The other night, on the crowded plane from Heathrow to Casablanca, I found myself talking to the young Polish woman seated beside me. She was hoping to eat a tuna sandwich she had brought with her; the smell of which she was concerned would offend me. I was hoping to read my book, which I was forced to put aside when it became clear that she was far too excited to settle for a chat-free flight. My daughter Beatrice had fallen asleep in her seat, clutching one of a thousand wooly snakes that had been knitted as bookmarks for Around The World in 80 Years.
The Polish girl told me that this was her first time out of Europe and that she would meet up with her tour group at arrivals. She added that she was expecting to really ‘explore’ Morocco – starting with Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fes. I commended her on adding Casablanca to her itinerary, pointing out that it wasn’t the most obvious city in which to begin such a tour. She prattled on about the scarf she had packed to wrap around her shoulders, so as not to shock the locals, about the demure length of the skirts that she had chosen and about the greetings in Arabic that she had practiced daily in preparation for her trip. When I asked what French she knew, she belted out her top icebreaker. Despite her thick Polish accent, the phrase turned an impressive number of heads. I advised her not to say ‘Voulez vous coucher avec moi?’, even in jest, until her return to London and perhaps to refrain from making such a request lightly even then.
Sadly, the girl’s first attempt at travel outside Europe was not that successful. At baggage reclaim her backpack failed to show and at arrivals her group proved as elusive as her baggage. By now it was after midnight and the terminal was quickly emptying. As I handed my cases to my driver, I saw the girl trying to communicate with the rep from her tour. I wandered over – as you can’t easily ditch someone who has previously worried that you would be offended by a fish sandwich. The rep had two names on his list of people to greet and neither name was Polish. After a lengthy discussion, I asked the girl if she had anything with her tour details on it: a telephone number, a reference number, even a contact name? At last, she fished a folded printout out of her bag, upon which were the tour details. ‘But your journey starts in Fes,’ said the rep and this is Casablanca. Why did you get off the plane?’
As the rep and the girl dashed off to start the young woman’s journey elsewhere, I realized journeys begin in all kinds of unexpected places. It reminded me of many years before when I was sitting in my flat in Swiss Cottage and suddenly decided to join my sister in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Back then aged nineteen, I had thought for less than a minute before rushing out to book a flight and to buy a bottle of hair colour to dye over my new ‘blond’ asymmetric hair (it was the 80’s). The NWFP simply wasn’t ready for dyed blonds, asymmetric or otherwise.
The Polish girl’s lack of forward planning reminded me of how we were positively encouraged to travel whenever and wherever possible when we were young. Both my father and my aunt were compulsive travellers, and at one point my brother had an open air ticket around the States and would hop on planes in order to sleep or have a meal. But most of all, the girl’s travel nonchalance made me realize that I had forgotten how easy it is to begin a journey. Since my return from the airport, my bags are unpacked, but I have mentally vowed to recapture the spirit of spontaneous travel. Perhaps I will learn from the example of a mature couple that my husband and I used to know when we lived in London’s east end. Twice a year they would each pack a small suitcase, take a taxi to the airport and consult the departures board. They would then hop on to separate planes, picking their destinations on a whim, the only proviso being that they journeyed to different places. A week later, they would fly home.