I suppose this is the explanation and rationale for the trip as people keep asking why.
There we were both plodding along in ‘meaningful’ jobs, but my work life balance was rubbish and Caroline was getting increasingly depressed with the politics of a belt-tightening local authority serving the needs of an increasingly desperate clientele. All the fun activities that she used to love organising were being axed to focus on those families with the greatest needs. It was getting her down.
Mum died unexpectedly in February 2015. No one foresaw it. Even the hospital were shocked at a relatively healthy 88 year old dying so suddenly after her fall. The weird explanation from the schoolboy/Junior Doctor was that the sicker and younger people on the ward had got used to lower levels of haemoglobin in their blood, but mum’s relatively healthier body couldn’t cope with the sudden drop. Practical to the end, she asked the nurse if it was time to call her sons. Her last words to me was to tell me the location of her will.
I put together a tribute for her funeral and I suppose for the first time truly appreciated was an amazing and adventurous soul she was. One of my stock in trade stories was of a ferry crossing during a storm force gale across the Bay of Biscay. She crossed the channel shortly after the second world war with a mine sweeper ahead of her ferry because the storm the night before had dislodged a minefield in the channel! She casually dropped it into a conversation a few years ago, not bragging either. In the early 1960’s, she upped and left Wales with a 2 year old with a one way ticket for a new life in Australia. A month’s voyage on a boat to get there. She left behind all close family. She forced an ocean liner to make an unscheduled stop because I was gravely ill. The Queen gave her an award for her services to charity. The list goes on.
I was surprised at how deeply her death affected me. I lost my mojo at work. I’d always said to staff over the years how much I loved my work and that it was the most rewarding work you could ever do and the day that I got up and didn’t want to come to work was the day I would quit, so I stayed true to my words and resigned.
The last part of the puzzle. When Caroline and I married, we had three things on our wish list. To have children, to move out of London and to travel. The latter got parked in the chaos of the former, but was always simmering in the background.
The two situations above coalesced into an idea that a) our wish list would be fulfilled b) mum’s estate would allow us to pay off our mortgage and partly finance a journey c) we no longer had any elderly relatives to keep an eye on d) Eoin was starting his own adventure into manhood taking his place up at Bristol e) the other three kids weren’t yet part of the exam system. The timing was perfect. I hadn’t anticipated the effect on others and a tearful goodbye to a dear friend last week brought home the fact that perhaps some people will miss us.
I’d travelled in my 30’s for several years. I knew how much the family would benefit and this time round, how many doors the children would open for us. After all, not all countries are so dismissive of children as our own. Parents are parents the world over and would look out for us.
Of course, I have moments of guilt. Am I selfishly dragging my family into danger on a personal quest? The hotel touts and pickpockets will not be sentimental and we’ll be more vulnerable with one eye on the children.
Will we do irreparable damage to their education? That’s a big one. In many of the countries that we will be visiting, parents work their fingers to the bone to give their children a basic education. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for speaking up for the right of girls to be educated. Here we are, choosing to take them out of a really good school that they love going to with no guarantee of a place on our return. I’ve asked some questions about our trip on a traveller’s site (that’s a website for people who travel the world, not a group of caravans on a village green). Reassuringly, people have said things like ‘Your adventure sounds amazing..I wish my parents did something like that when I was young’ and ‘the entire family will have a wonderful time. Happy trails!’
I’m hoping that they will become more rounded individuals, see and appreciate a multitude of different cultures, become tolerant, streetwise and inquisitive, practice their maths skills through currency conversions, pick up new languages skills and hopefully capture the travel bug early on. The reality might be a bit more mundane. “Aoife, you can’t go to the beach until you’ve done another Kent test paper…”
The final piece of the explanation and the reason for the delay. I had said to Caroline that our health was the only thing that could prevent us going. I thought I’d better get an all round health check up before the off and I’d put the recent peeing problems down to getting older. My tests showed good cholesterol, low blood pressure, no diabetes, but a massive and rising PSA (Prostate-specific antigen). I was put on a wonderful two week urgent referral pathway for suspected cancer. Off for an ultrasound, MRI and two very intrusive biopsies. What a wonderful NHS we have. I have nothing but praise for the system and its staff.
Funny story and if you’re a friend of one of the children, please skip to next paragraph…. I met a female friend for some beers. I talked about the discomfort of having a probe up my back passage. She nodded and said “it makes you want to poo doesn’t it?” Naively, I said “have you had a biopsy too?”. It took a few seconds to register the look of “are you stupid or what?”
Five months later, I asked Caroline to come to the Consultant’s appointment as I thought four ears were better than mine alone. We had expected the worse, but being told that I did not have Prostate Cancer was one of those moments that I will never forget. Six out of ten of his consultations were to give the opposite news. One of my few questions was “does that mean we can go travelling?”. Response “yes, but you need to be checked every year because you are still high risk”.
I know that we had planned to go anyway, but from a purely selfish point of view, I probably won’t get another opportunity. The only other time is when Seamus has flown the nest and I’ll be in my mid 70’s if I’m fortunate to live that long.
The seven months since we both finished work has been useful. It has been great to spend so much time together as a family; we have de-cluttered and are now masters of Ebay; we’ve significantly trimmed our outgoings and taken in foreign students. Life is simpler and we can see a way forward for when we get back that isn’t as frenetic or consumeristic, if that’s a word. It might all change if we find paradise with good schools on the other side of the planet.
So we have one month to go and are both excited, but also scared stiff. I’ve become far less adventurous and more risk averse with age and crave routine and certainty. If we drive to Germany, I plan what service stations we’re going to stop at! My creams and potions will take up an entire bag on their own. It’s a world away from my younger travels, when all we had to do was quit our jobs, buy a round the world ticket and get a few visas. Ironically, I’m now doing the bits of the world that we had to abandon to come home when my dad received his prostate cancer diagnosis.
Last time we sold roasted chestnuts off the back of a bicycle in Eastern Turkey and narrowly escaped being arrested by the local police for working illegally. We volunteered in Calcutta with Mother Teresa’s nuns and were privileged to meet the great lady twice. We crossed Annapurna in a snowstorm. We were chased by a poisonous snake in Kashmir etc etc. This trip will be a lot tamer, but I’m hoping just as memorable.
This time round, I’m deeper into the ‘system’. We have a house to rent out, child benefit to inform, self assessment tax returns to submit from abroad (so not looking forward to that…), a local education authority to convince that we are fit to home-school our children (that primary teaching qualification will be useful again). We’ve written wills and bequeathed our children should the worst happen. We’ve even had a ludicrously expensive cabin put up in the garden as storage.
I couldn’t of course do any of this without my dear wife. She came to Broadstairs on one of my whims and is now leaving everything that is familiar to take her precious children into unchartered waters on another of my hair-brained schemes. What an absolute star. We’ll either come back stronger as a unit or we’ll be getting one of the rugby coaches to prepare our divorce papers in 2017.
Forgive the ramble, but I don’t anticipate being a huge contributor to this epic blog. I’ll be focused on keeping us safe and planning as best I can in an attempt to satisfy my autistic tenancies.