Why do some of us need to travel? Do we really have ‘itchy feet’? Why are others happiest at home?
I pedalled along the pathway, over Dad’s tiled borders into the flower beds. Loose soil clogged my tricycle wheels slowing down any progress. Once across a patch of lawn I hit the asphalt driveway, then I was off again onto the road.
I made a 180º turn any London cabby would have been proud of and raced back through open gates towards the family car. As I collided with the small wooden plank which held the gate in place, the front wheel reared up spilling me backwards. I landed on my bum, smack on the coccyx. It hurt. It really hurt.
“Stop making a fuss and get into the car,” she said, too busy to deal with my tears.
It was Friday evening and Mum and Dad were loading the car with the usual paraphernalia required for our weekends. You know the kind of thing: toys, clothes, books, magazines, two stoical cats, a mouse in its cage and an angry rabbit called Benjamin who mated with a wild rabbit and turned out to be female.
My brother, Chris, and I went to school in London during the week. But every weekend we swapped fast-paced urban living for the hedgerows, bridle paths and slow lanes of East Sussex. Temporary living was the tenet of family life.
Our parents rented a small cottage near Stonegate, a hamlet in the Weald which doesn’t appear in any guide books. Chris and I became friends with the local children, charging around the fields, dodging cows or sticking to the edges when the crops grew. We built forts out of hay stacks and rode on the back of the farmer’s trailer.
In London, we wore our school uniforms tempered by the latest trends, and listened to the hits of the day. We fitted in with the cool crowd. Our parents had crystal and china dinner parties on polished wood. But at the cottage it was home-made soup cooked on the Rayburn, served with warm brown bread and yellow butter round the farmhouse kitchen table.
Dad was abroad a lot when we were kids. Things I remember him bringing home for me: dolls in national costume, a fuchsia Saree from India, a pair of sealskin ankle boots from Norway, a Peruvian poncho. Things he presented to my brother: a bolas from Argentina, a felt jacket from Lapland, lederhosen from Austria. Even as an infant, Chris resisted the lederhosen.
When he was in England, Dad held archaeological digs each summer. In the valley that dropped away from the bottom of our garden, he searched for evidence to prove his theory of how the Romans made iron in England. He found a Roman rubbish tip, a Roman road and a Roman lavatory. A sort of Roman motorway services? Crowds of students and local enthusiasts camped nearby. I helped Mum feed them all at lunchtime — pots of soup with bread, cold meat, cheeses and salad — while listening to tales of excavations all over the world and the curious artefacts and cultures found there.
One year Chris and I, still in junior school, were given permission to leave before term ended to accompany Mum and Dad on a tour of eastern Europe. But we didn’t get off school work. At the end of each day we wrote an account of what we had seen and done. Mum, a teacher, encouraged us to add drawings and to stick tickets, postcards and other bits and pieces into our books. She marked our work, and we handed in our ‘projects’ when we went back to school.
We travelled through Belgium, Austria and Germany, then on to Poland and Czechoslovakia, long before the Iron Curtain was opened.
In ancient villages, I was enchanted by wooden houses, elaborate clocks and ornate town halls, straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. The glittering salt mines of Krakow, with chandeliers intricately carved from black or white crystals, fuelled my enthusiasm for trolls, elves and the supernatural. In the industrial areas, grey concrete buildings lined the streets, and the absence of advertisement hoardings or bright lights contributed to the gloom. To our childish eyes, much of eastern Europe seemed drab compared to garish London. There was no Coca Cola, no fish fingers, no chips, instead we drank freshly squeezed juice and ate farm eggs, root vegetables and grainy bread. But I loved it, thrilled to discover how differently people lived in other cultures.
The constant movement of my parents, whether from city to farm or country to country, instilled in me a wanderlust I didn’t identify until later in life. With hindsight I see the pattern repeating. Tired of the daily route to school, I walked to different bus stops and caught other buses, sometimes walking all the way home. Later, at work in London, I wouldn’t buy a season ticket because it represented a dull future of repetition. The idea of being in the same place, doing the same things in a year, a month or even the following week was claustrophobic.
When I swung through adolescent moods or depression, Mum cheered me up by telling me to concentrate on happy things.
“Think about your next holiday. Where you will be going, the people you will meet and the sights you’ll see. That’s what keeps me going when I’m down.”
Now my boat is my home, and the only thing rooting me to the ground is a bit of chain with an anchor on the end. Jamie and I have sailed thousands of miles and lived in many countries; the perfect solution to my restlessness? Maybe. Since I have been free to go when and where I like I find I am less inclined to leave.
Until that itch flares up, then off we go again.