríere that a sunny May day in Paris was the perfect time to doze off, or at least not move for a long, long time...so we didn’t.
I read and doodled and wandered off to see the breath-stoppingly expensive shops around the Tuileries. They sold shimmering gold-lined jars of exquisite condiments, designer clothing, and postcards. I ambled through a few art-deco arcades, soaking up the glorious Frenchness of everything, and returned to Gemma for a couple more hours’ Sitting.
Gemma had explained her hobby. She’d been at it for a long time, apparently, and was quite accomplished. Sitting was a hobby that could be practised in any location at any time of the day or night, and was almost always pleasurable. I gave it a try. We Sat in the Tuileries for hours, soaking up the sun and the magnificent view, wiling away the time to the picking up of our flat keys in one of the nicest ways I could think of.
In a way, having waited so long to travel, and having had an absolutely manic day’s travelling the day before, to stop, and to sit, and to just be in a place that was at once beautiful, peaceful, and extremely French, was taking pleasure in our own nonchalance. Like rushing to meet someone, and then as you reach the last corner slowing from a breakneck sprint into a casual walk to arrive looking as cool as you can manage. Yes, there was an enormous and beautiful city surrounding us, yes we had come all this way to see it, but we were damn well going to Sit.
Olivier and his flatmates were very friendly. They chatted with us about our trip, where we wanted to go, and a huge swathe of other linguistically challenging conversational topics, including Olivier’s recently finished military service, where he had had the good fortune to be a chauffeur – in Paris.
Gemma and I gave up on trying to speak French inside of thirty seconds. We learned that Hervé – the owner of our flat, was off in Tanzania, but sent his regards and wished us good luck on our trip. I still didn’t really believe that this guy was going to give us his flat for as long as we wanted despite being on another continent, but I wasn’t about to argue. We thanked the stubbly yet dashingly handsome Olivier for the Kronenbourg and dug out the directions to Herve’s flat.
It was out of the bounds of the underground metro system, and we took the Suburban-serving RER train out West of the city centre. The flat was in a large old brown stone building next to a grey church in Nanterre Ville, with a sharp, dark, twisting wooden staircase. The flat itself had pale wooden polished floors, white walls, a small open kitchen and shelves of books and French science fiction comics. An arcing white pine lattice, like the support for a city bridge, spanned across the ceiling, but we were especially impressed with the fact that there was only one remote control; for everything. The TV, stereo and apartment lights were all controlled by this little marvel. The idea was obviously so that you could lie, reading in bed, and when you wanted to sleep, all you had to do was push a button on the remote. In reality there was a short hunt for it, and once we had to give up and use the tiny switch on the wall, but it was still impressive.
We weren’t the first to visit in Herve’s absence; a couple of souvenir trinkets and notes to him lined the shelves.
The first evening, we had a good pry through all the cupboards and shelves, watched impossibly fast-talking French TV, and listened to a couple of French CDs that Olivier had lent us. It was the first time I had heard Air’s Moon Safari album, and we cooked pasta and showered and grooved around the flat to it. All in all, we’d fallen on our feet, and I felt very relaxed and at ease. As I dozed off on Hervé’s futon, I mused it over. Considering we’d been in Paris for less than 24 hours, it was very odd to feel so…at home.
Hoi, I am in a damned fine mood.
The weather is goddamned gorgeous, everything is green, the breeze is cool, and job-work has eased off to the point where I can get home in the evenings in time to catch the sun by eating dinner in the garden.
I have worked hard the last few nights at home, and did a little over the weekend, and feel good about the writing, which always puts a spring in my step.
Then, to top all of this, I was awoken on this beautiful morning by the calling voice of the woman I love.
Out of all the projects I am working on at the moment, I would be enormously grateful if you would pop over to The Gap Year Diaries today if you have a minute - all the rather dull writing about preparing to go and stacking supermarket shelves is done with, and now we're into the good stuff - the travel...which for the next few days, is Paris...
There is never any end to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other
Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast
Gemma and I arrived at the end of the pier at Ryde as the sun was coming up, and the colours of things were rising from a morning blue and grey. It was May, and still cold at that time of day. A catamaran service runs between Ryde pierhead and Portsmouth harbour, which doubles as a train station and coach stop. We were starting as we meant to go on, on the cheap, or rather the-cheap-as-you-can-get-within-the-law, and we were catching a coach from Portsmouth onto London Victoria, where we would catch another coach onwards to Paris, arriving that evening.
We had both lectured each other on the necessity of adequate and suitable clothing for travelling. The books and all other sources were unanimous – denim was out. When it got wet, it took ages to dry, and whilst it was wet it was extremely heavy and kept you well within the temperatures at which people start spoiling for colds and ‘flu. Lightweight trousers were the thing; light, quick-drying, and available in a range of stylish and fashionable colours. Others that were in on the great trouser conspiracy would regard our lightweight trousers and have to admit that here were people that knew how to dress for the perils of a European summer.
So when we both turned up at Ryde pierhead in jeans, we smiled awkwardly and complemented each other on our sensible thinking. On our usefulness scale, jeans were great because they were warm, they were comfortable, they went with anything, and when they get dirty, anyone looking at them finds it difficult to tell.
We smiled through the shock of carrying our backpacks for longer than thirty seconds in our bedrooms and saying to watching family members, “Yeah, that feels alright,”, we smiled our goodbyes to our families, and we smiled right up until the point when we sat down on the catamaran and looked back to see the island as a dark brown horizon rapidly dropping below the waves.
"We’re actually going, aren't we," I said.
"Yeah," said Gemma, and we both smiled again, "we are."
The National Express coach was a little late, but we had a generous margin for error in London, and we didn’t mind. The driver took each of our backpacks in turn and slung them into the baggage compartment in the coach. He was a jolly fellow, quipping and jesting with the passengers, and quite neatly matched our mood that morning. He picked up Gemma’s backpack, made a joke about women packing for long trips, and popped it into the appropriate area in the compartment. He picked up my backpack and his smile froze and quickly slid into a painful grimace as he turned to place it in the compartment in a laboured fashion.
I wasn’t happy about this.
How the hell was Gemma doing this? All I had was clothes and three phrasebooks, and she had a tent with metal pegs and everything. I came to the conclusion that Gemma’s rucksack was outside the bounds of normal physics and must be the Interrail traveller’s equivalent of Dr. Who’s TARDIS. I nipped onto the coach, avoiding the driver’s resentful gaze, and already debating chipping into my packed lunch, despite the fact that I’d had an enormous cooked breakfast and it was still only eight o’clock in the morning.
Travel does this to me. Whatever the time of the day or night, no matter how recent my last meal, if I board a coach or train with food in any form, I eat it immediately and then I’ve got it out of the way and I can get properly excited and/or bored.
On this occasion it was definitely excitement, and halfway through the sandwiches I was already engrossed in the Lonely Planet guide, reading about Paris.
I was blessed with what I can only describe as a wonderful childhood. I was given more books than any child could want, I was encouraged, despite my own laissez-faire attitude, to try my hand at anything and everything, and to top it all off we had the most wonderful holidays.
I was the snag in the planning of my parents’ otherwise flawless schemes. The books I was given, the majority of which were of the Enid Blyton and Willard Price variety, had left me with the impression that travel was one of the most wonderful things that a human being can undertake, and also, really gut-wrenchingly exciting things happened abroad ALL THE TIME, whereas it was only the odd mystery that the Famous Five or Secret Seven solved within miles of their own homes. The result of this was that when we were preparing to go on holiday, I would get excited. Not just average excited, as in going to sleep on Christmas Eve, or building up to Sports Day at school. We are talking absolutely off the chart excited, phenomenally excited, so excited that the night before leaving, sleep was totally out of the question, and I lay awake all night just squirming with complete and total joy, and I can only conclude that in the feverish anticipation, my immune system shut down completely and we always left to go on holiday with me sickening for something, usually contagious.
I have no idea whether it was the continuing contagious nature of my holiday illnesses that meant we always went to islands, but we always did. We went to Mallorca, we went to Crete, we went to Malta, we went to Ibiza and liked it so much that we went back again the following year (the second time I wasn’t ill, which unfortunately left my sister in line...she had to have her appendix out while we were there) and we went to Tenerife.
This was, as I’ve already said, fantastic, but it left rather a large gap on the map. The entirety of mainland Europe was left unexplored, and by the time Gemma and I set out, I had been to mainland Europe twice – once when I was six, on a weekend to Northern France when my parents had taken us to the Bayeux Tapestry and stuck it out because they believed it was Educational, and a week’s trip to Holland at the age of ten with my Catholic middle school, the outstanding memory of which was a load of us trooping down to the local swimming pool one evening with one of the nuns, trunks and towels at the ready, only to find that it was a nudist night.
Mainland Europe was, by and large, something I’d only read about, and even though I’d moved on from reading Ms. Blyton and Mr. Price, it still appeared to be an incredibly exciting place to be.
I had never been to Paris. People I told we were starting in Paris went all slitty-eyed and jealous, my parents looked at each other and started reminiscing about holidays they’d taken on their own, and the Lonely Planet put Paris as Number One Beautiful City, Planet Earth. Needless to say, I was looking forward to it.
Our first night’s accommodation had been booked from a phone box in Newport a few days before, when Gemma and I had met for a coffee and decided that we had better book at least the one night ahead. Standing in the middle of St. Thomas' Square, looking vacantly into the window of Millets and attempting to speak in haltering schoolboy French had felt very, very strange, but we had managed, despite both our and the hotel’s attempts to speak each other’s languages, to book a room. L’Hôtel Moderne was our first port of call.
Gemma. Gemma Heath. A bit more on her. As far as I knew, she wasn’t much better travelled than I was, but the line-up of relatives and friends, and friends of friends that she had drawn up for us to visit or fall back on was very impressive. She and I had both gone to the same middle school that the trip to Holland originated from, despite living at opposite ends of the Island. Apart from the fact that she lived in Cowes, was going to study Psychology at Bangor University and I got along with her really well, there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff between us.
Her wrangled arrangements for Paris were magnificent. This is the background to our situation. Gemma’s brother had been travelling in India the previous summer. There, he had met a Parisian Frenchman by the name of Herve, who offered Gemma’s brother his flat in Paris, should he ever be passing that way. Herve was away in Tanzania while we were aiming to be in Paris, and somehow, Gemma had managed to get Herve to agree to loan us his flat – and we had never met him. So thanks to Gemma’s organisation, out of all the time we were planning on spending in Paris, only one night would be in paid accommodation. The rest of the time, we would be staying in a flat somewhere in a Western suburb of Paris.
The National Express coach deposited us on the concrete in London Victoria Coach station, and we went for a wander with our backpacks on, to get a feel for the weight. We went through Victoria train station, and on the way back to the coach station someone gave us a promotional Eyewitness Travel Guide. It was meant to be a demonstration of how good the guides were, with more photos and pictures than the average travel guide, but seeing as we were heading onto the continent, the fact that the guide was for Paris seemed a little too good to be true.
We boarded the Eurolines coach to Paris nervously clutching our security wallets. We found seats, and excitement tapered off into a kind of provisional boredom as the journey wore on, and the scenery stayed resolutely British for the first leg.
The only real highlight of the journey was the driver, who felt it his duty to inform us of any details that might affect our arrival time. I have never heard anything like it. Imagine someone with a French accent...make it worse. Make it a cartoon French accent, such as you might hear on "'Allo 'Allo".
Now imagine a Welsh accent. A broad, piss-take-in-the-pub style Welsh accent. Now, and I know this is difficult, and I only manage it because it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, mix the two together.
Weird, isn’t it? That’s how he sounded.
The ferry was packed with Brummies, and we rushed up to the outside deck to wave goodbye to the stonily indifferent White Cliffs of Dover before being blown back below decks by a vicious sea breeze.
It was dark. There were a few lights on the horizon, and they seemed to throw a disproportionately large glow onto the clouds. They seemed to remain far away for a long time, until we were inside them, for a few short minutes we were looking on tall, severe concrete buildings lit in orange by the motorway lights, and then we sank into a tunnel, which went on for a long time. By the time we arrived at the coach station at Paris Bagnolet, we had been in a tunnel for so long it felt as though the entire station was deep underground.
We dashed along a stone-floored corridor, following the signs to the ticket office, which was closed. There were ticket machines, but they only accepted coins, and all the French currency we had was crisp, high-denomination notes, fresh from the travel agents of the Isle of Wight. In the end we found a random bloke who appeared to be minding his own business, and through a barrage of late-night garbled French, harassed him into exchanging our notes for some coins.
We both sat with our backpacks on, nervously perched on the edge of the seats on the metro, consulting maps and the train walls, making 100% sure that we would end up where we were heading.
We reached a decision and got off, jemmying through the turnstiles with our backpacks on with a little difficulty, and heading for the steps upwards.
I will never forget coming up those steps.
It was dark, and it was raining, but the steps were flagged by two lampposts throwing their light upwards into the sky. I climbed looking upwards, and the first thing I saw was the rain coming down through a pale orange light, and then the silhouette of trees behind the rain, and then, finally, as we reached the top, we emerged in the middle of a boulevard, with roads either side of us, and the wonderful, gloriously tall balconied buildings beyond them.
We both stood for a moment in the cooling rain, turning slowly.
Despite the nagging feeling that all our planning and work would ultimately come to nothing, it was Paris.
We checked into our hotel, which was on a nearby side street. It was small, it was cramped, our wardrobe door fell off when we tried to open it, and the shower and toilet were down a murderously curving staircase, but it was a Parisian hotel, and it was damned perfect.
17th May 1999 Monday, 11:45pm (French Time!) Rain. V. nice.
Arrived to ‘L’Hôtel Moderne’, a cleaner kind of VERY cheap hotel.170FF for us both, in Central Paris. Nice. Trip ran uneventfully, apart from highlight of a brief panic session when a sign ‘Paris 204’ went by at speed. A few seconds and a miles to kilometres conversion later, we were a bit happier. Ferry a bit rough! Dazed as we’re actually here. Bloody hell.
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
Oscar Wilde - ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
I was off to Warwick in October, thankfully making the gap year a link between two things. This was more important than it sounds, as having skipped the normal application time during sixth form, I’d effectively been drifting off into a land of No Education, and if university hadn’t worked out, I’d have been left with only my A-Levels and the incredibly useful expertise in shelf-stacking I’d acquired that year to fend my way in the world.
After catching the bus to Newport, there was a half-hour gap before starting work, that I used to call / enquire / hassle Warwick about my application. After getting through to the Engineering Undergraduate Office for the seventh time in two weeks, they got fed up with telling me that I was ‘under consideration’ and put me through to the Head of Department, who was a touch derogatory about my maths grade, but said he would admit me on the trust that I would, in addition to the preliminary reading lists, go over my A-Level maths again, wrestling with my weak points...
“Oh, and if you happen to take a maths textbook with you, wherever you’re going, that would be a good idea.”
Now I was keen. I wanted to get a degree in engineering. I wanted to get a degree in engineering to help the Third World, or, in more egotistical terms, I wanted to get a degree to help Save the World. That’s a pretty hefty ambition, I think you’ll agree, but under no circumstances was I going to lug a Pure Maths textbook around Europe and Morocco, to delve into in the quiet moments. I didn’t want any quiet moments. If there were going to be quiet moments, I was damn well going to be quiet in them, and not submit myself to the low-grade noise of slowly grinding teeth and involuntary groans that fill the air around me whenever mathematics is attempted. It was the first and only time in my phone-Warwick-until-they-cave strategy that I faltered. I don’t think he noticed though, as I followed it up with a large burst of effusive thanks.
I was in.
Miranda and I split up. She was and in all probability still is an amazing person, and looking back, it is something that I can’t justify very easily to other people, and only just get away with justifying it to myself.
I did it.
I called and told her that when I was travelling, I wanted to be wherever I was in every sense; not standing in Rome, for example, wishing I was in Leicestershire with her. I made a decision, did it, and as soon as I put the phone down I felt awful. This lasted for about twenty minutes, and then I went upstairs to start packing. There are a lot of things you will think of me because of what I have just said, most of which I expect wouldn’t be suitable for print. Well, this was something I’d worked hard for, dreamed of all my life more or less, and in all probability I wasn’t ever going to have this chance again. After university I would be working, during university I wouldn’t have any money, and ‘two weeks in Torremellinos’ holidays were the best sort of travelling I looked like being able to do after this point. This one, untarnished opportunity to be on the move, go places I’d only ever read about, places with exotic names and different ways, new sights, new sounds, even the smells - I was enthusiastic about the smells. That’s how geared up for travel I was.
The last thing I wanted was to regret being wherever I was.
The days between finishing work and waking up painstakingly early to actually, after all this time, go, were long and gorgeous. I could have worked longer, as much as an extra week, maybe more... The shelf-stacking job was a huge improvement on working nights, but it was still shelf-stacking, and there is a limit to how long you can do that voluntarily, of your own free will, with no compulsion to stay. Well, I excuse myself by saying that. I find it highly unlikely that it will ever make anyone’s PhD thesis topic, so I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to be conclusively proved wrong. So it is true. Believe it.
We took our original trip plans and twisted them around completely to incorporate going to Crete for the wedding of Dave’s cousin. It was the fact that after all our planning we could pick up one corner of our entire journey and flip it over like a pancake that started to get me excited. There was nothing we couldn’t do if we wanted to. We were going to be travelling completely on whim. If we wanted to change our plans completely when we were away, we could, and that was our business. We could stop completely in a place we liked, leave places we didn’t like, go places we heard good things about, skip places we’d heard bad things about. It was going to be a tiny, two and a half month burst of complete freedom. I thought I’d been excited up to this point, what with needing to mentally kick myself up the arse to get out of bed each shelf-stacking morning, but I was wrong.
At the point I realised there was nothing but a few days between me and the rest of Europe, it was as though whichever gland produces the chemicals for excitement was locked into overdrive, and I was bouncing around the place with more energy than I’d ever had in my life.
I have never been very good at packing. Looking back on everything, whether it was childhood family holidays, week-long camps with the Air Cadets or going to stay with friends, packing is one area that I really, categorically, without fear of contradiction, totally and utterly fail at. I approach it with the technique I learnt to apply to none-too-important assignments at school:
You accept that packing will happen. Packing is vital. Packing just doesn’t necessarily have to happen now, or indeed, any time soon. How long does it take to pack a bag? I have everything I want to take within a few rooms in the house (probably), so why should I worry and spend days doing it?
At this point you read a book, go to the shops, watch TV, stare vacantly out of the window or do anything else but pack. This period can last for a maximum of up to twenty minutes before you are due to leave, and I’ve seen some people last longer, but with me, the panic generally sets in the night before and I start the frenzy of packing. Whenever I plan what to take and make a list etc, I always end up missing out huge swathes of stuff that is astonishingly obvious to everyone else but for some reason doesn’t suggest itself to my furiously concentrating brain. The family anecdotal chestnut that gets wheeled out in any potentially embarrassing situation is the tale of the time I packed diligently for weekend’s gliding in Hampshire with the Air Cadets, spending five hours the preceding day polishing my boots, and on the day, I absent-mindedly left my cadet uniform hanging on the back of my bedroom door, and only realised when I got there.
If I leave packing to the last minute, I’m usually attempting to send my limbs in several directions at once, and in the midst of this panic, my brain sits and gently frets its way through the trip or visit. Travelling – a book. Arriving – a gift for the hosts. Staying – clothes to sleep in. Waking up - wash kit, towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, industrial strength deodorant...you get the idea. Panic-packing might not seem a great idea, but I don’t forget the more glaringly obvious things, and whichever way you look at it, for me, that’s a plus that organisation and planning just doesn’t have.
Two days before leaving, I had my backpack empty on the floor, and Mum had attempted to chivvy me along gently by leaving a few of the more obvious items in its vicinity. A towel...some suntan lotion...my shoes...my passport...
Since the day I rid myself of my brace of three years, and got contact lenses for the first time, I realised that I didn’t want to be part of the crowd any more. That’s a real cliché, and doesn’t really go far enough, so I’ll refine it; I didn’t want to be part of the scenery any more.
I’d gone through school being a geek that started mumbling and/or losing fifty IQ points whenever any vaguely attractive girls spoke to me, and I was more than a bit fed up with the role I’d carved for myself up to that point. I had been hidden behind people’s automatic assumptions based on glasses and a brace for years, and I wanted to change. All this seemed more than enough justification for the hat.
The hat arrived in my life about two weeks before we left. My Mother has always held the belief that my sister and I are somewhat vulnerable to the elements, leading to the string of enormous coats and ridiculous hats that spanned my childhood, and gave rise to a host of running family jokes about balaclavas. Two weeks before we left, one of the major conversational topics was headwear, with Mum the ever-concerned no doubt picturing me staggering in circles in Moroccan desert, delirious with sunstroke. At one of these “Well, you need something,” moments, we were in Marks and Spencer, and with visions of looking like The Man from Del Monte mixed with more than a little Michael Palin, I jokingly started trying on Panama hats. Mum bought me one.
Backpacking on pennies...wearing a Panama. Well, I’d stand out a little, it looked good, and, if the worst came to the worst, I could sell it and use the money to book into the nearest five star hotel.
The time went quickly, and I prepared a little each day. I had my books: phrasebooks for French, Spanish and Italian, and the Lonely Planet guidebook to Western Europe. After I’d bought it, I noticed the wonderful people at Lonely Planet had included a free bookmark. I read what was written on the bookmark, and with the sinking feeling of someone who was already geared up to risk life, limb and wallet on the basis of the information in the book I was holding, I turned the book on its side and read the spine. The legend “Lonely Planet – Westen Europe” was embossed there.
They’d made a typo on the cover. I was poised to rely on them for telephone numbers, addresses, references, money exchanges, and advice on laws and customs, you know, little things that would mean the trip would pass without any nights in jail, and they had broadcast to the world the fact that they couldn’t spell ‘Western’.
Gemma and I co-ordinated a little of what to take and what not to take. Somehow, and I’m still not sure how this worked, she had a smaller backpack than me, and managed to fit all her clothes, a Morocco guidebook, spare shoes, first aid kit, sleeping bag, roll mat and a tent into her bag, and then told me she had enough space if there was anything I wanted to take that I couldn’t fit in mine. She pointed out that by virtue of her being a girl, and the trip being in the summer, the sum of her packed clothing fitted into a single plastic bag, and everything that we had to take individual versions of, the female versions were much smaller – shoes, underwear, clothes generally...she opined that I’d look ridiculous in a crop top, and that one of my t-shirts took up the same amount of space as her five tops.
I felt bad, bombing round Europe with a girl, what with her carrying the tent and everything, and the vestiges of any gentlemanly principles I had caused me to feel quite awkward about it. The rest of me wasn’t too bothered, and went back to attempting to fit everything I had into exactly half the space it took up outside of my bag.
16th May 1999, Sunday
The hotel is booked, the Eurolines coach from London to Paris is booked, and the National Express coach from Portsmouth to London is booked. We are in fact, contrary to all sense and expectations, ready and organised. I’m packed (after a fashion) and good to go.
Douglas Adams – ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’
I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed New Year. I enjoyed that period after Christmas and New Year when it is still close enough to the holidays to fool yourself into thinking they have simply overrun. Popping my head out of wishful-thinking-land, I was jobless and almost broke, looking down the slope into a year when I’d promised myself travel, and at least some point to the gap year. I needed to get myself organised. The time to spare had shot from over a year down to just nine months, and the summer didn’t seem all that far away at all. I needed a job, and I needed it quickly.
One of the points behind taking a gap year is that it is the gap between two things. School, and something else. I had to get into a university and, well, sooner rather than later. I took my A-level retakes that January, keeping my fingers firmly crossed. I wasn’t enormously confident. I hadn’t put in the imagined hours and hours of dedicated study, where it would all become so much clearer than the exams the previous summer. I had cleared up a few things, but that was it. My place at university, at any university, was boiling down to the result of the retake. I wasn’t too chirpy on the bus on the way home from the exam. After working all the crap nights, and all the worrying about never getting to go to university, I’d allowed myself to get into an uncertain situation.
Leeds was another university I wanted to have a look at, and by virtue of being unemployed (how many times can you say that in your life?) I was free to go up and peruse it at my leisure. I spent three decadent student days and nights in Leeds, staying with an extravagantly beautiful pen-friend.
I landed a job in the same supermarket as Gemma, in the centre of the Island. This seemed a good idea, as they were crying out for people to work, and could guarantee work actually in the day (score!).
On a less fun note, I’d been moved from working in the cafeteria with Gemma to being an ‘Ambient Replenishment Assistant’. No matter how grandly it was dressed up, I was shelf-stacking again. It turned out to be a lot better than stacking shelves before, because there were customers around, and no-one’s music tastes were inflicted on me. I was also working as part of a team of eight, and my supervisor was a middle-aged lady, so even if she had thought to pipe out a few of her favourite tunes, they would probably have been of a slightly more laid back variety.
“Erm, I was wondering if it might be possible to have a few more hours?”
“How many would you like?”
I liked her enormously.
9th February 1999 I filled in my final decision form for UCAS this morning. Warwick and EDAT (Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology) as my first choice, with Leeds and Energy Engineering take the insurance choice position.
It was a difficult decision to make, especially seeing as staying with Julia and her friends in Leeds showed me how great living in a city can be, while I have very few impressions of Warwick other than a tour round the campus on a drizzly day. Still, I believe I have made the right choice for me. What more can I do?
I’ve worked only a week and a day of Safeway – no work today due to a morning headache/ stomach ache combination. Not working in the Coffee Shop has been a bit of a blow, but I’ve gotten back into the rhythm of shelf-stacking a little too fast to complain about ‘start-of-work’ anxiety, and the very intensity and bulk of the hours I have already worked gives satisfaction and anticipation for the coming travels. This Sunday is Valentine’s Day, and Gemma’s 19th birthday. We plan to go out on Friday night, as she has tickets to Colonel Bogey’s. Only months away, Europe literally lurks below the horizon- a palpable presence. Have to work first though...
7th March 1999 Funds are definitely on the up and up. After five weeks at Safeway, a week in hand and £100+ tax rebate expected by April, my fiscal situation is rocketing grand-wards. Hurrah! Hours at Safeway have come fast and furiously. I’m practically doubling my contract hours every week, which whilst getting very tedious very fast, is also giving an ‘end of week’ buzz. Gemma is now half-way through her two week break, which takes away my regular ‘remember what you’re working for’ jolt, but I’m coping. God knows where in the country she is right now!
Quite a lot has happened since my last entry.
Gemma and I attended the ‘Work Canada’ BUNAC info-session in February, and discovered that Canada might yet be possible. I would have to get my application in as soon as possible after receiving my results, and then wait to see if we got off the waiting list in time.
We worked out that if our applications weren’t off the list by the 24th of April, then we wouldn’t have enough time to do what we wanted to do, and so we’d pull out and tour Europe instead. On the flip side, when we go to Canada we’d be working in pretty similar jobs to those we have now, AND we’d have just three weeks in which to tour the country.
My big doubt is that it would cost us all of our savings so far just to get across the Atlantic to start working again. But it would be an amazing experience. We’ll see how the dice fall.
I’ve started going out with Miranda Williams of Year 11 fame, after bumping into her in Safeway when she came to the Island to house-sit for her Dad on a week’s break from university – King’s College London, where she is studying Law. She stayed with me last weekend, and in another two weeks she breaks up and is coming to spend a week in her house again, and I’m going to stay with her, which should be interesting!
We’ve both changed so much since Year 11, and being with her is amazing – she’s funny, intelligent, and attractive, and the whole thing rests easy on my mind, with no worries at all. Which is weird considering that I feel I care for her even in this short time. One thing I’m uneasy over is the fact that she more or less wants to call it a day when I go away. Practical, admittedly, but it feels bizarre, unromantic.
The university Easter break looms, and Dave desperately wants to come home and drink beer. Good stuff. We might be going to see Ocean Colour Scene in Ryde – which would be great, but I’ve a feeling that I’ll have to earn more than £1000 before leaving Safeway if I still want to have that much by the time we leave, as everyone wants to do stuff all the time when they come back.
At home, things are starting to get a little different. I’m beginning to resent the fact that I don’t have the same freedoms as my university friends, even though the occasions when this is apparent are infrequent. Heigh ho.
I’m looking forward to both travel and university more each day. Honestly – Warwick won’t know what’s hit it if I go there! People at uni are looking for houses at the moment, in preparation for their second year. The incredibly adult activity that it is, everyone hunting for a house is bringing it home to both them and me that we’re not kids any more.
I’m looking forward all the time, and while the shifts seem aeons long, the weeks are flying by.
11th March 1999
I got my Maths retakes results yesterday. Both Warwick and Leeds gave me conditional offers on a ‘C’ in maths. The results arrived outside Safeway during my lunch break courtesy of Parental Express. I opened the envelope to be confronted with two numerical scores. To find out what I had for the A-level entailed ringing Keith at home to read out all the maths exam scores I’d ever had. After a desperate moment or two’s scribbling, a quick bit of mental arithmetic gave me the overall score.
A ‘C’ needed 360 out of 600. I got 354.
Six marks short of a clear path to Warwick, possibly Canada. I have to send them my documents so they can assess my case. If they need to do that, there’s a possibility they have a ‘failure margin’. 1% is almost bound to be inside it, I hope...
I’m not looking forward to telling Gemma that Canada is now practically out of the picture – I was kind of hoping we’d be able to go, but it’ll take at least two weeks until this is sorted, then I have to do the BUNAC application, which would have just 3 weeks to get off the waiting list by the 24th of April.
27th April 1999, Tuesday.
After what seems like an eternity of coming down to check the post every morning and ringing them up before work every other day, Warwick replied in the affirmative. Funnily enough ( if you have that kind of sense of humour) the written confirmation from UCAS arrived on the date Gemma and I had set as our BUNAC cut-off – the date we had to be off the waiting list by.
C’est la vie.
As I now have confirmed student status, I can get an International Student Identity Card which lets Gemma and I get free admission to museums, discounted flights (not that we’ll be flying anywhere on our budget!) and other goodies.
Today is exactly one week since I handed in my notice at Safeway, and so it’s the last time I’ll don the vaulted bow tie and badge. Shame!
I was going to go and stay with Miranda in London tomorrow, but she can’t get back ‘til Thursday night, so I’ve been trying to get hold of Ahmed, but he wasn’t in at 10:30pm last night, nor at 08:45 this morning, so it looks like I might have to alter my ticket.
I bumped into Dave George yesterday (we’re going to see ‘The Faculty’ this eve) and he’s extended a welcome for Gemma and I to stay with his family in Crete while he’s there, and now we’ve been invited to his cousin’s wedding!
Now there’s something I’d like to go to... We’ll see what Gemma says.
Gemma’s friend Kate wanted to come with us round Europe for a while, as she’d had her time in Africa cut short, but now seems to be Malawi bound once more. Miranda was keen on coming for a while as well, but thinks it wouldn’t be fair if was her, Gemma and I, and I agree with her.
Now if I’m not going to London ‘til Friday, perhaps I should work a couple of extra days? Not that I want to, I’m just really aware of Gemma and my difference in funds. I’ll just go and try and get hold of Ahmed again...!
28th April 1999, Wednesday My last day at Safeway passed without hitch, unless you call a short, uncomprehending, non-communicative work experience-type chap a hitch. Never mind. I managed to get the London conundrum (kind of ) sorted out yesterday –I’m going up on Thursday evening now, and meeting Miranda then.
Writing yesterday, I forgot to outline our plans as they stand. We depart on Monday the 17th of May, spend a couple of days in Calais/Caen, then our first Interrail ticket kicks in, and we go to Paris for the weekend. After that, Spain seeing Barcelona and Madrid (and anywhere else we fancy) on the way South to Morocco, with Casablanca and Marrakech as ‘must-sees’.
Back up into France (with the possibility of a day or two in Portugal) to Grenoble, where we have a house placed at our disposal (wow!). A couple of weeks gap, then our second Interrail comes into play and off we go again.
Italy, with Rome, Naples and Verona (only because of Romeo and Juliet!) on the list, a free ferry to Piraeus, Athens’ principle port.
A few days in Greece’s capital, then the overnight Suda ferry (not free) to Crete, Dave’s relatives and a full-blown Greek wedding! A day or two on Crete, back to Athens, and the race to Northern France ensues. We think that if we still have some cash (v. v. unlikely) or jobs, we might stick around for a few weeks in Northern France for a bit. But only if we want to!
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
Lao Tze – ‘Tao Te Ching’
I looked up from the photograph. The manager was beaming at me. He nodded at the print in my hand.
“Do you think you can work to these standards? These were taken at my last store,” he said.
His pointing fingers roamed over his apparent favourites; shelves of almost military precision seemingly identical to the others. He had a wad of photos about four inches thick, all of the same shelves, immaculately stacked with stunningly dull supermarket products.
“Er, I think so. It’s just a matter of taking that little bit of extra care and consideration, isn’t it?” I hazarded.
He looked at me as if I had delivered his first-born child.
“Exactly! It’s good to find someone who appreciates that.”
The interview continued in the same slightly surreal way.
“Four A-levels! Wow. We hardly get any applicants with qualifications like that here,” he said, and at last, with my ego on the upcurve, the interview was heading in a direction I had hoped for.
"That’s almost an O-level, isn’t it?” he asked.
It veered off into uncharted territory again. I tried to explain that it wasn’t, but his eyes froze and his face switched off. He was waiting for me to finish. I stopped, and he came to life and flicked through my CV.
“So tell me about this course you want to do at university. Engineering Design and...hmm, what’s Appropriate Technology?”
I started, half expecting the ‘blah blah blah’ expression to return, but something I said seized his attention.
I emerged from the concrete bowels of my local supermarket an employed man. True, I was a night-shift shelf-stacker, and I wasn’t entirely sure why most of my interview had consisted of trying to explain how solar panels worked, but that didn’t matter. I had a job. A job meant that sooner or later, someone would be giving me money, and that suited me very well indeed.
I was going out with a dwindling stock of friends at the time. They were all drifting off to university, and every few days or so now there was a goodbye phone call, or a goodbye drink, or a goodbye going-out-and-getting plastered. The summer had definitely ended, and it was about time I started doing something about the ‘year out’ I was taking.
The previous year, nestling snugly in the bosom of my A-levels, I put off applying to university, and then put if off some more, and finally decided not to apply at all. I was in one of those late adolescent stages where you decide, all of a sudden and with ferocity that you don’t want to be like everyone else. But instead of dying my hair jet black and wearing second-hand mortician’s clothing, I did something slightly scarier. In a time when everyone was running around in a blind panic writing and re-writing personal statements and generally having epic, life-sized dilemmas, I opted out, and watched them.
I have always been astonishingly bad at making decisions, and so the ‘which university?’, ‘which course?’, and ‘which university has the best male to female student ratio?’ questions were all a bit too big for me to make in the allotted time, so I put them off and decided to do something else for a while.
One girl I knew applied to the university of her choice and deferred entry for a year. When I heard she was taking a year out, I was pleased (okay, so not completely unlike everyone else) and started asking her what she was planning to do, where she was going, how she was funding it and so on, and to my total astonishment said that she was going to work in a Safeway supermarket. All year. To pay for university.
I pointed out that debts were easier to pay off after university, when people give you more money, what with you having a degree and everything, but she was adamant. I gave up and started making plans by myself.
I looked into extravagant, ecologically friendly and socially admirable schemes; building mating huts for turtles in the Pacific, recording wildlife patterns in the Amazon, or building schools for Tibetan children. I was under the rather naive impression that people would gladly pay for you to help them out in this way, even if it was just slipping you half the coach fare, but I was wrong. Turtle-hut building lasted three weeks and you had to pay £3,500 for the privilege; looking at wildlife in Brazil and chipping in with the work in Tibet was pretty much the same, which was demoralizing after envisaging myself saving the world before dashing off to university. They were all really short placements, anyway. I had a whole year going spare, and I didn’t want to spend 95% of it working and 5% sheltering shagging chelonians.
The best idea seemed to be; work, get a load of money together, and Bugger Off. This rather rudimentary plan stuck around for a while with its fingers crossed hoping to avoid an in-depth parental enquiry. In the meantime, I thought I’d have a crack at improving my A-level maths grade, which was a less-than-inspiring ‘D’.
I bumped into Gemma Heath, a friend from Middle School who, in the true style of growing up on a small, sparsely populated island, I’d lost touch with. We had one of those very brief and practically scripted conversations people have when they meet after a long time.
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m fine thanks, how are you?”
“Good, thanks. What are you up to at the moment?”
“Oh, I’m taking a Gap Year. You?”
“Me too. What are you doing?”
“Working at the moment, then I’m off to Canada. You?”
“Oh, no plans, just to travel!”
“Oh! Well, have fun, see you around, anyway.”
“Take care, bye!”
Then we bumped into each other again.
After the third time, we generally expressed opinions that it might be a good idea to do whatever we were going to do together. I was still undecided, but Gemma wanted to go to Canada, and was already working in a supermarket cafeteria to save to go. She spoke of Canada with a passion and enthusiasm, and I was swayed. We teamed up.
I started working in the supermarket in Ventnor, and enjoyed it enough to begin with. I was working from eight until midnight, more or less, six nights a week. It wasn’t enough to start cracking away sizeable sums of travelling cash, but the manager, who had seemed so open and well, let’s be honest, stupid in my interview, began to show extremes of cunning in terms of alluding to but never actually producing the extra shifts that I wanted.
He was as difficult to get hold of as a snake in cooking oil.
When I wanted to know if I could change to day shifts, where the shifts were longer, I could make more money AND see daylight at the same time, he was very vague and insinuated that the fact that he would look into it for me should be enough to satisfy my query. Despite this, I did manage to get hold of a week’s worth of day shifts, covering for people. Then when I pointed out that I was working a four hour shift without the legal fifteen minute break, a short time afterwards the whole night-shift team were stunned to notice that the official length of our shifts were reduced to three hours and forty-five minutes. Details on this change were also rather hazy to come by, and when we got them were along the lines of ‘There’s only that much work to do’.
Despite the fact that the shifts were now officially fifteen minutes shorter, the amount of time we worked was exactly the same, and, as had been before, it frequently overran, and we were rushing to finish stocking the shelves so we could go home. Overtime, or ‘the alleged overtime’ as it came to be known, turned up on payslips rather temperamentally.
To top all this, the work was terrible. The supermarket wasn’t very big, Ventnor only being a small town, and as a consequence, one person worked on each aisle all night. Scratch any potential for social contact. The only time I got to talk to anyone was if two of us finished trolleys of stock simultaneously, and then we could talk whilst manoeuvring for the trolley lift down to the storage cellar.
Okay, so the job wasn’t particularly social, fair enough. Lots of jobs aren’t very social. Bin men, for example –a bin man can only really chat to another bin man about the interesting crap that they’re throwing away at No.15 these days. Bin men get paid extra for the unsociable hours, the varying unpleasantness of their work, and for being bin men. That’s a job where you get paid for something unsociable. Being a bin man doesn’t stop you being social; you can wash. Working Monday to Saturday evenings into the early hours stops you being sociable. You just can’t do it. At the age of nineteen, with this job being the only thing I was doing with my life, I was frustrated.
Then there were the other people I worked with. You may be interested to see how I pull off complaining about the lack of social contact and how annoying the people I had to work with were, so I say to you: watch this then.
The people that were doing the same job as me were, for the most part, okay. I hardly got to speak to them, so in the chilly ten minutes waiting to get inside at the start of the evening, and the chilly ten minutes outside waiting to be told to go whilst the supervisor locked up, we maintained a relaxed air of not-really-giving-a-damn.
The supervisor was another thing.
Unfortunately, he was one of those people who are gripped by insubstantial promises of advancement, and was irritatingly enthusiastic and vigorous in his work. That manager had a lot to answer for. There was a battered old stereo kept just inside the door to the staff rooms that came out at night when the store was closed. This was not, as it seemed at first, a welcome help with the work. Music, listening to the radio, or even four hours of white noise would be a welcome diversion from the otherwise none-too-cerebral work. After the first thirty minutes of my very first shift, I hated that stereo.
I loathed it.
The supervisor was still an avid fan of speed jungle - music very briefly popular at the start of the 1990s. He saw it as motivating, energising and fun, making us work faster, whereas I resented the fact that it was doing perverted things to my ears. After a couple of hours of shelf stacking to ‘C’mon, c’mon! Jungle is Massive!’, accompanied by 240 beats per minute and straining electronic chords, I attained a deeply unpleasant trance-like state. We had a number of enlightening discussions on the subject of music, which resulted in me being allowed to play a tape of my own.
He is still the night-shift supervisor now, five years later, and I walk past the supermarket in the evening sometimes. I swear - he uses the same tape.
I began pleading, threatening, cajoling and pestering the manager into giving me a day off to go to Warwick University’s Open Day, and to my surprise, succeeded. I still had to work the preceding night though, and it was a late one. After bed at 2am, I rose at 6am and drank two cups of treacle-like coffee. I was already nodding off on the bus, so halfway across the Island in between buses, I bought a can of this new-fangled ‘Red Bull’ drink – a recent addition to the soft drinks market.
By the time I was on the high-speed ferry to Southampton, I had a rather distressing vision problem. There was a bright hole in the middle of my sight, as if I’d just looked at a naked light bulb. The other passengers must have been slightly worried by my frantic hand waving and covering of each eye in turn, but they only showed it by a quicker-than-casual move for the doors when we arrived. Thankfully, and to my enormous relief, it wore off by the time I got to the train (that was an interesting walk, or rather, meander through Southampton, let me tell you), but I had a terrible headache.
Warwick was a cold and misty tree-ridden maze, and I was so exhausted that I just wanted to go home. The course seemed amazing, but I was tired and slow-witted, and didn’t impress any prospective tutors, that’s for sure.
I got very, very bored and pissed off with the job, so I never overlooked the opportunity to skive off a bit. Razor-sharp reason and cunning again leapt to the fore from the manager, who demonstrated a respectable knowledge of common ailments, recovery times and likely residual symptoms upon return to work.
Despite all of this, and the glaringly obvious fact that I was making less money than a British film in America, I kept at the job.
I jumped at every opportunity to visit friends at university. Considering the fact that the job was six nights a week and getting time off was harder than SOMETHING VERY HARD, I made it a couple of times. I managed to visit my new but badly-timed girlfriend, Melissa, and my best friend Dave, who considerately went to the same university, helping me to cut down on travel costs.
I started going out with Melissa two weeks before she left for university, which even by my standards was spectacularly bad timing. I’ll be completely honest - I owe Melissa a lot. During the seemingly endless shifts at the supermarket, my thoughts could rest for hours on whether or not a letter from her would arrive the next day, or if she would call. It was really only the sheer hope of her that kept me going, and as with all things that you rely on a little too much, she became almost like an obsession.
Melissa was a long way away, living in some kind of university-based Utopia, where she had a lot of free time and was working towards something she wanted to do. This was so far removed from my own circumstances at the time that university, in its own way, started to seem like a distant thing, and almost an impossibility.
It was dark when I went to work, it was dark when I finished work. I hated going to bed with the feel of the job still on me, so I became almost nocturnal, seeing only an hour or two of sunlight a day. I read, studied maths and wrote letters the rest of the time. In the depths of where I didn’t really want to think, I mulled over the facts; I hadn’t applied to university, I wasn’t earning much money, studying A-level maths on my own wasn’t easier than being confused by a teacher, and my girlfriend of such a short time was a Fresher at large at a university packed full of prowling, predatory male students. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake.
Melissa helped me through some of the darkest months of my life, and after doing that, shooting her into the Top Ten in my ‘All-Time Favourite People Charts’, she cheated on me and dumped me in blazingly quick succession. I am in no way bitter, because, well...well, all right. I was at the time.
I spent too much money. I had all the hours of the day at home, reading or writing, or playing computer games. I spent a lot of money on music, and on books, and on the occasional trips to see my friends, or on drinks whenever one of them came back to visit. To be honest, the job was making me feel more than a bit pants, and spending money on myself...making sure I knew I at least valued myself...was the only reasonable antidote to that feeling, even if it was self-defeating.
In an ultimatum-style talk with the manager, I eventually said that unless I moved to daytime shifts, I would have to leave because I wasn’t earning enough money. He asked me not to leave, saying that I was good at my job (trying to appeal to my ego, maybe?) and that I was good with the customers.
I pointed out that customers were a little thin on the ground at one o’clock in the morning, and that was part of the reason why I wanted to leave. He promised to look into it, just as he had at least ten times before, and he was so convincing that he was within a gnats’ nadger of keeping me there. Fortunately for me though, he misjudged the timing of his next question.
“Oh, and while you’re here, I was wondering if you’d mind working the night of Christmas Eve, you know, really get the place looking fantastic for Boxing Day opening?” he smiled at me conspiratorially, as if I shared in his enthusiasm for geometrically arranged shelves.
“Er, no,” I said, “and on second thoughts, I think I want to leave.”
I’m going over this because, despite the fact that at the end of the three month run-up to Christmas I had about fifty pounds more than I started with, and that fifty quid features minimally in the coming travels, maybe as a few meals, or a single train ticket, those three months were the least fun I’d ever had. I was on a gap year, a break from the pressures of academic life, when the real world wasn’t meant to have bitten in yet.
I’ll tell you now: it was shit.
It’s Monday, the 27th of December, 1998.
In the past year, a lot has happened. I’ve taken my A-levels and finished school, fallen in and out of love at least once, drunk an indeterminate (and insufficient, in my opinion) amount of alcohol, laughed, cried, dreamed and sung my way through the last twelve months.
I’ve attempted to keep diaries of the last two years but they end up mostly blank, and when text does actually appear, it describes with hopeless complication the reasons for the angst/joy/boredom creating situations of the time.
This is my first journal, courtesy of Aunty Sue. To cover this coming year – that, hopefully, of my travels and rather more certainly, of my going to university. To cut out months of blank pages, each entry can be dated on any page, at any time when anything worth recording for posterity pops up.
I had intended to begin this year’s demented scrawlings with a ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ type summary of 1998, but seeing as I’m not a nicotine addict/ calorie counter/ lottery addict/ alcoholic/ woman, there seems v. little point...
19th January 1999
Gemma and I are starting to get a rough idea of what’s going to happen this year. Canada is now all but a non-option, and just as we’ve realised this, an advertising campaign for Air Canada appears to be on TV every moment of the day! Hey ho. Europe is the aim. I start a new job, working with Gemma in Safeway Coffee Shop in Newport which should be fun, on Saturday. Last night we drafted out a route around each other’s ‘must see’ locations – Paris, Rome, and Spain generally, possibly including Madrid. We’ve planned to get Under26 cards, join the International Youth Hostel Association and ask around for hints/tips in the area of Independent Travel (note capitals!) from people we know who have travelled. Also to cut spending, increase hours and research temporary employment like grape picking and such on the continent. My floor lies littered with leaflets, sheets, scrawled-on paper and an atlas still. We may be having visions of international grandeur, but we’re still teenagers. Other decisions that we have yet to make are whether or not to take a tent, whether we’ll see some of Eastern Europe (Austria and Vienna), and how far our money will get us, and how...
The posts get a lot shorter and more digestable after today.
All hail and credit of a sexual nature (just not from me) goes to greenhamster for the design of The Gap Year Diaries section of the site.