Monday, 31 March 2008
Formative travel experience #1
In a quiet moment a couple of years ago, and after a couple of glasses of wine on her part, my mother looked me in the eye and said "We were good parents though, weren't we?".
This is quite the heavyweight question. Even though the obvious, and completely honest answer would be yes, I don't think that was what she was looking for. I think, on reflection, that she wanted me to bring up examples - happy memories of things that helped mould me into the man I am and perhaps taught me valuable lessons about how to live with honour, and not drop litter and stuff. At the time I was a little bamboozled by the sudden serious turn the conversation had seemingly taken, and was unable to provide her with a neat little list of bullet-pointed times in which good parenting stopped me from becoming a serial killer who wears the arses of his victims as hats.
Now, however, with the benefit of time and distance, I could list a few dozen vivid and happily-held childhood memories that definitely, without question, made me who and what I am, whatever that is. Regular trips with mum to the museums every half term. Being woken up at the crack of dawn to go and hang out while dad and his friends shoot a low budget movie (with swordfighting! and horses!). Being allowed to stay up late to watch Monty Python and Spike Milligan, but not Chris Tarrant. All things that I am consciously aware helped shape parts of me, and I could go on listing this stuff all day but I won't.
Just one more:
I was about ten years old. Coming to the end of my time at Trinity Street school and about to make the quantum leap to Enfield Grammar School, or Big School as it was known by boys of my age. Every year, my parents would take me on holiday to somewhere in England (Or once, Wales, where the place we stayed had a games room which turned out to be a barn with an old pool table in which lived a large rat). In my younger days we spent many holidays in Norfork, and in more recent years Yorkshire, where, in the near future I was to see street performers for the first time and have the course of my life changed irrevocably, but that's another story. This year, however, things were going to be different. This year, we could afford a few days in Paris. This was very, very exciting. France was a whole different country (and I believe still is), which meant going on a plane, which I had never done.
Ask my parents these days about that trip and they'll say "Oh god, you were a brat the whole time" and change the subject - I know this because I have tried. So they might be surprised at the number of memories I have of the trip and that they are all good ones.
My memory is patchy, so here's what I can recall:
Like many middle class curly haired moppets of the 70's, I liked collecting postcards of places I had been to. My collection mainly consisted of postcards depicting suits of armour, swords, dinosaurs or zebras from the various museums that I had visited, but at the airport I got a postcard of the exact same model of airplane that I would be travelling on. Things were getting exciting.
I don't remember much about the actual flight except the feeling of the jets on takeoff. The feeling that we're going pretty fast and then suddenly, with a grinding roar, going five times as fast and faster and faster and then it's all calm and smooth and the ground is leaving us and it's scary and amazing in equal measure.
Our hotel was wonderful. We all shared one room and the windows opened onto a tiny balcony on which you could stand and look down over the real genuine Parisian street below. For some reason I seem to recall it was on the fifth floor, and to get to it you could take the stairs or travel up in the beautiful old clanky cast iron elevator - the kind with the folding lattice gate you have to pull across yourself. I had never encountered one of these before and loved it because you could see the floors of the hotel go by as you went up and down. For years afterwards I thought that's what all French elevators were like, and although I know a little better now, I still think of them as French.
The day we arrived it was raining heavily all day and all night and my parents were in horrid moods - maybe I was already being a brat. I remember us all taking refuge under the awnings of book shops before running across shiny dark streets while my mum worried about the crazy French drivers running us down.
Just a few doors down from out hotel, on the corner, was a bistro. We went there every night on the way home from sightseeing and my parents would have coffee and I would have a big cup of hot chocolate. And I would play their Defender machine. Oh yes. The first time I ever touched this game was in that cafe in Paris and I shall never forget it. It was in the far left corner by the window, and occasionally the headlights of passing cars would come through the window and glare across the screen. As a fledgling videogame geek, I had already read about the game in copies of the American magazine JoyStik that I had found imported in a comic book shop off Charing Cross road that I had made my mum take me to. But I had never played it. If you know what Defender is, then most likely you know what it means, and you're grinning right now. If you don't know what Defender is.. how can I explain..? It's one of the best videogames ever written. Simple as that. It was beautiful to look at, explosions like throbbing multicoloured fireworks in the none-more-black background. It sounded awesome - put a coin in, press start and you don't get a cheery little jingle, oh no, you get one long wierdly hypnotic low drone. It's telling you that it's different. Even approaching it for the first time was scary - in a time when most games either had a single joystick like Pacman, or at best were left-right-fire like the gorgeous Galaxians, Defender had seven controls. Seven. Up, down, thrust, fire, reverse, smart bomb and hyperspace. You had to know what you were doing before you even started playing it. But once you could play it, it was beautiful. Fluid, fast, noisy, pyrotechnic, it was everything an arcade game should be. You never felt it was treating you unfairly, even when you were losing, and when you were doing well, it really let you know- filling the screen with the cycling hue of your laser fire and the fading exploded parts of dead aliens. Mastering those seven controls was like learning an instrument, once you put in the hours practising, once you could play, and improvise, then you could make it look so easy and so good. Eugene Jarvis, who wrote it, said that the only test of a good arcade game was if it made your hands sweat after 5 minutes. Good god did it. If Defender isn't the best arcade game ever, then Robotron probably is, and Eugene wrote that one as well.
So the ending part of each day was lovely, but as for the events that made up the daytimes - I can't remember much. I do know that I developed quite the affection for Orangina, which was new to me. I learnt how to order one in French and thought myself quite the sophisticate. The following year Orangina entered the UK market and suddenly my cool favourite drink that you can't get here lost it's coolness.
I remember the smell of the Metro. Almost like burning rubber and chocolate. Something to do, I think, with the wheels or the way it's powered. I've been back several times in adult life and always want it to smell as interesting as I remember it smelling, but it never does of course. But it's still as clean and lovely as it was back then, and still with as many sunglasses and lighters on sale on little tables in the stations manned by interesting-looking people from far-flung lands, often, at least in my childhood memory, with gold teeth in their smile.
I'm imagining my parents reading this (never a good move) and being annoyed that in a piece about my memories of a family trip to Paris I have spent the majority of the time talking about old video games and Orangina, but that's kinda the point I'm trying to make.
I'm sure that the plan to take me to Paris was at least in part to prepare me for learning the language at big school, and to, I guess, give me experience of another culture. And it completely did, just not in the way my parents perhaps wanted. The thing about taking someone (no matter how young and/or bratty) to somewhere interesting and foreign is that they'll never see it through your eyes and you'll never see it through theirs. But they'll still see it.
That holiday is the first time I had ever been to another country, and as my tattered passport will show, I got the bug. Going on that trip showed me that when you travel, and if you look, you see interesting stuff. You see things that are the same as home, and also completely not. That's it. Simple, but I think a lot of people never quite get to that stage, for whatever reason they'd rather not travel, and keep looking at the stuff they know. There's a space for that sure, but the more stuff you see, the more stuff becomes stuff you know. Is this making any kind of sense?
All the things I saw on that trip are now forever cemented in my head to that trip. Whenever I play Defender, I remember that cafe. Whenever I have a hot chocolate, I remember the big wide heavy white cup that needed two hands to hold. Whenever I see the Eiffel Tower on TV, I remember the little red, white and blue souvenir cap that I bought at the little shop at the top. Whenever I have Orangina (which I very occasionally still do), I remember my parents helping me order it in French and the waiter putting the bottle between his legs as if uncorking a wine bottle, when he unscrewed the cap).
Whenever I go to Paris, I remember the first time I went. I remember being a scared child on a new adventure with people who knew the way. Now I'm the person who knows the way, and I'm always ready for an adventure somewhere new. As I write this I can look out of my window and see something the ten year old me would never thought I'd see. The Bahamas. Honest to god desert islands, palm trees, the whole shebang. Maybe I might not be here if I hadn't been to Paris first. I'm not sure I'm any less of a brat these days though.