January Create - Belgium man, Belgium

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This is a good day to write this piece because it is the fortieth anniversary of the 'First' it records. On the third of January 1974 I embarked on my first great adventure. I caught a bus in Central London. Doesn't sound terribly adventurous, but this bus was heading for Kathmandu. The ticket cost £165 for the trip plus a recommended £150 for food and accommodation.

I can remember the feeling of excitement that morning. It was very cold and I was wearing a thick woollen jumper and a parka with a fur lined hood, all the rage with fashionable hippies. The departure point was round the corner from Green Park tube station, in Mayfair Place and it was very early in the morning.

It was still dark. I got on, found an unoccupied set of seats and sat by the window, watching people arriving and boarding. There was a surprising mix of passengers. Lots of youngsters, some middle aged people (I was 28 at the time which I thought then was fairly old) and a surprising number of elderly people.

Suddenly there was a young girl, early twenties at most, walking down the bus. When she got to my row she asked if the other seat was occupied. I said no and she sat down. We didn’t say much that first morning. I was so shy in those days, completely unsocialised. Today I would have no problem striking up a conversation with anyone. She was wearing a parka like mine and I found out later that this was the reason she decided to sit next to me. Her name was Penny.

The coach eventually filled and rolled out of London into a dawn that was grey but so full of exciting possibilities. I had never been ‘abroad’ before and now I was heading for Dover and the ferry to Ostend in Belgium. Plus I was sitting next to a very nice American girl.

Once on the ferry I went to the currency exchange and sorted out a few Belgian francs. Seems funny now with the Euro being a common currency in most of Europe that I changed money into six currencies that first week. This was also in the days when passports were shown at each border and stamped accordingly. I don’t miss the currencies, and border crossings are a non event these days, but it is a shame that I have a passport with hardly any stamps in it. It looks like I hardly go anywhere.

The coach driver’s name was Alan, a cheerful bloke in his early thirties I would say, and the courier was Matt, who was Spanish and something of an old woman when it came to it. He spent a lot of time panicking about things he couldn’t alter. We arrived in Ghent mid afternoon and after being assigned rooms in the hotel, couples in doubles, single men in groups and the same with the ladies, people struck out into the night or the hotel dining room for dinner.

I struck out partly because I wanted to experience this new foreign country, not sit in an anonymous hotel, but mainly because I was on a tight budget and café food is always cheaper than hotels. I was accompanied by an American called Harold, early twenties, dark curly hair, tall and good looking.

I thought he would be a guy who knew his way around but as I was to find out later, middleclass Americans, especially the men, tended to be at least three years younger than Europeans of the same age, if you get my drift. For example: we found a little café on a side street off the main square. It was a real thrill for me to be sitting in a foreign café ordering foreign food! I can’t remember now what I had, some kind of casserole I think.

I do remember being surprised that Harold drank so much water with his meal. I assumed it was an American habit. I also assumed that he wasn’t short of cash either. You see, even though I was terribly naïve in many areas, I did know that in Europe all the water was bottled and certainly wasn’t free. I assumed Harold knew too. Turns out he didn’t and almost had a coronary when he got his bill. Poor lad.

Later in the trip he was to start having panic attacks in hotel rooms. Again, being more sophisticated now I would recognise his problems and be more supportive. To be fair to myself I do have to say that by the time he was having problems I was deeply immersed in the arms of the adorable Penny and wouldn’t have noticed if the coach had been stolen.

I am amused as to how thrilled and intrigued I was at this first foreign experience. Given the Belgian reputation for blandness (name three famous Belgians who aren’t Herge, Poirot, or Van Damme) perhaps I should pass this article on to their Tourist Board for advertising purposes.

Later that evening we were joined by a new passenger, an Australian called John. He was from Foster in Victoria, his family were Dutch and they had a dairy farm. He had been visiting family in Holland which is why he was boarding here in Ghent not London. He would become a good friend. The next day we crossed into Germany heading for Heidelberg, by way of Cologne.

Seventy one days after that we rolled into Kathmandu.

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