This morning my toilet was blocked. Sorry for writing about such on-the-nose life events, but I learned a lesson from it. Several other times this had happened requiring a visit from the plumber. Not this time, I decided. After trying for an hour to unblock the wretched thing with every conceivable implement to hand I could think of and with you-can-imagine-what up to my glove-clad elbows, I was a tad frustrated. I cried out to the Most High, who, in Heaven, undoubtedly does not have these sorts of problems, “Does this HAVE to happen, Father? It’s disgusting!”
Into my mind popped a picture of my little sink plunger. Surely, I thought, that wouldn’t work on the toilet. But anyhow, I tried it. Within seconds I had a perfectly flushing toilet. The moral of this story? Ask the Almighty, for whom nothing is impossible, FIRST next time. Believe He is even overseeing our toilet troubles.
Well–London. Rainy, cold, nearing Christmas. Michael decided to go live in a hostel and I to a bedsit, or tiny one-room flat, in East Finchley. But we would meet every week to take in a movie together. He was one of the best friends I ever had. Still is up there. In that hostel Michael met Annie, his beautiful wife, and though he lost his two girls–Juanita and myself–he gained two lovely ones back in Annie and his daughter Kristen. And I thank Father for that. Because I know I hurt him when we broke up, in London, and later at Pamplona in Spain.
I lost no time finding a job as a nurse, because I was broke. Although there was money at home in the bank, it was a long way from a bank in Brisbane to me in London. I never owned a credit card, still don’t, and never will. After paying rent and bond, and buying a nurses uniform, I had enough small change left to eat bread and butter for a few days. But it was at least a week before payday. A reverse charges call to my mum had her sending me an alarm clock, another uniform, and $50. It got to London in three days–YHWH at work as I had begged Him to–in time to wake up on time that first morning. As it was winter, nurses on morning and night shifts would go to and come home from work in the dark.
To my great shame now, I soon acquired a job at the Royal Free Hospital in the gynaecology ward where abortions were done. Many years later I had to repent for this and have been a passionate pro-lifer ever since. Even then I didn’t like seeing those tiny dead bodies in a cold kidney dish. But I was ignorant. Blessedly I was released from that hospital five months later.
During that time I went out sporadically with Chris, with whom Michael and I travelled in South America. I had found him living in Brixton. It was also during this period I wrote a poem about my daughter Ranyhyn. She wasn’t actually born until four years later! I had named her a couple of years before after a herd of horses in a trilogy of books Michael and I had owned in Sydney. We all loved the stories so much I told myself if I ever have a daughter that will be her name. The books were by Stephen Donaldson and called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
Chris wanted me to travel to Europe with him. But I had met a New Zealand girl named Julie in the first hotel in which we stayed on our arrival in London. Julie and I became best friends. Her plans were to hitch-hike around Europe and I wanted into that. I tried to let Chris down gently–over the phone, I’d always had a hard time catching him in the flesh. Our relationship was never deep enough to tell how he felt about anything, especially me. So I went off with Julie on our merry way. How glad I am now I did. Or Ranyhyn would never have been born. And I would never have met Bruce.
It was exciting to be ‘let out’ of London at last. And as I was well past relationships–they only seemed to lead to heartbreak–I decided not to have anymore. That year, 1983, became therefore what I later termed ‘My Year of Living Dangerously’. No ties. Just fun, was my motto.
It was summer, sunny, and hot. First stop: Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain, via the ferry at Southampton. We obtained a lift through Spain with an English truckie. In his cab I left my hat. So if he is ever reading this, please contact me. I’d love it back, though I cannot remember what it looked like or why I loved it so much. That was only 30 odd years ago!
Arriving Pamplona, so excited we were fit to burst, Julie and I set up my old blue tent in the first campsite we found. Then we hitched a lift into town to go to the bank. Enroute, who should we see walking along the road but Michael. Also in the group was Steve from Balranald in NSW I’d met and hit it off with in the Spanish Consulate in London as Julie and I got our visas. Poor Julie had been forgotten as Steve and I launched into one of those fresh-just-met-animated-hey-he/she’s-really-cute type of conversations.
“Alto! Alto!” I almost yelled at the driver giving us a lift. He stopped. We jumped out with, “Pardon, Senior, amigos aqui!” He was fine with that. I was able to brush up on my Spanish again, although it isn’t so good thirty years later. Michael got a big hug. Steve got ignored for the moment. Michael asked us where we were camped. “Down the road.” He said, “No, there’s a free camp for backpackers.” We immediately all backtracked to our campsite, pulled up stakes–literally–and rushed back to the gigantic free camp on a river, with a bar to boot, and set the old blue tent up there.
That afternoon I ran into Steve again at the bar, where the most delicious sangrias were served, and we sort of became a couple overnight. at least for the week we were there for the festival. Steve, his friend Owen, and most of the other guys we knew ran with the bulls. As Julie and I watched those massive bulls rumble past like tanks at the speed of light, I mumbled a desperate prayer for them (the silly guys, not the bulls). One of ours was killed that year if I remember, though I didn’t know him. Other Spanish men were gored, so took up the front page of next day’s paper. After a few days most of us remained in the campsite relaxing near or in the river before heading off to various places in Europe. Steve wanted me to go with him in their kombi, but I had to decline his invitation because of Julie. We agreed to meet again at Oktoberfest, and I started to count down the days. It was here I said goodbye to Michael, as he was travel weary and returning to Australia.
Jules and I managed to hitch a lift with a truck driver all the way to Belgium in one hit. About 18 hours with an overnight when we slept on the verge next to the truck, after a sink wash in the toilet at the truck stop.
And ever onward: Amsterdam, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, East Germany, Berlin, Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. We never usually took more than twenty minutes to catch a lift. But one time in the fjords of Norway it took us four days to go 400 kilometres! Leaving Berlin, on the other hand, we found a long line of hitchers, all men, so went to the back of the queue. Almost immediately a motorist stopped for us, bypassing all the irritated guys.
A naked man in Germany picked us up. We hadn’t noticed when entering his car but he was tanning I think as he drove along. He dropped us at the train station in order for us to ascertain where a campsite was located. Within minutes our benefactor appeared in the station perfectly groomed and dressed in a business suit and tie. How he did that, put on a suit without a crease, in his cramped car I’ll never know.
Julie and I learned trust for people in Europe. We had agreed never to get into a car with more than one man and always both sit in the back if possible. Outside the fabulous city of Oslo in Norway, where we had slept in parks with fellow travellers because accommodation was so expensive, two young men stopped to pick us up. We were heading to Stockholm eight hours away and expected the trip to take several days. Ove and Lief took us all the way. We made an exception for these two when we felt in our hearts they were okay. And they were.
Sweden is so different to its neighbour Norway which is full of fjords, rivers, mountains, and lakes. Sweden is flat with fields of flowers stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. A pallet of purples and yellows. I’m a flat, dry land, colour person myself so you can imagine which I liked better. YHWH’s handiwork both of them. And unbelievably breathtaking.
In Stockholm the boys invited us to stay at their college campus, as it was holidays with most of the students away. We accepted gladly. Once there, Ove and Lief lost no time jumping naked–what is it with Europeans and nudity?–into the sauna, then the nearby harbour from a cliff. I won’t tell you what Julie and I did but it gave the guys a giggle. Lief and I remained in contact for many years. Upon my eventual return home, he would ring in the middle of the night for a chat. He didn’t seem to know about time zones! The boys served us dinner of Swedish open sandwiches and some sort of cold berry soup.
From the south of Sweden we took a giant ferry over to East Germany where another truckie took us to near Berlin. A driver picked us up and dropped us near the checkpoint from East to West Berlin, but far enough away so the customs officers wouldn’t see him. He made us promise not to divulge anything about him to the border security or, he maintained, he would go to prison. At the border crossing, the guards suddenly saw us appear from the dark spiritual depths of their country and demanded to know how we got there and where we’d come from.
“Someone in a truck,” we answered, and, “From Sweden!” The ice was often broken when, upon opening my passport, people would see my German maiden name (my ancestors were Prussian missionaries) and ask where I lived in Germany. Never mind that I couldn’t speak a word of German. Anyway these ones softened let us through eventually.
From Berlin where the wall was still up, Jules and I ventured to Poland. Where absolutely no one excepting a few students spoke English. And the language with its different alphabet is so difficult for travellers to learn. In Warsaw, we met Marek in a student hostel. He very nicely designated himself our unofficial guide. Again I kept in contact with him for many years until his mother died, he moved, and I lost track of him.
Marek got us onto a train to Gdansk on the north coast. Arriving there very late we were unable to find accommodation so slept under a tree in a park. In Communist Poland this was simply not done. Two policemen found us next morning and evicted us from our tree angrily. At a hostel about which Marek had given us the details, one of the receptionists invited Julie and me to stay with her and her husband in their apartment. They took us most surreptitiously to show us the apartment block in which Poland’s Solidarity hero, Lech Walesa, lived. In those days in Poland people would line up all day for a single loaf of bread. The shops had virtually nothing on the shelves but jam. Julie and I, having American dollars, could go to the American Store to buy just about anything very cheaply. One day we bought two bottles of vodka for $5 each to take back to share with our hosts. Walking back to the train station, one of the wretched bottles slipped out through a hole that has developed in the bag and smashed on the pavement. It was acutely embarrassing as a group of Poles gathered around us shaking their heads at our unbelievable waste. They paid exorbitant amounts for a bottle of alcohol, probably a week’s pay.
Our most trying event was coming back to Berlin by train, an overnight journey on a sleeper. We had so many Polish zlotys left it was a last-ditch effort to try to get rid of them somehow. Outside Poland they were worth absolutely nothing. At Checkpoint Charlie Julie went first, without incident. She pushed both of our packs ahead of her through the big metal gates which clanged shut behind her. The customs official looked at my passport but didn’t believe it was me. In the photo I was done up to the max with makeup, but I myself had just slept on a train and I suppose I looked a mess. They took me to another office where I was asked to produce further identification. This took about half an hour. Meanwhile Julie’s outside, not able to hear or see anything from my side of the gate, wondering if she would ever see me again. Thinking I’d been dragged off to a concentration camp or for interrogation, and trying to figure out what to do if I didn’t appear. I did finally come through the gate. Phew! It was with great jubilation I watched that evil wall being smashed to smithereens by mallet wielding protestors six years later.
In Berlin we stayed with more students we’d met on the road somewhere. And ate with them at their cafeteria.
At last Oktoberfest rolled around. And Steve too. We spent some time together but he had started drinking heavily, and was, like Michael, soon going home. Another good-bye, to my sheep-shearer from Balranald. I heard in 1990 he was married and a new daddy. Everybody I know who spent time with and was a blessing to me seems to have been blessed later on. Have you noticed this? Meanwhile, I met up with Richard from Invercargill in New Zealand whom Michael and I had met in Boston, USA. Small world, isn’t it? Later I ran into him again on the Tube in London. I would often run into people I knew from back home.
One night in the big tent at Oktoberfest I was walking nonchalantly to the toilet when I passed between two Australian guys having an argument. One of them went to whack the other in the face just as I reached them and got me instead. Right in the nose. I blacked out. Well, it put a stop to their argument pretty quick as they helped me up, brushed me off, checked I wa alright, and apologized profusely. Another incident happened as I WAITED in the ever-present long line to go to the ladies. One of my South African friends, Kieran, came along, and seeing me, said he’d save me the wait. He took me by the hand and led me straight into the men’s loo, where there was never a queue because of a man’s superior plumbing when it comes to that sort of thing. Because we were all a bit drunk, none of the guys standing at the urinals minded very much as Kieran insisted I use a cubicle to do my business. That was an interesting experience that has never in my life been repeated.
Jules and I then hitched down through Austria, where we waved to Pope John Paul in his pope-mobile; Switzerland; and Italy with its own hair-raising adventures, to catch a ferry to Greece. Since reading Homer’s Odyssey, I had always wanted to visit its hero Ulysses’ island of Ithaka so that became our first stop. We camped on the magnificent little harbour right in the middle of its only town, Ithaki, and were invited to eat octopus by a family whose house overlooked our tent. On the neighbouring island of Kefalonia I was asked by an admirer to work for him as a tour guide. Again I had to decline because, as usual, Julie, being short, dark-haired and not as skinny as me, was never invited. Julie did however eventually come into her own and very nicely.
Across the hand-shaped Peloponnese Peninsula, we received a lift from two lovely young Greek men. It was an overnighter. We all slept on a beach. These two absolute gentlemen bought us meals, took us to visit a monastery in the mountains along the remote road we were travelling, then dropped us at a certain place on the beach, and ensured we were okay, before heading a hundred or so metres away in order to give us our privacy. I cannot say the same about Italian or Athenian men who, in broad daylight, often seemed to have eight hands each, all in uninvited pursuit of delicate parts of our bodies.
From Athens up to Thessaloniki before heading across to Turkey. Istanbul was marvellous for its massive Turkish baths fitted with marble floors and basins. Julie, I, and the other girls we met up with had never been so clean. We caught a sail boat to the island of Rhodes, no Colossus–one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World– there standing astride the harbour anymore, and a ferry to our ultimate and much-anticipated destination of Israel. At last this wandering Israelite had come home, though I didn’t know it then.
Through the kibbutz office in Tel Aviv, Julie and I were sent to Ashdot Ya’akov in the Jordan Valley, 5 kilometres south of the Sea of Galilee. There Julie met the love of her life, a tall, shy, handsome Englishman named Paul with whom she remains to this day living in her native New Zealand.
And me? My Year of Living Dangerously–during which I would have gone to Hell if I’d died–ended there in Israel, whereupon I kissed the ground on arrival, it being the place my Saviour had walked the Earth with His dusty, sandaled feet. These resolutions we make tend to go out the window when we fall in love.