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.

Dollahdollahbill y’all

The Colour of MoneyLast year, I realised with a start that my finances were a mess. Ordinarily, I always have a cushion in my current account for emergencies. An emergency flight home, an emergency pair of glasses, an emergency new phone. Somehow, I’d burnt through it. I’d burnt through it, but I hadn’t anything to show for it. I own one Chanel lipstick and the expensive handbags I have were gifts. I have no Louboutins, all my shoes come from M&S or Clarks. I had no holiday photos of Bali or New York to explain away my penury.

Where the hell had all my money gone?

The huge crate in my room, packed full with on-offer shampoo and new-line moisturizer, indicated that I really liked spending the money, rather than actually liking the objects I bought with the money. To be very honest, I still don’t really know where that tendency comes from. Is it because we didn’t have much spare cash when I was tiny? Is it because I enjoy the thrill of the chase? I did find that when I had a bad day at work, or was annoyed about something, my first response was to go and purchase a treat for myself – usually something food-based, because then it didn’t seem like such a terrible waste of money. I’ve never been someone to buy clothes to cheer myself up- clothes are too expensive for that. But a scratch card, a magazine with a free gift (those are like CATNIP to me, even if I don’t really want the magazine OR the free thing), an on-off bar of chocolate or a microwaveable chocolate pudding? Fair game. It got to the point where I had a stack of magazines I hadn’t read and too many chocolate bars for me to actually eat. Often the buying of the thing was the thrill and I wasn’t interested when I got it back to the office. If it was a shirt from Zara, I could take it back, but you can’t really take back a £3 bar of chocolate from Hotel Chocolat. They’d look at you funny. I had an internal budget for things like this. Anything up to a fiver was okay. So I would buy a nail polish, but not a lipstick, in Boots. I could buy some body lotion, but not a fancy serum unless it was on offer. I bought a lot of patterned tights from M&S. I’d buy a magazine in WhSmiths, but not a book. I’d buy a tiny bottle of wine, but not a full one (which is actually less economical and worse for the environment)!

This was how I frittered away my emergency money. Tights and snack pots of mango and postage to World Zones.

I spent money when I was tired, or bored or frustrated or sad. All the things that HALT from Alcoholic Anonymous tells you to avoid. (Hungry, angry, lonely, tired → reasons not to drink or your drug of choice) Instead of dealing with My Emotions, I was spending money, which made me more frustrated and angrier with myself and also poorer.

Around this time my friend Fee started an accountability project. She had various aims and she would email me once a week to tell me whether she had stuck to her aims or not and why. The idea was to see if there were patterns for making less-than-stellar choices. Being held to account by an external source meant that Fee took the aims more seriously, than if she had just set them for herself. I didn’t actually need to do anything, and my opinion or judgement certainly wasn’t required.

I decided that I would straight-up copy Fee and have an accountability project for my finances. Every week, I kept a diary in my phone of what I spent, money I shouldn’t have spent (and what I spent it on) and near misses.

Fee very wisely pointed out that I would have to be careful not to feel like all the fun had been removed from my life because I was trying not to BUY things, so I factored in another column – fun treats that didn’t cost any more money. This meant I would actually use some of the things that I had bought (dvds, skin care treatments, snacks), rather than just accumulating them. It also meant that I could learn how to treat myself without spending money on things.

For well over twenty weeks in 2016, I emailed Fee tables of what I spent in Sainsbury’s, the Post Office and the newsagent near work. I wrote down money I didn’t need to spend and what I spent it on.

Hilariously early on in the project, my brain reasoned that if I couldn’t spend money on myself, it was entirely acceptable to spend it on other people and so I would buy little gifts and mail them to people. I bought a lot of terrible brightly coloured magazines with stories of crazy bridesmaids who ran off with grooms, women who taste-tested dog food for a living and the caravan that was haunted by a Victorian family – all less than £2 an issue – and then I would mail them to my sister in Canada because I knew she loved this nonsense. Or I’d buy a cake at lunch to share with the team and foster a fun environment. Or a box of two egg custards to treat my work friend and I at lunch.

Having Fee look at my spending every week wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. I thought that knowing she would be reading my spending habits would be enough pressure that I would want to impress her and behave properly. The Good Girl approach of my younger years. According to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, it turns out that I’m Upholder (with a slight leaning towards Obliger) when it comes to my nature.  I actually want to meet outer and inner expectations, and if I rebel, it’s going to be that I resist my inner expectation more than the outer expectation. I knew Fee would give me some slack in some areas (she would give me a pass for spending £2 on a doughnut), but I wouldn’t give myself that slack. If I was going to break my own rules, I’d break them (buying an 80p chocolate bar), but not go beyond her levels of what the rules were.

Staying with Gretchen Rubin, I’m also an abstainer. Possibly her most quoted line is from Samuel Johnson “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” I’d rather just never eat crisps, than have to mentally justify how many crisps is enough. As long as I had a clear line of what was “allowed” (buying groceries I actually needed, or cosmetics that actually needed replaced), I didn’t need to think about what I might allow myself as a treat.

Eventually, I managed to top up my emergency fund. I didn’t buy take-away coffee, I rarely bought cakes, I stopped buying nail polishes, I wouldn’t let myself wander around Tiger or Hema for entertainment. I read books, I emailed with friends, I ate the snacks I had stashed away. I didn’t stop having dinner out with friends, because spending time with them was important to me and the eating out expense was worth it. But I did decide that I could either have a glass of wine, or I could have pudding. I could have a coffee out with friends, but I could either have a cup of tea and a cake, OR I could have a fancy mocha. They worked out about the same, but I wasn’t spending seven pounds to have the same amount of fun that I could have by spending four. The cake wasn’t the objective – seeing my friend was.

After a while, Fee and I noticed that we were reporting the same things week after week, so it seemed like a good time to call it a day with the accountability side of things. Not having kept a record over Christmas and New Year was good, because I would probably have been a little distressed to see how much more I spent over the festive period, even though I wanted to. I spent money on flights and gifts and restaurants and regret none of it. Even when I was spending money like water I never regretted anything I bought. I regretted the larger number on my credit card statement, but I took back to the store anything I truly regretted.

Now that we’re in February, and I’m working my way through the pile of books I have been so generously gifted by friends and family, I’ve read Help by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a great book. He writes for the Guardian about various self-help strategies. This book is the distillation of what’s available, and what works. I’ve taken note of quite a few of them and applied them in my life. He makes the point that humans do not infinite reserves of willpower. Burke writes about a study by Roy Baumeister, “a pioneer in research on self-control, asked people to complete tasks that required ‘effortful persistence’ and focus – the equivalent of such real-life challenges as remaining at your desk to work instead of wandering off to make a cup of coffee, or walking past a shop window without making an impulse purchase. The tasks, it turned out, depleted their glucose levels; moreover, subject who had a glucose drink beforehand showed more persistence. Exerting self-control, in other words, uses up real energy, much as lifting a heavy object….Baumeister calls this effect ‘ego-depletion’, because we’re imposing our sense of self on the world, and on our behaviour, and the effort involved is a limited resource. We use it up…. It’s [also] why, if you want to change some behaviour, willpower can be only a temporary or partial solution. It’s exhaustible, and if you rely on it too much in one area you may find that you don’t have enough left over for the rest of your life. Instead of relying on willpower, we need to develop routines, so that things become automatic.”

What I’ve done with this information is to make a bunch of decisions once, so I don’t have to keep making them.
– I can buy a magazine, but it can only be Red or Vogue. The font size in Marie Claire is too small, the content in Elle irritates me and I don’t like any of the weeklies, so they don’t bring me as much joy. I don’t need them.
– I can buy a snack, but I must want to eat it then and it must be something I will actually enjoy. I can’t just buy something because it’s new or has fun packaging.
– I can’t buy anything in Boots that I already have a version of. I can pick it up, admire the packaging and marketing, but I can’t buy it.
– I’ve subscribed from so many marketing emails advertising sales because I would trawl through the sale to find something I wanted.
– Online shopping can only be books or CDs or things I have touched. If I want to buy clothes or shoes, I have to touch them in a real shop so I know exactly how they look.
– I can only buy clothes that fill a hole. I can’t buy any more grey long sleeved v-necked jumpers. Whatever I buy has to be EXACTLY what I’m looking for, it can’t be a near approximation if I squint a bit and hope for the best.
– Before I buy something for someone, I ask myself if they would actually WANT this item. Or do I just want to send them something to make myself seem like a good friend. Because they aren’t always the same.

I’ve found spending money to be quite  a bit easier in 2017 and it’s because I have rules. I can follow rules with a little flexibility (ahem: camel coloured trench coat from Mango reduced to £20!) and it means I actually have what I want at the end of the day. Granted, I can’t buy a house yet, but I can save up to buy a coffee table book about houses…

Sorry is not actually the hardest word, but it is contentious

20160201_222846It’s almost a reflex to start a blog post with apologies and excuses as to why there hasn’t been a post in a while. I’m not going to do that this time. I’ve been busy. Who hasn’t? I’ve been busy and my priority has been living and managing life, rather than analysing it online.

That’s not to say I haven’t been having Deep Thoughts, but this is the first time in ages I’ve done my nails (I’m handing out badges at a work event this evening and red sparkles may be the only entertainment I have. Unless I can send an intern to fetch me some Glühwein…) and I need to not touch anything until the topcoat is dry.

Apologies are funny things. I’ve been doing a lot of work on what the British say and what the British actually mean (see: Very British Problems for the definitive guide) and “sorry” comes up a lot. Sorry as a softener to bad news, an interruption, a disagreement, etc etc.

Women say sorry a lot. Women apologise a lot, generally. We are the gatekeepers of society, constantly patrolling the emotions of a situation and protecting our wards from discomfort.

Men don’t bother with this emotional labour.

I’ve sort of reached the end of my tether with it, to be honest. I’ve actually become known at work for (rather counter-intuitively) harassing our female interns to stop entering rooms and apologising

Scene:
Office. Knock on door and intern enters.
Intern: “Sorry, can I just..”

Me: “STOP! Don’t apologise for your existence. Don’t begin our interaction being sorry. Would a MAN do this? He would NOT. He would knock, enter and then state his business! Take up space in the world! Let’s do this again – go back out there and then come back in!”

Cowed intern shuffles back outside, enters and looks sheepish.

Me: “Now, what would a MAN do? Declare your intention!”

Intern: “Umm, here’s a thing…”

Me: “If you feel you need to say something at the start as an introduction, you could try “hello, do you have a moment?” Okay, what do you actually need from me?”

Cowed intern then delivers papers or whatever.
Scene ends

Let’s be clear here, I was exactly the same. I will still say sorry when someone else stands on my foot on the tube, but I’ve made a conscious effort to stop doing it at work unnecessarily. I saw a tote bag with the words Have the Confidence of a Mediocre White Man and it struck me as pure genius. Mediocre White Men don’t walk into rooms apologising.

Mediocre White Men are the status quo. It feels like everything is in relation to them.

For example, in this country we’re generally required to throw the word “female” round as an adjective when describing careers because the standard is male. No one is saying “male politician” or “male doctor.” Our nouns don’t have genders the way European languages do, so few of our words have suffixes to show what gender a role is.

Some of those with suffixes (actress, for example) are slowly being eased out (not without complaint from the ridiculous anti-PC bridgade) for equality, but this still requires an adjective or the declaration of a person’s name. “Nicole Kidman, actor, bought a new house” or “Female lawyer makes complaint against colleague for harassment” because the assumption is that an actor is otherwise male.

There’s not much I can do about equality, but encouraging my younger colleagues to have the same levels of self-confidence when entering a room feels like a start.

September: Adulting Roundup

I’m uncomfortable with how close this is to the last roundup, but I shall soldier on!

Delightful living conditions
Well. This got a result, let’s put it that way, but not especially glam. Our loo is in a weird separate room from the bathroom, where the toilet unit is on a sort of step (painted gold) and the tank is on the adjacent wall at head height (and part of the flush mechanism has been painted with glitter). One wall is decorated in postcards under a perspex sheet and the other is decorated with a 2002 map of the artic circle and a NYC subway map. There are four slightly aggressive spotlights in this room the size of a wardrobe.

Now you have an idea of the scene, imagine, if you will, that the skirting board has been slowly moving away from the wall over a period of months and a clear damp patch is marking the wooden floor boards.

I cannot locate a leak. I am, however, not a plumber. I mention this to our letting agent and am assured, in that confident way middle aged white men have, that this is not a problem. I insist that it could well be a problem. A plumber comes out to see the boiler (which is making a noise “like an angry monster” according to my Norwegian flatmate) and says there is no problem with the WC.

I mention that there is now a water stain on the other side of the wall. Still there’s no problem apparently, but another plumber is sent out. I’m starting to become irked.

Downstairs send a note saying they have water marks on their wall underneath and would we mind getting it checked out. Now we’re getting a new WC.

We have a brand new modern cistern-seat-attached toilet. Hurrah! Plus the neighbours don’t hate us anymore because I brought them flowers and assured them it would be sorted out.

Fabulous friend
Reflecting on last month I am struck by how little I actually did for my friends, yet how much I benefitted from them. I was very lucky to have friends host me in Stratford-upon-Avon for a stunning (and MASSIVE) Greek meal and a day of Christmas baking (in September, yes, don’t ask) and then later in the month to be taken for afternoon tea by a friend and former colleague who was visiting from Austria. I dined very well this month.

Still, I’m going to claim points for this because my natural reaction to almost every invitation is to decline (not because I don’t like people or activities, but because my own flat is so cosy and nice), but I said yes instead.

Other points were acquired by printing out photos and having them framed for friends who I knew wouldn’t have time to do it themselves and could do with the odd lovely photo of themselves around their house.

Great hostess
In September I managed to get myself organised to have some fabulous girls (I think of myself as a girl. In a sort of Britney-Spears-Crossroads-music way. Not yet a woman. Should I refer to my friends as women? Probably) over to talk about books. There was pizza, wine, hummus and crisps and a DIY berry-yoghurt-meringue Brexit (aka Eton Mess). We talked about books, reading, london, travels, mothers, daughters, fiction, non-fiction, careers, hopes, dreams all of it. We had fiction, non-fiction and Jackie Collins on the table. It was ace. I also kept my hostess-goblins (the mean ones that try and ruin everything with fussing and anxiety) subdued if not banished. Wine helped, obviously.

Confident in the kitchen

I gave a few more recipes a bash from my tidied up recipe book. Nothing momentous, but nothing memorably disasterous.

Good husband

WELL. Obviously, having Fritz appear on the scene meant that Fate decided to throw a spanner at me, hoping it jam it in the works. Cob on, Fate, I’m onto you.

I was bustling through Leicester Square one evening to meet a friend when a pair of stunningly ugly yellow shoes caught my eye. I looked up and realised that across the street was the worst of the three Tinder dates. The young irritating one. Which, on reflection, does not narrow it down. The first one. I watched this chap STROLL through Leicester Square in a terrible basketball outfit (he doesn’t play basketball) quietly grinning that – honestly quite creepy, how did I not notice at the time – lazy smile to himself. I was so shocked that I had to follow him a bit just to make sure he didn’t see me. And then I stopped, leant against a pillar and THANKED GOD, JESUS AND ALL THE SAINTS for delivering me from that bullet.

What kind of psychopath strolls through Leicester Square at rush hour? In yellow trainers? Smiling? I mean. That says everything about this man-boy.

Next up in Fate’s arsenal was Young Irritating Tinder Date 2 – the guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There I am in Stratford, full to the gills with delicious Greek food, when I get a message from the chap who refused to believe I couldn’t be interested in him. He was miserable and had no one to talk to.

Now, I appreciate that it probably wasn’t ideal to answer him, but really, if you are SO SAD and SO LONELY that you have to contact a tinder date from six months ago, you’ve got pretty low. If it had been me, I would have hoped someone would reach out and help me feel a little less lonely. And so we got into a chat about how his life was shambles and how he’d made mistakes and then, for the next few days, I’d try and make him feel a bit better about whatever was going on, be generally supportive but emotionally distant. I would provide possible solutions to his self-made problems.

After a few days of this, I realised I was making a mistake. We weren’t friends, he was arguing with all my suggestions because his life was so terrible there was always another problem around the corner and I was getting tired of it. I told Fritz about it and he was fairly straightforward in suggesting I just cut him loose. Which I would, but not because anyone asked me to.

Basically I felt uncomfortable with this non-friendship. He wasn’t feeling better and I was feeling frustrated. We were going round in circles which was exactly why I ended it in the first place.

Mallory Ortberg writes a fantastic advice column under the Dear Prudence banner. People write in with questions and problems and she gives very balanced, respectful advice. The advice is generally along the lines of “tell this person who is causing you such a problem about the problem” which is exactly what the writer doesn’t want to do. They want an alternative solution where no one has to hurt anyone’s feelings and everyone just does the right thing.

And so I wrote a friendly but firm message saying that I couldn’t help him any more, that we aren’t friends (which he declared first! He wanted me to be a sort of sponsor to him!) and that I wished him well. Then I got on a plane.

When I came back, I had a bunch of angry hurt messages about how disappointed he was and how we should have agreed to end things together, rather than me solely making the decision.

If anything, both of these encounters made me appreciate Fritz more. There’s no weird emotional manipulation, I don’t feel uncomfortable around him, we don’t argue (even in that fun banter-y British lad way), I don’t feel frustrated or awkward around him. If the universe was doing anything, it was showing me previous mistakes I had made with boundaries and giving me another chance to put them in place. It was showing me how I behaved – and allowed men to behave towards me, which is possibly worse – and asking if I was sure I knew what was right.

Thanks, Universe. I got the message.

Brave (braver)
Carrying on from earlier, I’m saying YES to things I would ordinarily shy away from. YES, I will come and see you, YES, I will make dinner, YES, I will get on a plane. Yes.

I also travelled to Denmark on my own for work and stuck on an extra day to have a look around. I am very happy in my own company, but I don’t like travelling. Travelling scares me. I hate not speaking the language, or knowing what the food is, or how the public transport works or having to offer a handful of money to shopkeepers (retro word. Where did that come from?) and letting them pick out the correct money like reverse begging (Rob Beckett’s joke, not mine). I hate feeling vulnerable abroad. It feels so much scarier.

But I went. I went and had tall Scandinavians be rude to me, stayed in the most expensive budget hotel (see: Denmark and also Post-Brexit Exchange Rate), wandered around looking at a map most of the time, took photos of everything, didn’t get too lost, made it back to the airport.

I did have a slightly terrible moment on the train into the city from the airport wherein a man engaged me with conversation, DREW ON MY HAND and then suggested we meet up. I tried to avoid conversation and gave him a fake email address. Telling this story later, furiously, I got two reactions. From men: Why did you let that happen to you? From women: Let me tell you a weird thing that happened to me one time.

This is why I don’t love travelling on my own. When you’re in a pair, you have safety in numbers and your togetherness does not invite strange men to engage you in conversation. Travelling on your own leaves you vulnerable and travelling somewhere foreign to you means you’re not as confident in telling someone to take a hike. You don’t quite know how to read a situation. Is this chap going to turn nasty? And that’s why I let him draw on my hand. It was the lesser risk than having him react badly to my NO. Sometimes men refuse to hear no. Sometimes that ends badly. Women know this. Men who do go around harassing women know it too. Men who don’t go around mildly harassing women don’t know this and later ask why you permitted yourself to be harassed.


Healthy Mind & Body

This month I had my podiatrist appointment at EARLY O’CLOCK in the morning with a lovely Australian doctor who treated my feet. When she bandaged them up, I awkwardly asked if she is good at wrapping presents what with her experience wrapping feet – which are an odd shape. She said no. Naturally I kept talking and making the situation socially more difficult.

On the positive side, I read a lot this month. God, but I love a book. I love throwing myself into a story and characters and experiences without having to leave my own bed, chair, sofa. My library card has been wearing thin this month. My totebag has been stuffed full every week.

Art and culture

Through very little effort on my part, I absorbed a LOT of culture this month. The start of the month was spent at Friendsfest in Chiswick with some super girlfriends as we took approximately nine bajillion photos in the Friends sets and tried to stay out of the rain. These girls are immense fun, so gradually becoming colder and damper did nothing to reduce the fun-levels.

Next up I went to a sold-out Prom with a gorgeous friend from Oxford. I will be the first person to say that I don’t understand classical music. I wish I did. I really ought to try harder. That’s not to say I don’t like classical music, but I’m unfamiliar and a little intimidated by it. Luckily, Bex just powered on through and explained things to me as we went. Prom 69: Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Bareinboim performing Mozart (who I’d heard of) and Bruckner (who I should have) was glorious.

The week after that was a comedy night organised by Fee, which was predictably excellent, then there was a spontaneous and exclusive concert by Emilie Sande that my friend Red had won tickets to on the radio. We got quite lost trying to find the place in Chelsea Football club and a man with a familiar face (but I don’t know football, so I can’t tell you who) gave us directions.

Finally, Carrie and I took out hearts in our hands to see Bridget Jones’ Baby and it was screamingly funny. Thank goodness. We had had concerns.

Organised finances

I’m still working on my accountability project with Fee, emailing her my spending every week with a commentary on how I think I have done. I can’t seem to stop buying snacks when I am in need of cheering up, but I have got better at buying random shampoos or lipsticks. I still spend a bit too much buying people things they don’t need, but if it brings me joy, it can’t be too bad. I’m slowly saving bit by bit.

Decidedly relaxed

Given the amount of time I have spent in trains, planes and airports, I have got a good amount of reading done. I’ve got back into reading fiction again, which really gives me brain a rest. I’ve also been lucky to be gifted a stack of books, so I have plenty to get on with in the next few months before Christmas!

Career plan

I forgot to mention in the last round-up that my boss and I gave the new staff at the Embassy cultural training. While I don’t love presenting, I’m fine at it once I get started and as long as I know what I’m talking about. My boss had a lot on last month, so I took over the organisation of this project and made sure it was water tight. I really enjoyed researching and putting together a comprehensive presentation. People claimed to have loved it.

On the way back to the office, I was struck by how much I enjoyed the work. It could well be something I look into as a next step. That felt pretty good.

Finishes projects

My plan had been to work on my next collected book – a collection of the emails and texts between my dad and me. While I have most of the material together, I seem to put it off. There’s always something else to do. It may well be that it’s because when I’m finished, I can’t think of another Dad thing I have left. And that’s not something I want o think about too much. There’s no rush on it, so I’ll not push myself too hard.

All Quiet On The Fritz Front

The Lost Art of Keeping SecretsOrdinarily, I share what’s going on in my life like I am Hello Magazine and people in my life have organised a daily subscription. HERE is everything I have done since you saw me last, THIS is every thought I have had about everything since I last spoke to you, etc etc.

This Fritz Business isn’t something I have volunteered. In fact, I’m slightly taken aback myself by how private I have been.

Granted, I have told a few people before now. The people who see me most often or who guessed something was up (so many plane tickets, yet so few photos on Facebook…what gives?).

I guess the main reason is that I didn’t want to have to EXAMINE what was going on. I didn’t want to have to discuss where this is going or what kind of a future does this have or but you live here and he lives there and BREXIT.

I didn’t want to poke holes in it. I wanted to keep it safe in the packaging and enjoy it before it got bashed about.

I also didn’t want to have to be mortified if it all fell apart. Embarrassed for having mentioned a boy and have my friends remember enough about him to ask about him and then watch their faces reconfigure when I say he’s no longer on the scene. To hear “well, I didn’t think he was right for you” or “but we knew he wasn’t a serious option” from friends who had previously been enthused about him. As a single person, there’s an element of self-preservation, even with your friends. Your own disappointment you can handle on your own with some wine and low-level misery. Their disappointment for you – or worse! Lack of disappointment because they knew better – is harder to manage.

I mean, he lives in Munich. I don’t.

I also didn’t want to talk about how he’s very good at his job and his job is more important that mine (he has a career, I have a job) and not get into a feminist argument about equally valued work. Or how I don’t WANT to move to Munich and wouldn’t ASK him to move here.

I didn’t want to have to think about how he’s GERMAN and I swore blind I would never end up with a German, or that he’s VERY Catholic and I am suspicious of that (not in him, but in people) because where I come from you never mention your faith, you just get on with it and, if anything, are bashful about it. I didn’t want to think about how he genuinely wears Lederhosen, not as a costume, but because he is proud of where he is from (patriotism is NOT something I am familiar with). Or how he’s nothing like my type.

I didn’t want to talk about how I actually really like him, that he stands up to me and my big mouth in a nice way that makes me feel safe. Or that I really like him a lot, enough to get on a plane for a first date when I generally think Brixton (about three tube stops) is too far away for some BOY.

That he’s not actually Some Boy. That he might be quite special. That if he IS special, what am I going to DO about it? How do I KNOW he’s special? Remember how I thought this other person was special? Remember how I spent/wasted all that time on that other special person?

For once, I just wanted to be, rather than think. Even if it felt like a secret and I didn’t want it to be. I’m not ashamed or hiding it, I just kept it for me for a little bit, rather than put it out on the Front Page.