The best things in life are free and we made the most of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, only a couple of blocks away. A group of us took a small portion of a mind altering substance and headed off in a happy state bearing the ‘beloved’ video camera Cory and I bought on duty free in Perth before we flew out.
The sky was blue and the sun quite warm, as we drank hot chocolates beside the large pond with green-beaked wood ducks, which we’d tried to become acquainted with when they were waddling on the bank. We delighted over squirrels dashing in our path, scurrying to safe hiding spots. The elvan tree with numerous painted carvings of elves, fairies, and goblins transfixed us, and after adventuring around the park and gardens, we lazed in the sun on blankets taking in the crispy breeze mixed with the lukewarm sunrays. During this time, Cory, Paul, and Juzzi climbed a huge oak tree in the middle of a luscious green clearing, which I had no inclination to climb, happy enough to take photos while Julie videoed.
After having fun in the sun, we headed home to get ready for Villa Stephano. Before leaving, we watched our funny video footage just filmed, took some more still shots of all of us with wide smiles beaming on our faces from doing something out of ordinary routine, freshened up, and then caught the tube to Holborn Station, venturing underground to the day-club.
As we walked downstairs, the heat, the vibes, and the pumping music hit us instantly. People were dancing and moving about, seriously partying for the love of life, and for some maybe to escape from it. We were happy to escape from it for a while, and found our corner by the fan to dance. Sarah—our dear party friend from Sydney who we met through Paul, joined us, together with Greek friends she met on a recent holiday in Greece who were on their last night out in London. They were off to Amsterdam the next day and we planned to meet them there, but as the money hadn’t come through, we were in London for at least another week.
My big toes were very sore after so much dancing in those ill-fitting boots by the time we returned to our small room—newly named the cesspit. I happily rested them while we smoked, ate, and talked together sharing good vibes. I loved the Greek crew—Isadora, Constantine, and Sarkiss. So gorgeous! If I wasn’t with Cory, Sarkiss and I would have probably kissed. The attraction was so strong; I thought for sure, Cory would see me falling into Sarkiss’ alluring bright blue eyes, as he drew me in with penetrating Greek god stares. Again, Cory showed no signs of mistrust. My heart swelled in appreciation of his wise non-reactions, but I also wondered why he didn’t try to possess me. Never questioned him about it, I was thrilled to have such harmless freedom and his precious trust.
WE WOKE EARLY the next day feeling a little foggy to Dad ringing with the latest news. Money will be in our accounts on Wednesday and the rest would definitely be coming through next Monday. Please, please, please, we prayed!
With that news and a visit from Sarah—who lived a level down from us in a tiny room under the stairs—we decided to take a bus to Oxford for the day. An hour journey through lush green English countryside dotted with age-old character homes, to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, over 800 years old.
One huge impressive university was what we expected to see on reaching Oxford, but instead we found 39 independent colleges and halls, and realised Oxford was an entire little city. Stunning architecture, ancient and modern colleges, fascinating halls, museums, and galleries we didn’t get to see, and plenty of parks and gardens. We walked along quaint streets on cobbled pavements to find the Open Top Bus Sightseeing Tour. Then, we journeyed round the city taking in the architecture and heritage in an elevated position, canopied by the blue-skied, sunny day, with a touch of wind.
The sheer walls and imposing gates to many of the buildings were captivating, and the stone carved gargoyles sitting on top of gates and the sides of buildings looked like petrified trolls warning us away. We were comfortably away, videoing our views from the open bus. Sitting at the back of the bus, Donna—another Aussie friend on a London working holiday, jigged to music through an earpiece of a walkman and Julie also jigged along listening through the other earpiece. Sarah sat to their left, while Cory and I sat one seat in front videoing. Everyone enjoyed glasses of white wine as we moved along… I think I managed one glass. I rarely drank wine unless with a meal, the taste was so sour to me, and the effect sluggish as well as giddying.
We poured off the bus when the tour finished and enjoyed a little lunch in a simple yet historic stonewall cafe. The day was flying by too quickly, so after visiting a gift shop where I bought an Oxford t-shirt (I end up wearing to its death) and Julie a small Oxford jumper, we ventured into a clock tower for our last stop and climbed an inner stairwell surrounding the giant clock, to the top of the building with 360 degree views. Taking in the history of the vicinity was difficult for me at 22. I looked and saw, but wasn’t in awe as I would have been with just a few more years of living under my belt. The enormity of time passed since this land evolved didn’t mean as much to me being so young and naive. The reality was now; still I was very grateful we went to Oxford as we rested in the bus seat on our way home to London, watching the world go by until it turned dark.
* * *
Two days later, Cory had his MasterCard ripped in half before our eyes! We went down the road to Europa shopping centre, to buy dinner on credit and a few necessities—Julie and Cory were going halves. Julie purchased her half of things okay, but Cory was not so lucky. The shop attendant was required to take his card when it showed up as heavily overdrawn, which was particularly upsetting to us because things were just about to be fixed up on Dad’s end.
All week, Dad was beside himself because Hope went into hospital with a sudden brain complication, so she couldn’t go to Sydney to finalise everything with the bank. Now we were hoping on Monday, if Hope is okay, and Dad is hoping he’s getting the true picture.
Dad didn’t call on Monday. We called Louise’s reverse charge to hear the bad news. Everything had been postponed to Wednesday. Poor Dad was down in the dumps. Very outrageous—he had been waiting all year, put off all year, climbing the wall all year, and now he had to reassure his travelling daughters! For the sake of his mental health, we prayed for it to be this week; otherwise, he’d be hearing us scream from this side of the world and would probably sky-rocket over here from aggravation!
In my diary, Cory wrote:
‘Well I’ve got full confidence in Lenny, so all I can do is laugh at the situation and hope the sun shines through soon. (There are not many interesting videos left!) Anyway, I’m not working, I don’t have any appointments, and I’m in a foreign country! What a Life, and I’m sharing it with My Darling! (And, of course Jules who’s a good beer buddy and card shark!) Cory’
And, from Julie and Paul.
‘Yes, we are still stuck in London waiting for much needed money and then the holiday will really begin. Amsterdam first and then who knows! But, we are managing to have fun: videos, big sleep-ins, organising what to eat for dinner, and cards and beer are our daily routine. Fingers crossed for this Thursday. Julie x J’
‘Down but not out – Paul’
On Wednesday, we had progress at last! Dad called with a favourable change of plans. Zurich Bank would be giving Julie, Cory, and me two credit cards to use, as we liked, without budget: one card for food, accommodation, entertainment, etc, the other for our own means. Our plans to buy a campervan vanished as we were now to fly to Zurich, Switzerland to collect the cards, and then fly and train it everywhere. Sounded so tough—we hoped it was true! As we were supposedly leaving the next Tuesday, we began fervently praying that they wouldn’t let us down again! It would be a holiday of a lifetime and Julie wouldn’t need to return to Oz on her due date! We were so happy, but stayed in our room all day due to no funds… watching videos though, as Cory managed to get the manor house’s spare one working!
Dad called the following day to reaffirm yesterday’s fantastic news, making it more of a reality. He’d also placed money in Clinton’s account for us to live on until Tuesday, as ours were choc-a-block with overdrawn credit. We walked half an hour along windy walkways and streets abundantly coated with orange, green, and gold autumn leaves to Shepherd’s Bush to collect it, and have sandwiches with our generous friend. Clinton was a real sweetheart, helping us through our money problems. He walked back to Notting Hill Gate with us, watched a video, and enjoyed one of our cook ups… sharing the routine we hoped would soon end, even though we had been very comfortable and relaxed during our stay, for the most part.
THE WEEKEND WAS AN EXCITING PRELUDE to our new beginnings. Cory and I had our two year anniversary on Friday night and we dined at a romantic Italian restaurant in Notting Hill Gate while Julie went for a roast dinner at a pub with Paul. On Saturday, we visited Windsor Castle with Stephen and his dynamic friend Keeley, as he wanted to show us around his beloved England as much as possible before we left.
We saw the castle in all its English glory, although one of the wings had endured a recent fire. After I posted mail to Mum and Nan from inside its walls, we headed off to Henley-on-Thames. One large cream tea later, we drove to a charming little English Village by the name of Sonning—famous for its Sonning Lock device on the River Thames for raising and lowering boats between stretches of the river’s different water levels. This was the civilised part of the adventure, seeing how cultured country folk lived in a town described as ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’. Everything was so picturesque, I truly felt like I stepped into a novel. And, then Stephen took us to the pub: The Star in Waltham Street, St Lawrence to experience pool, pinball, and Poms, as he put it! We spent a wee bit of time there until it was time to explore Maidenhead further, where we took in more of England’s glory.
Our day’s outing was topped off by a visit to Glendevon Road, London’s Reflex gay nightclub, where we danced and absorbed the vibes, all of us having a good time, loving being a part of London nightlife. I fell in love with the extended dance version of Constant Craving by K D Lang that night, feeling it was very real regarding the current money and love connection level in my life. Cory and I were together; I loved him dearly, but wished we had a constant passionate connection. We were more like best friends when we were out, but I wanted the world to see I was in love, young enough to let it show. Cory’s love was affectionately inexpressive, and although I knew he loved me deeply—showing it in his own way—part of me needed more. Hence, I secretly craved a deeper connection. Not realising the absolute beauty of his love.
Stephen and Keeley bunked in our room in the early hours of Sunday morning, and we woke very contented by our weekend, excited about our dreams coming true on Tuesday. I promised to send my special Stephen a postcard from every country we visited when we bid a big, warm goodbye that day!
* * *
Dad called early Monday morning. Everything was still going ahead on Wednesday. Switzerland here we come! We decided to celebrate at Limelight nightclub on Shaftesbury Avenue, London—a former church dating back to 1754. This spectacular gay venue was amazing with its high cathedral ceiling, and elevated side stalls to look down over the dance floor bursting with throbbing, pulsating people moving to music.
I tried to get into it. Cory and I tried to get into it. But, for some reason we weren’t in the party mood. I felt a bit sick and didn’t know what caused it—making this the third time I ruined the potential to have a great night out.
The first was the sprained ankle/moped mishap in Thailand and the second was only a month after arriving in London when I sprained my ankle when Julie, Cory, Sarah, Juzzi, and I were heading into Soho to meet a friend. I was munching on a tuna sandwich when I tripped over a low London curb on the way. I now had two bad ankles after the falls, and the Happy Hour five pound jugs at the O Bar in Soho I hobbled to, didn’t take the pain away. After cheap pasta at the Stockpot later that day, I hobbled on home, and stayed in with Cory, while Julie, Juzzi, Paul, and Sarah went to Heaven nightclub to dance the night away. We’d been looking forward to going to this club everyone had been raving about, but my ankle stopped me, and Cory’s beautiful heart stopped him, by willingly staying with me. Paul tried to talk him into going, but Cory was adamant.
At Limelight, I was wearing Juzzi’s new boots, which like Julie’s, ended up being too small for her after she’d purchased them at Camden Markets. So, I tried them on and said they were right for me since they fit better than Julie’s tight ones, and gave Juzzi the 30 pounds. They were short black leather boots with thick high heels, and it didn’t take me long to realise they were half a size too big, with very flat, non-giving inner soles, not moulding into the feet. They reminded me of ski-boots or moon-boots, and I didn’t consider the old saying of the shoes maketh the man and thought they looked cool anyway.
Everyone had enough fun at Limelight to compensate for Cory and me, so we went home feeling the celebratory vibrations, but not participating in them as we usually did. We fell asleep and woke to a call from Dad the next morning informing us we wouldn’t be leaving until Thursday now. Although we were slightly disappointed, we were too tired to stress after our night out.
We arose from our beds at midday and tried to get into our accustomed routine. But I was still out of sorts, and officially hit my lowest point for the first time. Boredom hit home! To make matters worse, we no longer had the TV, and it was then we needed it most! Sarah came to visit later in the night, saving us (especially me) from insanity!
Backpack sorting spiced up the next day. First mission was to sort out our clothes—the things we were taking and the things we were leaving with Paul. Next, was to organise food for the day and then write what I hoped to be my last lot of London postcards this time round. In the evening, we took Julie to the Italian restaurant Cory and I went to for our anniversary. We had enough money in Julie’s account to tide us over to tomorrow we thought, but when she handed it over, she never got it back. Not enough in it to pay for dinner and was heavily overdrawn! The charge of the meal now also awaited tomorrow’s deposit.
I woke the next morning to the phone ringing and as guessed, it was Dad. We wouldn’t be going anywhere today, maybe tomorrow. Unfortunately, the news was too hard for me to bear and I cried. Poor Dad, this was so hard on him, but we were so stranded, it wasn’t funny. New people were waiting to move into our room and our landlady was getting frustrated. And, we had no money.
As a last resort, Cory and I went into Piccadilly Circus to exchange French francs our cousin Michelle gave us, when we met up with her in London during our first month. During our tube ride there, I reminisced about times I’d had with Michelle. She was my horsy cousin who lived in Brisbane when I was growing up. I adored her for taking me out riding when I was eight and ten, when visiting her family on holidays. She’d double me behind her saddle all day with her friends. We’d ride through the outskirts of Brisbane and I’d get a sore bum after the long days on her lovely, grey horse Lightening. I considered those days as when my love of horses first developed.
Sadly, my joy from these buoyant memories quickly departed when we arrived at the Exchange Centre to discover it had closed by five minutes, as we had no money to get home. After a few misroutes, many passing young men on sidewalks calling, ‘Any spare change please’ to whom we now understood their plight, we found our way to Paul’s work and borrowed enough money for a tube ride home and a sandwich…
DAD CALLED THE FOLLOWING DAY with a hopeful update. We would be receiving the cards on Monday, and leave for our holiday directly from London, instead of flying to Switzerland first. Mr Amet, from the Bank of Switzerland (Zurich), called Hope and apologised for not getting to us sooner, stating he would be with us on Monday. We hoped, and stayed in all day (standard procedure), watched TV (we got it back), and had a yummy pasta dinner (usual cook-up). Not doing it too tough, especially with good friends around.
But on Monday, our wish didn’t come true. Tuesday afternoon was more promising, Dad was told. Apparently, a restriction on our cards needed removing. Poor Dad had had enough. Even doubting what he was being told, and all he had was 20 years of trust in Hope, who wouldn’t let him down… we prayed.
… And, we played for the rest of the day. Cards, smoked, ate and laughed, all day and all night because Paul and Clinton were our visitors. Considering all our worries, we had a funny night and always made the best of our situation. Our greater problems were surreal to us; we were more worried about how our beautiful, trusting father was coping. He was from the old school, where a person’s word was solid. One of those True Human Beings anyone is blessed to meet.
Dad called Tuesday telling us the next day was a definite, so we needed to be up and ready early! But, he still said fingers crossed before saying goodbye. They were bending from so much crossing! He was to call in the evening to confirm that Hope’s deal went ahead, and if it had, everything else would fall into place.
But, he didn’t call back. We went to bed not knowing—once again—what the morning would bring. There was still no news in the morning when we shifted out of our room to Paul's and Donna’s upstairs, finally freeing the room for new people. While I was on the phone to Mum, Dad called on our original phone downstairs, to see if Mr Amet had arrived. It was already 12.15 pm and Dad expected he would be with us. We were waiting anxiously. Dad reassured he would call back in half an hour to see if he had come. Because we’d moved rooms, we stuck a big piece of paper with our new room number to the manor’s front door so Mr Amet would find us.
He didn’t come, which didn’t surprise us in the end, we would have been surprised if he came at all by this stage. Yet another call came from Dad later in the night, saying Hope had spoken to Mr Amet who had been sick, and said to tell us he is on his way. Apparently, he would like to take us to his house in Switzerland where we could stay, with a caretaker, for as long as we liked. Dad tried to reassure us and himself he was almost certain it would be tomorrow.
Thursday 4th: We are presently dressed and ready to meet Mr Amet! It is now 11.25 am please don’t let us be waiting all day! Otherwise, we will go CRAZY!
Wait all day we did! Dad called early evening to discover ‘the verdict’ and was extremely pissed off to hear we’d been forgotten once again. He called Hope to ‘blow his top’ (finally) and demand action! He also said to tell Mr Amet that he was a rude bastard for treating us this way and without even the courtesy of a phone call. ‘Good on you Daddy’, we cried to him! He deserved so much more respect, and all he expected was honesty! Expecting, also, that tomorrow would be our day! All we could do was sit and wait. If not, it was to be another weekend without pounds and further stress for Dad.
* * *
Far from getting cabin fever in our room, our pound-less weekend turned into our best one yet: starting with another outing with Stephen and Keeley! They took us to The New Forest where horses roam freely—wild and protected. The Queen owns this land, almost 300 square kilometres (74131 acres), which includes the largest remaining territory of unenclosed pasture land, heathland, and old-growth forest in heavily-populated south east England. And, French William the Conqueror did it again… He created The New Forest as a royal forest, for hunting deer, around 1080.
Shaggy horses walking nonchalantly beside the roads by themselves were a curious sight. I loved seeing them in open pastures without fencing, free to follow their fancy. Even in Burley Village, donkeys, and ponies clip-clopped through the old-fashioned village. We drove on to Milford-on-Sea, still in Hampshire, to eat hamburgers by the pebble beach sea with distance views of the Isle of Wight, and then on to visit Stephen’s Nanna, staying for a cup-of-tea before we headed back to Reading, Stephen’s home town.
Zooming along narrow streets in the green, leafy countryside, with glorious trees boarding our path, we buzzed to loud house-music pumping from the stereo in Stephen’s cherished blue car, Tallulah—named after a famous drag queen in Sydney’s Rocks. Setting the ambiance for the Firecracker Bonfire party at a friend of Stephen’s in Reading.
Backyard parties aren’t quite the same in England’s weather, but we weathered it, since we hadn’t been to a Guy Fawkes Day event since we were little (most of Australia banning it in the late 1970s to prevent misuse of firecrackers and personal injuries, and especially because of bushfire danger during hot November months). Firecrackers shot high into the sky, or whirled and dazzled, frizzed and whizzed. There was no huge bonfire to set the scene as in the old days, which would have warmed us perfectly. Julie, Cory, and I felt a little shy and out of place being the only Aussies at the party of English people, but there weren’t many people there all up anyway and as the party was only small, it ended quite early.
WE DIDN’T FEEL LIKE GOING HOME after Stephen dropped us off at the top of our street at 11 pm, but what could we do. Nothing! However, as we walked homeward, an apartment blasting, loud, cool music onto the street answered our prayers. We knocked on the door and were surprised when a tall, long-haired blonde German man with blue eyes shining on a happy face warmly ushered us in. His name was Florian and he headed off down some stairs, while we said hello to friendly people in the lounge room, who automatically accepted our presence, making us feel comfortable.
The party was downstairs, so we soon went to check it out! In a small living area, adjoining a kitchen lined with empty Vodka Absolute bottles, people were happy and dancing, and it wasn’t long before we were dancing too, compliments of a friendly Dutch guy who came to me offering an ecstasy. I accepted without hesitation, and Julie was next in line. I hoped I wasn’t pushing it when I asked if my boyfriend could have one too, but yes was the answer and the three of us looked at each other in utter amazement. We were so happy to have found this party!
Most of the people were from England and Amsterdam, everyone was so friendly, and I videoed some of it. Florian took the video off me and videoed me dancing, zooming in on my cleavage. (When my brother David saw this footage back in Australia months later, he wanted to kill him for doing that! Dave would tell me when I was younger that if anyone hurt me, just to let him know, cause he’d kill ‘em. I was sure I would never let him know if that was his promise, and I never needed to!)
The night went far too quickly. Almost everyone had left when we pulled ourselves away at 6.30 am to go home and try to sleep after the excitement of a memorable day and night! The best we had so far… such a one off, and we were invited back for more! We slept the day away on Paul and Donna’s floor, our current beds, to make up for the lost night.
* * *
By Monday, we didn’t wish to overcrowd Paul and Donna’s room any longer, so we reserved a room for Tuesday at The Hillgate Hotel, just round the corner. It was expensive, but at least we were in our own domain and out of the building that had housed us for two months! The hotel accepted my MasterCard imprint as authorisation, because they didn’t have a current eftpos machine to ascertain that I didn’t actually have money in it.
Dad was placing money in my account tomorrow—as it was the only surviving card between us, and this was only because Westpac in Australia would only give me a $500 limit when I applied after I’d ended all employment to go travelling. They gave me this only because I convinced the bank manager interviewing me that thousands of dollars would soon be in it. And, I was convincing, believing it entirely. Cory’s parents were also putting in Cory’s and my tax returns we completed before leaving Perth, so at least we had a good amount of money coming to us—approximately eight hundred between us.
We had a good day in our new hotel, so flashy compared to the manor house, and thankfully, it had a television too, but not a cooker to make our own meals. After one night, we knew we couldn’t stay long. Far too expensive, so we went in search of cheaper accommodation on Wednesday.
We walked loads, knocked on lots of doors around the surrounding area, and as the hours past, began to understand that finding cheaper accommodation was nearly impossible. Most places needed a guaranteed six months lease, and others, excessively high rates per night or week per person. On top of that, it was a rainy, cold, grey day and our spirits were very low. It was also getting dark, and just when we thought doomsday had arrived, a guy at a pub we decided to retreat to for a while suggested a youth hostel at Ladbroke Grove, around the corner! So, off we trudged to have a look at Bowen Court—a huge building like a big, old hospital from the war days. Perfect for backpackers! They had no room for the night, so we booked one for tomorrow.
Dad called that night to say the money would be happening this weekend, encouraging us to hang in there. We were hanging in there. The three of us got along so well, uplifting each other before we were even down. Laughing about it. Making up songs… like Cory’s lyric change from Frank Sinatra’s, ‘It has to be you,’ to ‘it has to be soon’, sung in a low pitch Sinatra tone that had Julie in fits of laughter. Cheery by nature, we hadn’t let any disappointments wreck our time so far, and we weren’t about to start, knowing we were lucky to be where we were at all.
Seeing how people lived on the other side of the world was rare blessing for most. We were even having the experience of being ‘down and out in London’, of looking over people’s overflowing plates as we passed by restaurant windows, of looking at menus according to price for selection… ‘Oh, the garlic bread looks nice,’ being the most we’d be able to pay in highly priced restaurants that were so similar to our typical restaurants in Australia yet half the price to dine in. We experienced looking for affordable shelter, warm clothing, for affordable everything! ‘It’s all character building,’ Stephen would reassure me, when we’d speak on the phone.
‘You’re really learning how to turn a penny twice,’ Dad said with admiration, mingled with his disappointment so far. Disappointing us was last thing he would consciously do. Dad had always been a responsible, jovial, reliable father, constantly there for us, his word solid gold. We counted on him, he never let us down… he was the hero of my life, and I know David shared the same sentiments, and Julie and Louise certainly showed it. So we believed, really believed, it had to be soon. Wishing with all our hearts this would end with everything he deserved and more given to him.
We had to depart our lovely, big room by 11 (not so easy for us used to sleeping in until then-ish) and felt renewed as we stepped into a gloriously clear, blue-skied, crispy-aired day on a new adventure. Warming sunrays were a joy as we carried our backpacks two blocks to our temporary new home—so replenishing after many days of greyness—and we settled into our huge, old, private dormitory on the second floor, with room enough for ten people. We went downstairs to a large dining room for dinner, which was kindly included in the price, and found it was like a school camp with young people filling the tables, moving around the self-serving food area. The upbeat atmosphere made us feel we were finally travelling; our trip was becoming a reality.
The meal was a stodgy mash of mushy potatoes, veges etc, but we were happy, it was free and fun, and later, the three of us played cards, watched TV in the communal TV room, and went back to our room to attempt an early sleep. Cory and I couldn’t sleep, too excited by our changing circumstances with the promise of more, so we ventured back to the TV room, talking until 3.30 am. It was beautiful, reconnecting our love for each other. I loved him so much. He was the best friend and travelling partner/lover I could wish for. I couldn’t imagine any other; we got along wonderfully most of the time. So humble and sharing was his heart, he put my feelings first and expressed himself to the fullest. He thought of us as one and wanted us to share our whole lives together. Despite our love not being colourful in openly affectionate expression, I felt the same way, believing our union was very strong, one I could trust money or no money.
FIVE MORNINGS LATER we had some good news, bringing us out of a new pattern we were forming living in London for less at Bowden Court. A routine of walking London’s streets after lunch, visiting the Portobello markets, hanging in our big room, discovering new venues like the nearby pub called The Ladbroke Grove to have a drink each and play cards in a different surrounding, finding it the warmest, cutest pub we’d seen. And, The Pub on the Corner (The Devonshire) in Nottinghill Gate where we regularly lunched eating tuna sandwiches and chips for only one pound, finding it the best yummiest bargain in London yet! Not a tough routine at all and we knew we were gaining insight into a side of life we could never have experienced at home! It’s very humbling, and real to experience the feeling of the underprivileged, although we didn’t consciously choose to experience this for altruistic purposes.
Cory and I were still sleeping when Julie entered our room saying, ‘All up, we’re off to Amsterdam’. Dad told Julie on a call she'd taken while we were asleep that it would be easier for ‘the men’ to meet us there, and we could leave today. We had been dreaming about going: cards or no cards! So we prepared ourselves… bought bus/ferry/bus Euroline tickets with our tax return money and visited Paul for a celebration brunch, leaving things we didn’t need with him, even the big grey jacket he offered us to take.
* * *
Carrying our backpacks to Victoria Station was a feat, but we survived. The bus ride took over two hours to Dover, and even in the night, we could see how white The White Cliffs of Dover were. We boarded the massive ferry with different areas and a cinema, and settled in seats, as it silently and gently ploughed through the channel. We easily adjusted to its rhythmical steady movements as we ate, played dice, and called Dad an hour and a half out of dock in the middle of the English Channel. Speaking to him from there was too amazing, thanks to technology, and afterwards we tried to sleep and succeeded somewhat as we each lay over a row of seats, needing all rest possible to be fit and healthy for the streets of Amsterdam.
Weary but eager, we reboarded the bus inside the ferry in the dark early hours of the morning, beginning our journey over Europe. The bus ride through Belgium triggered memories and frightening visions of World War II—thanks to studying Modern History at school, and even though it was very late and dark outside, I was too uncomfortable to sleep, my mind busily reflecting on the understandable fear that would have permeated this land way back then.
Happily, the sun soon rose and we were awestruck by the windmills and the flat, flat countryside! We found it strange driving on the other side of the road and seeing the necessary double-glazed windows on passing houses, and the frost on the grass and parked cars reaffirmed that we were in cold, cold, cold, Europe!
A suburb out of the centre of Amsterdam the bus finally reached its last stop, and in the icy, winded, sunny morning at a money exchange, we withdrew 175 Dutch guilders fl, which converted to 130 Aussie dollars, and then boarded a train to Centraal Station, the heart of Amsterdam.
'Centraal Station', a massive red brick building built in 1889 with a 40 metre roof span fabricated in cast iron, stood as it did during World War II. As we walked through, I contemplated the history of this building, haunted by the fact masses of innocent people moved through this place to their tortured death, only some 50 years ago. The reality was all too much to take in.
Gladly, we were met by sunshine as we stepped out of the chilly station, which warmed me greatly. My first vision of Amsterdam was seeing a multitude of bicycles parked in front of a canal before us, enchanting me instantly. It was clear we had arrived in one of the most stimulating cities on earth, a place literally drawn from the imagination. We soon discovered that there was no land here in the 13th Century. Originally, it was a region of land and marsh developed by herring fisherman who drove wooden poles into the mud and piled around whatever material they could find to make dikes, on which they erected crude huts, the city’s first houses.
So, we stood before the first canal, opposite Centraal Station, drinking in the historical, picturesque scene, with its expanse of old buildings and church towers, feeling as if we were back in time. Only the sight of the numerous bicycles reminded us we were in the 20th Century!
Ready to be amongst the Amsterdam adventure, we set off to Warmoesstraat—the street Sarah indicated on our map, and to our relief it was the first street we walked to with our backpacks mounted on our backs. Café 36, she also marked, and it was the first coffee shop we saw. Before visiting, we decided to search for a home, be freshened up for our first Amsterdam outing.
Very shoddy rooms are designated for people on small budgets, we quickly realised after a couple of enquires. The cheapest wouldn’t even allow us to look at the room before paying. We paid because it was extremely cheap for three and told ourselves we wouldn’t complain. But of course, we did! To get to our room we had to climb many stairs, and walk through a block of showers and very smelly toilets, to finally arrive into our very dirty looking cold room, with no heating. We weren’t impressed but couldn’t care; we just wanted to get out of there.
Café 36 was our first stop. The scent of marijuana smoke hit us as we stepped in the cool laid back café, a café like none of us had ever seen. Similar to a normal café, but with less tables, more couches and art deco lavished walls, Café 36 had an ambience of anything goes. Julie and I happily sat on one of the lounges near a window directly overlooking the pretty, little canal and street life of Amsterdam on the other side. We watched Cory at the pot counter, buying Crystal Skunk, a popular strain, and marvelled at how they allowed this here…
The tradition of the Dutch coffee shop goes back to the 1970s, following the pragmatic policy of non-enforcement of laws on the use and possession of cannabis introduced in 1976. Under the policy, licensed coffee shops are allowed to sell five grams of marijuana to people over 18. I loved the freedom of it. Arguably less harmful than drinking alcohol, it was my substance of choice, and I felt more aware and in control on it, than when I consumed only two or three drinks. In the years to come, the country’s 750 coffee shops—half of which are in Amsterdam, were forced to choose between serving alcohol or cannabis. Most chose cannabis.
Less than 10 minutes after Cory prepared the smoke, we had big smiles on our faces, feeling like we were home. What more could we ask for? We were in heaven. Time expanded, as we relaxed. Not many people were in the café so it was a dream place for us, seeming just for us… to kick back and take a breath of freedom. It was a place of no worries, desperately needed after the past months. We didn’t need to be anywhere, free to leave when we pleased; but eventually we worried about how our legs would manage walking when we did get up.
Finally, we made a move on slightly dazed legs, and went in search of a place for lunch. Passing the beautiful canal again, crossing tram track lines on streets, we wandered through stylish arcades with shops and people of another tongue. I was so excited to be there, to be around a very different culture, a European one. Now, we were travelling!
Oh, were we travelling… at one stage, Julie stepped onto a street too quickly causing the cutest Dutchman we were to see, run into her with his bike and nearly go travelling over his handle bars. She got a little nick, and at that moment, we decided to start smoking joints instead of water pipes (bongs), having been warned by the man at Café 36 that their smoko was much stronger through a bong. Oh no, we’re Aussies, we told him, accustomed to this method, and smoked away …