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.

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…

Adulting Round-Up Quarter 4 (part 4)

Part four, the final!

Organised finances
I want to do a post entirely on my financial accountability project, but needless to say, I found it very helpful to see exactly where I spend my money and where I throw it away. Christmas came and went, expensive as it always is and I think I learnt a few lessons there. My family are not Big Ticket Item people. We tend to buy a number of small things totalling a larger number, rather than one thing at the large number. Buying One Thing seems like such a risk – what if the other person doesn’t like it? Or, if it’s something they actually want, it looks like you’ve shown no great thought by just buying what they asked for.  My family have always been like this. Most of my friends have too. We all came from well off backgrounds but with minimal money extra. As teenagers we would have a limit of ten or fifteen pounds and would try to see how many things we could get for that. As we grew older and had a little more spare cash, gifts still held that same ethos: lots of little things. The problem is that inflation rose with us and the little things are now a little bit more expensive. We’re maybe buying six bubble baths for the price of one good hardback book.

At the moment, my friends and I are all roughly at the same stage with roughly the same amount of spare cash at the end of the month, and it’s not lots. Those of us who aren’t spending hundreds of pounds on flights home for Christmas, have mortgages or are on maternity leave with babies. Or having weddings to pay for. Or have gone freelance. Or have had a career shift and suddenly need to squirrel money away for rainier days. There’s less money for buying a Good Thing and the Topper things that make up the whole gift. And we have enough money ourselves to buy the little things – the glass nail files, the cute lipbalms and the weird chocolate bars (lime and salt is not a great idea, actually, take it from me).

I took a slightly different tack this Christmas and just outright asked people what they would like as a gift. Rather than buying two things I think they’d like and then “rounding it off” with some smaller sillier things, I bought the things they asked for and things I thought they’d like. It felt VERY strange not to be wrapping a whole bundle of gifts. And, to be honest, it felt a lot less wasteful. I knew that people would definitely really like the three books I gave them, rather than like the book I gave them and wondered what to do with the bubble bath set I hoped they’d like but wasn’t sure and felt I had to buy something else to make up the budget I’d set. I’m not really explaining this very well and I’m afraid of coming across as a skinflint or buying gifts that aren’t considered – I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s interesting that I am already defensive about how I spent my money on people.

Where I fell down this year was completely missing gifts with some friends. I’d not expected to exchange gifts with them, hadn’t budgeted, then panicked and overspent. I didn’t like that. I also don’t know how to fix it. How do you break the gift-cycle? How do you say to someone, “Look, I like you and cherish our friendship, but I don’t think we need to mark it with tangible items this festive period.” It seems so harsh!

Where I did well was saving my credit card reward vouchers (from the M&S credit card) and Amazon vouchers that I’d accrued for Christmas. The M&S card actually isn’t good at all for rewards now, as they’ve changed their T&Cs and so I shall be smart and switch to something better. That was one thing I did learn from my ex who worked in finance – don’t just GIVE your credit to some bank – it’s an asset, so you should receive something in return. I’m looking at either a cashback or an airmiles card.

Speaking of airmiles, I was smart enough to book flights in the BA sale in January (although not using airmiles) and so saved myself a little there. Stupidly, I have to move one of my flights, because I hadn’t put something in the diary, but you live and learn.

Decidedly relaxed
Over Christmas I had food poisoning and had to totally relinquish planning to my sister (who managed admirably, of course) and the rest of my family. It was quite difficult for me but I didn’t really have an other option. My sister did everything wonderfully and my mum had everything organised in her own haphazard relaxed way. Everyone still had a good time, even if the plates didn’t match. There’s a lesson there, obviously.

One thing I did learn while I was away, holidaying with someone else’s family, is that I need to be connected to MY people to feel relaxed. Fritz and I had a bit of a discussion where he was slightly miffed that I was on my phone when we had some time alone. Not all the time, but for about fifteen minutes. I felt bad about that until I realised that, actually, this was not mindless scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and ignoring him. He was on holiday with his family, revelling in the connection and relationships he had. While they’re lovely, they’re not my family. I was in Italy where I didn’t speak the language, where I was on someone else’s timetable and utterly cut off from My People and what was going on with them. I realised that Facebook and Instagram were giving me back a little corner of my world when I felt so alien in the real one. Skiing was tough and it was a bit lonely being in a class of strangers. While it’s great to be included in someone’s family, I wasn’t up to speed on in-jokes and I missed that. Social media gave me a moment of belonging to my people and connection. I didn’t feel quite so lost and on my own (even though I wasn’t!) – it was also great to let people know how stressful I found skiing and hear from friends who agreed, not to make me feel better, but because they had also found it difficult. I can relax around strangers when I’ve topped up my reserves of familiar people.

By the time I got back to London after skiing and generally living out of a suitcase since November, I realised that I wasn’t doing super well. I was constantly fighting off a migraine and being overwhelmed by my To Do list. And so for a week I tried to be in bed for ten pm. I shut my phone off at 9.30 so I could get ready for bed and then read for a little with a nice candle before turning out the light. It was remarkable the difference. It was also remarkable that I only lasted for three days. It was a lovely idea, but I have friends and family in different timezones and if I don’t have my phone on, then I’ll miss them and weeks can go by without us catching up. Also, a friend texted with big news at 9.28 and it would have been churlish to just cut that off after two minutes. I haven’t worked out the balance, but this is something I need to do.

Career plan
If I wanted to switch careers, I’d be in good company. Every third person I know seems to be jacking in their career of a decade and doing something utterly different and terrifying and brave. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m thinking of options. That being said, writing cover letters is the most soul destroying activity in the world, so I’m in no rush.

On the career front, I have discovered that I am not a bad manager at all. I had a very immature trainee for a little while, who had never been away from home before, took everything personally and was terribly difficult to work with. She also burst into tears at the drop of the hat, which disrupted the department and other departments! This was not ideal. The organisation I work with isn’t super at human relations or communication and the attitude was essentially “she’ll leave soon enough, let’s not make a fuss” which I didn’t think was actually that great a solution. So I sat with her on a number of occasions and had Some Difficult Conversations. Hilariously, I had to talk to her about how to be an adult in the world.

She was bright, but she wasn’t independent. She was used to being the centre of attention and not having to try very hard and now she did. She was a good kid, she’d just never had to work at anything. I had to establish how to teach her how to do the job without losing my patience or being unkind or sarcastic, but also without mollycoddling her. I also had to put the good of the team before my own personal feelings of exasperation. I also had to be firm when usually I would wuss out. In the end, she was much improved and so was I. I’ve learnt how to ask questions and speak softly, rather than charge in with a funny-but-cutting remark that will shut down the other person. Being right and having the other person know it, damn it, isn’t always the goal.

Finishes projects
The list of projects is ever increasing. Oh, so many. But slow and steady wins the race. Some I’ve timetables for later in the year, some I’ve realised felt more burdensome than rewarding and some have been chipped away at bit-by-bit.

I’m loving my Bullet Journal and also the List Book I was given for Christmas. I’m juggling a paper diary, my BuJo, the notes in my phone and at least two pieces of paper floating around, but at the moment I seem to be fairly organised. I’ve done a little Marie Kondoing, I’ve resolved to be more intentional about the blog and I’ve got plans in the wings. I’m getting there.

Adulting Round-Up Quarter 4 (part 3)

Art and culture
If I dive deep on Berlin and Seattle, I’ll be here for months, and then I’ll never move on. So I shall very briefly glide through those trips, both of which I was so lucky to spend with good friends. I’ve been to Berlin a thousand times for work, but never actually spent very long looking at it. Crossing the river in the morning, grabbing a shot of the Fernsehturm before spending all day locked in a conference room was about as good as it got. With the girls we managed to see the Berlin Wall (all the more poignant with Trump’s election), Check Point Charlie, check out the Reichstag (but unfortunately not go inside) and the Brandenburg Gate, we took in the Holocaust memorial which was eerie and chilling and Potsdamer Platz which has it’s own history. Berlin is a lively vibrant city and it’s hard to imagine how divided it was just a few decades before. Hard to imagine, but the traces are very evident. That a city could be split like that is striking given how shattered our society is at the moment. It feels as though we are on the cusp of an upheaval and it may well be as angrily graffitied as the wall was.

Thinking about it now, Seattle was a complete change of pace. I was there is the days after the election and I’d been nervous about it beforehand. Seattle is a very modern liberal city, but I was nervous that the fear would take hold. I needn’t have worried. If anything, I spent more time moved by the community pulling together. I passed a church on the way into town with strips of fabric tied to the railings outside. I went to take a closer look and found a poster tied to the fence that said:

“Dear friend,
in the aftermath of Tuesday’s Election, you may be scared, you may be tired, you may feel hopeless, you may be angry, you may be triggered, you may be oppressed.
The notes here are from our church community to you. Read them and know that we love you. We need you. We will work for justice. We believe that racism, sexism, homophobia and any form of hatred is contradictory to the good news that Jesus taught us and asks us to live.
There are more ribbons and pieces of fabric here if you wish to tie one on the bars of the church as a sign of solidarity for anyone feeling vulnerable among us.
Peace be with you.”

There were hundreds of strips tied to the railings with messages. “We walk with you” “We welcome you” “I stand with you” “you are loved”

And I am not ashamed to say that I just wept in the street. I’m choked up now as I type that out. I don’t think I can delete that photo from my phone. What strikes me now is that I have no idea what denomination of Jesus that Church was. There was no Bible quote on that poster. There was nothing that anyone could be offended or prickled by. There was no preaching. There were no conditions. There was no mention of sinners or forgiveness. It was all love and support. Whatever you believe, or don’t believe, the message was inclusive.

All across the city, that’s what I felt. You are part of us. Shop windows had stickers saying “this is a safe space” for vulnerable people. Local businesses had Stand For Women posters in the window. National businesses had adverts out standing up for equality and diversity. There were posters on lamp posts inviting everyone to a peaceful protest gathering downtown.

I visited the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and a security guard had a chat with me about the pieces and how the museum attracts all kinds of people. I went to the Chihuly Garden and Glass and a steward talked to me about how the art had travelled around the globe and how Dale Chihuly had worked in some diverse landscapes. Everyone was very cognisant of the threat to difference and how it was an essential part of this world.

I mean, I also went to Nordstrom, got a coffee from the first Starbucks in Pike Place Market and ate chicken and waffles – it wasn’t all high brow, but it was all great and life affirming and delicious and thought provoking.

Despite travelling so much in the last few months, I did shoehorn in a good amount of culture. I’m on the Time Out London newsletter and it’s been the main reason that I’ve done so much. I have a terrible tendency to see a poster on the tube for something I would love to do, then put off organising tickets for it and then it’s over. The Time Out newsletter has offers for various events and I’ve learnt to just book things on the day of the newsletter, even if the event isn’t for months. This is how I ended up booking ballet tickets six months in advance and being pleased that I had a seat when it was sold out. Sometimes in life you have to prioritise the fun things when it’s inconvenient, otherwise you miss out on too much. I live in one of the best cities in the world, I want to take advantage of that. I haven’t experienced enough in my nearly ten years here – I feel like I should really make an effort.

To that end, I booked an on-a-whim ticket to Mike Massimo’s talk at the Royal Institution in October. You guys, it was amazing. As usual, I went on my own and then panicked about where to sit. I took a seat right on the end, right at the front, which meant I was basically staring at his ear all evening. I was beside tow lovely older people who quizzed me on my dedication to astronomy and I was suitably inspired to go to a lot more talks.

I’m a huge space geek. I will happily watch a documentary about the Apollo programme that I’ve seen a million times. I am fascinated by space, by space travel, by the people on the ground who make it happen, by the technology that genuinely allows miracles to happen and by the heroes that are the astronauts whether they make it into space or not. If you weren’t interested in space, or didn’t really care too much about it, Mike Massimo is the guy who would develop your curiosity. He’s an American who grew up in New York when the furthest anyone he knew went was between Brooklyn and Manhattan. He wasn’t so good at school, he didn’t have the perfect eyesight NASA required, he was a totally normal guy. He just tried really hard, was practical and always gave it a shot. He’s also really really funny. This is a guy you want to share a beer with. I was totally smitten and queued to have him autograph my copy of his book afterwards. He is so incredibly patient and fun. Good times. I wish my dad had been around to hear I’d shaken the hand of an astronaut.

The ballet tickets I’d booked months ago were finally collected. I saw The Nutcracker and Giselle at the Coliseum. Both sold out performance, both fantastic, obviously. I’d never seen the Nutcracker live and, while I was enchanted by the tiny children in the audience up past their bedtimes dressed in tutus, I realised it’s not actually my favourite ballet piece. I much prefer Gisele (which I’ve seen many times now) or Coppelia or the classic Cinderella. I think next year I’ll skip it, so that someone who really wants a ticket can complete their pre-Christmas festivities. Watching The Red Shoes dvd is more my Christmas tradition.

Cinema wise, I’ve been to see Rogue One (amazing, obviously), The Girl on the Train (bit unnecessarily gory, but there we are), Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (stunning visuals, lovely story) and remembered how much I love the cinema. I generally go on my own, late in the run on a Wednesday night when the screen will be virtually empty (there were SIX people in the screen when I saw Rogue One. It was delicious) and I treat myself to a fancy sandwich and a nice snack during the trailers and settle down under my coat for the film.

To be honest, the cinema is an expensive treat in London. You get minimal change from a twenty pound note and that’s without snacks. It’s not something you can do every week, much as you’d like to, so I am very conscious of which films I see these days. It has to be something I know I’m going to love. I’ll skip La La Land and maybe watch it on DVD some day, because Hadley Freeman’s review made me think twice. I love Emma Stone and I love Ryan Gosling, but my patience for grumpy snobby men has run thin. I’d much rather spend my money on a female led film, than another romance that underlines the patriarchy. If I’m in the cinema, I’m giving it my full attention. The patriarchy doesn’t need my full attention.

On the book front, I did me a lot of reading. I spent a lot of time on planes and in airports and just…waiting around. While commuting can be excruciating, I love the dead time it gives me. I’ve deliberately chosen not to hook up to the wifi on the underground. I don’t want to be on my phone when I travel. I don’t want an excuse to extend my work day. I use that time for reading – twenty minutes of just me and a book. Sitting or standing, it’s the best thing for taking my mind off being hot, squashed and subjected to someone else’s morning breath.

I’ve just discovered that my library record doesn’t hold my loans history for more than a few months. I’d hoped it would remind me of what I’d borrowed, but now I shall just have to summarise. Wimbledon library has a great selection of feminist writing. I don’t know how, but we seem to have the latest Lady Books just hidden on the shelves. We’re less good on fiction, so I’d have to reserve those from elsewhere to get them through the door. We have an immense cookery book section, so I pick up cookery books to flick through before I sleep, even if I know I’m never going to make the recipes. Rachel Khoo and Mary Berry are always good for this.

I’ve also made a point of stacking all my To Read books on my top shelf and slowly reading through them. I’ve been Keeping Them For Good and 2017 is off to a pretty bad start. It’s cold, Trump is here (I’ll talk more about that when I can), the world is a disgrace. So I will read Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A diary of my 100th year and revel in it, Cary Elwes’s As You Wish and be enchanted by it, Lynn Sherr’s biography Sally Ride – America’s first woman in space and be inspired by it. I’ve been absorbing other people’s worlds to handle my own.

On the odd occasion when I’ve been at home, I’ve been multitasking in front of tv. I adored the Gilmore Girls on Netflix – it was perfect. The characters are crazy and flawed and ridiculous, but perfect. It was just exactly what was needed for this terrible January. It was like going home. To a home where there is coffee and pie and warmth. I caught up with Sherlock and Martin Freeman once again reminded me how lovely he is. I love so much that his partner in life is his on-screen wife and that she is a fully developed female character. She’s the delightful balance to the odd masculinity in the show. I watched Elizabeth and The Crown and my deep respect for the Royal Family and the thankless job they do with such grace in the face of the criticism they face. You could not pay me enough money to do that. Also, how draughty must Buck House be? I’d miss my sofa blanket, for one!