The Love Landscape

I’ve been wondering for a while now, about how to encapsulate the particular state a late forty- or fifty-something single woman finds herself in with regards to relationships. Every time I go on a group hike, there is the inevitable conversation with a woman around my age, who is confident, intelligent, attractive, adventurous – I’d even go as far as to say ‘sparkling’ – and before we’ve even discovered each other’s names I know what she’s going to say.

She’s going to tell me that she’s tried dating men her own age (the rare ones that don’t want to date younger women), but they can’t quite keep up with her in terms of get-up-and-go or sex drive. They don’t want to get out and do things as much as she does and she ends up leaving them behind to join hiking groups at weekends.

She’s going to say that she has her eye on someone a bit older, but then discovers that they’re dating someone twenty years younger than them, because they can. She’s going to say that she gets quite a lot of interest from younger men, but she wants someone to share a present and a future with and they don’t offer much in that way, because they’re just after the ‘mature’ experience. And they’re largely immature.

Then she’s going to share a recent experience where she’s been chatting to a guy her age online and it’s been going really well, but then he mysteriously disappears, reappears, then disappears again. In search of answers, she’ll tell me that men have called her ‘scary’ or ‘out of their league’ and I’ll nod in agreement. I too am a scary woman.

We then walk along together, chuckling in solidarity as we watch the guys our age and older chatting up the young women, sometimes the hike leader, and the young men chatting with anyone but us (for more than a few minutes). Interest from them comes in secret, by private message, maybe after the hike – but it can never happen in broad daylight. They can’t be seen to be into us. The horror!

Not that hiking is about finding people to date, but that is an inevitable sidebar of a group that is mixed and into the same things. (I laughed yesterday when one thirty- or forty-something guy was talking about not wanting to be part of outdoor groups where fifty- or sixty-somethings hung out. I didn’t bother telling him my age.)

I recently went to an event where a late-forties guy friend turned up with his girlfriend of twenty-seven. Another older guy friend discovered the news and had that look on his face when he reported back to our group – the one I’ve seen before when the same topic comes up among men. The “I didn’t realise we could do that” face. You can almost hear their brains working out how they could trade in their old model for a new one. I remember one of my ex-husband’s friends starting to date a girl in her twenties when he was nearly forty and it was like he’d scored a try for Scotland when his friends found out. I didn’t realise back then what a ‘coup’ it was. I also didn’t realise back then that I could play those guys at their own game.

Older men say to me that they want to date younger women because they still want children, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that they don’t want to date someone who is their equal in terms of ‘social power’ so they look for someone who is below their perceived standing. I’ve made my peace with that. I don’t want to date someone who is scared by my social power either. It’s really unattractive.

I seem to have recently acquired a crop of younger guys who can only message me when they’re drunk or high. Some are in relationships, some not, some are struggling to come to terms with being attracted to an older woman. In it comes, the text or WhatsApp message in the morning, sent at 2am. Sometimes they’ve been up all night and I get the ‘hey babe’ at 10am. We never meet up, and nothing ever happens.

For some reason the message frequency ramps up around early spring and autumn – I’m told it’s something to do with testosterone levels. I quite enjoy seeing what the morning brings when I switch my phone on, and I can’t seem to bring myself to block their numbers either. There’s a fascinating increase in messaging when I’m on holiday. Suddenly when I’m thousands of miles away on my own, I’m incredibly attractive. The minute I arrive home the silence descends. It’s a thing.

One guy who has appeared and disappeared from my life for over a decade, always seems to get in touch when I’m on holiday. We’re not connected on social media, but he seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m away. He’s suddenly telling me that he thinks he fucked up by letting me get away, that there might be a relationship there. He is four years younger than me but obsessed with the age gap. Like every younger man, he wants to know the age of the youngest guy I’ve ever slept with. I still don’t know why that matters (give me wine and I’ll tell you the number).

What was fascinating, before his predictable disappearance on my return, was his reaction to my saying that I have a lover. He kept coming back to the topic over and over, but not saying the word. He referred to my ‘friend’, my ‘boyfriend’, my ‘fuck buddy’, my ‘friend with benefits’ and over and over I corrected him. “He’s my ‘lover'”, I said. Why could he not comprehend it or type the words? Was it because it sounded a bit ’60s or ’70s?

‘Lover’ accurately describes the state of being with someone you care for deeply – not in an official relationship, not seeing them every day or even every week, but they are in your life and you acknowledge and love their space in it. My lover is thirty-two and Muslim and we know it can never be a thing, but I’d rather be with him – a man who is straightforward, kind, sexy and not scared of me in the slightest – than with a man whose idea of flirting is relentless ‘teasing’ (aka bantz).

Perhaps what I’m doing – maintaining my adventurous independence but with a love interest on the side – is a female version of the ‘I didn’t realise we could do that’ face. As more and more women my age opt out of marriage and into independent lover-dom, I feel like we’re the ones scoring the tries. The more I talk about it with other women, the more I think that we’re scary to more conventional men because we’ve discovered the big secret – we have a choice, and it doesn’t need to include them. Sure, it would be nice if it did, but if it doesn’t, our worlds don’t end.

In fact, they open up.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unpresidented Act

At the time of writing, an estimated 4.7 million people, in 673 cities, across all seven continents marched in protest yesterday. And I was one of them.

On his first full day of presidency, Donald Trump witnessed legions of women, children and men marching for the human rights he appears hell-bent on reversing. We marched to protest the rights of immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled… you can read the full list of guiding principles here.

I wanted to march alone. I received countless requests from friends wanting to rally with me on Grosvenor Square in London but I wanted to do this solo. Quite apart from the stress caused by trying to find a few people in a sea of thousands there is something beautiful about standing there alone, in the winter sunshine, among a multitude who share your vision and values in the world.

I like listening to the conversations around me, joining in with some of them, or not. Hearing a gang of young girls chanting “Lick it, stroke it, just don’t grab it!” and then seeing the guys around them quietly grin in acknowledgement and support.

I felt emotional seeing a woman in her seventies walking towards me at the start, wearing her pink ‘pussy hat’, clutching a sign that read, “yes, I’m still protesting this shit.” And then as I approached the square, a pussy riot – a huge crowd of determined women, wide-eyed children witnessing them and a surprising number of men standing alongside them. I was glad of my sunglasses at that moment.

On my way in, I saw the face of a distraught woman, arguing with her boyfriend who kept saying, “but they’re just marching against democracy!” I wish I’d reached out to her and pulled her with me and away from her inevitably Brexiteer boyfriend.

On the way round the square, a young, wild-eyed Men’s Rights Activist shouted at us: “Why don’t you drown in your tears, you bunch of LOSERS!” We all laughed so much he ended up laughing with us. Maybe he was surprised at suddenly gaining the attention of so many women – it’s likely to have been a problem for him in the past…

A good friend of mine who is a good man, commented on Facebook that he hoped we’d be marching for men as well. As ever, I am amazed that so many men out there think that women marching is a direct assault on THEIR rights. How nice it would have been for him to have been marching alongside me instead of questioning the motivation for what I was doing. That’s what felt so good about seeing so many men marching with us – no questions, no ‘what about the menz?’ trolling, just quiet solidarity. ‘We know this is an issue and we stand with you. Patriarchy is damaging for us, too.”

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Knowing that I was one of millions of people marching worldwide felt phenomenal. Gloria Steinem, arguably the mother of third-wave feminism, was marching in America and I was marching with her. It was the biggest global rally she had ever witnessed, and I was part of it.

And to those who might ask, what difference will it make? This is what she said:

We are linked, we are not ranked, and this is a day that will change us forever because we are together, each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again. When we elect a possible president, we too often go home. We’ve elected an impossible president. We’re never going home. We’re staying together, and we’re taking over.

Today feels very different.

There is hope.

 

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.

 

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.

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…

 

 

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.

 

This Woman Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

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

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

We have. Because patriarchy.

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

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

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