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

The Importance of STOPPING (Before You Crash)

So, I finally stopped.

This past week I’ve been marvelling – like a bit of a glazed-eyed idiot – at how incredible it feels to do nothing. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped everything. No work. No writing. No being productive, or responsible, or busy. Not even my usual obsessive checking of my work emails on my phone. Rien. Nada. Niente.

And fuck, it feels amazing. I feel more like a human being and less of a worker bee.

It’s strange how one man’s epiphany can be entirely obvious to someone else, though. We’ve had my sister and her boyfriend staying with us for a few weeks over the summer. Most mornings, my sister will take a cup of English Breakfast tea out onto the patio and I’ll follow her out there with my protein shake (an unholy melange of whey isolate protein and three or four raw egg whites). We chat for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, before beginning our respective days, and each morning I’ve waxed lyrical about how good it has felt to stop. She has fixed me with a dead-eyed stare each time, like I’m some unique new specie of moron she has not yet been trained to deal with.

It struck me, at this point, that I’m not quite normal, because most people DO stop, all the time, and so being mystified by the experience seems ridiculous. My sister works incredibly hard as a nurse, often working night shifts and usually with some intensely challenging patients, and she knows full well the value of downtime. She curls up with her boyfriend and watches TV and just veges the fuck out.

I’ve always been a bit of a high-functioning humanoid since my youth: working hard, taking on more and more stuff, seeking more information and input and stimuli. But I think when I was a kid I took a lot more time to chill. When I reflect on my past year – in fact, every year I can remember for the last decade – I feel like all I’ve been doing is hurtling through each day. Meetings for this job. Classes to teach for the other jobs. Do some emails for the fourth job. Work work work work work. (Insert either a Fifth Harmony or Rihanna intonation here – your choice.)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with American therapist Dr Bryan Robinson, who is an expert on work addiction, and a lot of what he described rang true for me in terms of my hectic approach to life. I overtax myself to the point of burnout quite regularly, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times previously on this blog. My modus operandi is to hurtle through one week, and the next, and I keep hurtling until I crash.

And I don’t react normally to a crash. I think a realistic reaction would be:

HOLY SHIT, GUYS, THE CAR’S CRASHED AND IT’S ON FIRE. GET SOME WATER OVER HERE. PUT THE FIRE OUT. YANK THE DRIVER OUT FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL AND WRAP HIM IN ONE OF THOSE SILVER SHEETS AND GIVE HIM A DRINK. REST, SON. JUST REST.

And for myriad reasons that I’d need a counsellor to drill down into accurately, my reaction has always been:

Well, the car’s crashed and it’s burning around me. Let’s see if I can get the motor running again. Oh, sweet, the engine turned over. Great. Let me just shake this glass out of my hair and then I can get this bastard on the freeway again. Why does it smell like smoke and burning rubber in here? Vroom!

You don’t need any more car crash metaphors to get the idea.

I’ll try not to beat up on myself for being the guy who just realised that resting and recharging is a bloody good idea. Instead I’ll just extol its virtues, and learn to do this more often, because it’s brought me back to the kind of guy I actually want to be. I feel like myself more than I have in a fair while, because I’m actually taking time for myself.

So what has stopping actually looked like for me this summer? So far it’s meant:

  • Working Out: This is my favourite release and the most enjoyable pastime I have outside of writing. I like being a cerebral and creative person, but I also love getting the hell out of my mind and into my body and just being a meathead for an hour or two each day. Getting down to the gym and lifting weights is a great workout (and release) and sprinting or cycling or jumping or climbing burns so much nervous fuel and energy it’s better than any drug.
  • Reading: I’ve been working my way through Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – a book I actually didn’t think had hooked me at first, but about 100+ pages in, it snared me and now I really want to see where it goes.
  • Gaming: My boyfriend, who is a hardcore gamer with the headset and mic and keyboard and all, is always at pains to remind me I’m a casual gamer, not a “real” one. Still, I love spending hours just playing a good game. This summer I’ve been hooked on the latest Call of Duty (I love a good FPS; WWII is such a return to form) and Cities: Skylines (geeky af but I love building cities).
  • Soaking up some sun: Now that the sun’s out, I’m spending at least half an hour a day just sitting in the sun and working on my tan. I’m supposed to be an olive-skinned Sicilian, but winter always leaves me looking like a pale pommy bastard, so a bit of sun goes a long way.

It’s been a great 11 days so far and I’m so glad I took the time to stop properly. I won’t forget how important this is, and I’ll make sure to do it again soon. I’ve got a couple more days of chilling out, and then I’ll be flying across to the other side of the country for two weeks to get stuck into some work.

My writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House (in the Blue Mountains), begins next week and I reckon it’s going to be an incredible experience. I’ll be given a room and a studio to work from and a whole week to work on my next novel – which is so unreal. To have no distractions or responsibilities for a week, and just be able to focus on my writing, is a dream come true.

Stay tuned – I’ll share updates from the week and definitely some photos. Apparently there are beautiful sights up in the Blue Mountains!

Holden 🙂