In April 1995 – just over 20 years ago, yep that makes me feel old! – I bought a one-way ticket to Rome. I left my job and flat and packed my backpack. I took my very meagre savings, my Swiss Army knife and my unmarked British passport to Tullamarine and boarded my Alitalia flight to Rome. I was 24 and to use a much-used-but-for-good-reason cliche, the world was my oyster.
I won’t recount my trip from all those years ago here, you’ll be grateful to hear (young idealistic soul wandering the world searching for her meaning and purpose – you know the deal), but as I have walked through the streets of Florence ,Venice and especially Rome with my 3 young children over the past few weeks, that Mel from a previous life did show her face around corners every now and then. I saw her sitting on the Spanish Steps eating blood oranges the day she arrived, fresh off the plane and with no hostel yet to go to, leg entwined through backpack straps and Lonely Planet in her lap. She was there when we lunched at the Trevi Fountain too, I think I saw her with a Marlborough Light hanging out of her mouth, although I could have been mistaken (!?). We didn’t go to Assisi in the van – we are running out of time. I did go all those years ago though, before an earthquake reduced the church of St. Francis to rubble. I’m not sure why I went, possibly because in my religious education at a Church of England secondary school, The Prayer of St. Francis was my favourite hymn. He liked animals, I like animals. Regardless of why I went, I’m glad I did.
Of course I was bunking in a dorm room at the YHA, goodness knows how many people were in my room. But it was there that I met a family. I can’t actually remember where they were from but they had three children – aged 4, 6 and 8 – and they were backpacking around Europe, staying in youth hostels and basically doing what I was doing minus the soul-searching and beer. I was so surprised to see three little blond headed children walking up to the reception counter, in height order, all with size-appropriate backpacks. Modern day Vontrapp children. I remember that the whole family had a sense of calm surrounding them and it amazes me that I noticed that back then, before I knew how stressful it can be travelling with young children. I remember thinking what a beautiful unit they seemed and how wonderful it was that they were travelling together at that age. I had never seen it before. I always remembered them.
I remembered them the night of the wine stained map when Matt and I first talked about doing a trip with our kids. That family helped me know that it was possible, gave me a vision of what it might look like. I didn’t know their names and they will never know what they did, but it felt almost like a full circle when I arrived in Italy with my motley crew (no Vontrapp-ness in sight!) and ate pizza in a tiny trattoria.
We have left Italy now and are really enjoying a few days in an apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The weather has been getting steadily colder, the days decidedly shorter and camping has been getting a little less comfortable. Having warmth and comfort for a few days has meant we can go and play in the snow all day and know we can warm up and dry off before bed.
Two of the motley crew have celebrated birthdays in the past week – Tully turned 11 in Venice and Zoe turned 7 here in Ljubljana, where she was able to have a home baked cake. Who can believe they were 5, 7 and 9 when we left? Who can believe that this thing that has loomed so large in our lives for so long is so close to coming to a close? For so many months we have slapped each other on the backs and laughed, “We’re doin’ it!” In a few weeks we’ll be sitting in the heat of the Australian summer saying, “Far out. We’ve done it.”
But at the moment, we’re still doin’ it.