Category Archives: Travel

Born To Run

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I moved to Bristol a year ago now, and one of the few negative things I can say about it, is that it is heavily populated with smug, lycra clad, iphone armband wearing runners. People don’t just go running here to avoid gym fees like normal people, here they share running stories, and osteopaths; they go running together, and alone; they go running before work, after work, in their lunch hour and then they still go to the gym.

Ok, so it’s a healthy city. I don’t have anything against that, of course, in fact it’s one of the many reason I moved here. My inactivity during The London Years was woeful and as 40/mortality approaches my desire to live long and prosper increases. It’s just the obvious enjoyment these people seem to get out of running, how it makes them feel, both physically and mentally, how they leap out of bed in the morning to squeeze in a half hour sunrise jog while I burrow deeper and deeper into the recesses of my duvet for that extra 10 minute snooze. It’s just so…bothersome.

But with the start of the new year, the appearance of a bit of holiday weight, and severe breathlessness when walking up a gentle slope, I decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

As I was putting my tracksuit on this morning for my first outing, my mind was giving me a lot of shit. ‘Janes don’t run,’ it said, ‘when was the last time you ran?’ ‘You’re going to look ridiculous’ ‘go back to bed’ etc etc and then something hit me. Janes DO run! For 2 months in 2011, in New York, this Jane ran every other day around the Jackie O Reservoir in Central Park and freakin’ loved it! The memory burst through the shit and gave me a moment of pure joy. I can do this!

So off I went, on a beautiful crisp and sunny morning, with my zeroto10km app, and my patient boyfriend jog/walking beside me. And do you know what? It was ok! Strike that, it was better than ok, I will reluctantly admit I actively enjoyed it. To be honest there was not a lot of actual running as the app takes a sensible approach with 1 min running followed by 1.5 mins walking, repeated for half an hour, but I did get out of breath and go red in the face and felt those tiny crazy endorphins pinging around the dull grey matter of my winter brain.

Basically, it worked, and I got a small insight into what all that smugness is about. So here’s the plan. If I run 3 times a week for 14 weeks following this app I should be able to run 10km by April. That’s a nice achievable goal, right? Ok it remains to be seen whether I can repeat this in early morning drizzle but I’ll give it a go.

I don’t think I am quite qualified to be one of the smug brigade yet, but I’ll put my hand up and acknowledge that maybe the problem is not actually them being smug but more likely a projection of my own feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, lack of willpower blah blah blah which allows me to hate them rather than myself.

So. The transition from Londoner to Bristolian continues a(slow)pace. It’s not all tie-dye and moon cups and there’s a good chance this move could do good things for the body as well as the… sole.

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100 Miles West – Here I Go Again On My Own

I had planned to start this blog by echoing (ok, copying) Hugh Grant’s opening voiceover in About A Boy – by stating that whoever said ‘no man is an island’ was talking a complete load of bollocks and that in my opinion all men – and women – are, in fact, islands.

Furthermore I am proud to be an island and wouldn’t have it any other way. I have lived on my own, travelled on my own, got drunk on my own (should I admit to that?) and basically hung out on my own, happily, for as long as I can remember. I am not quite as good (or bad?) an island as Hugh Grant, as I do have a lot of friends, a brilliant family and the odd lover who ensure that I am never ‘lonely’, but I essentially live my life alone and on my own terms.

This is how I like to see myself, but of course, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.

In 2011 I went travelling on my own to Mexico. I had a fantasy of being a solitary writer, secluded from the world, left alone with my imagination to create the stories that the constant buzz of my normal life had not yet allowed me to explore. I arrived in Isla Mujeres, ready to be an island on an island, a woman’s island no less.

I found the perfect apartment on the ocean, opened my laptop and…nothing. Nothing on day one or week one, or week two. So instead I spent my days walking into the tiny town, speaking worse that pidgin Spanish mainly to the guy in the laundry, having a beer, sitting on the beach in blazing sunshine or watching the tropical storms roll in – ok it was idyllic and I was happy-ish, I think, but I was also going slowly mad. I was too shy to strike up conversations beyond ‘una cerveza por favor’ and the lack of interaction with people, of normal conversation, of any connection to anyone who might be able to help me if I was in trouble did not fire my imagination in the way that I had hoped. Instead it made me paranoid, fearful, and more deeply insecure than I had felt in years.

When my friend Anna arrived in week four, I was mean to her. I didn’t understand what affect the last few weeks of self-imposed solitary confinement had had on my mental state. I was brittle and cold – reverting to all of the default personality traits I use when I feel under attack, not understanding that I was actually under attack from myself. I had gone into battle alone and was beating myself up over and over again – too much time to think and navel-gaze is no good for anyone.

A week with my Anna brought me down from the ledge though, and after she left I took a PADI diving course where I made some friends and one special friend (yes, it was the diving instructor – I really am that much of a cliché!) and had a beautiful, interactive, supportive, if not immensely creative, remaining six weeks.

My move to Bristol is a very different thing of course. Despite the fact I am suddenly detached from the amazing support network that exists in my corner of London, I do have friends here and many family members are down the road. However, I still prepared myself to go into battle alone, steeling myself to be strong, independent and, most importantly, on my own. I don’t NEED anyone, I came here so that I could support other people, be a rock for my family…It is hard to admit, once again, what a massive wanker I can be, but it turns out that I was not brought here to save other people, they are, of course, much more likely to save me.

I have been in danger of losing myself again – despite repeatedly saying that my move to Bristol was ‘no big deal’ it turns out it is quite a big deal after all. It’s tough to uproot your life and start putting roots down somewhere new, especially when you have been in the same place for 15 years. But it’s going to be okay because I am finally willing to admit that I might need to lean on people when things are a bit tough.

Between family, housemates, old school friends and wonderful ‘friend dates’ I have been set up on (dates with friends of friends who live here), I am maintaining my tenuous grip on reality and finding out how lovely it can be to have people to rely on. Also, being here doesn’t mean I have to cut myself off from my previous life entirely – I can still dip in and out very easily.

I am not sure I will ever fully give up my island status, but I am willing to admit that I do actually need to be part of an archipelego or to at least have a few bridges connecting me to the mainland…that’s what ‘it’s’ all about after all. As long as I can use the drawbridge once in a while so I can rock along really badly to Whitesnake.

100 Miles West – Movin’ Right Along… or not.

So here I am. I have moved. I am in Bristol. I am not in London. Before I got here I was aware of the emotional difficulty involved in moving – in uprooting – your life and making such a significant change. What I wasn’t aware of though, was the physical difficulty involved in moving. I mean actual physical inability to move. Every final step I have taken in the last few weeks has been accompanied by a deep gutteral gravitational pull, which I have been completely unable to control.

I started okay, as the packing of the boxes for the removals men began I did it with a spring in my step, some tunes on the radio and a smile on my face. However, as I neared the end of this packing ritual I could hardly get off the sofa to carefully wrap the remaining plates in the kitchen which then remained unwrapped until the wonderful removal man (and old family friend) arrived and did it for me in the twinkling of an eye while I looked on from the sofa. Frozen.

It didn’t get much better on my final day at work either. I was up to date, had completed solid handover notes and was ready to leave when 6pm rolled around….but for some reason I just couldn’t leave the office. I kept finding more things to pack and more goodbye emails to send and in the end I was dragged to the pub by a colleague. But it didn’t end there. I am an occasional big drinker (ahem), but not generally with work colleagues. On this night though, I didn’t want it to end. Knowing I might never see them again I suggested that old classic ‘Be At One’ for ‘one more drink’ and we were pretty much dancing on the tables until 2am. I could have stayed out with them longer but they dispersed, exhausted and broken and a little bit in shock by their sensible colleague’s transformation..

Then there was the final dinner party with my close friends which started off full of sophistication and ended with me on my knees Sweet-Child-Of-Mine-air-guitaring at 3am before being dragged into a taxi.

The next day I had to pack up the car with my final bits. There were only a few bags but it took me over 2 hours. After every trip to the car I had to sit down. Not because I was especially hungover but because every trip was taking me one step closer to the departure time. The moment of reality. When I finally got in the car and departed (4 hours later than planned) and arrived outside the house which was to be my home for the next couple of months, I sat in the car, paralysed, unable to take the next step which would lead me to my new life. Eventually my new housemate came and knocked on the window having seen me arrive and given up waited patiently for me to come to the door.

A trip to London the following week didn’t help as these steps were repeated over and over again and it is actually a wondrous miracle that I find myself here, in Bristol, sitting in a café and not on my sofa in my studio flat digging my nails into the parquet flooring while being dragged out by the heels by my new tenant.

But here I am, and it feels pretty good. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other, apparently – that’s all you can do after all and doing that simple thing has got me here and will get me to where I want to be. I am sure of it. One day at a time.

100 Miles West – Leaving London’s Never Easy

When I told a friend recently that I was leaving London his reaction was one of absolute shock. “But you leaving London is like the Ravens leaving The Tower of London! This is bad news, very bad.”

I mulled this over for a while. Might my departure from London really indicate that the Crown will fall and Britain with it? Or to put a (slightly) less dramatic slant on it – can I thrive in any other city but London? I have a habit of making decisions instinctively and not always recognising the impact of those decisions until they are right on top of me. And right now this move seems to be no different.

I have strong reasons for moving which include family, quality of life and a career gear-change but I am not leaving London because I have fallen out of love with it. I am not tired of London and therefore tired of life (thanks Samuel Johnson, that stupid observation probably kept me here much longer than I should have been). I truly love London. It inspires and challenges me. I am settled here. I have the best friends I could ever wish for here. I have a good job. I have my own place to live. I don’t mind the tube or the buses, the crowds or the bustle, the grumpy, gritty streets or the myriad other reasons most people generally give for leaving this crazy city. It wouldn’t be London without them. The doorstep living – with immediate access to the best theatre, cinemas, restaurants, bars, 24 hour shops which will give you a bottle of overpriced Rosé at 3 o’clock in the morning – is something you struggle to find elsewhere in such abundance.

So if I have the perfect London life on paper I have to wonder why I have spent the last four years trying to leave. For anyone who has followed this blog from day one (god help you) you will know that I spent the first year of it plotting and scheming ways in which I could move to New York. Being unable to get a visa, not having the stamina for student-hood again or the balls to ‘just go and see what happens’ I have had to abandon that dream for now. I then, somewhat reluctantly, took a job in Glasgow, predominantly to be closer to my mother, but found it to be a more brittle and unforgiving city than London. And at least 10 degrees colder. And yet I accepted a second and third contract there. During that time I was still officially living in London and commuting at weekends, but there was clearly something drawing me away. So now I am looking 100 miles west – to Bristol – a city I only previously knew from going aged 8 to the ice-rink and aged 18 clubbing to Lakota, but which I hope will give me what London seems unable to.

The Ravens at The Tower have their wings clipped to prevent them from flying too far away. Superstition surrounding that ancient stupid curse means those poor birds are destined to flit around as a tourist attraction, never able to fully spread their wings and fly. I can relate to that. It seems that despite my affection for London, I have not managed to fly in this city during the past fifteen years, and I just know that there are things I am capable of which I will never achieve here. I don’t know what those things are yet, but I am looking forward to finding out. As long as the Kingdom doesn’t crumble first.

Road Trippin’ USA

From magisterial mountain highways to awe-inspiring ocean roads, the American Road Trip remains one of the most enduring and iconic holidays imaginable.

Whether you are camping on a shoe-string or 5-Staring your way across the States, it’s impossible not to get a taste of the freedom captured in so many books and movies, the freedom which so many of us find missing from our constantly connected modern lives.

Having just finished my third road trip, I thought it timely to write up just a few of the more practical lessons I have learned from my experiences, and I hope some future travellers can put them to good use.

1. It takes longer to get anywhere than you expect

America is MASSIVE. Ok, so it is smaller than Russia, Canada and China but coming in 4th out of 249 countries is no ‘small’ feat. Be prepared to drive long distances on some days and nowhere on other days. Be realistic in your planning. If you have a week, go for 1 or 2 States, in a little over a month I managed 8 States, or 5,000 miles, but it involved a lot of driving. I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I was planning that trip I was tricked by the movie myth – it took Dennis Hooper and Peter Fonda 120 minutes to get from LA to New Orleans on motorbikes in 1972 – how long could it take going the other way, from New Orleans to LA, in a Dodge Charger in 2011? The answer was, a lot longer, especially when you are not stoned the whole time, which is something to ponder.

2. Avoid the Freeways

The Great American Road Trip does not take place on the Freeway. Full Stop. Do not be tricked by the cunning use of the word ‘Free’ here. If you have a GPS/Sat Nav use the ‘avoid freeways’ options, or if you can read a map, or have a background in orienteering (like me), even better – avoid the blue interstate roads. There is often a highway running parallel to the freeway, sometimes it might take you up to an hour longer to get somewhere, but trust me. You will spend a lot of time on the road on this trip and it is much better to spend it on a road where the driver can look around and enjoy the scenery as much as the passengers, and on a road where there is every chance you will pass a town, a site or a diner which you never would have found from the Freeway. I don’t think there are many wineries gracing the banks of the I5…as we saw in Sideways you have to go a little off the beaten track to find anything interesting.

I’ll admit, on the highways you might get stuck behind a tractor or a large truck but they will often pull over to allow you to pass, or the roads are straight enough to allow you to overtake a mile-long Juggernaut and still be sure there’s nothing coming in the opposite direction. Admittedly you will have to negotiate more intersections, but in America you can turn right on red! Just don’t do it while trying to catch a falling TomTom and eating a Butterfinger at the same time, that is where near-misses happen. Not that I would know…

3. But if you have to use the Freeway

Back to the Juggernauts, there is nothing more daunting on the Freeway (as you do sometimes have to use it) than the appearance of the ‘runaway truck’ lane. As the freeway snakes up this or that mountain range you might find yourself amused at the slow crawl these beasts are forced to travel at due to the gradient. But you won’t be laughing for long, as when you reach the brow of the hill their speed picks up and it appears there is a definite need for this lane as the possibility of one of them careering out of control is very real. As you can imagine, this can be quite distracting from the scenery. Another distraction is being constantly aware that other vehicles can overtake you from either side at any moment. I know this happens in some countries in Europe too – the Brits seem to be the only sensible ones to use overtaking lanes purely for overtaking – but rarely in Europe do you find 6 lane motorways and the shadow of two 18 wheel trucks extinguishing not only the view, but the daylight, and potentially your life.

I have also found that Freeways tend to be less maintained than the state highways – the roads are often really poor with a lot of pot-holes and the lane lines are barely visible on many of them. Particularly in California, everyone seems to use the Freeways, meaning that it is near impossible to get anywhere during rush hour (or any time of day in LA) so please heed my advice and avoid the Freeway, unless you want to end up like Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

4. Get a reliable vehicle

I totally get how tempting it is to find a beaten up old Thunderbird convertible and head out on the open road, like Thelma and Louise, but unless you are an actual mechanic, or a lot braver than I am, the risks outweigh the benefits on this one. Firstly it is often 100 miles between gas stations, in fact even between inhabited places, and those long stretches of road can be baking hot or freezing cold, and you know what? Even in ‘eternally friendly’ or ‘have a nice day’ America, very few people will stop when you try and flag them down. This might be to do with the demise of hitch-hiking culture, or just the fear-mongering of films like The Hitcher, but either way, it can be awfully lonely out there. Don’t expect Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band to read your script and come and find you.

BUT having said all of that, a friend of mine travelled across the States by going on Craigslist and finding people who needed vehicles taken from one city to another…and it worked! She actually ended up driving this rather fabulous sharkcarvehicle so what the hell do I know? INSERT PHOTO* And it also worked for Little Miss Sunshine, and a camper van is always cool, so maybe I take back the last point.

5. Camp!

A little unconventional, I know, and only really possible when the weather in fine, but if you have limited money and are already spending a large chunk of your budget on the car, do consider it. Campsites such a KOA are safe and clean and pretty much everywhere across the States. Staying in roadside motels is tempting, harking back traditional Americana, but they are often dirty, overpriced, and when the door to your room leads directly to an outside corridor it can be a little disconcerting, especially if you are on your own. Campsites are often filled with other travellers, life-long roaders with RV’s bigger than my London flat (not an exaggeration), and the chance to meet people, which you don’t often get in Motels.

Having said that, there are some excellent independently owned motels and B&B’s (which is not as much of an alien concept in the US as you might think, mostly thanks to airbandb), and in some small towns (and ghost towns!) these can be the only places to stay, so when you stay in them, go with it; have the grits for breakfast, use the ice machine, even take a dip in the pool….for chain Motels I always find the Super8 pretty reliable, there’s a good one in Austin which overlooks the city – In fact I left my Stars and Stripes bikini there so if you happen to be passing…

6. Create a playlist

Ok I admit it, I cranked up Hotel California while driving down Highway 1; Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash serenaded us while rolling through Tennessee and The Joshua Tree was played on repeat while approaching said tree – (The Joshua Tree isn’t one tree by the way it is an entire National Park, who knew?!) but these are musical clichés for a good reason. Maybe you won’t have a Tiny Dancer moment like in Almost Famous or meet an old country singer like in Crazy Heart, but music is so deeply entwined with American road culture leave your cynicism at the door and make a shit-hot playlist.

Having said that, don’t dismiss local radio though…it can give you a rather interesting insight into the local community, specifically, for me, the Christian Rock station Air 1 in California where you will find pumping classics like, ‘I Get Down, He Lifts Me Up’, ‘We Are Overcomers’ and ‘I Am A Difference-Maker’

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7. Be Prepared To Stop

One of the biggest regrets I have from one of my recent trips was when driving from The Grand Canyon to Monument Valley (controversially I found the latter more awe-inspiring) was not stopping at a hand-made sign saying: ‘Dinosaur Footprint This Way’ with an arrow pointing down a dirt track. Fear of it being a gang of kidnappers/rip-off merchants and knowledge that the destination was only an hour ahead stopped me from stopping, and I really regret that – I have since found out there are several Dinosaur footprints in that area, footprints where the Dinosaurs actually stood, gazzilions of years ago, in a land where they are often dismissed as a myth, how cool would it have been to see that, before the Creationists destroy them all?

You will also have to stop for food of course, and if you happen upon a Sonic drive in where the servers are still on roller skates, lucky you! It’s a standard burger joint, but the rollerskates make you feel like you’re in American Grafitti, which is cool. Speaking of which if you go to one diner, and you are in LA, go to Mel’s on Sunset. There are so many brilliant food places in the States and so many terrible ones that it would be pointless to start listing, but take the rough with the smooth and accept you won’t always luck out, but sometimes you will. Also, get a cool box so you always have a supply of snacks, sometimes your schedule might not fit in with mealtimes!

8. Other Modes of Transport

If you can’t drive, the Greyhound buses are still really cheap and plentiful, though tend to not take direct routes, and go to very obscure and out of the way towns, which may be interesting for a while, but there might be a reason tourists don’t stop at these places. Riding the Greyhound also means you can’t just stop and get off wherever you want…so you might need to invest a lot of time if you want to see the country this way.

The trains are another possible mode of transport, they not as cheap and can be massively unreliable (on a recent journey between Seattle and Vancouver the train actually stopped to pick up a fax). As this might imply, any of them still hark back to the golden age of train travel and old fashioned values so can be worth it for the linen in the dining cars, the Polar express uniforms and, of course, the incredible views of the oceans, mountains, deserts and you can sometimes hit all of them in one day. The California Zepher between San Francisco and Chicago is a particularly magnificent journey.

9. Talk to People

People in the US are inherently friendlier that in the UK, but you still have to make the effort to talk to people in more out of the way places. The accent weirdly still helps – I was recently half an hour outside of LA and the motel staff surrounded me because my accent was so ‘cute’. Remember that Americans like storytelling and often they have fascinating stories to impart. The ulterior reason for talking to people though is to glean local knowledge from them.

On my longest road trip, we made no firm plans beyond the next nights’ stop, and would talk to people when we got there and ask them what we should see the next day, where we should go that tourists don’t normally go. This technique helped us discover some incredible sights, restaurants, bars, areas and also to make some wonderful friends – who I still get an enormous amount of pleasure from, by finding out what they are up to on Facebook.

10. Enjoy the Journey

Not just the destination. This is so obvious and I can’t imagine why anyone would embark on a Road Trip without this being their main goal, but you’d be surprised. It is actually fine to ‘Griswald’ a sight (spend hours driving there, take a picture, get back in the car) or if you love it more than you expected, spend the night. Being in a vehicle for hours with loved ones gives you the perfect opportunity to re-discover them, to really talk without any second screen distractions, to laugh, to cry, to shout, to get things out in the open. The impact of the sense of freedom and the inspiration of the diverse, and constantly changing scenery, will allow you the space to think, and grow.

I can guarantee that by the end of your trip you will have expanded your horizons (hopefully not just your waistline) and grown into your best possible self. Just cling onto that feeling when you get home, and start planning for your next trip.

A New Year

For once I am not going to start this blog with empty declarations and promises of commitment. After 18 months I am now wise to the fact that these are not the things which will make me write, they will just make me look like a fool when I don’t. So, whatevs if, when I opened the blog folder on my laptop, I counted 15 unfinished blogs from the last 6 months? At least it proves that the intention and commitment to write is still there, even if I am unable to close the deal on most occasions….it’s when I stop trying that I will really worry.

On New Year’s Day I was travelling back from Swansea and had in my hand a carrier bag with a Welsh Dragon on it (Tesco has really zoned in on local Patriotism). After 5 hours on the megabus and with a big-ass hangover, I was in no mood for a chat but when I got to the final leg of my journey, a bus stop at Victoria, a smelly old tramp clutching a bottle of booze started muttering at me and pointing at the bag. After about the fifth attempt at understanding what he was saying to me all I could think was, “Please leave me alone, I’m so tired, I just want to get home…”

“…home…”

And then all I could think about was what a massive cunt I was and how this man probably had no home to go to, and clearly just wanted to talk about a home he had once known. So I listened harder. In the 7 minutes until my bus arrived I deciphered that he spoke fluent Welsh, was from Pontypridd, had played rugby for them in the 70’s and knew Tommy David (big in Welsh rugby, apparently). But it was when I actually looked at him, and into his eyes as he was slurring, mostly indecipherably, that I saw something else. I saw my friends, and myself and felt the recognisable pang of ‘There but for the grace of….’

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Whether due to alcoholism, circumstances, his own bad choices or a combination of everything, this man is simply where he is right now and does not deserve my judgement, just my compassion, which is a small thing for me to give. After my initial reluctance, I am glad I was able to give him that, and a blueberry muffin too which I hadn’t quite managed to get my chops around on the bus.

It has been a rocky start to the year, with a break-up, illness and a sudden death shaking many of my beliefs already – and it’s not even ‘epiphany’ yet! But, as my wonderful yoga teacher said this morning, let’s make 2014 the year of love, of giving and receiving it as openly as we are able (fnar fnar). But as cynical as I can be sometimes, this is not a bad foundation to start from and after yet another failed relationship, I have to learn from it and find a way to open my heart and trust in the moment, not in the possible future disappointments which have clouded so many of my decisions. As the last few days have proved, life is too short. My fear of the future which I bring into the present every day, must no longer stop me from making, at least some, commitment to that future.

So, I am off to the EE shop to sign up for my first 24 months contract – 24 MONTHS! It’s a really good deal, but as I said to the poor woman in the shop…What if I change my mind? What if I hate the phone? What if I drop it in the toilet? What if I use more than my data allowance? What if I die?? She (kinda) laughed and in her best salesperson voice said, “Well, the insurance policy on this phone is really cheap”.

So, and this is not a resolution but more a statement of intent, I intend to stay committed to this blog, to becoming a writer and to the idea that 2014 will be the year of love, in whatever guise that might be. Even better than my phone insurance, I have the best possible insurance policy for life in the shape of amazing family and friends and, while not always cheap they are all one can really wish for when yet another epiphany rolls around. Which is a strong reminder that even if like me you’re an atheist, you can still believe in love and embrace the opportunity for renewal. Happy 2014.

I’m Going Home

On the day, I went away (good bye –aye-aye)
Goodbye was all, I had to say (now I-aye-aye)
I want to come again and stay…

There are times in life when there is nothing for it, but to channel your inner Frank ‘n’ Furter, and give in to your deepest desires. Which is a long-winded way of saying I am gong home, to New York. My spiritual home, my Transylvania, my rock. Ok, it may only be for 4 days but that’s enough time to re-fuel, to see how it’s doing, to fall in love again.

I read a statistic the other day that said the USA was the second most popular place for British Ex-pats to emigrate to after Australia, with 29,000 of us moving there every year…Am I missing something here? It’s hard enough to get in for a holiday, let alone move there…Brits are no longer allowed to enter the Green Card lottery because there’s too many of us there, I don’t want to be a student again (and that would only give me access for a limited time), I don’t have any special talents (well not any I can write about here) which would get me an O-1 visa…see I have done my research and I just can’t see a way in permanently…God I am boring myself now. So I accept I may never live there, but as long as I can visit twice a year I think that’ll do me (which means I can’t give up the day job any time soon then).

Anyway, I’m sure you don’t want to read a blog about me going on holiday so instead I’ll tell you the story of when New York changed my life. 18 months ago I made the radical decision to attend a screenwriting course there, and got on the plane 3 days after finishing a very long work contract. I hadn’t written a creative word in at least 12 years and we were asked to turn up for the course the next day with 3 ideas for screenplays. I usually love long plane journeys for catching up on movies but this one was spent in a state of panic staring at my closed laptop which had only ever been used for spreadsheets…not a single idea would form in my head, this fear, coupled with the fact I was convinced everyone on the course would be 21 year old trustafarians made my first day at the New York Film Academy terrifying. I believe I was actually trembling when I arrived for registration. We were herded into a room and the two tutors introduced themselves before going round the room, asking us our thoughts on the best and worst films. At first I couldn’t think of a single film, let alone my favourite so I ended up with obvious choices – Best: It’s a Wonderful Life. Worst: Titanic. I have a habit of accidentally arguing the opposite of what I believe so I may have actually stated that the wrong way round that day, but I don’t think anyone was too interested – they were all trying to think of cool films to quote themselves. Afterwards a British-sounding girl next to me said ‘Who wants to go to the pub?’ I put my hand up first and a joke was made about Brits and drinking and several of us (of many nationalities) trundled off to the nearest sports bar.

There is something strange about the first time you meet people who will become life long friends. It is almost as though time stands still and there are three people who were there that night whose faces I will remember forever as they were that evening, etched on my memory. On my first day at senior school one of my (still) best friends came over to me and said, ‘You look alright, do you want to be friends?’ and I can still see her grinning innocent 11 year old face every time I look at her…Clearly I am attracted to the people with good opening lines.

The next day we were split into groups. Our group consisted of ten of the most diverse, interesting people I have ever encountered – not a 21 year old trustafarian in sight, and a tutor who seemed to care passionately about his subject.

The next two months were very Dead Poets Society if you like (though nobody killed themselves at the end) whoops *spoiler alert with a bit of The Breakfast Club thrown in…  each of us played to our individual stereotypes while re-enforcing them and then breaking them down with every new discussion and twist of the story. There were a lot of stories told over that time, and we got to know each other through our thinly veiled descriptions of ourselves – sorry – our ‘characters’, from the roles we played in each other’s screenplays, from exploring New York City together and from the endless karaoke nights.

There was something so natural about this progression from ‘the fear’ on the airplane to the warm friendships (and actual screenplay) which developed that I hardly noticed the transition until it was gone. We all went back to our corners of the globes, with different lessons learned from the same experience. I’m sad to say it is unlikely that we will ever be in the same room together again, but that moment in time will remain with us forever.

I always loved Richard Dreyfuss’s’s last words at the end of Stand By Me.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

Well Rich, I have, I met people who have impacted on my life as much as any of my friends did when I was 12 and the fact we were learning together and discovering a new world in the same way we had done when we were when we were 12 made it a unique experience in my life and if I ever lose sight of why I am trying to be a writer I will remind myself of that time and the memory of those faces will propel me on to make it happen for them, for us.

This weekend at least three of us will be together again in New York and we will tear up the town like we did that first time, make new memories, recollect the old ones…and, most likely, drink too much and sing out of tune…so erm….see ya!

Homeward Bound

When I thought about writing this post, my intention was to bleat on about how displaced my life is at the moment, how I don’t currently have a permanent ‘home’ and haven’t for the past 20 months, how I was wrong about what I wrote in ‘Maybe Tomorrow I’ll Wanna Settle Down’ and how, goddammit, it looks like tomorrow has finally come.

But don’t panic, I’m not quite there yet. A couple of events happened last week which have scared me back to my previous stance and also alerted me to the absurdity of my ‘all or nothing’ approach, to the fact that the old cliché is in fact true – home is where the heart is, it’s just a matter of finding your heart.

Over the past 20 months I have had homes in places as exciting as Manhattan and Mexico but right now, I have two homes. A very nice sub-let, with a very nice friend, in a very nice part of London and a lovely room of my own in my dear Mama’s flat in the East End of Glasgow.

My ‘things’ however, are scattered – most of them in a storage unit in Frome and some in my sister’s house in Devon…these are ‘things’ which I carefully packaged up before leaving my previous home (a studio flat in Shepherd’s Bush), hopeful that the next time I needed them would be to decant them into my permanent home, wherever that may be. I visited the storage unit last weekend and discovered – aside from it all being a load of old tat – that I must have had delusions of grandeur while packing…there were boxes labelled ‘office’, ‘fancy dress room’ and ‘garden room’ (from a studio flat!) and enough books to start a mobile library…is it possible I imagined that after doing a spot of travelling for 7 months I would return home and move into Downton Abbey? Sadly, I think it is actually probable, such is the fine line between my fantasy world and my grip on reality.

Another slightly more practical part of me had hoped my ‘things’ would be shipped to New York and that is where I would now be making a home. I can’t begin to imagine what many New Yorkers (and of course the rest of the affected East Coast which barely gets a mention) are going through right now in the wake of Sandy and don’t even want to try. Still no power, still no running water, plenty of areas still flooded, the poor suffering way more than the rich…what makes any event of this nature just about bearable are the stories of selfless helpfulness, the strong protecting the weak, neighbours checking on each other, the volunteers and donations pouring into relief efforts, a refusal by many to be beaten by this. But still many have lost their homes, and when this stops being news, they will need help more than ever.

A few days before Sandy hit, one of my niece’s flat was gutted by fire. Her family home was also gutted by fire about 8 years ago. That’s two serious fires she has lived through in 21 years. Fortunately no-one was hurt in either, but again I can’t begin to imagine what she must be going through, how she is having to mourn the loss of her things, and her home. She’s being strong and philosophical about it all, but if you’re going to survive something like this, twice, what else can you do?

So, fire, flood, destruction can hit anyone at any time anywhere. Why, then, is it one of the basic human desires to have a home, to feel at home, to make a home. It would be so much easier if we were nomadic by nature, throwing off possessions easily, moving on without glancing back. But human beings don’t tend to do that…and I am finally ready to admit that I am human.

Until recently I really was against the idea of settling down but being transient has given me this new desire for permanence. I do wonder though, whether it is driven by the psychological (everyone else is doing it), biological (my ovaries want me to do it) or even the metaphysical (I need to do it to prove my existence)?! All I know for sure is my heart leaps when I think of any of my homes (London, Glasgow, New York, Mexico, Bath, Devon) and this is not because of the physical places so much as the the people who are there, the memories which have been made there – the things which make all these places home.

But maybe it’s time to finally gather up all of these parts of my heart and plant them in something more permanent and solid. And I don’t mean bricks and mortar but commitment and reality.

*head fuck alert*

Ok, I’ll think about this tomorrow. But in the meantime I am going to click my ruby slippers together three times (yes, I own some – who doesn’t?) and say, ‘there’s no place like home’, ‘there’s no place like home’, ‘there’s no place like home’ and just see what happens.

Coffee and TV

Last week was supposed to be my first full week working in Glasgow and my first full week actually making a TV show for the first time in 7 months. There’s nothing like a week of firsts to shake things up a bit. Here’s what happened.

Day 1 – Monday

I’M IN LOVE! I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. You see, he has made me coffee in the past, a couple of times, but I had never noticed the eyes until today.
I’m pleased to say Glasgow has not faded in my estimations and it continues to remind me of New York for many reasons, one of which is that it is full of independent coffee shops. Yes, my new-found love is a barista, and boy, is he good at it. I haven’t been there for a couple of weeks, but he remembered my coffee order and asked me how the weekend was. I told him I’d been sailing and we laughed about the fact that he never got a day off because he was too busy running the café… I melted into his eyes as I handed over my £1.50 (really? He must be under-charging me because of the chemistry) and our fingers brushed against each other gently. Tomorrow I’m going to wear the nicest outfit I have with me, I must get this man.

Day 2 – Tuesday

There is a certain spring in my step as I march down the rain-splattered streets to get my morning coffee, wearing the nicest outfit I have with me. In fact it’s the same dress I am wearing in my headshot on theconversation.tv so maybe he’ll recognise me from that and admit he’s actually my biggest fan and how refreshing it has been to get an insight into a modern woman through my musings, especially one so beautiful… As I enter the coffee shop, a woman turns around to help me. That throws me. I order my coffee, she’s nice but the chemistry just isn’t the same as it is with him. She charges me £1.50 and I leave hastily.

Day 3 – Wednesday

Time to pull out my second best outfit, and freshen up with some dry shampoo since I overslept. But it’s ok as I’m going to see my destiny this morning – he doesn’t care about clean hair, although I’ll still wear a hat. There he is, my heart skips a beat. He is a little bit skinnier and paler than I had remembered from Monday, but that’s ok – after all, we are in Glasgow. He asks me if I’m late this morning – he even knows what time I normally come in! For some reason I find myself lying and telling him I walked to work. But it was the right move. He asks me where I stay. ‘Dennistoun’ I reply. I don’t know if Glasgow has the same East/West End divide as London but I hope it makes me sound edgy as if Dennistoun is Glasgow’s answer to Hackney. I don’t mention that I’m staying with my Mum. Or that the entire area smells of hops from the Tennents brewery next door. He smiles, his sweet honest smile. £1.50. This love affair is going to cost me a fortune. As he hands me my change I see a marked difference in his expression… I only notice when I step outside that my second favourite outfit is gapping open at the breast, a lot. Damn, I wasn’t planning on using that one so soon.

Day 4 – Thursday

Another morning, although no more lovely outfits, I do manage to wash my hair…not that it matters as it’s raining anyway and I have to wear an anorak. When I get to the counter he remembers my coffee order again and I smile my best smile, although there is something missing from our interaction. He goes on to say how all of his regulars seem to have a cappuccino in the morning so it makes it easy to remember – although he does remember that I have one sugar. But something has definitely changed. The spark that was so strong on Monday has faded, he’s just making my coffee, and I’m just one of his regulars. I spot a lemon meringue cupcake on the side and try out my favourite joke on him: (in a Glaswegian accent) “Is that a cupcake or a meringue?” He replies, “No you’re right, it’s a cupcake!” Bedumdum…Only he doesn’t, instead he gets distracted by another customer, chucks the cake I don’t want into a bag, I pay for it and scuttle away without saying goodbye.

Day 5 – Friday

Everyone’s happier on a Friday so the spring in my step has returned. I am hopeful that the previous day was just a glitch in our universe – after all, every couple have their off days. I enter the shop and stare directly into those eyes. NOTHING! I feel nothing. I feel cheated. Where has it gone? He smiles at me in the same way but whereas four days earlier that smile had made me mentally design my wedding dress, today, at best, it makes me want to smile back. I ask for my coffee with no sugar (which is actually how I take it) and hurry out of the shop, in the knowledge that the next time I enter it will just be a coffee shop and not where I met the love of my life.

How fickle be the human heart. Or rather, how mental be the world my thoughts inhabit about 30% of the time? As you may have guessed, this tele programme I’m working on is taking a while to get going, allowing time for daydreaming. Idle daydreaming can be wonderful but it can be dangerous, I reckon I fall in love once a week. I suppose there is a chance I’m too quick to dismiss every spark as just a daydream –  as being all in my mind, could I have missed the ‘real thing’ somewhere along the way? Hmmm, unlikely but as a hopeless romantic I know there are going to be more coffee shop romances to come and maybe one day I’ll stop shallowly taking away and actually commit to sitting in – who knows what might follow…

 

The Olympics and Our Natural State

It’s Friday night and I have turned down two party invitations to stay in and watch sport on TV, the rules of which I hardly understand. Yep, Olympic fever has become unavoidable and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I have lived in London for nearly fifteen years and have been trying to live elsewhere for the past two years but in the last two weeks I have seen potential in this city which I had previously thought was beyond hope. Wait for it – people are smiling at each other, offering their seats to others, engaging in lengthy, friendly discussions. The other day a trader, a tramp, an old women and a schoolgirl chatted for half an hour on the bus with each other, without a cross word – true story.

There is a school of thought which suggests a human being’s natural state is to be selfish and out for oneself, survival of the fittest and all others be damned. There are theories that this is why capitalism ‘works’ and communism doesn’t, that we thrive in small family units but we don’t fare so well when we try to make our neighbours into family too. But I disagree. I think that our natural state is one of kindness and community. In the words of the BBC’s wonderful twentytwelve sustainability minister, Kay Hope, ‘I really think that.’ (if you haven’t seen it, check it out). Even the athletes, despite being probably the most competitive people on the planet, seem to have an inclusive and respectful attitude.

I’ll admit I was extremely sceptical and non-plussed about the whole thing in the lead up. The Queen’s Golden Jubilee earlier this summer had brought some sense of community to the city but celebrating a monarch’s long reign is not exactly inclusive.  In fact right up until I watched the weird and wonderful quintessentially British opening ceremony on my mum’s tiny TV in Glasgow, I didn’t give a monkeys about the Olympics. But suddenly, in the blink of an eye, here was something that I had barely witnessed in this country before, real community spirit. Even the Queen had joined in with her amazing James Bond sketch. The next day I got off the train at Euston station and was handed a free Olympic ice cream. Then someone asked me for directions, which I provided and they helped me down the stairs with my bag. Something had changed. London had become, even if only for 17 days, the greatest city on Earth. My new favourite game is pretending (in my own head) that I can understand what is being said in the 250 languages which are being spoken on the tube every day…of course I am imagining they are saying how wonderful London is, and not how many stops they have and how they need a pee.

Before I get carried away…what next? How can this new found enthusiasm and passion for our city, and the sense of community, ever last? And how can we avoid this national pride turning into hubris? I met a friend in the park for lunch the other day and there were people doing circuit training who had clearly never even run for a bus before. Inspire a generation is the slogan, right now more than one generation or one demographic has been inspired – even me. Confession time: I can’t ride a bike. I had a bike when I was about 8 and I posed for photos with it, but I’m not sure it went further than that. Either way, nowadays when I attempt to get in the saddle I invariably fall off or look like a fool. But I spent 2 hours early on Saturday morning with the lovely FREE council cycling trainer, slowly learning the moves. I don’t think I’m on track to be the next Pendleton quite yet – but I never expected to even bother trying. The power, joy and diversity which these games have brought to London need to inspire us to be humble and make us work towards being better people within ourselves and then we can give back to our community.

I don’t think this is merely a case of long lost patriotism or desperation for some good news in the midst of an extremely depressing era. Some of the stories which have come out of the Olympics – the sacrifices many of the athletes have gone through to be here can’t help but make you come together and wonder at the power of the human spirit and in turn, community spirit. I’m not being naïve, and I fully expect the London to return to the doldrums as soon as the Paralympics end, but the last 2 weeks have proved that with a bit of organisation human beings love being nice to each other, we have a great capacity for kindness and respect – for inspiration and inclusion – we need a little push once in a while and then it’s just like riding a bike, apparently.