I’m sure most will concur themselves – but the first half of by twenties felt like absolute chaos. Finishing university and attempting to join ‘real job’ club was greeted with mixed results.
There were two serious relationships, one of which ended in a failed engagement and enough blurry to satisfy nights another twenty four years. It wasn’t a bad time by any stretch – in fact it was amazingly fun – perhaps a little too fun.
Things began to make a bit more sense while I was in the U.S. I paid off the credit card bill that had trailed me for the past five years and put together some savings – enough to do what I wanted; when I wanted. I took up the idea of journalism – and completed a three year distance learning diploma last June.
The grand final act of the U.S experience would be the ultimate road trip – coast to coast. It began on a sunny but crisp November morning on Nantucket. We stopped to celebrate my birthday in New York, before continuing on into Pennsylvania. As we sped down an open road one late afternoon, a man in horse drawn carriage slowly trotted by us. It took a moment to register. “He’s fucking Amish” I screamed, more childlike than was strictly necessary – the car weaving slightly. We had stumbled into Lancaster County, one of the largest Amish communities in the world – and I was incredibly happy about the whole thing.
The next couple of hours were spent happily walking around the Amish museum – learning about such wonderful Amish matters as ‘How to make a bed’, and ‘Embroidery and Stitching’. Both subjects I would normally be careful to avoid but strangely fascinating to me when done by people who travel in horse drawn carriages.
The stunning Blue Ridge parkway led us down the Appalachians – before cutting into Alabama. In Birmingham we walked the sobering civil rights trail and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church – the site of a Ku Klux Klan bomb in 1963, which killed four children. I’m not religious, but always loved the idea of attending a good old fashioned Baptist service in the South. We sat in the parking lot weighing up the options – and finally decided to go for it. The heavy door creaked loudly open and I peered my head into the room. It was 11am and was deserted – we had failed to alter our watches for the new time zone. In the corner sat a group of ladies, engaged in bible study. Eight elderly black women stared at us. We stared back. After spending the previous two hours reading about the civil rights struggle, and quite literally treading in the footsteps of those who battled against segregation – my mind was scrambled. Was this OK? Had we fucked up? Suddenly smiles broke across their faces and they waved us over. We sat with them for an hour as they talked about this and that – always with wonderfully warm humor. They where all easily old enough to remember the awful events of the past but the way they welcomed two white strangers to sit with them and talk, was incredibly humbling.
The service began immediately after. My memories of church from when I was a child are cold and dreary. The baptist service could not have been a greater contrast. It was fun and joyful – full of singing – and most wonderfully, plump women that that would intermittently shout “Praise Jesus!”, or “Hallelujah”. I wanted to shout “Yes!, Awesome!” every time but managed to restrain myself. It was not so much as a religious experience, as an amazing cultural one. And one I’ll always remember.
Our next stop was New Orleans – for the obligatory nights of mayhem. It took us nearly two days to cross the sandy expanse that most of Texas seems to be, before passing through New Mexico and finally into California, culminating in a family dinner near Los Angles. An extraordinary journey, with one of my best friends – and the best possible way to say goodbye to the U.S.
It was under sad circumstances that I returned home for a few days, but I was glad to be with another of my best friends at that time. It was a short stop at home – after less than a week I moved again.
I had spent my time in the US working exclusively in the service industry – often at the higher end. Anybody who has worked in the service industry who has been verbally violated by a rich shit, with a fetish for deeply unpleasant behavior – will know the extraordinary level of patience involved. Money has created some awful monsters in this world and at times it felt like I was engaging with a substantial proportion of them.
I felt I was putting all of my time energy into satisfying the needs of people, who quite frankly – and this may be my jaded hospitality industry mouth ranting here – should’ve been shot – or if I was feeling kind – harmed in a moderate to severe kind of a way. At times it just felt cheap and soulless. Mercifully these are short periods. Christmas and New Years – July and August, they pass by. The (often) despicable creatures have spread their wings, engulfed the Kingdom in a final volley of fire and returned to their castles in the sky, where they can survey us peasants – who are now happily interacting with other mere mortals.
I set out for Prague a few days after I got home. I completed a one month TEFL training course, found myself an apartment – and got a job. Prague is one of those cities that grabs you forcefully by the balls from day one. There is never any question of you making your own mind up.. The story goes that even Hitler thought it too beautiful to bomb. The communist make over team turned the outskirts of the city into a morbid rash of grey concrete but thankfully spared the ancient old quarter. It reminds me of Paris without the Parisian gleam to everything. It’s a extraordinarily beautiful city – but still carries a rough edge to it.
Weeks were spent working hard, early mornings and long days. Weekends were spent often frequenting the cities many bars. Occasionally waking up on a night tram at the end of the stop, now miles from home – the brain still fogged with beer, and no logical clue how to get home. I had a few good friends, but I wouldn’t say I met many people I made much of a connection with. The Czechs seem to be still wrestling with the effects of communism – undoubtedly friendly but I often found them strangely withdrawn – especially the older generation.
I had been there for just over a month when Vaclav Havel died. A playwright, poet, dissident and politician – who became the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic. The outpouring of grief was immense for a man that many saw as one of the founders of the modern country.
My contract ended in June and it was time to move on. I’d felt like I’d done everything I wanted to do, and was entirely bored with the almost sole teaching at businesses. There was never any real question of me staying. I immediately began a job in a summer school in the hilly countryside of Southern England. A rag tag group of children from around the world hurled in as one – glued together by a group of teacher, frantically battling exhaustion and often claustrophobia. It was fantastic.
The three months spent at home was longer than expected, but welcome none the less. September into October is a wonderful time in England. The shadows become longer, the chill in the air increases and you happily oblige by pulling out the thick sweater. Mum starts the first fire of the season, whether it’s really needed or not, and we shake of the cob webs off the blankets. I think I appreciated my home of thirteen years, the most in those three months.
A near departure too China was aborted at the last minute. The ‘come over and we’ll try and sort out a work visa’ didn’t appeal. The headline “British Spy caught – Hard Labor inevitable” occupied my thoughts. Conveniently a job in Vietnam quickly fell into place.
Just over a year ago I stood for the first time under a rather loud sign which announced: ‘Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’.
Time in Vietnam has jet heeled past. I have been here for a year and still have absolutely no idea what’s happening. It has been the first time I’ve stayed in one place for a year since I was at University. A natural reflex to move has had to be reined in. A map of the world sits above my desk, and I often find myself gazing up completely lost in my own world. What’s in Djibouti? I mean really? Sometimes I get carried away. Last week I had the next five years of travelling already mapped out in my head before coming crashing back to reality with the page that sat in front of me. ‘Indefinite Pronouns’ it read. The shoulders slumped a little. But you get on with it.
Life is busy but happy. I have a great girlfriend who shares my interest in exploring as much of Vietnam as I can (or so she says) and I’ve had – and will have – a steady stream of friends and family visiting from around the world. Happy days.
As for the future – I have six month left on a contract in Vietnam. Followed by six weeks in Rio for the World Cup. After that – who knows. I wonder what’s in Djibouti?
The worst of travelling are the goodbyes. People come and go. I was lucky enough to have an extraordinarily close nit group of friends when I was growing up and I’ve met equally amazing people in the last five years.
Lots of people have been incredibly important within a six month period – but in all likelihood I’ll never see again. It’s a sobering thought, but one you adapt to. Relationships develop faster – maybe they burn a little brighter with the intensity of knowing that things will be shook vigorously in the near future. There are many, many people who really made the last five years what they have been. Those unforgettable moments wouldn’t have been the same without you. It would take too long to name names – but you will know who you are.
For all those stunning experiences when travelling, it’s the moment you look around and see a great friend – with the same stupid, lopsided grin on their face – that I’ll often remember the most.
Happy Thanksgiving to all the Americans.