Over the years I have lived in many places, met many people and experienced some incredibly happy, as well as challenging, times. I moved around a great deal in my twenties and thirties, living in Malvern, Windsor, Cranleigh, Sussex and Nottingham, before finally settling down in 2012 in Barnsley. I never saw myself living in Barnsley, and most people stereotype Barnsley residents as being a certain way for living here. Yet, I am very happy living in this town. Like all places, it has its good parts and bad parts. I have a lovely house and garden. I enjoy my part-time job. Everything is relatively cheap including taxis – so I don’t have to drive. There are some beautiful hidden gems that you wouldn’t expect to find in Barnsley. Granted we don’t have a John Lewis store and places to go out are slightly limited, but living here is quite convenient for other cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham.
In 1989 I went to live in Boulogne-Sur-Mer for a year, as part of my University of Hull degree course. I taught English in a French Collège in the town centre. It was a pivotal year for me, in terms of my transition from being a naïve teenager to becoming an adult. I learned a great deal about life and my relationships during my time. I also met a vast cross-section of people, that came from an equally diverse range of countries and backgrounds.
The other day my daughter was asking me about the benefits of going to university. She focused mainly on the academic side of studying a subject in greater depth. “Ah but you see….” I explained to her, “going to University is not really about your academic studies. It is more about meeting people from different backgrounds and learning life skills. You meet so many people that are different to you. They come from different types of schools, backgrounds and cultures. So, going to University is more about learning how to live, than just studying in depth.”
I was chronically naïve when I went to France. Even now I can not believe that at such a young age, I went to a foreign country where I knew no one and worked in a school for a year. My son is a similar age now and I couldn’t imagine him being able to deal with moving overseas on his own. I was used to living with lots of people at University. There was always something to do or someone to talk to. I am a Leo and I love socialising. When I arrived in France and waved my Dad goodbye, it was the first time I had ever been alone. When I closed the door, the monumental hurdle of learning to live on my own must have weighed heavily on me. I think I cried that night at the fear that I would not be able to cope. I had two choices though. I could sink or swim. If I sank, then I’d have to go back home and leave my University course. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to graduate.
The first few weeks were incredibly hard, but I survived, and it wasn’t long before I started to meet people and make friends. I made friends with many different people. There was a large community of foreign assistants and we all made an effort to do things together. I can remember lots of meals out, trips to supermarkets, sitting in cafés and laughing and joking. From quite early on there were two people who I became very close to. There was Seamus, who was a similar age to me, and he came from Northern Ireland and Lydia, who was in her early thirties and came from Australia with Ukrainian heritage. I’d grown up with the many IRA bomb threats in the 1970s and so meeting someone who could explain to me the causes of the troubles, was really an education in itself. In the ’70s every person with a Northern Irish accent used to be erroneously believed to be a terrorist. Lydia used to say we were the Three Musketeers. We all had a similar sense of humour and we loved meeting and socialising with the French. We wanted to soak up as much culture as we could during that year. We were the living example of the phrase, “When in Rome.”
We had a lot of fun the three of us, during that year. We shared so much and became incredibly close. When I returned to England for my final University year, I felt a great sense of loss that I would not see Seamus and Lydia again, and that our long nights spent chatting to all kinds of people in our favourite café, the Choppe D’Or, were no more. I had felt so liberated with them, as if I was finally growing into myself. What is more, I think that the greatest lesson I learned during that year, was that I could do anything I put my mind to if I truly wanted. It certainly stood me in good stead for the rest of my time spent moving around and working in different places. I’d survived living alone in a foreign country, it therefore followed that I could go anywhere if I wanted to, or do anything.
Over the years, I tried to keep in contact with Lydia and Seamus. Lydia returned to Australia, but Seamus remained in France. I used to take kids on school trips to Boulogne and I met up with Seamus on the odd occasion. However, these were fleeting and snatched moments. There was nothing as good as when we were all living near each other in Boulogne. Moving around so much, I lost contact with them both and this saddened me a great deal. They were the two people in the World with whom I had spent one of the most important years of my life. We knew each other as well as we knew ourselves. I still kept an old cassette tape that Lydia had made for me, which had on it the soundtrack of our year abroad. It was a real mix of all our musical tastes, everything from the Gypsy Kings to a classical rendition of Waltzing Matilda.
Then a year or so ago, Lydia and Seamus managed to contact me via Facebook. I am not easy to find on there, but they had typed in my maiden name and found my son, who does look very much like me. We started to email each other for a short time. Then this year Lydia created a group called Boulogne on What’sApp, as she thought it would be much easier for us to communicate. The beauty of this form of social media is that you can share photos, quick messages and write in an informal manner. It’s not like an email where you have to write a long chunk and remember everything you’ve done for the past month or so. It’s an instant messaging service so you can just write something as simple as ‘Weather is nice’ and before you know it, you’re having a very long conversation. Lydia is in Australia and the time difference often means that we’re going to bed just as she’s getting up, but it’s still a great way to keep in touch.
The other night I’d been having a long conversation with Seamus, and it really felt as though the last thirty years had never happened. We were having a right laugh, joking away, discussing music and the things that we’d always be talking about thirty years before. I hadn’t reverted to 19/20-year-old me, but I had managed to speak to Seamus as though we had never lost touch. Lydia came on the following morning and was surprised at the three hundred-odd messages that took her over half an hour to read. “Feels like thirty years ago,” she suggested. “With some people you just pick up where you left off.” Seamus replied. That’s the beauty of social media and we don’t always realise how good it can be.
These conversations on WhatsApp made me think about the nature of friendships. Here were two people that I had once been so close to. I had barely said anything to them in thirty years because our lives had gone in different paths. Yet, suddenly here we were again, back to our old friendship, communicating as if the past thirty years had never happened. Sharing the same jokes, the same double entendres, speaking in a mix of English and French, remembering shared experiences and expressing our innermost thoughts. There is a quote which goes “We have three types of friends in life: Friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime.” Some people are meant to be in your life. Over the course of our lives we will deal with many changes. People will come and go into our lives. Some will stay and others will go. We become different people along the way, and we change and adapt to suit our environment. I will never go back to being the young, naïve girl who was an English assistante in Boulogne. I can never go back to spending every night sitting in a café in Boulogne, sharing jokes and experiences with Seamus and Lydia. But we can still share our lives, even though we may live in different countries to each other.
“Why do you think we can still talk in the same way as we did all those years ago?” I asked. My friends paused and considered for a while, before Seamus, who is never one to mince his words, finally replied, “Because we’re people who aren’t full of sh**e?” I don’t think that I could have put it better myself.