It was the summer of 2012, a good year to be in the UK. The nation was riding high on the back of a royal wedding, glorying in the Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Britain was booming with a fly the flag and here come even more fireworks kind of way.
And all I wanted to do was leave.
It was time for me to start my life of adventures, however crazy it seemed. And it was crazy: I had a peanuts mortgage on a cute top floor apartment overlooking a fun canal junction. I could watch the narrow boats and Warwick Castle (if the wind blew the tress in the right direction). I was financially safe, bricks and mortar secure, running a successful small business which had surprising potential after the crash had nearly taken us all out a couple of years before.
But I was haunted by ghosts of lives past and a need for adventures I could sense.
As the summer turned to autumn I put my apartment up for sale. For a while I’d been taping up boxes of my past lives into heavy cardboard cubes to be locked up into a surprisingly expensive metal cupboard in a field. Storing previous versions of yourself just in case you might want to come back to them later is a peculiar and costly thing.
‘Are you sure you’re ready?’ a girlfriend asked me, knowing the upheaval might be significant as I’d lived in my apartment for eighteen years. She also knew my fragile state of mind at the time. Adventures might not be the wisest thing.
‘I’m ready!’ I said.
Scroll on just a few weeks and after several apartment viewings the sale of my place was nearly closed. I’m sitting in a café in the UK with the same pal, sketching out where the money from the sale of my home might take me.
“I think it’s Vienna first…” I announced. I’d driven there with friends in my twenties and fancied going again to see how we’d both changed in two decades.
“Oh, I’ve heard it’s stunning!” We talked for at least an hour about the adventures I could have. We decided that it might be an idea to take a mini break to Vienna together and scout for accommodation for me for the coming winter. A few hours later she sent me a link to a discount break for two that had popped up on her Groupon feed that day with an offer that was too good to miss.
~ To Venice.
We had been talking about two different cities for the entire time we had spent together that day. Venice not Vienna. But for some reason, in the spirit of madness that I was embodying in selling my home in the first place, I went with it.
Adventures have a habit of asking you to step up.
Fast forward again and we’ve just jumped into my car to drive to the airport to fly to Venice. My friend is in the passenger seat opening the mini bottle of Prosecco I’d packed in the glove box as a thank you for her part in starting my venture. Pop! Laugh. Toast. Laugh again. Belly laugh. I mean, we were going property hunting – in Venice! It was as ridiculous as going to choose a llama for my mother’s birthday present.
As I turned onto the motorway utterly static traffic stretched ahead for miles. My car was stuck in it before I had a chance to reverse back up the slipway as I spied some even crazier than me were doing in my rear view mirror. The radio informed us to expect a two hour delay which pretty much cancelled my adventures in one fell swoop.
‘How much do you want it?’ my friend hiccuped as she asked.
The sat nav told me that if I factored in the delay time we’d have one minute to park, check-in, get through security and to the gate before the flight took off. It was impossible.
Bizarrely, because there was the tiniest window, it seemed a signal of possibility, the smallest chance that had to be taken. It was totally impossible on the evidence at hand and yet it felt possible to me.
If the sat nav calculation had said a minute over I know it would have felt differently. One minute. Did I want this enough to try for it? My gal pal was right. That was the question. I didn’t say a word out loud but I remember hearing a growl somewhere inside me: ‘Oh, how I want this!’
My foot eased onto the accelerator to rev my intention to move across lanes, my arms synced into using the indicators and signalling through my windows about where I was going. It wasn’t where I wanted to go, this was not my style. But it was where I was going to go, sod the embarrassment. Horns blasted and hand gestures were traded as I crept sideways onto the hard shoulder and followed the emergency vehicles.
You must know this is not my usual attitude. I am wired to wait for decades. I have a tendency to invite others before me in the grocery queue, those who think themselves exempt from the rules aggravate me. That moment was not at all ‘me’, it was a mad act.
That, indeed, is the point. Sometimes you have to be someone other than you have been.
It was not utter madness. I knew that there was a service station not too far away and had a hunch that there had to be an exit out the back of it. We had to sweet talk our way through the service station lorry gate, but we did it. Then my foot flattened to the floor to weave cross country from the Midlands to Stansted. My old car told me that it didn’t appreciate being driven as if it was in a Bond movie. It started to cut out at any junction where I had to slow down and blow black smoke behind it. Reaching Stansted at all looked increasingly impossible even as I pulled back the minutes on my sat nav ETA.
My car did limp into Stansted, coughing and wheezing. I threw it into the most expensive car park as it was closest to Departures. We both ran like crazy women, limbs flailing and throwing money at officials to secure priority check-in and fast lane security. We made it to the gate as the last few passengers were boarding, screeching on our heels to present passports as if nothing had happened.
Our flight had been delayed.
I have never laughed so much at high altitude apart from once when I made the mistake of drinking the entire contents of a whisky selection box. My friend was sat opposite me across the aisle. We kept looking at each other, wide eyed, pinch-me disbelieving.
“There is no way that was possible!’ the thought was batted about between us like a balloon we didn’t want to burst. What we had done wasn’t possible, not if you looked at it solely from the motorway perspective. Then trying seemed pointless, dangerous even.
But the impossible had happened.
The minibreak turned out to be one where none of the five viewings I’d set up felt at all right or were anywhere near affordable. The local estate agent was despairing. But I held my nerve and the spirit of how my adventures had started. In the last couple of hours before our flight home a random recommendation from a friend-of-a-friend of the estate agent led to me viewing a secret garden apartment in a converted palace that Jean Paul Sartre had once rented. Instantly I knew it would become my winter home. I stayed until spring.
Hold your nerve. You have no idea what strokes of luck or random turn ups will combine to create an experience that seems impossible from your current vantage point. I ended up living in a movie set city being woken by singing gondoliers drifting past my bedroom window. Mad things happen. Sometimes they are invitations to you.
There are times when stepping into the madness is the only thing that makes any sense.