THE LAST TIME I WENT ABROAD was in 1994.
I know. That’s an appallingly long period ago. But it’s not that I haven’t wanted to return. For the first 10 years or so I simply didn’t have the money, while latterly it’s been more a case of not having anyone to go with.
My 17-year exile within the UK hasn’t really rivalled that of Dr Who Jon Pertwee, at least not by way of encounters with diabolical masterminds or brokering peace deals at international summits. It has, however, outlasted his by over a decade. That’s assuming his adventures took place in a linear dimension, but enough of that.
The last time I went abroad was to Europe in July 1994, just after I’d finished my A-level exams.
I went with three others, one of whom I never saw again from the second we got back to Britain. I lost contact with the other pair towards the end of the last century.
We spent two weeks interrailing. Two weeks that were, at that point, the most intense period I had ever spent in the company of others. We were around and on top of each other, often literally (only in the sense of bunk beds, mind), day after night after day after night.
I think I was the one who had planted the notion of interrailing in the others’ heads, before – typically – going off the entire idea and trying to sabotage the trip just weeks ahead of departure.
But by that point the thing had gained a momentum. It was happening and I had no choice but to go to Millets and buy a rucksack large enough to accommodate a mad cow or two (contemporary satire), convert my meagre savings into a plastic pouch of travellers’ cheques, and visit British Rail’s international travel centre at Derby station.
I ended up pretty much loving the whole adventure. I might write about other bits of it at a later date, but I want to concentrate here on what, for me, was the most exhilarating, but also the most maddening, chunk of the trip.
It was Saturday 16 July. We had spent a few days in Nice on the south coast of France, but now had to head northwards in order to be back in the UK by the 18th.
To do this, we were booked on a train that would carry us all the way from Nice to Rotterdam. And we would be travelling through the night. We would drift off to sleep amid the balmy plains of the French Riviera then wake back in the cool climes of the Low Countries. That was the plan, at any rate.
The concept of what we were about to do appealed to me immensely. The reality was somewhat different. It went against all my instincts for self-preservation to bed down on a foreign train and willingly fall into protracted semi-consciousness. Heavens, anything could happen!
Worse, I’d spent much of the day of our departure suffering prolonged constipation. I’d also broken my sunglasses, and had sulked for a good two hours or so under a tree, cursing the tropical heat and my unfailing capacity to attract bad luck.
All of this, however, passed swiftly from my mind (and body) once our train crawled into Nice station, we gathered up our acres of baggage, and set to finding the compartment in which we were billeted to spend the next 15 hours.
To be continued…