Travelling to a new place
As a 22 year old, the choice to take a one way ticket to Europe and ‘wing it’ alone was more about being too impatient to schedule a trip with friends than any gritty soul-building solo intention. I expected to meet people of course and have the sort of hilarious time that I now realise people were having on a Contiki tour.
Instead, being furiously independent, fiercely shy and feebly self-conscious all added up to me spending the bulk of my time travelling alone. I rented a relative’s Volkswagen Transporter in France and chugged off in the left-hand drive to discover Spain and Portugal with a map and some blind hope. I didn’t even know where to put the fuel nozzle.
My two big life lessons motoring around Spain were the impact of silence and the power of achievement.
Parking in camping grounds overnight placed me outside even the smallest of city areas - where no one spoke English. My four years of school French and three of German got me precisely nowhere. Several months later, I found it didn’t even help in France or Germany, so Spain was never going to be a bonanza of communication.
In the supermarket, I couldn’t tell the difference between a can of cat food and a tin of tuna and with no way of asking I ate watermelon and cheese for at least a week. I existed on anything I could purchase with a point, a grunt and a nod.
For a dedicated chatterbox like myself, not interacting with people or making verbal contact had an interesting and debilitating effect. I found myself struggling with loneliness. Without the human dynamic that generates consistent feedback about who we are and how we are travelling, it was difficult to know, well, who I was and how I was travelling.
What I discovered is the power of small achievements. The simple act of driving into a town and finding the central post office to make an international phone call buoyed me for two days. Overcoming the intimidation of interpreting parking signs, so I could stop to post a letter, made me smile and sing along to Spanish radio all the way to the next town.
Working out how to put fuel into the van and how to make it stop when (what I later learned was) brake fluid was pooling around my feet were among the many daily, sometimes hourly, challenges that set me on highs that countered the lows of isolation and self-flagellation.
More than twenty years on, aspirations are set by media moguls and advertising agencies. Success is defined as having mansions, megabucks and the power to manipulate more megabucks and buy bigger mansions.
Fear and gossip are packaged up and sold through all popular information channels as delicious and entertaining, but when we stop listening and looking we can find ourselves too scared and self-critical to venture out of our comfort zones and take a risk.
Money is hurled our way with every misfortune so people forget how to create, think and blossom without ‘funding’.
All of this obscures the sense of achievement on offer with some of the smallest acts.
Pushing ourselves to step up and step out, however tentatively, does great things for self-confidence. If the effort is directed to helping someone else the mood boost is magnified.
But, for some people the idea of even leaving the house can become an impossible hurdle without a regular reason to go boldly forth.
I speak from my Spanish experience that holding a ‘normal’ conversation is extremely difficult when you have not spoken or participated in a discussion for two weeks. I am sure there are single parents of young children out there who share this appreciation of adult conversation.
Our region is being bombarded by promises of finding jobs, stimulating employment, providing work and generating … what? What exactly is it we are looking to create?
Without ‘gainful employment’, it can quickly become hard to focus on positive activity. But a sense of achievement need not come from a highly paid, or any other traditional ‘job’.
I’m in no way suggesting posting a letter will solve everyone’s issues but the potential power of small acts is immeasurable.
I have been unemployed. I’ve also been overworked and underpaid, underemployed and overpaid, undervalued and overcommitted. Running a business can be a rollercoaster. I’ve learned that it’s my responsibility to determine what gets me out of bed in the morning and to search for that until I find it. And I still lose my way and get it wrong at times.
Our region has the opportunity to redefine work; what it means to different people and what the many unemployed people truly need and want.
As a start, perhaps we can explore the power in a sense of achievement and a positive conversation.