Flying Solo

Well here I am, back to the central concept of my blog – literally flying solo from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of another glorious holiday on my own.

I’ve got the routine down pat. From that first holiday in Thailand (see my very first post – Consciously Uncoupling) where I spent days feeling sorry for myself in an exotic location, I’m now a veteran of the experience, knowing how to play it, how to pace my time and how to react when people question me about it.

Today I got questioned by one of the hotel’s numerous managers: he had thought that by reading my book alone on the beach that I didn’t like the hotel. Nothing could be further from the truth – feeling relaxed enough to do that on day one is pretty much my personal seal of approval. Why is reading alone seen as such an antisocial activity? This came on the heels of another hotel employee asking me why I was reading rather than relaxing – to him the two were very definitely exclusive – and later I was told that all the staff thought I was a doctor because I was wearing glasses and reading books. Wherever I go I am known as the ‘lady with book’ – people seem genuinely surprised that I read.

But like many solo travellers, the book is my travelling companion, my security blanket, my go-to item when I’m plunged into an unfamiliar setting. I can quickly immerse myself in a fictional (or non-fictional) world when I’m surrounded by couples and families on the beach, at dinner in a crowded restaurant, in a coffee shop filled with Egyptians or Turks. When a book is with me, I have a bubble to escape into, and I zone out all of the noise and activity around me. It’s so much more than ‘just a thing to do with your hands’ when you’re on your own.

I tend to punctuate my time on holiday by booking a few trips – this time to the White Canyon in Nuweiba (where you have to haul yourself out by a rope!) and a submarine trip to see fish on Napoleon Reef (I don’t swim). This is a great way of meeting new people, especially if you’re thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as in the canyon.

What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old (beautiful Maryam) and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the walk/climb through the canyon, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. He even took her with him when he climbed out of the canyon using only the rope. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. It made me think about challenges and scary things, and how they’re not so scary when you get up close to them. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, “I’m scared!”, and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, ‘well if he can do it with a baby on his head…’

The first time I came to Egypt I was scared. Of the people, my perception of the culture and religion, the language. Everything. It didn’t help that a Dahab shopkeeper spiked my tea when I went into his shop – I literally ran out and off to the hotel shuttle bus, vowing never to go back again. But I’ve gone back again and I’ve laughed at how normal it all seems because I’m not seeing it all through the veil of scariness. I walked past his shop, at night this time, and stopped to talk to other shopkeepers who’ve simply sold me something without hassling me (although the non-hassling ones are few and far between – I make a point of going into their shops. By the way, I don’t think that shopkeeper intended to drug me – the tea had a mildly fuzzing effect that was probably intended to relax me into more shopping. He looked genuinely surprised when I ran out.)

That first time in Dahab town, I swathed myself in a long dress and scarf around my head, so as not to ‘stand out’. No wonder I was hassled. This time I noticed Egyptian girls (I didn’t see many women over 30) running around in jeans and jackets, hair streaming free. However, the best moment was spotting a convoy of Muslim girls on quad bikes heading into the desert, in full headgear. You go, girls.

From the Bedouin guy next to the hotel selling me Turkish coffee and giving me some bread to help him feed the birds in his tent, to the guy selling me boat trips, it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking these people were just after me for something. Of course, they’re selling their wares, but both guys took time to chat to me, to tell me about their lives and make me feel comfortable. Add to that the Egyptian couple in the canyon, who left an open invitation to their place in Cairo and emailed pictures they took of me wobbling and panicking up the canyon wall.

In many ways, the canyon trip represents the challenge of holidaying alone for me – I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life as I made my way through and wish I wasn’t there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.

This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I’m going to be doing on any given day and I’ve learned to ride the rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terrible New Year’s Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year’s Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives. I resolved then that NY Day is the new NY Eve.

The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when things feel a bit grim. On your own at dinner one night? There’ll be a party invite the next, or an unexpected meeting with an old friend in a bar in town … or new one. Don’t expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and it’s just done it again. I love it. It’s life.

The other trick is not to rely on anyone else for your plans. I once met two Australian sisters in Phuket and they promised hand on heart to come back after their trip to Phi Phi to spend the last day of my holiday with me. I looked forward to it so much and they never showed. But I did end up meeting an Indian air stewardess in a bar and we went clubbing together, so all was not lost.

The Rollercoaster.

Part of me just wants to get on the waltzers, or even just the children’s spinning teacups, and have a nice ride round with no thrills or spills. But then the lure of the unseen horizons over the top of the rollercoaster’s peaks and loops are too much for me and I have to send myself there.

It’s always, always worth it.

(From Sharm El Sheikh airport, which really does need to get wifi)

Home Alone

Last year I decided to do Christmas alone in London. It felt right – like I could handle it. After three years of either being away on holiday or throwing myself into charity work for Crisis, I thought ‘I can do this’. I can be in my flat, on Christmas Day, on my own, and just be.

I planned it – I knew what the day would entail and I was really looking forward to it. I’d go for an early morning run; I’d make coffee and a hearty breakfast; I’d open my presents while watching something crap on TV, sitting next to my beautifully decorated tree. How hard could it be? I’d be seeing one of my friends whom I’d met at Crisis later that day, and enjoying a Christmas dinner with her and her flatmate. All good.

But oh my god. Those hours. Those long, long hours.

It really started going wrong on Christmas Eve. I’d left work full of seasonal joy (and prosecco) at around 4pm, slightly thinking that there might be a post-work pub moment. There wasn’t. Everyone went home. I went along to HMV and bought myself a boxset of something – can’t remember what. I went home, shrouded in increasing gloom.

Again, I’d thought there’d be some spontaneous socialising to be done back at the ranch – nothing doing. Everyone had, in the words of one neighbour, ‘fucked off for Christmas’. This is what people do (even though most of my local friends and neighbours are Jewish.)

But it was ok – I still had my plan and my dinner to go to.

It started so well – it was one of those crisp, sunny mornings and I ran a few laps of my local park saying ‘Merry Christmas!’ to passers-by who were walking dogs or hurrying to a family gathering. The endorphin rush got me through the next hour or so, as I made breakfast and slowly opened my presents.

I’d made a pact with myself not to look at social media, because I knew what I’d see – pictures of cosy Christmas family mayhem and drunken antics – but let’s face it, I broke the pact within a couple of hours.

I know what the reality of a family Christmas is because I’ve been there. The seasonal cheer lasts about four hours before the rows, the tears, the sniping, the wishing-I-was-anywhere-but-there feelings kick in, especially when they involve in-laws. But still, I believed the Facebook hype – that everyone was having the BEST time. Of course they’re bloody not.

To give myself credit, I lasted about four hours before giving in to the wallowing. My first mistake was ‘seeing no harm’ in opening one of my stack of prosecco bottles, just for a ‘glass or two’ over lunch. My second was to start watching an extremely romantic film that a friend had bought me on DVD for Christmas. There’s a reason why they don’t show these movies on Christmas Day – stick with the comedies, people.

Let’s just say that for the ensuing four hours after those mistakes were made, I descended into a pit of gloom so deep it resembled the Mines of Moria. It was like slowly dying and being reborn as I emerged from the pit at around 5pm, blinking, into the Christmas lights of my friend’s flat, and having a glass of champagne thrust into my hand. Little did the people I was with know, as I joined in laughing at the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special and munching on pigs in blankets.

The memory of those few dark hours is enough to see me heading off on holiday this Christmas and New Year, alone, but not ‘doing Christmas’. I know I’ll be surrounded by ‘entertainment’ staff in the hotel, wearing Santa hats and trying to get me to be Christmassy but I’ll be relishing the non-Christianness of the location and reading a book on the beach. Why don’t the people in these hotels realise you’re there to get away from Christmas, not recreate it in their country?

I remember my first Christmas alone in Thailand, and a well-meaning couple who forced me to join them in a bar, because I ‘couldn’t be alone on Christmas Day’ – except I could and I wanted to be. Out there I was absolutely fine on my own – it was only other people’s perceptions that made me feel crap about it. And that was the year I had the worst New Year’s Eve EVER on my own, but the BEST New Year’s Day, on a motorbike in between two Thai women, touring round Koh Samui, followed by all-night clubbing.

That’s when I realised.

The real fun happens on the day when you least expect it.

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Secret solitude at Christmas:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/18/christmas-that-changed-me-secret-solitude

On high heels and stupid choices

glosswatch

Why do women wear high heels? It’s a question men can ask but feminists can’t. When men ask it they’re being light-hearted and humorous, expressing jovial bafflement at the strange ways of womankind. When feminists ask it they’re being judgemental bullies, dismissing the choice and agency of their Louboutin-loving sisters. So it is that Ally Fogg can get away with writing a piece for the Guardian on why he, Fogg, does not like women wearing heels (I defy any woman to do this without being considered a raging femmephobe – just ask Charlotte Raven).

In said piece, Fogg tells the story of a female friend – a kind of Everywoman in stilettoes – “grumbling about the blisters and bruises being caused by her latest proud purchase”:

I muttered something about taking more care when trying things on in the shop and she looked at me as if I had…

View original post 1,341 more words

A Bar of One’s Own

One of the main topics on my ‘must blog about’ list for Because I Can has been the concept of drinking alone. Not just sitting on my sofa watching TV with a nice chilled Prosecco or Picpoul De Pinet in the fridge – actual Going Out To A Bar On My Own.

I’ve been doing it for around four years now, on and off, so it’s become part of normal life for me, but it still amazes some people when I mention it and I find myself explaining what I do, how I do it, and reliving all those moments in bars that happened on my way to normalising this activity for myself.

It all began back in the Camino bar near King’s Cross. I’d already separated from my husband and was hitting the after-work social scene quite hard. On the odd occasion, all of my friends were busy doing other things and I became frustrated that my social life depended on other people being available. Why did it have to be like that, I thought? If I want to go out, I should be able to go out, just as guys do, with a newspaper and a pint at the end of the bar. But as we all know, if a woman does that, an assumption is made that she is touting for business, and I don’t mean hoping a recruitment consultant will buy her a drink.

I became determined to try it out so one night I took a copy of the Evening Standard to Camino – a very busy after-work bar filled with ‘young professionals’. I was maybe pushing the age range up a bit just by walking in. I went to the bar, ordered a glass of wine, took a perch on a bar stool and studied my newspaper.

Nothing happened. No one stared, no one propositioned me, no one cared.

It felt amazingly liberating.

So I did it again. I found that sitting on a bar stool right next to the bar offered me the most ‘invisibility’. People assumed I was just waiting for someone, or at least just there temporarily. I took work with me, or read a book, and barely looked up at the people around me – it was just so easy to blend in. I enjoyed the look on guys’ faces as they saw me finish my drink and leave the bar. “Oh my god, she was actually on her own, not waiting for someone!” Ha.

Every now and again someone would notice me. Usually a woman. In a pub in Belsize Park one stood next to me at the bar and asked, “Are you here, alone?” Yes, I replied. She told me how much she admired me for it and promptly ordered me a glass of wine. I watched her go back to sit with her partner and they both looked at me admiringly as I grinned back. I loved it.

I haven’t always been looked at admiringly by women for doing this. I noticed that if I went to bars alone on holiday, as I did in Thailand on my first solo jaunt, I’d see a (usually British) couple in a corner, the woman glowering at me and the man looking impressed. I don’t know why these women felt annoyed by me being on my own but I have experienced it a few times.

Only this year in Turkey, an older British woman, with her more-impressed husband, told me she thought people who holidayed alone were “sad” and she “felt sorry for them.” As I left them sitting smugly on the beach to go shopping, I thought, “I’d rather be heading to a bar in Bodrum on my own than sitting next to you on a beach, love.”

Now it’s just part of my normal routine to take myself off to a pub now and again. After a hard day of meetings, I like nothing better than grabbing a copy of Grazia and ordering myself a glass of wine in my local pub. The bar staff know me and every now and again someone I know joins me. If they don’t, no biggie. I don’t need a wing person. I know lots of people who can’t go anywhere without one – going running, to a bar, shopping, on holiday – all of these things I do on my own. It’s uniquely liberating. Why wait for someone else to validate your activities when you can own them yourself?

Whilst going to a bar alone might shock some people, what about going to a club? I’ve done it, lots of times. In a busy environment like a club, no one knows you’re on your own. You may have become separated from your friends, you may have just arrived and are looking for them. No one notices. It’s easy to slip in, grab a drink, go for a dance and slip out again. Oh the joy.

I started doing it because my friends tended to end nights out earlier than I wanted to end them. We’d go out for a drink or a meal, and I’d be back in my flat at 9.30pm/10pm itching to carry the night on. I got so frustrated by it one night that I just thought, ‘fck it’ – I’m doing it. What would a guy do? He’d just go out and see who was there. So I did. About half the time I’ve done it, I’ve bumped into people I know. When I haven’t, I’ve survived it. Loved it, even. People are so caught up in their own bubbles that no one notices me: at the bar, on the dance floor, moving between rooms. I’m just a woman in a club, albeit older than the average. Do I care about that? No. And seemingly no one else does.

I haven’t done my club routine in a while because once I’d done it a few times I’d largely got it out of my system. It’s no longer a case of me feeling like I’m missing out on something when the evening ends ‘early’, it’s more that I know what’s out there should I want to take it further, and I can if I want to. The night is never over if I don’t want it to be and it’s not forbidden territory – it’s there for the taking if I want it.

Because I can.

Bond Woman

I’m rather proud of the fact that the very first movie I ever saw at the cinema was the Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve got older siblings and they often took me with them to see movies that were at the top end of the age range, me being only ten when that came out in 1977.

I loved the glamour and the adventure of it all. The exotic Egyptian location made me yearn for far-off places and while at the time I couldn’t see the point of the ‘sexy time’ between Bond and Russian agent Anya Amasova, I can now see that Barbara Bach’s intelligent, dynamic glamour became the blueprint for femininity for me and throughout my life, I’ve always fantasised about becoming a Bond girl.

Having retrospectively discovered that Bond isn’t exactly the most liberated of franchises, I’ve thought long and hard about my ultimate feminine fantasy and why I long to be Anya Amasova. It turns out that the movie was released during those turbulent years of the ‘second wave’ of feminism and it formed a bit of a watershed in terms of how Bond women were portrayed. In 1974, Britt Ekland had starred in The Man with the Golden Gun and by her own admission, the role she played was not based on intelligence or dynamism: “…we were all sex kittens … We are never called ‘Bond Women’ mind you, it’s still ‘Bond Girls’ but today they are much more sophisticated.”

Perhaps Ekland was the last of the ’60s throwback ‘Bond kittens’ before Barbara Bach came along in TSWLM – nothing kittenish about her. Spy‘s theme song, Nobody Does it Better by Carly Simon, did seems to suggest that Bond was still in charge, but Simon’s You’re So Vain history always makes me think that she meant it in a tongue-in-cheek ‘yes, of course you’re still wearing the trousers, darling’ way.

So fast-forward to 2014 and we’ve just heard that fifty-year old Monica Bellucci has been cast in the latest movie, Spectre, to be released next year. In a subsequent interview, she immediately corrects the ‘Bond girl’ moniker to ‘Bond woman’. Taking over where Honor Blackman left off as a 39-year-old ‘Pussy Galore ‘in Goldfinger (1964) she is the oldest Bond girl ever, and has been awarded the accolade of having a non-innuendo name in the movie, Lucia Sciarra. How far we have come.

I’m delighted that the older woman has been recognised as a box-office worthy attraction, even if it is within a film franchise that is notable for its objectification of women, to the point where they are often disposed of halfway through the movie. (I remember going to an office Christmas party where the theme was ‘Bond’, and one of my female colleagues going as the Expendable Blonde’, complete with fake bullet hole in the head. Brilliant.)

Because as a woman only a few years younger than Ms Bellucci I am only too aware of the invisibility of women in mainstream media once they reach a certain age, especially in movies. As Kristin Scott Thomas has said: “I’m still asked to do leading roles in France, never in the UK. Never ever. People will ask me why, and I don’t really know apart from this idea that in France people are less afraid of older women, or getting old … In England, you have the feeling that with women after 50 you don’t have sexuality any more, or if you have sexuality you are a nymphomaniac.”

Women like Madonna, who ‘ostentatiously’ continue to celebrate their sexuality beyond fifty are constantly vilified in the media. She is the oldest trope in the book – the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ hag who entraps young men into her web of hysterical sexuality. I agree with Kristin that the sexual prime of the older woman is frightening – people don’t know what to do with it and like to label you as a ‘cougar’, a she-wolf predator who needs to sate her freakish desires.

Here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the top of our game and because it’s so damn powerful society has to come up with a range of monstrous myths to keep it on the down low. Can’t have those pesky women being all in our faces when they’ve got no right to be there, sexually, professionally, economically or politically. Let’s make fun of their attempts to present their sexuality, intelligence and authority in public so that they shrink back and don’t bother us again.

And how I love Madonna for never doing that. As Helen Mirren said of her: “I think Madonna got it right. Madonna claimed [her sexuality] for herself, and I’ve always admired her for that. I loved that sex book she did, I thought it was fantastic, because it was a big two fingers up. ‘This is my sexuality, it’s not what you put on me, it’s mine.'” She’s just got her body out again, this time in Interview magazine, and whilst I do have issues around why women are constantly needing to do this to make a point about their sexuality (see my Over-Baring post) I kind of love that she has. Never disappear, Madonna.

My experience of becoming an older woman is one of increasing sexual power, and society’s increasing fear of it. I know that lots of men love it, and want to experience it – many friends my age have reported a recent upsurge in ‘interest’ from younger men – but they are often keen to keep their interest a secret, as though it is something freakish within them they can never admit to. For many men my own age and older, a woman like me is a threat to the power ratio, especially if they happen to come with a good job and a salary. There’s a reason why this is the demographic most prone to vilify older women. Ladies and gentlemen, look no further than AA Gill.

So, go Monica, go. I know you’re in a movie purely because of your astonishing beauty and sexual power, but you are fifty, and never before have those three things been seen as a positive. As someone not far off fifty and fearing the inevitable ‘cloak of invisibility’ descending, I can’t wait to see you up there on screen giving 46-year-old Daniel Craig the runaround.

In reality, he’d be trying to behave as though you didn’t exist.

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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/monica-bellucci-inside-the-world-of-the-bond-girl-italian-siren-and-dolce-and-gabbana-muse-9906994.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/9959989/Kristin-Scott-Thomas-The-French-are-less-afraid-of-older-women.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11267514/Madonna-topless-photos-are-a-triumph-for-women.html

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/12/05/spectre-casts-50-year-old-bond-girl-for-007-to-do-sex-to.html