Saturday, April 21, 2007


In September 1992, I was 21 years old and three-quarters of the way through a degree course in French and Italian; a course that requires students to live abroad for ten months. I'd already spent nine months living in France, and I was now supposed to spend a month in Italy, at the Dante Alighieri Language School in Florence.

This was all very well, but I was also expected to get myself to Florence and pay for a month's accommodation and subsistence. As I had no money at all, and neither did my student boyfriend D., this was somewhat problematic.

In a fit of generosity, my dad had said that if D. and I could get ourselves to the south of France, where he and my mum lived, he would drive us to Florence.

I don't remember how D. and I got to the south of France, but I expect we took the coach from London to Toulouse. Upon our arrival, my dad helpfully claimed not to remember anything about promising to drive us to Florence*. This was not only Somewhat Unexpected, it was also Not Good, as my mum and dad's place in France was on the Spanish side of the country.

As neither of us had any money, our only alternative was to hitch. My mum drove us to Béziers and dropped us off at the péage (motorway toll station), leaving us to our fate. How my mum felt about leaving her tiny and completely impractical daughter to hitch along hundreds of miles of foreign motorways accompanied only by a monoglot crusty fantasist has gone unrecorded by history, but there we go.

It all went OK at first; we got a lift almost straightaway from someone who was going to Nimes airport. Shortly we learned the inadvisability of trying to hitch out of an airport that is only served by one flight a day, especially after that flight has been and gone. After several hours of barren emptiness, an airport worker took pity on us and drove us back to the motorway, where we immediately got a lift to Arles with a bloke who drove barefoot.

At length we got to Nice. Nice has the biggest péage I've ever seen, but no one wanted to pick us up there. After two hours, we got a lift from a bloke in a yellow Mercedes who tried to gather us to the bosom of Jesus. As D. didn't speak any French, and I'd only just defected *from* the bosom of Jesus, this didn't work as well as he might have expected. He chucked us out at Ventimiglia, on the Italian border.

By this time it was dark, and a high wind was getting up. D. reckoned we ought to stop for the night and put the tent up. Optimistically, we attempted to do this on the only patch of grass we could see, which happened to be right outside the passport control office. Two carabinieri watched us put the tent up (in the dark, in a high wind), before strolling over to tell us we couldn't camp there. We put the tent up again, on an embankment. All night the wind threatened to uproot it, but didn't.

The next day we got a lift with an Italian bloke who kept laughing to himself. I was sitting in the front (as I spoke Italian), and D. was in the back. Eventually the bloke told me he was laughing because he'd missed his turning for Turin, and would have to go back miles after he dropped us off. Later, D. told me he had surreptitiously got his knife out of his rucksack when the bloke started laughing, convinced that he was about to kill us both.

When we got to Florence we stayed at a campsite overlooking the city. I got up every day and went down to the language school. At the language school I saw another girl from my university, but I didn't tell her where I was staying. Most of the other people on my course at uni were quite rich (Santa Sebag Montefiore used to sit behind me, for example), and had probably rented palazzo apartments and scooters and were living it up like Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley.

Instead, I made friends with a bloke called Ben, and went to a fantastic coffee bar with him every day for a latte. D., stuck in the campsite with no money, wasn't very impressed with this behaviour.

In the campsite we met a couple called Darren and Mandy: he was a textbook Essex boy; her dad owned a pub. They were on their way to Rimini, which had somehow become the epicentre of the mainland European rave scene. They taught us how to make jewellery out of stones and wire. We helped them abscond from the campsite without paying, and wondered if we'd have to do the same ourselves. We befriended some shy Belgians and I beat one of them at chess. Snap and Dr Alban were perennially playing on the campsite jukebox. We ate fried potatoes and tomatoes every day because that was all we could afford. Despite that, it was brilliant.

One day I read in the newspaper that the Italian lira had fallen out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. We weren't sure what this meant, but it didn't sound good, and we thought we'd better go home in case hyperinflation was about to break out and we would need wheelbarrows of lira notes just to get out of the campsite. D. phoned his mum and asked her to wire some money. Somehow, this worked. We used it to pay for the campsite and get a coach back to London. At Victoria coach station we had to borrow money from a complete stranger to get a coach back to Worcester, where D.'s mum lived.

D. and I split up three years later, and I've not thought about this Italian episode for a long, long time. For some reason I started thinking about it this morning, and just felt like writing it for posterity.

* To be fair to my dad, I think he had only extended this promise to me, rather than to me and the boyfriend. I don't think my dad liked the boyfriend much.


the whales said...

Good story!

Annie said...

Yes, good story *claps*

God, it's boring being a grownup, isn't it?

(Didn't your college give you any help at all towards it? No Erasmus scheme or anything? Naughty college.)

Loganoc said...

ah... this has made me nostalgic for stuff I've never actually done... I've always had an overdraft to fall back on if nothing else. Was D the one carrying the box of wires(?) across a car park?

patroclus said...

Whales: Ooh, thanks.

Annie: I think I have just as much fun as a grownup; it just doesn't revolve around playing chess with diffident Belgians in foreign campsites. The college probably would have helped out, but I tend to maintain an aloof distance from bureaucratic formality, which has been my downfall on many occasions.

Loganoc: Bloody hell, well remembered! It was some white camouflage netting.

Billy said...

What a fascinating story. I can't come even close to this, but I did once manage to set off a burglar alarm near a boat shed in Pevensey.

God, my life is exciting.

Sylvia said...

I try not to remember my year abroad, spent in Deepest Normandy being ignored. I used to bomb around in my 2CV and spent a great deal of time on my own. One of my fellow assistants in the nearby town spent her year working her way through the staff and Terminal, so that was why the staff at my lycee mostly gave me a very wide berth! As I'm more femme fatality than femme fatale, I suppose I should have been flattered!
No, no outstanding memories of that year. Still, I used to drive around the Cotentin peninsula and Brittany quite a bit, and it was fab being so close to Mont St Michel.

What a story, though, P - but why Italian? you have to speak to Italians then! I speak Italian because of genetics not choice.