I’ll never forget my first holiday abroad. My friends and I decided to drive from Scotland to the French Alps and camp there. I was nervous with anticipation. We planned the whole adventure with the sort of meticulous detail that would make an Army General smile. We spent hours and hours poring over maps of the area we wanted to go to until we felt we knew it like we’d already been there.
I ordered my very first passport and was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t the black variety that James Bond had been using for years (in fact is was a much less cool dark red flimsy version). I’m sitting looking at my passport photo now and I see a guy who thinks he knows it all but I know that I’m just looking at some young kid who’s still wet behind the ears!
Anyway, the time came to leave and we kissed our parents farewell and began our long trip south. I’d driven to the south of England before and that seemed like a long way, but when we got down that far our drive had hardly begun! A short hop over the ferry and we were on our way – on the wrong side of the road. I don’t think we ever got used to driving on the right and managed to start every morning on the left and as a car came at us head-on we’d swerve over and remember where we were. Our plan was to get as far as Auxerre, camp there and head on to the Alps the next day. We were poor and young so we avoided the toll roads and stuck to the twisty back roads.
One friend was driving, another in the passenger seat and me in the back stretched out reading a book. I assumed it was a winding road as I was getting thrown around a bit and the driver was a bit of a nutter behind the wheel. When we arrived at our mid-way point he admitted that in fact he’d kept falling asleep at the wheel and was swerving to stay on the road! It was around 8pm and after a bite to eat we had a lie down in our tents, kids playing around making noise in a foreign language and we were asleep in minutes.
It’s hard to describe how I felt being in a foreign country where nobody spoke English by default for the first time. I felt like an outsider trying to figure out what was going on. Everything was different. But it was an adventure and I loved it. Next day we carried on to the Alps and we went from the flats of northern France to mountains as high as the eye could see. It was awesome.
We camped on the side of a mountain one night and got caught in a thunderstorm. Literally. I could feel the electricity in the air and although it was 11pm the lightning – that was striking all around us – made it as light as day. The thunder would clap as the lightning struck in sheets, then the thunder would echo all around us and the lightning would strike again. It was constant and I was both exhilarated by the sheer power of nature and humbled by how small I felt. Incredible.
We sampled the joys of French cuisine and it was superb. Even buying a simple baguette from the supermarket was a treat – their bread seemed to taste far better than over in the UK (and as I later found out, it really is). All these new and fantastic experiences blended into one. I was overwhelmed. We climbed up to a glacier above Chamonix and when we got there I looked out over the valley and asked “where the hell is it?” only to be told that we were looking at it! Of course, I was expecting a pristine white glacier like in the Himalayas but didn’t expect it to be covered in debris. I realised my mistake and was impressed, until a helicopter flew over the glacier and I got the perspective of the scale of the thing. The helicopter was a tiny dot – the glacier was huge!
It was a voyage of discovery from start to finish and we had the constant threat of my friend’s car breaking down at any minute (which it did actually). One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was experiencing different cultures. We went into a pub in a village we were passing through (we were tired). It was one of those places that when you walk in everybody goes silent and stares at you. We went to the bar and ordered a few drinks in our optimistic French. One of the guys at the bar asked where we were from and as soon as he realised we were Scottish suddenly we were everybody’s best friend! We played table football against some of the old guys – who completely hammered us, they could pass the ball around as if their plastic players were real people – and told them all about back home and listened to their stories. We left smiling.
Since that trip I’ve travelled quite a lot. I’ve been to America, Italy, Amsterdam, New Zealand, Antigua, Switzerland, Lebanon, Andorra and a few other places I can’t think of right now. It’s become very easy. Take Thursday for example. I’m flying to Lyon to stay with one of my friends for a few days. Lyon was one of the places I passed through all those years ago. We decided to do it a couple of weeks ago and I booked the flights over the internet. It’ll take a few hours and I’ll be there. But rather than having my wide-eyed anticipation and trepidation of travelling to France like I did in 1996, I’m just looking forward to seeing my friend and his family. They could be living in Cornwall (with better weather), the fact that they’re in a foreign-speaking country a long way from home makes no odds to me.
In one way, I see the world as a pretty small place and think nothing of travelling to the other side of it. But in another way I’d love to have that feeling of adventure again. That innocence. That feeling of not knowing what’s around the corner. New sensations and feelings.
I guess that’s the price you pay with experience. You learn to know what to expect. But the picture on my passport is still of that innocent kid, and he’ll be coming with me on a trip down memory lane. It’s just this time Scott and Nick won’t be with me, but they will be in spirit.