Angela Wales’s memoir Barefoot in the Bindis is a rich and evocative account of her childhood growing up in the 1950s in rural New South Wales. It’s a sensational picture of a bygone Australia, and Angela credits the years her family lived on the land with her self-sufficiency and willingness to give almost anything a go to – qualities that came in handy when she found herself backpacking through Europe some years later.
When I was a little girl my father told me I could do anything I wanted in life, if I tried hard enough. This philosophy didn’t work for trying to fly or winning the lottery, but it did work for something else.
My friend Libby and I had been planning to travel to Europe since we were eleven. When we graduated from university, we got jobs (she at a publication called Retail News, I at Sydney University Library), lived at home, took our lunches to work, never bought coffees, got the bus, mended our clothes and scrimped and starved for a year and a half to put together the money for the travel fares. Libby wanted to start in Italy, but I wanted to start in Greece, because of my fascination with the ancient world. We tossed a coin. Greece won.
For years I had secretly nursed an ambition to go on an archaeological dig. But how was this to happen? Before leaving, I went to visit one of my lecturers in the university’s Archaeology Department. ‘How might I go about getting on a dig in Greece?’ I enquired.
‘Well, they’re often looking for people who can draw,’ said Dr Megaw. ‘Can you draw?’
My father was something of an artist, and I had taken some art classes at school, so, taking a chance, I said ‘Yes’.
The kind Dr Megaw wrote a letter introducing me to the secretary at the British School of Archaeology in Athens. After various adventures in Greece and a side trip to London, one freezing January day I walked up the gravel driveway of the British School and rang the bell beside the large wooden front door.
I showed the letter to a thin, grey-haired woman in the front office. ‘I can draw a bit,’ I said.
‘Oh, you can draw?’ she said in her crisp English accent. ‘Well, in that case, come back on Monday. Hugh Sackett will be in and it’s possible he may need someone. His assistant is leaving.’
What a piece of luck. The right place at the right time. Ten days later, I found myself in Hugh’s ancient grey Mercedes heading north towards Oropos, where we would take the car ferry over to Eretria on the island of Evia. We were to work in the museum in Eretria on the finds that Hugh’s team had discovered during the summer at a nearby Proto-Geometric burial site.
For the next few months, we worked in the freezing museum from Tuesdays to Fridays, dining on stewed octopus at the local taverna at night and returning to Athens for the weekends. Hugh showed me how to draw the pots. My drawing skills were up to the task, and when the spring came, he invited me to join a dig at Knossos on Crete, which he and his colleague Mervyn Popham were directing over the summer, across the road from the famous palace.
Knossos, Crete. Could any place be more legendary and more fascinating? Sweating through 40-degree days, sleeping on a camp bed and shaking out my espadrilles every morning in case of scorpions, I toiled there over two summers, not drawing but sorting, photographing, cataloguing and being a general dogsbody, pinching myself every single day. My dreams had come true.
And my father had been right.