9: A Promising Start

Back in Birmingham, I started to think about the kind of career I wanted. I didn’t have any clear ideas, or a plan – I just knew I didn’t want to be a beach bum.

So I focused on the two things I love to do:

  • making use of my language skills
  • travelling / being paid to travel
1981-birmingham-rotunda-copyright-julia-barnickle
Birmingham Rotunda – in 1981 an office block – now a residential building

The most obvious place to start looking seemed to be airline companies. I couldn’t be an air hostess, though: you had to wear court shoes, which were uncomfortable; and if I wear man-made fibres, I build up static electricity – which would have discharged into hapless customers on the plane.

But I knew I could do an admin job, and I also knew that some airlines had offices in The Rotunda, in the city centre- so that’s where I started my search. There were no security issues in those days, so you could wander freely around an office block without an appointment.

My strategy was simple:

  • go to The Rotunda;
  • find the offices occupied by airline companies;
  • ask if they had any jobs.

The first two airlines I approached said they had no vacancies. The third one said the same – but the woman I spoke to added one vital piece of information.

“We don’t have any jobs ourselves, but I think my colleague is looking for someone.”

She then got on the phone to her colleague and arranged for me to visit his offices in an hour.

He worked for a tour operator and told me he was looking for someone to research flight and accommodation packages for business travellers. After a brief conversation, he suggested I come back for a formal interview in a few days’ time. The interview went well, and I was offered the job.

About a month before, I had applied for a job as campsite manager with PaxPam, which would involve spending 6 months in the South of France – ever since my student days I had longed to spend more time in France – but, following an interview, PaxPam had rejected me, because they had someone else in mind.

A couple of days after I was offered a job by the tour operator, PaxPam phoned to say that the person they had in mind for campsite manager wasn’t able to get there in time – he was stuck in their Winter ski resort and wouldn’t be able to leave until after the start of the Summer season. So they offered the job to me instead.

I then had to choose between

  • a permanent job in Birmingham
  • 6 months in the South of France

There was no contest.

With my parents looking on anxiously, I phoned the tour operator and explained that I wouldn’t be able to accept their offer of a job after all. I’m sure everyone thought I was mad – and perhaps I was.

* * *

After an overnight stay with Rj’s family in London, I headed off to Ramsgate for an early morning Hovercraft crossing to Calais, where I met up with one of the couriers. Together we drove for three days in a company minibus to Sanary, on the Côte d’Azur, where we were greeted by the supervisors, other campsite managers, and couriers. We would all spend the next two weeks learning more about the job and the area.

julia-1981-arles-copyright-julia-barnickle
1981 – at Arles amphitheatre, Côte d’Azur

My campsite was on a hilltop outside St Tropez. When I arrived, the tents were still folded up in a store room, waiting to be pitched. The campsite hadn’t been used by PaxPam before – so for the first month, my job was to set everything up and forge relationships with the campsite owners, as well as with owners of local bars and restaurants. This part of my job was an absolute joy.

Unlike my colleagues, I spoke fluent French – albeit with a “Northern” accent, according to the locals, rather than a Provençal accent. The fact that I made the effort was appreciated – and when I did get stuck for a word, people were only too happy to help.

A couple of days after my arrival, two young English lads turned up in a car filled to the gunwales with tins of sausages in baked beans. The driver, Ry, was one of my couriers – his buddy was along for the ride in the hope of finding a job.

The first two weeks, it rained non-stop, turning the campsite into a mud bath. Then the sun baked the mud solid, leaving deep rills where we had driven the minibus. With the sun came ants the size of cockroaches, a huge wasp nest in a nearby tree, and the Mistral wind – which blew one of the family-size frame tents over a six-foot high fence before we had time to peg it down. Nevertheless, before the rest of the couriers arrived, we three got the campsite looking shipshape, and erected over fifty tents in readiness for their temporary occupants.

julia-1981-ramatuelle-copyright-julia-barnickle
1981 – the campsite at Ramatuelle, Côte d’Azur

I enjoyed my role as campsite manager, preparing the campsite, handling the accounts, and building relationships with local business owners. But I was a terrible courier.

My first outing was a coach trip to Ventimiglia, just over the Italian border – where, in those days, you could buy Duty Free alcohol. I was supposed to give a running commentary as we drove through many well-known towns on the Côte d’Azur – but I fell asleep. Other disasters involved taking a group to a wine tasting at a local vineyard, when the tasting salon was closed for lunch; and missing the turning to the beach when driving a young couple there in the minibus, twice. Same beach, same couple.

So I could understand some of the holidaymakers being slightly unhappy with the service. But there was one group of disgruntled campers who were unhappy about most things. The latest complaint was about a lack of free entertainment on site – so Ry, who had been a DJ back home, volunteered to set up a free disco.

“Is the beer free too?” one of the more vociferous campers asked.

1981-ramatuelle-copyright-julia-barnickle
1981 – Ramatuelle, Côte d’Azur

On opening night, another courier, X, suggested we wear fancy dress – swaddling ourselves in huge nappies (diapers) made out of sheets. I abstained – dressing up in a silly costume made me feel uncomfortable.

A few days later – exactly 6 weeks after my arrival – my supervisor turned up at the campsite for an unexpected meeting, where he summarily fired me.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself,” he said.

I couldn’t really argue with him – I didn’t enjoy the constant complaints from some of the campers or being expected to act the fool to keep everyone else happy. I guess you could say that Hospitality and me weren’t meant for each other.

But I had done a good job of getting the campsite ready, and working with the local business owners – and I loved being in the outdoors in the South of France. I had been prepared to put up with things I didn’t enjoy, simply to be there. That was my only mistake.

My replacement was X. I remembered afterwards that he had arrived a few weeks late at the campsite, because he was working at a PaxPam ski resort over the Winter. X was the person PaxPam had in mind all along to be campsite manager. I had declined a permanent job in Birmingham for a promise of spending 6 months in the South of France – only to be fired, for no valid reason, after 6 weeks.

The irony was that, if PaxPam had said they only needed me for 6 weeks to set up the campsite, I would have arranged with my employers in Birmingham to delay my start date. Then again, if I had done that, I might not be where I am now.

I phoned my parents from the campsite office, to update them. I wasn’t sure what to do next – I was tempted to stay in the area, but I didn’t want to be a beach bum.

“Don’t feel you can’t come home, just because things haven’t worked out,” Dad said.

After a couple of days to unwind, I headed home to start again.

* * *

I shall always be grateful for my parents’ quiet support of my wandering spirit – even though I’m sure they worried about me constantly.

Onlookers might have disapproved of my attitude, believing I was selfish for doing whatever I felt like doing, seemingly without considering the feelings of others. They might even have thought I should stop having fanciful ideas and settle down, once and for all. As far as I was concerned, I was simply following my heart.

Abraham Lincoln once said, quoting the poet John Lydgate: “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

And, in my experience, there are some people you can never please, no matter what you do.

So you might as well please yourself.


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