What I Learned Backpacking With My 77-Year-Old Grandmother

What I Learned Backpacking With My 77-Year-Old Grandmother

“I’m not just your grandma, I’m your friend, so you can tell me – have you tried acid?”

I was a bottle of wine deep on a balcony in Lisbon with my mum and grandma, and the conversation had taken a turn. Unsure of how to answer, I turned to my mum for guidance, but before I could say anything my grandma continued, “because you know, it’s become an epidemic in Australia, all these lives ruined because of the addicts.” I rolled her sentence over in my mind. “Do you mean ice?” I asked slowly. I stared at her with my mouth open. “OF COURSE I HAVEN’T DONE ICE!” She sipped her wine and nodded at me sagely, “Well, you just never know.”

 This wasn’t the first conversation that had veered away from Appropriate Chat Highway and turned swiftly into I Need More Wine to Hear the Rest of This Town. It was day three of our Euro adventure, and I had another 12 days of traversing across Portugal and Spain with my mum and grandma. This was the first time all three of us had travelled together, and the first time either of them had done it out of a backpack and on a budget. I wanted to grab both their hands and show them my way of travelling: making plans up as you go along, befriending strangers on trains and, of course, sleeping in a variety of cheap but cheerful hostels.

I also wanted to get to know my mum and grandma and hear their stories. My grandma was married at 20 with her first baby at 21. She spent time in the Australian Ballet and now volunteers with her local fire service. My mum was hitched at 23 with her first baby at 27. She married a gentleman of the Navy, travelled the world and now plays bass guitar in her spare time. I wanted to trade experiences and travel with the two women who, along with Indiana Jones, inspired my restless spirit. However, by the end of the trip, I’d learned more than a bunch of stories about “what really went on in the ballet”.

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Firstly, I learned to slow down. My grandma may look young, but she’s pushing 80 and her youthful face made that easy to forget. Instead of rushing around cities trying to squeeze everything in, I adjusted my pace and incorporated a lot of resting. Initially, my itchy feet bemoaned this slower style, but eventually I realised that changing my speed didn’t mean seeing less; it meant seeing a different side of things. And it involved a lot of afternoon naps, which is my second favourite thing to do aside from eating chocolate while reading health magazines.

Secondly, I learned to embrace compromise. Sure, I wanted to get lost on public transport and drink at a bar where a bunch of locals were holed up, but this intimidated my grandma and she felt much more comfortable on a walking tour or at a pub were everyone spoke English. At first, this made me upset. Couldn’t she see I wanted to show her the way I travelled? But after getting over myself and realising that she was an 80-YEAR-OLD WOMAN staying in hostels and dealing with shared bathrooms (something she had NEVER done before), I realised that I could still give her an amazing experience, even if we were boxed in by selfie-sticks and American tourists.

Finally, I learned to stop giving a fuck what others think. My grandma is inspiring and brave and funny. She’s also rude, brash and not great at not touching communal food in hostel kitchens. I quickly embraced her eccentric side instead of cringing when she read out loud in silent museums or wore short shorts on a day trip. She made me realise that I could do with caring a lot less with how others are viewing me, and a lot more with enjoying myself in short shorts.

By the end of the trip I had learned more than I thought (and not just about the price of cocaine in the 70s), and I discovered that despite our different life paths, we are very similar. She can be unsure of herself around new people, gets anxious in crowds, speaks her mind and needs a lot of naps and wine. But she also has a hunger for the world that saw her walk the streets of strange cities for hours and do shots in a Spanish restaurant with a new friend at 1am. I learned that I couldn’t be happier or prouder to be descended from such kind, strong women, and I also learned that there is such a thing as too much information when it comes to hearing about your grandma’s wedding night.

Regardless, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Except maybe when she yelled “WE DON’T SPEAK SPANISH” in a lovely waiter’s ear. Yeah, I’d probably change that.

Rowan still hasn’t finished War & Peace, but she did use it to balance her dinner once. Living in London, she’s steadily working her way through the Europe’s great cities and hopes to try every wine in England before her visa expires.