The Journey of a Thousand Miles…

Memories during lockdown: the trip that changed me

Returning home for the summer after my first year as an art school student in Liverpool, I felt like a failure. I had completed my foundation year. In that year, my art practice had flourished, and I secured a place to study theatre design on one of the best courses in the UK. But I had failed to set up a summer trip and I felt I was returning home with my tail between my legs.

I had always wanted to travel. Growing up during The Troubles in the North of Ireland, I wanted to escape. I made friends with a few like-minded students who also harboured a similar desire to travel the world. During life drawing sessions in our studio, we discussed the far-flung places we aspired to visit ‘one day’. As the academic year began to draw to a close, confabs became more pragmatic and a trip to France to find work during the summer formed. But with end of year exhibitions and tying up the details on the degree courses we would pursue in other universities the following year, the plans began to fall through the cracks and we parted, each of us heading back to our hometowns to spend the summer preparing to move to a new town the next academic year.

But the torch had been lit for me. Back home, I made trips to the library to scour its shelves for books on working abroad. I had been making copious notes and photocopies of information that might be useful somewhere for something. About a week or so into the holidays, I my school friend Brida, who had completed her foundation year in Belfast came to my house for a catch up. While we were hanging out, I took a call from a friend from art school who lived Dublin. She too, had been doing some research on working in France and had found an agency that placed stagiaires in restaurants in Brittany. She had found a summer job working in an office and couldn’t make a trip, but she gave me the number of the agency to chase up. I didn’t really know what a stagiaire was but working in France for the summer was too good an opportunity to miss. When I spoke to the agency, they said we needed to turn up and register and they could place us.

In the space of an afternoon and a few phone calls, I had found timetables for trains, buses and ferries to France. I had talked Brida into the trip and Sharon into letting us stay at her parents’ place in Dublin for the night so we could connect with our bus to Cork in the morning. We needed to leave immediately to make the train to Dublin. I called my sister, asking her to drive us to Brida’s so that she could pack and then take us to the train station to catch our train. I ran upstairs to pack my backpack and all the info I had gathered from the library. As my sister arrived, I scribbled a note to my parents: Gone to France for the summer. See you in September!

We had to run to make the Dublin train. We moved through the carriage and found an empty four-seater as the train pulled away from the platform. Settling into the window seat watching the streets of Belfast blur as the train began to pick up speed, I felt an overwhelming rush of excitement. Summer had begun.

Looking back, we were impulsive, probably clichéd and possibly foolish. Two eighteen-year olds throwing a bunch of clothes into a bag and heading to Europe for the summer on a whim. But we were also resourceful. This was a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone world; we relied on landlines, word of mouth, going to the library(!). But it was easy to set up a trip you were absolutely determined to take. And this was our trip. We planned it. It was our adventure to have.

We arrived in Roscoff after a fifteen-hour ferry crossing from Cork, stepping into a gloriously sunny summer morning and made our way into town to find a payphone and call the agency. The call went to voicemail. A crackly message advised that the office was shut for the holiday, to call the next day. Today was July 14th. Bastille Day. Everything was closed. But we had made it to France!

We dumped our backpacks in a youth hostel and made our way back into town where we filled a shopping bag with crusty warm baguettes, stinky cheeses, rustic pâtés and most importantly, cheap French red wine. By early afternoon, we were on the seafront where we found a big, flat rock to lay out our picnic. It tasted exactly as it should - French - and therefore exotic to the tastes of two naive teenagers from the North of Ireland. Most importantly, it tasted of freedom and independence. The sun set and the evening settled into itself. The lazy, low hum of a summer evening was immediately punctured with a series of bangs and whistles. The sky lit up in red, white and blue as fireworks exploded into a confetti of light to celebrate France’s national day.

During lockdown, many travel memories that normally remain dormant because, well, life, have burrowed their way to the surface. Trips I had forgotten I had taken. Memories rise rich and vivid. The memory of that summer in Brittany stays close as a reminder of what I am capable of when I put my mind to it. A mind filled with youthful exuberance, of possibilities, possibly a smattering of recklessness, but mostly single - minded determination to have a summer adventure.

The remainder of that summer was spent in the Breton countryside in a rural restaurant serving classic French cuisine. I became a Stagiaire en Salle because of my A-Level French and Brida, a Stagiaire en Cuisine. It was a heady mix of split shifts, meandering to the nearby lake to swim in its cool water during afternoon break, hitch hiking to wherever we could get a ride to on our day off. The sun shone every day. Once our summer employment had terminated, we made the journey back to Roscoff for the ferry home into a road trip, hitch hiking from Redon Roscoff and stopping in St. Nazaire, Carnac, Quimper, Brest and St. Malo. Arriving in Cork, we hitched by to the north in three rides including a seven hour trip in a Beamish lorry heading to Dublin with a driver who was obsessed with John Wayne.

Waiting for a lift near the border

That summer punctuated a year of expansion. It was a taste of life on our terms and a lesson in grabbing hold of the collar of an opportunity and shaking it down for everything that could fall out. I have taken advantage of that privilege ever since.

During these weeks, when we must confine our lives to a space of less than a few square kilometres, priorities rearrange themselves. The mental space normally given over to the minutiae of daily life clears, time slows a little and opens a path to place meaning on memories that have lain dormant for many years. In confinement, I have realised, that as I have grown older, I have taken the privilege to travel for granted. Who knows how travel may look post global pandemic. When we are able to venture out safely into the world again, I vow to tap into those feelings of expansion and youthful adventure, wherever my travels take me.