I love travelling and I travel heaps. But the last time I travelled alone was 30 years ago, and I only lasted a few weeks before running home. And the last time I visited anywhere outside Australia or South Africa was well over a decade ago.
I went to Tokyo, Paris, London, Norwich and up to the very north of Scotland to Thurso to visit my mother. So how did I find myself on this convoluted trip for such a long time – alone? Well, a dear friend heard I was off to visit my mum, decided to travel with me some of the way, and booked cheap tickets for us. For THREE WEEKS, via Japan and France. So my vision of a 10 day Scottish excursion evolved. But two days before our expedition, she had to cancel.
Rescheduling was unaffordable at that stage – nothing available, no refunds and no possibility of disappointing my mother. So I went!
As the plane soared away from the Gold Coast I looked down on the mountains of fluffy white clouds and tried not to have a panic attack at the thought of putting thousands of kilometres between me and my sons.
“I will phone and text you every day,” I told them.
“Well, not EVERY day,” my 10-year old replied. “How would you like it if your mother phoned YOU every day?”
But my 11-year old sobbed. And on D-day, even my littlie tried to squeeze out a few fake tears.
But the panic was nothing a few sedatives couldn’t sort out and after a night’s sleep in Narita, Japan, I was ready to tackle my two days in Paris. I sat beside a plump, pink Frenchman with his shiny grey suit, remarkably bushy eyebrows and coffee breathe. He promptly fell asleep with his head lolling on my shoulder and his legs splayed wide open to rest against mine. As he snored, I watched his fleshy ears vibrate. All the way to Charles de Gaulle. Of course, the last time I was in Paris I was all loved up in the city of love with my late husband, Steven, whose boundless enthusiasm for new experiences and adventure was matched only by my own. I found myself in a horrible hotel in a dodgy part of Paris piled with dog poo and litter, where people seemed sinister and aggressive.
I felt so ungrateful…to be in such a beautiful city with only BLEAH in my heart. I pottered about listlessly until I could make my way the following day on the Euro to London. I had nowhere to stay so I allowed the tourist information staff to book me into an expensive hotel – but it was in such a wonderful area in South Kensington.
I had to mentally give myself a wake-up slap. I certainly didn’t want to waste my trip counting the hours till I could get home again. What a waste of my holiday and money.
As I walked in my fog of nostalgia of past London visits, a cloud moved off the sun and a flash of gold shone in the sky.
I followed the golden dome to St Pauls Cathedral. On the fence was this notice:
So while I was thinking about that, I walked around the corner into a flower garden filled with roses.
And I wondered if angels had been guiding me, or some otherworldly force trying to show and tell me something.
Clearly time alone was driving me crazy. But this incident snapped me out of my dull funk.
Two days later, I was off to meet a very special friend, Dr Alison Dow who I met in London in the early 90’s. We last met face to face when she visited in Australia in 2004, when she was just sadly separated with two young children and I was unhappily married with a son and another on the way. Oh, what a difference a decade makes. She is now living in Norwich in a stunning home with her gorgeous long-time boyfriend, her talented teens are poised to leave home, and she running her own medical practise. And she looked 10 years younger.
There is something especially sweet and satisfying about reconnecting with old friends who have shared major parts of your life, like a part of you has come home – and it really was one of the highlights of my trip. The joy of hanging out with her and hers in this beautiful small city was a highlight of my trip. In her stylish Stag, we raced through the city stopping first to walk through the towering Norwich cathedral, built 900 years ago and one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. We had tea in floral cups, admired the local dragon festival with its smorgasbord of dragon sculptures spread around the city, then soaked in the dappled sunlight and speckled leaves, hedges and hedgehogs, tree-lined lanes and cobbled laneways, and hanging flowerpots overflowing with daffodils, daisies and sweet little buttercups.
A glorious day of gentle sun, bobbing on her boat in the Norfolk Downs, taking sewing lessons from her daughter (oh, she was just enchanting!), then snuggling down in the most comfortable bed in the attic of her house, listening to owls and night birds outside.
Then it was onto the Scotland, Land of the Brave. Obviously, visiting my mum who is caring for her partner with dementia and a crumbling spine isn’t idyllic conditions – but giving her some support was the point of the trip.
I was also looking forward to reconnecting with my heritage as it’s where I get my Viking blood from. My grandfather used to farm at Dounreay, but after he was killed in WW2 as a Major in the Seaforth Highland regiment, the farm was sold and later the nuclear power station was built there.
Thurso is right at the end of the line, the northernmost town in Scotland, where the Gaelic language is still spoken by some and still taught in schools.
The two-carriage Scottish Rail pulled into Thurso at midnight and my dear mum was there to whisk me off to her village of Glengolly and tucked me into one of the most comfortable beds ever. Note to self: Must iron my sheets.
The beach is just a 20 minute walk down the road and every day, we would head through the town striding out past the River Thurso and along the coastal path overlooking Pentland Firth and the Islands of Orkney. Revived by the pungent salty seaweed air whisked up by brisk breezes, we would imagine the Norsemen riding in on the cold surf to this windswept landscape of Celtic possibility.
Some days, we wandered through the remains of St Peters Cathedral, which was built in 1125 and possibly the oldest church in Scotland. Names on many of the tombstones have disappeared with the passage of time, the stone washed clean by centuries of rain, sleet and wind. Trips down to Inverness when I rode to Loch Ness and wandered through one of my favourite cities in the world with its magnificent river, spectacular buildings, kilted men, and pubs with traditional music and ceilidhs.
And I never cried so much when I had to leave 10 days later, flying off from Wick to France, Mum waving and crying at the airport window looking so little and vulnerable, passengers furtively looking at us both in sympathy. Next year again, I promise myself, I will visit again, this time my boys!
On the route back, I was ready for France. First up, a meeting with a vague relative who owns the most exquisite French restaurant – Claudia Cabri, aka Miss Lunch – in a lovely part of Paris where she serves lunches and early suppers. Check it out: www.lunchintheloft.com. No take-away joint this, but a stylish and intimate café with sensational yet down-to-earth food with plenty of wine. And then a delightful evening with renown German author Herr Andreas Altman, an old friend from the early 90’s, for a fast and frantic catch-up and debate on the differences between men and women. For the first time, I booked accommodation using Airbnb – and what a very convenient and cheap alternative that is to the budget traveller. Half the price of a cheap hotel room with all the conveniences with a friendly, personal touch thrown in.
And Narita, Tokyo once again calmed and charmed me with its hugely civilised people, polite and beautifully-dressed people and incredibly fabulous toilets. Seriously, even the public toilets are glistening white. As you sit down, tinkling music plays to disguise possible toilety sounds, and the push of a button brings warm jets of water to clean all parts afterwards, then fresh, warm air to dry. I had the cleanest whatsit in town!
Butcheries with eels, vats of saki, perfectly manicured gardens, immaculate roads and a towering temple with drums and monks, chanting and incense. And I even met a delightful Japanese gentleman who spoke better English than most educated Englishmen. Such a short visit, such a big impact, with a note to self to return in winter for the ski season because of the incredibly friendly and polite Japanese. Or anytime I see cheap tickets to Tokyo!
But nothing felt better than getting home to my sons.
When I showed the kids my holiday snaps, it was the picture of the Natural Science Museum in London that made them most furious they had been left behind.
“I can’t BELIEVE you went there without us,” they cried.
Next time, darlings, next time, I promise. I just need to start saving madly again.