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

 

So Lonely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Against All Odds

This week I read the tragic news about food blogger Wilkes McDermid, who threw himself off the roof terrace of a London restaurant in a planned suicide. In his ‘goodbye’ blog post, he stated that he was simply ‘accelerating Darwinism’, as a 39-year-old Asian man, doomed to be alone forever. He’d conducted some informal research over a number of years that indicated women prefer Caucasian or black men over Asians, and if not, then they would almost certainly be tall and/or wealthy Asians. His blog is insistent in its reasoning and maintains that while McDermid couldn’t control his romantic life, he could control the length of it. He could, and he did, put an end to his suffering.

What an unbelievably tragic state of being. To take oneself out of the running, off the face of the earth because you believe you will never find love. At this time of year, as we approach Valentine’s Day, I’m sure there are so many people thinking similar thoughts, but of those who say they’ve given up on love, most don’t actually believe it in their heart of hearts. There is always a glimmer of hope, right?

What has struck me about this story is the science behind it. When I left my marriage four years ago, I had no idea that science had anything to do with partner-finding. Call me a romantic, but I’ve always laboured under the idea of being so struck by another person that any consideration of current life situation, age, job, looks – whatever –would go by the wayside. I’ve scoffed when people said, ‘maybe the time wasn’t right’ about a particular guy I’ve dated, and I’ve thought, ‘if the connection is right, who gives a fuck about the timing?!’

Isn’t that what’s glorious about love? The inconvenience of it? That it pushes every other consideration out of the way?

What I discovered was that suddenly, everything was all about the timing. Well-meaning friends told me I had to be ‘on the same page’ as someone, at the right life stage, to make a go of it. After my marriage, I’d had a ridiculously inconvenient year-long passionate love affair with someone ten years younger than me, but in the end, he’d thrown ‘timing’ back at me: a ten-year age gap is fine in your thirties and forties, he’d said, but not so good in your sixties and seventies. WTF? I thought we didn’t give a shit about that. Apparently ‘we’ did.

Since then, I have learned to accept certain unexpected facts about dating in my forties. Firstly, that men my age aren’t relieved to finally find a single, independent woman of their own age who doesn’t want children. They are frequently at the stage where they want the option of creating a Mini Me, if they haven’t already got one. They are even less relieved to find a woman who has a successful career and a brain, it seems – it is a challenge to their manhood. Woe betide me when they find out I’m a feminist – they smile and say, “I have a problem with feminists.” I say, “I have a problem with men who don’t believe a woman should have equal rights to men,” and we leave it there. Smiling.

No, men my age are still searching in the twenty-five to thirty-five age bracket, and I can’t really blame them, if they still want children. I’m always honest about my age online – forty-seven – and my profile only really attracts much older or younger men. And let me reassure you now, that in no way am I complaining about the latter.

Online, people are cast aside for simply not fitting a desired profile – not being the right age, height, weight, race, religion or not having the right job, location or marital status (eharmony wouldn’t let me join until I was properly divorced, not separated). This makes me think that online dating isn’t for me. Why would I want a partner who was judging me on a set of statistics? I want someone who will catch my eye on a train, a beach, in a bank or a checkout queue and want to get to know me. Just me, standing there, no statistics hanging on a board around my neck with a mugshot.

I don’t want the science of it, I want the randomness of it and I will always believe that is out there for me. And if he is shorter than I thought he would be, hasn’t got the ‘right’ job, is age- or religion-inappropriate I won’t give a shit about it. There will be a connection between both of us that no one else can see – they won’t be able to work out the science behind it because it will be beyond analysis and data. I feel so saddened by Wilkes McDermid’s death because he believed that this wasn’t out there for him.

I believe that if you are only looking for a socially approved relationship then you are working within a very narrow dating channel. You will only properly ‘see’ age-appropriate people with the right height/weight/job/hair colour ratio. If you look beyond a tick-box life, as I do, you will find that like-minded people see you. There are fewer of them, but the recognition of another soul with the same outlook is a moment to treasure. I’d rather wait for one single moment like that than tick any boxes, even if the odds are seemingly stacked against us.

 

—————-

RIP Wilkes McDermid – his final blog post and message:

https://wilkes888.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/final-message-thank-you-everyone/

https://wilkes888.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/my-final-blog-entry-love-you-all/

Take Me Out

Many a time I have pondered the question of why and how it is that I have hardly ever been directly and properly asked out by a man, and had so few actual boyfriends.

And then I have pondered the secondary question of why people assume that I have had lots of offers and a ceaseless round of boyfriendry. ‘Tis not the case.

Why?

Well what has emerged from my memory is a set of themed scenarios that form a distinct pattern. And they began at primary school…

The Silent Fighter Friends

These days I’m always hearing tales about how someone’s 7-year-old has a girlfriend or boyfriend. Back in my day, at a Catholic primary, I barely even knew what a boy was at seven, let alone wanted to go out with them. All I knew was, boys giggled at drawings of human anatomy in science class and sometimes showed the girls their willy (so tiny!). But sometime towards the end of those primary-school years, probably between nine and eleven, I sort of became aware of their ‘appeal’ (not the willies – that came much later).

Anyway, I became aware that Peter and Kevin, who were firm friends, liked me. I also heard about, but never saw, the fight they had over me in the playground, over which one was going to be my boyfriend. Neither of them ever looked at me, let alone asked me out, after that, and I was too busy crushing on Jonny to notice. Jonny didn’t notice me.

Secondary school. Along came Geoff and his mate Paul. Both ginger and freckly (no wonder I’ve got a thing for Eddie Redmayne and Prince Harry). I was their friend for a couple of years – we used to chat in the cloakroom – but at one point they just stopped talking to me. I distinctly remember a disco where I wore my best frilly New Romantic shirt, knickerbockers and gold shoes to impress them. They both sat there sullenly, while Mirror Man and Fascination by The Human League played and I tried to dance like the girls from the band. Later I found out that they both liked me and fought about it. Neither of them ever asked me out. I was still crushing on Jonny. Jonny never noticed me.

The Man Swapper

This has happened twice – I’ve been lobbied by a guy who is really wooing me on behalf of his less-confident friend, and been subtly passed me from man-to-man in a move that has confused the hell out of me (and this was way before PUAs were a thing.)

When I was sixteen, Derek, a guy who seemed so much older than everyone else (he probably was), did his best to reel me in with his best cool-guy performance. I wasn’t allowed into Poppies nightclub in North Wales at that time (it’s closed now), but I used to get in, on account of looking older than my age. Derek was the unofficial leader of our Poppies ‘gang’ and I kinda liked him. But what happened in a move that is still shrouded in the dry ice of the club was that he passed me on to his friend Paul, using a sleight of hand worthy of a stage magician. Paul was a lovely geekish guy, but so not for me. In the weeks that followed, I remember sitting with him in his bedroom, moving out of the way every time he tried to sit next to me, wondering how I’d ended up there. In the end I offered an ‘I’m too busy doing my A-levels’ excuse and got out of this weird pseudo-relationship.

This happened again when I was in my twenties and working at Liberty. I really fancied a guy called John who ran the bookshop department – he was funny, intelligent, from Yorkshire (I know – all three things together!), and looked like a shorter version of then-Bond Timothy Dalton. I went out for coffee breaks with him and his mate Leon from the goods-in department came along too. Before I even knew what was going on, Leon was appearing in the coffee shop on his own and I found myself going out with him without actually being asked. I managed to continue like this for six weeks – but I still wanted John. John didn’t want me.

The Look But Don’t Speak-ers

During my ballet-teaching years I developed a crush on Ian – the guy working at the Sports Centre where I taught. Week after week (year after year!) I turned up for class early, inventing ways to be in the same room as him as I ‘prepared’ for class. He looked, he smiled – I looked, I smiled, I danced! – hell, we even said ‘hello’ once or twice, but nope, nothing. Same went for another guy I had a crush on at my brother’s cricket club. I think the looks between us powered the small Welsh village where the cricket ground stood but it shocked him into silence. I couldn’t have made it more obvious that I wanted to be spoken to but it never worked.

The Gay Cock-Blocker

David. Oh David. I met him at Liberty – he was another goods-in guy. David was beautiful – of Portuguese Goan descent. My crush was so huge I kept a diary called The Book of David. I used to go out to the infamous coffee shop with him and our gay friend, Neil.

Neil, who didn’t tell me that David had confided in him that he had a crush on me until David had left Liberty to travel in South America for a year.

Neil fancied David too. Go figure.

The David Scenario actually gave rise to another phenomenon:

The Stealing Woman and the Passive Man

Such was David’s beauty that lots of women were throwing themselves at him. I didn’t, unfortunately. We were once at a Liberty party and one of our female colleagues made a much more obvious play for him than me, with my normal conversation, lack of moves, and (at that time) non-sexy clothes. They spent the rest of the night snogging so I left. The next day at work David apologised to me and tried to explain what had happened, pitching it as an unavoidable scenario. Oh you poor lamb – being preyed upon like that by a lady. How you must have struggled.

*rolls eyes*

Interestingly, when I went to do my MA in Sussex, I met the same woman in the first week. She triumphantly told me that David had been there studying the year before (and no doubt failing to avoid her charms). ‘Knock yourself out, love,’ I thought.

This had happened to me before in the sixth form. I had a crush on the headmaster’s son and he had one on me. We were both prefects and used to stare at each other as we manned the dinner queue. As soon as I told my ‘friend’ Victoria, she threw herself at him at a school party and that was that. Another guy bit the dust. And so did a friendship.

I Take Matters Into My Own Hands

By the time I reached my late twenties, I’d given up on the idea that I’d be asked out so I started to do it. I met my ex-husband at a club in Brighton. We had a brilliant night chatting and dancing and we swapped numbers, but predictably he didn’t call. I called him four days later and that was that. Four years later, I was the one to ask HIM to marry ME.

Then, after my marriage had ended (initiated by me, obvs), I waited for the invitations to flood in, thinking that things would be different, I was more confident and ‘out there’, I had loads of male friends. I couldn’t wait to go on dates!

Nothing happened.

Hand on heart I can say that in the past four years, two guys have actually asked me out properly, and both were in their twenties and not British. They were confident in their approach and I was so surprised by them that of course I agreed. British male friends tell me it’s incredibly scary asking a woman out  – you risk rejection – so I suppose these guys had the benefit of being brought up in countries with more bravura in their DNA.

As I am now the ‘asker’, I know how scary it is, but I’m usually pretty sure of what the response will be before I ‘go in there’. But even on Tinder, where I’ve indicated the likelihood of me accepting a date request simply by swiping right, they still don’t make the move.

And people wonder why I’m single.

Specs and the City

I love my Sex and the City box set. I really do. I’ve watched it many, many times. For me and many women it became an era-defining examination of womanhood, friendship and relationships. I still find new resonances in it now, new ways in which it reflects aspects of my own life, and at various times, I feel a real kinship with one of the four girls, depending on what’s going on at the time. If you ask them, most women know if they’re a Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or a Charlotte (I’m a Miranda/Samantha combo).

But there’s always that episode towards the end of the final season where the ham-fisted scriptwriters create an allegory of womanhood that does not sit well with me. It’s called ‘Splat!’ and it’s the episode in which a 40-year-old socialite bemoans the end of her party lifestyle in New York, declares she is “so bored she could die” and promptly trips over her Manolos and falls out of the window. Later, at her funeral, Miranda quips, “the party’s officially over,” and Carrie rams the point home, “She wasn’t always so tragic… Ladies, if you are single in New York after a certain point, there is nowhere to go but down.”

Nice one, SATC. Way to make every woman over forty like some cast-off piece of shit. Even worse, this is the episode where the smugly loved-up Carrie is parading her fifty-something hot Russian lover in front of her fifty-something hot female boss, who is forced to date ‘a hobbit’ because younger women like Carrie are stealing men from her age-appropriate ‘wading pool’.

Carrie ends up giving up her work, her life in New York, to go to Paris with The Russian, just to escape the horror of being single and nearly forty in New York, where all her friends are partnered up before they reach their ‘scary age’.

It’s only in these final stages of the box set that I start to not love SATC. Up until then, I love its celebration of female independence and identity but ultimately, it’s just one Big search for a life defined by a being with a man. Even if that man is emotionally unavailable, jealous of your success or obsessed with his work.

I know this is partly because the series was made during the nineties and early noughties, when everyone was supposed to be filled with the Y2K meltdown fear. It almost represented a kind of pre-war moment where everyone rushed to couple up before the apocalypse.

But I couldn’t help but wonder … what would the storyline be if it was made now?

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the show hadn’t copped out to coupledom and looked realistically at the lives of women post-forty, living in a city, with their own flats and good jobs, just doing their thing and having a great time? I know plenty of them. I am one of them. Hell – I’m up for starring in this new show.

I reckon Carrie would be back in her East 73rd street apartment, having decided that The Russian was too up his own ass, and Mr Big was too much like hard work. She’d have her own column in Vogue (she’s moved on from the New York Star), two more book deals, and be the proud owner of a vintage-fashion boutique in SoHo (rather than a walk-in wardrobe built by her rich fiancée). She may also have invested her book royalties in Steve and Aidan’s second bar – a cocktail one, obviously.

I’m always disappointed that Carrie gives up her hard-won, didn’t-want-to-marry-even-gorgeous-Aidan independence to plump for a guy who can barely say the word ‘love’, even at the end of six seasons. Sure, he makes her laugh but he doesn’t offer the ‘ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love’ she says she’s looking for.

Everyone in the show except Carrie has to deal with a huge reality check towards the end – miscarriage, dementia, cancer. This is the stuff of life, in my experience, not waiting to be swept off your feet in a Parisian hotel and into a shiny new NYC apartment by a suave city boy. But Carrie is the ’90s Holly Golightly, a child-woman on the look-out for a father figure to rescue her. She doesn’t deal with reality very well (I can’t bear Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

At the end of the box set and into the first (disappointing) movie, I always feel more akin to Miranda than anyone else. Her life is derailed by a mother-in-law with dementia (my mother suffered from it) and she has already lost her own mother. And then there’s Samantha – her mantra of “I love you but I love me more” means she ends up choosing independence over an unsatisfactory relationship.

Been there.

But the show does momentarily find its centre again in those last lines uttered by Carrie: “…the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well that’s just fabulous.”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

Just don’t waste time waiting around for the second bit to happen, because then the party is definitely officially over.