I had the time of my life backpacking in Sydney in the 90s. I never want my children to do anything like it

Decades ago, BM Carroll had the only dry eyes at her family farewell from Cork airport. Now her children are 18 and 20, and the shoe is on the other foot

Every backpacker sets off on their adventure with hope and excitement packed tightly alongside their clothes. And every parent waves them off with trepidation and a plea: “Come home safe.”

Travelling is a rite of passage for the young; parents know they must let them go, to grow and see how other people live. They’ll come home older, wiser and better for the experience. Won’t they?

Twenty-odd years ago I was that backpacker. The whole family came to Cork airport to see me off. My boyfriend’s family came to see him off, too. Picture this: 40 people in an Irish airport pub, downing pints of Guinness and wiping away tears. Except me. I was drinking vodka and orange, dry-eyed and gleeful. I couldn’t wait to get on that plane. I might have said “see you, suckers!” but I hope I wasn’t quite that cruel.

Our first week in Sydney wasn’t what I expected. For a start, it was raining and quite cold. You know the torrential rain that Sydney secretly specialises in? I’d given away all my winter clothes to my sisters back in Ireland, so I shivered through the week in my shorts and T-shirt.

BM Carroll and her boyfriend – now husband – in Sydney in the mid-1990s
BM Carroll and her boyfriend (now husband) in Sydney in the mid-1990s. Photograph: BM Carroll

Another immediate problem was our accommodation. We were supposed to stay with university friends in Double Bay. When we got there, the realities of sharing a two-bed apartment with 10 female backpackers registered. “We will just stay a few weeks, until we get on our feet,” we told ourselves. As the first night wore on – snoring erupting at regular intervals, a few girls crashing into the apartment at 4am – a few weeks became one week. By the following morning, we were looking for alternative housing.

In those first few months, the sun eventually came out, we got an apartment in the same block as our friends, and we had a ball.

1990s Cork versus 1990s Sydney? There wasn’t a comparison.

We partied, we worked (for double the salary, thank you very much) and we tried to see every inch of the city. Our friends were popular – 10 good-looking single Irish girls – and irrepressible.

One memorable night, they persuaded a cop to give us a lift from the Orient Hotel to Paddy’s nightclub (there is a photo of me somewhere, wearing the officer’s hat).

There were constant invitations to house parties, to pubs, to barbecues in the park – stranger danger wasn’t in our vocab. One of the girls broke her ankle sliding down the escalator at Central Station (ironically, she crashed into the sign at the bottom warning against this activity).

We navigated Kings Cross after dark, joined the throngs at Mardi Gras, sidestepped bar fights and sexual propositions. We woke many mornings not remembering what had happened the night before. It was liberating, fun, a wonderful coming of age. An introduction to the city I still call home.

And I never want my children to do anything like it. Because now the shoe is on the other foot.

BM Carroll and her boyfriend in Sydney, mid-90s
‘We partied, we worked and we tried to see every inch of the city’: BM Carroll and her boyfriend in Sydney, mid-90s Photograph: BM Carroll

My children are of an age where they want to travel. As a parent, the idea is terrifying. In fact, they recently came home from four weeks’ backpacking in Europe. I didn’t sleep for the entire month.

My son was locked out of his hostel in Vienna in the early hours of the morning. My daughter was frisked by pickpockets in Naples. His first night in Rome, a friend of theirs had a knife pulled on him. They got lost in Venice (Google maps couldn’t cope with the tiny streets), spent three sleepless nights in Salzburg (while a roommate raised the roof with his snores), and made friends with strangers every single day.

On a practical level, they had to wash their own clothes, plan meals, organise travel, resolve disputes and keep their passports, phones and money safe.

In the meantime, I worried and worried. As an author, it’s my job to conjure up worst-case scenarios. As a parent, I am the victim of my own imagination. I remembered my own close scrapes, and worried some more.

At 20 and 18 years old, my children came of age during the pandemic. For two years, they were cooped in their bedrooms, tethered to virtual worlds just as they should have been spreading their wings and learning street smarts in the real one.

Now that they are home safe, I can acknowledge that their trip – just like mine – was liberating, fun and a wonderful coming of age. They learned the lessons we all should, embarking into adulthood. How to be curious and open to new experiences, while at the same time not being stupid or gullible. How to be aware of your surroundings; when to make yourself invisible. All of this was a huge learning curve.

But they did it: they survived four weeks in Europe on their own. They are home safe. I can stop worrying – until next time.

BM Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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