The reason I agreed to travel to Europe with my dad was because I was sick of having fun overseas. Enjoying myself, meeting exciting people, learning about other cultures – all things I could do without.
The seven innocuous words that started our journey were, ‘I’d bloody love to go to Europe.’ Dad had been repeating them at family gatherings for years, often after I’d recounted a recent holiday I’d been on.
Usually these words were just taken as conversation filler, like Dad bemoaning not signing us up as MCC members at birth, but this time I decided to take them seriously. To be honest, I reacted before I’d properly thought it through – the way someone might instinctively pull a child to safety, or grab a hot sausage straight off the barbecue and throw it in their mouth, burning all available skin. I said to Dad, ‘Well, let’s go then.’
If he wanted to go, why not? I was single, I didn’t have kids and I was a television writer and comedian; big chunks of time off were part of my landscape. And for once, I didn’t already have a holiday booked. The timing couldn’t have been better.
And if I didn’t get proactive, soon we’d reach a point where Dad could no longer go. Then every family gathering until death would be him lamenting, ‘I wish I’d bloody gone to Europe.’
‘I’m serious, Tommy,’ I said. ‘I finish at the end of September and don’t have to be back at work until November. If you really want to go, I can do it.’
Dad was speechless; he hadn’t expected that. His bluff had been called. He wasn’t the only one who was stunned – I’d never considered it for a second before, yet suddenly I was all-in on a European trip with him.
Agreeing so hastily had the feeling of making drunken plans late on a big night, except that this plan wouldn’t be forgotten in a hungover haze the next morning, because we were sober. And there were witnesses. Dad and I both knew it would be an extraordinary act to back out from there. It was also impossible because I get my stubbornness from him, so neither of us would have known how to retreat, even if we’d wanted to.
Besides, no one but me was in a position to take Dad to Europe. Mum was never going to do a big trip; she gets nervous enough watching Getaway. My sister, Michelle, still lived at home, so she already had her daily fill of Dad. My older brother, Jason, couldn’t do it because he was no longer with us; he lives in Research, an outer Melbourne suburb, so no one’s going to give him a lift to the airport.
I’m not from a family of travellers. Mum and Dad both immigrated to Australia as babies – Dad from post-war Germany and Mum from India, where her father was stationed while serving in the British Army. It staggered me that, apart from my sister going to Japan on exchange in high school, 80 per cent of my family hadn’t been overseas as adults.
I’d always been captivated by overseas travel, ever since Narelle Watt came back to primary school after three weeks away (not during the holidays . . . I know!) with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt from Disneyland. Not from a relative who’d returned from a trip, but an actual purchase made at an actual Disneyland in an actual United State of America. Even as a twelve-year-old I was jealous and from that moment on I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself. (Travelling, not Disneyland. If I wanted to line up for hours surrounded by overweight Americans then I’d go to – well, I’d go to Disneyland.)
To me it’s a choice not to go overseas, because nowadays, with such cheap flights and accommodation packages available, it’s so easy. I understand why we didn’t do it as kids; Mum and Dad both worked full time, and travel in the eighties wasn’t as affordable as it is now. Also, there could be no greater living nightmare than dragging three children around the world. Kids are annoying enough in the supermarket; if I had to take three of them overseas I would have an aneurysm before I made it down the aerobridge. The mum in Home Alone wasn’t forgetful, she knew that one less kid on the holiday was the smart move.
Nor have I ever understood the waste of money that is taking a toddler on an international trip. ‘Let’s pay to bring along someone who will be a challenge every waking moment and won’t remember a thing.’ I’ll admit on occasion that’s been me after a few too many resort cocktails, but that’s my own money being wasted.
When I was twenty-five, which was as soon as I could afford it, I backpacked through Europe, expanding my horizons by seeing what Irish pubs looked like in Rome, Berlin and even Prague. The trip also taught me how to survive on a steady diet of jam sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, or, to get some variety, jam and cheese sandwiches. It takes paying $33 for a tiny bowl of spaghetti outside a German castle to realise you always need a back-up plan. A plain bread roll soaked with a mouthful of Coke provides more than enough flavour and sustenance.
Since that first trip, I’ve travelled as often as I can, making me the man for the job of taking Dad to Europe. This in itself was out of the ordinary, because I’d never been the man for the job before. Ever. Unless that job was to get drunk at a wedding and tell the bride I had feelings for her, but for some reason there’s not been a ton of requests for that after the first time.
Holidays are exciting. Counting down the days until take-off, constantly checking the weather at your destination, organising travel insurance because your parents have made you paranoid about getting everything you own stolen. I actually love the frustration of the final twenty-four hours, longing for the hellish long-haul flight to begin.
I had almost always travelled solo, because I relished the freedom. I loved knowing I could change plans on a whim, hearing about something cool and deciding to do it, or being able to ditch an annoying Brazilian backpacker who was going to get me killed by starting trouble in a bikie bar in Cusco, Peru. I had only travelled in a group for weddings, and resort stays don’t really count. The toughest choice on a beachside holiday is what cocktail to have before midday (I always choose a mango colada, as mango is a breakfast fruit).
Travelling alone, I found the planning really easy, too. Typically before you book a trip you have a discussion about where you’d like to go and how long you might spend in each place. So it was a simple case of conferring with myself, having a few arguments, storming out, cooling off and then coming back to completely cave to my own demands. It’s a system I’ve refined over many trips and it works.
But because it was Dad’s first international trip, I mapped out the journey as slowly as possible so he could contribute to the planning and feel like he was as much a part of the trip as I was. I asked questions about where he wanted to go, what he wanted to see, if he’d prefer to drive or fly between cities. Then I’d leave it with him, giving him time to think about it, the idea being that the next time we spoke he’d have answers. Kind of like what usually happens with questions. But not with Dad involved. I’d ask, go away, only to return and discover he’d put no thought into anything. We basically hit pause the moment I left his sight.
After a few weeks of this non-decision I made a decision: that giving him time was pointless. I took to asking him directly then waiting him out until he responded, like a teacher waiting for a class to settle down, pretending they have nowhere better to be. I sat for hours at the kitchen table with Mum, sticking around their place much longer than I normally would, until he finally gave me answers.
The first question for any potential trip is where to go. The start was easy for us: Munich. Dad had family there, so at the very least we’d visit them. So that was a tick. Whenever he’d mused about Europe in the past, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace would almost inevitably get a mention, so London was also on the agenda. I put that as our last port of call so we could fly out of Heathrow. Tick. We were on a roll. All we had to do was fill in the blanks in the middle.
Everyone has different reasons to travel: to see another culture, learn history, meet family, continue to sully Australia’s overseas reputation by climbing sacred monuments while completely hammered. From what I could gather, Dad wanted to see the main tourist attractions and that was about it.
There was, as I quickly discovered, far too much wiggle room. Everything between our arrival in Munich and departure from London was open for discussion. Except it wasn’t a discussion, because Dad could not be drawn into giving his opinion on anything.
I sat at the kitchen table with my notepad, determined we’d get this trip mapped out before I left. I’d stopped in for lunch but was prepared to stay for dinner if that’s what it took. Nothing shows resolve like eating two free meals.
‘Alright, Tommy,’ I said. ‘Let’s do this. Rome?’
I put Rome on the list.
‘How about Paris?’
‘Yep, I’ll do that,’ he replied instantly.
Paris too. This was easy.
Then it got strange. ‘I’d like to see Amsterdam,’ he said.
I put it on the list, but was immediately concerned. Aside from drinking, Dad’s as straight as they come. He once dropped my brother off at a party and advised him to ‘stay away from the funny cigarettes’. So if it wasn’t the hash then I could only assume he wanted to go for the red-light district, because I knew for certain we wouldn’t be going to the Van Gogh Museum.
He had some momentum now. ‘Stonehenge.’
‘That’s in England. We’re already going there.’
‘That’s in Rome, mate. You know that.’
‘Yep. Where’s that?’
It soon became obvious that he was happy to visit every place I suggested. Athens, Glasgow, Dublin. Every single one was going into the ever-growing mix, because Dad had no appreciation of the size of Europe. He was saying ‘yes’ like all those cities were within an 800-metre radius. As though travelling to the continent was the same as going to Chadstone shopping centre for the day. ‘Okay, we’ll start at the Colosseum, then we’ll go to the food court, and then head on up to the Blarney Stone next to David Jones.’
Hitting every city Dad said yes to was doable, but as I’d discovered on previous trips, it was a slog. Early starts and repeated airports, followed by rushing around all day trying to maximise every second to make sure you’d seen everything that you’d be asked about when you got home. It had been exhausting enough when I was in my twenties; I knew that pace wasn’t for a sedentary man comfortable with his senior lifestyle.
Plus, city hopping is expensive. Our budget was hardly ‘tuxedo-wearing Monaco bachelors’. Mainly because Dad’s married. And the closest he gets to black-tie is a nice polo shirt. In the end I made a captain’s call: to never again use the phrase ‘captain’s call’. From all the options put forward, I decided we would go to Paris. My rationale was that I’d already been to Rome and if I was going to go all the way to Europe then I should at the very least give myself something to look forward to. Plus, Paris had the added bonus of the Eiffel Tower, a landmark Dad was aware of, which is how it had ended up on our list in the first place.
So after much one-sided ‘discussion’, our itinerary read Munich, Bamberg (where Dad’s family was from), Berlin, Paris, Caen (a town in France I’d tell Dad about later) and London.
As if deciding on the cities wasn’t agonising enough, our next task was to work out how long to stay in each one. That can be a lottery at the best of times. There’s nothing worse than booking a town for several days and hating it. You can’t leave because flights have been locked in, or you’re stuck in an awful hotel but can’t afford to book a better one. Trying to stick it out rarely turns your feelings; you spend most of the time looking for validation as to why it’s such a shit place. ‘Yep, someone tooted their horn unnecessarily. This town is the worst. Never in doubt.’
But by now I knew if I involved Dad in this laborious process then he’d drag his feet so much we’d land in Munich with no plan at all. So for simplicity, and to avoid having a stroke, I booked everything myself and let Dad know afterwards. As expected, he was fine with it all.
The less involved Dad became with the planning, the more it was apparent that he was not prepared for certain parts of travelling. Like the travelling. He managed a few things, such as getting a passport, packing, and withdrawing a dangerous amount of foreign cash. Though all that was done with Mum’s assistance, and even then I’d had to follow it up every step of the way. Which meant once we left and she was no longer around, I’d be picking up that slack and doing the work of two. I was not looking forward to being travel pregnant.