My first ever trip on to foreign soil was in 1979, two days after my 19th birthday. I can hear mathematical brains clunking and working out that yes, I was born in 1960, I am a baby boomer and I have just had a “significant birthday”. It was that, rather than the havoc wreaked by the advent of Covid 19, which caused me to reflect upon changes in the world and especially how we travel.
Goodbye! See you in three months.
June 1979. I set off to work in Germany for three months. I had just completed my first year at university and my subsidiary subject was German. In order to qualify I had to spend at least one month in Germany and the only way I could afford to do this was to work. It was easier to find a job for 3 months over the summer than 1 month, so I took the plunge.
My journey began around midnight from Leeds train station when a I boarded the train for London with my newly acquired passport tucked away safely in my bag. I had no money to stay in the capital so travelled overnight, arriving in the early hours of the morning. I recall having to change stations to catch the train to Dover, a challenge in itself for someone who had never been to London before. All went well and in due course I boarded the ferry for Ostend. It was in Belgium that I first set foot in a foreign land!
This was in the days that the Channel Tunnel was but a twinkle in Maggie’s eye and flying never crossed my mind. Way out of my league. In fact, it would be at least another 7 years before I boarded a commercial flight to go anywhere. (Notice the choice of words there: I did actually go up in an aeroplane just before this expedition, but I did not come down in it. My first trip in a plane and they made me jump out at several thousand feet!)
This was also in the days before the advent of mobile phones, email, the internet, Google Maps, Google Translate…. all of those wonders of technology which come in so handy when we travel in the 21st Century. When I said Cheerio to my mother in 1979, she would not know that I had arrived at my destination until a note popped through the letter box a couple of weeks later. Yes, I could have used a land line from a pay phone, but that was not part of the mindset in 1979. International calls were for emergencies only and were considered far too expensive for ordinary folk like me. Snail mail it had to be! An advantage of this was that I became great friends with the postie in Germany.
And so to work
My new place of work was in a small town called Lüdenscheid just north of Cologne. I worked in a Bundesautobahn Raststätte – a motorway service station – and I lived on site. On my first day, I was put to work on the till in the cafeteria. No problem, said I. There was a quick briefing on how to operate the till and that was it. Suddenly I was faced with ringing up all these plates of food with names I did not know and handling currency with which I was completely unfamiliar. Again, this was in the days before the Euro! We were still using the Deutschmark and Pfennig. And whilst in theory I could speak German, it was classroom German as I had never set foot in the country before. Daunting!
Somehow, I coped. People were very kind and hugely supportive. I shared a room with a girl from Finland and as she spoke only a little English and I spoke absolutely no Finnish, we communicated in German. My co-workers were lovely and frequently invited me to their homes to meet their families.
My Finnish friend left after a month so I was the only temporary foreign worker. My boss and his wife were incredibly kind and took me on outings everywhere, including a trip to a small island off the north coast of Germany called Nordeney.
I have very fond memories of my time in Germany, but it was a little like being thrown in at the deep end. My German improved exponentially, however. It had to!
Berliner Luft: Checkpoint who?
One of the highlights of my sojourn in Germany was a trip to Berlin. Germany was still a divided country in 1979 and “the wall” was still intact. I set off from Cologne station late one night and traveled by train across Germany. About 3.00 am the train stopped. We had reached the border at Hanover. I looked out of the window into the misty darkness. All down the platform were soldiers with machine guns pointed at the train. The carriage door opened and in came an official. I seem to think he was also military, but I may be wrong; he was certainly armed. He inspected our papers and left. Eventually the train continued on its way across East Germany to Berlin.
West Berlin was a buzzy, lively city with bright lights and lots of colour. I loved it! One day though, I took a bus tour into East Berlin. I have only a vague memory of East Berlin except that we were not allowed to roam freely and had to stay with the tour guides. I also recall that there were lots of statues and monuments around. It had a very different feel to West Berlin. My sharpest memory is of going through Checkpoint Charlie which seemed to take a long time. My precious passport was taken away for inspection and I recall being quite nervous that I would be denied entry and my passport confiscated. All was well though and I lived to tell the tale!
I have very few photographs of my time in Germany. Now we all have mobile phones with sophisticated cameras. Snaps can be inspected immediately and even shared on social media. In 1979, there were no mobile phones and cameras were expensive. The whole process of photography was expensive: first there was the cost of a film and then the cost of developing and printing. The photographs we took were carefully staged and rationed as it was usual to have only about 36 shots on a film. I did eventually acquire a cheap camera in Germany, but the cost limited how many photos I took. The few photos I have are all faded and stuck firmly and irretrievably into albums, because that was what we did. The pictures I have included here are digital photographs of photographs in an album.) A different world from the snap happy culture we have today!
As I was working on this first trip away, time was somewhat limited for exploring, but I did manage to visit Cologne and Dusseldorf as well as Berlin. When I visited anywhere, I had to find my way around. This usually involved acquiring a street map, the paper kind. If I needed more precise directions, I would ask someone: “Entschuldigen Sie bitte. Wie komme Ich am besten zu…..” Nowadays, we just whip out the mobile and click on Google Maps!
Similarly with negotiating one’s way around in a foreign tongue. In 1979 it was a matter of practising the language, having a go and sometimes resorting to a phrase book. In 2020, our go to is Google Translate. When we were in Japan visiting my daughter recently, we even used GoogleTranslate and the mobile camera to translate Kanji! Communicating with my daughter in Japan did not require snail mail. We simply called her on Skype, FB Messenger or similar and we had an immediate video communication, even if she was walking down the street. Of course, this is still dependent on her answering the phone, which she almost always did. Not so when my son was in Australia….
My children were all seasoned travellers by the time they were 5 years old. I had barely ventured beyond the Yorkshire boundary before I was 18. And now I write a travel blog. “A what?” says my 18 year old self? The word “blog” had not entered the dictionary in 1979!
I look back on my first foreign trip as a baby boomer with a great fondness. It was certainly a learning experience! Travelling and communicating is easier in the 21st Century and it is wonderful that we can now access so many wonderful places on this planet. I love it …..but there is still a little of me that misses the street map and the phrase book!
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Love this post! I’m a first-year Gen X, but I can certainly relate to those early years of traveling. And to manage doing it without all of today’s technology. While I love inspiring photos, I love storytelling more.
Same here Karen – which is why I enjoyed writing this! A little self-indulgent, but why not!
Such an amazing time in your life, Jane! It sounds like you have some amazing memories from your first trip abroad. I can’t believe how much things have changed!
How travel has changed since then Jane, and it’s also changing once more because of Covid. I’m glad that you took the plunge in 1979, I bet it was a bit scary being there and not being able to speak the language. I also can’t imagine what East Berlin was like, how cool! I’ve been to Berlin, but just in the last 2 years, and of course with my iPhone in hand!
I would love to return to Berlin. Really hoping we can do this before too long – and then I’ll be adding to this post!
I love this!! I wrote a blog a while ago about my backpacking experiences pre-internet – it was a whole different world back then especially the rationing of photos!!
I went to Berlin for the first time last year and loved it and I really regret that I didn’t go in the 80s when I was inter-railing around Europe.
Thanks Alison. The sad thing is, I have not been back to Berlin since that trip. Writing this has made me really want to go back now!
I loved reading this Jane. I feel like I know you even better now. My first flight was without parents in 86 when I was 18 years old to Florida. Our travel was so different back then.
Thank you, Wendy. I really appreciate that. So different then and different again now!
I remember my early trips being limited, probably not by a lack of phones but a lack of tech. So they were no help either. How the world has changed. Great read Jane. That first trip is daunting. I can imagine you looking at those armed soldiers from the train. Must have been tense
Hi Jane….what a great read that was! Your time in Germany sounds like such an adventure. We forget how much things have changed. My first trip away on my own was to work in Toronto in the summer of 1975. I laughed at your lack of photos …..I think I have 4 of my entire 2 months in Canada!
I hadn’t realised you had a big birthday this year….Happy Belated 60th! Hope you are all well and that Jasper is progressing with his training!
Thanks Sheila. I need to see those Toronto pics! The “big birthday” was a rather a non event unfortunately, courtesy of the pandemic…
What an absolutely amazing experience! Although I’m sure it was pretty scary at the beginning also! At the beginning of digital cameras, I was such a skeptic, but how good are they looking back?! Great memories. Thanks for sharing.
That’s a great travel story, you’re the same age as my parents but they were nowhere near as adventurous as this back then and I think that reflects their very conservative travels and ideas about travel now especially compared to us. It’s good to know not all boomers are like that!!
You mean I could be your mum?! I’ll take this as a compliment anyway.
I love reading your first travel aboard experience with a minimum German. That’s really brave! That’s the year my oldest sister went to college. I can’t imagine if today’s generation can survive without texting their friends or parents on their first travel aboard journey. Haha… Things are different and every generation has its own uniqueness, I guess.
Sounds like you’ve had a full life of travels so far! There’s always something to be said about functioning and living in another country and being able to speak the language. I visited Cologne once a long time ago, but never had a chance to visit any of the surrounding town.
What a lovely post! I was 19 on my first “big” trip abroad. Crazy how it can be so impactful!
Thank you! And yes, it is a landmark event in life.