The First Step

Traveler in Amsterdam 1971

I am a veteran traveler. In the past 66 years, I have explored the world, at first as a child with my parents in the USA, Canada, and UK, and later as a business woman traveling -  mostly alone – to 27 countries in Europe, Asia and South America. Every business trip was also a personal exploration, discovering beauty and ugliness; fascinating people, foods and cultures; and opening my eyes to things I never before knew existed – like them or not. I know this makes me sound like quite the adventurer, but when I first set out on my own shortly after my 17th birthday, I was not a brave traveler at all. In my teens, I was a timid soul and excruciatingly shy in travels that might have gone better if I were more courageous and outgoing.

Having graduated from high school in 1970 at age 16, and convinced that I was not smart enough for college (yes, I know now that my assumption of stupidity was contradictory nonsense, as later on I graduated from the University of Connecticut Magna Cum Laude), I went along with my parents’ plans to give me me (too young for a work visa) a one-way ticket to southwest Scotland, to work for my room and board at Finlaystone Estate in Langbank, home to the Clan MacMillan. I had been there as a child, so it seemed like a safe enough destination. My parents dropped me off at the airport in NY and Lady MacMillan collected me at the airport at Prestwick. An easy enough trip.

Someday I will share stories of my life as a Finlaystone “slave”, but let’s concentrate on Jean the Traveler for now. In 1970, I thought of myself as a flower child. I’d heard about fellow free spirits wandering around Europe (especially Amsterdam) spreading peace and love. I vaguely dreamed of hefting a backpack and joining them, but since I had limited resources (the pound or two of “pocket money” I was occasionally given at Finlaystone, as I was too young for a British work visa), I decided to spend my first solo holiday in the Netherlands, where I would travel by foot and rail and stay in inexpensive youth hostels. By April 1971, I had accumulated enough cash and hostel vouchers, so off I went.

I walked eight miles from Finlaystone to the train station in Port Greenock, boarded a train for London, and chugged through southern Scotland and the length of England down to London; got another train to the port of Hull; and that evening boarded a ferry bound for Rotterdam.

As a kid growing up on Long Island, NY, I had traveled by train, alone and with friends, to and from Manhattan, so negotiating a train journey felt like an easy and safe way to go. I had been on several ferries in New England and in Scotland, so the ferry ride across the English Channel was not much of a challenge. But there was a big challenge facing me when the ferry arrived at Hull the next morning. I stood on the ferry’s deck with my backpack, surveying the busy commercial port and the dawn of a misty, grey day in Holland.

Looking not at all like the bright fields of tulips with storybook windmills I’d dreamed of, it might as well have been a port on another planet. The dock was crowded and busy and from the ferry I couldn’t see where I ought to go in order to find transportation to the youth hostel in The Hague. I was utterly terrified, frozen with reluctance and fear of the unknown, and stood there transfixed and panicked as all the other passengers and vehicles had exited and only I remained on the deck beside the ramp to the dock, which to me might as well have been a gangplank to certain death.

Finally a fellow from the ferryboat crew approached me and said, “You must disembark now, Miss.” He must have seen the fright on my face because he added, “If you want to get back on the ferry, Miss, and return to Hull, you’ll have to go to the ticket office first.” He pointed to some unseen place on the dock.

It was one of the (all too many) times in my life when I wished I could just disappear. How could I return to Finlaystone with a tale of cowardice instead of stories of adventure? So pride forced me to trudge down the ramp to the dock, all the while forcing myself to resist the call of the relative safety of the ferry. And much to my surprise, the dock was nowhere near as scary as it had seemed aboard the ferry. I followed other passengers on foot, found the train station, and bought a ticket, and climbed aboard the train to Den Haag (The Hague), and never looked back.

I then spent two weeks wandering around the Netherlands with very few mishaps and gained confidence every day. Eventually I saw the fields of tulips and windmills; ate toast with Nutella for breakfast (my joyous first encounter); saw the sights and met other youngsters even more footloose and fancy free than I could even dream of being. I returned to Finlaystone with good memories and funny stories to tell my fellow slaves. My first ever solo trip had opened my world – and me – in more ways than I can count.

I have never been a daredevil – my personality and upbringing have kept me in check – but I am very blessed to have awakened so young to the boundless potential and value of exploring the world around me, near and far. At Finlaystone, I made dear friends with whom I’m still in touch 50 years later. My trip to Holland didn’t magically turn me into a fearless extrovert, but without it, I suspect that my life would have been much the poorer for it.

Sometimes there is a huge and unexpected payoff for taking a risk, if only we’re willing to consider it. Change is almost always hard, but very often full of unimagined potential for personal development and transformation. Armed with all of that, we’re then far better able to look around us and find endless ways to help other people down their own paths of improvement and healing, and in the process of helping others, we help ourselves continue to learn and grow. Life is the longest trip, the biggest adventure I’ve ever embarked on, and I mean to make it a wonderful one.



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