When I was 18, in addition to taking my final ‘A’-level exams at school, I had to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’ve never been a planner, so I had no idea where to start. I simply trusted that, somehow, everything would work out OK.
The only things I knew for sure were: I wanted to study modern languages, I wanted to travel, and I didn’t want to study literature.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading books – I do. It’s just that I don’t understand what the examiners want me to say about what I’ve read. How could I be sure that I had interpreted it the same way as the examiners? Surely, when you read anything – fiction or non-fiction – your interpretation and what you take away from the story depends on your own experiences to date?
Literature had been my downfall during my French and German ‘A’-levels, and I wanted no more to do with it. So that ruled out all of the so-called “red brick” universities in the UK. Fortunately, there were at least 5 universities, up and down the country, where I could study languages with economics or current affairs, or some such.
I had already decided to defer my entry into university by a year, because I didn’t want to go straight from one learning institution into another. I wanted to spread my wings and learn a bit about Life first. But I couldn’t imagine what I might do during that time.
I had toyed with the idea of being an au pair. That would have involved both travel and learning a language – but it would also have involved doing housework and looking after young children, neither of which I was (or am) overly fond of.
If I had saved up lots of money, I could have used my Gap Year to go travelling through Europe – or the world. But I hadn’t saved up lots of money – mainly because I had already spent a month with my penfriend’s family in Germany when I was 15, and again when I was 17.
Towards the end of the summer holidays after my final school exams – when I was fast running out of time to make a decision about my future – I discovered that one of my school friends had signed up for a bi-lingual secretarial course in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
I had never considered training to be a secretary – although my Mom had encouraged me to learn to type, which I did and was eternally grateful for in later life. I disliked the idea of being a secretary, though. I wanted to have a “proper” career, even though I didn’t know what that might be.
But it occurred to me that, if I trained to be a secretary, I could get a job, earn some money, and then put myself through university at my own expense – at a time of my choosing – and I could build a career after that.
I discovered a tri-lingual secretarial course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic (now Wolverhampton University) – which would enable me to study both French and German as well as secretarial studies, and which involved a period of study or work experience abroad.
So, with only a couple of weeks to spare, I signed up.
The secretarial classes were painful – especially the one when we were taught how to buy flowers for the boss’s wife on her birthday. “What a cheek,” I thought. “Let the boss get his own flowers for his wife’s birthday.” Shorthand was difficult too, and I never did fully grasp the skill.
In the Spring of our first year, we were to spend 6 months either working or studying in France or Germany. I was offered a secondment to work as a typist in the offices of the Daimler-Benz car factory in Stuttgart, Germany.
I would be staying at an all-female hostel, populated by girls around my age from all over the world, which was situated just across the road from the entrance to the factory site. For some reason, I expected food to be laid on in a canteen or restaurant – so I was shocked when I discovered the hostel was self-catering. I had never cooked in my life, despite Mom’s efforts to encourage me.
When I started work at Daimler-Benz, I felt confident in my German language ability, having previously spent a total of 2 months with my penfriend’s family in a village in the north of Germany. But I hadn’t reckoned on the local accent in Stuttgart, and it took me all of 3 months to get to grips with it.
The women in the office were very nice – although our supervisor was a bit of a battle-axe. We had to clock in and out every day, and we weren’t allowed to talk during office hours. We did, however, have a half-hour break for tea, morning and afternoon, and an hour for lunch. And there was a good canteen on site, so I was well-fed.
At the hostel, I shared a room with another English student, Sue. We got on well, and because we were both working, we could afford to travel together to other parts of Germany, as well as France, Luxembourg, Austria and Switzerland at weekends.
I was surprised to notice though – despite enjoying my stay in Stuttgart and the weekend trips – that I felt homesick. I had never been homesick before – or since.
It was also becoming clear to me was that I couldn’t bear the idea of being a secretary. I realised that signing up to the secretarial course had been a big mistake – and that it would be an even bigger mistake to complete the course.
So, over a long weekend, I decided to go back to the UK and sort out my future.
I caught a train to Frankfurt, from where I had booked a flight to London. It would be easy to get a train to Wolverhampton from there. Or so I thought. What I hadn’t reckoned on was that the flight was to London Luton airport, which is over 30 miles outside of London. It was dark when we arrived, and the railway station was nowhere near the airport either. I was stranded.
I must have been doing a good impression of stranded, because a chap came up to me and asked what the problem was. He was a serviceman – one of several military families that were being transported to London Euston station by private bus. I explained my predicament to him.
“Just mingle in with us” he said. “Nobody will notice if we have one extra person on the bus.”
Thanks to his kindness – and the fact that they didn’t do a roll-call as we boarded the bus – I arrived at Euston around midnight and caught a train heading north.
The following morning, I went to see the Head of Department in the School of Languages at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. I hadn’t warned him that I was on my way, because I knew he would probably try to put me off the idea.
I explained to him that I was very unhappy on the secretarial course, and that I already had a university degree place waiting for me, for the following year.
“We do degree courses here, you know” he said. “And we have a very good language department.”
I had enjoyed my first year in Wolverhampton – living in shared accommodation off-site had given me a chance to experience a bit of real life. So I decided to stay at Wolverhampton Polytechnic and change to the degree course.
A couple of days later, I caught a train back to London Luton for the return flight to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed, so I missed the last train back to Stuttgart from Frankfurt.
I had been chatting with a German lady on the way over to the UK – her daughter was studying at Oxford, and we had a long and enjoyable conversation. When she realised that my train to Stuttgart had already left, she offered to put me up overnight. I was glad of her kindness. I suppose she hoped someone would do the same for her daughter, if she found herself in a similar situation.
The following morning I made my way back to Stuttgart. I had to phone my supervisor to let her know I’d be late, which she not at all pleased about – until she heard that I had decided to leave Daimler-Benz after 3 months instead of 6 months, which she was even less pleased about.
I knew she would get over it, though – and it was much more important for me to make a swift change from something I was unhappy doing to something I was pretty sure I would enjoy.
That approach is one that has served me well over the years.