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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 Road Wench

‘Road Wench’
Proper Noun
(1) A person (usually female) who has worked in the travel industry for some time, leading coach tours through numerous European countries. Customarily covered in gold jewellery, she may be able to speak multiple languages and advise on the best toilets and cheapest shopping (or cheapest toilets and best shopping) in over twenty countries. Skills include being able to answer the same question fifty times in a row without becoming noticeably irate.
In severe cases the Road Wench may also have a large collection of scarves, and umbrellas or silly poles to stick up in the air so her group can follow her around crowded cities.
(2) Someone who is addicted to travelling and even though she should stop, can’t.

‘Coach Driver’
A really top bloke.

February 2002

Help me! I think I’m becoming a Road Wench.

I don’t wear much jewellery, although I do have a puzzle ring from Florence and another made of Venetian glass. I never wear scarves or use silly poles. But I am addicted to travelling and I can’t seem to stop.
Some people say, why worry about it? Keep doing it if it’s what you love. They haven’t met my family. My family tell me to stop bloody well travelling around in circles, come home, get a real job, meet a nice boy and have some kids while you still can.
What do I think? I can see the sense of both sides of the argument. What am I going to do? Go back for another summer season on the road. Why? I'd better start from the beginning...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chapter 2 The Most Interesting Interview Ever

Chapter 2 The Most Interesting Interview Ever

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?’

November 1999

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.

I reread the letter clutched in my palm. “…At your group interview you are to present a five minute talk…” I took a deep breath and went inside.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chapter 2 - part two

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.

I reread the letter clutched in my palm. “…At your group interview you are to present a five minute talk…” I took a deep breath and went inside.

I was shown into a conference room where I shook hands with about a dozen other hopefuls.

“Hi, I’m Shannon, a lawyer from Perth,” I said, as I tried to smooth away the wrinkles my freshly ironed suit had quickly reacquired on the squashed peak hour tube ride.

“I wonder what they have in store for us?” said Kerry, an accountant.

“I’ve heard they like to push your buttons, the key is to be relaxed,” said a Norwegian guy. “One of my friends did this last year.”

He shared his tips and we made excruciating small talk (get today over and done with, please!) for about twenty minutes, until an important looking man strode to the front of the room and stood still, surveying us. Silence descended immediately.

“Welcome to your group interview. I’m Richard, and today you’ll also be assessed by Graham and Rebecca.”

We all turned around in greeting, surprised that we hadn’t noticed the suited couple seated in the back row. I couldn’t help wondering how much of our chatter had already been noted by them, especially the shared concerns and tips on how to do well in the interview. They had been talking to each other and we had assumed they were candidates too. Sneaky sods.

Richard ran through the day’s events. Beside him was a small TV. Plasmas hadn’t been invented yet.

‘After an introductory video, we will have your presentations. Keep talking until I tell you to stop. We will have time for questions after all the talks have been completed, then that is all for the first round. You can telephone us after 1pm to find out if you have got through to the second round and if so, to arrange another time for a more traditional individual interview.’

Was it just me, or did he smirk when he said that it would be a ‘traditional’ interview?

‘If you are offered a place on a training trip for either Europe or Great Britain and the date or region doesn’t suit you, you will forfeit your spot. We don’t care if it’s your sister’s wedding or that you applied for Europe. If you’re given an offer, I’d advise you to take it. We have plenty of other applicants to choose from. The seven weeks of training is unpaid and it is definitely NOT a holiday. Insurance and spending money is your problem, but your time on the trip is entirely ours. We will tell you when to sleep, when to eat, when to pee. You have a hell of a lot to learn.’

So it was their way or the highway. Got it. I didn’t flinch, but I peeked at the other candidates and noticed some appeared ruffled, with some frowns and whispering at his hardline approach. Others were unfazed; they wanted this shot so badly they would’ve done their talks naked if required.

The first round began. Most people had interesting stories, and the audience was kind. We all wanted each other to do well. First up was the Norwegian guy whose name was Sven. He was decked out in lightweight, waterproof tan pants, hiking boots and a North Face coat, and looked the part of a trekking tour guide. It turned out that he was, in fact, a trekking tour guide, having run camping tours in North America for his previous job. Damn. He would be hard to beat. He talked about a sign of the times, the emergence of the mobile phone culture.

“How many of you own a mobile phone?” Nearly half the hands went up. “Do you remember when it was only the top level executives that had mobiles? They were the size of bricks! Then everyday people started using them, mainly for business. As the phones got smaller the number of users went up. Nowadays if you visit a high school in Norway, you’ll see every kid is glued to their own Nokia handset, that’s a Norwegian brand. Imagine what it’ll be like in ten years time…”

Sven was laidback and easy to listen to. When Richard said ‘Stop’ after five minutes we all wanted him to keep talking, but today we were playing by Richard’s rules. ‘Thanks Sven,’ said Richard. ‘Who’s next?’

I didn’t go straight after Sven, he was too hard an act to follow. I volunteered to do mine after the next speaker and felt unusually nervous, but I clasped my palm card tightly, and was determined to use my high school drama skills and at least not look nervous.
(The next part of this chapter will be uploaded next Tuesday)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chapter 2 - part three

‘Hi I’m Shannon, and I’d like to talk to you today about travel,” I began,"-NOT! I guess you probably hear a lot on that topic so instead I’m going to talk about something peculiar to me — my experience temping as night receptionist in an accident and emergency department.’

The silly start seemed to work, it elicited a few smiles. I talked about the horrendous waiting times - on my first shift a guy with severe stomach cramps had to wait seven hours before he saw a doctor — and the different ruses people used to try and circumvent the system. Some yelled or whined, others cajoled, one pulled out a knife. How I was disappointed that I had to work during an important World Cup rugby match. I was midway through explaining how I got a match update from a patient who had been in a brawl at a Shepherd’s Bush pub where he had been watching it on a big screen, when I was interrupted.

'Right thank you Shannon, that’ll do,’ said Richard. I couldn’t believe it. He’d wrecked my flow.

‘Actually I’m not quite finished, I don’t believe that’s the five minutes yet?’ I said.

‘That’s enough. You can take a seat.’

After all that! I missed out on telling them to think ahead, take a book with them and be nice to the receptionist next time they go to A&E. I missed my story of how I became so used to telling people to switch off their mobile phones in the waiting room that sometimes as I boarded the early morning bus at the end of my nightshift, I’d have to stop myself from saying the same thing to the other passengers. All my funny stuff was at the end, so I could finish with a bang. For nothing.

I tried to mask my annoyance by acting confident and unfazed, and took my chair. One thing I was aware of — everything we did counted, not just the talks.

I was sitting next to Kerry, one of the few other girls in the room apart from the sneaky back row observers. She decided to go next. ‘I just want to get it over with,’ she whispered to me as she went forward. It was no wonder. We were all nervous, but most people were able to speak once it was their turn. I suspected that what was going to set the candidates apart was how interesting our talk had been.

‘Hi, my name is Kerry.’ She paused and smiled…then froze. Seconds of silence passed.

She started again. ‘I’m going to talk about human biology…’ Not a bad choice of topic, it was different to everyone else’s. Except that she didn’t do it. “I’m interested in human biology …The heart is an organ that…” She paused again, her smile wilting.

“Why don’t you start again,” suggested Richard.

‘The heart is part of the circulatory system – no, I meant to say that the liver is unusual because…because…”

She stopped and started her talk about half a dozen times, couldn’t remember what she was going to say, then couldn’t think of anything to say. She stood there, looking at us, her face blank, hands trembling. The dreaded blackout induced by fear. Heck, make something up, I willed telepathically to her while I smiled supportively. Richard gave her a few more chances to start over, but still she wasn’t able to speak. Nothing. In tears she sat down.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ I whispered to her. Privately I was relieved that at least I did better than her. It was only five minutes, it was a topic of our own choice, and we’d had weeks to practice. If you couldn’t speak after all that preparation, you simply wouldn’t cut it leading a tour.

‘I’ve never been any good at public speaking, but I just wanted to give it another try,’ she whispered back at me, as she dabbed her face with a tissue.

‘Good on you for having a go,’ I whispered back, and I meant it. Some people rate public speaking as scarier than dying.

Next up was the second guy to dress in trekking gear, and I don’t mean Star Trek although he was a bit Out There. Short, stout and with a chin full of stubble, he was from Deepest Darkest Africa.

“Come to Zambia on tour with me, I promise you’ll have the time of your life. We’ll go by jeep to stealthily seek out majestic game. There’s kudu, giraffe and hippo hidden amidst the grassy plains and oxbow lagoons. Our aim is to get close enough for tourists to fire shots - from cameras of course!” He was so passionate about the wildlife, he made me feel like booking a trip.

So far Richard had not commented on the talks, merely being timekeeper and writing notes about each person’s delivery. When Mr Zambia finished and sat down, Richard made a brief comment.

‘That was good - even though you were all told in the letter not to speak about travel. Next.’

Mr Zambia turned bright red and his eyes bulged. He started to say something, but Richard cut him off. ‘Next!’

After the talks finished we had question time. Mr Zambia used this as an opportunity to make the point ten times that NO ONE TOLD HIM he wasn’t allowed to talk about travel. He was right, we hadn’t been told, but I remember thinking he should just shut the hell up, he’d done an interesting talk and should let it go.
Round One finished.

‘Ring us after 1pm. And not before,’ said Richard.

I hung out with some other candidates at the nearby mall, but it was difficult to know what to say to each other. We all wanted a shot at the Dream Job so badly we would’ve been ecstatic if all the others decided to pull out at that moment. A thin veneer of camaraderie saved us, and we had polite getting to know you chit chat over hot chips and roast beef rolls. At 1pm we decided to make the call together. Sven got off the phone with a big smile and ‘Yes’, Kerry finished in tears, and then it was my turn. An interminable fifteen seconds passed as the receptionist checked her sheet.

‘Shannon you have been allocated a second interview at 4pm today, does that time suit you?’

Omigod I’m into Round Two! Yay! Yay! Yay!

(To be continued...)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Chapter 2 - part four

The second interview was held in a small plain room, just a desk and chairs, no windows, not even a poster on the walls. I shook hands with the two interviewers, who were as stony faced as prison warders. I sat upright with a firm smile planted on my face, my arms crossed, ready to do battle. Earlier, one of the candidates had warned us that it was going to be like a police interview, pushing our buttons and also testing our problem solving skills.

Warder 1 and Warder 2 sat down across the table from me. They wasted no time.

W1 smiled then said, ‘You were a lawyer hey? I used to be a police officer. I’m going to REALLY enjoy interviewing you…You come across confident, but - I know EXACTLY what your problem is.’ He glared at me.

I held his glare. I could take this guy.

‘Oh yes, and what’s that?’ I asked, smiling sweetly.

‘You get defensive and you don’t suffer fools gladly.’

About to use my standard smart-ass retort, I looked down at my crossed arms. I stopped my first instinct and slowly unfolded my arms.

‘Well, I guess you could be right about that!’ Game on.

‘What would you do if someone lost their passport and the coach had to leave for the next country and couldn’t wait?’ asked W2.

‘It would depend on what we were late for. Perhaps we could reschedule and gain half an hour so we could help the client sort out where to go to get a new one.’

‘Where would they go?’

I’d had a friend who lost his passport in France, so I knew that in each country there were offices that handled emergency passports. I suggested this as a solution, confirming that we would have to leave the person behind but that they could catch us up.

‘How would they find you?’

‘With the hotel list I’d already given them on the first day. And they could ring my mobile number.’

‘How would they know it?’

‘I would have given them my mobile number at the start of the tour.’ I made a mental note to get myself a mobile.

Dozens of scenarios were thrown at me. What if the coach broke down? Or a couple travelling together broke up and didn’t want to share a room anymore? Or a hotel double booked and had no beds for us?

Every answer I gave was treated with derision. I kept my cool. They lunged, I parried. In the end it was even kind of fun.

‘What if someone tried to hit on you, and came knocking on your door late at night?’

‘I’d tell them nicely that I had a boyfriend.’ I did have one at the time. Of course that was before I started working on the road, it sure didn’t last long after that.

‘What if you didn’t have a boyfriend?’

‘That would depend — is it day 40 of a 45 day tour or day one of a 15 day tour?’

The Warders exchanged a disapproving glance with each other at this response. It probably was not the best answer to have given, but what I meant was that it depended on the context. I didn’t realise at this point that an unwritten rule was no hanky-panky between road crew and clients.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chapter 2 - part five

'What do you think are the most common complaints made about tour managers?’

‘I’m not sure. Shagging their clients?’ That answer got more funny looks. I only thought of it because of their previous scenario.

‘What else?’

At this point we had a frank discussion, as I was genuinely interested in their answer to this question. It turned out that all the things I assumed that tour managers HAD to do were the main things that complaints related to — not being organised, not speaking clearly, not being approachable. It seemed to me that I was capable of doing the main things.

‘Fine, so you can probably do all that,’ said W1. ‘But here’s the thing…I don’t think you can be funny.’ He sat back in his chair eyeballing me, arms folded. Gotcha! Flipping heck, do I look like Billy Connolly?

I retorted ‘I CAN be funny. If you’d let me finish my talk I had some funny stories at the end.’

‘I still don’t think you’re funny. Tell me a joke. No, better yet — tell me a DIRTY joke.’

Pass. They had me on that one. I can’t remember jokes for the life of me. I’m the person that gets to the end and forgets the punch line. I learned early on to leave bad enough alone. I guess sometimes I come across all proper like, but I didn’t go to a co-educational country high school being the only girl in most classes, without hearing quite a lot of dirty jokes. I just can’t remember any. If they wanted a stand up comic then this gig was not for me. They noted this weakness and moved on. Not long afterwards, they wound it up.

‘Thanks for coming in. We’ll be in touch.’ I shook hands with W1 and W2.

‘Thank you. That’s certainly the most interesting interview I’ve ever had!’

It still is.

As I left I heard W1 say to W2 that Mr Zambia was next. ‘I’m going to enjoy this one,’ he said, rubbing his hands.

I smiled as I walked out. I would have loved being a fly on the wall as he pressed Mr Stress Head’s buttons.


Two weeks later I received a letter. Three letters reaching me at the hostel without being pilfered, it was a record. I was so nervous I could barely open it, then when I did I scanned it for the words ‘unfortunately’ or ‘regret’. I couldn’t see either word so I forced myself to slow down and read the entire letter.

‘Dear Shannon

Thank you for attending an interview at our offices on 14 January 2000. We are pleased to offer you a place on the European Training Trip commencing with a week of study in London on 21 February. Please sign and return the enclosed list of conditions within one week, or this offer will lapse. We reserve the right to terminate your place on the training trip at any time after commencement if we deem you are not up to our standards.

Congratulations on your success so far.’

I couldn’t believe it. I was in with a shot at the Dream Job.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chapter 3 - part one

Chapter 3 Surviving Boot Camp: London to Paris

‘I’ll miss working with you,’ said Yvonne.

For the past three months I’d worked in a radiologist’s rooms at a central London hospital. In that time Canadian Yvonne and I had transformed the chaotic little office into a smoothly running administrative machine. We had to love the Londoners and their lack of a work ethic — it made those of us temping on working visas look superb. The best part was that I was able to get my work done with time to spare, and I used the afternoons to study about Europe.

‘Mind you,’ she added, ‘I don’t envy you all those clients.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘I thought hanging out with other travellers would be the best bit!’

‘Oh sure! The fun ones. Don’t forget though, there’s going to be weirdos and assholes and you’ll be stuck with them too.’

Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

‘Trust me. I met my fair share of them when I was working as a flight attendant.’ Yvonne had worked on a Canadian national airline. ‘Shall I tell you the story about the crazy woman, the 200kg man that wanted two seats but would only pay for one, the vomiting drunk, the masturbator, the mobile phone addict, the dead guy or the sex in a-cattle-class-seat-couple?’

She told them all. It would be two months until I had a flashback to this time and would realise that it had been important preparation.


A week later, I walked past the familiar brown brick buildings, low black wrought iron fences and black metal street bins of central London, full of trepidation. I felt like I was back at the interview all over again. The other candidates would be my competitors as well as potential comrades.

‘Act confident, don’t think about it being your Dream Job,’ I told myself as I descended the hotel stairs to a dreary basement room where I would spend the week.

I was welcomed by a cheery woman holding a clipboard. ‘Grab yourself a coffee. We’ll get started soon.’

Such a warm smile was at odds with my warder experience. Looking around, I recognised Sven, the relaxed Norwegian guy from my group interview. Relieved to see a familiar face, I walked over to chat to him until it was time for the official introductions.

Each candidate had to stand to address the group. For some reason I was more nervous than before the interview.

‘Hi I’m Mark, I worked at Corfu as a rep last season, and I know those three reprobates over there, who repped at other campsites.’

The site representatives or ‘reps’ lived for an entire season at one campsite and managed the food and accommodation for the non hotel tours.

‘Lucky buggers,’ I thought, as they already had contacts and some inside knowledge.

One candidate had tousled hair and clothes so crumpled they looked like they’d been scavenged from an Oxfam charity bin that morning, but he seemed friendly and easygoing.

‘G’day. My name is Jacko. I’m a farm boy. Oh, and I haven’t set foot in Europe before.’

In stark contrast, a handful of girls were overdressed to impress – the fashionistas. The majority were Aussies or Kiwis, a few had never been to Europe, but there was a Dutch girl who could speak about a thousand languages fluently, a 4 foot 11 inch girl from Iowa ‘home of potatoes and corn’, and a Londoner. I was finally going to make an English friend! There were many strong but diverse personalities. Some were loud, some gifted at spinning a yarn, some had a dry sense of humour, and some seemed too cool for school. This was only half the group. The upcoming road trip would combine us with the trainee drivers.

‘At least I’ll be able to say I’m a lawyer,’ I thought to myself as, one by one, the other candidates stood up.

‘Hi, I’m Shane, and I’m a lawyer from Sydney.’

Bugger. Oh well, I’ll be the lawyer from Perth.

‘Hi, my name is Marty and I’m a lawyer too, from Perth.’

Talk about feeling run of the mill.

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Chapter 3 - part two

The day progressed with mini-lectures, note taking, reading, discussions and occasional impromptu talks. We learned to call our talks ‘spiels’, and tips on using keywords to memorise long history spiels. We could’ve used a course like this at university!

Learning about history was something I enjoyed, but there were other lessons to be had. ‘Kim, can you get up and tell us about a famous person you’ve met?’ asked Brigitte, our main teacher.

Kim was one of the overdressed brigade, a fashionista, with breasts like Pamela Anderson, and she wasn’t afraid to use them. Nor was she afraid to talk. She recounted how she had worked as an au pair in America, and one day she popped next door to borrow some sugar.

‘The door opened, and that’s when I realised the neighbour was none other than Michael Jordan! He took one look at me and said - ’

Brigitte cut in. ‘Thanks Kim, that’ll do.’

‘But I haven’t finished.’

‘Take a seat.’

Clearly flustered and wanting to continue (I also wanted to hear the rest of the story) she sat down. It reminded me of Mr Zambia at my group interview. He hadn’t made it through. Mental note — stop when they say, even if it’s frustrating. I noticed that they mainly did this with the talkaholics. I wasn’t sure whether it was for time management or to push their buttons.

Sometimes the impromptu talks gave hints at inside knowledge. ‘Mark, give us a talk about an occupation.’

‘I’d like to talk about being a florist.’ For some reason, this elicited knowing smiles from insiders. ‘It’s important not to mix your flowers and your weeds,’ he continued, ‘although often you’ll find your flowers are best positioned right at the front, in the flower box.’ He was cut short by Brigitte.

‘What was so funny?’ we asked the insiders at the break.

‘It’s a code. ‘Flower’ is the nickname for a client who is shagging the male road crew. ‘Weed’ is the same but for male clients getting it on with the female road crew.’

‘What’s the flower box?’

‘Usually if there is a girl who is shagging the driver, she will sit in the seats right behind him, the front passenger seats on the coach. That gets called the flower box.’

‘So why wasn’t Brigitte finding it funny too?’

‘Company policy — don’t fraternise with the clients.’

We would later find out that this was one company rule that was often broken, but the key was not to get caught.

The London study week whizzed past. It was nine to five, just like a work day, but unpaid. Evenings were time to return to our lives, spread out all over London, do some homework, and arrange goodbyes before our impending 46-day journey.

Yes that’s right, it’s not a typo. The trainees were going to spend FORTY-SIX days together on a bus, going around Europe and studying every place we visited. The company had problems in the past with people who used it as a freebie holiday then skipped town, so they had compiled a list of stringent conditions for us. The conditions included that, not only did we NOT get paid for the seven weeks of training, WE HAD TO PAY THEM! The £200 retainer was supposedly for our food and accommodation, but I suspected it was another way to ensure only serious candidates were on board. Other conditions included that we could get kicked off at any time but — the good news — the retainer was returned if we stayed with the company at least two years. Despite all the rules, it was a job in high demand, and the company didn’t seem to have any difficulty making the candidates agree to the conditions. No one complained — out loud.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chapter 3 - part three

On the Saturday we moved into hotel accommodation. I use the word loosely. I was in a bunk bed in the supposed ‘hotel’ and had to walk down the corridor to use the shared bathroom and toilet facilities while skanky old men shuffled past in white singlets and cotton pyjama bottoms. This dodgy joint with its musty carpets and mustier clientele would become a home away from home whenever I was in London between tours, but for now I was blissfully ignorant of that.

The next morning we left for France. Departure morning was a whirlwind, and this didn’t change even when I was taking my own tours. Thirty seven prospective drivers and tour managers were lumped together. The drivers had been training together for a month already. The Driver Trainer introduced himself to us with a quick lesson.

“Right you guys, just remember you are on a coach, NOT a bus. If you wonder what the difference is, on a bus there’s a conductor taking your tickets, so unless you tour managers want a demotion,” (cackles from the trainee drivers), “you’d better get your terminology right. Nor would you find a toilet on a public bus,” (more snickers from the drivers), “but don’t expect to be using the one on our coach. The spots where we can empty the toilet are few and far between, and as all your ‘deposits’ are taken with us everywhere we go, there tends to be a nice whiff once the container starts getting full. I’ll be right, there’s a window I can open next to me, but for the rest of you it won’t be pretty.”

So, don’t use the coach toilet. Got it. This worried me a bit. If I see a toilet I automatically need to go. I think it stems from my outback childhood when we had to drive two and half hours to get to the nearest town, and if we were busting we had to pull over and do our business in the baked red earth of the scrub. I still hate the thought of the outback roadside-backsplash. I decided this would be a personal challenge for me, to avoid the wrath of the Driver Trainer.

The Tour Manager Trainer was Scottish with an accent to match, but at six foot tall, buff, bronzed and with bright white teeth he seemed more like a Californian. “You can call me God,” he said as introduction.

We had barely been on the road for half an hour when he flicked on the microphone.

“Mark, can you come up to spiel please.”

Hell, what was this? It surprised me that we hadn’t even reached Dover yet, let alone mainland Europe, and someone was already called up to spiel. We were still on the outskirts of London. What the heck would he spiel about?

Mark had worked for the company before. He took the microphone with a smile. He had an olive complexion and looked more Italian than Aussie, which would be handy a few seasons later when he became known as Mr Italy and specialised in those tours. He had a selection of tattoos and bulging biceps, and I’m sure the girls on his tours would all be after him. He also had a very easy way about him, and was a confident but relaxed speaker.

“Ring a ring a rosy, a pocket full of posies…Remember that nursery rhyme? Okay, keep it in mind, we’ll come back to it. Guys if you look out your window you will see we are passing Blackheath. Today it’s a park, and parts are used for rugby games, but its history is much darker and deadlier. During the middle ages the bubonic plague or Black Death decimated the population of Europe. As the dead bodies were considered contagious, large lined graves were built out here. Black Death…Black Heath, get it? Back then, it was a fair hike from London; hence a safe distance from the living population. With the modern urban sprawl now it’s part of London. Weird to think that’s what’s under the nice park, hey? That nursery rhyme you sang as kids is based on fact. ‘Ring a ring a rosy, a pocketful of posies, atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.’ If you developed a reddish rosy ring — that was the pock mark. The posies were the supposedly healing herbs used at the time, as they didn’t have pharmacies on every corner — although some people will tell you it’s because they tried to disguise the awful smell as they thought that bad smells caused diseases. If you sneezed that meant your immune system was shutting down, and ‘we all fall down’ — you’re dead!”

What an interesting spiel! I’d had no idea about that story. It also meant that we had some very knowledgeable competition. This spurred me on to study more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chapter 3 - part four

If called on to spiel, we were expected to stand at the front of the coach and look back at our audience. No notes were permitted, not even palm cards. It was nerve-wracking. Not only did we have no idea when we would be called up, we had no idea what we’d have to spiel about. We had a booklet of study material on each country, but there were many spiels that could be chosen. I made it safely through Dover and the ferry to Calais, but was called up an hour out of Paris to give an introduction to France. The microphone was handed to me by a stern faced training manager. My heart was hammering a million times a minute. Right, I told myself, don’t let the bastards see your fear. Use your drama skills. Act confident even if you’re scared stiff. Talk slowly — that one came straight from Mum. Make it interesting. I turned around. Oh my God! Seventy-four eyes looking at me, some bored, some smiling faces. I focussed on a spot on the rear window and began.

“Bonjour! Welcome to France! Home of romantic Paris, the Riviera dahling, vineyards, fromage (that’s cheese), the guillotine, the Louvre, the rendezvous and the divorce! It is bordered in the south by the Pyrenees…” I managed to throw in the facts I’d learned and spieled without stopping for ten minutes, keeping up my enthusiasm throughout. From the pebbly beaches in the south to the controversial addition of EuroDisney, the romance of the Eiffel Tower, to the fact that the population was three times that of Australia…My heart was racing but I kept my voice steady and a smile festooned across my face like fresh warpaint in this, my first Battle of The Microphone.

When I’d finished I waited for my review from God. “Not bad,” he said grudgingly. “But a bit short.”

Oh well, I could work on that. I was relieved.

The most memorable spiel all day was by Lukas, the Norwegian guy. We’d each been allocated a specialist topic to research, and were to spiel about it at a relevant point in the trip. Lukas was up first. Mine wasn’t until Italy, so I had some breathing space. I’d written up most of it already as I’d figured I’d be too busy on the road to do it. ‘On the road’. Wow, that had sounded cool, back in London. Now it was a reality.

Lukas was cool too, a bit of a dude who’d worked on camping tours in America and was used to yarning to people. He sauntered down the aisle, grabbed the microphone as we passed the World War One battlefields and the Valley of the Somme, and began.

“WAR! A lot of people died.”

We all laughed. What an introduction. He talked a bit more, about death and war and stuff, but didn’t weigh his talk down with much in the way of facts or figures or historical information. I would’ve droned on with details like the 58,000 plus British troops killed in the first day of the battle remains a record, that the intended diversion resulted in over a million lives lost in less than five months of fighting, and that the nearby River Somme was the namesake for the Battle. Not Lukas. He could have been describing the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. His relaxed delivery was engaging and easy on the ear. We all clapped him as he took his seat.

God stood up to address us, his face like thunder. “Right you lot, be warned. That is NOT good enough for your individual talk. You have had weeks to prepare. From now on anyone who gets up and has such a piss weak spiel had better be ready to pay the price. Lukas, you’ll be helping the trainee drivers clean the coach tonight, to make up for the work you SHOULD have put in to your spiel. And take this.” With that, God brandished a hand mirror with a bright pink border, emblazoned in permanent marker with the words Take A Good Long Hard Look At Yourself. “Keep it on you at all times as a reminder. Don’t the rest of you get too comfortable,” growled God. “This will be passed on to the next person who stuffs up…so watch out.”

It didn’t seem to faze Lukas. It fazed me. I studied even more.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book Club Discussion Questions

The following questions may be useful to bookclubs to start a discussion of the novel. If you find other questions that stimulate the sharing of opinions in your group, please let me know.

1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the main character?
2. What is the first challenge she faces? How does she resolve it?
3. What challenge did she fail? What was the consequence of failure?
4. What was the most memorable challenge the main character faced?
5. Describe God. Was he a god or a devil? Why?
6. Describe the qualities you think would make an ideal coach driver.
7. Which qualities did each driver possess?
8. After reading the book, would you consider booking a coach tour? Why?
9. Do you think you would make a good tour manager? Explain the qualities you think would assist you in the role.
10. What story made you cringe?
11. What stories made you laugh out loud? Why?
12. Give a one sentence review of the book, or of your favourite chapter.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Have you ever done a tour of Europe? I have – about fifty times. No, I’m not a crazed tourist, it’s worse than that – I was the tour manager.

My job was to organise a tour group of 51 varying nationalities, mentalities and personalities to get around Europe by coach (remember it’s a coach, NOT a bus!) and complete everything listed in the itinerary while keeping to a deadline. My clients were aged 18 to 35, although they acted anywhere from 13 to 85 in mentality — and often the two extremes would share a room. Along the way I encountered back stabbers, bed-hopping casanovas, nudists, kleptomaniacs, thieving gypsies, disappearing drivers, wankers, got stuck in four-hour traffic jams while clients kept asking ‘How long until we get there?’, slept overnight on a gurney in a psychiatric hospital, and mediated bitch fights between supposedly grown women and sometimes men.

This is the inside story of my first season on the road. All names have been changed to protect the guilty (the innocent are too boring to write about)!

For anyone who has ever travelled and thought that the tour manager had the best job in the world, this is for you…