Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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…

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Me and Jessie getting into the party spirit.

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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.

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

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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.

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Rooftop bar action at Glow.

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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.

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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.

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The fateful tandem bikes.

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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!

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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.

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Scooting around in the rain.

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

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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!

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Hoi An at dusk.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

Carry on Camping

My first experience of camping was Glastonbury 2005. Fresh faced and only twenty three, I arrived with a bright pink two man tent (for two people! What was I thinking?! Total novice) and solar powered shower, feeling so upbeat I could have taken on the world. Five hours later, lightning lit the artificial sky above my head in violent, neon pink, screams rang out across the field below, and the constant dripping on my forehead had me contemplating the efficacy of Chinese water torture. It was, in short, horrific, and the sight of toppled porta-loos and police divers searching for shocked campers’ passports in a soupy sea of mud the next morning did little to bolster my spirits. Nor the sheer effort of walking more than ten paces, the gloopy mud clamping my wellies in its vice-like grip with every step, making extrication an almost superhuman feat. Still, at least I was in a better position than another member of our party, who, on waking in the night to find his tent filling with water, grabbed his pen knife and proceeded to cut his way out of his tent (an inadvisable act when you are to spend the next four nights sleeping in aforementioned tent, and the weather forecast shows no immediate sign of improvement).

You’d think, on the basis of that experience, that I would never have attempted camping again. But despite the harsh conditions, that weekend spawned a love affair with festivals that has spanned more than a decade hence. And since I’ve hitherto not had the funds to upgrade to a gold-plated yurt complete with midget butler (or whatever else it is the cool kids do these days in their VIP areas), the humble tent and backpack combo has been used time and again – though always as an enabler, rather than a leisure pursuit in its own right.

So you can imagine my surprise at having ACTUALLY ENJOYED my first experience of CAMPING JUST FOR FUN, the recent spell of glorious summer weather having lured us at the weekend to a campsite in the Vresse-sur-Semois region of the Belgian Ardennes. Granted, there were a LOT of static homes and caravans where we stayed (our little tent stood out like a sore thumb), and we were woefully underprepared compared to some of the seasoned pros there (reversing our car to the barbecue so we could sit in the boot whilst eating, because we hadn’t brought any chairs), but overall my first time at a camp site was very positive. It had drinking water, clean toilet and shower blocks, and even a bar (God love those boozy Belgians-like home away from home). All that, and our pitch was located right beside the river, which was lovely.

After pitching our tent on Saturday we walked the kilometer into Bohan, passing a broken bridge that told of how the region suffered in WWII (the whole area felt steeped in history, which was fascinating). After failing to procure the bicycles our campsite host had tried to organise for us through a local vendor, we opted for an eleven kilometer hike through the forest, which was beautiful and challenging in equal measure – the main challenge being the near-constant horse fly attacks along the route. Three hours after we set off, we arrived back at the campsite, dirty and tired but exhilarated, and ready to prepare our barbeque supper and have a drink in the bar before bed.

On Sunday we woke surprisingly late, thanks to my sensible suggestion of positioning the tent in an area that would be shaded from the morning sun. We showered, packed up, bade our neighbours goodbye, and drove the four kilometres to Vresse, from where we hired a two person kayak. This was by far my favourite part of the weekend. Horseflies aside (those little bastards), we spent a very pleasant couple of hours cruising along the river, culminating in a palpitation-inducing accidental rapid navigation, after we failed to spot the signs and went the wrong way down a river channel (filmed by several amused looking tourists).

By the time we arrived back in Brussels, two hours after we set off, we were exhausted but revitalised. Despite only being away for one night it felt like a holiday, and made us realise how much we need weekends like that in our life, to rebalance the relative stresses of work and socialising. Sometimes there is nothing like switching off your smartphone, taking off your watch and getting amongst nature. It makes you feel alive, reminds you what life’s all about and, above all else, shows you can have adventure anywhere, if you just seek it out.

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Hong Kong: Day One

After an eleven hour flight, only three of which we actually managed to sleep (and even then only fitfully), we touched down in Hong Kong at 2pm this afternoon. One train and an expertly blagged free bus later we were standing outside our guest house on the 13th floor of the infamous Chung King Mansions hammering on the door and staring forlornly through it at the empty reception desk. Fortunately it was only a few minutes (and a passing cockroach) later that someone appeared to let us in. Somewhat less fortunately we were then asked to pay the  balance in full for our two night stay (£100), despite me having thought I’d done this months ago through the booking website. Unable to get online to verify this (great idea Tesco banking for refusing to let customers log on from abroad unless they confirm a text message you’ve sent them – however Three, as I’ve discovered today to my chagrin, don’t automatically set new customers up with data roaming when abroad. How then, pray tell, am I meant to confirm a text and log on if I don’t have phone reception to receive it?) we reluctantly handed over the cash before being led to our cell-like “double” room.

The trauma of the room behind us we attempted to shake off our tiredness and go out-a plan made somewhat trickier by the horrendous backache that’s crept up on me over the past few days and is now not only fully fledged but also, it would seem, here to stay (bodes well for the days of trekking ahead…). It took all of my strength to get out of the guest house but happily once we were out things improved immeasurably.

We’ve spent this evening wandering around the night market, sampling lots of yummy street food and taking a promenade along (culminating in a night cap overlooking) Hong Kong’s stunning harbour. I’m still in pain with this stupid back ailment but we are at least firmly back on track with the holiday enjoyment, which is very much the most important thing. Next stop New Year’s Eve and I cannot wait!

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See you on the Other Side….

After months of waiting I can hardly believe today is finally here. In ten minutes we will be setting off for the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong where we will be seeing in the New Year. Then, on January 1st we will be flying to Manila to begin a twelve day adventure that will take in the mountainous regions of Northern Luzon, the famous world heritage Cordillera rice terraces and Cebu in the Visayan islands, where we will be diving with whale sharks and thresher sharks as well as doing our bit to help with the typhoon relief effort on Malapascua island.

It’s been a long time coming and has taken a huge amount of planning, so it’s an amazing feeling to finally be ready to embark on the journey. Though this will no doubt surprise many people who know me to be a social media addict, I’m actually looking forward to two weeks ‘off the grid’ (which will stand me in excellent stead for my 26.2 day sponsored social media silence in February, in aid of my Rome marathon effort in March – training for which will be firmly on the back burner for the next two weeks, but will be resumed in earnest upon my return).

I will, of course, fulfil my final two posts of this year’s Belle 365 daily blogging challenge before heading off into the wilderness, so will have a chance to wish you all a Happy New Year once we have touched down in Hong Kong. Which means all there is to say for now is ‘see you on the other side’!

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New Beginnings Part Two

Yesterday I spoke of new beginnings and adventures, and as a follow on from those sentiments I’ve saved this Christmas Day post for two very special people.

This couple have had a hellish start to married life after losing a dear friend who was usher at their wedding, then being evicted from their home by their mad elderly landlady and, most recently, having to endure illness over Christmas time (which they are having to work most of due to a lack of holiday).

These two, in particular my beautiful friend Bridget, have faced these hardships with the utmost of strength and fortitude, never once  complaining about their lot and simply getting on with things and facing them head on.

I have so much love and respect for them and just want to publicly acknowledge that I think they are amazing, and I wish them all the love and happiness that they truly deserve in the new year ahead.

So here’s to new beginnings for you too, Harry and my darling Little B. I wish you both a very Merry Christmas. May your year be filled with pandas and unicorns, and may you find the way ahead free of all burdens and obstructions. Love life. Seek adventure. Be happy.

Happy Christmas Everyone xxx

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Happy Birthday to my Spiritual Twin

Today is a very special person’s 27th birthday, and as I can’t think of a better way to mark this most auspicious of occasions (plus I’ve only just learned of the occasion and therefore haven’t time to do anything else), I thought a blog post in her honour might just fit the birthday bill. Because, you see, this person is special for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons is writing.

Allow me, if you will, the luxury of a nostalgic trip into the past – May 2011, to be precise, on a lazy backwater tour of Cochin in India. That day I met a girl called Jen who hailed from Brisbane and was five years my junior, and with whom I instantly got on. We were both travelling alone, and it was most enjoyable to share our experiences as our guide negotiated the labyrinthine maze of aquatic waterways.

As fate would have it when I arrived at the Sivananda ashram in southern Kerala a couple of days later who should be there but Jen? It turned out we had both booked onto the two week ‘yoga vacation,’ although it quickly became apparent this would be about as far removed from a holiday as could be. Five am starts, ‘karma yoga’ duties and four gruelling hours of yoga a day was an exhausting regime, and if Jen hadn’t been there to laugh with in the moments when it all got too much I’m not sure I’d have lasted the two weeks.

Fast forward to January 2013, by which time Jen had moved to New York after her travels to start a new life, and was making ends meet by waitressing, spending her free time working on her novel. When I sensed from her messages that she was feeling a little flat I felt a strong urge to visit her, and before I knew it April had come around and I was on my way to New York City.

The six days we spent together were amazing, especially considering we didn’t really know each other that well, and almost two years had passed since our last face to face meeting. We were laughing from the second Jen met me at the airport, and we didn’t stop until it was time to say goodbye. We walked sixty blocks in an afternoon, searched for mystical horses in Grand Central station, ate pizza, burgers and cupcakes like they were going out of fashion and painted New Jersey and downtown Manhattan entirely new shades of red. We also discovered a shared passion for cheese, and whiled away a perfect afternoon in Murray’s Cheese Bar over a bottle of quality red.

Leaving NYC was a wrench, because I knew I’d found in Jen something so very rare – a spiritual soul mate, if you believe in such a thing, someone who is so much like yourself you could actually be related. We both love to write, we’re both utterly neurotic (!) and we share an interest in spirituality.

Since New York we’ve kept in touch via a series of endlessly entertaining Whatsapp messages, which often leave me giggling aloud in public (not a good look). And now as Jen prepares to leave the city she has come to love for pastures new (Hawaii, as it happens – not a bad choice of destination), I find myself wishing I could join her on her next adventure, and in ways I can’t explain feeling that in some way I am.

So, on your 27th birthday, here’s to you, my Spiritual Twin. Thank you for the laughs your friendship over the past two and a half years has given me, and here’s to the future and all it brings. Remember that no decision we make is ever wrong – because each one gives us so much new material to enrich our writing and our lives. Love you x