I tackled a mountain horseshoe hike this week on my own and I’m so proud of myself. I hike solo a lot but there’s a big difference between the South Downs or a coastal path and the big Lakeland fells. There are steep drops, which I’m really afraid of, and some scrambling (meaning you have to use your hands). Scrambling at the top of a fell with a steep drop to one side had me chanting mantras and practicing my yoga breathing.
The thing is, you’re never alone up there. I met and chatted to lots of people and there is an exchange of information that really helps you make the right decisions for your walk. It’s all too easy to find yourself in difficulty on the side of a fell if you pick the wrong path.
I completely forgot about everything that’s been plaguing me recently – I focused on my map and how to place my feet on the rocks and I feel like my brain has been replaced with a new one.
I use an app to navigate – Outdoor Adventure – and today I had a paper map as back up, which I had to use. But it was the human input that really helped me that day – people here really know these fells and they’re keen to help other people enjoy them too.
I met two Yorkshire women who were doing the same route and we compared maps to check we were on the right path. I met them at the end in a sunny pub garden for a pot of tea and they gave me a lift back to my B&B.
Yesterday I had pain in my knee going downhill – after the strenuous horseshoe hike – and was really struggling to get down a fairly easy descent. Two men who were putting out flags for a fell race immediately said, “IT band. Get a roller on it when you can.”
I’ve had this issue before – when the side of your thigh tightens up and pulls on your hip and knee and knew exactly what I needed to do. It used to happen when I ran a lot and pushed myself too hard.
“Extend your poles going downhill – it’ll give you more to lean into.”
“We can give you a lift back into Keswick if we see you at the bottom,” they said. But I declined – there was a tearoom waiting for me and a regular bus schedule.
Think you can’t hike on your own? Wondering what the point is? I’ll say this – you’ll talk to more people when you’re on your own than you would with a sidekick.
The perfect Valentine gift for yourself or a friend – my seven secrets to a successful single life:
You don’t have to get married – I used to think that coupledom was the only valid life choice. It isn’t.
You don’t need a wingperson – I used to wait for friends to accompany me to drinks, dinner or a concert, before I realised I could do it all by myself, and love it.
You can date whomever you want (and it doesn’t need to be forever) – coming out of a socially condoned marriage opened my life to dating younger men and men from very different cultures. All of these experiences have enriched my life, and continue to do so.
You don’t have to have children – even though it seems as though everyone is doing it, you can opt out. It is a choice not a given.
You can go on holiday on your own – you can do exactly what you want, when you want, without having to compromise. Win!
Single life isn’t perfect (but neither is coupledom) – it’s a rollercoaster but I know which ride I’d rather be on…
The greatest relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself – it’s a cliche for a reason. If we don’t put ourselves first, no one else will.
Now available on Amazon for only £1.99 (ebook) and £4.99 (paperback):
During the first lockdown, I started walking along the seafront each morning, further and further, until I established a regular walk with regular stops to pick up tea and coffee along the way. I greeted the same people each morning, first with just a wave, then a ‘good morning’, and not long after, a proper conversation. They became part of my morning social life – I’ve largely replaced socialising in the evenings with mornings.
Almost every day someone will tell me that I’m ‘late’ or ‘early’, or not where I am normally on my walk. They’ll ask me how far I’ve walked, where I’ve come from and sometimes even tell me off for not going further. Only last week, a woman spotted me on my way back home and said, “That’s too quick! There’s no way you’ve walked to X beach!” I’d never said I’d walked to that beach, so I don’t know why she was measuring me on it.
The next day a man I vaguely know tapped his watch and said, “You’re running late!” The day after that, the same man noted that I was carrying a second cup of tea. I confess that I slightly lost it with him. “Are you tracking me or something?!” I cried. He laughed nervously and dragged his dog away.
I get this commentary all the time and it’s something I would never say to someone else. I see the same people each morning doing their thing and might observe a change in their routine, but I wouldn’t dream of pointing it out. This is their precious morning time, to do with whatever they choose.
I never walk at exactly the same time every day, so the ‘you’re late/early’ comments are a waste of breath. I’m hoping they work it out soon. I don’t understand why me being on time is so important to them. The lack of fixed routine is one of the greatest joys of my new freelance life – why would I impose a fixed schedule on it when I don’t need to?
A few weeks ago I met another solo woman when I was out hiking and helped her with some directions. We stopped to chat while eating lunch and shared our favourite walking books – Wild, The Salt Path, The Old Ways…
It turned out that her husband and two children were waiting for her a mile up ahead. Her husband had got her into travel and nature writing and wanted to encourage her to walk alone and experience the joy of it.
“How wonderful,” I told her, and she beamed.
“I love being on my own in nature,” she said. “Just a few hours where I’m off grid, untrackable.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
After we parted ways I showed my face to the sun and took a huge gulp of air, knowing that no one knew where I was (apart from the woman I’d just met) and that I could choose to go wherever I wanted, in whatever direction, quickly or slowly, with no commentary from anyone else.
As a solo woman, you know that you should probably leave details of where you’re going with a friend in case something awful happens, but that’s the last thing I want to do. This is about disappearing from view with nobody else’s input. I want to hike alone and tell no one about how far or where I’ve gone. I used to post everything on social media but it always came with a commentary I didn’t need: someone who’d done the same route and told me about their favourite bit, someone who wanted to do it, someone who’d done it twice as fast, someone who’d done it naked…
As a solo woman, you also encounter ‘Challenge Man’ – the man who questions you intensely about whether you’ve ‘completed’ the path you’re on, how fast you’re doing it, and how many days you’ve ‘allowed’ yourself to complete it in. These men are often my age and dragging around a woman who is trying to enjoy nature, not complete a challenge in a set time. She, like me, wants to stop for tea and cake in the sunshine, and not be concerned about how that is impacting her overall time or Fitbit stats. She smiles at me apologetically, standing slightly behind her competitive other half.
The approach I’ve decided to adopt with all these people is to be as vague and non-specific as possible.
They ask me how far I’m going: “I haven’t decided yet – I’ll see how I feel…”
They ask me if I’ve completed the path I’m on or planning to do another: “No, I’m doing my favourite sections of this path, over and over again.”
They tell me I’m early or late: “I don’t have fixed times…”
They ask me if I’m not working that day: “Yes, I just start whenever I want.”
But when they ask about my second (or third) cup of tea, I might just smile politely and walk on by.
This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.
This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?
Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.
I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.
This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.
I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.
In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.
My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.
Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.
Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.
I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.
I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.
But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.
I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on Ancestry.com has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.
Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.
As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?
One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.
I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.
It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.
I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.
In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.
Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.
In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).
I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.
I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”
In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.
You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.
Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.
Sex and the City
Every day in Agonda village, south Goa, a white horse walks slowly from her home through the streets. She heads down to the beach where she will walk slowly from back and forth along the shoreline until sundown. Throughout the day, she stops off at a beach hut or two for a slurp of water, then at sunset, she stops serenely to allow people to take a photo of her. Then she makes her way back, stopping off at a bar or two, to poke her head over the counter. It marks a passing of the day, a ritual, like the morning yoga class or the feeding of the cows on beach before the sun goes down. I asked if she had a name. “White Horse,” they said.
I witnessed all of this from my Simrose beach hut and got caught up in its rhythm. It seemed to form part of a constant thrum of activity, which was underpinned by the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I arrived at 2am and couldn’t believe how loud they were at high tide. I was woken by them several times during the course of my stay and had to wear earplugs. “Oh yeah – always get a hut further back from the beach,” people said, who had been there before. The waves are the soundtrack to everything and even the yoga teacher used their rhythm to breathe against – a technique I learned called ujjayi or ‘ocean breath’.
If I sound like I’ve gone all spiritual, I sort of have. People said, “Oh Goa isn’t the real India”, thinking of the trance scene the litter-strewn beaches of the north. Well it was real enough to me, and I loved it. I did yoga class every morning I could with Lucia, who was from Italy and filled with hypnotic phrases about the various chakra and how I could focus on them. I had had a stressful time at work before Christmas and was coming back to a promotion that promised an extremely busy time ahead so I made the most of the chance to connect with myself and the sea (which I love to be beside and float in a boat upon but I can’t swim in).
The biggest surprise was finding that I knew most of the vinyasa poses already from my time training in contemporary dance. I didn’t know that Martha Graham had nicked them all to become ‘the mother of modern dance’. Even in the two weeks I was there I started to feel my old dance body coming back – strong back, strong core, a stretched feeling in my hips and legs – a feeling I never thought I would recreate.
I developed my own White Horse routine. It involved walking on the beach, yoga, then breakfast, reading on my hut deck, lunch, more reading, another walk, cocktails, dinner then drinks at a bar. As with my very first solo trip abroad, it took me three days to leave the resort. I was a little bit scared of what would be there (so much scaremongering about India, especially for women). But as it was Christmas, I just spent the first few days in the resort, enjoying the efforts the staff made to make it fun and festive. I spent Christmas Eve with a brother and sister from Manchester – the brother lives down the road from me in London. Small world…
On Boxing Day I decided I needed to venture out. I found a single strand of shops and stalls selling clothes, jewellery, spices, and copious sarongs. I found friendly shop-owning women, all telling me I was their ‘first customer of the day’ and therefore they were giving me ‘the best deal’. Even though I knew it was all sales talk it was fun and I bought beach dresses and loose trousers. I didn’t get hassled once by men other than to ask if I wanted a taxi. I felt safe. I spotted a bar on my way back with my spoils and liked its vibe, and promised myself I’d venture out later. It’s always tough that first time. It always requires a bit of Dutch Courage to make that first step so I made mine a Caipirowska.
I pulled up a stool at Kopi Desa and immediately a guy from Birmingham slid into the seat next to me and asked if I’d mind chatting to him. As he rambled on, I could see a couple, obviously British, trying to catch my eye to see if I needed help. I can’t remember how I made it over to them but I did and they said the guy had been hitting on lone women all day. It’s always a British guy, never a local. They introduced the barman as ‘the best-looking man in Goa’. I couldn’t disagree.
Over the next few nights I met more Brits there, plus Indians, Scandinavians and Coca-Cola the cow who popped in for a drink every evening. The bar is open to the street so you’re surrounded by everything, from the bell-ringing bread boy on his bike in the early evening, to the beach dogs scouring for scraps. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends I met in this bar, watching fireworks on the beach at H2O. I had the best New Year’s Day ever.
I’d started dating someone before Christmas and whilst I’d enjoyed the time we spent together I wasn’t truly sure I was ready to commit to them. At first I thought my trip to Goa was getting in the way of progress, but in truth it gave me time to reflect and think about what I really wanted. I watched the White Horse, a symbol of freedom without restraint in many cultures, completing her daily ritual with no one to stop her. I remembered one of my favourite Sex and the City quotes, cited at the top of this post, and knew it applied to me. I thought about returning to Agonda, a place I already knew I loved, with a partner and I felt sad. I knew I wanted to come back on my own, with no one reining me in or saddling me with their needs and wants.
I knew I didn’t want to be one of the many women with families I’d witnessed, anxious and hovering over their brood (and injured animals), unable to just relax by themselves and watch the ocean. I’d sat next to a woman on the plane out, who was separated by the aisle from her family and spent 10 hours slightly angled towards them, watching them, whilst they completely ignored her and vegged out with dad. I didn’t want to be a woman in an unhappy coupling, waiting until she’s in a group to make sly digs at her partner. I’ve done that and it sucks.
I did want to be the free woman on New Year’s Eve who whooped at fireworks with the happiest couple on earth, Lucy and Jason, who were on their honeymoon mega-trip. A couple who are happy to spend time with a single woman are rare indeed – and you know they are the strong ones who will last. And I did want to be the woman who shared a bottle of prosecco with the best-looking man in Goa when the fireworks were over.
If the New Year is about making choices and stepping forward with the right ones, then here I stand: unfettered, mane blowing in the breeze, stamping my hooves with joy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
I’m writing this ahead of Valentine’s Day, because normally at this point the fear and dread has set in. I’ve never been keen on being in a pink, heart-festooned restaurant even when I was in a couple, but it’s even worse when you’re not. At least this year, VD (oops, did I just write that?) has the good sense to be on a Sunday, so we can all avoid the flower deliveries to the office and the smug carriers of said flowers on the train home. Normally, I’d be contemplating a day inside my flat, binge-watching something, and binge-eating something else.
But this year, I’m not. It doesn’t actually matter any more. I used to get all het up about this stuff, but that moment has passed. I know VD is a mostly sham experience, but hey – lots of my friends are in love, or have found love, so it’s fine if they want to celebrate it. Hell, I’ll even celebrate it with them (in a social-media sense).
I have found real love here and there in my life, but never for very long. I think the most I’ve managed is a few months. I remember the feeling it creates… That heady delight in everything, where you want to skip down the road and hand out flowers to small children and the elderly. You find yourself marvelling at the minute detail of the world and being kind to people on the Tube. I remember feeling like I wanted to pirouette down the street (dance training comes in handy) and sing, “I’m in love … with a pretty wonderful boy!” from West Side Story.
The thing is, I’m feeling a bit like that right now. There’s no romance in my life, although I do see a couple of guys occasionally. They make me feel happy when I’m with them because there’s no pressure for it to be anything than what it is. I think I make them happy too. As a friend says to me quite often, “It is what it is, Babe.” This has turned out to be my life mantra.
It’s been coming on now for a few months. I have found a job that I love and people I love working with. I’m being collaboratively creative in a way that hasn’t happened for years and it is making me so happy.
I have found myself letting old grudges gently slide (well, nearly all of them). I’ve realised people are just humans like me, imperfect and just trying their best. Might as well just all get along while we’re here, eh? Why make it worse for ourselves?
I’ve found myself helping a variety of people on public transport and smiled at the surprise on their faces. I remember the last time I felt like this and it was a love affair that did it – it made me want to be kinder to people. How lovely that it can be done even without another person being involved. Who knew that all it required was just to feel genuinely happy in your own skin? I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this.
So here I am, nearly 49, single, feeling happy in my skin. And yes, I’m just as amazed as you probably are. It’s not supposed to happen, is it? Women my age are meant to be surrounding themselves with cats and growing hairy warts on their faces. Instead, I’m striding out to work with a spring in my step, booking solo adventures abroad and saying howdy doody to surprised old people in north-west London. I’ve even given up dieting and don’t feel the need to drown any sorrows in booze. I even spent Christmas in the UK, without feeling like I needed to get on a flight somewhere. Anywhere…
I’ve noticed for a while now that more people are smiling at me, in general. I think it’s because my face is set in one (for a while I thought I had a ‘little something’ on my cheek). I’ve particularly enjoyed exchanging smiles with women when I’m out and about, mainly because smiling at men can often get you in trouble. And I think women SHOULD smile at each other more. There’s way too much scowling for my liking.
So, if this post is making you gag with all its sickly sweetness, bear in mind that on Sunday, I might be celebrating the fact that you’ve found your own sickly sweet love. And I truly think that’s great because I’ve felt its awesomeness.
But I’m afraid the old cliché is a cliché for a reason: because it’s true.
In the words of Whitney Houston, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
Happy Valentine’s Day to me, and to all you lovers out there.