I’d had a bad day. And to top it off, here I was in a pastel pink Parisian hotel room, complete with a frilly lamp and that textured wallpaper that a previous generation had considered the height of interior design chic. There was no TV and no view from the dirty window. I was only 19 and it wasn’t meant to be like this. Why was I feeling homesick after less than two days away?
I’d left Nottingham only 36 hours before, waving cheerily to my anxious parents and telling them that I’d be back in a couple of months. I took the bus across town and walked along the service lane to Trowell Services on the M1 – the point from which most of my hitchhiking adventures had begun. It was the end of my first year at university and I was full of anticipation; I might make it to Greece or Spain, perhaps even down to Turkey where I’d travelled by train only a couple of months before. I had no money for an Inter-Rail this time around; a minor detail and one that I was confident I could manage while I travelled.
I got to Paris the next morning and even had a free Channel crossing thanks to a friendly trucker who’d picked me up in Dartford. He had helpfully allowed me to stay in the cab during the formalities at both borders. Better than that, he even let me spend an uncomfortable but warm (and free) night in my seat while he disappeared to his compact sleeping box behind.
I would get a job once I arrived in Paris. Fruit picking, shop work, anything, as long as it paid for a bed and a basic meal or two. That was the plan; it took a few minutes in the employment exchange to shatter that dream. Once I had failed to grasp what the impatient woman was saying to me at the first attempt, she sent me packing. I picked up enough of her rapid-fire French to understand “if you can’t speak French you can’t work here”.
I wandered around for a while, oblivious to the famous cathedrals and monuments that I was passing. I was here to earn my travel money, not to be a tourist. My spirits dropped rapidly as I realised that I needed some money to keep going and that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought; even a week would be a stretch with my pitiful resources. In desperation I pulled out my trusted flute: it was on the steps of Notre Dame that for around an hour I tried to turn my fortunes around. I’ve even kept my sign as a memento!
I made 5 Francs. Not enough to buy even a cold drink. The year before I’d made a far more impressive sum drawing cartoons on the streets of Copenhagen, but my crayons had stayed at home this time.
So I found myself in this tired, depressing hotel room; I was hungry, physically and mentally drained and, if truth be told, lonely. I’d travelled alone the previous summer for two months and never felt like this; something wasn’t right.
In the morning I’d decided; I was going home. My spirits lifted as I had a firm plan, and a day of perfect hitchhiking resulted in me getting back to Nottingham by around 8pm that evening, much to my parents’ shock and relief.
The next day I got a letter from the university. My exam results were some way short of outstanding and on that day the rest of my summer was set. I would be revising for my September re-sits.