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Pura Vida!

It’s almost six years to the day that I first embarked on one of my solo holidays. I deliberately chose somewhere far away (Thailand) so I wouldn’t be able to chicken out and fly home ahead of time. I found the first few days really challenging (read about that here) but once I found my groove I couldn’t wait to go back again. And I did, a few months later.

Since then I’ve found a couple of places I love – Bodrum in Turkey and Dahab in Egypt – and visited them over and over again because I feel so comfortable there. This year, though, I felt like trying somewhere new, not least because I can’t currently fly to Dahab (flights aren’t currently going to Sharm-el-Sheikh from the UK) and Bodrum has been at the centre of the refugee crisis in the last year or so. I didn’t feel right to go there for pleasure.

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Red-eyed Tree Frog seen at Finca Verde Lodge

Costa Rica has recently loomed onto the UK holiday horizon, partly because of the reintroduction of direct flights there from tour operators like Thomson (they started last November). I’d seen a friend’s holiday pictures over Christmas and thought it looked like the perfect destination for me – beautiful beaches, lush forests, interesting flora and fauna. I booked it before I could think about it too much.

My destination was Tamarindo, a surf town in the north west on the Pacific coast. At this time of year, the rainy season, the Pacific side is the driest, and July gives a short respite in the rains, that the locals call ‘Little Summer’. It rains a bit, but not nearly as much as it does between May and November in other months. What the rainy season does give you is a daily spectacular sunset, and Tamarindo is famous for it. Nary a day goes by without one lighting the curious cloud formations in a unique, glorious way.

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One of the many glorious sunsets viewed from the Esplendor hotel…

Towards the end of my holiday I decided to take a ‘sunset cruise’ that hilariously turned into a ‘storm cruise’ with a dash back to the shore and being told to run for it across the beach because someone had been killed by lightning the week before. During my two-week trip, the lightning strike happened, plus a guy got his leg chewed off by a croc in Tamarindo estuary (he was walking where he shouldn’t) and a volcano erupted. Costa Rica is certainly ‘lively’ when it comes to natural-world news.

Tamarindo is happily also famous for its party atmosphere. One of the things I need when I’m away on my own is access to lively nightlife. I’ve found I can lose myself in local bars and clubs, whereas it’s more difficult in a quiet restaurant. I need lots of people around at night, and Tamarindo (or Tamagringo, as the locals refer to it) doesn’t disappoint. As the guides suggest, it has something of a ‘spring break’ feel about it, with a range of bars catering to the American surf crowd.

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Surfer on wave watch at Playa Langosta, Tamarindo

I preferred the local ‘Tico’ places – like Pacifico, where you can’t stand still for five seconds without someone whizzing you round the dance floor to the latest salsa hit. And then there’s the Crazy Monkey Bar, where everyone heads on a Friday night, split between a Gringo and a Tico dancefloor. Guess which one I headed to? Yep – Tico every time. Much more fun, and more relaxed. Beware the free shots given to ladies though – Guaro chilli shots are pretty lethal.

I’ve realised that what I really like is a hotel base, near to a lively town, but just out of the way enough to get away. The Esplendor Tamarindo is perched on the hill above the town and has spectacular views of the sunset from a swim-up bar. Howler monkeys fight for territory in the trees around the infinity pool and the tree-lined hills behind the hotel are filled with birdsong all day. Every room faces the ocean so it’s a place where no one feels disgruntled with their room choice.

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View from my hotel balcony over Tamarindo

(I wondered why the staff were a little bit grumpy in the hotel, when everyone tells you how friendly the Ticos are. It turned out, according to a tour guide, that it’s Argentinian-owned. That seems to be the byword for bad service in Costa Rica.)

The hotel/town situation reminded me very much of my first solo experience in Thailand. There, I was staying in an extremely romantic hotel, upgraded to a seaview, but I had access to a nearby party town that was only two minutes away. I could leave behind the romantic couples looking at the sunset and head into town for fun.

I laughed when I realised the similarity, but not so much when I realised how daunting it is going to a completely new continent so far away, on your own. I’d forgotten, in the years of repeat visits to Bodrum and Dahab, that it’s fairly stressful not knowing how things work. I quickly realised what was going to happen – it would take me several days, or even a week, to get into the swing of things, and then I’d want to book a repeat visit so I could go back and do it properly.

And that is exactly what did happen.

Luckily for me, I had a bit of a false start to the holiday, meeting a guy on his own in the hotel. He had found out lots of local information via an American guy who had retired there, and it gave me an instant solo-holiday boost. He was also great to hang out with, and we ended up touring the local bars one night, in what appeared to be a live Bacardi advert. We packed it all in – karaoke, salsa, house music – it was one of those nights. When he left a few days later I came crashing down with the realisation that I was on my own and I’d have to make my own fun. I really did wallow for a bit and it brought back those first wretched days in Thailand. But I did what I did back then, and booked some trips to shake off the gloom.

And then I met Nolberto the tour guide. My first trip was a guided group hike to Rincon De La Vieja – one of the four active volcanoes. Nolberto, like many of the Tico guides I came across, was well drilled in the history, culture and politics of his country. There is no army, he told us proudly. The money is spent instead on health and education, and education is compulsory for 7-12 year olds. He told us that the first mile or so of the hiking track into the forest is paved so that people in wheelchairs could enjoy the experience.

I realised why people want to live in Costa so much. Everything is focused on a better quality of life – ‘pura vida’ – the pure life statement that punctuates pretty much everything a Tico says.

During a post-hike visit to some hot springs, an American woman asked me what I thought about Brexit. They all did, every time I met one. And all but one was hugely sympathetic to the 48% Remain voters and worried about the threat posed to the US by Donald Trump. Hillary just HAS to get in, said one. I said it might be a good idea to prepare for the worst, just in case. So many of us in the UK had been caught out by complacency and it would be wise to go there in your head before it happened.

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The hot springs near Rincon De La Vieja

Mostly I get scowled at by women in couples on these sorts of holidays. They appear to think I pose some sort of threat, and their partners pick up on it and are invariably too scared to talk to me. A few times I got approached by women who were genuinely interested in what I was doing on my solo holiday and were comfortable enough in their marriages to include me in their family group. I really appreciated it. Thanks, ladies.

I’ve found, especially now I’m older, that I also get ignored by staff in restaurants and beach clubs. I’m told it’s because they can get more money out of couples and groups, but it felt as though it was the ‘cloak of invisibility’ that descends upon women after the age of 46. Seeing a waiter who had previously ignored me, running after a group of young surf girls at Lola’s, kind of confirmed that for me. Mind you, that was during my low point, so I was probably more sensitive than normal. Lola’s is a fantastic restaurant on the glorious Playa Avellanas – highly recommended. Especially the free Imperial Beer you get when you tell the waiter off…

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The view of Playa Avellanas from Lola’s Restaurant

Anyway, back to Nolberto. He’d given me his card on the trip and as he’s freelance, I thought I’d book him to go on my next trip to Monteverde. (Book him by email here: Eltwintours@hotmail.com). I’d tried booking a group trip in town, but they seemed to run only when they could amass enough people and I didn’t want to wait and miss out. On the spectacular drive there (it’s a cloud forest in the mountains), Nolberto had a habit of shouting, “Vámonos!” every time he overtook a slow vehicle (which was a lot). I started shouting it as well, and it made us laugh so much. He was great fun.

I realised how great it was to have a private guide on that day. It happened to be Guanacaste Day – the day that people in the north-western region I was in celebrate their annexation from Nicaragua. And boy, do they celebrate it. On the way back from Monteverde we stopped at Bar Y La Griega near Santa Cruz and they had a cimarrona band playing. It was a group of high-school boys standing outside the bar in the dark playing a frenzied mariachi-style music (which is usually accompanied by dancing puppets). One of things I’d never have witnessed if I’d been on a group tour.

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Holding a young sloth at Finca Verde Lodge

Nolberto also tracked down sloths for me – I couldn’t visit the country and not see at least one. We travelled back to the volcano region to Finca Verde Lodge in Bijagua, which turned out to be a little gem of a place with hardly any visitors. We saw three small slots nestled high up in the cecropia trees they love so much and were told that they only come down about twice a week for toilet purposes.

Amazingly, one popped down while I was having my lunch and Nolberto passed it over to me to hold. It is simply one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It felt like a hairy baby, this 8-month-old three-toed sloth, that naturally curls its arms around you for a cuddle. He was stoned, of course, from the cecropia leaves, but his smile came from being a three-toed sloth. They all have them. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them.

 

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Norberto holding the 8-month-old three-toed sloth

Nolberto also encouraged me to zipline whilst at Selvatura Park in Monteverde. I was really scared but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. It comprises 12 ‘flights’ across 18 platforms and once I’d (literally) got into the swing of it, I was dying to do it again. I had to be ‘accompanied’ across a few flights by random guys – you had to do some of them in pairs. Thanks to the three guys who gallantly placed their legs around my waist without even knowing my name.

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As with Thailand, I’m now feeling an overwhelming urge to return to CR. I wish I’d spent way more time in the mountains and done a lot more hiking. I wish I’d spent more time partying in the evenings and not so much going to bed early. I wish I’d spent more time with the locals. I wish I’d gone one step further on my first attempt at snorkelling in the sea but panicking in a life vest was as far as I got, and that was a lifetime achievement (I can’t swim).

I suppose it’s like that old adage about leaving the dinner table still wanting more.

I’ll be back, Costa Rica, I’ll be back…

 

 

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A Tale of Two Countries

I usually studiously avoid political commentary (outside feminism) on this blog, but like many, I am moved to write about what I’m thinking in a post-EU-referendum world.

From my privileged London position, I’m thinking ‘let’s stop victim-blaming those that voted against my wishes and start blaming those who caused it.’ I can rail all I like against Welsh people who, in my opinion, scored a huge own goal against their own future by voting Leave, but there are reasons why they did so and they all point back towards Westminster and those who control the tabloid media.

Outside Scotland and Northern Ireland, the pattern of Remain voting was so starkly based in the UK cities, with Leeds, York, Liverpool, Cardiff and Manchester all voting IN with London, against the wishes of a majority vote in the rest of the country. There couldn’t be more of a statement about privilege versus need, about those who have, and those who have not, and we have to listen to that.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I grew up in North Wales and in the ’80s, things were grim. Mass unemployment, people living hand-to-mouth, no money for life’s extras. I experienced an epiphany in 1989 and knew I had to move out and live my life elsewhere. I moved to London to go to uni at twenty-two and although at the time it was like ripping a limb off, I knew it had been the right decision for me. I am now relatively well-off.

I wonder back then how I would’ve voted in the EU Referendum. We were a Sun-reading household so the message would have firmly been OUT. Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech had been mentioned in my family home during the seventies so I knew what the score was in my Conservative-voting family, even though they’d enjoyed the privilege of living in an East African British colony for ten years. Oh the irony.

I remember, when I was a senior ballet student and teacher in North Wales during my late teens and having members of the only black family in the area attending classes. I remember someone shouting the ‘N’ word through our changing-room window and the friend they were targeting looking humiliated and ashamed, and how much shame I felt at what had happened. I didn’t agree with it, but it was all around me, latent. And I didn’t say anything. (I remember seeing a glimpse of my friend’s art sketch book one evening – it was full of pictures of black activists like Malcolm X.)

It’s completely wrong to think these views and incidents only exist outside cities and they’re only happening now – they’re everywhere, they always have been, and now they’re being validated by the campaigns waged by pro-Brexit campaigners, that focused on demonising immigrants, and more specifically, Muslim immigrants. Time and time again we hear about Leave voters telling us they’re ok with European immigrants (ok, except maybe Polish people) – they only voted to keep Turkish or Iraqi people out. Let’s just say what they actually meant – Muslim people.

Many of the Leave voters I know have spouses or partners that are immigrants, yet they seem painfully unaware of the irony of their vote. The important point is that they are ‘Christian’ immigrants, the ‘right’ sort of immigrants. What they really mean is they want to keep Muslims out.

Islamophobia is a fear that is sweeping the world and leading to a rise in fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. In an historic moment that feels like 1930s Europe on the brink of Naziism, we’ve got hate figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen congratulating us on ‘getting our country back’. ISIS are delighted that Europe is fracturing.

It makes me sick. Physically sick.

I have a handful of friends who are Brexiteers who are able to tell me why they voted, and there is no trace of racism in their answers. I want to understand their reasoning, and I think there are very valid points being raised about a non-Brussels administration that I need to know more about, and that I wish we’d all known more about.

It’s very clear that both sides in the referendum are only now finding out what the real outcomes are of Brexit. The Leave campaign are already admitting that the central elements of their argument are on shaky ground, mainly that the NHS won’t receive £350 million and that immigration won’t be reduced. Wales and Cornwall are surprised to find that their former EU subsidies might not be supported by a Leave administration.

I feel that we’ve all been royally shafted by a load of public schoolboys in Westminster, fighting for supremacy. There has been no clarity around the realities of what we’re facing and both sides have led campaigns that have fed on people’s fears of the unknown. It’s an act of such astonishing irresponsibility that it puts the banking crisis into the shade.

I still can’t quite believe that Cameron gambled an entire country’s future in a game of political Russian Roulette with his own party and the Brexiteers. Clearly not one of them expected Leave to win. That they have left the country with no clear leadership back-up plan in the last forty-eight hours is breathtaking.

Let’s not forget who created the ‘austerity Britain’ that the protest voters came out in force against. It wasn’t the Polish immigrant living next door to us or the Muslim we work alongside (or fear turning up on our doorsteps). It was this government, with its focus on privatisation. As I say, I’m going to stop blaming Brexit voters for this crisis and start pointing the finger at those who are truly in the wrong.

At times like this, I find it’s useful to remember that people are only human, with sets of hopes and fears that sometimes dovetail, sometimes they don’t. I spoke to a woman around my age who runs a local cafe about it all, on the devastating Day After. She brightly said that it was the first time she’d voted and that she’d watched some of the debates and felt she had to vote for her children’s sake. Vote out, that is.

I have to live with the fact that hers, and other people’s opinions are different to mine (whilst wondering how the hell a middle-aged woman has never got round to voting because she didn’t know how…). I am going to try and continue to live my life as I was living it before – trying to be as open-minded and inclusive as possible, campaigning against Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing fascism.

If anything, this crisis has galvanised me into wanting to be my best self and to look harder for the humanity in others. If people voted Leave and didn’t realise it would actually happen, then I have to realise that these are people who are used to their voices not being heard. And now my voice is one of them and I don’t like it.

Whatever happens with Article 50s, petitions, general elections, or further referenda, I’m going to be engaged with politics like never before.

I think we’ll survive this, but we won’t be the same again.

Good luck, Britain.

 

 

 

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Venice, Vidi, Vici

Last weekend I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – go back to Venice. It was twenty-five years ago that I was first bewitched by the place, swearing I’d only go back for a romantic break with someone ‘special’. That person didn’t rock up, so goddammit, I went there by myself. I booked a cool, boutique hotel, planned my four days out using Lonely Planet, and re-entered the fantasy world of the city.

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The gold sofa in the reception at AD Place Hotel

What I’d forgotten is that it’s like entering a restaurant on a perma-Valentine’s Night. The place is festooned with love and lovers, now taking ‘kelfies’ – my made-up word for kissing selfies. In front of every building, work of art or bario serving spritz … there they were. I didn’t really notice it last time I was there – I was too entranced with the place. Also, I was young enough to think I’d have my time there to do that. Lol.

So really, what I was doing was the Iron Woman Challenge of all solo holidays. Going to the most romantic place in the world as a middle-aged woman on her own. “I can totally do this!” I thought. And I did. Kind of.

I managed to dodge the rose-thrusting touts around St Mark’s square, and chuckled when I heard an American woman behind me cry, “Do I LOOK like I’m with anyone??” That’s the thing when you’re a female solo traveller. You suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by them. We’re quite well-camouflaged, actually. No one suspects the woman blending into the surroundings looking like she’s just waiting for someone, but we see each other very clearly, emerging from the scene. And there are more and more of us every year, it seems.

Even at the airport I’d gone to the champagne bar and made eye-contact with at least three other women doing the same thing as me: treating ourselves to a lovely glass before jetting off, because we could. I spoke to one of them and she was going to Berlin, but not before sneezing all over me and giving me a cold three days later. Thanks, love.

Anyway, on my first night I was full of the joy of being alone and free in the most beautiful city in the world. I’d planned a walk around San Marco, which would culminate in a spritz at a bar I’d been recommended. Of course, Venice being Venice, I couldn’t find it so I found an accommodating restaurant – the Rosa Rossa – who found me a table tucked away outside. I smiled at my good fortune and ordered a spritz.

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The view from Ponte Dell’Accademia. Staggeringly beautiful.

Fifteen minutes passed and couples were starting to surround me. They appeared to be being served promptly so I reminded the waiter (he seemed to be the manager) that I’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He broke out in what can only be described as operatic ritual humiliation of me in front of the other customers. Waving his arms around, he remonstrated with me, shouting that I’d only been waiting for five minutes and couldn’t I see that they were busy and now, you see? Here is the drink you’ve been waiting for. Prego, PREGO!

I died a little in my seat. I also sat there for about five minutes choking back tears. He came back out to take my food order and instead of doing what I should have done – stormed off – I told him I’d order if he promised not to shout at me. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Italy, for so many reasons. The couple next to me looked shocked.

Thinking about it, what annoyed him about me was probably that I was the least important of his customers, but the one that ventured to complain. Had I been in a couple, I’m sure I’d have been served immediately. Had I been a girl of twenty-four, as I had been the last time I visited, I think he’d have been all over me. But me, just sitting there, at forty-nine, with no man or baby to make ‘sense’ of me, just got his goat.

I placed a review on TripAdvisor as soon as I left the restaurant. His reply says it all:

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So there it is, for all to see. It was definitely fifteen minutes because I’d checked in on Swarm as I arrived and looked back at the time. Maybe those minutes fly by when you’re in a couple, but I’m betting a manly cough towards the waiter would’ve got him running.

If you’d like to see the restaurant in question, and the review, now read by over 200 people, then here’s the link. Note that all the subsequent rave reviews are from couples and groups. Sadly my review didn’t link to my usual profile, where I’ve posted many rave reviews of hotels and restaurants. I’m pretty sure this is the only bad one.

It happened again on my return boat trip to the airport. The boat driver shouted at me for trying to pay at the wrong moment. I teared up again. So this is what happened in twenty-five years – I’ve gone from being  catcalled to shouted at. I’m in the way.

Don’t get me wrong, in between those moments, the weekend was a dream of renaissance art and architecture, of La Traviata in a palazzo on the Grand Canal and Vivaldi in a frescoed church. It was cicheti and wine in a tucked-away street ‘bario’ and a pistachio gelato next to a fantasy-scene of sparkling waterways and winking gondoliers. It was everything I remembered the first time, but much more. And I’m going to go back.

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A Dorsoduro canal-way.

And when I go back I’m going to remember the conversation I had with a woman who was visiting the city with her husband. He’d gone off to do something else and she’d taken a seat next to me in a bar, and was taking a breather with a beer and a cigarette. I told her about my solo-travelling thing and why I’d got into that and she suddenly blurted out that she too was wishing she was on her own, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband. She probably only told me because I was a complete stranger, but I did start to wonder about all the kelfie-taking love-puppies I’d seen in gondolas. How many of them were wishing they were with someone, or no one, else?

I remembered feeling like that on numerous holidays, even my honeymoon, and felt glad that at least I was free of that. Free of scanning every place I went for the guy I was ‘supposed’ to be with. It’s exhausting, and at the very least, unfair on the person you are actually with.

So Venice. I came, I saw, I conquered. I am so in love with you that I don’t think I can leave it at that. You can make me feel elated and transcendent, but you can also make me feel like dirt on your shoe.

But at least I feel alive in your presence.

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Puncinello by Tiepolo in Ca’Rezzonico palazzo on the Grand Canal

 

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Great Expectations

Recently, a guy I dated once remonstrated with me for not following up our one date with a text requesting another date. Why had I not texted him? Was I waiting for the guy to text first? He suggested that that wasn’t very feminist of me.

Sigh.

I manage my expectations, I told him. I dial them down so low I expect nothing. I expect you to not text, to not call, to not follow up. I expect you to enjoy one of the best dates you and I will probably ever experience and yet not want to follow that up. In fact, when one of those happens, that’s my go-to place. If the date is extra-good, I know there’ll be silence after. Sometimes things can go too well and it freaks them out.

But his response – a few months later, it has to be said – intrigued me. This guy was actually annoyed at me for not expecting anything. I think he wanted me to be longing for him, so the delight in keeping me at arms length would be sweeter. I realised what power there is in zero expectation. Of anything. Of anybody. And now I’ve started to apply it to everything in life.

I think I’ve already been applying it, actually, when I think about my attitude to weather. If there’s an important outdoor event at the weekend, I seem to be the only person checking the actual forecast to see what it’s really going to do. Everyone around me seems to prefer choosing hope over reason. They tell me, until the last minute, that they hope the forecast will be wrong, and suddenly all will be sunshine and frolicking. When I say, ‘the BBC says it’s going to rain at 3pm but it should be done by 4’, I get horrified looks. But why not just face the truth and deal with it? Why be constantly disappointed in life?

I think losing parents early in life can remove any misty-eyed optimism about the future. It’s left me with a tendency to look reality in the face and name problems. I was once put in a work situation where friends told me I would find a ‘dysfunctional family’ but I only discovered what was tantamount to domestic abuse. They didn’t want to hear it. Similarly, when told I would experience ‘rough and tumble’, I witnessed bullying.

I don’t like euphemisms, I like clarity.

I think this may sound as though I’ve lost all hope in life. I haven’t. I still have hope and expectation for myself and I’m the only person I’ll ever expect anything of. I expect me to make something of my life without expecting anyone else to help. If they do, then that’s a bonus, but I will not allow myself to expect it. I expect me to bring joy into my life, and I do, by striking out on my own in the world and not leaning on anyone else. People might bring joy into my life, but I’m not waiting for it any more. I’ve spent far too much time waiting.

I’m going to Venice on my own in a couple of weeks after waiting for years to return there, with an as-yet undiscovered man. I realised what I was doing and immediately booked my own trip. What the hell was I waiting for? Some ridiculous rose-tinted moment that was never going to happen, that’s what.You can waste a lifetime waiting for the right moment, I’ve found. And even then you can find yourself there with the wrong person.

It’s actually incredibly liberating to be solely reliant on yourself for everything. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how not having a safety net – no parents, no wealthy relatives, no ‘loved ones’ to catch you immediately if you fall – can be a very scary situation to find yourself in. When I have to write down the name of an ‘in case of emergency’ person on a medical form it sends me into a tailspin. Who is that person? Sometimes I feel like writing, ‘It’s me, actually’.

It’s me.

 

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A Woman Scorned

Last month, Beyoncé broke the internet after she released her visual album, Lemonade. It has been deemed the ‘most elaborate diss in hip-hop history‘, given that much of the content is given to Jay Z’s alleged cheating with ‘Becky with the good hair’.

I personally love a good ‘woman scorned’ outburst – I don’t subscribe to the dignified silence, I prefer a huge wodge of revenge served with a side salad of cold blood. Even better if you can deliver the requisite revenge like a deadly artistic assassin, making you look so glaringly bright that the guy in question can’t bear to set eyes on you again.

Well done, Bey.

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What always strikes me about these situations is that the women scorned are always burning so much brighter than these guys in the first instance. They’re often more talented (Bey), intelligent (Hillary) and better-looking (everyone) than the guys who’ve cheated on them. I’ve seen women I consider to be magnificent left for someone with nothing more than a homely smile, and I’ve wondered if that’s the motivation. They can’t handle the magnificence, let alone control it, so they find someone infinitely more ‘manageable’.

Time and time again I’ve seen women going through this, and there are always friends exclaiming, ‘But she’s not a patch on you!’ And now I know that this is the whole point of it. The cheating is a way of re-establishing a form of control, and they will always opt for a ‘not-a-patch’ option. It happened to me a few years ago and I understood straight away. Steps had been taken to try and control me and they hadn’t worked. Cue an easier target.

I remember that scene in Sex and the City where Samantha posts leaflets all over the city, telling everyone that her ‘Richard’ is, in fact, a dick. When I enacted a digital version of that, I felt the same bewitching sense of control and freedom, as the ‘leaflets’ were similarly carried away on the wind.

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I’m never going to be someone who sits back and silently suffers – I’m on Team Trierweiler. Valérie Trierweiler wrote a bestselling memoir of her betrayal by François Hollande (Thank You For This Moment), and it is described as:

300-odd pages of deliciously backhanded barbs, sentimental hand-wringing and vicious putdowns, seasoned with large dollops of self-justification.

The same article describes her as ‘magnificently unrepentant.‘ Amen to that, sister.

I don’t know why, but a strange silence descends when a woman pours out her scorn. Men call her a ‘vindictive harpy’, and in hushed tones, women tell her she should be more dignified. What if we don’t? What if we call them out on it like Bey? The world doesn’t end,  does it? It just realises we know what’s going on and we’re not prepared to live with it.

The greatest service to womanhood Bey has done thus far is to make ‘calling a guy out on his shit’ into an art form.

There has never been a greater woman scorned…

 

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emilybluntthedevil_2564243b

This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

Fifteen

“That girl knew exactly what she was doing.”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing those words. This week they came from so-called journalist Katie Hopkins who has decided to feel all sorry for footballer Adam Johnson, as he is imprisoned for sexual activity with a 15-year-old. Ever the victim-blamer, she describes the girl as “a hormonal teen stalking someone famous for attention, desperate for a chance to have something her friends do not.”

I think back to when I was fifteen and developing major crushes on older, unattainable men wherever I went. I never acted on them, but I think the targets of my devotion must have been only too aware that there was a young girl mooning around after them, hanging on their every word.

I remember being in a pantomime with ‘Brian’, who played Buttons in Snow White. (I know… Buttons appears in Cinderella but this was a low-budget thing in the north-west). Brian must have been in his twenties when he had me waiting to catch his eye at every turn. Even while I was dressed as a dwarf and saying, “Oh you ARE lovely, Snow White!” – my only line in the whole thing (I got paid £10 – my first pay check, spent on tukka boots in Top Shop).

But Brian was kind. He dropped his girlfriend into the conversation now and then, just to make sure I was aware, and continued to be nice and brotherly to me. He didn’t take advantage of me and made me feel comfortable around him. I loved Brian.

This happened a few times during those years. I, like many teenage girls, was testing out my new-found sexuality and powers of attraction. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I was a little bit scared. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I relied on the adult men I was testing it out on to be responsible and to not take advantage. I remember a guy called Paul taking a kind and brotherly stance with me and how I found it intensely annoying that he didn’t ‘see’ me. But oh boy, he definitely saw me. And he acted like every responsible adult should.

Because to my mind, you can say all you like about Adam Johnson’s victim but when all is said and done, he is the adult and she is the child. She may have looked and acted like a sexually experienced young woman, but she was probably in wild ‘testing’ mode and couldn’t believe that the object of her crush was reciprocating. It was up to him to stop the 834 WhatsApp messages or not even start them in the first place. It was up to him not to pick her up in his car. Up to him to stop the sexting. Up. To. Him.

There are some men who can’t believe it when a younger woman or teenager appears to find them attractive. They think they are singled out for their unique animal magnetism, seemingly unaware that young women test out their sexuality like this all the time. We look to see who’s looking, and find these guys staring back. I remember going on weekend day trips with my family as a teenager and without fail, the guys staring back at me in the places we visited were the dads, not the sons I was scanning the room for. It was like that for a very long time until the roles switched, and I found the sons of the guys I was checking out staring back at me. Weird, that.

At fifteen, I mostly had crushes on guys in bands, and I now realise how safe that kind of crushing was, with only a Patches magazine poster to moon over in my bedroom. Coming into contact with real-life men was something that presented more challenges. I shudder to think what trouble I might have got into now, with the convenience of social media and smartphones.

I thank my lucky stars that the guys I encountered at fifteen were so kind to me. Brian, lovely Brian, with your mullet hairdo. I salute you for being a responsible adult with a clear-eyed perception of the situation I put you into.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julia-Louis-Drefus

Mothering Heights

I have a distinct memory of my mother picking me up from the school gates one sunny afternoon in the ’70s. She must have had to come in to the school for some reason, because my memory is of her looking exceedingly glamorous as she strode in, and me feeling immensely proud. She was wearing an oversized bouclé coat she’d knitted herself (it had different-coloured trees all over it) and purple suede knee-high boots that had buttons down the side. Even then, at the age of around eight, I was aware that she had a style that marked her out from the other mums and I loved it.

I now realise that if I was eight, she must have been forty-six – two years younger than I am now.

As my forty-ninth birthday approaches I’ve realised that I’ve turned into a mother – my mother – without even making that life decision. Last week, I was talking to a younger friend about my dating prospects as a single woman in her late forties, and, trying to be helpful, he immediately referenced his mother as a comparative scenario. It came as a shock that he saw me that way, as it’s not how I see myself. Until now.

Later the same night I attended a Rudimental gig at the O2, on my own, and sat next to a group of teenagers cradling their Diet Cokes and immediately realised that other people would assume I was their mother. Hell, the kids probably thought I’d escaped from a Mother’s Home and was sent there to keep an eye on them. I did keep an eye on the girl next to me, who was stroking her hair extensions obsessively while her best mate ‘cracked on’ with the boy next to her. I was dying to tell her that in about twenty years, she’d be the hot one and her friend would look like a beanbag…

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really been hit by the reality of ageing. I sailed through turning thirty because at that point, I’d only just starting really living life, having missed out on so much ‘fun’ in my late teens and twenties. At forty, I was going through a renaissance, professionally and personally, so it felt like a rebirth, rather than the beginning of the end.

Now, approaching fifty, something else is happening. For the first time, I’m feeling that shift, as the cloak of invisibility descends. Used to a certain level of attention in public (not all of it welcome), I’m adjusting to life as a normal human being who can walk down the street unnoticed. I’m also adjusting to seeing my mother in the mirror every time I go to the hairdressers. That halo of thick, blow-dried hair I remember seeing every Friday when she returned from her weekly hairdo. There she is again. Staring back at me.

There is a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, in which Amy joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette as they help Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her Last Fuckable Day as an actress (she’s 55). They talk about that moment where the media decides women are no longer believably fuckable and they recast them as mothers. They give Sally Field as the greatest example, one minute playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, the next his mother in Forrest Gump.

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In many ways, life for a woman is like that movie set. I’m shifting over to the other side, but I didn’t ask to be recast. (I’m not even going to get into why mothers can’t be viewed as ‘fuckable’ – as we know they can, judging by the number of searches for ‘milf’, ‘mom’ and ‘stepmom’ on porn sites. It’s just a lust that dare not speak its name, apparently.)

And so, I know what I have to do. I have to be my mother – that woman striding around in purple suede boots and an eye-catching knitted coat, being clever about everything. I have to channel my looky-likey Julianne Moore (55) who just gets better and better with age, as an actress as well as a woman. The number of role models for me abounds: Robin Wright (49); Cate Blanchett (46); Kylie Minogue (47); Gillian Anderson (47). Well hello, ladies. No cloaks of invisibility there.

As ex-Vogue Editor-in-chief Caroline Roitfeld (56) said, “I can not be in competition with a girl of 20, so I have to be the best in my category.”

Showtime.

 

Cyd Charisse07

Because I’m Happy

I’m writing this ahead of Valentine’s Day, because normally at this point the fear and dread has set in. I’ve never been keen on being in a pink, heart-festooned restaurant even when I was in a couple, but it’s even worse when you’re not. At least this year, VD (oops, did I just write that?) has the good sense to be on a Sunday, so we can all avoid the flower deliveries to the office and the smug carriers of said flowers on the train home. Normally, I’d be contemplating a day inside my flat, binge-watching something, and binge-eating something else.

But this year, I’m not. It doesn’t actually matter any more. I used to get all het up about this stuff, but that moment has passed. I know VD is a mostly sham experience, but hey – lots of my friends are in love, or have found love, so it’s fine if they want to celebrate it. Hell, I’ll even celebrate it with them (in a social-media sense).

I have found real love here and there in my life, but never for very long. I think the most I’ve managed is a few months. I remember the feeling it creates… That heady delight in everything, where you want to skip down the road and hand out flowers to small children and the elderly. You find yourself marvelling at the minute detail of the world and being kind to people on the Tube. I remember feeling like I wanted to pirouette down the street (dance training comes in handy) and sing, “I’m in love … with a pretty wonderful boy!” from West Side Story.

The thing is, I’m feeling a bit like that right now. There’s no romance in my life, although I do see a couple of guys occasionally. They make me feel happy when I’m with them because there’s no pressure for it to be anything than what it is. I think I make them happy too. As a friend says to me quite often, “It is what it is, Babe.” This has turned out to be my life mantra.

It’s been coming on now for a few months. I have found a job that I love and people I love working with. I’m being collaboratively creative in a way that hasn’t happened for years and it is making me so happy.

I have found myself letting old grudges gently slide (well, nearly all of them). I’ve realised people are just humans like me, imperfect and just trying their best. Might as well just all get along while we’re here, eh? Why make it worse for ourselves?

I’ve found myself helping a variety of people on public transport and smiled at the surprise on their faces. I remember the last time I felt like this and it was a love affair that did it – it made me want to be kinder to people. How lovely that it can be done even without another person being involved. Who knew that all it required was just to feel genuinely happy in your own skin? I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this.

So here I am, nearly 49, single, feeling happy in my skin. And yes, I’m just as amazed as you probably are. It’s not supposed to happen, is it? Women my age are meant to be surrounding themselves with cats and growing hairy warts on their faces. Instead, I’m striding out to work with a spring in my step, booking solo adventures abroad and saying howdy doody to surprised old people in north-west London. I’ve even given up dieting and don’t feel the need to drown any sorrows in booze. I even spent Christmas in the UK, without feeling like I needed to get on a flight somewhere. Anywhere…

I’ve noticed for a while now that more people are smiling at me, in general. I think it’s because my face is set in one (for a while I thought I had a ‘little something’ on my cheek). I’ve particularly enjoyed exchanging smiles with women when I’m out and about, mainly because smiling at men can often get you in trouble. And I think women SHOULD smile at each other more. There’s way too much scowling for my liking.

So, if this post is making you gag with all its sickly sweetness, bear in mind that on Sunday, I might be celebrating the fact that you’ve found your own sickly sweet love. And I truly think that’s great because I’ve felt its awesomeness.

But I’m afraid the old cliché is a cliché for a reason: because it’s true.

In the words of Whitney Houston, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

Happy Valentine’s Day to me, and to all you lovers out there.

Mwah.

 

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Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

I wrote this essay for the tenth anniversary of Eat Pray Love – author Elizabeth Gilbert put a call out for people to say how her bestselling book had changed their lives. Their stories will be published in book form, entitled Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It in April this yearMy story didn’t make the final cut so I thought I’d publish it myself here.

Dedicated to Katherine.

I was given a copy of Eat Pray Love at the airport by an American girlfriend. A girlfriend who knew I was struggling with my marriage and no doubt hoped it would make a difference to my life.

Initially I was wary of the Julia Roberts quote on the front cover, telling me she’d given a copy to all her girlfriends. ‘Ugh – self help,’ I thought. As I browsed the pages in the airport bookshop I saw a few mentions of ‘god’ that made me roll my eyes a bit. ‘American navel-gazing ‘hallelujah’ twaddle’, I thought.

But I started reading the book on the plane to San Francisco. And it spoke to me. Who was this woman, singing my life with her words?

The marriage that on paper, seemed perfect. Nice guy, nice house, nice life. And yet it wasn’t enough. It was making her miserable. The desperate nights on the bathroom floor.

Although I hadn’t gone as far as a bathroom-floor experience, I was feeling increasingly desperate. The year before this holiday I’d had an epiphany on a work trip. I’d just turned forty and had an encounter with a man at a party that had reset the way I saw myself. He looked at me and described what he saw – “half woman, half girl,” he said. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me. Including my husband.

I was in the midst of a boom-time, career-wise. I was spending most of my time in the office or in the pub after work, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it all out of my system before I went home.

The work trip was to Cannes Film Festival and I‘d been invited to a party hosted by one of the big studios as I’d been working with them on a huge project. And boy, was I ready to party.

I danced energetically and happily with one guy for most of the night. He was from my part of the UK and we got on well. It felt so good to be with someone I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and after an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool, the others drifted back to their rooms. I was still high on the experience of the party and couldn’t face going to bed. I went to my dance partner’s room.

At this point, you’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. This guy lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. Nothing more than a brief kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so.

I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

The plane I was on a year later was heading to San Francisco, where Cannes guy lived. It wasn’t the whole reason I was going, but it was a strong part of it. He actually chickened out of meeting me by telling me he was in the UK when he wasn’t, but that trip sealed my fate.

I’d read Eat Pray Love on the flight out to SF and spent the week with my friends thinking about my situation. I remember a moment, sitting on a lakeside somewhere in Sonoma, watching my friends swimming then laying my head on my drawn-up knees. I needed to be free and I needed time to think about how to do it.

The answer came a few months later in the form of a promotion, and with it, financial independence. I walked home from a shopping trip one day (I did these frequently on my own – more escaping from home life) and told my husband as soon as I got in. I wanted a divorce.

And oh, the sadness of that moment. He was one of my best friends. We’d shared adventure holidays together, built homes together, stood next to each other when parents had died, when jobs were lost.

Crucially, though, we hadn’t held each other when the bad things happened. One of the main reasons why I felt the way I did was because he simply hadn’t been there to support me when the chips were down. He’d pretended to be ill when my mum died, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He’d ignored the fact that I was in London during the July bombings. He’d got angry when I nearly drowned in a river.

He just didn’t care.

He didn’t love me enough.

He was a good friend, but not a great one.

But now I could break free, and in doing so let him go and find a new life with someone he might be able to love properly. Maybe he’d even start a family, as I’d been resolutely childfree-by-choice.

With Elizabeth Gilbert in mind, my first action, post-separation, was to book a holiday to Thailand on my own. I’d thought about Bali but I was keen not to become a Gilbert Groupie and just shamelessly copy her journey. I pictured Bali filled with women-of-a-certain age, all roaming around yearningly looking for a Felipe of their own.

As it turned out, I wasn’t looking for a Felipe – I needed freedom, not a new, permanent man in my life. In Phuket, I found Dougie, a young Aussie Thai boxer, who carried me round the island on the back of his moped, my hair streaming behind me as I grinned with joy. Like Cannes guy, he’d approached me with candour about my older-woman attractiveness, saying I was ‘cool’ and much more chilled than the younger women he was used to. He’d had testicular cancer some years before and was just trying to enjoy life. We enjoyed it together for a short time.

In a way, that first Thai holiday was my ‘bathroom floor’ moment. I cried myself stupid in my hotel room for three days before getting out and meeting Dougie. I’d been surrounded by couples in a lovely hotel and found myself weeping into my dinner, night after night. Only the good offices of friends made me wash my face, put on a nice dress, and walk into the nearby town to see what was going on. I was so afraid, but there was nothing to fear. Dougie and his friends were there.

But that holiday wasn’t enough for me. It had been a test to see if I could holiday alone, so I immediately booked a return visit to Thailand when I returned home. Next stop, Koh Samui.

My longed-for freedom came as I found myself befriending two Thai women and whizzing round on their motorbike, one in front of me, the other behind me. ‘Farang sandwich’, I quipped, ‘farang’ meaning ‘white European’. At a club in Chaweng, I met Andrew, another Aussie, who was still partying on New Year’s Day, after a big New Year’s Eve on Koh Pha Ngan. We danced, we laughed, he marveled that I was in my forties. I loved it. I loved him.

Those Thai holidays became the first of many, and now I am a seasoned solo traveller. I’ve even started a blog about ‘flying solo’ as it’s something that’s come to define my new-found independent status. In many ways, Dahab in Egypt is my Bali, where I have friends I return to frequently. It is my happy place.

At home, I can go for a drink or have dinner on my own and it feels like the most empowering thing a woman can ever do. I haven’t found my Felipe, but in a sense I don’t want to right now. The end of my journey hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait to find out who’s waiting for me.

Eat Pray Love made me do all of this.