A Lifetime Ahead of Me

juliabarnickle-stuttgart
1976 – wearing a Snoopy T-shirt with the slogan “Life is too short not to live it up a little!”

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.

wolverhampton-university
Wolverhampton Polytechnic / University

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.

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13 thoughts on “A Lifetime Ahead of Me

  1. What a wonderful post! And huge thanks to Marie for highlighting it on the Round UP.

    What a wonderful post! Your experience really chimed with my own, in the 70s. I also loved languages, and travel and in those days we (girls that is) were directed towards secretarial studies. I was accepted to study for a Higher National Diploma in Secretarial Studies with French, but it was cancelled due to lack of numbers so I was enrolled on a Higher National Certificate course instead. I ended up failing the overall course (big secret – please don’t tell 😉 ) because I was such an poor typist! I was great at shorthand and a very fast typist but hopelessly inaccurate. I had used up all my errors in the first three lines usually! One of our course subjects was “Beauty” when we learned such essential skills as how to file your nails properly!!! Can you believe it? If you are a secretary, you have to have well manicured nails. Clearly, that was not going to end well! I ended up doing my language degree as a mature student many years later, and have been so fortunate to work overseas for a long period. We should should have a virtual coffee some day and chat more – thank you so much for such a lovely, evocative post.

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  3. Hi Julia. As you probably know, I like pics. 🙂 So I was a little frustrated not to be able to click upon those three above and see them in a larger format. But not just because I like photography. As a response to a childhood trauma (short story, had to be operated at age 3, and then spend a few months in a sanatorium without contact to my parents) I “tought” myself to enter a trance–as defence mechanism to the unplesant, disorienting isolation. So–even shorter story–I learned to erase my memories. And hence the fascination with pictures of a past life not fully experienced. Anyway, now I am finally focusing into coming out of that trance–and taking life as it comes. So, thanks for this post.
    Regards
    Phedon

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    • Ha ha – interesting comment about the pics! 😀 They’re not great quality – and I don’t like sharing photos of other people without their permission. But I guess enough time has passed… so I’ll see if it’s possible to have a link to the full-size photo, in case other people are interested too.
      Thank you for sharing your story, Phedon. Entering a trance can be very helpful in difficult situations – I’m glad you learned how to do that, although it’s sad that you had to erase unpleasant memories as well.
      Julia

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      • Oh, the trance was a cloud darler than the actual childhood trauma. I’m afraid it took me half a century (!!) to realize it. But there is still time ahead to enjoy some hard-fought clarity, Julia. And those pics are full screen now! THANKS!

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  4. Really interesting! Love your honesty here and you made some brave choices. I certainly was put off studying languages by the over emphasis on literature and wish I’d known there were other options. I just wanted to learn French and get to know the country and the people. Makes me wonder now how many others were put off… I’ve since learned to speak a bit of French and studied Italian to A level and really enjoyed it.

    Looking forward to reading the next installment. And love that Snoopy T-Shirt too!

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    • Thank you Helen! Gosh, perhaps I should have written about languages and literature 40 years ago!! I found it so frustrating that my grades dropped because two subjects were squeezed into one. That was a pattern throughout my educational years, and yet I got by – so I learned that it’s not really important.
      I loved the Snoopy T-shirt too – I wish I still had it! 😀

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