What I Learned From Being Broke, Overseas and Alone

In June 2006, I turned eighteen. A week later, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe to go backpacking alone for four months.

It was a dream I’d worked towards for four years. When I was fourteen, I got my first job as a storeman (though they called us “floor boys”) at a supermarket in Geraldton. I earned something like six bucks an hour and every penny I saved went into the Eurotrip fund. Since I was a teenager living at home, I think my main expenses were going to the movies with mates, buying CDs and, kind of ironically, buying food to eat at my breaks from said job (I ate a lot of Gummi Bears and Freckles).

The juicy details of my gap year in Europe warrant their own blog post, or maybe even a chapter in a memoir one day when I am old and uber-famous (which is obviously going to happen, thank you). Suffice it to say I had the time of a lifetime, met awesome people (some of whom I’m still in touch with), saw amazing places (go to Cesky Krumlov once in your life – do it!), and maybe most importantly, I grew from a boy into a man in basically every way you can measure that.

In the final month of the trip, I found myself in Cinque Terre in north-western Italy. I was staying in the fishing village of Riomaggiore, in the grungiest shared apartment you can imagine: cheap white furniture, concrete floors and a communal toilet cubicle that doubled as the shower. To shower you just closed the door, put the toilet seat down and held the showerhead over you. It was surreal, and perpetually the wettest toilet seat known to man.

On my first day in Riomaggiore, my bank card declined at the Bancomat. No big deal – this happened sometimes. I just had to transfer some more funds from my savings account to my debit card.

But when I transferred the funds, they didn’t appear in my card. I’d forgotten two things: firstly that my debit card was with a different bank, meaning there would be a delay; and secondly, that it was a public holiday in Australia.

The upshot: I was in a foreign country, completely alone, with four euros and no money incoming for at least two days.

So I went to the nearest shop and bought an apple, so I had something in my belly, and a 1.5 litre bottle of wine, so I could get myself too fucked up to care about being hungry. My remaining four euros were now gone, but what else was I going to do? There was no way to unfuck the situation: I just had to ride it out and try to enjoy it.

europe 2006
The only digitised photo I have of myself from my 2006 backpacking trip to Europe (I used disposable film cameras back then!). This was on the Eiffel Tower.

I went back up to my grungy apartment to my fellow backpackers and told them how I was broke. I didn’t know any of them: we had all met in that apartment that very day – five of us, all coincidentally Aussies, two guys (me and Ben) and three girls (Sammy, Mia and Mon), each with different backgrounds and ages. I didn’t want to ask any of them for money, and I didn’t, but it struck me then (and still does, now) how it didn’t take money to show they cared.

We all just sat around the table – talking, telling stories, laughing, drinking – and we ended up staying there late into the night. I was wearing a plain white T-shirt a distant relative had gifted to me back in Sicily, and that night it received a gigantic crimson wine stain that I never managed to get out. And I didn’t go hungry in the end: Sammy had made pasta and she let me have some of her leftover macaroni.

When I’d had enough wine, Mia chucked the kettle on and offered me a cup of tea to drown my financial sorrows.

“Tea is so good,” she assured me. “It makes everything okay.”

I wasn’t a tea drinker before that night, but I became one from then on. Mia was right. A cup of tea really did make everything okay. I had tea to drink, and people to speak to, and there was no need to worry about anything else.

The next day, Mia, Mon and I went for a hike from Riomaggiore (the first of Cinque Terre’s five villages) to the last, Monterosso. It was twenty-two kilometres and it took us seven hours. We hiked through a series of hills and cliffs and forests: everything was lush and verdant and bathed in sunlight. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we jogged and sometimes we sprinted like deranged athletes, just for the hell of it. Sometimes we stopped to have some wine and leftover chocolate. We finally reached the beach of Monterosso at twilight. It was a pebble beach and even though it hurt our feet, we took our shoes off and ran into the ocean so the Ligurian Sea could splash over our skin.

That night, we returned to the grungy apartment. Sammy kindly cooked for us all, and we stayed up late drinking cups of tea and writing postcards for each others’ families as a prank. We were the best friends in the world.

And the next morning, we all moved on and went our separate ways. Mia and Mon, who were travelling together, went off to Spain somewhere. I think Sammy and I ended up crossing paths a couple more times in either France or Switzerland. I have no idea where Ben went.

But I never saw any of them again.

Fast friendships – genuinely affectionate but necessarily temporary – are a hallmark of the backpacking experience. But I learned a lot from these particular travelling companions, and this particular leg of my travels.

Firstly, I learned that something I perceive as disastrous isn’t always so. Because I’m an anxious person, I have a tendency to catastrophise. I can be particularly stressed about money at times. I can also panic about being unable to help myself, and having no recourse to funds certainly falls in that category. But my worries about money diminish when I think back to my time in Cinque Terre, when I was briefly stuck with no money, and I survived quite easily.

Secondly, and I know this is a bit mawkish, but I learned the best things in life really are free. The green forests of Cinque Terre. The dappled sunlight. The pebbles at Monterosso. The Ligurian Sea’s spray. The stories. The laughter. I didn’t need money to be happy then, and I know I never will.

And finally, I learned that tea is a legitimate remedy for life’s ills. In fact, tea is what prompted this blog post and the trip down memory lane. Today, life was getting too much for me in a number of ways. I sat there on the couch, a restless bundle of nerves and despair, for several minutes.

And then Mia’s voice echoed from twelve years ago. “Tea is so good. It makes everything okay.”

So I got up, flicked the kettle on, made a cuppa and thought I would distract myself by writing about the time I first heard that advice.

And as has been the case for the past twelve years, Mia was right.

Holden

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Author: Holden Sheppard

YA and Fantasy Author from Western Australia.

6 thoughts on “What I Learned From Being Broke, Overseas and Alone”

  1. Great post Holden. My how husband and I backpacked many years ago. We shared a hostel with a young American guy, who had no money and was sleeping on park benches every second night. We fed him breakfast, lunch and dinner, just to make sure he was okay. Backpacking makes for exciting, scary, adventurous, life changing times.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Nicole for reading and for your comment. It’s thanks to the kindness of fellow travellers like yourself and your husband that the young American was able to keep going – good on you. Agree, for me backpacking was a true adventure, sometimes frightening, often exciting, completely transformative. Where did you guys go?

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      1. Aah yes I remember you well so young and innocent yet so curious with the world. I remember meeting you in Rome I have a couple photos of you and some others exploring the Roman forum lol

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hey Nate, so glad you read this! I was a very curious young man haha. Oh yeah I remember our time in Rome exploring the forum – was it with Jo and Jennie? I think we got duped into paying for one of those Gladiator photos didn’t we? I was utterly convinced I was going to become an archaeologist after that day. If you have those pics in digital form can you send them through to me on FB by any chance? Would love to see them, and I have no idea where all my printed photos are buried in my garage.

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