Laugh As We Always Laughed

My mother once thought I was Davina McCall.

At the time, she was in hospital, and the TV must have been switched to Big Brother, or somesuch. She pointed at the TV and said, “That’s you, isn’t it?” And I laughed and said, “Yes!”

Our GP had diagnosed my mother with MID – multi-infarct (or vascular) dementia – which is a series of little strokes that make parts of your brain shut down. She would have moments of complete clarity interspersed with complete confusion. We’d only realised something was very wrong when her neighbours called to say that she’d called round in a confused state, but in hindsight the signs had been developing over a long period.

It is the hardest thing, to see this happen to a loved one. Particularly a mother who was a bright, intelligent woman. Her ‘eccentric’ ways, as she got older, were something I read as just a development of her personality, but in hindsight, they were small signs of what was to come. I remember her coming to visit me when I lived in Brighton in the ’90s, and how our roles had now switched. As we walked around, I had food and water in my bag for her, and ensured there was somewhere nice for her to sit down now and then.

I was embarrassed when two good friends spied us on the seafront, and I didn’t want them to speak to us. I knew my mother ‘wasn’t right’ but didn’t know how to deal with it. Then on the way home, she got off at the wrong coach stop and there were frantic messages between me and my siblings as to her whereabouts. She was found by National Express, sitting quietly at a coach stop, miles from her destination. I still feel sick about that moment. She shouldn’t have done that trip by her self, but at that time, I was still wondering why not.

When the diagnosis came – and let me tell you that getting your mother to the doctor to be tested for something she doesn’t know she has is a challenge – then it made it easier to deal with. It’s amazing what happens when a thing is named. When a thing is named it comes with a set of characteristics and a clear set of actions. She would have to go into hospital to be properly diagnosed, before being placed in appropriate care. We would have to take her there, leave her there. We would have to visit her and find her wearing someone else’s clothes…

You have to find a way through it. A way to cope. And the way we found, my sister, me and my mum, was a way to laugh at it. Together. Whether it was Davina McCall or the small white fluffy things she ‘saw’ blowing across her bedroom floor, we laughed at them together, sometimes until we cried. We found that correcting her only made her upset and more confused. But if you went along with the fantasy, magically the whole thing became easier.

Last night I went to see David Baddiel’s one-man show about his parents: his sex-obsessed late mother and his father who has dementia. His way of coping, he said, was to find the humour in it. In the fact that his mother copied him in to sexy emails to her lover, and that his dad called his loved one ‘c*nts’.

I found myself nodding and clapping as he spoke about how weird it was to hear your parent being asked by a doctor who the prime minister is (it’s the first question on the dementia test), how he found himself apologising to friends when his dad said something inappropriate, or his inner fear of being a victim of dementia himself.

Baddiel is of an age where perhaps you have more life experience to cope with it (53) but I was 31/32. No one of my acquaintance was dealing with anything like this, and I think that’s why I wanted to hide it away from them. They were all having babies and I was on my second parental decline. It was all out of sync and I wanted to hide in my south-coast life and ignore it. I’m ashamed to say that I hid in it for as long as I could. I kept my home visits to a limited number and a limited time. I counted the hours before I could escape south again. I know I’m not the only person to have done that but that doesn’t stop the guilt.

Recently there was a Twitter thread involving acts of kindness people had witnessed in their lives. Mine stands out clear and strong. During that time, my oldest friend, Coreen, visited my mother every Saturday, almost without fail. She dropped in to have a cup of tea and a chat. She must have seen my mother struggling, surrounded by ‘her things’ in one room. She understood, she didn’t judge, she was just present. She was more present than I was. I will never forget her kindness and I dedicate this post to her.

When my mother was taken into a home to be looked after, she thought it was a hotel. She talked about the other ‘guests’ and the staff as though she was on holiday. We played along. She ordered tea in her room and told us what she thought of the food in the ‘hotel’. We laughed together. She’d look at me as though she recognised me, then once again I was Davina. I could see the switch happen in her eyes.

Thank goodness for the laughter. Even before she became ill, I remember us all laughing together. At my mum’s habit of gently reaching out to touch the petals of a beautiful flower in a landscaped garden, only to see the whole thing collapse on the ground. And the time she accidentally tried to take £1000 out of an ATM in Southport because she couldn’t use the keyboard. And the classic: the time when she asked the waitress in a cafe in a boat on the North Wales coast, if she ‘had any waffles?’ but pronounced it to rhyme with ‘raffles’. She had put on her famous posh phone voice and we laughed about it years later.

We were used to laughing together and it made sense for us to do it later, when she was struggling the most. It’s a case of taking all the anxiety away – for all concerned. She was only in the home six weeks before she died. I’ve always thought it was because she had nothing to worry about any more. Other people were finally handling everything.

Baddiel ended by saying that his show was a kind of funeral speech for his mother – that her Jewish ‘Shiva’ didn’t allow for speeches, and on the day itself, everyone just shook his hand, wished him ‘long life’ and said what a ‘wonderful woman’ his mother was. In his show, he wanted to show the full extent of how ‘wonderful’ she was and it’s fairly warts-and-all. It’s darkly hilarious.

At my mother’s funeral, I stood up and said something, but it was a poem, and quite appropriate given the subject of this blog post. It’s Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott Holland, and he says:

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.

The more I look back on that time, and the years before them, the more I see and hear that laughter. I heard everyone in the theatre laughing last night, knowing that it came from a shared experience. I felt alone at the time it was happening but so many people experience it. It’s one of life’s great taboo subjects, but we are talking about it more and more, not only because of Theresa May’s ill-advised ‘dementia tax‘ or the threat of it looming over an ageing population.

I’ve toyed with writing about this subject for years now, not quite able to find a way into an intensely personal experience. It wasn’t until I saw Baddiel on stage last night that I found that way, and let me tell you that seeing a man ‘share’ as he does is simply incredible. We’re used to women doing it, but not men. He’s turned it into a comedy show, but really it’s a very funny, and tragic, live blog.

So I’m committing the laughter to the page and not hiding the darkness that comes along with it.

It’s time we talked about this.

 

Dedicated to: the NHS, Age UK (who were so helpful and reassuring when I phoned them out of my mind with worry), my wonderful friend, Coreen Ellis.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New You

There seems to have been something in the air.

I’m actually compiling a list of every woman I’ve spoken to who’s had a romantically disappointing New Year. Like me, they’ve walked into 2017 with a resigned yet resolute air about them. The resounding cry of, “not you as well!” has made us laugh and know we’re not alone … yet we all know that we might be better off being alone. At least for a while.

For most of us, New Year has given us a snapshot into the reality of our situations and the clarity is terrifying. Christmas affords an opportunity to bedeck our lives in tinsel, fairy lights and the blurry focus of too-much prosecco, but New Year hurtles towards us, brutally throwing the decorations aside, revealing what lies beneath: the harsh truth of our situations.

I think that’s what people find so terrifying about New Year. Whether we choose to blot it out with booze, go to bed early, or plan to be in the air when it’s happening, it is because none of us find it easy to face New Year head on. If we don’t have a hand to hold or lips to kiss at midnight, it is as though life has just taken a selfie of us at our most exposed.

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

For some, like me, the ‘midnight selfie’ was just what was needed to allow us to make a clear decision. On New Year’s Day I had an epiphany. I realised that what I’d thought (and hoped) was a relationship really wasn’t. He was in town with a friend on New Year’s Eve, while I was with friends at a party (and actually went to bed at 11.30pm having peaked too soon).

Suddenly the fact that he’d chosen to be apart on this one night of the year gave me the clarity I needed. It’s been so obvious. I’ve been a victim of wishful thinking, but I’m being nice to myself about it. Everyone is allowed to get away with that every now and again, right?

Other women I’ve spoken to have reported the men in their lives going AWOL on New Year’s Eve. Making plans and promises, then not turning up. Or turning up and creating an argument over nothing that then leads to them running away. Is this a thing? I’ve asked myself. Is there something about New Year that cements a commitment to someone if you share it? Do these guys run away from it because they’re scared of it, the terrifying clarity of the midnight selfie?

When I was married I had the opposite experience. New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay, as we would be in Scotland for it) would suddenly provide me with a partner I didn’t recognise. One that would embarrass me in front of his friends by non-stop snogging. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the attention, I just wish it could’ve been spread out across the rest of the year. I think the lawnmower got more attention than me on the other 364 days…

Anyway, now I’m entering my fiftieth year, and I’m honestly relieved not to have to factor in another person to the plans. I had been worrying how my ‘flying solo’ plans would be affected so I’m now back on track, at least.

The decorations are down and my flat looks clean and clear.

So does 2017.

 

The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.

These Are The Times

Ever since Brexit, and probably during the build-up to it, I kept thinking, “this is what it’s like to live in history”. To live in a time when such monumental shifts are happening they will appear on a curriculum somewhere in the future, and people will be writing theses on 2016 in the way that they might write one now on 1066, 1918 or 1939.

Like most of the 48% of people who didn’t vote for Britain to leave the EU, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been living in a bubble (London – the biggest bubble of all). Seventeen million people in the UK didn’t think the same way as me or my friends. I’d already had an inkling that this might be the case during the election that brought our current Conservative government to power, but Brexit was still a mighty blow and wake-up call.

As we approach Remembrance Day, I think about how the World Wars defined my family. I know about my great uncles Joe and William who both died fighting in France. I think about how being born in 1918 and serving in the Second World War defined my father – even his memoir was called ‘Between the Fires‘. He told stories to me when I was a child of how shells whistled over his head in the North African desert, and I treasure the little book of photographs he brought back with him, showing him with his army friends.

My mother was a teenager during the Second World War and told me stories of the American GIs in town, taking a gas mask to school, and the sound of bombs hitting Liverpool, across the River Dee. She told me how she used to hide under the dinner table when the air raids were on. These were the stories my parents told when they were asked about themselves. I thought they were all rather romantic and slightly wished I’d experienced them too.

For my generation, and for others, I think our story starts now. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything that has forced us to identify our place in the world until now. Yes, we’ve had the miners’ strike, yes we had to deal with the threat of nuclear war in the Reagan-Thatcher era, yes we’ve had the Falklands and Gulf Wars. But nothing, in my view, has made us look at ourselves and the person standing next to us until now.

There is a tidal wave of right-wing aggression sweeping world politics right now. Political popularity is being built on a rising tide of xenophobia and misogyny and I think we’re right to draw comparisons with the 1930s, and right to wonder how the hell this is happening again.

For a few years now, I’ve been bumbling along in a bubble of left-wing liberalism, finding my feminist voice and shouting about things I feel strongly about on social media. Even so, I’ve never really felt able to completely define what I stand for, beyond feminism, because I’ve bought into an amorphous cluster of already defined liberal ideas: I stand against racism, sexism and homophobia, and support human rights, freedom of speech and international co-operation, ‘just like everyone else’.

Except not everyone else does.

These are the times when I have to recalibrate where I stand in the world. This is not just a case of retweeting a few statements I agree with, or sharing a meme on Facebook that makes me feel like I’m standing up for my values. What are my values? What is my story? How am I going to live it? What is the real-life action I’m going to take?

I keep looking for silver linings, in this ridiculous, Trumped-up world we find ourselves in. One is that so many of us are finding our political identity for the first time and the confidence to show it to the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Brexit and the Trump win are part of a backlash against the liberal values I stand for. As Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted:

Tonight is what backlash looks like – to women’s rights, to racial progress, to a cultural shift that doesn’t center white men.

I had no idea that the groundswell of support behind the ideas put forward by Trump, Farage and Johnson was so great. That the Daily Mail extremism of a Katie Hopkins or a Milo Yiannopoulos would actually be a populist view taken seriously by millions of people.

But it is. They are.

It’s naïve of us to think that we’re not at the centre of a huge historical moment right now. All we need to do is join the dots. These are the times when I am going to wake up and define myself within it. I have to. There isn’t a choice any more. There isn’t a comfy armchair to sit in and watch the world go by.

I’m very very scared by the US election result. They have elected someone who bears all the hallmarks of a fascist dictator – one who might overturn a woman’s right to abortion, who might build a wall to keep ‘foreigners’ out. So how wonderful is it that in a supreme case of role reversal, the German chancellor is the one to fire a warning shot across his bows:

Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.

So here I am, Mum, Dad. Witnessing something colossal on the world stage, in the week where we remember events we thought could never be repeated. For the first time in my life I believe that they genuinely could. And for the first time in my life I feel compelled to define who I am, and witness my friends doing the same.

These are the times.

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…

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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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