It’s battered and bruised, needs a clean and no longer winds with ease, but the late 70s Canon SLR on our mantle is the one I hold dearest; the camera that turned a passing hobby into an overwhelming passion. An angel sold it to me; no kidding, a bona fide, 14 carat gold angel who appeared suddenly on a deserted Swedish train platform only to vanish moments later.

I can still see him 21 years on: barefoot and beautiful, if slightly bedraggled at 3am on a summer’s morn. He cut straight to the chase. “We don’t have much time,” he said, “your train is coming.” Sure enough it was. He fixed me with a meaningful stare before continuing: “Do you need a camera?”

Sure enough I did, more than he could know. But then, last night, playing with the camera again, winding and snapping my way through an old roll of film, remembering the joy of doing so overseas, I wondered whether he knew that all along…

To really understand this story, let’s rewind a week.

It was June 1992 and I was at the tail end of an exhausting, month-long inter rail trip through Europe, so shoestring I took overnight trains to avoid hostel costs. It was classic ‘surface’ tourism, where the simple accrual of passport stamps took precedence. Stupid. But I was young and determined to whiz through as many cities as I could, taking as many photos, on as little money and sleep as possible. 

It had to end badly, and it did one morning on another train platform, this time at Rome’s Termini station.

I arrived from Florence at 4am. With hostels closed and too stingy to fork out for a hotel, I lay down on a bench – but not before tucking my passport down my pants and my camera, an expensive fully automatic I’d bought in Melbourne, deep into my backpack. I’ll get some kip, I thought, wake at dawn and check in somewhere before breakfast. At least, that was the plan.

I woke sure enough, but at 8.30am, surrounded by thousands of hurried commuters. Embarrassed, and strangely groggy, I rose, wiped my eyes, straightened my clothes and lifted the backpack to my shoulders. It felt oddly light. Putting it down, I noticed the top had been cut from end to end. Missing were a pair of sneakers, a pair of RM Williams, a cassette walkman and my camera.

“My stuff has been stolen,” I wailed, little realising that few understood (and even fewer cared), or that it likely happened hours before, when the station was empty, probably with a chloroformed handkerchief and a very sharp flick knife. Fortunately, the thief/thieves hadn’t reached down my pants, where my passport – among other valuables – was still intact.

I felt a strange mix of emptiness, relief that I’d not been hurt and anger, mostly with myself for putting money ahead of logic; in saving $70 on a hotel room, I’d lost more than $1000 of goods.

For three days I wandered miserably around Rome, a feast for the eyes, just not as enjoyable without a lens. (Try as I have in the 20 years since, I feel naked in foreign cities without a camera. I wish that wasn’t so!)

Finally, once again at Roma Termini, I reached the biggest fork in my overseas path. Of myriad options, only two appealed: 1. Begin a six-month journey home via Egypt, Israel and India or 2. Head north to Lund, Sweden, where my on-again/off again girlfriend, Camilla Svensson was a student. I was in two minds, to the point where I grabbed a coin and assigned each side a destination: heads homeward, tails Sweden. I can still see it spinning around and around before landing … heads.

With that I got on the first train to Sweden. 

I couldn’t let the coin decide, not with an inner voice that suddenly cried: “Noooooo, that’s not your fate; there’s no four year Prague stay with ‘heads’, no Helena and, ultimately, no Max and Sam. Egypt is in for a pretty serious earthquake, too. You don’t know this yet, but Camilla is back with her ex. You have no future together. But you’re going to stay for a month and have a ball before returning to London. You’re going to fly to Turkey later in the year and meet a pair called Chris and Bryony, who you’ll follow to Prague. There, in a fabulous chapter of your life, you will become a journalist and fall in love with a Czech Canadian. Then, and only then, will you return home. Oh, and don’t worry about a camera, that’s been taken care of.”

Which brings me back to that Gothenburg train platform, alone, clutching a fully manual camera it will take me a day to figure out how to open. It will take weeks (and countless over exposed film rolls) to learn the three-way dance of aperture, speed and ISO. By then, that no-nonsense Canon will have become a trustworthy, much-loved companion.

In all probability it was stolen goods and my $10 went towards a few beers or, perhaps, something worse? At least it went to a good home. The other possibility, remote, but the one I like entertaining, is that ‘the universe’ knew I needed a reliable, cheap camera and provided one.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it was ‘hot’ and that guy was probably no angel, but I’m serious when I say he was there one second and gone the next. And ‘angel’ makes a better yarn than ‘thief’.Image