Looking back on your life you imagine things have always been quite similar to how they are now and that you were pretty much the same person. I translate my memories somehow and look at them with a contemporary slant. Thinking about it more I realise that it’s not the case. I was thinking this weekend about the first time I went abroad 19 years ago.
I had just turned 22 and had never left England before. It’s hard to believe now as everyone goes abroad but it actually wasn’t that rare for people my age not to have travelled much. We went to Norfolk on holiday. My partner at the time had inherited some money when his mother died and he decided he wanted to go to visit his brother in France. I’m not sure what possessed me to think this would be acceptable. My ex was a raving alcoholic and his brother was even more of one. I was yet to develop my heavy drinking habits which would later cause me a few issues. I was in for a week of alcohol spectatorship. There’s not much fun to be had in watching two brothers holed up in a flat trying to out-drink each other. It doesn’t matter where the flat is. It could be a flat in Monaco. Its’ still boring as hell being with two alcoholics.
We caught a train to London and I smoked all the way. Travelling down the escalator on the tube I was quite horrified that I wouldn’t be able to smoke for a full thirty minutes. We got on the plane and I was horribly nervous. The flight had cost almost £250 each. There were very few cheap flights at the time and we had to fly into Switzerland to get to Northern France. It all felt very glamorous indeed but not enough to justify the price. The stewardesses were all dressed immaculately with so much make-up on that it was a wonder they could hold their heads up. I got to my seat and lit a nice refreshing cigarette. The flight was short but somehow we managed to cram in several cigarettes, a full three course meal, a hot towel (I wish I knew why?) and a complimentary boiled sweet for landing.
We were picked up from the airport and of course, Barry’s brother was a little tipsy. I wasn’t especially horrified. His driving was erratic but we certainly got there quickly. Naturally we smoked in the car too. He drove most places a little drunk. It was strictly illegal but no one seemed to mind too much.
I fretted a lot about my French. I could speak a few words gleaned from my O level exams but as the exam had consisted in part of translating an article about Liz Taylor, I felt I’d had an unfair advantage at school. I knew the life of Liz like some children knew their biblical tales.
When I look back I was horribly shy at the time. I’d sit quietly and let things go on around me, often blaming myself if things weren’t good. I feel a strange puzzlement now and wonder why on earth I put up with spending huge portions of my time bored senseless and with a man I resented. For me, being able to express my needs came a little later in life along with more confidence. I was quite daunted by Barry and his brother and because they were so much older than me, accepted their authority. Although I’d left home at 17 I was still pretty much an over grown child. That can be a pitfall of living with a much older man when you’re a teenager. You feel an obligation to remain a teenager.
I hated being in a strange flat and accepted that their bad behaviour, general rudeness and total lack of consideration was, although not right, maybe the way grown-ups behaved. His brother belittled his girlfriend constantly, mocking her occasionally comic attempts to speak English. He sulked a lot and retreated to his room and also spent two days in bed groaning following a party he held with a bout of pancreatitis.
We were alone in the flat a fair bit and I didn’t dare touch anything. I was however impressed with the air freshener they had. It was mint scented. I recall being amazed at that. I was horrified when the doorbell rang. I tried to persuade Barry to answer it but he laughed and pushed me forward. I answered the door and a small fat woman was standing there spouting very rapid French. Under her arm was a carpet.
This wasn’t like the French we’d learned at school. It was more guttural, faster and wasn’t about pet monkeys and pencil cases. I was at a loss.
She gesticulated wildly and kept thrusting the carpet at me. I tried to shut the door but she pushed her way into the door frame and refused to budge. Suddenly a flash of inspiration hit me. We’d passed a carpet shop the day before and the sign said “Tapis”
“Je n’aime pas le tapis!” I said. She spat and turned around, marching off with mock indignation.
I told Barry what had happened and he laughed at me.
“I think my brother was expecting some stuff back from the dry cleaners. You’ve just shouted at the dry cleaner that you hate his carpet! He will be pleased.”
I blanched. Luckily it turned out that the woman wasn’t the dry cleaner (he came later) but a random rug seller. I was rattled for a while. Nowadays I wouldn’t have cared. It was a nasty rug. At my age if I see a bad rug I call it a bad rug and don’t care who knows. Maybe there’s something to be said for getting older. My younger self perplexes me.
Thinking about it, smoking on planes wasn’t such a great idea. I suspect the smoke may have just drifted a little onto the non-smoking passengers and perhaps incendiary things aren’t so good on planes. The holiday wasn’t all bad. I saw a bit of foreign culture, enjoyed the food and met some lovely French people. I also came back with a suitcase full of very cheap cigarettes. Now they certainly don’t exist anymore.