When I was eleven my mum and dad waved me off at Bristol Temple Meads with a small brown battered suitcase and thirty-five pounds worth of travellers cheques. I was off on my first trip abroad and my first time away, travelling with people I didn’t know and to stay with people I had never met. Was I nervous? Gosh no! I was off on an adventure to a place where I could climb every mountain, ford every stream and discover if the hills really were alive with the sound of music !
I have no idea how the exchange holiday came about.Mum and Dad must have seen an advert somewhere as I don’t think that my school organised it. All I can remember is that it was arranged through the Anglo-Austrian Society. A form was filled in with my details and a few short weeks later a match was made and hey presto, I had myself a new Austrian friend. Way back then there were next to no checks to ensure that any of the exchange families were indeed families and my parents trusted that their precious daughter would return to them three weeks later having had a fabulous holiday and with any luck had not learnt how to yodel!
So there was little me, pretty much alone except for a chaperone who I don’t actually remember seeing and a few other exchangees. My suitcase was tagged with my details, and all I needed was a gas mask and I could have been mistaken for a war-time evacuee. Except of course evacuees didn’t have feather cuts and wore mini dresses that hardly covered one’s bum! The long journey by train and boat was a bit of an adventure in itself.I made friends with another labelled girl and without the watchful eye of the elusive chaperone, we stuffed ourselves with giant chocolate bars bought on the ferry and annoyed other passengers with our constant giggles and non stop chatter. When the train came to each border, we worried ourselves silly that the border police, who actually had REAL guns in REAL holsters, would decide that we were spies and haul us off the train and throw us in some god forbidden awful jail and that our poor distraught parents would never see us again. Vivid imaginations or what!
I didn’t believe that my first glimpse of mountains were actually mountains. From afar I thought they were clouds.My own experiences of anything higher than a hill were day trips to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. As the train got closer and closer, the mountains grew taller and taller. I was mesmerised by their size and beauty and by the time we arrived at my destination, I was itching to twirl around in an alpine meadow and recreate the opening scene of my favourite musical.
Not that we were ever remotely worried that they wouldn’t be, but my Austrian family turned out to be kosher and absolutely brilliant,and lovely and so so friendly. Hanni, their daughter and my exchange partner, could fortunately speak English really well. I say fortunately as I couldn’t speak a word of german and her parents and little sister couldn’t speak a word of english. But it’s amazing how you can get by with a bit of gesticulating.
Alois, Maria, Hanni and little Evi Manzl lived in a chocolate box pretty house in a chocolate box pretty village. The house had seven bedrooms of which four were let out to german guests. The family pretty much lived,ate and relaxed in the cosy kitchen. I shared a room in the attic with Hanni and slept under a continental quilt for the first time. My pillow was square, and instead of making my bed in the morning, I was expected to hang the quilt out of the window to air.I loved that quilt and would have stuffed it into my suitcase given half a chance!
I have so many wonderful memories from those three idyllic weeks. Eating cucumber and dill salad directly from a serving bowl. Collecting milk straight from the cow from the local farm.Walking with bare feet to the village centre. Attending church and sitting with the women in the gallery, followed by listening to the traditionally dressed band in the village square. Eating chanterelle mushrooms collected from the mountains. Stuffing myself silly with eight homemade apricot doughnuts. Shouting to one another whilst sitting on a chairlift with only a chain preventing us from toppling out and falling into the hushed wooded slopes below. I discovered coffee that didn’t come from a jar and became addicted to cup after cup of the real Mc’Coy. I must have spent most of the holiday so wired with half a shed load of caffeine in my system. Never having eaten cake at any time other than for Sunday tea, I couldn’t believe my luck that eating cake and whipped cream every afternoon was the norm.Not shop bought cake either, but huge homemade traybakes, Kugelhopfs and the ocassional sachertorte. On my birthday Frau Manzl offered to prepare a celebration meal of anything I desired. And what a feast we had. To start with it had to be leberknodelsuppe made from minced liver and lights, formed into dumplings with bread, eggs and parsley then boiled and served in a clear broth. Sounds awful, but actually delicious. Followed by mouth-watering Weiner Schnitzl served with potato salad and finishing off with apfel strudel and schlagsahne. Perfectly wonderful!
Did I learn to yodel? Of course I did. Did I get to do my Julie Andrews moment? Naturally, although singing “The Hills are Alive” whilst wearing Hanni’s national costume back to front probably would have had Julie Andrews herself cringing with embarrassment. It certainly caused quite a few laughs and probably mumbles of “Leibe Gott, das arme madchen ist bonkers!”
And what did I spend my £35 on? Apart from huge bars of Milka chocolate, I bought some black woollen hotpants and a pair of over the knee black and yellow striped socks. I spent quite a bit of my holiday looking like a giant bumble bee. It gets worse. The rest of the time I resembled an Oompa Loompa when I made the bad decision to buy a tube of false tan. Today an application of false tan products can result in a fairly natural golden glow. Back in 1971 false tan cream just turned you bright orange. It didn’t help that I forgot to blend it in, or apply to my neck or hair line.I thought I looked fab. My parents nearly cried when I stepped off of the train and caught sight of their darling daughter looking nothing like the one they had waved off three long weeks earlier!
That holiday was the first of many spent with my Austrian friends. I would spend the entire school and college holidays with them travelling across Europe on my own and thinking nothing of it. I became quite proficient in conversational german, although my Tyrolean dialect didn’t go down well in my german lessons at school. I had many crushes on the local boys. Got drunk on Schnaps once in a while. Hiked in the mountains and in time skied on them too. Ate huge sausages with mustard at beer festivals and tobogganed perilously close to the edge of a ravine and thought it hilarious. Sadly, overtime, my friend and I communicated less and less. She became a teacher, I became a nurse. We both married. I had children. She sadly could not. We sent each other the odd Christmas card and then she stopped sending me one altogether. She isn’t on social media so I can’t rekindle our friendship that way. I’m sad to have lost a very dear friend. But I still have those memories and Austria will always hold a very special place in my heart.