I was not an adventurous child.
Did you know that “adventure” comes from the Latin, meaning “a thing about to happen”? Well, I was a gloomy and anxious little girl, and I always assumed that anything that was about to happen would turn out badly. It’s not because my childhood was marked with hardships: I never went cold or hungry and I was well looked after. It’s just that I was made terribly aware that one very bad thing had happened already: I had been born. I absorbed this awful knowledge from my mother, who always seemed to be sad and worried. She had experienced her life as a series of losses. Badly burned as a baby, she was left with angry red scars on her face, and hair that never grew in properly. All her teeth were removed at once, by a dentist in a hurry. She bled heavily every month and she was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia. When she felt she was well past childbearing age, she suffered what felt like her biggest loss: my arrival.
So no, I was not an adventurous child. In a frightening and untrustworthy world, it seemed best to sit safely indoors with a book. My favourite was The Adventures of Toby Twirl. Toby was a tiny pig in a suit, who travelled all over the world with his best pal, Eli Phant. When I find myself in an exotic location, I often describe it to myself as “very Toby Twirl”. But in those days I didn’t go far. I had a terrible sense of direction. People who knew me as a child are surprised that I grew up to be an independent traveller. But in fact, if you’ve never had your bearings you can’t lose them. For me, it’s no more distressing to be lost in Lisbon or Cairo than in the tiny village where I grew up.
My balance was very poor. I’m told I completely missed the crawling stage. Fearing that first tip forward into the unknown, I preferred to shuffle on my backside. I grew up with a morbid fear of falling: I was particularly scared of stairs and escalators. I feel so sorry now for the pale, podgy little child that was me.
Dad, by contrast, was a bold, handsome man. Every day for him was an adventure. He loved being outdoors. I think he would have liked a son to accompany him, or perhaps a brave daughter. Instead he got me. I remember his face as he showed me, patiently, how to ride a bicycle. I just couldn’t do it. I was terrified of falling off, and ashamed of letting Dad down. And then there was the time we were watching a TV programme about treating cancer by firing lasers into a woman’s cervix. Embarrassed and a bit queasy, I felt I was going to faint. I knew from First Aid at school that I should put my head between my legs, but I was afraid that Dad would think I was trying to look up my own vagina. Life often felt like that, a horrible combination of shame and fear.
But, as you will know, things can change. The most intransigent problems are sometimes resolved. My transformation from fearful child to fully-fledged adventurer began with a school trip to France when I was fourteen. It was the love of languages that came first. Hesitant and awkward in English, I found that in French I was confident: words and phrases I had learned in the classroom unfolded like blossoms on my tongue.
Then, when I was 18, I went inter-railing for a month, with a tiny rucksack on my back and my eyes wide open in surprise. Who knew there were so many steps in Europe? Magically, I found I could manage them because they led to such enticing sights: up to the Duomo, down to the blue, blue Mediterranean sea.
I became a teacher of English as a foreign language in Vigo, Lisbon and Cairo. I loved living abroad. Now there’s a lovely word: abroad. It suggests to me being at large, free, away from the narrowness of home. Being a foreigner suited me: it enabled me to be different in understandable ways. If other people found me odd, well I was foreign, wasn’t I?
By the time I was 25, my metamorphosis was complete. Have you ever seen an acrobat at the circus, jumping through a paper-covered hoop? Well, it was just like that for me. I broke through my fear and ta-da! I flew out the other side, into a wonderful world. A world of fragrant bakeries, and oddly-coloured street cats; botanical gardens, where nature was beautifully ordered and labelled; opera houses where life was overblown with colour and emotion. I saw the Pyramids and the Pyrenees, I tasted rotten fish in Burma and drank Bedouin coffee flavoured with Grains of Paradise. The Living Goddess looked down at me from her window in Kathmandu and I looked up at Fishtail Mountain. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, but I lost my spectacles down a mountainside in Greece, and innumerable ear-rings all over the world.
When I came to settle in Scotland, the adventures didn’t stop. I came out as a lesbian and fell in love. I studied Gaelic and Arabic. I made a garden and tried stand-up. In my fifties I eventually learned to cycle on three wheels. I found out that I have dyspraxia, a developmental disorder affecting balance, co-ordination and movement. I decided to swap dyspraxia for its opposite, “Eupraxia'' or wellbeing. Eupraxia describes the joy I experience when wheeling my trike along the lanes around my house, and the exhilaration of arriving in an unknown country far away. In my sixties I took up running and decided to be a writer. Who knows what may be about to happen next?
After all, I’m quite an adventurous old woman.