Flying Solo

Well here I am, back to the central concept of my blog – literally flying solo from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of another glorious holiday on my own.

I’ve got the routine down pat. From that first holiday in Thailand (see my very first post – Consciously Uncoupling) where I spent days feeling sorry for myself in an exotic location, I’m now a veteran of the experience, knowing how to play it, how to pace my time and how to react when people question me about it.

Today I got questioned by one of the hotel’s numerous managers: he had thought that by reading my book alone on the beach that I didn’t like the hotel. Nothing could be further from the truth – feeling relaxed enough to do that on day one is pretty much my personal seal of approval. Why is reading alone seen as such an antisocial activity? This came on the heels of another hotel employee asking me why I was reading rather than relaxing – to him the two were very definitely exclusive – and later I was told that all the staff thought I was a doctor because I was wearing glasses and reading books. Wherever I go I am known as the ‘lady with book’ – people seem genuinely surprised that I read.

But like many solo travellers, the book is my travelling companion, my security blanket, my go-to item when I’m plunged into an unfamiliar setting. I can quickly immerse myself in a fictional (or non-fictional) world when I’m surrounded by couples and families on the beach, at dinner in a crowded restaurant, in a coffee shop filled with Egyptians or Turks. When a book is with me, I have a bubble to escape into, and I zone out all of the noise and activity around me. It’s so much more than ‘just a thing to do with your hands’ when you’re on your own.

I tend to punctuate my time on holiday by booking a few trips – this time to the White Canyon in Nuweiba (where you have to haul yourself out by a rope!) and a submarine trip to see fish on Napoleon Reef (I don’t swim). This is a great way of meeting new people, especially if you’re thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as in the canyon.

What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old (beautiful Maryam) and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the walk/climb through the canyon, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. He even took her with him when he climbed out of the canyon using only the rope. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. It made me think about challenges and scary things, and how they’re not so scary when you get up close to them. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, “I’m scared!”, and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, ‘well if he can do it with a baby on his head…’

The first time I came to Egypt I was scared. Of the people, my perception of the culture and religion, the language. Everything. It didn’t help that a Dahab shopkeeper spiked my tea when I went into his shop – I literally ran out and off to the hotel shuttle bus, vowing never to go back again. But I’ve gone back again and I’ve laughed at how normal it all seems because I’m not seeing it all through the veil of scariness. I walked past his shop, at night this time, and stopped to talk to other shopkeepers who’ve simply sold me something without hassling me (although the non-hassling ones are few and far between – I make a point of going into their shops. By the way, I don’t think that shopkeeper intended to drug me – the tea had a mildly fuzzing effect that was probably intended to relax me into more shopping. He looked genuinely surprised when I ran out.)

That first time in Dahab town, I swathed myself in a long dress and scarf around my head, so as not to ‘stand out’. No wonder I was hassled. This time I noticed Egyptian girls (I didn’t see many women over 30) running around in jeans and jackets, hair streaming free. However, the best moment was spotting a convoy of Muslim girls on quad bikes heading into the desert, in full headgear. You go, girls.

From the Bedouin guy next to the hotel selling me Turkish coffee and giving me some bread to help him feed the birds in his tent, to the guy selling me boat trips, it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking these people were just after me for something. Of course, they’re selling their wares, but both guys took time to chat to me, to tell me about their lives and make me feel comfortable. Add to that the Egyptian couple in the canyon, who left an open invitation to their place in Cairo and emailed pictures they took of me wobbling and panicking up the canyon wall.

In many ways, the canyon trip represents the challenge of holidaying alone for me – I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life as I made my way through and wish I wasn’t there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.

This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I’m going to be doing on any given day and I’ve learned to ride the rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terrible New Year’s Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year’s Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives. I resolved then that NY Day is the new NY Eve.

The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when things feel a bit grim. On your own at dinner one night? There’ll be a party invite the next, or an unexpected meeting with an old friend in a bar in town … or new one. Don’t expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and it’s just done it again. I love it. It’s life.

The other trick is not to rely on anyone else for your plans. I once met two Australian sisters in Phuket and they promised hand on heart to come back after their trip to Phi Phi to spend the last day of my holiday with me. I looked forward to it so much and they never showed. But I did end up meeting an Indian air stewardess in a bar and we went clubbing together, so all was not lost.

The Rollercoaster.

Part of me just wants to get on the waltzers, or even just the children’s spinning teacups, and have a nice ride round with no thrills or spills. But then the lure of the unseen horizons over the top of the rollercoaster’s peaks and loops are too much for me and I have to send myself there.

It’s always, always worth it.

(From Sharm El Sheikh airport, which really does need to get wifi)

Specs and the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Been there.

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

Abso-fuckin-lutely.