Author Jeremy Macdonogh reveals the lessons he picked up on his Gap Year in 1973 – and how they set him up for life
Just as people do today, I racked my brains as I pondered the funding of my gap year. I was not one of those far-sighted travellers who methodically arranges a paid, or at least housed, sojourn in central Africa, darkest Cambodia or wherever.
Nor was I one of that small number who saves or whose parents stump up the thousands needed for a year abroad. I told myself I would somehow manage.
It seemed to work, and the first lesson I learned, as Kipling almost said, is that if you can walk with Kings and keep the common touch, if all men count with you, then you have the tools to take a chance. I set off with enough to last a month and hitch-hike home. Insouciance is a by-product of optimism.
When I spoke to friends they told me to choose a country or countries whose qualities I aspire to. Since I love classical music, especially opera, they suggested Italy or Germany. I plumped for Italy. My lack of means was of no matter, as I was soon teaching English as a foreign language. I had a job. I soon learned the happy consequence of being in a classroom with a city’s bright young things. Before long I was dining at their tables and being told or shown why they were so proud of their nation.
Italians are like us, but not exactly. They taught me to take advantage of their glorious weather, and how their climate lets them live outside. I saw too that beauty surrounds them to such an extent they are not surprised by it – in fact they believe they deserve it. There the arts are not elitist, I learned – merely the visible consequences of a confident civilisation. And while they all want to speak English – it is the language of business after all – I saw they had the wealth of Virgil, Dante, Tasso and D’Annunzio built into their everyday speech.
I learned not to be afraid that my stumbling first efforts to speak their language would expose me to ridicule. On the contrary, they were flattered by the compliment they said I was paying them. When they corrected me it was because they wanted me to win – leaving me to flounder would not have been an act of friendship. As I learned and my confidence grew, and as I came to grips with formal grammar, I did not at first notice how much my English was also improving. I soon discovered a bonus; the second language makes the third one easier. When, eventually, I came home, I had fluent French and Italian.
I learned to eat the local food. First, it’s terrific. Secondly it’s cheaper than the alternatives. In Italy and the south of France, the ground thrusts the most exquisite fare into the air. In Italy, the young traveller can live for months off pasta, pizza and peaches. Not all Italian food is so modest, however; they also have truffles. Yet eating their food and drinking their wine soon had me speaking their language, and the magic of olive oil and sunlight worked wonders for my complexion and brought a sheen to my hair.
Lastly, I learned not to stop travelling. In the context of a gap year, I know, this means wheels within wheels, but when your work is in a city, you should take time out to visit the countryside and the beach. There the world is less hurried, the people more leisured and greatly more patient. I even found some precious moments of affection which greatly compensated for the easy bonhomie I had left at home. It is with romance, I concluded, that language skills so quickly enhance a way of life.
All of this applies in every country, not just Italy. It is the case all over Europe and no doubt the other five continents. If your idea of a gap year is white-water rafting on the Zambezi, they would probably apply, but in all likelihood you will spend your time treading water rather than making out for a further shore. Italy taught me to celebrate life.
After leaving university and unable to find a job in a depressed 1970s Britain, Jeremy Macdonogh set out on a gap year – a rare undertaking at the time. A Gap Year or Two: Adventures in Europe Between 1970-1974 is his account of his adventures and can be ordered on Amazon now.
Main image: Vintage photo of couple in Venice in the 1970s (Shutterstock)