Motherhood (cont’d), Guilt & Moth Balls

I have decided that the topic of the research proposal for my master’s degree will be guilt and shame in new motherhood, because my God if there are two emotions I’ve felt near-constantly since having my son 9 months ago it’s those. I was pretty good at the guilt thing before having a baby, particularly where pursuing my ambitions (writing, studying, going freelance) was concerned. But since the baby things have amped-up ten fold. Now, on top of kicking myself about not pursuing the ambitions, my inner monologue spends much of the day berating me for all the things it perceives I’m doing wrong as a parent. Whilst the rational side of my brain knows it’s wrong (or at least grossly exaggerating) and I’m doing the best I can, it’s a hard voice to ignore.

Since returning to London in January (how is it already March?!) we’ve started to settle into a routine, or at least we had started to, until the cycle of nursery-related illness started. In the past month alone I’ve had to keep C home from nursery three times (once for a full week). He’s currently on his second round of antibiotics and whilst he is livelier in himself he’s still coughing and congested. It’s felt like Groundhog Day for weeks; as soon as he starts to show signs of improvement he gets ill again. I feel bad for him but also for myself (and here’s a prime example of where the guilt comes in), because when I have to keep him home from nursery it knocks my schedule out of kilter too. Last Friday, for example, I had to miss a whole day of uni, and given that returning to my studies has been having a hugely positive impact on my mental health that hit me hard. As weekends are family time and Mondays/Tuesdays are time with my son, that’s meant not being able to do any uni work for several days, which is stoking the embers of my anxiety nicely.

But on the flip side, I’m trying to make the most of being with C on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’m conscious of the importance of being really present (the other part of my research project involves mindfulness interventions) and not distracted (still working on this but getting better). I’m also trying to make sure we have fun together, because I know this time will never come again. We now attend Zip Zap baby classes every Monday morning, which he loves, and this afternoon I took him to a free trial of the local Gymboree class (not so sure about that one – bit too ‘organised fun’ for my liking). Nothing makes me happier than seeing his little face light up when he experiences something new. He’s such an explorer and I want to nurture that as much as possible.

When I’m not guilting or attempting mindful parenting, I seem to be permanently preoccupied with a million and one things, from the important (booking summer holidays) to the exciting (organising my best friend’s hen do) to the downright mundane (moth balls for the wardrobes). It’s incredible how every spare second can be filled with so much stuff. Pre-baby me was not dissimilar, the difference now is that there’s even less spare time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like life is one giant to do list, by day it’s things relating to the baby and by night everything else. It was only last weekend, when my husband gave me the greatest gift of breakfast in bed and some time to read my dusty stack of magazines, that I realised how long it’s been since I allowed myself to just relax.

On the social front we’re managing pretty well. Now we have a baby we’ve realised that the best way to keep the social life ticking over is to invite friends round for dinner. Fortunately my husband is a total Masterchef so it’s working out well (for me, as it means I don’t have to cook..). I’ve been ordering cases of premium wine like there’s no tomorrow (in the guise of wanting to broaden my horizons, but in reality just wanting to get rat-arsed and have less painful hangovers) and our flat is perfect for hosting dinner parties in. We’ve also enlisted a couple of babysitters so we can have the odd night out too. I have to remind myself that a few months ago this seemed completely out of reach – it’s all about the small wins when you are navigating early parenthood, and this certainly counts as one of those!

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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.

Why Life Can’t Always Be Fun

Discipline is not my friend. She never was. When the class was lining up against the wall at the end of break time (clap, clap, clap went the teacher’s hands), I was knee down in the dirt digging up sticks to light my imaginary witch’s cauldron (I’m not a witch, to clarify, that was just a phase – one of many).

Imagination was my friend. She painted rainbows in my mind every day. She was both distraction and muse. Sometimes she shone so bright a light upon me that it radiated out of my pores, rendering me translucent. Other times she disappeared like in a game of hide and seek that only she was playing.

Years passed. Despite our differences, Discipline held onto my coat tails as Imagination danced around me. Both persevered, in their own inimitable way. But there was a new player in the game.

Fun was shiny and bouncy and new. She knew exactly what she wanted, and would stop at nothing to get it. She laughed in the face of Discipline, who was always far too serious. She toyed with Imagination, in the way a cat will play with a fly – until it deems it time to eat it.

At some point Discipline gave up. Imagination, too, became tired of playing games that didn’t go anywhere. Fun took the wheel and drove. And for a while, things were just fine.

Now Fun is getting bored of driving, and Discipline and Imagination are nowhere to be found. I’m going to look them up on Friends Reunited. It’s time to make amends.

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Eight Weeks to Wed: An Update

Last weekend I went to Las Vegas for my hen party with six close friends. It was predictably fabulous. We crammed an enormous amount of fun into a short space of time and did ourselves – and Vegas – proud. Wild, unbridled hedonism like that is harder to come by as you march inexorably further into adulthood, which is why it’s so important to appreciate it when you have it. The same applies to friendships. Whilst they should be nurtured throughout life, opportunities to  celebrate them become fewer and farther between as the myriad demands of life creep into our daily existence. And so the memories of last weekend and all the laughs we shared will stay with me forever. I am truly grateful.

And now it’s time to look ahead. Eight weeks ahead, in fact, to my wedding day. As a child I always dreamed of this occasion, wondering who I would marry (or, more specifically, who would want to marry me!) Now it’s nearly here it feels surreal, like a dream. The organisation has been a  challenge, but I know it will be worth it when we look around at the hundred or so loved ones who are so generously travelling to Austria to share it with us. I feel so blessed not only to have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and to be so utterly confident in that statement, but also to have such wonderful and supportive people in my life.

Getting married feels like such a grown up thing to do. I feel ready for it, yet at the same time the little girl in me is tugging at my sleeve, chewing her nails down to the stub with worry. Will I be a good wife? A good mother? Am I actually mature enough to take this step? I have always felt a dichotomy within me. On the one hand there is the dreamer, the thinker, the artist; the one who likes to party and who yearns to travel, to explore, to be free. And on the other is the planner, the matriarch-in-waiting who wants nothing more than to care for others, to have a family and thrive on being responsible for others, instead of being concerned only with myself.

In some respects I suppose I’ve always felt that having a family would save me from myself, and stop me from pursuing the relentless search for meaning that drives my every waking moment. But now I’m on the cusp of that I’m filled with fear; of all that I ‘should’ have done up to this point in my life, and of all I will not be able to do if and when I take that next step. I suppose these worries are normal, and that everyone has them at some point in the run up to making such a big commitment to another person.

I don’t expect for one moment that getting married will mean a life free of worry and drama; far from it. But what it will do is cement our partnership in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God, in whom I do believe, at least in some form. It is a statement of intent on both our parts that we are prepared to put each other first, to work through all our issues together, and to co-create a stable and loving environment for our future children. The divorce rates reported so gleefully in the news don’t bother me at all. Marriage has always been important to me, and I am entering into it with my eyes and heart wide open.

The fun-loving, free-spirited party girl will always be a part of me, I have no intention of shunning her or locking her away. But despite my fears what is becoming ever clearer to me is that I owe it to myself to explore the other side of who I am, to get to know the girl who wants so desperately to help, to make a difference, to put love above all else.

This is a new chapter in the story of my life. And I am ready to turn the page.

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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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He’s Behind You…

I’ll admit it: I love panto. Not a sentence I would have been caught dead saying a few years ago, but now I’m getting on a bit (having reached the grand old age of 32) something’s changed. The embarrassment of youth has faded and, in its place, a newfound respect for the magic and comedy of pantomime has sprung up (rather like Jack’s beanstalk, if you’ll excuse the simile).

The thing is this: Life can be too serious. Bad things happen to good people; death, disease and poverty are rife in our society. Sometimes it’s just nice (for those of us fortunate enough to have the luxury) to be a little silly; to watch something ridiculous that makes us laugh and takes us far away from reality (on a magic carpet ride-sorry), evoking the unbridled joy and innocence of childhood.

And on that note, it’s wonderful to see the enjoyment that the children in the audience glean from a good pantomime performance. When Wishee Washee throws the sweets and a mad scramble ensues there’s a palpable sense of delight that’s hard to manufacture in these modern times of computers and smartphones.

What I’ve loved most of all about the pantomime at Windsor for the past few years has been (and here’s another sentence that I never envisaged saying) Britain’s Got Talent’s Kevin Cruise. The best supporting actor I’ve seen in years, he’s a true comedy talent and national treasure (also someone I’d quite like to be my male best friend).

In short I think it’s safe to say that panto’s a tradition that’s set to stay in my family (oh no it isn’t…). Roll on next year…

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Sensible / Silly Season

Loathe as I am to admit this, it seems that (perhaps unsurprisingly) my productivity levels sky rocket when I a) go to bed before 11pm and b) go to the gym before work. Today was quite simply exceptional; I ploughed through my work and personal to do lists, completing tasks I had been putting off because I hadn’t previously managed to find the energy to deal with them. I then came home and spent two and a half hours cleaning and tidying the flat from top to bottom before putting up the Christmas tree (fiddly decorations and all) and cooking a stir fry for dinner. Even now as I sit in my newly cleaned and decorated flat my energy levels haven’t dipped to where they would usually be at this time of night. In short, today has been a valuable lesson and one I must remember and make an effort to repeat more regularly.

But whilst another early night tonight and gym session tomorrow are most certainly scheduled into the diary, tomorrow night will be another matter entirely. Why? Because some months back four friends and I decided it would make perfect sense to purchase tickets to the famous Warehouse Project music event in Manchester and, to save ourselves money on accommodation, return to London on the first train on Saturday morning. What we may have failed to factor into that particular equation is that all of us, bar one, are now in our thirties, and not quite the spring chickens we were when we went all night clubbing in the halcyon days of our twenties. Not that we can’t still party with the best of them, but these days I struggle to stay up until the sunrise, let alone to stay up until the sunrise and then get a two hour train home. But hey, it’s Silly Season. Nights like tomorrow are the whole point, no?