Solitude

It’s been a long old while since I’ve practiced meditation, or indeed any form of mindfulness; two of the many things I mentally flagellate myself about daily. This weekend, therefore, has been a blessing. Not because I’ve done either of those things (obvs), but because I have had the chance to spend some quality time with myself, and with nature. And because, as cheesy as it sounds, it has given me a much needed opportunity to reconnect with myself.

Life rushes by at such an alarming rate – especially, as I’ve discovered in recent months, when you have a wedding to plan. Lately (or, to be truly honest, forever) I’ve felt so time poor it’s taken all my effort just to get home from work at the end of the day, run a bath and crack on an episode of Eastenders (weird new guilty pleasure – clearly a sign of stress) before falling, exhausted, into bed. Meditation? Ha. As if. I’ve never felt less calm or more busy.

But then, last week, the soon-to-be-husband (eep!) announced he would be going back to the UK this weekend, sans moi (well, I had the choice to accompany him, but after last week’s boozy and nocturnal antics in Las Vegas the thought of spending 16 hours in a car only to hold a paint brush all weekend – they are renovating the family home, yes, I know, I’m a selfish cow – was too much to entertain). At first I was put out (see previous selfish cow comment), and sad at missing the opportunity to spend a quiet weekend together. I hastily scrambled some social options together in case I needed back up, and prepared to bunker down for a weekend alone with the bottle of Chianti hubby-to-be bought me to soften the blow (a welcome gift, and further proof, it it was needed, that he’s a keeper).

Yesterday (Saturday), I lazed around in the morning then went shopping all afternoon. So far so good. In the evening, feeling more confident about being alone (Jesus, you wouldn’t think I’ve travelled alone for months at a time in the past would you?), I declined all social plans, heated up a Marks and Spencer ready meal (God how I’ve missed those – totally forgot an M&S opened up here a few months ago. Result) and downloaded a gratuitous chick flick from Amazon. But it wasn’t until today that I felt a change occur. Yesterday was enjoyable, but in a shallow way (not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion, at least from time to time). I was gratified by material purchases and ‘guilty pleasure’ TV consumption, but that was as far as it went. Today I somehow knew as soon as I woke up it would be different. And it has been.

My recent back injury having put paid to any hope of a pre-wedding gym comeback, I have to make sure I still get some exercise each day. I decided, therefore, to go for a walk, the timing of which was fortuitously impeccable. It had just rained heavily, and the sun was beginning to nudge the clouds aside. I walked to Tenbosch Park, just ten minutes from home. I don’t know what it is about that place, but as soon as I get there I always feel an overwhelming sense of calm descend upon me. It’s so beautifully kept, unusual in that it is both small and spread over several levels – sort of landscaped over a small hill – and feels to me like a secret garden, a tiny oasis amidst the sprawling metropolis. I just love it, and after visiting today by myself my mind feels clearer than it has done in weeks. I spent a while just standing and listening to the birds tweeting, watching as a parrot (yes, really, apparently Brussels is famous for them) flew overhead from tree top to tree top. It was wonderful, and a welcome reminder that even if I’m not meditating every chance I get, it’s still possible to find a little piece of peace in this frenetic world.

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The seventh circle of (shopping) hell

Oxford Circus on a Friday night is, one imagines, akin to being in the seventh circle of Hell. Just making it out of the tube station is a fight for survival, but once you hit the main concourse that’s when the struggle really begins. As you navigate the constant stream of dazed shoppers and excited tourists you find yourself sympathising for salmon in their battle to make it upstream. Everyone seems to be going in the opposite direction to you. In this no man’s land they are your enemies, yet when you scan their hostile faces you see your own plight reflected back at you as if in a mirror. Your bags become lead in your hands, your feet heavier still.

When the need to escape this throng of lemmings becomes overwhelming you duck into a department store, but after wandering amongst the over-painted perfume ladies their cloying scents make you heady and nauseous. You are losing focus and you know it. Panic bubbles furiously in the cauldron of your stomach. Beads of sweat nudge down your temples like a landslide. “Can I help you, Madam?” says a perfume lady. ‘Yes,’ you want to scream, ‘please help me! I’ve no idea what I’m doing here and I want so desperately to go home! And, while you’re at it, can you tell me why it’s so interminably hot in here?’ But of course you don’t say that. You just give her a strained smile, and beat as hasty a retreat to the exit as you can whilst maintaining the shred of dignity you still have left.

Gasping in the air outside the shop you scan the pavement for a break in the plasma flow of fellow humankind. When that break comes you run as fast as your heavy feet will carry you back to the tube, eschewing the advances of the Evening Standard seller as he tries to thrust a paper into your clammy hands. And within minutes you are cocooned in the carriage of the tube train, speeding away from the place that has tormented you, empty-handed but immeasurably relieved.

Life half full

It is nearly half past twelve on ‘Writing Monday,’ and thus far I have achieved the following: A five kilometre run around Clapham Common (to offset the weekend’s beer and chocolate indulgence in Bruges); the weekly shop in Sainsbury’s; a clothes wash; a top-to-toe clean of the entire flat AND the preparation of a slow cooker gastronomic delight (lamb stew, since you’re asking) for two friends who are coming for dinner tonight. I have also, it would seem, entered into a stand-off with a lederhosen manufacturer in Germany (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write), as the product I returned last week via airmail (due to their mistake in sending the wrong size, I might add) has thus far failed to arrive, meaning that they are now withholding the replacement (in my correct size) until it does. This is a particular problem as said item was ordered for my impending birthday party, which makes swift resolution of the issue significantly more pressing. Given my recent track record with Royal Mail (two of five letters sent by my mum never having arrived), I know which side my money would be on if it wasn’t for the fact I’m already exorbitantly out of pocket from making the purchase in the first place. I could not be kicking myself more for not sending the damn thing recorded, but since they offered me free coloured contact lenses instead of agreeing to pay the return postage cost and the postage was ten pounds via regular air mail and twenty via recorded, I opted for the former – evidently a big (and costly) mistake.

Anyway, I digress. The point I’m trying to make – more to myself than to anyone else – is that it’s nearly half way through Writing Monday and, whilst the level of productivity today has seen is certainly impressive, not one bit of it has had the slightest thing to do with writing. If I was a professional runner, chef or cleaner the past few hours would at least have been lucrative. As it is, I am none of these things. No, for one day each week I am a freelance writer – a freelance writer who is very good at doing anything except the thing she claims to love. In the past ten minutes I have even abandoned my computer again to go into the roof and fix the window so the wind no longer whistles through it (though as that was, in fact, something that needed doing in order to avoid losing my concentration whilst writing that’s technically allowed, no?). To surmise, today I’m feeling mostly useless and frustrated at my own inadequacy. I may have managed to post a blog for every day of the year so far, but in terms of cold, hard cash I’ve hardly covered the cost of the lederhosen dispute with my writing, let alone made enough to pay myself a wage for Writing Monday. Still, I’m writing now, aren’t I? Even if it is only today’s blog? And anyway, we writers write for the love of our trade rather than out of any serious belief we’ll ever earn a crust from it….don’t we?

Right, enough with the negativity and introspection. All is not lost. I’ve just remembered this picture I took in Bruges yesterday and it’s buoyed me considerably. Half the writing day may have been wasted but it was wasted doing necessary things. And now there’s still a glorious half day remaining to make up for lost time. The only question now is what to write about…

Return of the domestic goddess

Love it or hate it, we all turn into grown-ups in the end and today I think I may have officially made the transition. Why? Because today, instead of having a long lie in and spending the day loafing around in my pyjamas watching old episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride (don’t judge me) and eating Hagen Dazs out of the tub, I was up at 9am to clean the flat from top to bottom before heading to a dentist appointment, returning some time later with a bag full of ingredients for a slow cooked lamb tagine. I also stopped off at the hardware store on the way home to purchase a new draining rack, a soap dish and a pair of tea towels. And, if the garden shop on the high street hadn’t had such a pathetic selection of stock I might have brought back a plant or two for the flat – dare I say even herbs in a window box? What has become of me?

There’s probably no cause to worry just yet that my youth has finally forsaken me. Rather, this is the yin and yang principle at work again, redressing nature’s fragile balance after a couple of days of hedonistic fun at Carnival. And, being completely honest, Don’t Tell The Bride and a grab bag of roast beef flavoured Monster Munch *may* have featured somewhere on today’s itinerary…What can I say? Whether young or old, old habits die hard.

Marshmallow dreaming

I would have been good at that marshmallow experiment they used to conduct on children in the ’60s (you know the one, where kids were offered one marshmallow to eat now or two if they waited twenty minutes – to test the effects of delayed gratification). Why? Because I’ll take build up and anticipation over instant gratification any day (unless it involves wine on a Friday night, but that’s another story).

Apologies in advance for stating the obvious, but once you’ve had something pleasurable, whether it be a holiday, birthday party or a cream cake, it’s over – the exception being, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be able to have it over and over again (though surely then you run the risk of being desensitised to the pleasurable outcomes in the long run anyway?) However, if you have to wait for that pleasurable thing, whatever it may be, then when it finally comes around it will not only be all the sweeter, you will also have enjoyed the anticipation of its arrival. Hence the overall experience will have been more gratifying. Or at least I think that’s the theory behind the marshmallow experiment (don’t quote me on that, there’s a reason I never made it beyond undergraduate level in Psychology).

How about this for an example: Most women will know the heady feeling of excitement that accompanies an impulse shopping spree, yet they will also be familiar with the speed with which that excitement wanes and the items become consigned to the back of the wardrobe, ready to be replaced when the next moment of impulse comes around. If they have had to save up for one premium item over the course of several weeks or months, however, the feeling of anticipation will have built up so much that when they do finally have the item in their hands they will cherish and love it for far longer.

Over the years I’ve been known to fall victim to the occasional impulse shopping spree, but by and large my ‘thing’ is not material items such as clothes but rather experiences – because at the end of my life it’s not the clothes I’ll be looking back and reminiscing on. Planning holidays is the perfect example of delayed gratification. From their conception to the moment they eventually come into being they create a buzz of delicious excitement and anticipation. I like booking mini breaks far in advance (not least because it’s so much cheaper, especially if you’re going abroad and need to book flights) and spending the weeks leading up to them daydreaming, imagining walks by beautiful rivers and lazy dinners in the early evening beneath the setting of the sun.

Then, once they’re over you can start the process all over again – it beats buying a new skirt from Hennes any day of the week, at least in my opinion! Now where did I put those marshmallows…

Accessorise

I’ve never been the type of girl to obsess over accessories. In all my thirty one years on this planet shoes and bags just haven’t ever been high on my agenda. But recently that’s started to change. Last week when browsing online to find something to spend a voucher on I skipped over the clothes and went straight to the handbags, and by the time I reached the online checkout all I had in my basket was a handbag and matching purse. Yes, matching. What is going on?

This morning I popped to the bank to pay a cheque in and succumbed to a quick look in Bullfrog, my favourite shop, and before I knew it I was waltzing out of the door with not one but two pairs of shoes stuffed in my bag (that sounds like I stole them, so I’d just like to clarify that was most certainly not the case). Once again the clothes didn’t get so much as a look in – instead I tried on FIVE different pairs of shoes, settling at last on two (and doing everything in my power to avoid buying one pair in two colours, as the ‘helpful’ shop assistant suggested – not sure my bank account would have found the suggestion quite so helpful).

Anyway, the long and short of it is I’ve crossed over to the dark side. How long this lasts I don’t know, but I do know things may never be quite the same again..

Day four, Stateside – brunching, shopping and good old-fashioned boozing

The novelty of waking up without a pancake or alcohol hangover got day four off to an excellent start. Jen had booked a table at her favourite brunch spot in Manhattan – The Park – for midday so we took the Path train to 14th street and walked there in glorious sunshine. The Park is a stunning restaurant with a large outdoor conservatory area where diners can sit and enjoy their meals as birds tweet and fly around above them. The food is as much of an experience as the setting, with The Park famed for its delicious brunches and complimentary banana bread. We had Mimosa cocktails (the same as Bucks Fizz) and I tried French toast with vanilla maple syrup for the first time (which was absolutely heavenly).

After brunch we crossed the road to the High Line, a raised walkway that runs across several blocks allowing visitors to take in the city from a different viewpoint. We walked up and down for the best part of an hour, stopping to bask in the sun and chat to a couple who were taking their five month old baby out for his first experience of spring weather (particularly poignant when you consider in his short life he’s already lived through a hurricane ripping through his city).

With the High Line ticked off we strolled the few blocks to Jen’s workplace where I left her and carried on to the central shopping street of Broadway. Within minutes of walking into Bloomingdales I felt overwhelmed and hastily beat a retreat back out onto the street. Captivated by a top in the window of Guess I wandered in and was promptly attacked on all sides by overbearing shop assistants asking if I needed any help. My stress levels rose instantly and, far from feeling assisted I actually felt more stressed than I ever thought it possible to feel in a clothes shop. Fortunately I managed to hold my nerve and resist most of the purchases suggested by Edwin, my flamboyant assistant, but I did succumb to three little tops that will be oh-so-perfect for Glastonbury in June….

I emerged from Guess feeling thoroughly drained and desperate to get off Broadway, so started making my way to Jen’s restaurant for a drink and something to eat. Unfortunately en route I was distracted by a Calvin Klein sample sale and somehow coerced into buying two dresses (neither of which I could really afford, but they were half price and designer…)

The restaurant Jen works in is a lovely little French bistro called Vin et fleurs. I settled myself at the bar and ordered a glass of Chardonnay and a cold plate of vegetables with a side of the famous mashed potato with truffles that Jen had told me I had to try. I got talking to JD, a friend of Jen’s who works locally and regularly comes into the bar for a drink, and the lovely bartender Daniel, and before I knew it the evening was drawing to a close and Jen’s shift was about to end. Barry, who was in the area, popped in for a drink and when Jen finished the three of us headed down the road to M’Ladys bar for a nightcap.

When we walked into the bar, however, we saw JD, and half an hour later Daniel walked in so rather than having one drink we ended up having quite a few and not leaving until 3am! It was such a fun evening and I’m so glad I got to experience a typical night out in downtown Manhattan with the locals. 

One thing’s for sure: I’m really going to miss this place and all the people I’ve met here. 

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Jen and I on the High Line in Manhattan