The Bridal Brassiere Debate

Weddings are expensive, I get it (trust me, after a year of planning my own, I really get it). And for the most part I also get why. If you’re fortunate enough (as we are – just) to not have to sell a kidney to pay for the event, it’s really jolly nice to have a ceremony, slap up dinner and after party with your nearest and dearest, in honour of your most auspicious and romantic union (which, all being well, will be a once in a lifetime occasion).

If you want to seal the deal in a hotel, assuming that hotel is on the nicer side of decent and you aren’t best mates with the owner, it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Fine. Everyone expects to spend a bit on the location, right? Same goes for the food, the booze, the dress – I could go on. But when it comes to what the bride wears underneath her dress, well, I’m afraid that’s where you lose me on the wedding sympathy scale.

Not that I’m keen to go into details of my smalls drawer in a public forum such as this, but for the sake of argument I’ll admit: I’m not big on underwear. Not in the sense I don’t wear it (what do you take me for? I’m not some sex starved, hormone-addled teenager), more that I don’t spend swathes of cash on expensive matching sets of it. Never have, never will. Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice bra and pants, and if M&S have got an offer on I’ll bite their hand off on a 3-for-2 deal (especially if the bra straps are detachable – instantly doubles the practicality rating). But whilst I like to look nice for my man in the bedroom as much as the next girl, I just can’t bring myself to waste money on something that so rarely sees the light of day.

So you can imagine my horror when, last weekend, I set out on a mission to find my bridal underwear at a cost that wasn’t eye watering, only to discover that EVERY set of bridal underwear in the whole of Brussels apparently IS. I started with two high end boutiques, knowing full well these would be the upper end of the scale. The sales staff were all smiles to begin with, but as soon as it became clear they weren’t making an immediate sale (200 Euros for a BRA? I don’t think so, love) turned sourer than off milk. One woman even replied to my comment about wanting to consider other underwear with ‘but we have everything here, why would you go somewhere else?’ So far so bad.

Next up, the ‘mid’ (ha!) range stores, slightly upwards of high street but still with a boutique feel. Here I found one bra that I really liked, with pretty lace detailing. But when the shop assistant told me the price – 160 Euros for the bra alone, and a further 60 for the scrappiest ‘thong’ I’d ever laid eyes on – I just couldn’t swallow it. I also failed to see the romantic element to the pair of ‘wedding night’ knickers she brazenly tried to flog me, with their less than alluring HOLE in the back (refer to previous point about not being sex starved teenager – am also not sex whore).

So, off I went to the Brussels equivalent of Debenhams, confident I would at least find something suitable and within my price range there. Within the price range, yes, suitable? No. Out of an entire department of lingerie there were just two possible options, neither of which looked particularly nice on. Feeling dejected, I began walking home, and, on a whim popped into Etam, which I remember fondly from (the irony) my teenage days. And guess what? There, in prime position, was a brand new range of satin underwear in a lovely selection of suitably bridal colours, with a set of underwear retailing at the princely sum of 50 Euros. AND it was buy one get one half price. Needless to say I snapped up two sets and a few extra pairs of pants to boot. Total price: 117 Euros.

Take THAT snooty top end boutique bitches.

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Past Post: Volunteering abroad (published on Guardian Online, 2007)

Another Monday morning in the office and you’re distractedly staring out of the window, thinking that there must be more to life and wondering how you can feasibly escape the daily grind, if only for a while. And then it comes to you: why not spend a few months volunteering abroad? A great idea, you think, as you sneakily open up an internet browser window and begin to do some research. Within minutes, however, you are staring dumbfounded at the website of a well-known ‘ethical travel organisation’ and thinking your only chance of affording to do a placement would be to take out a second mortgage on your flat – and possibly sell your car to boot.

It would be naïve to assume that living and working in a developing world community for any length of time would be without its costs, but in my own experience the vast majority of companies that come up on a basic ‘volunteering abroad’ Google search charge extortionate prices for what amounts to several weeks or months of living in the most basic conditions imaginable, and furthermore give you very little idea as to exactly where your money is going.

Before my own African adventure I obtained quotes from several of the largest and best-known volunteer placement agencies and was stunned to find, at the top end of the spectrum, programme fees in excess of £1,000 for a two-week placement! Admittedly the more expensive options are touted as ‘all-inclusive’ packages offering such extras as in-country support, transport to and from your place of work and possibly language training, criminal bureau checks and medical insurance for the duration of your trip, but the question is: are these things you could arrange yourself for a little more effort and at a fraction of the cost?

Don’t be fooled by the phrasing when it comes to money – whether you are asked for a programme fee outright or a ‘donation’ towards the cause, it amounts to the same thing. You have to pay for your placement. End of. And if you feel the company you have chosen is worthy and honourable, go for it. I did with Volunteer Africa and I don’t regret my decision. Of my £1,950 programme fee (for a twelve week placement) I was assured that nearly half would go directly to the project itself – in this case two orphanages in Mwanza, northern Tanzania – with the remainder covering my accommodation, language training week in Dar es Salaam and the company’s own costs to keep the programme running. During my stay VA sent a health advisor to talk to us about avoiding malaria as well as two trustees to purchase essential items for the volunteer compound, so I felt my money was in responsible hands. And, importantly, as a lone female traveller with worried parents sitting at home biting their nails down to the stubs over my safety, it certainly seemed wise to go with a reputable company who could provide such a service.

But after spending a few months in Africa I have come to realise you don’t have to pay the earth for your placement. If money is no issue and you are happy to use a reputable company that charges a fortune but promises a first-rate service then that is, of course, up to you. But if money is a real sticking point and you are prepared to put in a little more effort and take a chance, waiting until you are in your country of choice before searching for a placement may well mean you spend significantly less and find something just as rewarding.

On my travels through both Tanzania and Kenya I have heard, through word-of-mouth, of many small institutions – both schools and orphanages – that are desperate for volunteers but lack the means to advertise for them. Often, they are more than happy to offer free accommodation in exchange for whatever service can be offered, meaning volunteers don’t need to spend a penny other than to cover their own living costs. Admittedly they cannot provide the ‘support’ that is offered by the larger agencies (though if you have fully comprehensive travel and health insurance you shouldn’t really need it) but you do get to hang on to your money and spend it when you see an urgent need, at the source and on your own terms.

Beware those companies who charge a fee to find you a placement but don’t actually give any of your money to the projects in question. Rarely do they throw up anything that you couldn’t have found yourself through more extensive research, so whilst for cash-rich, time poor people they can offer a viable solution, they can also make those less financially blessed souls feel frustrated and, to some extent, conned out of their money. When I reached the Imani Agape orphanage in Kisii, western Kenya – a placement found for me by 2Way Development which charges a fee of £850 – I was sad to realise just how much difference my £850 would have made to the project itself, but after paying the fee to the organisation I had comparitively little to spare. Had I contacted the orphanage directly, I later found out, I would have been offered accommodation entirely free of charge.

The bottom line is this. Everyone is different, with different requirements and expectations of volunteering abroad. But before you commit yourself to a volunteer placement make sure you do two things. Firstly, read the small print to see exactly where your money is going, and secondly, set your budget and stick to it. Don’t be shoe-horned into paying more than you can afford as you will only regret it later. The important thing to remember is that whether your budget is big or small, there is an option out there to suit you.

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This photo was taken on my first volunteering placement in Mwanza, Tanzania, in 2007. I have such happy memories of these children and their happy, smiling faces. I often wonder where they are now, and hope that they’re happy.