The Third Decade – My Twenties


February 26, 2013 by talkaboutyork

Before I start diving into my twenties – a period that is naturally less about family and more about independence – I’d like to say that although the last three blog posts may paint a less than rosy picture about my childhood and teens, I in no way point any fingers of blame at my parents and I apologise if bringing up any old memories has been upsetting to them. They have always been unfailingly supportive.

I would hate to have to go through what they went through and it’s only now as an adult that I can appreciate the challenges they as parents must have faced. I’d like to thank my mother, father and stepfather for everything they did for us as we grew up. I hope I can pass on to my children some of the lessons and values that you gave to us.


After completing my three year Public Relations diploma, and having saved as much money as I possibly could, I decided to go travelling. I was almost 21 and had never left South Africa, largely because it was very difficult to go anywhere under apartheid rule, and because it cost a fortune. It’s strange. When you grow up in a country, you don’t appreciate its beauty until you leave it. I took all the natural wonders of South Africa completely for granted. In fact I remember thinking that the scrubby bush was ugly and longed for somewhere with green, rolling hills or heathery dales that I’d read so much about in Enid Blyton books.

I applied to become an au pair and remarkably quickly got offered a job working for a family in The Netherlands. I’ll never forget the call I received from the family, inviting me to live with them but saying that I’d need to get there in a few weeks as they needed me to go skiing with them. If it was humanly possibly to jump out of your own skin from excitement, I would have done it. Skiing! Snow! I’d never seen it before. It would mean that I’d spend my 21st birthday on the ski slopes.

Leaving Jan Smuts Airport (as it was then known)

Leaving Jan Smuts Airport (as it was then known)

With much excitement and terror, I set off. This was the first time I’d ever been abroad, much less entirely on my own, arriving in a strange country, having to catch a bus from Luxembourg to Holland, to meet a bunch of strangers and live in their house. I felt a bit sick. I’ll never forget that bus trip – the sun never came up. It was grey all day. I could not get my head around that. Where I came from, the sun came up, it may be a bit cloudy but the sun was always there in the sky, and then at night it went down. In Northern Europe in mid-winter, it never seemed to really be day time. That was my first lesson in culture shock.

I could write about ten blog posts about being an au pair. Suffice to say that it was a short lived occupation. The children I looked after were (I believe) possessed by devils. The mother was a borderline alcoholic. The father seemed to live in a state of denial. Yes, I got to go skiing. Yes, I learnt how to cook properly (the mother was French and insisted I cook things like very rare duck breasts and lobster bisque.) Yes, I learned how to ride a bicycle drunk. Yes, I learnt that taking your own wine into a bar will result in you getting thrown out. Yes, I learned not to say you’re leaving a job until you have been paid. All valuable life lessons. But it was time to go.

I made my way from Holland to the UK (stopping to wash diggers and cranes in Rotterdam Harbour en route, to make some money). I joined my boyfriend in London who had moved there about the same time I’d gone to Holland. I will never, ever forget seeing the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square for the first time. Here were things I’d seen in pictures my entire life. The wonder of it all. I’m sad that my own children will never experience that same sense of wonder thanks to them travelling the world visiting far flung family from a young age. For them a new place is just a new place. For me it was life changing.


I spent most of the year working odd jobs – temp receptionists, a hotel receptionist, waitressing, being a stand in chef at an old age home (don’t ask…). I did a Contiki trip with a friend from school, travelling all around Europe and finally it was time to go home. We didn’t do it the easy way. We flew to Kenya and travelled back to South Africa on the back of a truck, staying in tents and getting dysentry on the way. But it was an amazing experience and for the first time in my life, I saw how South Africa fit into the rest of Africa and just how stunningly beautiful the entire continent is.


Then it was time to become a grown up. Sigh. Guess everyone has to at some point.

My first home of my own - tiny garden flat with my brand new car

My first home of my own – tiny garden flat with my brand new car

I got my first proper job, working at a small PR company. I got my own place to live in Johannesburg – someone’s converted garage that had one small bedroom, one tiny sitting room/kitchen and one very, very tiny bathroom. I loved it. It was like playing ‘house house’ but for real.

During my student years, my stepfather had very kindly given me his old car to use. (Not only that, he taught me how to change a tyre and check the oil and taught me what a dodgy fanbelt sounds like – I can still impress my kids with miscellaneous mechanical facts.) It was a banged up old Opel Kadett, which had done about a million miles. It had safely got me around for three years, but it had finally reached the end of its life. My stepfather very generously allowed me to use the Kadett as a deposit for a new car. I’ve never forgotten that kindness – I would have battled without it.

So I had a home, a job, wheels and a boyfriend. And then my boyfriend left. He’d done that twice before. Once when I was a student. I remember calling my mom in tears saying how he’d broken up with me and how heartbroken I was. She and my stepfather drove an hour to come get me, only to discover that we’d got back together in the intervening time…..Then he’d left to go to Europe before me, without too much of a promise as to whether we’d meet up or not.

I should have read the signs really, but I was in love. He decided to move abroad. Without me. I was heartbroken. Deeply. Maybe it was because my life had been swimming along merrily for several years without any real catastrophe or any need to tap into my emotions bank. But it crushed me. I felt as though I’d spent all of my tears in my teens. Now it was like prodding an emotional bruise.

Doing what 20-somethings do...

Doing what 20-somethings do…

So I spent the next four years doing what I believe every young person needs to do: career, alcohol, inappropriate relationships. Which is funny, because it was a combination of those three that resulted in me meeting my future husband….

In a notebook from this period, I found a list of new year resolutions for 1996:

to put my sentimental dreams into action; to plan my future; to be positive; to make a decision on what I want to do so that I can concentrate on the present instead of missing the past and dreaming of the future.

I think we can assume that these were my ‘lost’ years. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or be.


About two days into studying public relations, I knew it wasn’t the right job for me but I didn’t want to be a quitter, so I stuck with it. During my first proper job it became abundantly obvious that I didn’t enjoy PR, so I studied Small Business Management, with the dream of running my own business (no idea what). After that I spent three more years studying Marketing Management. At the end of it all, I had three shiny diplomas and wasn’t a jot closer to figuring out what I wanted to do.

There came a cross roads – do I become an air hostess (yes, seriously) or do I take a job at a global PR firm? The airline I applied to turned me down. So I took the PR job. Just like that, life paths are forged. Had the airline accepted me, I’d never had met my husband.

Being a PR luvvy with one of the national music radio station DJs

Being a PR luvvy with one of the national music radio station DJs

So I joined a global PR company and for a year lived the career jet set life, travelling all over the world (being served by air hostesses) and loving it. One year in, a new general manager arrived at the office from England. Within six weeks, we were living together. It was a bit unorthodox and probably not the done thing to do, but we did it anyway.

We were reaching the end of the 90s. A new millennium awaited. I found a letter I wrote to myself on 31 December 1999. It’s long. And fascinating including what was happening in the world at that time (for example, my future husband and I were both on standby for the Y2K meltdown that was meant to be happening that evening). But there are three key bits I want to pull out of it:

‘I’d change jobs except I don’t know what to do – I’d like to be an author and write novels or start my own company, but doing, what I don’t know.’ I could have written that yesterday! Some things never change.

‘I guess I’ve always been introspective, an escapist and idealist, but this last year my confidence seems to have nose-dived. I find myself at 26 not really liking myself, wishing that I could be happier, healthier and more loving.’ It’s funny how we learn to love others quite easily while learning to love yourself is so much harder.

‘So entering the new millennium, I have a lot to be grateful for. My wish going forward is that by the time I die, my life will have been full and that I’ll have few regrets.’ This still holds true.

Off to USA

Off to USA

The world didn’t end at midnight. And nine months later we were living in Boston, USA. We got engaged while living there and then moved to New York City exactly one week after the September 11th disaster.


Our time living in the US was a grand adventure. We got married, we travelled, we lived the kind of lives you see in the movies. Our careers were climbing. We had an enormous amount of fun. We just had to make one big decision. Do we stay in the US or move to the UK?

Given my blog is called Talk about York rather than Talk about New York, I think you know the answer to that. We moved just before I turned 30, the start of my fourth decade. Life would be about to change all over again.


So how did this busy decade make me what I am today?

This decade was all about discovery: of the world, of myself and of life as an adult. It was an entirely selfish decade dedicated to developing me. I spent most of it a little lost but having a ball regardless.

It made me realise that I was braver and more more adventurous than I thought.

It gave me a wealth of experiences and broadened my horizons and further boosted my independence.

It made me want to succeed.

It made me want to be happy.


4 thoughts on “The Third Decade – My Twenties

  1. Sounds like a lot of fun, your 20s. You are a really good writer, Melissa – writing a book should still be up there on your list.

  2. judithkingston says:

    On behalf of Dutch people everywhere I apologise for your crappy experience in our country. That sounds absolutely hellish. It is such a terrifying thing to do, moving half way across the world to start an adult life, and to have your dreams crushed by such horrible people, well, that just sucks.

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