The first time I ever went on a big trip abroad was when I was at university. A housemate of mine had seen an opportunity to go to America or Canada for 3 months, the first two months to work, and then a month of travelling. Though her idea in its inception, it sounded very exciting and like something I should be doing too. We decided on Canada for two reasons: 1) we were too young to drink in America (not the best reason to make a big decisions but there it is); and 2) rather than working in a pre-arranged Summer Camp in the US, we liked the idea of arranging our own work, and then getting out and meeting some real Canadian people. We thought this would be more ‘Us’. We were 100% correct in this assumption.
I worked for two months in a hotel in a small town outside of Toronto; she, in a fast food restaurant in Banff. The work was hard but I enjoyed it. I found I had a natural affinity with the guests, they liked my English accent and I made good tips. It was also advantageous that I seemed to cope pretty well with the unpredictable moods and obscene swearing of the irascible French chef. I stuck up for myself when he was trying to scare me with his ranting. He seemed to approve of the fact that I could. I quickly became a dinner guest of him and his beautiful hearted wife, who fed me globe artichokes with butter and made me watch Judy Garland films (as she thought I looked like her).
The small town I was working in had a surprisingly active social scene – some great local restaurants with amazing food (that I can still taste if I think hard), and lively bars in which to watch the super talented local guitar bands. I quickly made friends and big groups of us would hang out together when we weren’t working. Oh and the fun I had! There were many late nights spent talking into the early hours; listening to cool music – the likes of which I had never heard before, and skinny dipping in a lake so big it had tides like the ocean. There were also jaunts further afield. Trips to Toronto to see my friends’ favourite bands, weekends spent at chilled out music festivals in the country and introductions to their cherished childhood beauty spots. I lapped it all up eagerly – feeling like I had never before lived.
I remember when I visited Toronto for the first time. There was such an electricity about the place – apart from London, the biggest city I had ever been to. I remember laughing out loud at the enormity of the pizza. My friends took me to the coolest parts of the city, places I would never have ventured to on my own. They took me to Queen Street where we ate Mexican food and played pool. I remember looking at the waiting staff – with their interesting hair and many piercings and tattoos. I was terrified of these people. It was fabulous!
I remember looking at the wild clothes, and listening to the grungy music and thinking “I bloody love this place!”. It was the first time I had experienced the thrill of excitement that only being in a new city can bring me. And it has to be a city for some reason. I remember, many years later, getting the very same feeling: standing looking at the crazy traffic in Saigon; people watching over my first coffee in Plaza de Armas in Santiago and then, very recently, when I walked down Flinders Street in Melbourne for the first time. Something rises up in me, an exhilaration, a panic, a tsunami of sights and sounds and smells and people and voices and music and traffic and Oh, My God! I could actually just pass out with all the overwhelming input.
Never before had I fitted so much ‘Incredible’ into three months of my life. The excitement of sleeping out under the stars; the amusement of waking up to find an elk standing over my head; learning how to open wine bottles with only a tree trunk (for when nobody remembers the corkscrew); staying up all night listening to people play guitar. All the boys played guitar!! Did they have to learn this to graduate from high school? This was the first time in my life I learned I was a sucker for a guitar player. That is still true. And, if you happen to play Spanish Guitar? Well let me just pack my bag ….
I also did some really bloody stupid stuff. Having never been cut loose in quite this way before I drank too much until I was silly. Not being so confident in who I was back then, I drank in the hope that the real me would be brave enough to come out and play. I was wrong, a really stupid, immature version of me tended to emerge, and I pissed a few people off that I really cared about when they spotted what an insecure, messed up fool I was. Something I have unfortunately repeated in my life several times since (but try to do much less these days).
One night I stayed out all night with a particular friend (we’ll call him J) who I swear could have been a good friend for life had we stayed in touch. He was the coolest, warmest, funniest, kindest guy I think I had ever met. I didn’t want anything from him but friendship, and that seemed cool with him. We stayed up talking out on the beach after our little group of campfire friends had finally admitted defeat. We swam in the lake, we talked some more, we laughed, a lot! And then, when the sun came up, I went back to my lodgings to get changed for work. I think I probably looked a state, my colleague (also from England) certainly thought so. And, given that she herself had romantic notions towards this guy I had just had her dream evening with, she wasn’t very happy with me. I can’t blame her. I really was a bit of an idiot back then.
There were other idiotic moments, but I think we’ll leave that there for now. Just remembering it all is enough to make me cringe. I like to think I am a more considerate and responsible human being with age. I certainly am happy to be more considerate. We should all be considerate to those around us. But, occasional irresponsibility? Well, what can I say, sometimes that is where the fun is at.
The time had arrived for me to leave my new-found friends and travel across the country to Banff to meet my university pal and go on our travels. I was gutted. Of course I looked forward to the travelling, but back in Ontario … I wasn’t just leaving a bunch of people I had become really fond of, I was leaving a new found me and I was worried I was going to lose her. I remember flying into Calgary and watching the city hove into view (after hours of not a great deal out of the window) and not feeling quite as excited as the arrival in a new place should inspire. I felt a little leaden. As a child, I had left so many people behind when my family moved across the country, this heaviness in my stomach was very familiar to me …..
Tune in next time for Part 2 of my first big adventure :)
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