My school days were plagued by the annual July ritual of the French mistress asking each girl in turn, “Comment vas-tu passer tes vacances?” I grew up in Kent’s gin-and-Jag commuter belt, so Italy, Spain and France were favoured destinations. Sloaning around on the Devon coast was also popular. On and on, in stilted Franglish, went envy-inducing descriptions of snorkelling, discotheques and temples. Then it was my turn, “Moi, je ne partirai pas en vacances, parce que mes parents tiennent un pub.”
Summer was when Mum and Dad worked at full tilt, flogging drinks and Ploughman’s lunches to day-trippers come to gawp at the view over the Kentish Weald. My four siblings and I provided a ready-made taskforce: washing up, mowing lawns, clearing fag ends off the lawn and, once we could pass for 18, serving drinks.
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Money, or lack of it, was the main roadblock to my wanderlust. I spent most of my gap year working in Hamleys and then Covent Garden bars, amassing funds for a high summer spree. The most affordable and flexible option was purchasing an Interrail ticket: a Seventies innovation that came of age in the Eighties when some ferry services were added. It was romantic, too: you could book a sleeper train and journey while you slept. Travellers could venture as far as Turkey, or mooch around nearby France, or ride the iron horse through Scandinavia.
So, I set about enlisting travel companions. My big sister Holly, a fashion student at Trent Poly, was a shoo-in. We then enlisted my old schoolfriend Bee, a well-travelled trainee medic who we put in charge of planning and itinerary. She suggested we all carry Dioralyte sachets, Alka-Seltzer and, she pondered thoughtfully (and, as it turned out, optimistically), “condoms”. The fourth member of our quartet was dance student Sas, who possessed the mild ennui of someone used to holidaying and necking cocktails with two older, glamorous sisters.
Halfway through the July of 1987, we four mustered at Sevenoaks station, freighted with backpacks. We divvied up the task of carrying the two-man tents and all wore sensible money belts for our passports and traveller’s cheques. Over 30 years ago you had to find a bank or bureau de change, or even an obliging hotel manager, that would issue local currency in exchange for a traveller’s cheque — the practice that dominated foreign travel from the mid-19th century until the Nineties.
We managed the Dover train and ferry crossing without mishap and headed to Paris and a sleeper train bound for Italy. Just after we crossed the border a couple of wolfish young men in leather jackets entered our couchette wielding a bottle of vodka. They swiftly identified Bee and Sas as the sirens of our quartet and rightfully focused their laser-like attention. My beloved sister and I were late developers. I was plump and plagued by zits, while Holly retained something of the ingénue.
Our lower rankings on the sex-bomb hierarchy would transpire to be a blessing. We were nearing Venice when Sas and Bee realised their money belts had been nicked by the wolves. We spent two nights camping at the Lido, but our days vanished into queuing at the British embassy, obtaining replacement passports and new cheques for our stricken travelling companions.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, the mercury was rocketing as one of the worst heatwaves for decades began to hit. We headed to sweltering Rome, clambering out at Termini station where hordes of pensione touts accosted anyone with a backpack. We divvied up tasks: Holly and I went to cash a cheque, while Bee and Sas went off to find rooms. En route to the exchange, Holl and I noted a sharkish man with pock-marked skin, a grubby string vest and crafty eyes. “He looks like a pimp,” I remarked. Fifteen minutes later, we found Bee and Sas sealing a deal with Mr Brothel to stay in his “very good flat — very big, very central”, which would make us “very happy”. All we needed to do was jump in his “very big” Mercedes and we’d be there in minutes.
Needless to say, the apartment was in a grotty tower block abutting one of Rome’s busiest red-light districts. We had supper in a cafe lit by one flickering lightbulb, where the only other customers were two transexual prostitutes. When we returned to the flat, we found the pimp had bought a pile of beers and invited two male friends round. We barricaded ourselves in the bedroom. By the next morning there were six guys at the kitchen table inviting us to accompany them on a drive to a lake, where we could swim “nudo”. We elected to cut short our stay, do a lightning tour of the Sistine Chapel, then decamp to Florence.
In Firenze, a woman tout secured us two bunkbeds in one shabby room near the centre, where we photographed the spongy, yellow fungus blooming on the wall of the communal shower. Tour maven Bee ensured we ticked the key cultural boxes, but we were wilting from the relentless urban heat, so detoured to rural Tuscany where our guidebook listed a “little-visited” ruined monastery with stunning views. A bus dropped us by some stumpy olive trees, and we four mad-dog English women trudged up a steep incline for four hours in a deadly heatwave carrying huge rucksacks.
By the time we reached the ruins, half-crazed by sun, dehydration and recriminations, we promptly stripped off and posed naked in a line of stone arches as “living statues”. Inevitably, just as we’d taken up our classical poses a middle-aged couple in beige shorts strolled round the corner, before retreating in disbelief while we collapsed laughing. Later we discovered their campervan parked a short distance away. “Look, they’ve got Belgian numberplates,” said Sas. “They’re almost certainly a couple of perverts.”
Either way, it seemed tactful to pitch our tents away from the Belgians, at the edge of a corn field. Holly and I shared one, while Bee and Sas were in the other. We’d been asleep an hour when we were woken by men’s voices just outside the tents. I sat bolt upright and watched aghast as the zip on our tent’s gauze door started to be tugged open. I could hear Bee also crying out in alarm. Holly detached a tent-pole and jabbed at the shape outside the tent, while yelling “Piss off!” The men outside laughed mockingly. We didn’t speak any Italian, but Sas used her schoolgirl French to shout that her friend was “très malade!” I discovered moments later that Bee had emptied two packs of Dioralyte into her mouth and was frothing like someone with advanced rabies.
We decided to run for it, in T-shirts, knickers and sandals, with tentpoles brandished like spears, while four burly local males tried to grab our breasts and buttocks. Feeling there would be safety in numbers, we fled downhill to the campervan, hammering on its doors with cries of “Help!” The Belgians kept their doors resolutely closed and didn’t utter a peep in response. Presumably, because they thought the nudo Anglais were the true deviants. I’ve nurtured a slight grudge against Belgians ever since. Plan B wasn’t great, but it seemed to be our only option: we edged our way very quietly into the corn field and curled up like dormice until morning.
On reflection, town life seemed safer than any rural idyll, so we set off for Siena and another giant dose of art — which was an excellent idea, until we couldn’t find any affordable lodgings. Uncertain what to do, we sat outside a café in the Piazza del Campo, trying to eke out bowls of pasta and carefully-nursed beers. It took us a while to realise that our caf, which had been almost empty when we sat down, was beginning to teem with young men who seemed to be encircling us. It also began to dawn on us that there were no other unaccompanied female tourists in the square and not a single young woman who looked local. As ever more youths arrived, it felt like we were about to incite a riot.
The waiters, noticing our predicament, started yelling at our suitors and beckoned us inside the café, then into the kitchen and out the back — where a young man was waiting with a Fiat Uno. This seemed marginally better than a public mauling, so we hopped in and were driven to a house on the fringes of Siena, where three waiters eventually joined us. We spent a wearisome night resisting blandishments and creeping hands and the ubiquitous compliment, “You have beautiful eyes.” I couldn’t help feeling Italian men would say this to any English women. An American tourist, whose parents hailed from Milan, told us later that Italian men rated British girls as “easy”, second only to Swedes.
Nowhere else we travelled quite equalled the art, drama — or gropey menace — of Eighties Italy. Our original plan had been to head for Istanbul, but “God Help Us” headlines warned of furnace-like heat. The prospect of a two-day journey in a cramped, ill-ventilated train carriage, with reports of buckling rails, suddenly didn’t seem so enticing. Especially once we’d spent the most stifling night of our lives without aircon in Athens, as temperatures soared above 40°C. So, we jumped on an overnight ferry, slept on the deck and set off for Paxos, working our way around five islands in the end. As the month drew to a close, we made our reluctant way home via Genoa and Burgundy. We never told our parents that our 12 days in Italy had been a near-constant struggle to avoid sexual assault.
Still, we were English, and we soldiered on. The unworldly Holly and I were so entranced by the wonder of cobalt blue Greek water and cheap tavernas that nothing could ruin our memories of the trip. In recent years, with undimmed enthusiasm, we’ve taken our children to Greece so they can experience the rapture a little earlier in life than their bumpkin mothers managed.
These days, we wonder what dark misadventures our own offspring are keeping from us as the planet bakes. Then feel relieved we have no idea.
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