Alternative life paths crossed for me in 1995

MONDAY, 18 JULY 2022

When I went to Europe in March 1995, I only had enough money for about two weeks of cheap accommodation.

I landed at Orly airport, about ten kilometres south of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – Paris. It was at the beginning of March, so when I left Cape Town, it was still warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt. The moment I got off the plane and the 2º Celsius air hit my face, I thought I was going to freeze to death before I saw the Eiffel Tower.

Remains of a plane ticket

I took a bus to the city. From the window I saw caricatures of France: a man with a fat moustache with a baguette under his arm; a taxi driver with a fat moustache who explained with exaggerated hand gestures that the man in the other car was wrong; an attractive woman in a red dress and loose, wavy hair, who I was sure smelled of perfume.

I got out when I figured we were more or less in the centre of town. The bus stop was a few blocks from the Seine, and on the other side of a large park was the Les Invalides – where a few days later I would see a trench coat with mud stains from the First World War.

View from the apartment

I sat down on a bench next to the bus stop and smoked a Paul Revere, and considered myself very fortunate.

Then I started looking for my accommodation – a one bedroom apartment of an acquaintance from high school. The only clues I had were the cryptic notes of a mutual friend who had spent a few nights there a year before. It took me about seven hours to track it down. By late afternoon I had spent my first franc at a supermarket in the neighbourhood – on a piece of cheese, a pack of macaroni, and two cans of Czech beer.

Source of cheese and cheap beer

The first week I was alone in the apartment. I walked for miles every day – to the Eiffel Tower, to the Place de la Concorde, to the Père Lachaise cemetery, to the Moulin Rouge, and up and down the Champs-Elysées. One day I also took the train out of the city to the palace in Versailles – a definite highlight.

Apartment of high school acquaintance in Paris

At the end of the week, my acquaintance returned to his apartment. I stayed a few more days, and then bought a bus ticket to Amsterdam. Here I visited the Anne Frank House … and not the Van Gogh Museum because it was too expensive.

The plan from the beginning was to get some kind of job to keep myself alive and every now and then to travel to interesting places. In Paris it was not possible because of the language. In Amsterdam I went to a McDonald’s and asked about work. The application form indicated that if I was not a citizen, I had to be able to prove that I was a refugee. I also met the son of a friend of a university professor. He had vague ideas about knocking on doors to offer your services as a cleaner, or something like that.

Next stop, London: The capital of illegal work for anyone from anywhere in the world. I found a bed in a room with six or seven other men in a small hotel not far from Victoria Station. Quickly made friends and walked around for a few days – had a photo taken of myself with Tower Bridge in the background and visited the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum, but I didn’t really look for work. One night on the news there was an item about a man from Nigeria who had been working illegally. The police came looking for him where he lived. He was startled, jumped out of the window, and fell to his death. Another South African who also stayed in the hotel talked about construction work, and that it helped if you had a working holiday permit.

Hotel in London
Bridge and tourist on a sunny day in London

Friends of mine spent six months in Britain the previous year on working holiday permits. No surprise that it seemed like a more attractive option than running from the police.

Red light district in Amsterdam

I decided to go back to Amsterdam, from where my flight was booked back to South Africa – actually not until months later, but I had the option of changing it. Someone talked about cheap youth hostels in the red-light district where you could get free bed and breakfast if you helped clean and did laundry. I found a place in a hostel in a room that smelled of dirty socks and unwashed bodies. I inquired about work, and they said they would think about it (to check if you were trustworthy, I later learned). However, I only had enough money left for a few days, so on the third day I called the airline and booked a place on the earliest flight back to South Africa. A day before I was to fly, the manager informed me that they could use my services if I was still interested. However, by that time I had less than the equivalent of ten euros left.

Hands in the pocket, but broke

Of course, today I think back on opportunities I didn’t take. Why didn’t I apply for a work permit before I went, knowing full well what benefits it would bring? Fact is, I tried, but the travel agent said it would take something like two weeks, and I didn’t have two weeks. Only later did I find out it only took a day or two. The two weeks in Paris, though I didn’t pay for accommodation, also ate into my finances. Why didn’t I find out about the free bed and breakfast if you work at the place in the first week in Amsterdam? Don’t know. Why wasn’t I actively asking around London for opportunities? Lack of confidence? Lack of motivation? The man who jumped to his death would probably have made an impression on anyone, but after all there were thousands of other people who worked illegally in London or elsewhere on the islands. And why not take the job in the hostel and see if I survived for a few weeks until something else happened? Probably thought my plan to go back to South Africa, apply for a work permit, and then come back made more sense. And it was safer.

Making friends on a napkin

Would it have helped if I had a partner there who said: “Let’s do it! Let’s take a chance!”?

Yes, it would have made a difference.

A few weeks after I got back to South Africa, I applied for a work permit, and got it. Beautifully it graced my passport for six months, and then it expired. Never got together enough money for a second plane ticket to Europe.

Right around the time the work permit expired (end of 1995), I saw an advertisement for “Teaching in Korea” in the Cape Times. What happened next is the timeline of my real life over the past quarter century.

How many alternative timelines did not cross each other in those few months of 1995?

Can one say with certainty that everything would have worked out differently if you had changed one thing years ago, said yes to something, said no to something else, taken a later flight, walked in a different direction, took a bigger chance? Do you wish things had turned out differently?

I am happy with my current life, and with how my life has developed the last 27 years. But if I closed my eyes and the alternative lines were revealed to me, would I see a more interesting life than the one I’ve been living? Would it have been more dream than nightmare, or the other way around?