Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ain't random grand?

When I first clapped eyes on him half a lifetime ago, romance was the last thing on my mind.

I was newly arrived in Greece, for a six-month stint as a holiday rep on the island of Samos (or so I thought). Little did I know that the bloke with the lop-sided grin of Bruce Willis (who still had hair back then) and a slight glint of danger in his eye like Micky Rourke (this was '89 - don't judge me) who gave me first taste of Greek iced coffee would be The One.

I was more concerned about how my dodgy home perm would behave in the Mediterranean heat, the aesthetic impact of my ill-fitting polyester rep's uniform skirt on my substantial backside, and where the hell I was going to hang the noticeboard for the tourists I was supposed to be nannying through their two weeks in the sun. 

Men were well and truly off the menu so far as I was concerned. Having walked away from an imploded marriage and had my heart battered and bruised by a series of charming bastards since (quite an achievement at the tender age of 24) I was well and truly in "All Men Are Beasts" mode.

And yet, he wormed his way into my heart. And by the time I realised he'd skillfully hidden the fact that he was a good three inches shorter than me, it was too late.

Now, I am about as spiritual as a breezeblock sitting in the corner of a deserted supermarket. I don't believe in love at first sight, or fate, or soulmates. I don't subscribe to the theory of any great universal plan to drag me across Europe and throw us together. But, 24 years later, we're still together and have a beautiful, funny, talented son with a lop-sided grin and a glint in his eye to show for it.

My Ovver Arf is not perfect, but he's mine - and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

There are plenty of other things that he IS: smart, funny, frustrating, demanding, laid-back, quixotic, loyal, confusing, inventive, complicated, creative, generous, cynical, excitable, cool, infuriating, original, kind-hearted, quick-tempered, borderline manic depressive, idealistics, capricious, fun, warm, a right royal pain in the arse, sexy, cuddly, charismatic, abrupt, conventional, odd, neurotic, tolerant of my small eccentricities, clever, charming, hard-working, lazy, talented, a challenge.

But then, I'm no Stepford Wife. My main marital talent seems to be an uncanny ability to make him roll his eyes and sigh heavily when I get up on my soapbox about something (and believe me, it doesn't take much).

Out of the soup of random events that threw us together, love emerged. At first, all sparkly and fresh and exciting. Then, a little tired and less shiny as adult responsibilities arrived - including a baby that decided that sleep would be a really bad idea before starting school. And in latter years, perhaps a little battered, world-weary and sustained by hefty doses of dark humour, manic laughter and lots of music. 

Our union is the result of a random series of events. It wasn't made in heaven, nor showered with kisses by dumpy cupids with wings too feeble to keep their double chins and dimples afloat. It wasn't karma that brought our two worlds together (actually it was Monarch Airlines and a very old ferry boat that took 18 hours to cross the Aegean).

But it works.

It's his birthday tomorrow, and though I can't give him the world he deserves, I can certainly give him all of me and thank the randomness that brought us together. 

Happy Birthday, sunshine. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Identity crisis

Who am I? How did the core of me come to be? How much am I influenced by surroundings and events? What makes me tick?
After nearly a quarter of a century of almost total immersion in Greek society, why are some aspects of me still so utterly English?

And why, when visiting my old haunts, do some things seem so familiar whilst others feel like I’m visiting a foreign land?
It’s a common theme with many who live far from where they grew up. That sense of disconnection. Never really ‘belonging’ wherever you end up, always being the outsider, the odd one out, and yet feeling like a tourist when revisiting your roots.

Has living abroad really changed me? Or am I just the same old square peg in an all-too-often round hole that I ever was – just with a second language?

I want to believe that the core of me is the same as it was in the late 1980s. That I am still the same person, with the same values and outlook on life I always had, but that I have (hopefully) learned a few lessons from what life has decided to show at me.

I’m still the one who’ll speak up (often to the mortification of my companions) when someone starts spouting hateful nonsense. That “Oh no, she’s scrambling back onto her hobby horse” rolling of the eyes was seen in many an English pub back in my youth, just as it is today in Greek cafeterias or parents' meetings. That look of panicked “Bloody ‘ell, find something to distract her and shut her up” has been seen in in as many Celtic peepers as it has in my Mediterranean mates' eyes.
But maybe I’m looking at the wrong dimension. Perhaps it’s not the place that makes the distance, but the time?
Someone once said “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. Maybe that’s what creates this sense of disconnection?

The past two decades have wrought massive changes to both the place I grew up in and the city I moved to. The jury's still out on whether the change was for better or worse.

When I’m back in the place that threw my own unique mix of DNA together (as I am this week), the place is reassuringly familiar and packed with reminders of what moulded me into the person I am today. But there’s something that feels a little ‘off’, a tweaking of the details that makes it feel like we don’t really belong.

But, and this is a great big beautiful 'but', there are some things that stay the same.
Family, friends, things that make you laugh out loud or talk with real passion. People who have always loved you, accepted you, even celebrated you for who you are – partly because more often than not, they helped make 'you'.
They're the ones who never had any issue with your square peggedness, and never EVER tried to use a sledgehammer to bash you in round hole submission.

They're the ones who will always have that ‘connection’ with you – even if it’s been decades since you last spoke. The people you can pick up the thread after half a lifetime, just like you saw each other only yesterday.
So, next time I have one of my existential identity crises, I’m stop thinking about the gaps in time and space that separate me from my touchstones, but I’ll smile and be thankful for those constants in my life.
After all, they’re part of what make me that closet outsider that I always was – and which, secretly, I'm rather proud to be.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Weighing the odds

Today, I took a brave step back into territory I haven’t dared enter for more than three years.

I weighed myself.

It’s something I’ve assiduously avoided for a long time. I knew the numbers that it blinked back at me – even stark naked, with newly-shorn hair and after a visit to the littlest room – would not be happy ones.

They would stare back accusingly at me, defying me to feel good about myself in the face of evidence of my obvious gluttony and general piggery. And in doing so, they would rip my self-esteem to shreds, despite the fact that I know I have many qualities unrelated to what size jeans I wear, and I have lovely friends and family who judge me for ME, and not whether my undies are teeny-weeny thongettes or the biggest pair of control knickers M&S can churn out. 

And yet, just a few numbers on the scales display can cancel out all the positive and return me to that gibbering lump of insecurity that haunted my teen years.

So for the past few years, my closest contact with the bathroom scales has been making the sign of the cross as I walk past them, occasionally throwing some holy water in their direction and hissing like a scalded cat when someone suggested hopping on them. 

It was either that or surrender and submit myself to a very 40-something rage against the machine.

I’m a big girl, always have been, and tall with it. Think Miranda, but less posh and with the kind of chunky thighs that make me look like a human representation of a bell-curve. But despite my bulk, I’ve always been healthy and active. My bulk has never stopped me doing a thing, except hold my head high and come back with a witty reposte worthy of Dorothy Parker when a pasty, spotty stick insect of a shop assistant looks me up and down with a look of thinly-veiled disgust before announcing loudly to the entire store that “We don’t have anything in YOUR size”.

But I recently decided that after years of accepting middle-aged frumpiness, it was high time to take myself in hand and DO something. To take control and refuse to go quietly into the menopause that’s lurking somewhere around the next corner, or at most a couple of blocks down from it.

I’ve changed my way of eating and I’ve hit the gym with a vengeance. I feel good. My clothes are a little looser, I have more energy and parts of me stop wobbling a little sooner after I’ve stopped jumping up and down  in front of the mirror than they did a month ago. (You may ask why I jump and down in front of the mirror? Don't, it’s another story, for another day.)

And now I’ve succumbed to the propaganda of lost pounds and swallowed the story that I have to track what (if anything) is falling off me as a result of all my efforts. So today, I stripped down to my trusty M&S undies, took a deep breath and stepped on.

On the plus side, there was no scream of electronic agony, or a panic-stricken robotic voice telling me “One at a time,  please!” but the number was much more than anyone would be prepared to admit to in public, private or even the safety of the cupboard under the stairs. 

Of course, I knew it would be. But that didn't stop me wincing and feeling a wave of self-disgust and defeatism threaten to engulf me. I hopped off those scales quicker than a Chinese gymnast can dismount the asymmetric bars, I can tell you.

While the dreaded number is – and will remain – a closely guarded secret, at least now I have something to compare to when I bravely drag the dreaded confidence-buster out from its hiding place again next month.

But I will not, repeat NOT, be getting back on again a moment sooner!

Friday, 26 April 2013

Everybody’s an expert – ‘til there’s work to be done

What springs to mind when you think of a ‘creative type’?

A chain-smoking renegade (at least in their own little universe) who refuses to play by the rules and flaunts their tardiness for carefully-planned meetings (‘cos they were ‘caught up in the muse, man’)?

A fluffy-haired purple-clad mystic dripping with paganistic pendants and Tarot cards?

A coked-up ad exec talking Blue Sky bollocks at a thousand words a minute without pausing for breath or to listen to anything anyone else has to say?

Or some frazzled fiend sitting in the corner of an office trying to juggle projects, massage egos, read minds, keep within the lines of corporate compliance, beg and bully those who fail to deliver on promises, chase approvals and meet deadlines from another dimension, whilst all the time keeping a fixed corporate grin on their face and wracking their brains for a ‘creative’ way to deliver the same tired old message time and time again?

In case you haven’t already guessed, I am not entirely unbiased. Some people might classify as me as one of those ‘creative type’ (though other might just say ‘word drudge’ or even ‘glorified typist’). Yes, dear reader, I work in corporate communications, PR, or whatever you like to call it.

Creativity is like a sense of humour, love of music, or affection for cute baby animals. No-one likes to admit that they don’t have it.

Unfortunately, few are prepared to do the legwork required to transform a spark of inspiration into a comprehensive, coherent and effective advertising campaign. The minute the process gets boring, they toss it back. And, more often than not, our best efforts get knocked back in the end, because “none of our competitors are doing it that way” (surely, that’s the whole point?). But, on the other hand, we do serve as a convenient whipping boy (or girl) when an ill-advised campaign we’ve argued against from the start falls flat on its face.
This week, a colleague was asked to create a generic ad for services the company provides to a very heavy industry sector. Fair enough, you might say. But she was told to make the ad ‘at least humourous’ (as we all know, heavy industry is an untapped barrel of laughs, isn’t it?) because some other suppliers’ ads that make ours look ‘dull’.
He also wanted to list all the relevant points, add a map or two and “make it look professional”.

Just the kind of dream brief you could wait a lifetime for. (Good thing he mentioned the professional thing – we had been considering sending him a picture a clown done in crayons by a friend’s cute six-year-old.)

Ok, we thought, we’re up to the challenge. Could he give us an idea of the sort of humour he had in mind? The response: “Don’t really know – I leave that up to you ‘creative types’.” [Note: the inverted commas were his, not ours]

Heavy sigh. Deep breath. Count to ten. Try again.
Maybe they could send us some examples of the ads from competitors that he felt showed the spark or humour that he felt ours lack? Silence was the loud reply. Nada. Not a dicky bird.

We’re now putting our poor brains through the creative mangle to come up with a new angle that will avoid the standard approach this manager deems dull, whilst keeping it professional and within the guidelines set for the company’s publicity materials.
Despite our resolve not to let it spill into our weekend, we know we’ll be stressing over it as we plod away on the gym treadmill, rinse the working week off us in the shower, sit down to our evening meal and battle to get some sleep. And there’s a good chance that it will invade our dreams and have us waking in a sweat of panic in the small hours.

Why? Because someone who's an undoubted expert in his own field thinks he can come into OUR field, armed with a mental monster truck and race around in circles for a while turning it into a muddy mess, then toddle off and leave us ‘creative types’ to clean up the debris.

We would never assume to tell a pilot, a mechanic, an architect, a brain surgeon or even an accountant how to do their jobs. They’re the experts. We let them get on with it. So why, oh why, does everybody think they can do our jobs better than we can?

Thursday, 25 April 2013

In praise of Hair Majesty

We live in the Age of Me.

An era in which women are finally claiming their right to “Me Time” in which we stop stressing out about work, soothing the Other Half during his latest bout of Man Flu, making a mental itinerary of how empty the fridge is or how full the laundry basket, and attending to the demands of assorted offspring’s homework and extra-curricular shenanigans.
Or so the glossy magazines tell us, in between the articles on how to burn the optimum calories whilst achieving multiple orgasms (ha!) every time(ha ha!) – and look great in the process (falls off chair in hysterics).

We know we should be doing it, because all around us we hear of friends, colleagues, cousins-in-law, even strangers on the bus, talking about their appointments for massages, nail sculpting, massages, seaweed wraps (and not the sort you eat), colonic irrigation (WAY too much information!), yoga sessions, teeth whitening,  intensive circuit training, tan sprays and other me-affirming activities.
I get knackered just eavesdropping on their conversations. Where DO they find the time?
Personally, I’m a pretty low-maintenance kinda gal. My idea of pampering is ignoring the pile of unironed shirts and the teetering tower of plates waiting in the kitchen sink, and kicking back to watch a movie of MY choice with a brimming glass of vino on a Friday night.

I’ve had a grand total of two massages in nearly five decades on this earth. The first was undertaken in the line of duty in my days as a junior reporter on a local rag, writing about one of the first aromatherapy massage parlours to open in our corner of South London in the early 1980s. The other, two decades later, was at the hands of a kind and newly-trained friend. I enjoyed them both, but not enough to dig out a gap in my schedule and hole in my monthly budget.
Facials are a virtual unknown for me. Professionals have attacked (and tutted over) my pores just three times. And as for nails? Well, I’ve only HAD nails for the past 18 months, so you can imagine how many times I’ve trotted myself off to the local manicurist.
But even I, the Queen of Scruff, have one regular pampering treat that always lifts my spirits and give me a break from the drudge-filled reality of my mundane life.
Every month, without fail, I head for my trusted hairdresser for a trim, some chat and the royal treatment. I’ve been going to the same place for years. They know me. They know all my preferences and foibles - from my aversion to hairspray, to my insistence on running my hands through my newly-trimmed and crimped locks to 'scruff it up'. They know how I drink my coffee and which stories from the regulars will make me laugh. They know what suits me, not just in terms of face shape, hair type and excess baggage carried around the jawline, but also in personality. They know that the way I wear my hair (short and bright dyed red) is the way I want to present myself to the world, but also has to be easy enough to fit into my busy schedule.
They 'get' me' - and I wouldn’t change them for the world. My pet snipper Mika is under strict instructions not to retire until I go bald.
I’m due for a cut again soon and have already booked my regular appointment next week, but this time I’m going to treat myself and let Mika loose with her paintbrush. And I can’t wait to step out of the shop into the spring sunshine, spiky bits bouncing in the breeze and copper and black highlights glinting in the light, and walk home to present the latest reinvention of Me to the boys back home.

If I’m lucky, they may notice I’ve “had something done”.
But whatever I have done isn’t for them. It’s for me. It’s my little indulgence that even in times of violin-string tight purse strings and the relentless soundtrack of gloom and doom that accompanies much of modern life helps remind me that – yes – I AM worth it.
So, here’s to the hairdressers – and all the other Me service providers – who help us preserve our sense of self (and our sanity) when the going gets tough.

Long may they reign!

Friday, 19 April 2013

(Re)Boot Camp

Spring is well and truly sprung and with the green shoots sprouting everywhere, a new desire to take control and reinvent myself has started growing within me.

The winter has been a big fallow period in all sorts of ways – I’ve been on the work-home-work treadmill (with most of the home bits curled up on front of a screen or cooking up a storm in the kitchen), I’ve stuffed my face, I've convinced myself that I'm now too old to care about how I look, and I’ve neglected my writing (you know, the stuff no-one pays me for).

The result? I look and feel like a spud. Not one of those gorgeous  smooth-skinned little new potatoes appearing again round this time of the year. No, more like the lumpen old King Edward that's been forgotten at the bottom of the bag and is now rather squidgy to the touch.
Time to do something about it, methinks.
And why not get back into my blogging groove to write about it whilst I’m at it, I tell myself?

I’ve made a major review of my eating habits (not good) and am now limiting what I eat to a minimum on certain days and eating freely on others. Three weeks in, I’m shocked to find that on my ‘free’ days I’m NOT diving into the bread bin, devouring a small French village worth of cheese or throwing small children aside to get to the chocolate aisle in the supermarket. If anything, I’m eating smaller portions and snacking less, safe in the knowledge that if I fancy a little bit of something I can have it – and without the usual guilt strings attached wherever I have put myself on a diet in the past. So far, so good. It’s early days yet and I don’t expect to see real results for a while (but I AM now wearing a ring that I haven’t been able to fit on my finger for the past five years).   
Phase Two came came this week, when I squeezed myself (lumps and all) into my gym gear, laced up my trainers, carefully avoided all mirrors like an incognito vampire and hit the treadmill – the real one – at my local gym. I’ve plodded away the miles and ended up exactly where I started. I’ve subjected myself to various instruments of torture that tease and tense and pull at muscles I’d forgotten I ever had. I’ve worked up a most unladylike sweat and gone a rather alarming shade of red. And it felt good.
I’ve had to lock my ego in the Naughty Cupboard for the duration of my work-outs. If I let her out to play, she’ll bring her depressing sisters Self-Doubt and Defeatism along - and they’d be sure to throw a fit the minute they spotted a glimpse of a large, wobbly, middle-aged woman throwing herself about and looking like a badly pitched scout’s tent flapping in the wind.
Oddly enough, although I cringe at the sight of my tracksuit-straining thunder thighs, sigh at the untamed flab around my middle and stare in horror at my meaty upper arms as I lift the mini bar-bells, no-one else seems to notice. As I take a sneaky peak around, I see that all the body beautiful 20- and 30-somethings around me are far too engrossed in themselves to point and laugh at me.
See that muscle-bound hunk grunting to lift the equivalent of a small family car in the corner? He’s more worried about not letting the bar slip and smash into his artfully unshaven face – and perhaps wondering if he needs to get his chest waxed at the weekend (ow!).
The perfectly proportioned gym bunny with the look of hunger (and you can bet it’s REAL hunger) on the ski-master? She’s just trying to catch the eye of the muscle-hunk, whilst presenting her pert derriere to the world and taking care not to smudge her mascara. Maybe she's also trying to work out why, despite all her hard work to achieve physical perfection, she can't seem to find a decent man - and might a few Botox shots make the difference?
The chap who's been running (yes, running) on the treadmill for the past 2 hours? Ever wondered what he’s running from?
As I plod my way through my routine, I try to ignore the scruffy, beetroot-faced old biddy waving at me from the mirrored walls, and remember that we all have our insecurities, we all have our problems, we all have our doubts. None of us is perfect, even if it might look that way to others.
But finally taking the first step to doing something about it feels good.