Italy 2000: my travel origin story

When did I first go travelling on my own? It was in March 2000 and I was fourteen.

One of my best friends, Cat, came into school one day with a leaflet advertising a Raptor Protection Camp in Reggio Calabria, the very big toe of Italy’s boot. Our parents discussed it a couple of times and then – madness! – agreed to let us go.

There was a lot to organise. For a start, neither of us had our own passport, this being the days when children were listed on their parents’ passports. Then we had to go to an actual travel agent to buy actual plane tickets. We had to get travellers’ cheques – to this day, I still don’t really know what to do with travellers’ cheques. I had to have a debit card for my parents’ bank account in case of emergencies that required me to buy a replacement plane ticket. And finally, all of that had to go into an anti-theft belt under my clothes.

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At last, the great day came. We all went up to Heathrow together, only to find that our plane was delayed. That was a catastrophe! We would miss our connecting flight to Reggio and we had no way of contacting anyone there to tell them. Heathrow, fortunately, could solve this problem. They threw us on the next Rome plane and I swear this is true, from stepping through the door at Heathrow to in the air took twenty minutes.

The only problem with the new plane was that we had to sit wherever there were seats available, which meant we couldn’t sit together. It was the first time I’d been on a plane since I was eighteen months old and we hadn’t had time to say goodbye properly but as soon as the seatbelt signs went off, Cat came to find me. We changed planes successfully in Rome (Cat even got our passports stamped to mark the occasion) and we arrived unharmed in Reggio Calabria. Now was the moment of truth. Was someone going to collect us?

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Yes, they were. Christoph, a very nice German man with a navy blue hired Corsa, was waiting for us. He took us to the campsite – actually a collection of bungalows in an orange grove next to the beach. The other students – mostly Maltese but with a scattering of Germans, Italians and one Finn – were all much older than us, college or university age compared to the two fourteen-year-old schoolchildren.

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We had a chaotic week. We had one day on Sicily, visiting a bird sanctuary and wandering Messina unsupervised, with only a mobile number and the word DUOMO written in my notebook in case of emergencies. We had a day visiting Pentedattilo, a ghost town in the mountains, and Scilla, a beachside town with a glorious bright blue sea. We had a day visiting a wildlife sanctuary/military base up a mountain in the fog and a minor snowstorm. We had a day out in Reggio Calabria, where Christoph introduced us to proper Italian ice cream. We sat in the car on the edge of the main road for hours while the adults caught and arrested a poacher. I remember sitting on a roof looking at what I took to be Tunisia in the distance while someone played Wonderwall on a guitar. We went to our own beach once. And yet I always think we spent most of our time hanging around an abandoned military base overlooking the Straits of Messina, failing to be able to concentrate on birdwatching for more than a few minutes before we went off to play. We lived mostly on fresh bread and oranges, we had pizza a couple of times and we spent the last evening on the beach and getting t-shirts signed. I still have it hanging up somewhere upstairs.

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The last obstacle was the last day. We didn’t really want to go because we’d had such an exciting week. Christoph joked about how we must hurry or we’d “lose the plane” or he’d go without us and we’d have to “go by feet” – two phrases that are permanently entrenched in my vocabulary. He delivered us to the airport, bought us ice cream again (Cat’s fell on the floor with a glorious splat) and off we went. We successfully changed planes in Milan – old hands at this kind of thing by now – and arrived safely in Heathrow, much to the relief of our parents. They hadn’t heard much from us during the week we’d been away, flight tracking didn’t exist then and all they could do was hope we would be on the plane we’d been booked on. And we did! Other than that first delayed plane to Rome, everything went like clockwork.

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All the same, I don’t think my parents would let me do it again if I was fourteen now. I’d have kittens if my fourteen-year-old Rangers even thought about doing it. I tend to think they’re too young if they want to go to Newquay after their A Levels. But I’m glad I got to do it because it was quite the adventure for a pair of teenagers and also, by the time I was twenty and living in Switzerland, I already had no fear of flying by myself.

*the photos from this trip pre-date digital cameras – they’re traditional 4×6 prints that live in a lovely red leather-effect photo album. I only had a couple of films to last the entire week and even so, I wasted several pictures on my bed, one on some scrubby grass and a disproportionate number are blurry. I’d have a set of masterpieces if digital cameras had existed then.