The other day, Silke, my wonderful friend from Münster, asked me what I thought I would be doing if I had never travelled and, as a consequence, never moved to work abroad. Now while I know the old ‘what if’ is nigh on impossible to entertain, because the fact of the matter is when the time comes for decisions to be made, we make them and that quite simply negates all other possibilities, rendering them nothing but feathers that float on the breeze and slip through our fingers every time we try to catch them. But – perhaps because I have been quite consumed by the notion of choices and plans lately – her question did make me think about the specific moments in time, the specific choices we make, that put us or keep us on a particular path.
And it took me back, five years ago, to the months before I was about to take off for my post-BA-around-the-world-adventure. I was 22. I had graduated from my BA Psychology, booked my 12-stop ticket and was working in a fragrance shop to save money (and populate my bathroom cupboards with hundreds of bottles of perfume). One afternoon, one quiet afternoon, I was flipping through a stack of weekly magazines to pass the time – I also, on several occasions and under several different names, submitted salacious ‘true stories’ that paid a few hundred bucks a pop, about affairs gone wrong and sleeping with my mother’s toyboy – and came across a competition. One of the ghastly weekly tabloids that haunt our news-stands was searching for an intern, Ugly Betty style (this was at the peak of the show’s popularity) and asking for people who wanted to work in magazines to tell them why they would be the perfect intern. On a whim, I whipped up an entry, showcasing an alarming amount of celebrity knowledge, and sent it off, using stationery from out the back. I knew, as I posted it, should anything come of it, it would conflict directly with my round-the-world-trip, and in a way I wonder if I was orchestrating things to test myself, to force a choice or a result. I wanted to work in magazines, I was putting pressure on myself to get started on the career ladder as soon as possible, I felt mild ‘maybe I should just stay home and start working’ guilt, guilt I wish I had never felt at 22 years of age. Perhaps I thought that by throwing this out into the universe, something would come of it that would light the way a little more clearly.
What happened, of course, is that I got a call informing me I was a finalist and I had to spend a night in a hotel with the other finalists, do a photo shoot and then an interview in front of the cameras … because, that’s right, one of the ghastly current affairs programs, in some sort of incestuous, cross promotion, had gotten on board and wanted to film the entire process of the rag’s search for an Ugly Betty. I stayed in the hotel with the other finalists, I studied the magazine, I did the writing test, met the staff members, had an interview about celebrities, did my photo shoot and, at some point, pulled someone aside and said, ‘look, I have to be honest, I have a ticket booked for LA. If it comes down to it, I have to choose between the possibility of this internship and travel.’ My memory fails me with that the precise response was, but it was something along the lines of, ‘that’s your choice to make’ and the day progressed. I went into the boardroom for an interview in front of the cameras, and, cameras rolling, a woman with a very loud voice said, ‘so I believe you have a ticket booked for a round-the-world-trip. Want to tell us about that?’
Long story short, they tried commendably hard to get me to cry on camera, berating me for wasting their time, demanding I reach a decision immediately, asking me if I knew how many hopefuls entered the competition and how I had dashed their dreams as well. I explained, as best I could, it was a decision I had to make and I was aware of that and it wouldn’t be reached lightly. I didn’t cry in the boardroom -lest I give them the emotional arc to their filming they so wanted – I cried in the bathrooms and I cried in the stairwell when I called my Mum. But I made a decision. I would travel the world and I would never work for a shitty, cynical, dumbed-down weekly magazine despite how impressed they were with my trial article on Nicole Ritchie’s eating disorder.
So I flew to LA with my best friend. The issue with our photo shoot came out, they never ran the segment on the current affairs TV show and a lovely girl from Sydney won the position.
Looking back, that day changed a lot of things. I made a decision, one that took me around the world, introduced me to so many countries and people and cultures, one that enabled something I had hitherto enjoyed to blossom into full-blown, holy-shit-this-is-what-it’s-all-about love. I never applied for a job on a magazine again. I wanted to write but I didn’t want to do it in that environment, with those people. Perhaps, despite wanting Andie Anderson’s life in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, I wasn’t cut out for it. I still don’t think I am.
Maybe I would have won the competition, maybe I would have been the tea and photocopying girl. Maybe I would have hated it – the people, the system and what the publication stood for – so much, I would have quit. Maybe I would have penned a warts and all paperback about being a celebrity rag’s intern, or maybe I would have ascended the ranks and joined Sydney’s social pages off the back of working for a shitty magazine. Maybe I would have met a slew of famous people as I perpetuated a dumbed-down cycle of immoral celebrity worship. Maybe I would have risen through the ranks at that publishing company and become Editor in Chief of a woman’s glossy by the age of 30.
Maybe, maybe. But I didn’t.
I travelled the world. I wrote for smart, independent magazines like lip and innovative web start-ups like Matador Network. I came home, besotted with the world, sure I wanted to dig my heels in and write stories for the rest of my life. I did my MA. I spent my first summer working in Greece. I started my own online magazine because the magazines I had seen in such romantic, glossy light, suddenly seemed boring and condescending and … stupid. This site spoke to thousands upon thousands of readers a month. I moved to Europe, started teaching, kept writing for smart, independent publications like Peppermint Magazine, became even more besotted with the world. And here I am. Drinking tea, sitting in a sunny little room, surrounded by photos of people and places, looking out at Bavaria in the Spring time.
Would I be here if I had cashed in my round-the-world-ticket and tearfully accepted an internship on camera, with a weekly magazine that reports on cellulite and baby bodies? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. Because I wouldn’t have visited Münster as an excited, impressionable 22 year old and made the friendships I did. I wouldn’t have gone to Santorini and met an English lady who threw the towel in on London life and opened a bar on a Greek island. I wouldn’t have spent the following summer on that island, nor been visited by a very dear friend who would turn out to be my flatmate in Münster, when I eventually moved there in 2010. And I wouldn’t have met the SG. Which means I definitely wouldn’t be looking out the window at Bavaria in the Spring time.
So, Silke, I don’t know what I would be doing if, all those years ago, if I hadn’t made the decision to keep my ticket. I do know I probably wouldn’t have met you or your beautiful family. You wouldn’t have helped me so much with that whole hospital stay thing. We wouldn’t have had endless cups of coffee discussing the ins and outs of our languages. And I wouldn’t be writing this, quietly certain now that five years ago, I made the right choice.
So, what would you being doing, if you hadn’t …