I often consider myself to have had a very boring life. Then I started thinking about moderately out-of-the-ordinary things that have ever happened to me, or that I’ve ever done, and realised that most of these took place outside of the confines of this dear United Kingdom. I don’t make a habit of travelling outside the country very often so certain countries appear in this list more than once, but a lot of weird things can happen on the same holiday. Carry on reading for just ten separate instances of obscure happenings within my life personally. I should warn you though, it’s mighty long.
10: Made A Dolphin Statuette In Woodwork Class [Germany]
I was twelve when I first went away without my parents. It was all part of an exchange trip set up by my high school. My hometown of Ellesmere Port is twinned with the small town of Reutlingen in south-west Germany and so, naturally, that’s where we had the deal with. My German pen-pal was a quiet lad named Christian and it was with him and his family whom I stayed for the longest week-and-a-half of my childhood. Once I had arrived at their house, been shown to my room and left alone with a complimentary tray of a giant bottle of apple juice, a glass and probably some biscuits or something (I can’t remember), I broke down in a state of frenzied hysteria and bawling like a lost child in a supermarket who proclaims “I want my mummy”.
I had to make do, so with my mood as relentlessly stoic as it was, I had to accompany Christian during his day-to-day school life. I don’t remember much about German school other than the first of Christian’s lessons I attended – a maths lesson where, upon realising he had an English exchange student in the class today, the lecturer decided to deliver the entire lesson in English for my benefit, much to the dismay of my Deutsch counterparts – and sitting around in a woodwork lesson watching the other kids continue with their projects. Rather than stare forlornly into the middle distance for an hour, I rummaged through some of the scrap pieces of wood people had discarded over time and found one piece which looked to resemble a leaping dolphin making a small arch shape. I took another plain piece of wood, coloured it in with blue pencil crayon and blu-tacked the lowermost points of the ‘dolphin’ – the nose and the tail flipper – to this ocean-like podium. Of this, I took immense pride.
Years later, I took Woodwork for my A-Levels and barely just scraped a pass.
09: Free Entrance To The Guinness Storehouse [Ireland]
This summer, my University Archery team went on a pre-packaged Tour holiday to Dublin. I say Tour because that’s what many University sports teams deem it to be. I say holiday because that’s how it actually turned out. The company in charge of organising our sport-themed trip were a little lacklustre in their approach to the underdog sport of Archery. It also didn’t help that we were the only Archery team in attendance so it’s safe to assume that we finished somewhere near the bottom of the “Priorities” pile. As a result, our sporting session of a sport-themed week turned out rather unsportly. We ended up facing a good few days of nothing but sight-seeing ahead of us and we felt justified in demanding to be compensated.
So huzzah! The company’s representatives worked their magic and our team-planned trip to the Guinness Storehouse in the heart of Dublin was given to us for free as a gesture of good will. By that, I of course mean that they had to pay for our entry and we didn’t have to pay ourselves. It’s just as well, really. I’m not a massive fan of the black stuff. I managed a whole three sips in the tasting room (which honestly has to be some kind of record for me) before passing the rest of my glass over to one of my Guinness-downing cohorts. As I say, the rest of the week essentially became a holiday starting with that day, which I must say was rather nice getting to socialise with Uni friends.
Pretty much makes the whole trip worthwhile.
08: Bus Ride In Massive Rainfall [Mexico]
We, the family and friends and I, went to Cancún for a couple of weeks to attend the wedding of said friends. It took place towards the end of 2005 and the timing of our holiday could not have been luckier if we’d eaten four-leaf clovers, de-shoed horses and amputated rabbits while we were at it. We went during hurricane season, arriving on the back of one hurricane and leaving just in time to miss another. For a while it was uncertain that we’d actually make it home when we’d planned to because of the forecast. When we returned home, news reports showed of dozens of international families and holidaymakers stranded in the very area we had been. People were taken to temporary shelters which came across like refugee camps and lived off rationed water. It’s fair to say that we well and truly dodged a bullet. And a hurricane.
Still, tropical rainfall season didn’t completely subside whilst we were there. On one of the few days when we actually ventured outside of the all-expenses-paid resort, we ended up catching a bus to an indoor mall just a short way away. It’s only recently that I’ve managed to get my head around public transport in this country, so using foreign transport at a time when I didn’t understand it felt bizarre. Firstly, the awful weather just cast gloom deep within me and secondly, the lack of free seats meant I was one of the lucky ones who got to stand and hold onto the rail handles. And when I say hold onto, I mean hold onto for dear life. Mexican buses travel at approximately 73mph (maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe I’m actually quite close). The fact that I was standing in an insanely fast moving vehicle in torrential tropical rain whilst clinging onto life as I knew it thrust the fear of God well and truly into me. Still, what do you expect for 12 Pesos? (50p for the bus is mighty cheap, no?)
That, coupled with the news that we may not be able to travel home for fear of a forecast hurricane genuinely made me think my life would end in that country.
07: Thanksgiving In (what I believe to have been) Denny’s [United States]
Over time, I’ve come to realise that Thanksgiving in America is practically on the same celebratory level as Christmas in the UK. Upon my sole visit to the States at the ages of twelve (some six months before my German exchange hell), my understanding of this American holiday was akin to that of our St. George’s Day, i.e. you sort of know it’s a pseudo-special day, you sort of make a slight reference to it once, you forget about it and deduce that it’s essentially “just another day”. Our two week stint in Florida came to an end on that particular Thursday of November which just so happened to be Thanksgiving Day. Naturally, my father, mother, sister and I were more concerned with the fact that we had to check out of our hotel fairly early and somehow kill time and eat something before our flight home later that night.
We happened upon a restaurant which I believe was a branch of Denny’s. It might not’ve been since I don’t remember this in its entirety; all I have to go on this are fragmented memories, popular culture references and the loyalty of a magic eight-ball. The restaurant was fairly large, accentuated by the fact that we were virtually the only people in there. There might’ve been one other family over at the far side but, as I say, I don’t remember too well. Staff were limited and we were served by what seemed to be one of only two waitresses. Pleasantries were exchanged, food was brought and hopefully she was charmed enough by our obvious out-of-town-ness (screw it, out-of-country-ness) that she didn’t completely resent us for giving her reason to work on this holiday. As far as I remember it, towards the end of the meal, my mother struck up a conversation with the waitress about whether it’s normal to get people in during a holiday occasion like this and whether this particular diner in this particular state in this particular country has some sort of minimum wage policy. I can’t remember if the girl was paid a decent wage but the conversation compelled my mother to leave a substantial tip when the bill came. In my head, our tip to her was twice as large as what she would’ve earned for the day, but my twelve-year-old brain was mighty gullible and that might not’ve been entirely true.
Also I only found out about Thanksgiving that morning when a hotel maid doing the rounds cheerily wished me and my sister a “Happy Thanksgiving”, to which we nervously, feebly and very Englishly replied with a half-hearted and quizzical “thank you”.
06: Learned To Eat With Chopsticks For The First Time [Germany]
Part of the reason my school-organised exchange trip to Germany shook me up so much was that, not only did I feel such a fish out of water without my family around me, but also the fact that I had only been learning the language for some seven months. Now that my sister lives there (but in a different part, it’s a big country ya know), visits don’t seem as daunting as that first time, mostly because I’m with relatives but also because my German language skills are slightly more advanced at the age of 22 than they were when I was 12. I’m not claiming to be an expert or remotely fluent in the language, but at least now if I were to get lost in a German supermarket, I’d be able to cry out some form of “I want my mummy” in the relevant linguistic fashion.
We went over last summer as part of a “visit the relatives, slash, have a bloody holiday” kind of trip. If you want me to be a bit more topical about this, it was during the whole hoo-hah over a contaminated crop of beansprouts grown somewhere in the country being widely distributed and hospitalising many Europeans with food poisoning. We ate out one night at a local Chinese restaurant; a bit trippy if you’re English (you know, in a bit of a “what, you mean they have Chinese people here too?” kind of way). During my scouting of the all-you-can-eat buffet trays full of Eastern delicacies, I inwardly expressed my frustration at the lack of beansprouts in this Chinese restaurant, before angrily telling myself “you moron, of course there aren’t any right now, you’re in Germany and there’s practically a countrywide beansprout quarantine going on”. I went back to the table with whatever food I had and ate in shame.
After a long time using the fork, I decided to give chopsticks a go even though I’d never gotten the hang of using them to eat. Miraculously, I somehow managed it with some degree of success and since then, eating Chinese food is now just an excuse to get the chopsticks out again.
05: Shot Archery Whilst Dressed As A Panda [Ireland]
As I mentioned earlier, I recently went to Dublin along with my University’s Archery team (cos I’m, like, so cool, yah?) Even though most of the week involved us having to entertain ourselves by way of museums, shopping and getting free samples of the nation’s drink, the catalyst for it came from the fact that our prospected two days worth of shooting (which is, like, proper Archery speak for firing arrows from bows, you get me?) actually turned out to be about three hours long, in a very small space, with excruciatingly sub-par equipment. The equipment needed for such an event is actually quite intensive when you get down to it. We, naturally, provided our own bows and arrows and other miscellaneous accessories for personal use; all we needed the Tour company to provide us with were a few large targets and stands set up in an area surrounded by safety netting. This we did not get, thus our moaning and subsequent free day out. Equipment was indeed provided, but to a less than desirable quality and of a less than desirable quantity.
Before we left for the venue on the day, however, the team collectively decided – sort of on the spur of the moment – to shoot whilst in fancy dress, namely Robin Hood and his Merry Men and other various Medieval-style peasant-wear. My particular fancy dress in this area was pretty lacklustre; essentially I had an oversized tan coloured shirt to be tied around my waist with a rope and green combat trousers, which many historians reading this might frown upon. Over the course of the morning, the Robin Hood theme became somewhat relaxed and we decided to shoot in whatever attire we wanted provided dress was still “fancy”. Two of us in the group came equipped with oversized character onesies (mighty comfortable to sleep in, by the way) which pretty much meant that we were sorted. It worked out especially for me since I’d slept in mine the night before and, this way, didn’t really need to change. My onesie took the form of a giant panda by the way, just in case you didn’t get it from the sub-title of this event.
Admittedly, it’s not that great when you consider that my costume was outdone by a life-size Pikachu.
04: Made Friends With Kids I Didn’t Understand [France]
For the life of me, I honestly cannot remember how long ago this was. On second thought, I might’ve been ten. Anyway, for a large part of my childhood, we owned a mobile caravan. At least one weekend a month, the family would pack up the essentials, hitch it up to the back of the car and off we’d go for a weekend with the aptly named Caravan Club (it’s a real organisation, check it if you don’t believe me) where we’d meet up with other caravan enthusiasts and enjoy one another’s company. Imagine Brookside meets The Waltons, but with caravans. Some of the family friends we made whilst caravanning joined us on a trip to the West coast of France… in caravans. That meant driving from Wirral to Dover, ferrying from Dover to Calais, then more driving from Calais to wherever the bloody hell it was we ended up (and then back again a week or two later).
Our plotted space of field in the camp-site was directly next to some other holiday-goers, only these people didn’t travel across international borders. The British grown-ups bonded with the French grown-ups over barbeques and tequila, whilst the French children showed off their proficiency with the English language through mimicking the current mainstream pop hits of the day. During the whole holiday, I’d see the French kids at various points around the site: in the swimming pool, in the miniature games room, buying ice creams, playing boules on the gravel. We essentially became friends by default, despite barely being able to communicate coherently with each other. One day I remember them pointing to a motorbike then pointing to me accompanied with the appropriate words “moto” and “you”. I assumed they wanted to know if I owned a motorbike or if I could ride one, or if I wanted to hijack this one. I replied with “no” and they all rolled their eyes as if I’d misunderstood. As I understand it, they were telling me the French word for the vehicle and weren’t satisfied until I told them English people call it “motorbike”. On the final evening, contact details were swapped; God only knows why. At this point in my life I’d never heard of the internet so the only form of keeping in touch was really the telephone. We swapped numbers, along with international dialling codes, and I showed off my proficiency with French numbers which I’d learned from the PC Genius series of educational software. Me and one of the French girls went through my phone number digit by digit: “zéro, zéro, quatre, quatre, un, cinq, un….”
I never did get a call from them. Might’ve been a bit awkward if I had though.
03: Crouched In Back Of Car On The Autobahn [Germany]
I’ve already mentioned my sister living in Germany. A few days before the Chinese restaurant at which I bemoaned the lack of beansprouts, my sister wanted to refurnish the flat. This involved a trip to the Ikea store some thirty minutes drive away. It’s nice to know that my first ever Ikea experience was also the real deal, by the way: signs written in another language, prices given in Euro, food somewhat different and all European-y. Anyway, she ended up getting enough flat-pack living room miscellanea to warrant two trips in the car. This involved her and dad taking the bulk of stuff in the first journey, leaving me, mum and infant nephew with the rest of it, in a foreign superstore, for an hour.
By the time the second journey came around, there was panic that the rest of the stuff wouldn’t all fit in the car as well as the five of us; someone would surely have to stay behind again. But we prevailed and managed to fit it so that sister was comfortable in the driving seat, mum was comfortable in the passenger seat, dad comfortable on the back and nephew comfortable in his booster seat. Lengthy boxes blocked off the remaining back seat meaning that I’d have to stay behind and my sister would have to come back for me in another hour. Being impatient souls that we are though, me and her, I was made to improvise by somewhat crouching in that space in the back seat where your feet go. Face down into the floor of the car, arse up at the window, I was stuck, wedged into the car, trying my best to not moon fellow drivers by keeping my rear end low and suffering the pointy wrath of the window-winder-downer-thing because of it. If ever one had a list of obscure things to do before you die with “Travel 80km/h on the German Autobahn in an uncomfortably crouched position” I could well and truly check that one off.
Also, “Exit car by backwards roll”.
02: Suffering A Migraine In A Swiss Science Museum [Switzerland]
Quite possibly the most surreal of all on this list, probably because I’d almost blanked it from memory all these years, only to dig it up again for use in this. I’ve only ever spent one day in Switzerland. It was with Christian and my German exchange family. Living in the south of Germany, the Swiss border was only a couple of hours drive away, and when you’ve got a foreign guest to entertain, an interactive science museum just over the border seems like a nice day out, so I can’t fault them for taking me there. Forgive me, this day’s a bit sketchy in my head, but from what I remember it was a fairly pleasant day, not least for the fact that science museums are so much fun!
The incident in question occurred after I’d played about on a certain experiment thing. I’d eaten almost a whole bag of Werther’s Originals on the day too. I’m not actually sure if they’re relevant to the story or not but I like to think that they played a part in my suffering if only because of the sheer gluttonous fact that I’d practically wolfed them down. The experiment involved two exercise bikes on opposite ends of a giant room. Connecting them was a Perspex tube that ran up the wall and along the ceiling. Inside the tube was a canister. Next to each bicycle was a pad of paper and pencils and the idea went thus: you write your message on the paper, you put the paper in the canister, pop the canister in the tube, hop on the bike and pedal a hell of a lot. What transpired was a very low-tech version of message delivery you see in that episode of Futurama where bureaucratic files are popped in a tube and instantly whisked away at high speed. I assume the bicycles powered some sort of vacuum mechanism inside the tube which caused the canister to travel. It is because of this that the bikes required a lot of power to pedal, like deliberately switching to a harder gear when approaching treacle. Ultimately, I think I overstayed my welcome on the bike since I was cycling so hard the veins in my head were probably becoming prominent extrusions. I don’t believe I got a migraine as such but it was, without doubt, the worst, most pounding headache I’ve ever experienced in life this far. Coupled with the fact that I didn’t know what was going on, barely understood the language and didn’t know how to explain the situation to my German guardians without knowing the word “kopfschmerz”, I lay down, clutching both sides of my head, moaning and groaning like a dying hippo because I didn’t know what else I could do.
I didn’t pass out, I remained conscious for the rest of the day, although I don’t remember a bloody thing that happened after that.
01: The First Time I Was Mistaken For Rupert Grint [United States]
I’m ginger, therefore I must, by law, be likened to him who played Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films. Now I’ll be the first one to admit that when the first movie came out, my eleven-year-old self bore a striking resemblance to an eleven-year-old Rupert Grint, but ever since then we’ve grown in different directions. His hair is longer, often slightly greasy and he’s able to grow facial hair at an alarming rate. I wear glasses to correct myopia and take about two-and-a-half weeks to sprout sideburns. Not much of a surprise, then, when my eleven-year-old self was spotted in Florida and mistaken for a movie star. After all, we even shared the same nationality.
It was the same trip that ended with Thanksgiving. Twas the November of 2001 if you’re after some specific context; a trip to Disney capital Orlando somewhat overshadowed by concerns of fundamental extremism after the New York skyline was aerially attacked some two months previously. It was also the time that the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re American and don’t understand what a philosopher is) was released unto the world. I was with the family, waiting in line for a ride at one of Disneyland’s many theme parks; I believe this particular one was in the Epcot Centre. Just as we made it to the front of the line, the security guard making sure people went through in a calm and orderly fashion must’ve heard our small group speaking with English accents. She was a large African-American woman, very much in line with the stereotype that Family Guy might pick up on, depicting her as holding up one finger as if to say “no, no” but shifting her head side-to-side saying “mm-hm”. As I moved to pass her and board the ride we’d waited for, she stopped me and in her most obvious, Americanest tones she belted out “oh ma God, ain’t you the boy from Harry Potter?” I’d never been remotely interested in the books and not known anything of its characters. As far as I was concerned, this woman had mistaken a somewhat chubby, pale-faced, ginger English kid with a black-haired, head-scarred, bespectacled English kid. I forgave her her arrogance that all English kids look exactly the same and thought nothing of it for a considerable while.
Once Harry Potter fever gripped the entire planet and its surrounding matter, I was subjected to daily shouts in public of “Ron! It’s Ron! Look, he’s Ron! Look, you’re Ron!” and the relentless pointing, as if everyone believed that they were the first people in existence to have stumbled across this vague similarity and to have possessed fingers.
Just to think, if only I’d known that Harry Potter had a ginger friend who’d go on to make millions from this franchise, I could’ve auditioned, my life could’ve been considerably different, and a relative unknown by the name of Rupert would be recounting stories of his past in a blog post like this in the vain attempt that somebody notices him.
By Jamie Walsh
Jamie Walsh is an undergraduate Creative Writing student at MMU Cheshire, currently based in Crewe. He often lets his brain loose at a computer keyboard, the results of such efforts often appear at hardlyamazing.blogspot.com He also owns the Twitter name @Jimadee and mainly uses it to promote the aforementioned blog and keep track of how many followers he has; currently resembling the population of an abandoned train station.