Two clients were playing pool, half a dozen were dancing in a corner, and I was standing at the bar having a beer. It was about 2am and I’d volunteered to show the clients a local pub I’d found. We’d returned from an evening trip to Monaco around midnight, but this was not a group that wanted to sleep. Besides, we had all day in Nice to recover.
A couple of guys ordered a giraffe. No animals were harmed — it was the name of a tall two-litre glass cylinder that beer was served in at some Riviera pubs. It had a tap near the base for easy pouring.
I savoured my beer and the cruisy conversation. No repetitive questions, no spieling, no timings, no organisation required until dinnertime tomorrow — or was that technically today? Either way it didn’t matter. God, it was good to unwind, I was starting to feel like a normal human being again.
I was interrupted from my reverie by THAT question.
‘Shannon, you have the best job in the world! So tell me,’ said the client in a conspiratorial whisper, as if no-one had thought to ask such a personal question before, ‘… how did you get into this anyway?’
It was eight months since I’d chucked in my job as a lawyer to travel to London on a working holiday. I’d met Aussies, Kiwis, Saffas (South Africans), Irish, Scots, French; basically every nationality except the English — they’re hard to find in London. Despite fervent promises by ruthless recruiting agencies, my London career had amounted to no more than ad hoc administrative jobs, but I enjoyed the change of pace and diminished responsibility. It left me free to quit and travel whenever a European festival took my fancy. In between jaunts to Gallipoli, Pamplona and Munich I earned pounds in London doing a variety of crappy jobs, happy that the exchange rate on my next European trip would make up for the mediocre wages.
Somehow a hostel in Earls Court had become my home, where the long term residents were kept entertained with an endless supply of short stay travellers, but gradually my enjoyment of lager swilling egocentric London had started to wane. Then the Oldies arrived. My mum and two aunties were all first-time travellers, and had obtained shiny new passports for their Big Trip. I’d promised to be their personal tour guide, and took a break from temping jobs so I could travel with them.
I met them at Heathrow at 7am. I smiled and waved as they came out the exit, relieved I hadn’t missed them in the expanse of Heathrow. My smile dropped as I noticed that each of the Oldies pulled a gigantic suitcase behind them. Straddling each suitcase was a matching duffel bag, and slung across each shoulder was a large handbag. Have I mentioned the tallest of the trio was five foot? The luggage dwarfed them.
“Right, let’s head to the tube,” I announced after hugs and greetings.
Aunt Joanna’s face dropped. “I want a taxi.”
I explained it was peak hour and we’d need three taxis to fit all their gear, so it’d be preferable to take the direct tube line. She got into a huff and after she finished arguing that I wasn’t the boss of her, we made it to Earls Court station by tube without losing anybody or the three zillion items of luggage. I didn’t realise until later that Aunt Joanna was menopausal and the Hormone Replacement Therapy medication didn’t seem to help. One minute she’d berate a total stranger for unwittingly pushing into a queue ahead of her, the next she’d be in tears over her plate of roast beef.
Aunt Irene was a chain smoker who loved a bit of a drink, so she got on really well with the others at my hostel. She nearly collapsed on arrival at Heathrow from going without a ciggie for 24 hours, but recovered as soon as I escorted her to the smokers’ room. She had an adventurous spirit but no sense of direction, and managed to get herself lost in Salisbury, the last stop on our UK coach tour. I was off the coach, ready to wait for her and catch a train back to London, when she came puffing up, little legs racing. She’d been waiting for the coach on the exact opposite side of the cathedral’s huge park.
Mum had her own story. She was smacked hard by a speeding runaway bicycle in Dublin. As she was thrown into the air like a rag doll Aunt Joanna screamed, thinking she was dead. Mum managed to hobble away with dark purple bruises but no broken bones. I asked the rider for her details. “No passport, I illegal, from Bucharest.”
“Maybe we should go home,” whimpered Aunt Joanna.
“No way, this is my Big Trip, I’ll be right,” Mum declared firmly, but gingerly.
In a way it was her own fault — she’d waited to cross Irish traffic lights on the green man, after leaving the Guinness Brewery without drinking a drop. Talk about tempting fate.
Dramas aside, they drank in the culture like a pot of fine leaf tea. Sharing the novelty of their maiden overseas travelling experience was unforgettable, and their excitement and wonder was infectious.
“Enjoy yourself, but come home soon. I want some grandkids,” whispered Mum during our Heathrow farewell, seven weeks later.
Back in London the days were shorter and the air was cooler. The pubs cranked up the central heating to retain a thirsty clientele. It felt strange being back at my London hostel, like being cast adrift. I thought I’d feel sad after The Oldies had left, or perhaps relieved to be free again, but instead I felt happy knowing I’d been part of their Big Trip, and no-one could ever take that away from us.
I started another crappy job to pay off my trip, caught up with my friends and met the latest hostel arrivals, but I was restless.
“I’m not sure I want to stay in dreary London for a northern hemisphere winter,” I said to hostel buddy Melinda over a pint one evening. “Maybe it’s time to move on.”
“That reminds me - have you seen this week’s TNT?” she said. I shook my head.
The TNT Magazine is every antipodean’s free weekly guide to London. It appears every Monday in stands scattered near hostels and tourist spots around the city. Melinda pulled a copy out of her bag and flicked it open to a page she’d dogeared, then thumped it on the table in front of me. In the bottom corner of the travel section was a simple advertisement: European Tour Managers Wanted.
“That’s my Dream Job!” I exclaimed, nearly knocking over my pint in my excitement. Getting paid to travel around Europe, meeting people from all over the world, and helping other happy travellers enjoy their Big Trip - just like I’d done with The Oldies.
I rang for an application form and despite the tendency of mail to disappear from the hostel’s mail box, it reached me. The closing date was imminent, and I needed to include references. It was 1999 and emails were still a relatively new thing for the general public, so I found the ability to obtain quick email references from Australia something akin to a minor miracle. My Australian referees were not only technologically savvy, but were able to write up decent references speedily, despite being frantic at their IT jobs preparing to fight the dreaded impending Millennium Bug.
A month later I was standing outside an ugly grey concrete building, an hour from central London, thankful that the grey skies hadn’t opened up despite looking angry all morning. This drab 1970s block held the promise of a working life full of European cities and culture - museums, history, cuisine, party nights, fashion, languages.