10: Making Plans

Back home once again, my plan was to knuckle down and concentrate on saving up some money for the next phase of my journey. It was clear that I didn’t want to live in Birmingham on a permanent basis. I really wanted to live in France, or be paid to travel – but doing what?

For the time being, I went back to doing temporary work through an agency. For a few months there were slim pickings, so I took whatever I could find, including waitressing – another job I wasn’t cut out for, as I don’t have the cast-iron hands needed to carry scalding hot plates from kitchen to table.

I applied for two jobs teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in Japan: one company asked for details of my published articles on the subject, which I didn’t have; the other basically said: pack your bags and come on over. I felt there should be some sort of middle ground, where I didn’t have to be a world expert but wasn’t on a Gap Year either. I was also concerned that I didn’t speak a word of Japanese – so in the end I chose not to proceed with my applications.

I eventually found a temporary assignment as a Telex operator at a shipping company in the centre of Birmingham. It was a perfect job for an introvert, in a way – sending messages to people around the world electronically, via paper tape, rather than having to actually talk to them.

1982 – Telex machine (photo credit shippingandfreightresource.com)

I got on well with the people in the company – but when they offered me a permanent job as a Telex operator, I turned it down, because I wasn’t planning to stay long. I had already decided my next move would be to London – just a short hop from France, where I really wanted to be.

Dolly switchboard operator (photo credit cerealfordinneragain.com)

They gave the job to another temp, who had been working one of the old-fashioned “dolly” switchboards that you might see in a film from the 1940s. As compensation, they asked if I would like to try out a microcomputer they had just bought: an Apple IIe. They knew computers were the future, but they didn’t know how to work one.

Neither did I. Despite having written a simple computer program at school, and another at Polytechnic, I had never come within arm’s length of an actual computer, and my programs had both crashed. But I was game to have a go – and fortunately the Apple IIe came pre-loaded with business software, as well as some games to help you get used to using the computer.

Apple IIe computer (photo credit ntc-tech.com)

My favourite game was intended to show how a computer learns – it went something like this:
Computer: “Think of an animal.”
Me: I press ENTER to confirm I’ve thought of an animal.
Computer: “Is it a bison?”
Me: “No.”
Computer: “OK, I give up. What animal is it?”
Me: “It’s a parrot.”
Computer: “What’s the difference between a parrot and a bison?”
Me: “A parrot has wings.”
Computer: “OK. Think of another animal.”
Computer: “Does it have wings?”
Me: “No.”
Computer: “Is it a bison?”

I enjoyed being paid to figure out how the computer worked – and to teach other members of the team how to use it. It gave me the opportunity to use my analytical skills and also showed me that I had a knack for sharing my knowledge with others – and making it fun.

Even though I didn’t want to stay in Birmingham, I applied for a job that piqued my interest – as a presenter for a local radio station. I didn’t get the job, but I met the woman who did – and she said her success had largely been because she was the only applicant to supply a tape of her speaking voice. Sometimes we forget the most obvious things.

After six months at the shipping company, I had saved enough money to live on for a while – so I packed my bags and moved to London.

* * *

1981 – modelling a sari

Rj’s parents very kindly offered to put me up for two weeks, while I looked for accommodation. Since sharing a flat with RJ, two years earlier, I had spent several weekends with her family in London.

On one occasion, RJ dressed me up in a beautiful sari that she had worn to a wedding – and it reminded me of a conversation with Mom, after she saw a full-length dress I had bought for a party when I was a student.

“It’s a pity you can’t wear clothes like that all the time,” Mom said.
“It’s totally impractical,” I replied. “I’d never be able to run for the bus in it.”

After viewing bedsits in all four corners of London, I knew I wanted to be near a railway line rather than a tube line – trains were less claustrophobic, and faster too. Rj suggested East Croydon – near where she lived. There was a fast train up to Victoria, and it had a local business district too. I quickly found a bedsit not far from the station, moved in, and got in contact with temping agencies.

1982 – view of East Croydon – in the background the Threepeny Bit building (No 1 Croydon) by East Croydon train station

Mobile phones didn’t exist, and there was no telephone in the bedsit – so it was important to stay in work, so that the agency could phone me at the office to give me my next assignment. The alternative involved popping out to a public telephone box every half hour, often to find out that the last available job had been assigned a few minutes earlier.

Over the summer, I worked briefly for a record company at their rehearsal studio in Islington – on the other side of London. Before leaving Birmingham, I had answered an advert in the Melody Maker newspaper to write songs  with a guitarist in Kent – so the job seemed like a good fit. But it didn’t match up to my expectations, and I didn’t match up to theirs – so we parted company after two months. The commute had been horrendous anyway, especially during a tube strike which lasted most of the summer, so it was time to look for work locally.

In the autumn, the agency found me a long-term assignment as a trainer for a large American firm in Croydon. The plan was for me to work alongside two of the firm’s employees – but they corralled the few trainees into their training room, leaving me in another room all alone. I felt miserable, so – despite it being a prestigious company with potential prospects – I asked the agency to find me something else.

1983 – my bedsit in West Croydon – top left window

In January 1983, I moved to a bedsit in West Croydon and started a temporary assignment as secretary to one of the Directors at a firm of Quantity Surveyors in the centre of Croydon – a brisk walk from my new home, or a short bus ride if I was running late, which I often was. After two weeks, they offered me a permanent job.

Secretarial work wasn’t my idea of a long-term career – but I liked my boss and co-workers, and a regular income guaranteed the rent was paid while I figured out what I really wanted to do. And at least I wouldn’t have to keep phoning the agency from a public phone box.

At the formal interview, the Director confirmed the details of the job, and then asked if I had any questions.

“Just one,” I said. “Can I have two weeks’ holiday in two weeks’ time?”

I explained that I was about to turn 26, and it was therefore my last opportunity to buy an Inter Rail ticket – which provided free travel throughout most of Europe.

1983 – Inter Rail ticket – my passage to free travel around Europe

It was a tense moment – after the debacle at the campsite, I was loath to turn down a regular salary in favour of a holiday, no matter how important it was to me. I had bills to pay now – and whilst I had been used to contributing to household expenses while I stayed with my parents, these bills were non-negotiable.

I don’t honestly know what I would have done, had my wish not been granted – I suspect that I would have gone anyway. Fortunately the Director said yes, and I started to plan my route: visiting M and R in Germany, Julie and A in France, and Mary in Spain.

At the last minute, I discovered that the route of the original Orient Express passed through Budapest in Hungary to Bucharest in Romania – both still behind the “Iron Curtain” in 1983 – and I thought it would be fun to add those destinations to my itinerary, even though it would take two whole days to get to Bucharest from London.

1983 – train route to Paris to Budapest and Bucharest: “The Orient Express”

I spoke no Romanian or Hungarian, but I was fluent in English, French and German – and despite travelling alone, I was convinced I would be able to get by. Sometimes, a bit of confidence ignorance is all you need to get started.

Unusually for me, I had planned my itinerary down to the last second, as I would be covering a lot of ground in very little time, and I couldn’t afford to miss a connection.

However, as is often the case when we make detailed plans, Life had other ideas.

7 thoughts on “10: Making Plans

  1. I am, for all my success in business, a phonophobe. I didn’t even know such a phobia existed and thought I was the only person in the world who thought the person on the other bed would not want to talk to me. It came from years of my mother, post divorce, having me spew her bile at my father. I was convinced for years that she was in the right and he was all wrong. Years of CBT later, I still hate to talk on the phone but after both my parents died it became easier to pick in the phone but I have to be in a very good mood and feel great about myself to do so.

    Crazy crap caught between the lines of two people who never should have married in the first place. I love your story especially not being able to run for the bus in a Sari. Travel makes us more compassionate, less critical, and more interesting people in so many ways. Travel also gives us the necessary means to learn to be resilient and to think on our feet when there’s problems or challenges that arise. I’d never trade in the fortune of global travel for all the money in the world, I’m not a polyglot like you but it takes no time to learn “please” “thank you” “hello” “good morning/ day/ evening” and the all important request for a bathroom or taxi in another language. People Universally appreciate kindness and someone who’s at least willing to try to communicate.

    Thank you for sharing such intimate details of what made you, you, and I like you very much.

    Love and hugs,

    Ps there’s a great little book called Point to It with little pictures of everything you can imagine so if you’re in Thailand and want some feminine napkins and a bottle of soda you just point to the object in the pocket sized book for a home run every time!


    1. Oh, Ilene, I feel for you – I’m slightly less of a phonophobe now, but I still prefer to send an email to a friend, rather than phone them.
      I agree with what you say about the various positive effects of travel on our personality, and that it’s easy enough to learn the basics in any language, in order to be polite and demonstrate kindness in another country – even if though it’s not always so easy to pronounce the words correctly!
      I love the sound of the Point To It book – very handy in times of crisis abroad!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this: “It was a perfect job for an introvert, in a way – sending messages to people around the world electronically, via paper tape, rather than having to actually talk to them.” I can so relate to it!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thankfully my friends all know I hate to talk on the phone..but they don’t really understand it! I have one friend who is exactly the same as me so makes me feel less weird!


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