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My Travelling Life

The magic is in leaving your comfort zone: actress Natasha Sutherland

'Shirley Valentine' star Sutherland can relate to her famous stage character, with her own tales of how transformative travel can be — solo and with her kids

21 June 2022 - 09:00 By Elizabeth Sleith
Actress Natasha Sutherland is starring in the one-woman play 'Shirley Valentine'.
Actress Natasha Sutherland is starring in the one-woman play 'Shirley Valentine'.
Image: Supplied

Actress Natasha Sutherland is back on stage in Joburg for a second run of Shirley Valentine, UK playwright Willy Russell's classic about a middle-aged, working-class Liverpudlian housewife whose whole life changes when she takes a solo holiday to Greece. Here, Sutherland tells us about the play, her own solo adventures, and why she thinks travel is more important for her kids than living in a big house. 

Shirley Valentine is about the transformative power of travel and Shirley’s experience is what real transformation looks like. We so often believe that a new place and new horizon will make all the bad stuff disappear. Actually, it's the act of leaving our comfort zone and exposing ourselves to different things that open a portal within ourselves to transform. It's not about the destination, it's about switching off our autopilot to realign with our internal selves.

Shirley Valentine dreams of sitting beside the ocean in Greece.
Shirley Valentine dreams of sitting beside the ocean in Greece.
Image: 123rf.com/dorianm

Shirley has this postcard-pretty goal of sitting by the edge of the sea looking at the sunset and drinking wine “in the country where the grape is grown”. She believes that when she achieves this moment she will finally feel ease. But when she does, it wakes her up to a much bigger transformation because it makes her feel small. As she says: “My life had been a crime actually, against God and nature, because I hadn’t lived it fully. I’d allowed meself to live such a little life when inside me there was so much.” Shirley’s travels to Greece allow her to “rewild” herself so she starts feeling truly alive. Again.

I once took a solo holiday to Mauritius. It may not sound very adventurous but I was a single mom and the idea of leaving my kids with their dad and doing something for myself was quite anxiety-inducing. Still, “filling the well” makes me a better mom/person/friend ... At first it wasn’t an Eat Pray Love experience at all. I'd stupidly booked at this big family hotel and Shirley Valentine is right when she says, “When you’re a woman alone, people don’t half look at ya.”

The first few days I felt very “stuck”. One day I walked out of the hotel with no idea where I was going. I just followed my feet and walked and walked. I passed homes and took photos of things I found interesting — rusty signs, crumbling temples. I bought a little pastry and ate it sitting on an empty cove looking at the shades of blue in the bay. On my way back to the hotel, my sandal broke so I chucked my shoes and walked barefoot. It was the best experience!

New Years Eve, London.
New Years Eve, London.
Image: 123rf.com/melis

My sons and I talk about our travel experiences all the time. Travel experiences are one of the biggest gifts I can give them. I love it when we sit down at meals and they remember the time they went to Outdshoorn; the size of the milkshakes in that place in Long Street; New Year's Eve in London when Seb had too much beer and sort of ‘slid’ down the stairs; bungee jumping off Moses Mabhida Stadium;, an al fresco dinner in Tuscany and all the kids singing Sia on the tour bus back to the hotel; Benjamin having his picture taken with every dog  he passed as we went through Italy; and and and ...

What I remember most about childhood holidays is the first beach trip of the holidays, when we landlocked Joburgers arrived at the sea — the bliss, the excitement, the abandon. My sisters and I would just drop buckets and spades and towels and squeal towards the sea.

When I was in my early 20s, my friend Debbie and I went to the US, hired a car and travelled through the South from New Orleans to Memphis. It happened to coincide with Elvis Week, a big festival at Graceland every year where people come to honour Elvis Presley.

On the road trip we did the whole shebang from dodge motels to quaint little houses off the beaten track. The trees in the South feel ancient — like they hold so many tales — and the experience in Memphis with the Elvis fans was magic. I hope for more out-of-the-box stuff like that.

A streetcar in New Orleans, US.
A streetcar in New Orleans, US.
Image: f11photo / 123rf.com

In New Orleans my friend Debbie and I asked the concierge in our hotel to orientate us on the street map. He showed us which streets were fun, which were too touristy, which were party streets, and — in a totally matter-of-fact way — which streets we should avoid if we didn’t want to run into any ghosts.

Once leaving the UK, I packed some things in my carry-on luggage that I'd forgotten were against regulations: Christmas baubles filled with Champagne I'd bought for a friend in SA. Security, understandably, said I'd have to dump them. My companions and I didn't want it all to go to waste so we ended up chugging the Champagne out of the baubles at 5.30am at a chilly UK airport.

Fynbos on Table Mountain, Cape Town.
Fynbos on Table Mountain, Cape Town.
Image: 123rf.com/wilddrago

The Cape has always been gobsmackingly beautiful to me. I think God was in a good mood when creating Cape Town — sea there, mountain there, fynbos everywhere else — but I am not that familiar with Cape Town, and the extremely hip people there intimidate the bejingles out of me.

I have been in Jozi for a long time now and am starting to appreciate its vibe. There's nothing like a Jozi thunderstorm, and the city has pockets of wow everywhere. 

I just love London and Paris. I feel alive there. I could walk and walk and walk. Rome was interesting too (once you get past the touristy masses). It’s a city built on layers and layers of itself, like a story on top of a story on top of a story.

In Italy, I'd booked us on a tour with other families so my kids could interact with kids from different parts of the world. But because of the rand exchange rate we couldn’t do all the things the other families could afford to do. When we went to Venice, they all went off to the tourist spots to buy masks and things like that.

A floating market in Venice, Italy.
A floating market in Venice, Italy.
Image: 123rf.com/Cebas

I gave the map of Venice (which is like a minotaur maze) to my eldest son, Sebastian, and said we could go wherever he wanted. So we just wandered and ended up far away from the tourist vibe. We saw some people running after a boat in a canal that had loosened off a mooring. We went to a little square where local kids were playing soccer. We found a local produce market and saw fruit and vegetables we’d never seen before. It's a beautiful, beautiful memory. Much better to bring that memory home than a mask bought off St Mark's Square.

• 'Shirley Valentine' is at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre from June 22-July 3. Tickets can be booked here.

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