Things to do when you’re Anxious, if you’re me.

Life moves Pretty FastAnxiety is a tricksy bugger. At times it seems so normal that it sneaks in beside stress and picks away at you until you’re an empty shell of anxious and hadn’t noticed until it’s too late and you’re crying that your pen just ran out.

When I am busy, or tired or worried or stressed, anxiety likes to walk with me and be helpful. I makes me jittery and wired, which, at first, is great for banging out tasks and staying up late to be productive. But eventually it leads to indecision and doubt and distraction and a constantly vibrating thrumming feeling in my chest even when I’m trying to relax. It’s thinking about things to do next month when I’ve particularly set aside twenty minutes to read or watch tv so as to NOT think about my current to do list.

I know how to recognise my anxiety a little faster now. Not all the time, but often. I know that I can’t make it go away. I’m an anxious person who suffers from anxiety and pretending I am not is helping no one. What I can do is try to manage it. When I can see that anxiety has a grip on me like a too tight sweaty itchy jumper, I try one of these:

– lying down on the floor for ten minutes and just not moving. It feels like torture to be thinking and not doing, but it gives my body an actual rest in an usual place which is mildly distracting. Even if it does make me need to hoover the moment I stand up.

– putting on a stand-up show while I buzz about and do things on my To Do list. Hearing someone else’s voice and humour distracts me from having second or third thoughts about my decisions. It also makes me laugh, which is more important than I would have expected. I like to listen to the same shows again and again. The wordy clever ones with minimal visuals. I like to hear one person talk for a solid hour. I also like to listen to the Six Music podcasts of Jon Richardson & Russell Howard because they are so wonderfully balanced. Jon is grumpy and curmudgeonly while Russell is enthusiastic and ridiculous. Russell Howard once described his mum as “not the full tambourine” and l just love that.

– walking quickly along the river while listening to loud music. The light on the river soothes my eyes and rests my head while my body is physical and productive. The music distracts me from the endless repetitive thoughts and takes me out of my brain.

– sitting on my bed in the dark watching a fun story dvd. The bed supports my whole weight, so my body rests. The dark prevents me from doing anything else. The story dvd is usually a comedy or a crime drama and it commands my whole attention. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort and heart into making this story. It would be rude of me to only pay half of my attention. I light candles for the scent and the atmosphere and immerse myself.

– eating a lot of carbs. When I’m anxious it is really hard to make and stick to a decision – even about what to eat of an evening. That’s when I have to take away the decisions and focus on one thing at a time. To watch potatoes boil and mash them, to chop a stack of vegetables and make lasagne with its many layers, to bake a cake and not do the dishes, some laundry and download four podcasts at the same time. To eat something warm and filling and just for me.

– saying a mantra reminding myself I am safe and that the to do list has no impact on who loves me or how they love me. Anxiety can feel like panic. And panic lies. Panic tells you that everything is life or death and that the wrong decision or action is fatal. I try to play Worst Case Scenario and see how bad it could possibly be. Logically, I know it won’t be terrible, but emotionally it does not feel like that. I try to connect my logic and my emotions by saying the words out loud.

– having a gimlet and singing along to some Beyonce. She’s powerful and takes no prisoners while being fun and vulnerable. The gimlet knocks me on the head and lets me try and be silly for a half hour.

– painting my nails. It takes a lot of concentration because I am clumsy. I choose a red and I watch it deepen with coats. I glide a top coat on over that and wonder how to get the colour out of the brush. And then I have to either sit still or only type for an hour or else I will smudge my work. Throughout the day, I notice the coloured fingertips and remind me that I am worth a little bit of colour and attention.

– finding a cat and stroking it utnil it becomes bored or threatens to follow me home. Fur therapy is excellent. I miss having a cat so much that I am quite the crazy cat lady out and about. Luckily, the universe sometimes sends me a cat on my way to Sainsbury’s and I thank the universe.

– rereading an old novel. Security comes from the known. Give me a tale I already love and let me enjoy it again and again.

– communicating with friends. I am unlucky to have so many wonderful people scattered across the globe and not within reaching distance. I am lucky that these people have whatsapp and email and facebook and I can text them or call them or leave them a voice note and some photos to stay in touch no matter how far away they are. I’ve recently gone on a massive voicenote kick and I’m loving it. To hear their accents and expressions and backgrounds is everything. They remind me I’m not alone and that there’s always something going on, but friends are a constant.

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Good Grief!

Let me tell you a little bit about handling someone’s grief: IT CAN’T BE DONE. They handle it, you carry on and try not to make it worse.

As a British-Irish person, I come from a very reserved background. As a person under 40, I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced grief. As a person under 40 who has experienced grief, I can tell you that our age-group are BAD at dealing with it. Grandparents and pets are about as much as we’ve experienced. We do not know what to say. We do not know how to be quiet either. Older people don’t know how to say the right things either though, so it all works out.

My uncle died unexpectedly. He was on his way home from an engagement party, some young men attacked him for no reason and he died. There was a funeral. There was a court case. He was a big man with a big heart and a big spirit and he left a big hole.

I did not have the language to explain this to people. My dad broke the news to me over the phone on my birthday. He didn’t have the words either and made a hash of it. It was all awful. My dad was a medic. He was not unfamiliar with trauma and loss and tragedy. It was all just dreadful.

Being Catholic, even culturally Catholic, was a relief for the weeks around this incident. There was a procedure. There were Things To Be Done. There were reassuring motions to go through to give your body something to do and your mind something on which to focus.  The Church has it worked out. Grieving people aren’t good with decisions or thinking, but muscle memory is forever.

There was a church ceremony (“reception of the body to the Church” which sounds ghoulish to my mind, but is exactly that) the evening before the funeral. The coffin is brought to the church to remain overnight. There is a service with prayers and movements and everyone knows what to do. There is an activity. You have a leaflet to hold, you have a hymn to sing, you have reassurance for the next hour as to what you will be doing and what is required of you. The family (“chief mourners”) stand in the front pew of the church and the people attending the service queue up to give condolences and shake their hands.

We did that for my uncle. It went on for hours.

Irish people, myself very much included, love a chat. We’re not great at Twitter, we need more characters. These people I did not know shook my hand and shared a story about my uncle, how they knew him and what he had meant to them. This included an elderly couple he met in a supermarket and explained to them about reduced stickers and how to bag a bargain when the chap goes round with the sticker gun. He was a journalist, he had a lot of friends, he knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him or of him.

That day I learnt a stunningly useful expression that the Irish have for funerals and wakes.

“I’m sorry for your trouble.”

It’s good isn’t it? Encompasses a lot. Doesn’t require a response.

When my dad died of brain cancer (there’s a  sentence that never gets easier), I had to learn a script to give to people I met. It wasn’t for me. It was for them. People didn’t know what to say, so they said stupid things. How old was he? What did he die of? What kind of cancer? How long did he have? When did he lose the battle? I would be furious and there was nowhere for that to go.

Are you keeping a database on mortality? Why do you need those details? Why are you making me say these things? What on earth are you doing asking me this?

I developed a script so that I could say I was sad, but I was fine and then we could move the conversation onwards to less rocky waters. If I didn’t, there would be a hugely awkward pause where someone tried to apologise that he was dead (it’s not your fault, let me make you feel better about this), where they would share a story of cancer (it’s not a competition!), where they would suggest God had a plan (I doubt that very much, but let’s not begin a theological debate), where they would say “at least” we had some time (true! But not enough!), where they would say that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (oh, HELL no) or say things involving the words “better place” (to be frank, the only better place for my Dad would have been St Andrew’s Golf Club, so you are entirely incorrect there, stop talking immediately).

I’ve been that person. Awkwardly trying to let you know I understand you feel sad and I want to make that better. People feel pressure to fix things. They want to comfort. They want to make it better. That’s not for people to do. Grief comes and sits with you and it hangs around whether someone say something trite or not. Young (or younger!) people don’t like to wait. We want things quickly. We have iPhones and streaming and netflix and Amazon Prime. We are not excellent at waiting things out.

Worse than the people saying stupid things, were the people who didn’t say anything. Where I would tiptoe through conversations thinking, “Does this person KNOW he died? Do I have to break that news? Or are they just awkward?” and would try to drop it in “casually” (HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING) to see how they responded, so I knew what I was working with, so they wouldn’t feel bad. That says a lot about me as a person, I know, but it’s something a lot of Young Grievers (that’s not a real term, I just made that up) have to deal with.

When someone dies, you feel incredibly sad. For most of the time. But there are still laughs and smiles and anger and fury that there are never any clean tea towels in this bloody house. Grief binds people together. Outside people don’t necessarily understand that. They hide the fun away for fear of seeming disrespectful. Luckily, my family is quite crazy. We would take it in turns to be cracking bon mots about how my dad would be horrified at all the visitors or how my uncle’s funeral would predominantly be populated by ex-girlfriends. We had a proper Irish wake for my uncle with guitars and whiskey and Irish singing and spontaneous poetry (I kid you not, it was like something out of a Beckett play) and it was hysterical and tragic and helpful and made me wish I could play an instrument. The English don’t really go in for that. Too many emotions, perhaps. It’s a shame, because it helps. The emotions are channelled. Aired out.

The funeral is a ceremony. In the Catholic Church it’s irritatingly not about the person who died. It’s about GOD and the Church and the coffin is not the focus of the room and there is no Eulogy like you see in films. That’s what the church-less wake is for the night before. Where you don’t have to behave because the priest is there (or, in my uncle’s case, he WAS there and I got into a heated argument with him because “I’ve been writing prayers of the faithful since I was a child, I think I can write them now, thank you very much, Father!” and my nother kicked me under the table and I had to go drink outside with the Bad Cousins who smoke) and can say what you think and feel about the person who should be in the middle of that room, but is not.

I sent an email to my friends about my dad. It basically said “This happened. I’m going to be away for a while. Let people know.” Very modern. Very weird. How do you even find a subject line for that? Most people responded with something comforting and/or blissfully minimal. My friend Dan wrote a massive email about how he knew my dad loved me and it was perfect. He’s a dad to two little girls now and I hope no one ever has to write an email like that to one of them, but I see it now.

A lot of people did not know what to say.

This is what you say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be terrible. I’m here.

You have to acknowledge it. Don’t try to fix it. It is remembered when you don’t say something. It does not go unnoticed that you put your comfort above the social awkwardness you think you’ll feel. Be around for them. Check in with them. Check up on them. If you are not good with real time, send a card. Send an email. Maybe don’t send a text, it seems a little gauche, but if that’s Your Thing, then go for it. Do not make this about you. None of this is about you. Have your feelings somewhere else. F*ck off with YOUR feelings, it is not your f*cking turn to have a feeling.

It’s also very strange later. People think you’ll get over it. They expect you to be Done being sad now, because the funeral happened and that’s the end of that, right? That it’s three years later, so it should all be finished now. Circle of Life, etc etc. They aren’t totally sure what to do when you mention that person. Flinching occurs. You learn that’s a thing that happens outside books. They talk quickly to change the subject.

Newsflash: you do not stop being sad. It just becomes a little less unwieldy with time. I have school friends who grew up with one parent and I have only recently DECADES LATER talked to them about it. They’re still sad. I appreciate a little more how hard their being a child was. How hard their becoming an adult is.

I am not rebuking anyone here. This isn’t a massive subtweet to someone who wronged me and for whom I hold a grudge.* Humans are complex and messy. Emotions are hard. Maybe let’s not make it harder on those who are having a rough time.

*so few people read this it would be a particularly useless way of making that known!

Nosce Te Ipsum*

I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been busy. But then again, hasn’t everyone? That’s #oldnews

I had a birthday and a conversation with a doctor that began with “for a woman your age…” and ended with my shocked face declaring I had “only just” turned 34 “actually!”

My last post was how I am an adult now. There’s no escaping that. The age-box I tick on any official document is squarely in the middle of the options. That’s okay. What’s not really okay is that there is still so much I do not know.

This list includes, but is not limited to:

– how to sew a hem
– how to format tables in a Word document when they skitter off the page
– where to put illuminator on a face
– if I’ll ever be able to get away with bronzer
– what kind of shoe to wear in the summer, with a dress, when it’s raining so my feet won’t get wet and are not trainers or brogues
– why everyone is so damn keen on brogues
– what exactly the Israel-Palestine conflict is, really in detail
– how to read the Financial Times markets pages
– why I can never quite get meat cooked spot on
– how to buy soft fruit (raspberries, I’m looking at you) without one of them being a bit weird
– how to properly remember the genders of the most commonly used German words
– how to set boundaries with someone you don’t really enjoy
– how to ask for a pay-rise
– why I’m always so nervous of everything
– how to fix the alarm clock that just stopped working, but still ticks
– how to stop biting my nails (that’s actually a lie, I bite my cuticles, which is even worse)
– how, actually, to archive my emails instead of asking my boss to use my account as an example for everyone else
– how to do a plank
– how to keep trainer socks on my feet
– how to back up my personal computer other than copy&pasting the entire hard drive into another hard-drive
– how to do nice calligraphy
– how to go to Wilkinson without spending money
– where counties in England are
– world geography, generally
– how to access the blue dot on my google maps and follow it in real life
– why there are some people I just Have a Problem With and I think it could be jealousy but I’m not sure what I’m actually jealous OF
– where to buy trousers for work that are neither a weird shape or made from flammable fabric
– how to prevent a freezer freeing up (supposedly keeping it full, but that hasn’t worked for me)
– if there is a decent dry shampoo or whether it’s a conspiracy by everyone who spent money on it
– how to make it through an episode of News Night without wanting to watch a fluffy 26 minute American comedy
– what third wave feminism is
– whether the priority is on protein or vitamins or energy or fibre or fun in food.

These days I am happier to admit when I don’t know something. I’d rather ask and know than chance it and look silly later. But it is so against my grain. As the bright kid in the class and the eldest child of two bright parents, it was not encouraged to ask questions. Don’t hold people up. Don’t let down the side. Don’t show ignorance. Often I find myself nodding along when someone says “obviously you know, xyz…” and I think “OH NO, I HAVE NO IDEA, LET’S SEE IF I CAN COAST THIS” because I don’t want that person to think less of me. How arrogant is that? I don’t know about opera. I don’t know about 17th century Christianity. I don’t know how octopus breed. I don’t know who the Mayor of Chicago is. But I do know that I won’t google it later. I do know that if I ask, you might explain enough for me to want to google it later. I do know that I’d like to follow this conversation rather than waiting for someone to change the subject and hoping it’s not related. I do know that I don’t spend my time with people who laugh at those who don’t know everything they do.

I’ve tried, gently and in my own awkward way, to ask more questions. “I see you have a knife sharpener, could you show me how that works?” “That’s fascinating that you are going to Surat next month. Where is that exactly?” “Actually, I don’t know if Croatia has the Euro, let’s look that up.”

So now, I know the theory behind the knife sharpening wand (but chickened out and bought a table top sharpener), I know Surat is in India and the Croatia has the Kuna. Soon I’ll be a lot more useful on the Guardian Saturday quiz.

Okay, maybe not soon.

* I googled this, OBVIOUSLY

DONE

Everything I've Ever Done That WorkedI recently turned thirty four. I am definitely an adult. This month has solidified a lot of nebulous thinking about Adulting into the feeling that actually, I got this. I am adulating.  I may not know what I’m doing, or LIKE what I’m doing most of the time, but there we are.

The next time I freak out and or forget that I felt like this, I hope I remember a few things here.


Successful Adulting:
While my flatmate was away, there were ALL MANNER of heating system problems. Essentially, everything with water in the flat went wrong at the same time. Me and youtube had a stressful evening that left me incredibly grateful to the Garys and Steves of the world who make videos of boilers and explaining them to non-plumbers. I also did a pretty good job of writing firm but polite emails to the letting agent that this was a real problem that I could not fix and so he could not ignore it. And also fully handing over all responsibility for the leak affecting the downstairs flat. I did not do my usual trick of hoping it would magically fix itself so that I wouldn’t “get in trouble” with anyone (which is what happened with the boiler the last time. Except, obviously, that did not work in the long run).

I had a birthday celebration. I had a multi-stage celebration with many people and minimal stress on my part. I’ve mentioned before that socialising makes me very nervous. Particularly socialising that has the sole purpose of celebrating me. I worry people will feel obliged to come, that they won’t fit into the place I’ve chosen, that the place I’ve chosen will go horribly wrong, that people will die or hunger or thirst or my inability to speak to them properly. Fritz came over from Germany, we had a lunch with one of my best girls and then we were late to the pub I invited people. It was all fine. Fritz was very good at making sure everyone had drinks, I tried really hard to have some quality time with each guest and I made an effort to not push refreshments on people or be unnecessarily stressy. There was a small boy inhaling Colin the Caterpillar cakes, so that was an excellent distraction.

Without getting into too many details, I had a number of social events this month that I was particularly nervous about. Big groups of strangers and small groups of people with whom I have difficult relations at the moment. I put on my big girl pants and just HANDLED it.

A book I have found especially useful lately is WE by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel. From the website “We’s Manifesto is a call to a way of living that puts compassion at its heart. A declaration of intent to live differently — to heal ourselves so that we can create lasting change in our own lives, in our communities and on a global level.” I love it because, while they’re both American, they’ve lived in the UK for a long time, so the happy-clappy is kept to a bracing minimum, whilst remaining inspirational. There’s a whole section in the book about your Inner Girl which really spoke to me. Anderson says in an interview, “I find that very often when I’m refusing to accept something, or I’m having difficulty in relating to other adults, it’s often because my five-year old girl somewhere inside is having a tantrum about the fact that things aren’t going the way that I want them to go.” And that is very definitely the case with me. With social situations sometimes I need to ask myself what it is that I want to feel and how do I reconcile that with what’s actually happening.

Related to that is that I’ve said YES and NO to things and people this month where I really wanted to say yes and no, rather than what was expected of me. I went to things I wanted to. I saw people I wanted to. I did not do things I did not want.

I also learnt that I cannot say YES to everything. This came about through an argument with Fritz where I exhausted myself to the point of illness and we had a Firm Discussion about Not Doing Everything. He made the point that people will still love me even if I don’t do all the things I plan that they have no idea about. I made the point that I LIKE doing those things for people. We had a tough chat but it worked out. I’m trying not to fear these important conversations, not to say “don’t be mad at me/I’m the worst” or apologising without having grounds to. Sometimes people aren’t going to like what I think or what I say. Sometimes I will be an idiot, sometimes I will phrase things poorly. Sometimes I’m just going to have to take that. I’m going to have to live through the consequences of speaking too quickly or having someone think differently of me. I cannot always be perfect for everyone. And sometimes that’s actually not my problem.

This month I confirmed that I have not worked out the summer shoe conundrum, that spray sun lotion is not the best idea for my Irish complexion, that I can’t always wing it in the kitchen and that my memory is affected when I have more than five espressos in a morning. I realised I can just invite myself places if I really want to be there. I discovered that it is possible for me to make a crazy expensive fun purchase and not freak out about it when it’s something perfect. I think I might even be ready to have a haircut in London.


I feel like I’m there. I feel as though I’ve reached Level Adult. I know what I know and have a medium level of confidence in that. I know what I don’t know and that I can try to source the information. That I can set boundaries and ask for help. I might not LIKE all these things, but I can do them.

On some level it would seem this would be a natural conclusion to end the blog. The blog I have neglected for so long with nary a thought. I won’t though, because I am VERY aware that my life is not going to stay the same. Assuming Fritz and I stay together, I will have a whole new adventure ahead of me wherein I know next to nothing and haven’t always the words to explain. If I move to Germany I will gain so much but lose a lot. I’m going to keep this running to explore my fears and challenges ahead and to hopefully put down on virtual paper things I would like to crystallise in my own mind.

A Beret Good Read

Helena Frith PowellLately I’ve been going through my books. I’m considering, but not committing to, downsizing my bookshelf. I’m loath to do so because, I mean, books!

I’m a huge fan of libraries. I think you get a real sense of a community by the stacks of its local library. Wimbledon, for example, has six books on beekeeping, a whole self of IVF and far too many books about the grieving process. It has a huge section on financial advice, every new feminist book as soon as it’s published and a massive stack of books in the children’s geography section.

I can’t buy every book I want to read, as I have neither the money nor the space, so my strategy is to only buy books I have already read at least twice from the library. Looking through my bookshelves, I realise that I have a lot of books on style. And, as a subsection, a lot of books on French style.

I’m not the only one who has books like these. They are best sellers. On the whole they fall into two types:
– gawky young English/American woman moves to France, learns from the locals and becomes chic
– dumpy middle aged English/American woman moves to France for work or her husband’s work, learns from the locals and becomes chic.

They have delightful titles like “Two Lipsticks and a Lover – all you need to be impossibly French“, “How To Be Chic And Elegant: Tips From A French Woman” and “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.”

From my extensive research of books and blogs about French style, all the advice can be summarised as follows:

– accessorise with a scarf

– never ever wear underwear that does not match

– wear red lipstick – never leave the house without makeup, even to take out the bins

– perfect “le no make-up” look which involves a minimum of eight products

– spend a small fortune on beauty at the parapharmacie

– buy classic cut, good quality items for your minimalist wardrobe

– buy traditional French brands like Dior and Hermes

– dress in an androgynous way, but display your femininity

– quality over quantity in everything

– be thin, but enjoy food

– be intellectual, but not overly opinionated

– be attractive to men, but in a dismissive fashion

– avoid French women as they will steal your husband – only socialise in couples.

Please don’t mistake my pithiness for disregard. I read those books, I inhaled those blogs, I wanted to be a French girl. The number of faded stripy t-shirts and dead ballet shoes in my wardrobe are testament to that.

Now that I’m contemplating possibly moving to Germany in the future, I am stressing about it like an exam. I want to start revising now, before the course has begun. I’m looking into replacements for my skin products that I can’t get there, I’m researching recipes for making baked beans (they take FOREVER. I’m just going to import them). I’m panicking about phone contracts and data plans.

What I’m not doing is trying to look German. Mainly because I don’t want to. I don’t want a Dirndl (and a colleague has kindly pointed out that I “don’t have the bust to carry it off” which is surely some sort of sexual harassment?), I quite like my non-funky glasses, I don’t want to wear orthopaedic shoes or Birkenstocks (there’s just too much naked foot on display, I can’t explain it) and I like wearing the colours I wear now, I don’t want to break into patterns or mustard-coloured hosiery.

When I moved to London, I ate those books and blogs on how to Look French. I watched so many videos on how to tie silk neck scarfs, despite looking ridiculous in neck scarves. I wore red lipstick. I had three berets which itched. I bought a lot of classic items for my minimalist wardrobe, but I actually need more than ten items of clothing with my job and I couldn’t afford to buy proper classic items, so bought the next best thing available in Dorothy Perkins which usually had a non-classic ruffle or decorative detail. Obviously I looked a hot mess, rather than French because I did not follow the rules. That was my fault, not the fault of the books. I was a disaster.

You don’t find a lot of books about dressing like other nationalities in the lifestyle section of Waterstones (you can find them in the fashion section though). There aren’t many “Dress like a Mexican” or “Great Greek Style” books. Mainly because you can’t really the style of a nation into one book, and mainly because the French have very good PR. French girls and women are chic, are classy are stable. They are seductive even if they are jolie laide.

When you’re lost and you don’t really know who to be, it’s very easy to want to be French. French girls eat croissants, but are slim; are sexy, but don’t have to wonder if they look like a slut or if you can even call yourself a slut if you aren’t ever getting any; are intellectual, but not geeky; are attractive, but not shunned as clothes horses. It’s easy to dress like a French girl. You can be pretty and girly in skirts or chic and sexy in cigarette pants. They always wear matching underwear. They have their lives so together that they can wear matching underwear without having to plan the laundry rotation in advance.

When you’re lost, you want clear instructions on how to dress and how to look, because maybe that will help you fake it until you make it. If you dress attractively, maybe you will be attractive. If you dress like a French girl, then you won’t have to be a dumpy girl from Milton Keynes or a middle aged mum from Slough whose kids have left home. If you look like it, you can become it. If you just sort out how you LOOK, you can sort out how you FEEL and how you THINK and how you BE. If.

I did not become French. I travelled TO France and discovered that these books and blogs are selling a very particular type of well-heeled (in both senses) Parisian woman who doesn’t eat much and is constantly struggling to fit into the mould society has caught her in. She must be sexy and slender and not mind that she never has dessert except when out with guests or that her husband is having an affair with a neighbour and the whole boulevard knows. Those women don’t last. No one can last like that.

I don’t need those books any more because I know who I am at the moment. In a few years that might be different if I live elsewhere, have a family, have a different career, am happier or more stressed, or have a different haircut.

At the moment, I am the kind of girl who wears a lot of pleated skirts and swishes them about her knees. I’m the kind of girl who can’t get her calves into most trousers and wonders when she’ll stop referring to herself as a girl. I’m the kind of girl who buys and wears the lipstick but forgets to reapply it. I’m the kind of girl who’s happy, for a change, with what’s going on in her life and has found a balance between her work  and her friends and her family and her worries and will sometimes dare herself to wear the short shorts to Tesco and be stunned that no one stops her crossing the street, so stunned in fact that she VERY NEARLY starts discussing the shorts with the busy and nervous Indian chap behind the counter until she remembers that she comes into this Tesco a lot and it would be nice to still be able to come here without being mortified the next time.

I’m still a bit of a mess, but I’m not wearing an itchy beret any more. I might keep one or two of the books though…

On Lands, Languages and London

LONDON, BABYFritz the German and I have been together for coming up on a year now – depending on who you ask. He was very particular that we be an official couple after a certain date, which amused me greatly.

Eventually, there will be a moment when we have to decide whether to “shit or get off the pot” – as Chris O’Donnell so quaintly put it in “The Bachelor” –  and it could well be that we stay together and commit to living in the same place. Which is generally how relationships work, I believe.

People have been asking what I’m going to do.

Realistically, I will move to Germany and live in Munich. His career is much much better than my job; his family are all either in that country or within driving distance; the standard of living is better in Germany; Brexit is about to slide this country into the sea and who knows what the next election will deliver.

With dual nationality, moving to Europe is a lot easier for me than it is for him to move here where England – excepting London- and Wales have actively chosen to be unwelcoming to Europeans.

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a big deal. I speak German already; I work for a German company already; Munich is very cosmopolitan; most of my friends don’t live in London any more, so I travel at least an hour to see them and we’re all on Whatsapp already. Not that much would change.

And yet.

Every time someone asks me when Fritz will move to London and I say that I’m more likely to move there, a small part of my soul screams a little.

I just don’t want to. I made a life for myself here in London. I went to university here, I have friends across the country, I found a job in London and lived through so much joy, despair, heartbreak, hope, loss and love here. I speak the language, and I mean, I really speak it. I don’t spend the start of every conversation explaining why I can speak good English, I don’t have to run through my education background, I don’t (usually) have to explain Northern Ireland and how it fits into the UK. I can have conversations about things I don’t know or understand but passably fake it. I can express displeasure and fury at retail or service situations without bursting into tears in frustration. I understand the nuances of sales assistant chat. I can ask questions in a way that makes doctors take me seriously, rather than fob me off with paracetamol. In English I am competent, confident and assertive, even if my personality might not be.

In German, I’m quiet. I’m more reserved, I make smaller jokes, I take a backseat conversationally. I go with ideas rather than suggesting them. In German, I can’t exactly tell where the line between drunk banter on public transport is approaching sexual harassment. In German I don’t have the confidence to argue with the pharmacist that, actually, I would really like to buy the medication I asked for, rather than the one you keep insisting is better. In German I am terrified of official documents and the tiny-font-massive-paragraph fonts.

I’m very concerned that I will lose my confidence in Germany and become a shadow. Or worse, an ex-pat yearning to go home.

To be clear – I love Germany. I love the friendliness of the people – that the friendly ones are breathtakingly friendly and the grumpy ones are so stunningly obviously grumpy. I love that things just function there and when they don’t, people make efforts to rectify that. Objects and services are of good quality by design rather than as a selling point. I love that the cities make sense and that society is much more equal than the UK. I like that it’s a much more socialist society than ours. Teachers are well qualified and well-paid. Doctors aren’t harassed and as exhausted as ours. The healthcare system works. There is Nutella everywhere you go. The work-life balance is sensible and society is built for it. That there are ice cream kiosks on virtually every corner in the summer and the flavours are sublime. That Ritter Sport and Milka are in every newsagent and sparkling water is the norm.

Aside from the language, what I already know will annoy me in Germany is that I will not have hot and cold running access to baked beans or ready-meals. That I won’t be able to channel surf for reruns of NCIS: LA or Friends where the voices are right. That everything is just that little bit more expensive, because they believe in paying for quality and I struggle with that as a person who buys twice cheaply. That the shops will close at midday on Saturday and not open until Monday. That anytime I want to buy painkillers I will have to have a chat with a pharmacist who will try and sell me some sort of herbal tea instead. That I will be an hour out from all my English friends and even further out from my North American people. That the food is so salty (Germans aggressively season their food) and beige or pickled. That is will be COLD with snow in winter and HOT with sunburn in summer, because they have proper weather. That online shopping isn’t such a big deal there. That I’ll have to pay for health insurance. That I’ll have to do a tax return. That there isn’t a Boots, or a big Tesco or a Marks&Spencer where you can buy makeup, a meal, a five pack of pants and some other random purchase.

I’m afraid I’m going to be wistful for a United Kingdom that exists only in my rose-coloured memory and that I will be bitter about the people I will have chosen to live amongst. At the moment, it’s sort of acceptable that I make fun of my Germans, because they heavily outnumber me at work and they’re on my turf. In Germany, if I make fun of the Germans, I’m going to look like someone who holidays in Costa Del Sol, but only eats fry-ups at the English pub and only speaks to other English people.

Aside from the cultural differences, I am essentially afraid of change and also of being dependent on someone. I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’ve become accustomed to my independence and having created a life that suits me entirely. Fritz has been very careful about not pushing it and agreeing that we would have UK Sky for the TV and that I would go back to the UK every six weeks or so. We would speak English in the house. Our imaginary future children would go to an international school. The bigger EDKA’s have world food aisles and sell Heinz Beans, we could stock up.

I know it would be fine. I know I would be fine. I would be beholden to F and his people for a bit til I found my feet and a job and a routine and some friends of my own, but that happened when I moved to London. My German would improve. I have friends there I could visit. With Whatsapp and Skype, it’ll not be that different from how I communicate with my friends anyway. It would be fine. It would be better than fine.

But it wouldn’t be London.

When I moved to London it was for a boy. It was for a boy and a job and my friends. The job is fine, the boy went away and my friends married and moved to the suburbs. The constant was London. It feels such a cliché to say that the city is a character in my life – one skewed wonderfully by the Paul Rudd/Amy Pohler movie – They Came Together (which is one of the most disappointing movies I’ve ever seen, by the way. My expectations were beyond high). Every day, whether I am having a great or terrible day, I see something in London that stuns me. The skyline, graffiti, human interactions, foxes in places foxes shouldn’t be, tube station messages, the newest hipster wankery. Irony, stubbornness, stoicism and mild hope are built into the very pavements of the city and hold us up when we are weary.

When the Westminster Bridge attack happened, I remember thinking “The first “pray for London” image I see on Instagram is going to make me lose my temper. We don’t need that and we don’t want that. We don’t need your pity.” Such a ridiculous thought, but I was not the only one who had it. Most of my Instagram was of Londoners resolutely carrying on and not making a fuss – we’re fine, look at this avocado toast. Those PrayForLondon posts didn’t come from Londoners. My thoughts are garbled and spikey about the attack. It was terrible and shocking and awful for those involved, but it didn’t affect the city. Westminster is an integral part of London, and Big Ben is a symbol of the city, but it’s a rarefied world of politicians and a sanitised world for tourists as well as being the area people stomp through on their way to the train home, or that good Japanese restaurant behind the hospital. London had seen worse, and wasn’t here for your attention-seeking sympathy, thanks. London sees worse on a Friday night in Peckham and we all just get on with it.

London has become a family member to me. I can complain about how dirty and polluted it is and how stupid the cereal café is and how it’s full of tourists, but if you – a Non-Londoner – start on it, I will defend it to the hilt. The parks are beautiful, maybe you just haven’t actually seen that much of london; it has more green space than most capital cities;  people LIKE cereal and sometimes want to try a foreign one without committing to a box – so AKSHURLY it’s a genius idea; the tourists are where the main attractions are, the nine million people who live here tend to avoid Oxford Street during peak hours.

How can I leave it? How could I love anywhere else nearly as much? I’ve inhaled so much tube brake dust and city grit that it’s part of me.

But then again, as my friend Jude pointed out, the first time I came to London – I hated it. So who knows, maybe Munich will be great?

Being Right is EVERYTHING …except when it isn’t.

Rules of CivilityWith all the talk of Fake News and swirling rumours and secrets in my workplace, I have been thinking a lot about how to talk to people. About how people talk to people and the best ways to communicate. My favourite tv characters are the Mirandas and the Chandlers and the Richards (from Caroline In The City). The secondary characters with the good lines. The sharp zingers that stay with you because they are so perfectly crafted. For a long time, that was my modus operandi. Be the funniest person in the room. Being funny, being sarcastic was the thing. Actually communicating a message was less important.

I don’t remember when that changed, but I care a bit less about being funny now. I’m definitely sarcastic less often. Sarcasm doesn’t really deliver empathy, which is more important to me. The Mirandas and the Chandlers had the good lines, but they didn’t have the good stories until they developed and gave other people a chance. The Mirandas and the Chandlers are generally bitter and a bit broken, but isn’t everyone a little bit broken? Being bitter on top didn’t help them be less broken.

After the sarcasm, came the rage and I went through a shouty phase. I was angry all the time and my anger was directed at all the wrong things, all the wrong people. I never learnt how to handle anger as a child or a young woman – anger isn’t ladylike and was never on a GCSE syllabus, so I’m still trying to learn how to do that on my own. How to be angry and express it, rather than eat it and let it poison me from the inside. I try to never shout at people, but rather to shout about things to people. That difference is important to me. I never want anyone to feel attacked by me. There’s no need for that. The world has enough attackers at the moment.

I’ve had quite a few occasions at work lately where Difficult Conversations had to be had. My initial response has been to be furious and loud and make sweeping statements in my office. Then I’ve made zingers while I simmer and sift my thoughts alone. Finally, I actually spoke to the person and had soft conversations where firmly, but carefully, I made my point, asked questions and we worked on a solution. It works. It’s not as satisfying as shouting about how right you are, how you absolutely know best in this situation and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, but it works. And sometimes that’s more important than being right. It kills me to say that, but there we are.

We’ve all been in situations when someone repeatedly talks about the same problem – or worse! Doesn’t talk about it, but it’s ever-present! – and just doesn’t listen to our helpful and totally 100% correct suggestions. Usually this is how the media portrays women experiencing conversations with men. Men want to solve the problem, rather than offer support, which is what women “actually” want. But I notice this in female friendships and male relationships too. Work, family, friends, all of it.

This is a very difficult time for the world. Everything outside out homes feels hard and painful and sharp. Inside out homes and our heads and our hearts, we want to feel safe. We want our people to be safe and happy and successful. We want to help our people and help them quickly through their hard, painful, sharp problems, especially when we have the answers that they just can’t see.

Telling someone to go to the doctor about that thing they’re worried about, or to speak to a therapist about that problem, or to just quit that upsetting job already, or to leave that terrible girlfriend if she’s such a nightmare, or to apply for that residency card, or to go to that gym, or to join that dating app… is easy. What’s hard, what’s painful, is to sit with our people and hear them silently say that they aren’t ready. That they aren’t strong enough. That they’re scared. That they can’t think that far ahead yet. Speaking sharply or impatiently gave no person ever courage or strength or support to do a difficult thing. Sharp and impatient words make people feel that they’re failing their supporters on top of everything else.

Everyone knows this. Everyone has had a situation where that one person made them feel worse because their tone of voice cut to the bone, even if the words weren’t meant to wound. I can think of three times this very second where the memory still stings, even though our relationship didn’t even recognise it. And I bet there are at least ten people who can instantly call to mind a time when I did that to them and we’ve never spoken about it (I’M SORRY, I WAS A JERK. I’M TRYING TO BE BETTER).

What I’m learning, albeit so very late in life, is to ask questions. Not to say “see, you know what to do, which is what I suggested all along, now do it” but to help understand and to offer support in whatever way that person needs, rather than how I want to help them. I may not be helping anyone on my timetable, but I’m trying not to make anyone feel worse.

Empathy is thin on the ground at the moment. We need to gather it together and share it among ourselves, make more of it and then share it in the world.