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.
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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.
This week I read the tragic news about food blogger Wilkes McDermid, who threw himself off the roof terrace of a London restaurant in a planned suicide. In his ‘goodbye’ blog post, he stated that he was simply ‘accelerating Darwinism’, as a 39-year-old Asian man, doomed to be alone forever. He’d conducted some informal research over a number of years that indicated women prefer Caucasian or black men over Asians, and if not, then they would almost certainly be tall and/or wealthy Asians. His blog is insistent in its reasoning and maintains that while McDermid couldn’t control his romantic life, he could control the length of it. He could, and he did, put an end to his suffering.
What an unbelievably tragic state of being. To take oneself out of the running, off the face of the earth because you believe you will never find love. At this time of year, as we approach Valentine’s Day, I’m sure there are so many people thinking similar thoughts, but of those who say they’ve given up on love, most don’t actually believe it in their heart of hearts. There is always a glimmer of hope, right?
What has struck me about this story is the science behind it. When I left my marriage four years ago, I had no idea that science had anything to do with partner-finding. Call me a romantic, but I’ve always laboured under the idea of being so struck by another person that any consideration of current life situation, age, job, looks – whatever –would go by the wayside. I’ve scoffed when people said, ‘maybe the time wasn’t right’ about a particular guy I’ve dated, and I’ve thought, ‘if the connection is right, who gives a fuck about the timing?!’
Isn’t that what’s glorious about love? The inconvenience of it? That it pushes every other consideration out of the way?
What I discovered was that suddenly, everything was all about the timing. Well-meaning friends told me I had to be ‘on the same page’ as someone, at the right life stage, to make a go of it. After my marriage, I’d had a ridiculously inconvenient year-long passionate love affair with someone ten years younger than me, but in the end, he’d thrown ‘timing’ back at me: a ten-year age gap is fine in your thirties and forties, he’d said, but not so good in your sixties and seventies. WTF? I thought we didn’t give a shit about that. Apparently ‘we’ did.
Since then, I have learned to accept certain unexpected facts about dating in my forties. Firstly, that men my age aren’t relieved to finally find a single, independent woman of their own age who doesn’t want children. They are frequently at the stage where they want the option of creating a Mini Me, if they haven’t already got one. They are even less relieved to find a woman who has a successful career and a brain, it seems – it is a challenge to their manhood. Woe betide me when they find out I’m a feminist – they smile and say, “I have a problem with feminists.” I say, “I have a problem with men who don’t believe a woman should have equal rights to men,” and we leave it there. Smiling.
No, men my age are still searching in the twenty-five to thirty-five age bracket, and I can’t really blame them, if they still want children. I’m always honest about my age online – forty-seven – and my profile only really attracts much older or younger men. And let me reassure you now, that in no way am I complaining about the latter.
Online, people are cast aside for simply not fitting a desired profile – not being the right age, height, weight, race, religion or not having the right job, location or marital status (eharmony wouldn’t let me join until I was properly divorced, not separated). This makes me think that online dating isn’t for me. Why would I want a partner who was judging me on a set of statistics? I want someone who will catch my eye on a train, a beach, in a bank or a checkout queue and want to get to know me. Just me, standing there, no statistics hanging on a board around my neck with a mugshot.
I don’t want the science of it, I want the randomness of it and I will always believe that is out there for me. And if he is shorter than I thought he would be, hasn’t got the ‘right’ job, is age- or religion-inappropriate I won’t give a shit about it. There will be a connection between both of us that no one else can see – they won’t be able to work out the science behind it because it will be beyond analysis and data. I feel so saddened by Wilkes McDermid’s death because he believed that this wasn’t out there for him.
I believe that if you are only looking for a socially approved relationship then you are working within a very narrow dating channel. You will only properly ‘see’ age-appropriate people with the right height/weight/job/hair colour ratio. If you look beyond a tick-box life, as I do, you will find that like-minded people see you. There are fewer of them, but the recognition of another soul with the same outlook is a moment to treasure. I’d rather wait for one single moment like that than tick any boxes, even if the odds are seemingly stacked against us.
RIP Wilkes McDermid – his final blog post and message: