When I was 18 the only opportunity I had of foreign travel was to stand at the side of the road with my thumb out, and that was how I first saw the Mediterranean. I’d just sat my A-levels and my travelling companion was Malcolm, my sister’s boyfriend. He was a medical student.
I’ve no memory of getting to Dover, but, just outside Calais, after many a car had raced past, an old Land Rover, with British number plates, pulled up. The driver was a former soldier in his forties. He and his wife, who was in her twenties, were newly-weds and on their way to his home in Australia. That night we all slept in sleeping bags in a field near Arras. I suppose it was romantic for them.
In those pre-autoroute days it took about a week to get to the French Riviera – where our newly-wed hosts fell out. He was quite happy to join us in a hostel for men, but, this being her honeymoon, his young wife insisted that the two of them find a hotel together. At the time, I thought she was being a bit unreasonable. It was an awkward goodbye.
Getting down there had been easy, going home was trickier, and now my money was running out. Malcolm had to get back to Edinburgh to re-sit an exam, so when late one Saturday night, about a hundred and fifty miles south of Paris, a car stopped that could only take one of us – he abandoned me.
Eventually a kind soul got me to the outskirts of Paris, after which a milk van took me on an early Sunday morning tour of the Place de Republique and the Champs Elysees. It was wonderful. It was also Sunday, so finding a church for mass, I then asked the priest where to get the train to Calais. My remaining few francs just stretched far enough.
By that night I was back in Dover totally broke, when an English family returning from their holiday took me to London and gave me a ten-shilling note to help me on my way. It had been the greatest adventure of my life.
Less happy was when, as a student, I hitch-hiked 13 hours overnight from London to Lancashire to surprise my French au pair girlfriend with whom I thought I was in love – only to discover her at a party in bed with another boy.
I took the train back to university.