New Endings

Today I am tired: dog-tired. Lately I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and the outcome is not pretty – bad skin, concentration span of a gnat (not intimately knowing their cognitive capabilities, I acknowledge this may be unfair to gnats) and the general feeling that I am clinging to my raft on the fast-flowing river of life by the tips of my fingers, with only moments to spare before I fall off and am pulled beneath the murky depths (that last bit was the hungover melodrama speaking, best to ignore it).

But today four things happened that snapped me out of the downward-spiralling torrrent of my own selfish emotions:

  1. I read the news from Calais, where fire is ravaging through the Jungle camp as I type this, and, at the very same time, unaccompanied minors are being sent back there to wait until they can be processed.
  2. I heard a piece of  news from England, which nearly made my heart burst with happiness and joy.
  3. I received my fourth book through the Facebook book exchange I signed up to a couple of weeks ago, which has gone some way towards restoring my faith in humanity.
  4. I watched this video by Prince Ea, which made me realise that those of us who are lucky enough to live in relative freedom are the masters of our own destiny. We can make as many excuses as we like for why we don’t put ourselves out there, but in the end all that will come of our procrastination is regret.

Too often we let our minds wander, thinking of all the paths we could go down but failing to take even the first step along one of them. Fear is a paralysing force, and a toxic one. So many of us stay in the trap our fearful minds have set for us, instead of facing our fear head on and saying, you know what? I’m not falling for this. Not again.

Collectively, as Sapiens (I urge you to read that, by the way, it will change your perspective on everything), we’re not doing that great a job of things: segregating ourselves by our countries of origin and religious beliefs, killing our planet, killing one another. But individually we can still make a difference. For all our faults, we humans have such capacity for kindness, for love, for hope. Even in the Jungle, where those awful fires are burning and people’s future is so uncertain, people are dancing. I’m sure those very people could teach the rest of us a lot about what it means to be happy, and how little we really need to find happiness, and peace in our hearts.

As Prince Ea says in his video, you cannot go back and make a new beginning. But you can start now, and make a brand new ending. It’s not too late to change ourselves, or to change the world. All it takes is courage: to feel our fear and do it anyway. I don’t know about you, but I plan to do exactly that.


Ten Things About Me (Revised Bio)

Inspired by the friend who I call my ‘spiritual twin’ (you know who you are), I have updated my bio with ten things about me:

1. I want to write but rarely do it. This tortures me daily, and, unless I seek to remedy it by writing more often, will continue to torture me until my dying day.

2. I worry: about hate, about greed, about selfishness, about the state of the world my (God willing) children will inherit. I worry about what people think of me. I worry that this makes me shallow. I worry about things happening to my loved ones. I worry how I would cope. I worry that this makes me selfish. I worry that worrying will send me to an early grave. But I’m so good at worrying that I also wonder what I would do if I wasn’t worrying. Probably more writing (see point 1)….Oh.

3. I see myself as two people (though, as far as I am aware, I am not technically schizophrenic): a) the fancy dress loving party girl, who loves nothing more than having fun with her friends, because she has seen through her own experiences that life is short, so why not enjoy the ride? b) the more serious and reflective person who wants to learn and to help people and to find her higher purpose (I suspect it is also she who really, really wants to write). Sometimes these sides are conflicting. Fortunately they are in total agreement when it comes to chocolate, red wine and travel.

4. I don’t see myself as an ardent feminist, but the older I get the more frustrated I feel by the societal view of women and ageing. Having just hit the metabolically displeasing age of 35 (now officially past it according to the massive wankflap that is Donald Trump, as well as virtually every media outlet on the planet, whether they overtly state it or not) I hate the fact I am made (and have let myself be manipulated) to feel that my fertility is now teetering on the edge of a clifftop free fall, and that even if I do negotiate this rocky march towards infertility and manage a miracle procreation, my usefulness as a financially solvent career woman will be over, seeing as having a baby in your mid to late thirties is pretty much akin to career suicide. It’s enough to make you want to drown yourself in a vat of wine (hence why I often don a wig and do just that – see point 3a).

5. The older I get, the more I realise that you are never too old to love drum and bass (whether you are ever too old to publicly dance to drum and bass is an issue I am currently grappling with). Ditto UK garage. I will never be ashamed of these two great loves. Never.

6. Speaking of great loves, I have two: my husband, who (sickening as it is) completes me, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I have loved since I first laid eyes on him as Romeo to Kate Winslet’s Juliet, and will love until my dying day (likewise the husband, all being well). As much as I like Kate Winslet, I will never forgive her for leaving him on that door. There was definitely room for two.

7. I am riddled with self doubt, and have a serious case of imposter syndrome, particularly in relation to my fourteen year communications career. I have never understood how anyone could deem me capable of running their campaigns. The lack of complaints would suggest I haven’t made a total balls up of it so far. But there’s still time.

8. Infinity and death frighten me senseless. I can’t even talk about the universe without breaking into a sweat. I need to believe in life after death because death CANNOT be the end. I should probably have some (more) counselling to address these issues.

9. If procrastination were an Olympic sport, I would win Gold, Silver and Bronze (to give an example, I sat down an hour ago to work on my new novel, and instead have been updating this bio. I refer you to point 1. Sigh).

10. I make more lists than Buzzfeed. When I die, besides having Oasis’s Champagne Supernova played at my funeral (deep breaths – see point 8), I should probably have a To Do list inscribed on my headstone for when I reach the other side…


Writing Prompt: The Dying of the Light

My entry for the Creative Writing Ink Image Prompt Competition from w/c 6th October 2016, inspired by this picture:


The light was dying, and the fire had gone out. Without Brin’s firelighting skills she wouldn’t be able to relight it; she was too little and she didn’t have the skills. The valley looked idyllic now, with its alluring carpet of grass, but come morning it would all be frozen stiff. As would she, if her brother didn’t return. Rowena’s jaw set in determination. She couldn’t just give in. What would her Mama say? And her Papa? She was only five, but she was smart. Everyone said so. Before the flood took them away. She gulped her grief deep down inside and tried to focus. Her empty belly rumbled. In response, she did the only thing she could think of to do: sprang up from her haunches and ran, as far and as fast as her legs could carry her.

Some twenty minutes later, when she reached the towering valley walls, she found a thicket of small trees. Not thinking of the bears that might be lurking there, nor of the fate of her brother (who she knew should have been back hours ago with food for their dinner) Rowena strode purposefully into the thicket and began to gather wood.

When she returned to the camp it was almost dark, but the full moon helped her find her way. She hunkered down over the burnt out embers with the small bits of dry wood and kindling she had found, and set to work. She concentrated hard on setting the sticks at the right angle, carefully arranging the kindling in the crook of the bottom piece of wood she had partially hollowed and laid out, just as she had seen Brin and Papa do many times, but never tried herself. Until now. And now, she knew, failure would almost certainly mean death.

Brin walked slowly across the valley floor, dragging his badly wounded leg behind him. He had, he knew, been lucky in his stand-off with the bear. His wounds would heal – he would survive – but that didn’t make his return to camp any less painful. Or diminish his growing concern about his sister’s welfare. He’d had no choice to leave her, but what would his father have said? “Protect her, Brin, to your dying breath”, were his dying words. And Brin would protect Rowena, of course he would. But to protect her he must also bring her food. Otherwise they would both starve. As he walked he felt the weight of the dead rabbit over his shoulder. Hold on little one, he willed. Hold on.

The smoke reached his nostrils before the light from the flames. He stopped and rubbed his eyes, incredulous. As he grew nearer he could just make out the tiny figure lying beside the fire, wrapped in a small fur. He ran to his sister’s side, scooped her up onto his knee and held her close. She stirred from her slumber, opened her eyes and smiled. “Brin?”

“It’s me, little one,” Brin said, returning his sister’s trusting smile. “Was it really you who got the fire going?”

Rowena nodded. “All by myself,” she said proudly. “Like you and Papa used to do.”

Brin laid the rabbit on the ground and Rowena’s eyes widened. “Well you are cleverer than I even thought possible,” he said. “And, to celebrate, we will have rabbit for dinner tonight.”

Mini Travel Blog: Vietnam

According to this article, researchers have found that time seems to have passed more quickly when we have had fewer new experiences. This explains why many feel that time passes faster as they grow older. It also explains why doing a lot of different things on holiday can make the holiday feel longer.

I love a beach break as much as the next person, but they always seem to fly by in an instant, and if the time theory is correct, it’s the lack of new stimuli that is responsible. The best way to get the most out of a short trip to far away climes is, therefore, to break it into several distinct chunks.

With this in mind, when booking our short (9 day) holiday to Vietnam we decided to split the trip into three equal parts: 3 days in the city of Ho Chi Minh, 3 in Phong Nha, near Vietnam’s famous cave systems in the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, and 3 in the charming French colonial seaside town of Hoi An.

The trip came about thanks to an invitation to our good friends’ wedding in Ho Chi Minh, so we had the added excitement of seeing a traditional Vietnamese wedding as well as having the rare opportunity to holiday somewhere so far away from home with a big group of friends.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh on Friday evening, just in time to meet the group for a beer at the Secret Garden rooftop restaurant.


Beers at the Secret Garden rooftop restaurant on our first night.

After a comfortable night’s sleep at the charming Silverland Jolie Hotel & Spa we were up early for the main event, the first part of which was held at the bride’s family residence on the outskirts of town. Family and friends piled into the living room for the ceremony, for which the bride’s family had generously arranged a translator to enable the British contingent to keep up with all that was going on. Some of our friends were part of the bridal party and wore stunning traditional handmade gowns.


The boys (and my husband!) in their traditional bridal party outfits.

After the ceremony we all headed to a restaurant where we were treated to a delicious spread of traditional food. Then there was a break of a couple of hours after which we gathered again, this time with many additional members of the bride’s family and friendship circle (I think we numbered around 400 in total!), for a stunning evening celebration at the Sheraton Hotel, during which there were speeches and much eating, drinking (Vietnamese men are, it turns out, very fond of drinking their beers in one go, much to the delight of the male members of the British contingent) and laughter.

The bride, it must be said, looked absolutely stunning in the two outfits she wore during the day-firstly a traditional Vietnamese wedding outfit and then a more western style white dress later on. And the groom looked dashing in his traditional Vietnamese outfit.


Part one of the ceremony, with the bride and groom in traditional dress.


The bride and groom entering the room for the evening party.

Around 10pm the formal part of the celebrations concluded and most of the bride’s guests began to dissipate. True to form the Brits partied into the night, at the rooftop bar at the Sheraton and, later, a rather spurious club called Apocalypse Now, but the less said about that part of the evening the better…


Me and Jessie getting into the party spirit.


The boys downing beers (again).

The following evening, after a lazy afternoon and delicious lunch at Propaganda, the bride’s father treated us to a meal onboard a boat, giving us the chance to see Ho Chi Minh from the water, and experience some traditional singing and dancing. It was nice to do something a little more intimate with the family (although we still must have numbered almost 40!), and was a really enjoyable evening.


View from the boat on our evening trip, courtesy of the bride’s father.


More beers at the boat party, as if there hadn’t been enough the night before!

Afterwards we went for a rooftop cocktail at the swanky (if extortionately priced) Glow Sky Bar, before literally stumbling across an incredible live music night that felt exactly how I imagine stepping into an intimate gig in a house in New Orleans would feel. Not what you expect on a night out in Ho Chi Minh, but the city is full of such surprises.


Rooftop bar action at Glow.


The local jazz and blues gig we stumbled across – the pic doesn’t do it justice, it was great!

Overall the weekend was a fantastic start to our trip: CONGRATULATIONS Tom and Lily, and thank you so much for sharing your special day with us and for your generosity.

On Monday morning we left the city at 8am and headed for the airport with three friends, to catch the 10.15 flight to Dong Hoi, from where I had arranged a transfer to our place of residence for the next three nights, the Phong Nha Farmstay. Situated just a few kilometres from the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park – home to the biggest cave in the world, as well as many other spectacular cave systems – it was the perfect base from which to explore. Listed in the new Lonely Planet guide book as “the place that put Phong Nha on the map,” we soon understood why. The Australian owner, Ben, is something of a local entrepreneur. He set the place up with his Vietnamese wife and it is really something, a backpacker’s paradise complete with outdoor pool, pool table, hammocks and near-nightly entertainment (we watched 3/4 of Heaven on Earth on the outdoor projector screen on the second night, lying on sun loungers underneath the stars, before rain brought it to an abrupt end – damn rainy season! – and on the last night a fabulous Philippino band had us singing along to covers of Hanson and the Spice Girls!). Looking out over the rice paddies the Farmstay offers free cycle hire (tip: no matter how appealing the tandems may look, don’t do it! The terrain in the area can get rough in places and they are a nightmare off road!) and has 16 comfortable rooms. They can also book you onto excellent tours of the national park (ask for Victor as a guide – he’s great!) and will happily help with onward travel.


Hubby at the Phong Nha Farmstay

On our first afternoon we took two tandem bikes (see above comment!) and one normal bike (never have I been so grateful for this decision) and went exploring. It’s clear over the coming months and years this place is going to skyrocket in popularity, so it was a treat to spend time in a relatively undeveloped part of the country. That said, the fact it is still developing means some things, like the signposts and rudimentary map we were provided by the farmstay, aren’t always entirely accurate, and we found ourselves very lost after missing a turning whilst looking for the amusingly named ‘Pub with cold beer’. Our detour took us knee deep through a river, aided by local children, and up some tricky steep inclines, but perseverence saw us reaching our goal in the end! On the way back the heavens opened and it bucketed down, providing us with our first experience of Vietnam’s rainy season.


The fateful tandem bikes.


Getting lost in search of cold beer and wading through a river, as one does…

Day two was our National Park Tour. At this time of year, due to the unpredictability of the weather, many of the longer tours are cancelled, so we had to make do with a one day tour. As it turned out it was fantastic. Our guide, Victor, was hilarious and well informed, and we really enjoyed the itinerary of the 8 Ladies’ Cave and temple followed by the Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. We had lunch at the restaurant near the Dark Cave before getting into safety gear and ziplining down to the base of the cave. After walking for ten minutes or so into the cave we arrived at the famous mud pool where you float on the mud like the Dead Sea – a very interesting experience!


The stunning Paradise Cave

On our last day in Phong Nha we hired scooters and, despite the onset of heavy rain, had an enormously fun (and less physically challenging!) day exploring the local area. The rain even worked in our favour as it drove us into an as yet unopened homestay a few kilometres from ours, which was picture postcard beautiful with a swimming pool framed by a jagged mountain backdrop and wonderfully welcoming staff. The female chef in particular was overwhelmed with excitement to see us and the whole staff and family couldn’t do enough for us, rushing to set up chairs and tables, turning on the music and showing us around. The owner, who we called ‘Big Boss’, brought out his best whisky and invited us to drink with him (we only had one despite his protestations otherwise, we were in charged of vehicles after all!). It was a really special experience, one of those life affirming moments that makes travelling so worthwhile. Afterwards we stopped off in town for a drink at the Tiger Tiger hostel, which was full of young backpackers and fun, but made me glad we had chosen to stay out of the town.


Scooting around in the rain.


The stunning view from the soon to be opened homestay where we sheltered from the rain.


Chilling with Big Boss (centre) and the fam.

The next day we woke up to see the paddy fields flooded by rain, and heard reports of all cave tours being cancelled and the city of Hue – which I visited on my last trip to Vietnam 9 years ago – submerged beneath half a metre of water. We felt lucky to have missed the worst of it and to have seen the caves, as many would have travelled all that way and been disappointed. We headed for Dong Hoi where we boarded a train south to Danang (a pleasant 5 hour journey with some nice views, or at least there would have been were it not for the driving rain), and from there jumped in a taxi to travel the 45 minutes to Hoi An.

Hoi An was much more developed than I remembered from my last trip almost a decade ago, but nonetheless managed to retain its colonial charm. What I love most about it is that it really has it all: it is a foodie haven, has fantastic tailors for reasonably priced clothes, some lovely artisanal shops, fun bars and a lovely beach. It was the perfect final destination for our trip.

We stayed at the Hoang Trinh guesthouse, a traditionally decorated place with the most charming staff I think I have ever come across. Our room was clean and relatively spacious, although its situation directly beside a nursery school meant early morning wake ups! The breakfast was a delight-fresh fruit, rice and vegetables, croissants, bread and jam, creme caramel…whatever you wanted you could have. We quickly learned that when you emptied a plate it would immediately be refilled, so it was best to leave it just short of empty!


Hoi An at dusk.


The boys on the balcony of the Hoang Trinh guesthouse.

Three of the best restaurants we ate at were the The Little Menu – which also runs cookery courses that three of our group did and said were fantastic – whose Hoi An duck spring rolls were to die for, the Nu Eatery – which does the BEST (and this really can’t be understated) bbq pork buns I have ever tasted (see pic below) – and Morning Glory. We also found, on the recommendation of a friend, a place called Banh Mi Phuong near to the tailor shop we went to which did delicious Banh Mi pork rolls served in baguettes. Definitely worth seeking out. And on the last night we stumbled out of the rain into a fabulous grill restaurant where we had a smorgasbord of barbecued meats and traditional delicacies; the perfect way to round off our culinary food tour.

I had only intended to buy one or two items of clothing from the tailors but the staff at BeBe Tailors wear so good and the quality of service so high that I went crazy and ordered two dresses, two pairs of trousers and a skirt, and R ordered a suit and three shirts! We didn’t regret our decision though, they are all fantastic and half the price similar quality clothes would be on the high street.

Finally, a nod to Hoi An’s beach and night life. The former, An Bang beach, is a great place to spend a couple of days topping up the tan (something my bright red skin is currently not thanking me for). It has a lot of sun beds and umbrellas that you can either hire or use for free provided you order food and drinks from the associated restaurant. At the far end of the main beach on the left is a particularly pleasant restaurant set in a garden just behind the beach; the perfect place to retreat to for a coconut when the sun gets too hot.


An Bang beach.

As for the night life, there isn’t a huge amount to speak of as, although they are fun, most of the bars in the old town close by midnight. On the opposite side of the river is a strip of tourist bars with ridiculous names like ‘The Mr Bean Bar’ which attract young crowds with promises of free cocktails and laughing gas balloons. While fun they do seem at odds with the general ambiance of Hoi An, and a particular contrast to the peace and tranquillity further down the waterfront where old women offer short boat trips along the river in the dark to set afloat wish candles. But as with every popular tourist attraction, such dichotomies of culture will occur, and as tacky as the late night bars are, they do at least boost the economy of this thriving town.


Beautiful Hoi An by night, with wish lanterns floating in the river.


The spuriously named Mr Bean Bar.

And so that brings to a close the account of our whistlestop tour of Vietnam, which I left loving even more than before. The people are so friendly and welcoming and the landscape just idyllic. I only wish we had more time to explore it. But something tells me that we will be back.

Confessions of a Grunt Worker

It’s been a shitty week where work’s concerned.Honestly, there’s been so much fire fighting that at times I’ve thought I’d switched careers to the emergency services. Everything that could have gone wrong did (and as it’s only Thursday, that doesn’t bode well for tomorrow…).

But today really took the biscuit. After working hard for weeks on a strategic plan and investor presentation for a client meeting next week (losing another potentially lucrative and much needed new business opportunity as a result), this afternoon they unceremoniously cancelled the meeting.

Then, to rub salt into the wound, on a call with my director and two senior policy people, one of our global VPs referred to my (Senior Consultant) role as being a “grunt worker” (one online definition of which, for those not in the know, is ‘an American idiom that denotes menial, laborious and unappreciated work’. Well, he got the unappreciated part right at least).

In an attempt to cheer myself up I bought a grossly overpriced hand-dipped mini salted caramel and chocolate ice cream from the Pierre Marcolini chocolate shop – only to spill it all down myself when I was ten feet away from the shop, meaning I had to walk the twenty minutes home with sticky hands, looking (and no doubt smelling) like a rather posh vagrant.

Oh well, I guess sometimes in life you just have to roll with the punches. One sliding ice cream at a time…


Back to Basics

I have somehow managed to put my back out. Again. The frustration is almost too much to bear, though I know I need to put it into perspective. It is not (yet) as bad as the last two times, which means that if I’m careful there is a chance it could recover without going into full blown paralysis mode. And although in the current (acute) phase, it is somewhat debilitating, it is far from a life threatening condition. I must, I know, stay positive, although when you’re not yet 35 and it takes a full three seconds to straighten up each time you stand, plus you have shooting pains down both your legs when you walk, it’s kind of hard to keep that top of mind. Still, I must try, because nobody likes a whinger – least of all me.

I’m realising now more than ever the correlation between physical and mental well-being. When I’m feeling stressed with work or life it doesn’t take long to manifest itself in my body. This time has been textbook. Two boozy weekends, a patch of work stress and a ridiculous ongoing drama with our cleaner (of all things) have taken their toll on me mentally, and bang! There goes the back. I have also, I admit, become complacent with my core strengthening exercises of late, doing increasingly watered down versions each morning to afford myself additional, precious moments in my bed. This, combined with increasingly prolonged periods of desk sitting, has once again proved to be a recipe for disaster.

I know this is my body’s way of telling me to sit up and take notice, to find a way to redress the imbalance that has been created. My recently ended counselling has helped me to clarify the things that are important to me. Now I need to start taking active steps towards achieving them. Because if I don’t, I fear back pain will be but the tip of a very big iceberg.

So it’s time to make some changes – physical and mental. Firstly, I must get the stand-up desk my boss sanctioned weeks ago that I haven’t got around to sorting yet. Secondly, I will sign up for the eight week mindfulness course I have found, to try and get my mind back into alignment with my body. Hopefully with a bit more commitment and a bit less complacency I can get back to full health more quickly this time around.

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Therapy Talk

At the beginning of 2015 I had a strange and unsettling episode that harked back to my days as a stressed out third year in university. It was a panic attack, full blown and frightening. Brought on, I think (it’s always hard to pinpoint), by a lack of direction in my life at the time. I had moved to Brussels with my boyfriend and was loving life in Belgium, but my nine month maternity cover job contract was coming to an end and I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was also conscious that my status as a girlfriend rather than a wife in this international setup was somewhat lacking in security. And so, after weeks of internalising my emotions, they built up and burst out of me in a tidal wave of fear. I hyperventilated myself silly, cried and panicked for the best part of an hour. Fortunately my then-boyfriend (now-husband – as it turned out I didn’t have to worry about that part) was on hand to offer words of support and encouragement. I calmed down. But I knew something inside me had awakened, and that I would need to find the courage to face it.

And so I did something I never thought I would actually do: I found a counsellor. And I went to my first session feeling embarrassed and stupid, like I was wasting her time and my own. And thinking surely counsellors are for people with real problems, not women whose biggest issues are which job to choose next and whether their boyfriends will decide to pop the question. But as I sat and talked, in the first session and the next, I realised this was about so much more.

We humans are like onions. When you start to peel away the layers you find layers you never knew existed. Each represents experience, and emotion. And until you have uncovered them all it’s hard to appreciate why you are the way you are, why you interact the way you do with others, with the world. And, most crucially of all, how you can adapt your behaviour to bring about positive and lasting change.

Almost eighteen months later I had my final session. It was tonight.

My counsellor asked me what three things I had learned from our sessions. I said, firstly, I’ve learned how to get some perspective. When I feel myself getting anxious, I now have the tools to dissociate myself from the stressor – even if just for a moment. I can then ask myself how big the problem is, really. If it will matter in three weeks, three months or three years. If it’s worth fighting or losing sleep over. And the answer, of course, is usually no. Secondly, I said I’ve learned some valuable coping mechanisms in response to specific situations. The best one was the victim-perpetrator-rescuer scenario, which I have used successfully to navigate occasional tricky patches in relationships. Finally, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, to appreciate they have layers of their own (layers sometimes even they don’t know about). I have a propensity to be oversensitive, but now I have the capacity to realise that people don’t do things with the aim of upsetting me. It’s just the way they are, the way they have been conditioned. Just as my response to their behaviour is the way I have been conditioned.

It’s been a great experience.

I’ve learned a lot: About the person I was, the person I am and the person I want to be.

Now it’s time to take back the reins.