Walk a Mile in my Shoes

I walk everywhere. I walk to work, I walk home from work. I walk into the city centre, I walk out of it. I hike in the countryside, I hike abroad. I hike on my own, I hike in groups.

Almost imperceptibly, I adjust my behaviour according to location, daylight hours, who I’m with. I’ve found places where I can walk alone in confidence, but still hold my breath when the figure of a lone man (or group of men) comes into view, and blow it out in relief when I get a cheerful ‘hi!’ from them.

I do what every woman does when walking alone – I make sure I’m in a lit area at night, I hold my body in readiness for potential assault, I sometimes hold keys if I feel under threat, I avoid eye contact with men, my pace quickens.

Now that the nights are drawing in I’ve had to adjust my route home to avoid a lit, but lonely path that runs up the side of a park. I’ve tried walking it as darkness falls, and it is simply too long for me to cope with the rising panic as I rush through it. There are sometimes couples who walk it and I make the most of the company, but in the end, it’s worth the extra half-mile walk to avoid it. That’s what I did last night.

I’m used to hearing men shouting as I walk – shouting into their phones, shouting at each other, shouting at me. I push my earphones in further and comfort myself in a great podcast. Sometimes they mouth obscene things at me while I’m listening to Woman’s Hour – “Ssh, the women are talking,” I think.

Last night, a man shouted things at me. I could sense, outside the busy tube station, that he’d singled me out for his unique attention. He had the mark of the crazy, and I told him to fuck off. Not content with just shouting, he slapped/pushed me on the back, twice, and I turned to the nearest person in the crowd, a man, to ask for help. He looked at me blankly, as though I wasn’t actually there.

I had to run, fast, into the nearest Sainsbury’s. Thank goodness I’ve ditched trying to walk in man-pleaser heels and now wear trainers when I’m travelling. I was able to sprint headlong into the supermarket, where the high-vis-jacketed security guard muttered, “he’s always out there”, and followed me out. His response was to slap/push him on the back to move him on.

A man I’d originally asked for help joined us, saying, “oh he’s always here, he’s harmless.” “Is he?” I say, “because I can put up with men shouting because I’m wearing earphones but when it comes to hitting me, I don’t think that’s harmless.” Cue blank looks from both men. Another man joins us and watches the crazy stumble up the road. He recognises him too, and tells me he’d have ‘punched him’ if he’d witnessed what he’d done.

“He’s harmless, he’s gone now. Are you going to get the bus?”

“No I want to walk home.”

“Ok, I’ll watch while you walk.”

My brain momentarily processes a stream of men passing me, making eye contact, as potential attackers but it doesn’t last for long. I ponder the look on the guys’ faces back at Sainsbury’s – like they were holding their breath, waiting for me to get angry, hoping I wouldn’t. Maybe hoping I wouldn’t have a massive rant about men who attack women on the streets and men who make excuses for them.

I wonder if I should’ve phoned the police, or if that would just making a fuss. The same thought passed through my head when I was flashed at a few years ago while on a solo walk. A man I’d asked for help told me I should. This time online friends (pocket friends!) tell me I should. I call the non-emergency line of the Met Police. They log the crime and promise to call me back.

I get home and post a quick description of what happened on Facebook. The comments are so predictable. Instant support and outraged comments from a stream of female friends and that same handful of supportive gay and straight male friends whom I know won’t shy away from the topic. Then the silence from all the other men who don’t want to get involved.

They don’t know how much it means to a woman just to have this stuff acknowledged. Just to have a man say, yes, this happened to you, yes, I think it’s shit, and yes, I stand next to you in outrage and I do not like that it happens. For some reason they often feel personally responsible for it, as though they themselves have committed some outrage for which they should feel ashamed.

I wonder if the silent men are thinking, “What was she doing to attract that attention? Why didn’t she just shrug it off and walk on? Why is she sharing it on here? Why didn’t she just get on a bus?” A little bit of victim-blaming to ease their consciences. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not getting on a bus because women should not be getting off the streets just to stop men attacking them. It’s not us that need the curfew.

A man did it. It’s always a man. It’s #notallmen but it’s always a man. As soon as I got into the office today a colleague told me about her story of being chased along a tube station platform by a man. When I was flashed at, women of my acquaintance reported that it had also happened to them, some of them THAT DAY. They hadn’t bothered to say anything because it’s such a regular occurrence, let alone report it.

Men we know can’t believe it happens, and that it does so so frequently. I once live-tweeted my street harassment throughout the course of a day. It happened, on average, every half an hour, on a lone walk. My followers were astonished.

These men get you when you’re on your own. Not necessarily in a lonely place, but you’re on your own. It can happen on a bus, a tube, in a crowd, in a shop, in darkness or in full daylight on a busy street. But you are always on your own. Every woman I know has a story like this.

Just believe us. It makes it all so much easier.

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A Relationship with Rain

I find other people’s reaction to rain stressful. They hate it. Simply loathe it. They think it’s out to get them and specifically times itself to appear on days when they specifically didn’t want it to. They think that it’s going to rain forever when it comes. I like to call this reaction Ark Syndrome, or Weather Catastrophism.

I find myself being a keyboard warrior on social media, fighting on behalf of rain, pointing out that it rains all year in Britain, and it’s not something that only happens in autumn and winter. It has done the same thing for millennia. The sun always comes back. Yet still, the collective wailing, the disappointment: “Where has the summer gone??!!”

I’ve just returned from another Costa Rican adventure where for the first week, I ventured into the rainforests around the Arenal volcano. I stayed in a treehouse, regularly doused by rain, and found myself going to bed early, lulled to a sweet slumber by the sound of the rain on the roof and the animals feeling alive in it. I went on rainy hikes wearing a huge poncho and laughed as I stood next to a thundering waterfall made more epic by the rain. The power. The power of all that water.

Maybe because I spent the first twenty-two years of my life in North Wales, I’m completely fine with rain. It makes countries beautiful and gives you sunsets to die for. I wouldn’t dream of visiting Costa Rica in the dry season when everything is bone-dry and brown (apart from the central rainforest). What would be the point of that? Everyone smiles in the rain in Costa Rica. It does it for six months of the year so what would be the point of being miserable in it?

In Britain, people are weird about weather. Because it’s constantly changing, we live in a world where no one believes forecasts and lives in an eternal state of hope about the mythical boiling-hot days to come. They forget to enjoy the early summer days in June when it’s cooler because it’s ‘not summer’ until it’s 40 degrees. Then suddenly its autumn, they pronounce that year’s summer null and void, whilst forgetting they could enjoy those ‘in between’ days. What a damn shame.

I went to Costa Rica during their ‘Little Summer’ – a break in the rainy season during July and August. For me, it truly is the best time to go. It still rains, but not nearly as much. For me the rain gives welcome respite from the glare of the sun and roasting temperatures. It gives rhythm to the days (and nights) and makes plants and animals happy. I found it soothing to listen to at night, and during the day when I was ill. When it’s torrential everyone stands around looking at it in awe, laughing. It reminds me of when it snows here, and everyone goes a bit hysterical with delight. (I prefer rain.)

Why do we make our relationship with rain so hostile, when it’s ever-present and never going to go away, when it’s life-giving and soothing? I simply don’t understand it. I’ve chosen to accept it, enjoy it, even – there was a time when I wouldn’t walk to work in it. Now I’ve just upped my waterproof game instead. Maybe hiking has given that to me.

Also, I look at weather forecasts. When I hear, “Let’s hope the weather clears up later!” I can often be heard saying, “It’s going to rain at 4pm and then the sun will come out at 6.30pm.” People seem genuinely surprised that I have this information to hand. I don’t know if it’s a refusal to accept reality that no one looks at a forecast, but in a nation where changeability of weather is the only constant, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t. Know what’s coming so you can deal with it.

It’s made me think that people like griping about the weather – they don’t like it when you take away the guesswork and provide the actual information. They like to think that they are in combat with the rain, and I’m just spoiling it by taking away their weapons. Radio stations pronounce rainy days as ‘miserable’. I say they’re just rainy.

I’ve realised that my favourite places in the world are in countries known for rainfall. New Zealand… the west coast of Ireland… the Costa Rican rainforest… the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Weather has made those places what they are and I love them for that. I’ve been soaked by rain and sunburnt in all those places – the latter always happens because I’m never expecting it.

And that brings me to my point. Stop expecting everything to be perfect and conform to the perfect summer. Expect rain and sunshine to be part of every season in Britain or you’ll be constantly disappointed. Do you really want to live in that perpetual state? Can you really not remember that last year the exact same thing happened, or that prior to one week of rain in August we had around two months of near-constant sunshine? I know because I walk to work and I think I’ve had to put my umbrella up once.

Make a relationship with rain that works for you. Lay down your weapons and just face it full on. You’ll find yourself in a much happier place.

As the Scandis say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’.

 

1.-Pina

 

 

 

¡Group!

For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.

My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).

I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.

The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.

I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.

Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.

It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.

I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.

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Me being triumphant on the peak wearing my new Picos t-shirt

I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.

On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?

I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?

I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.

I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.

I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.

I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.

But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.

All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.

I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.

Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.

Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.

 

Farewell to my Forties…

Another decade has ended and I am thinking back to those months just after I turned forty, when my mindset completely changed about who I was and what I wanted out of life.

I stood and took a selfie of myself in a hotel room in Cannes, in a Mediterranean Blue maxi dress, looking nervous but excited about the night ahead. That night (which I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog) changed everything. Coming back to London, I knew everything had to be different.

And it was.

Thank you, forties, for letting me find out who I truly am; letting me explore my independence, my sexuality, my freedom, my voice, my self.

I look back at the 43-year-old who left a marriage and set out on that first holiday on her own to Thailand, who found herself flying round an island on the back of a motorbike with a black-haired boy and laughing.

I think about the person who stood in a bar alone, having a drink bought for her by a shocked woman (who went back to her husband eager to tell him what she’d done).

There is a scene where a woman buys a flat of her own in a golden building in a new place that turns out to be her real home.

There are beautiful young men who’ve appeared, grinning and eager, curious about the world, and even more curious about her.

I’m watching a woman reading on a beach in Dahab, watching the sun rise and fall behind shadowy mountains, smiling to herself about the evening ahead.

She goes back to the hotel to write a blog post, because writing has become a way of processing her days and recording her experience. Maybe no one will read it, but it doesn’t matter.

There is a woman who finally realises that shrinking her body is not the way of happiness. That being strong and in the world, taking up space, is the way she needs to be, and that there is nothing better than walking – walking along a coastal path or through a rainforest – to put her mind at rest.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there is a woman who realises she has something to say and has the confidence to say it. It’s only taken forty or fifty years to get there. Yes, it might scare off some of the men she meets, but actually, that’s fine. If they can’t deal, they can’t deal. She has friends who can.

So now I’m fifty and I need to stop talking about myself in the third person. It’s here, and I’m excited and not afraid. I know how to do it – I worked it all out in my forties. I’m off to London Book Fair to meet amazing people and talk on a panel about European illustration (on the day when Theresa May might trigger our departure from Europe).

Let’s do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

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…

 

 

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

So Lonely

I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s The Age of Loneliness on iPlayer – it’s a really poignant documentary featuring interviews with a range of people of all ages from 19 to 90, who are prepared to admit that they are lonely.

I sat there listening to the stories of 70 and 90-year-olds still yearning for the company of their spouses – one keeps his wife’s ashes in a bag on the chair next to him – and thinking about my own mother’s story. Her husband died when she was my age, and her life pretty much folded. By choice.

Her friends reached out to her, tried to involve her in social events, but she removed herself from them. She went so far as to move us all to a little bungalow on a hill above the town, and kept herself to herself for another twenty years. This is not, as you may have guessed, going to be a template for my next twenty years…

What struck me about the programme was how many people were conditioned to only consider a life alongside a wing-person. The thought of living without a ‘significant other’ was leading some of them to suicidal thoughts. They admitted to not liking their own company and not being able to even think of a future without a ‘pal’ (but by ‘pal’ they meant a relationship partner).

I’ve gone there. I’ve thought about that. I’ve been thinking it for a while and the words ‘my romantic life is over’ have been going around in my head for a few years. At first, in a horrifying way, and more recently in a much more accepting way.

And it’s ok. I don’t need a wingman (or a wingwoman for that matter). It’s quite a liberating moment in your life.

Last year I listened to the incredible Kim Cattrall talking in a positive way about her romantic life being ‘retired’ and almost cheered as she went on to tell BBC Woman’s Hour how this wasn’t a negative thing, and about all the people and things she had going on in her life. I’d already been working my way towards that position myself, but here was a woman, admittedly a decade older than me, but describing my current views on how to live life.

Contrasting with that, BBC Woman’s Hour broadcast a new-year programme, in which a lovely woman called Edwina phoned in and talked about the loneliness she felt after losing her husband. She burst into tears during the call and cried out the words, “I lost my husband!” and all of us listeners’ hearts broke for her. I was on the Overground with tears in my eyes.

But my next thought was less sympathetic. I found myself thinking it was a shame that Edwina had only lived life as her husband’s Siamese twin and had expected that to go on ad infinitum. There appears to be a generation of women that can’t cope when their husbands leave them or die before them (and statistically women outlive men). My mother was one of them.

Last night I went to see The Danish Girl alone. I’d been shopping all day, had my hair done, then took myself for a quick prosecco in a central London bar before realising I was due at the cinema within the hour. I posted on Facebook about the movie and immediately women of my age were responding saying they’d love to go, but they couldn’t find anyone to go with them. Going solo is now so normalised for me, I still find it surprising when people are so worried about doing it.

Consider this. It’s never a case that people are staring at you when you’re doing things on your own, thinking you’re weird – it’s you, staring at yourself thinking you’re weird. Once you stop looking at yourself in that way, the demons will take flight and you’ll be standing there laughing, wondering how you could’ve been so daft about it. People will talk to you, smile at you, admire you, even buy you a drink.

If you can get you to smile at yourself, admire yourself and buy yourself a drink, even better. I’m a Kim, not an Edwina. And I’m not moving to a remote hilltop to live like a hermit any time soon.