It was ten years ago this week. I was on a jumping holiday in Spain and out of nowhere I had been offered a job at Skydive Empuriabrava. One of the biggest and best known drop zones in the world. Home to some of the best skydivers on the planet.
I had a few days to get my head around it. I wasn’t even entirely sure what the job was. Something to do with making sure lower experience jumpers were being looked after and putting together little fun jumps. It was all a bit vague.
“You lucky bastard Rego!” Said Paul, one of the crew I was there with “what you going to do?”
“I’m not sure yet. Let’s go get drunk”
So we did.
As I tried to work out my thoughts, one thought kept coming in. I was actually considering putting myself bang in the middle of all these full time professional skydivers. It was stupid. I wasn’t in this league.
But then, the more I thought about it, my previous work life was all kind of leading up to this. Being in the pub trade 14 years, I knew how to look after a group of people having fun. 6 years customer service and sales after that surely that was relevant too. Plus I had a few thousand skydives under my belt. I might actually be able to pull this off. AND they had approached ME!
I remember the moment I decided.
I tried to visualise what would happen if I turned it down. I would go back to Newcastle. My cool job. My new flat. But then, I suddenly had a image of a cold dark November morning. Waiting for the metro in the freezing rain. Looking at shoes on the train platform, and thinking, “Why the hell are you in sunny Spain getting paid to skydive?”
That was it. Decision made.
At the breakfast meeting. Monday morning. All three dz owners were there (there was no food. They forgot that bit) it was a short meeting. They just kind of said “So what you think?” I reached out my hand and said HELL YES! Let’s do it. Everyone stood up and I shook their hands. All in a bit of a daze. Not quite sure what I had committed too.
As I opened the door to leave I turned and said “Hey, we haven’t discussed money! What are you going to pay me?”
“Oh. Not a lot” said Ivan. I just grinned. I wasn’t even interested to be honest.
I walked out of the office. Into the June sunlight. I had some news for my family and work colleagues.
June 2004. I had accepted a job offer at Skydive Empuriabrava in Spain after being there on a jumping holiday.
I was now back in Newcastle. My Mother and Sisters were the first I told. I now had to resign from my job as a recruitment consultant. I was dreading this bit. We were a small team and were having the time of our lives. Working and partying right in the centre of the toon.
Monday morning. I was sat at my desk, having the usual banter with Andy and the girls.
Amanda, my boss arrived. After a few minutes I motioned to her office and asked if I could have a word.
I told her. She didn’t speak. She just started to cry. Everyone knew something was happening. Then everyone was in her office. It was a heavy moment.
There is something romantic about booking a one way ferry. Straight out of the movies. I remember being very dramatic on the phone. “Dover Calais. One way” I waited for the girl on the other end of the line to say “No! What has happened? Where are you going? Are you sure about this?”
She didn’t say that. She said ‘£92 please”
Saying goodbye to my dog was the hardest. He lived with my ex wife. Turning around and walking away from my little friend ripped into my gut. It’s hard to write about to be honest. That was not going to be the last difficult goodbye that week.
That spring and early summer I had been spending more and more time with a girl. Another skydiver. We had become close. I had fallen in love. As the week of my departure started, I was strongly aware that every moment that passed was taking me closer to the moment when I was walking out of her life. We were meeting at the weekend for a last few days of fun.
I spent a few days at my Mums house midweek (she would be backwards and forwards on Ryanair, no big goodbyes needed there) then headed to Langar airfield near Nottingham. There was a boogie on that weekend. I had a midnight ferry booked for Sunday. One last skydiving party in the UK. We had a perfect two days. Jumping and drinking. As my time to leave got closer the tension increased between us.
This was it. It was time. I held her in my arms. “No big goodbyes Tetlow” she warned.
Yep. No big goodbyes. I turned and walked to my van. It was the longest walk of my life.
The motorway south was busy. A summer storm was building. As the light started to fade, the sky got darker and heavier. So did my heart. I was thinking about her. Thinking about my dog. I felt I was being pushed down into the van seat by the weight of the sky and by what I was doing. Big globs of rain started to hit my windshield. With the blades wiping my window and hand wiping my eyes, I drove on. Into the night.
I stood in the rain on the deck of the ferry. Watching the white cliffs of Dover slowly letting me go. My mood was no better. It was late. I was tired and confused. I didn’t drive much when I got off the ferry. I found the first service area and crashed down into the bed in the back of my van.
Early morning sunlight was poking through the curtains of the van. The storm of the night before had lifted from the sky and from my heart.
I showered and made a quick breakfast of eggs and tea.
Sitting on the step of my van, finishing my brew, I looked around where I was parked. Other vans and long distance lorries were nearby. A green verge sloped up and away from the kerb. A line of thin trees at the top. I was in a new land.
A feeling started to take over me. This was it. The start of something new and unknown. I was suddenly in a hurry to get on with the day. Ahead of me was the whole of France. I was excited and ready for adventure. The sun had risen higher as I pulled away from the service station. The warmth of the morning promised it was going to be hot. I put on my shades and hit play on the iPod. ELO Mr Blue Sky rushed out if the speakers. I started to bang the wheel with my palm to the fast moving beat.
“YES!” I shouted to myself as I accelerated onto the motorway. I was heading south.
South to Spain.
I left the UK on the 13th August 2004.
Normally when traveling from one country to another most of us are zipping through the sky, six miles up, oblivious to the places we pass. This Monday morning, I was doing it another way.
My Mercedes Sprinter motorhome was cruise controlling down through the heart of France. In the morning, as I headed away from the coast, much of the traffic with me were British tourists. Family cars and 4×4 with topboxes on the roof and kids on the backseat. Freshly positioned oval GB stickers and big fold out maps all around.
Now, six hours later, most of the time I was the only vehicle in sight. The majority of those Brits were probably on beaches by now. It was as if the traffic knew I was on a journey of change and respectfully eased me away from the tourists and gradually into the French flow of cars and lorries.
The sun was high overhead. It was hot. Lucky not as hot as the year before. August 2003 had taking 15000 lives in the French countryside. It was an incredible heatwave and many old people had just not been able to cope.
I was cruising at 120km. Windows open. Warm air racing round my face. Feeling happy, excited and alive! Being on a roadtrip is pure adventure, in a motorhome, it’s just perfect.
Me and my ex plus the doggie had spent a few summers touring round France in this van. I smiled at the memory of them being there, her in the passenger seat, Hamish bolt upright on her lap, keeping watch out the window for horses or other animals he could growl at. I remembered the comedy of changing drivers at over 100kph. (There is room for that in a motorhome) “You ready?” Half standing, one hand on the wheel, “Go!” She would take the wheel and slide into the seat. I would hit recline, feet out the window and watch the sky and clouds roll by.
I have lots of happy memories of those years, the end of the marriage and break up wasn’t done in anger or temper. It was calm, over a bottle of champagne at midnight New Year’s Eve. We had eight good years, loads of adventures. We set new standards for brand new 4 way skydiving teams in the late 90’s. We had lots to be proud about. But it was just naturally over.
The image of the her and the dog faded from the passenger seat. Again I was aware of the warm air on my face and it was again just me. Me, the van, and the French countryside. I shifted my weight in the seat and concentrated on the road ahead.
Looking forward. Not backward.
The sun was getting lower in the sky. It was time to find somewhere to spend the night. I pulled off the A71 just south of Montmarault and found a small cheap campsite. After setting up the bed for the night I walked out of the site to explore a little and to find some food.
It was a rural area, a few houses and farm buildings around me. Directly ahead, up a gravel path was what looked like a bar/restaurant. Small, colourful lights were swaying in the breeze and I could hear talking and laughter washing down to me on the warm, summer evening air.
I walked in and found a table. The place was more of less full. I wondered where everyone had come from. The campsite wasn’t busy and there didn’t seem to be many houses around. Anyway, a waiter came to the table Looking very stern and sporting a comedy frown.
“Can I see the menu please?” I asked
“No” he said.
“We do not have a menu”
“Ok. What do you have?”
“Beef” he announced with an air of astonishment. As if it was the most stupid thing he had ever heard.
“I will have some then” I smiled.
He didn’t bother asking what I wanted to drink.
The food arrived. The beef was a stew. The wine was red. It was the most delicious meal I had had in years.
The waiter just kept filling my glass and by the end I was pissed. When It was time to leave I asked what I owed. His shrugged in that French way. I pulled out 20 euro and offered that in a questioning manner. He shrugged again.
I put the 20 on the table and said goodnight. He broke out into a massive smile “monsieur bonsoir!” He exclaimed.
I laughed and staggered back to the van.
As I collapsed onto the bed, I suddenly realised this time tomorrow I would be in Empuriabrava.
“Shabababadoo!” I should at the van roof and fell into a contended sleep.
I was back on the road, feeling a little hungover from the bottle of wine the night before but in a brilliant mood. I figured it was going to be about six hours to get to Empuriabrava.
How do I explain how that felt? I was about to start a whole new life! Different country. Different people. Clean slate. A line in the sand. Before. After. How many times have we dreamt of such an opportunity? How many time have we thought “I could just walk away from this. Right now. I could! Get on a flight. The door is there. I have a bit of money in the bank. I could do it RIGHT NOW. Take nothing. Just walk out. Tell no one. I really could do it.
You think it through. I could stand up. Walk out the door. Stop a cab in the street. “Airport” you would say. Walk up to the desks. “Where does the next flight go to?”
Does your heart race to consider it? It does, doesn’t it.
The fantasy starts to fade. Of course, we don’t stand up and walk out. But it’s exciting to think we COULD.
I felt like that.
That feeling of freedom. That feeling of now. That feeling of being in the moment. And there it is! Is you are not a skydiver, and have wondered what it feels like to jump out of a plane. THAT’S what it feel like. Right there. That is why we do it.l
Many countries on this planet flow from one to another. Looking from space you would not know there had been a change.
France to Spain is different.
A range of mountains stretching almost 500 km from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea. A massive natural divider between these two nations.
My van, loaded with what belonging I had decided to bring, crawled up the incline. Every now and again moving down through the gears. At the peak, the border waited.
As I slowly approached the guards, I saw in my mind how this would go.
“Where are heading?”
“To Spain! I am starting a new life! I am leaving everything behind! This is my moment. Have you any idea the heartache and confusion I have been through to get to this moment?”
All the Spanish Police would come running out of the customs cabin. Cheering and shouting welcome! Welcome! They would grab me in there arms like new family. The French would also join in. It would be just perfect.
That didn’t happen.
They just waved me through. It was a bit of an anticlimax to be honest.
I was in Spain. As I rolled down the hills I tried to see at which point is had happened. I couldn’t.
You could think back in an never ending timeline of random meetings and choices.
I decided right then that success is mostly luck and no matter what people might try to make you believe, most of us were just bumbling from one chance encounter to the next. Sometimes it paid off. Sometimes it didn’t.
4pm. I was sat in my van. Engine off. I was in the parking of Skydive Empuriabrava. It was hot. The sound of go karts accelerating and braking filled the air.
I waked into the office, asking if I could see Ivan. He would leap from his desk and laugh with excitement as he produced a bottle of champagne and shouted “welcome my friend! Welcome to your new life!”
He said “Oh hello!”
“Hello” I said. “So when do you want me to start?”
“Erm, how about Saturday morning?” He said.
“See you then!”
So. That was it. I was here. What should I do now? Well it was hot and sunny. The swimming pool was just behind the tennis courts. I was a bit stiff after all the driving. To the pool it was.
I changed into my swimmers and after taking a good look around at the sky and the canopies, I smiled, and dived right in.
I surfaced and turned my view to the sky.
Tandems were stacked up in the clear blue, waiting to land. Some of Babylon were starting their dives to the planet as the swooped their canopies.
I felt the cool water around me. I was completely unaware of what was to come. The people I would meet. The relationships that would come and go. The amazing light of fun and friendship. The horrible dark of loneliness. The twists and turns of working full time in skydiving. Completely unaware of the break into presenting that was two years away. How that would take me round the world and the incredible journey that would be.
I was, of course, unaware of it all.
All I knew, as I floated on my back in that warm, blue water, was that many people spend a life trying to figure out where they should be.
At last, I think I finally knew were I should be.
It was right here.
I was home.