I loved my first experience of flatting. The flats were provided by the Education Authority to attract teachers to our small country town. All my flat mates taught at the nearby school but I travelled each day 40km or so on dusty roads to a tiny three teacher school in farming country. The school families were kind and welcoming and I had boarded with one of the families until now but it was a little claustrophobic living in such a small community where my every move was scrutinized. It was much more fun in town.
In the flat I learned to live independently. This was the first time I had to share the responsibility of cooking and housekeeping for a group. Housework was fine. We usually attacked the tasks on a Saturday morning with the latest pop songs booming from the radio. Cooking was another matter. None of us had much skill at cooking but we took turns at putting dinner on the table each night.
We had some memorable meals. Our Scottish flat mate had never so much as boiled an egg before, and I came home from a weekend away to find her almost in tears trying to follow the most basic instructions like “Brown the onions in a pan.” “What does that mean?” she asked. Another flat mate boiled the caramel sauce for so long that it set like concrete in the saucepan and she cut her hand on the sharp points trying to clean the pot. Not many people can say that they cut themselves on the caramel sauce but she could. Someone gave us two whole fish they had caught and we faced the dilemma of how to deal with them. By the time we managed to remove the fillets, the kitchen table had disappeared under a cloak of fish scales and we were still removing them from every surface a week later. I don’t remember who decided to cook an entire packet of rice for dinner one night but even our biggest pot was not big enough and there were cries of panic from the kitchen as the rice rose up and up and over the sides to create a charred mess on the stove top.
It was all great fun but I was starting to get itchy feet. I had grown up in a small town, gone to teachers’ college at the age of sixteen and completed four years teaching in small places so the lights of the big city were starting to look quite attractive. However I had given no serious thought to moving on until one night in the flat. We had no television so it was our habit to sit around the table after dinner where we often talked for hours.
One night a new friend of Viv’s came round for dinner. Viv had recently returned from a couple of years living in London and it turned out that Graeme had too. The rest of us did not get a word in as their excited voices kept us entertained.
“Did you go skiing in Austria?” asked Viv.
“Yes. Wasn’t it great?” said Graeme. “Which village did you go to?”
“Really? That’s amazing! That’s where we went. Did you have ski lessons with that crazy instructor from Norway – Erik? All the girls were in love with him and all the guys hated him. I bet he took you to that bar by the chairlift to drink mulled wine. We’d never heard of it before but wasn’t it the best when you came back freezing from skiing?”
“Oh yes, he certainly did. We used to make it in a preserving pan when we got back to London. Our flat became famous for its mulled wine. We had it so often that I’m absolutely over it now. I’ve never drunk it since.”
On and on they went. One minute they were comparing notes on teaching in London. Next they were reminiscing about the trips they had taken to Russia or to Spain or Morocco.
“I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get teaching jobs in London, could you?” said Graeme.
“Oh, I had a great job in a school full of kiwi teachers. I went back there every term and travelled over the summers. I never had to look for a job once I got a foot in that door. The head teacher was a real martinet but she just loved kiwis.”
Didn’t you love that crazy market square in Marrakech?” said Viv.
“Yes, especially that guy with all the false teeth arranged on his rug in the dust for his customers to choose from.“
“What about riding those grumpy camels in the desert?”
“Did any of you have bath plugs in your hotel rooms in Moscow?”
“No. None of us did but the hotel ladies were so fierce that nobody dared ask for one.”
I listened enthralled. Their delight was obvious as they shared story after story about the fun they had had, the people they had met and the exotic places they had visited. For the whole evening their laughter and reminiscences kept us entertained. As I looked at their animated faces and their shining eyes I made up my mind. I was going to save every penny I could and I was going to travel overseas too. That conversation at our dinner table encouraged me to set off on one of the greatest adventures of my life.