One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things. —Henry Miller
Do you ever ponder the word freedom? What it meant to you at different times in your life? Do you feel free now? If not, ever? When?
My friends, Wanda and Joseph, shared my dream of backpacking around Europe. So that’s just what we did after graduating from university in 1986. I worked two jobs for four months while living at my parent’s home. I saved every single penny and bought an open-ended return plane ticket and a three-month Eurail Pass and left with enough money to afford modest accommodations (hostels) and food for a few months. Because things rarely work out as imagined, after about a month or so of wandering around London, Paris, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece, my friend Wanda ran out of money and decided to return to Canada. Joseph offered to accompany her back to London before continuing to travel on his own. The three of us said our goodbyes at the train station in Athens.
I decided at that point to travel to Serbia to meet my extended family for the first time. The only knowledge they had of me or of my plans was a letter sent by my uncle several months earlier letting them know that I could possibly show up on one or more of their doorsteps in the next several months. Keep in mind this is way before cell phones or internet.
The only communication I had with my family and friends was one-sided. I wrote postcards and letters which they would receive a week or two after they were posted. No one, not even me, knew where I would be from day to day or hour to hour. Once on my own it meant no longer conferring with my friends as to where we should go or what we should do. It meant that I could continually choose to extend my stay in Serbia; just up and go to another town or city on a whim; accept the kindness of perfect strangers of an offered tour of their city or their suggestion to visit a tiny hilltop town or an amazing museum. I could choose to travel to a shared destination with a fellow traveller that I just met. It meant that when I finally chose to return home it was a complete surprise to my family. I am so glad I came of age in a time before the internet or cell phones, when we relied on paper maps and guidebooks, used pay phones to locate and check availability at hostels in a foreign language, when we calculated exchange rates in our heads, figured out train timetables and time zones, all without the aid of a digital device. Before the digital age we travelled alone and were dependent on the people amongst whom we were travelling – for advice, conversation, companionship. For me that was freedom.
Here are a couple of journal entries from that trip that sum up my experience.
Nice, France, November 16, 1986
Today I walked along the promenade watching the colours of the sea as it rushed to shore past the port where the ships dock and I stared into the horizon and thought of how very far away from home I am and that I am all alone. I’m alone and I’m fine. If there was every any doubt that I could travel alone my doubts have vanished. I feel very good about myself right now. This experience of travelling solo has made my trip to Europe complete. I am now ready to go home to Canada, to see my family and my friends.
London, England, November 21, 1986
It was a grand scale adventure, the most fabulous learning experience I have yet encountered (of people, their countries, their customs and way of life, politics, religion). A lesson in complete independence and self-responsibility. I now feel as though I have really, honestly lived and that I can now begin living again, this time with more knowledge, experience and a greater level of awareness.
I grew up in a small town in the Ottawa valley, the child of former urbanites looking for a quiet and quaint place to raise their family. In 1977 I started studying at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Living away from home full-time; fending for my own meals; a life regulated by class schedules and lots of homework was the most fantastic thing I’d ever experienced. My very first Toronto pad was in a loft shared with my best friend from home, and our “land-lady” Joan, who must have been at least 30 years-old (could people even get that old?) and produced films for a living. Her genius, intensity and bohemian lifestyle was such an inspiration to Ian and me that we stayed up all hours working on our own projects. Until we got evicted, that is. When Joan decided to move a lover in, we too were ready for a change. I found myself in many living situations over the 4 years of art school, but my final two were perhaps my happiest and most productive. If you’ve been the lucky recipient of the “places I’ve worked tour”; “locations I’ve delivered cakes to tour”; or the “tour of places I’ve lived” —you’ll know that 240 Adelaide Street West was my all-time favourite.
I assembled a quartet of roommates, Rachel, Edward, Ian and me. We tore down the old drop-ceiling, crafted bedrooms made of 2x4s and drywall, built a kitchen and converted one of the toilet stalls to a shower. Our second-floor studio was 1,300 square feet, about 500 of which was the front “office” area where we had our three drafting tables and bookshelves, comfy armchairs and a sofa. However, with some reconfiguration, we were able to host film screenings, music events and poetry readings. After Rachel moved out and another artist named Thomas moved in, our space came to be known as “Boy Town” and became sort of an underground cinema-slash-performance space. Screenings of Battleship Potemkin accompanied by electric guitar, performances by local musicians playing early Casio keyboards and readings by York University Poets took inspiration from established performance spaces, including the infamous and defunct CEAC centre for contemporary art across the street. The excitement and the pure unconditional freedom I experienced during that time remains one of my best memories. Four years away from home taught me that there are so many cultures and communities to be experienced, not just in Toronto which became my home, but everywhere. My dream after art school, was to open a bookstore in Berlin, with my friend Edward. We didn’t do it, and I’ve never been to Berlin, but there’s still time to visit.