We were 20. Actually, I was still a teenager, not to turn 20 until halfway through our trip. It was to be our first real taste of independent travel.
My best friend, Julia, and I were desperate to go to the Greek islands. We had talked about nothing else all year, while all year our parents tried everything to talk us out of it. They wanted us to go to France – much safer, they said – as if that was going to change our minds.
We didn’t know which islands we wanted to visit. We weren’t sure of our route and we didn’t know exactly when we were coming back. We certainly didn’t have a guidebook or even know such things existed. The year was 1983 and we had a dream, two dreams, in fact – we wanted to island hop and we wanted to sleep on a beach.
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Dad helped me buy my first backpack and sleeping bag. Julia borrowed a tent. By mid-August we were gone. We jumped on and off a series of trains, in a mad dash to Athens.
One station before the Greek capital our train was invaded by scouts from backpacker hostels thrusting accommodation leaflets into our hands. Every hostel looked the same. Even their names were practically identical, all choosing to call themselves “paradise” something or other.
Keeping it simple, we plumped for The Paradise Hostel. It ended up being the grubbiest place I’d ever seen. I might have been green, but the hostel was black and I couldn’t understand how they could get away with calling it anything to do with heaven on earth.
Our first island was Paros. We chose a night ferry crossing because we longed for the adventure and romance of sleeping on deck. We met a couple of Italian lads whose travel plans were as unformulated as ours. We laughed and talked with them as a wind blew up, the rain came down and our ferry did both.
Like stubborn young limpets Julia and I clung to the idea of sleeping outside, refusing to go in even when the weather conquered our two Romans. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep. We were too cold, too wet and too uncomfortable.
The next day we tried to find a beach we could sleep on that night, but they all carried signposts warning us off. Exhausted, we opted for the municipal camping ground but argued about how to put up the tent and spent the rest of the day not talking to each other. In addition, our Italian Romeos were nowhere to be seen. They must have misinterpreted our nocturnal preferences of the night before.
The next three weeks were a considerable improvement on the last two days. Every lunchtime we picnicked on taramasalata sandwiches, not knowing, until we returned home, that we were eating fish roe.
In every bar and cafe, we sang along with A Forest by The Cure or David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire), with its line “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through”. We bumped into the Italian boys on at least two other occasions. Unwittingly, both them and us had joined a flotilla of leverets hopping from Paros to Ios and on to Santorini and Corfu.
Ios, we joked, stood for Irish Over Seas. Other than that, it made no impression on us.
Santorini was different. We marvelled at its micro-climate, we tip-toed across its boiling black volcanic sands, and we visited the ancient site of Atlantis where I bought a bottle of wine for Dad (heaven knows how I got it home in one piece).
In a gesture of marital certainty, I vowed to spend my honeymoon here. Santorini was more expensive than Ios or Paros and there was no campsite. The cheapest accommodation we could find was a room hewn from the volcanic rock.
The bathroom consisted of a wooden bucket and a cold tap in the yard. Initially we were quite enthusiastic about these basic facilities but eventually we longed for hot water and a decent shower. We met two girls whose accommodation included both and they invited us back for a wash. I went first and then it was Julia’s turn.
A moment later, we heard running, a woman shrieking and before we knew it the angriest, oldest Greek woman you’ve ever seen had wrestled Julia from the shower and given her a stinging slap around the face. She screamed at us all for the next few minutes while we stood in amazed, shocked silence. What on earth had we done? We didn’t understand. Eventually it dawned on us. Water was a precious and expensive commodity and there’s no such thing as a free shower in Santorini: this Greek landlady wanted Julia and I to pay for the water we’d used. Although this shower episode was more Enid Blyton than Alfred Hitchcock, for us it took the shine off Santorini and we decided to move islands.
In Corfu all the young travellers had turned pink; not from the sun but from the antiseptic cream covering their moped injuries. This didn’t put us off. The first thing we did was hire our own mopeds and circumnavigate the island. In Corfu Town we bought a pair of earrings with dollops of uncultured pearl at the ends. Julia wore one and I kept the other.
By this time the summer, like our earrings, was half worn out. It was time to go home. The trains were packed. There was nowhere to sit. For two days we stood in an aisle wedged between backpacks, surf boards and sweating beach boys. I don’t know what we were thinking of but we forgot to pack any food or drink. We also had practically no money left.
At Belgrade station we were so thirsty and hungry we spent our last few coins on a limp burger and a sweet fizzy drink. I took a bite then opened up the burger to see inside. A huge black beetle crawled over the edge of the bun and dropped onto the platform. It was disgusting. I threw the rest onto the train tracks.
In the middle of the night we had to change trains at Cologne. We almost missed the stop because we weren’t expecting Cologne to be spelt Koln. Crossing our fingers, we jumped from the train at the last minute and someone threw our luggage out of the window after us.
At Paris’s Gare du Nord station we were weak with hunger. Miraculously, we saw a station cafe with baskets of croissants on all the outside tables. We thought they were free so sat down and ate two tables’ worth.
No one was more surprised than us when a waiter arrived and gave us a bill. We had no money. We had spent it all on the beetle burger. Gallantly and unexpectedly, a French man at the next table paid the waiter what we owed and then disappeared. To this day, if I believed in guardian angels then I would be sure he was ours.
When I eventually arrived home, mum’s diary records: “Charlotte looked so happy, brown and filthy when she walked through the door that dad took a photo of her.”
I have no idea where this photo is today but I do know that my single pearl earring is in my jewellery box. Thirty-seven summers later, I wonder if Julia still has hers.