WARNING: This article contains drug use.
I’m always embarrassed to admit that I worked in a pub in London.
I’m not above clearing pint glasses off sticky tables or mopping up people’s sick on Saturday nights, but the cliché of an Australian barmaid with a Facebook profile that looks like a fairytale adventure is about as ‘worldly’ as a gap year student getting wasted on a Contiki tour - in reality the only fairy dust around was going up my nose as I partied with my other Australasian housemates.
I boarded at The Turks Head pub for nearly a year, before staying on four more years as an unsuspecting immigrant with a British boyfriend and a place at a UK university.
The Turks Head was a beautiful stand-alone pub in the suburbs of London. I’d spend my days sleeping until noon and my nights behind the taps, pouring beers for the balding clientele, trying to guess the answers to the high-brow Tuesday-night trivia questions or singing along to Wonderwall covers on weekends.
The upstairs living quarters, however, was far less routine. All six bedrooms looked like Lindsay Lohan had personally designed the décor: random clothes, empty pizza boxes and countless alcohol bottles took up functional spaces like table tops or the shower. Any skerrick of feng shui that hadn’t been destroyed by novelty merchandise, like an oversized green St Patrick’s Day hat or foam ‘number 1’ hand, had some form of grime on it, and the Aussie flag used as a curtain was an enormous reminder that I wasn’t in the suburbs of Canberra anymore.
This was home to me and my fellow ‘tumbleweeds’, who had left Australia or New Zealand to get over a break-up, save money to backpack around Europe, find solace after being ousted by parents or, like me, took the working-holiday rite of passage after Year 12.
The only experience I had working within a group of ‘misfits’ was at school where strangers came together for the collective goal of learning. The staff at the pub collectively wanted to survive London even though we were worlds apart, from different cities, countries, different ages and backgrounds. It was a challenging group assignment.
Like school, there was a group of us who rocked-up and started on the same day and had our period of working together, forming friendships, making memories and using the time to figure out what we wanted to ‘do with our lives’.
After spending the evenings sipping mixers after midnight with the other teens and having a brief affair with the ‘big man on campus’, I was lured by the bad crowd and made friends with the staff troublemaker. He introduced me to party drugs, Babyshambles, Kings of Leon and my first proper mosh pit at a rock concert, which tested my claustrophobia and gave me some quality Myspace photos.
I remember we got stuck that night in North London. After the gig, my partner in crime was totally wasted, became aggressive and spat on the bus driver’s windshield. We both had UK hospitality wages and not enough money to get a cab, and eventually we stormed off on our separate ways after a huge argument of whose fault it was as to why we couldn’t get back home to the pub.
The trouble maker spent the night in jail after assaulting a police officer around 2am. Consequently, he missed his early morning shift, while I was interrogated by the owner and almost got fired.
During my gap year, I had zero idea of self-sufficiency. My background was in school work and living with my parents.
During my gap year, I had zero idea of self-sufficiency. My background was in school work and living with my parents. This is probably why I, and so many young people like me, travel miles only to live in a community that still has rules, routine and regulation in return for guardianship and friends. It's probably why I was so shit-scared of being sacked. At 18, it felt natural to gravitate to a familiar structure; a system where I could collectively share a time frame with another group of people. I wanted adventure and a place to spend time beyond the food court in the mall, and although I lacked the rich cultural experience of Britain while boarding in a pub that had a yellow ‘Kangaroos 5KM sign’ taped on my wall, I’m grateful for an institution that acted like Year 13 as I transitioned to adulthood.
Fortunately, due to being understaffed and willing to work for 4 pounds an hour, I was able to keep my springy bed upstairs and continue serving drinks to old men. My friend surprisingly stayed on, but got the sack a couple of months later after he threatened to punch another colleague in the face. Although I’m shy to admit that I spent my time in London working at a pub like every other young Aussie, I’m glad I had someone to call and collect me when I had no money on my Oyster card after a rock concert.
Author, Abigail Ulman bought a backpack and a one-way plane ticket abroad to find inspiration for her work as a writer. She found accommodation lodging in a Parisian bookstore and lived with other backpackers. She says, "The bookshop had a quite a few beds - in the Russian History section, the Children's section, the Philosophy section. During the day they were covered with books for sale and at night they became sleeping spots for the people staying there - the 'tumbleweeds' as we were known" in Episode 5, Season 2 True Stories | SBS Podcast