I grew up listening to stories of my mother’s travels throughout Europe. She was, and still is, the most adventurous spirit I know.
Mum is a tiny woman, most likely to be found at midnight in the woods near the chicken coop in rubber boots, a nightie and pearls, gazing up at the stars. She’s not senile. She’s full of wit and intelligence, and she positively vibrates with curiosity. We all used to say she should have been a surgeon like her father, but now we know that the town library would never have been the same without her. It’s not a quiet library, as she’s one of the loudest people I know. She shrieks with delight, surprise, dismay and simply when she thinks things are too calm. She knows all her patrons’ tastes in books, and being a voracious reader herself, can tell you what you want to read before you know yourself. She researches everything. She can tell you the personal history of everyone she knows… what their cousins do for a living, who their grandfather had a fling with, where they live, and what direction they like to vacuum their carpets. She can be exhausting, but she is amazing.
We’d be trapped in the car with Mum for days on end, driving from Nova Scotia to Montreal when we were kids, and she would tell us about her time in Europe. She lived in Venice for a year, and traveled all over. France, Austria, England, Turkey, Greece and other places. Today, when my sister and I deconstruct Mum’s accounts (she’s one of our favourite topics), we often are shocked by the flagrant disregard she had for what we consider safety.
She was a twenty-one year-old woman, on her own in Europe. She was not the type of female that would get ignored. She most memorably (and we loved this story as girls) wore a top that was completely sheer with no bra, such that you could see everything, on a lunch date in Rome. ‘It was the sixties,’ she always says, ‘It was nothing, you girls are prudes.’ She had long strawberry blond hair down to her waist. Blue eyes that angle up at the corners. We would think it was all lore, but we’ve seen the photographs. Mum sparkled. Glittered down the lens with vitality and disregard for the status quo. She had no inhibitions then, and she never grew them since. She still gardens topless sometimes and waves joyously to planes when they fly by low, on their way to a nearby landing strip.
She always had male traveling companions, and two, in particular, that stood out. Daniel and Diego, with whom she traveled for many months. They had no money, and Mum always pretended that she had none either. She stayed where they stayed, ate what they ate, and hitchhiked alongside them. I can only imagine that’s where her biggest value as a traveling companion came in, as she insists that they were never romantically involved. She probably caused traffic accidents, standing on the side of the highway in gauzy wisps of clothing, bouncing with freedom and fun.
A favourite story of ours was when Mum landed tired, hungry and dirty in Istanbul with the boys. She told them that she had to go to the American Express office to check for mail, but instead checked into the nicest hotel in the city. Once there, she ordered a fancy meal, the biggest glass of milk they could bring her and had a hot bath. She’s such a passionate storyteller that we could always actually feel this part of the journey. Also, we love hot baths in our family because there was a time growing up when we frequently ran out of water on the farm, and had to go to the local military base for showers (where we often wondered… do the pilots recognize our mother?). I am ever grateful when I can just turn on a tap and fill up a tub.
Mum was, in fact, a well-to-do girl from Montreal, running away from her family and their expectations, looking for a place in the world where she fit in. She gained confidence in her travels, and I think that’s why those are the stories she liked to tell us when we were younger. Travel. Take chances. You will gain so much. The message sunk in.
The summer I graduated from high school, when I was seventeen, Mum handed me a plane ticket to Germany and some German language CDs. I was to stay for six weeks with the brother of my mother’s best friend and his seventeen year-old daughter. Neither of them spoke English, and to get there I was required to fly to Frankfurt, then take a bus to a train station, then take a train to the small town of Baden-Oos.
I had an enormous suitcase, and felt like it was either the end, or the beginning of my life. I wore a long skirt, a tight striped sweater, and the nonchalance that only a teenager on her way to Europe alone for the first time could carry off. My mother’s last cryptic words to me as she squeezed me at the airport were ringing in my ears as I set off. ‘Just remember that wherever you are, you must always still be you.’ Those words got me through the next fifteen years of travel, romance, adventure, heartbreak and goodbyes.
And eventually, they got me home again.