Sunday, 4 December 2016

It all started with a black cat.

It all started with a black cat. A black cat that had disappeared from my landlady’s house 2 years previously, and then miraculously reappeared the night I came to stay.

Pip, the Airbnb owner, had been telling me about her missing cat because I’d noticed a cat flap in the kitchen. Her beloved moggie had just upped and left one day. She was convinced nothing sinister had happened because a few people had spotted it from time to time, up a tree or in their back garden, so she just hoped that one day it would get sick of its extended holiday and come back to her. Fast forward to 2am.

I had been trying to get comfy in yet another strange bed, tossing and turning, getting the pillows just right, when I realised I needed the loo. I blindly fumbled my way across the room, trying to remember the layout of the place, and opened the door, taking a tentative step forward as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. My foot landed on something soft and squidgy, which immediately let out a blood-curdling high-pitched meowl, and a shadowy black blob shot down the hall. I, meanwhile, jumped two feet in the air, let out a startled cry, lurched forward, banged my head on the bathroom door and almost fell down the stairs. I had just righted myself when Pip came out of her bedroom. She flipped on the hall light, and ignoring me completely, dropped to the ground with an ecstatic groan, scooping the furry blob into her arms and burying her face in it. It was her black cat, returned from wherever it had been partying for 2 years, in time to try and kill me. Pip was looking at me as if I had performed a miracle, telling me I was her lucky charm, how amazing this was, how she would never ever forget this night. And so it turns out, nor would I.

I’m glad Pip thought I was her lucky charm because it certainly wasn’t reciprocated. Her black cat triggered a series of events for me that have yet to end. I have never been superstitious of black cats crossing my path before but this bloody creature has, subsequently, made me touch wood, cross my fingers, pick up pennies and avoid ladders and umbrellas completely! You see, most people believe bad luck comes in three’s…. I’m now up to ten, in the space of ten days.

1. My computer
The following evening when I got back from work, I walked into Pip’s kitchen and the black cat was upon me, purring like a tractor engine, winding itself through my legs and trying to jump on my lap as I was eating my supper. The thing would not leave me alone. I stupidly stroked it a few times and then even more stupidly touched my face. As people allergic to cats well know, this is a rather silly thing to do because the moment the cat dander touches your skin, you itch, and then after the itching, your eyes might swell up. Yay. I extracted myself from the cat and went up to the bedroom just as my eyes were going a bit puffy. I turned on my Mac laptop and watched in squinty horror as the screen went dark and an unhappy face appeared. Oh dear. I looked at it for a few seconds and the unhappy face changed to a Do not Enter sign. Shit. But I didn’t panic, I like to think I’m quite nifty with a Mac so I did all the things you can do to reboot the system, launched a problem sorting page, did an internal check etc. but still, every time I restarted it, the unhappy face returned. Time to call Apple.

Long story short, Apple told me, in no uncertain terms, that my computer was buggered. I would need to take it to a genius bar in-store, and they would be able to restore my hard drive from my back-up. I did have a back-up drive didn’t I? I’m sure you think I’m about to say I didn’t, but have faith lovely people, I did have a back-up drive and I had actually backed up my whole system and all my work, files, photos, music etc. only a few days before. All I needed to do was take my laptop and my external hard drive to the store and they would do the rest.

To explain what happened next, I need to use the analogy that my laptop and my back-up are like the Queen and Prince Charles. They never fly on the same plane in case it crashes because then the heir to throne is lost along with the current monarch. Not good. So my laptop is the Queen and my external hard drive is Prince Charles. In this analogy, the plane crashes.

2. The break-in
The next day I drove to London with my precious cargo of laptop and back-up drive in my car. I was meeting my friend in Islington to see the ballet so I drove through London and managed, miraculously, to find a parking space right opposite the theatre. I had packed my computer and back-up at the bottom of an overnight bag and then had hidden the whole thing under the passenger seat, on the advice of Apple, I hasten to add. When I explained the age of my car to them, they were worried the cold of the boot might damage my Mac further, so suggested I keep it inside. I hesitated for a nano-second as I got out of the car, realising it wasn’t exactly sensible leaving my laptop and back-up together, but also knowing that the appearance of my car would put off the majority of passers-by. I love my car but I’m possibly the only one that does. She is over 30 years old, is covered in scratches and dents, looks like an 80’s mini cab and has a coat hanger for an aerial. Inside the car was an old sleeping bag, a trillion empty coffee cups, bags of rubbish, my crutches, several old coats, scarves and a dirty towel. To be honest it looked like I slept in the car rather than drove it around, so I didn’t for one second think this was an appealing target compared to the Mercedes and Volvos parked around me. Wrong.

My friend and I were in an ebullient mood after the ballet and planned on driving back to her flat in Notting Hill and having a little booze-up in her local pub. As we approached the car, my friend commented on the mess inside and I was about to defend my gorgeous Gigi (aka The Golden Goddess, aka my car), when I realised the window had been smashed, all the seats had been pulled forward, everything had been dragged through from the boot and yes, you guessed it, my overnight bag had been stolen from underneath the passenger seat. Nooooo!!!

The Police came very quickly and were brilliant. I had begun to be slightly hysterical as I remembered exactly what had been on the computer. And then more hysterical when I realised all the stuff on my back-up, my Prince Charles, had gone too. There was a chance some of it was on iCloud but I couldn’t be sure. CCTV was called and were sorry to announce that that particular street camera was not working. Forensics were called but at the last minute they were diverted to a stabbing. Even though it was a busy street and opposite a busy theatre, not one person had seen anything! The police wrote down as many stolen items as I could remember in my shocked state and my friend even went looking around the nearby streets, convinced the thieves would have taken the computer and chucked the rest of it. But no, nothing was found. I immediately launched the tracking device on my iPhone and was able to write the burglars a message. As soon as they attempted to turn on my laptop, they would read the following;
Dear burglars, if you are reading this, the Police and I have already traced your location. Oh, and by the way, you have stolen a Mac that doesn’t actually work. Haha!

3. The dead car
The police left and my friend and I decided that a stiff drink was now even more essential so we cleared away most of the broken glass, put everything else in the boot (ironic) and started the car. The car wouldn’t start. It was completely dead. I knew what must have happened... the burglars had smashed the window, triggering the immobiliser, and if you don’t turn the immobiliser off within 5 minutes, the whole system locks up. I mean it’s clever because it deters people from actually stealing the car, but now I couldn’t bloody drive it myself. I was hysterical again for a moment before I called the AA. They said they were terribly sorry for what had happened and would try and get there within the hour. An hour!!! I exclaimed. But we’ll freeze to death and I’ve just been robbed... please, you can’t leave us here alone, so late at night, in this terribly rough neighbourhood (in my mind, Islington was now a dangerous ghetto). My dramatic and embarrassingly pathetic female plea seemed to do the trick and the AA man was with us within 10 minutes. He fixed the immobiliser and wrapped sticky plastic around the smashed window so we wouldn’t freeze, and we finally headed back to West London. But of course, by this time the bloody pubs were closed. Typical.

4. No insurance
Even though I had the tracking device activated on my computer, modern thieves aren’t that stupid. They haven’t turned on my Mac and they probably never will. I imagine it’s already in Africa or Asia where it will be wiped and sold on. My back-up is gone as are over 3,000 photos, all my design work and portfolio, and worst of all, my writing. My novel, my unposted blogs, my travel stories, my journal. In seconds, 20 years of my life disappeared. Even a 2 hour conversation with the Apple support team could only get a few photos back. Nothing else. Apparently iCloud doesn’t always work. Bad luck they said. Macs are clever little buggers but don’t rely on the sodding cloud. You can always rely on Prince Charles, of course, just never let him leave the house.

I rang my car insurance and guess what? Electronic items such as computers, phones and cameras aren’t covered by most policies. We then checked my father’s home insurance (as that is where I have been living on and off for the last year) and we stupidly and with ridiculous honesty, told them the bag had been under the passenger seat and not in the boot. Sorry we don’t cover items stolen from inside the car, they said, we only pay out if they are locked in the glove compartment or the boot. Bugger! Even my parent’s cleaning lady, who is an ex copper, told us to lie to the insurance people but it was too late, it was done. I started to tot up everything that was missing. How much money I would need to replace everything. The Mac and back-up alone were about £1600, but then I began to list the perfume, make-up, skin creams, the Nike trainers and cashmere jumper, the stupidly overpriced moleskin notebooks, my expensive cotton pyjamas. I may not look it half the time, but I realised I have rather expensive taste. As I underlined the figure of £2,400, I came to the conclusion that lying to insurance companies is a much better way to go.

5. The boiler
A few days later, with broken car window fixed and many friends and work colleagues coming to my rescue to try and get as much of my portfolio, writing and life back, I was in London, once again, but this time I was in my Balham flat going through the inventory with my tenants on their last day. They have been the best tenants and I would have kept them on except for the fact that I have decided to leave London for good, sell my Balham flat and relocate to Somerset. Everything is going swimmingly. An offer has been made on the flat, and after the slightly stressful middle bit with estate agent and solicitors and endless paperwork, we are merely days away from completing (crossed fingers, touch wood). But as I stood chatting to my tenant in the kitchen, I realised how bloody cold the flat was without all their stuff in it, so I went to put the heating on. Hmmm, that’s strange, it’s not starting up as normal. I checked everything, asked the tenants if they’d twiddled or done anything strange, turned it off and on, and eventually it clicked and began to work. A few numbers and letters flashed up on the little warning screen but nothing to worry about eh?

As it was going to be one of my last days in the flat, and possibly Balham, I decided to treat myself to breakfast in the best Australian café in London called Milk (Aussies really have breakfast down to an art form). After scoffing poached eggs, crispy pancetta, sourdough toast, avocado salsa, burnt butter hollandaise and a few latte’s, I returned to the flat. Stone cold. Hmm. I switched a few things off and on again, turned the power off at the mains, checked the fuses in the wall and the plug, checked the thermostat, but nothing was happening. I had only that morning told the estate agent that I would be happy to show the new buyers round and explain how everything worked, but now the bloody boiler wasn’t actually working. Panic! A quick ring to British Gas and luckily they can come round on Monday and take a look. Please, please, please... let it be something minor (crossed fingers, touch wood).

6. The bed
An hour later I had a screwdriver in hand and was attempting to dismantle my old wooden bed. My friend was coming with a rented van to move the last few big pieces of my furniture out of the flat so I was trying to be helpful and have everything ready for him. I heard a weird creak as I undid one of the big supporting bolts and as I bent down to look what had happened, my door buzzed. I let my friend and his mate in and they helped me with the last few bed screws. Suddenly, as they lifted the bed away from the wall, we heard a loud crack and both side panels split in two. We all just looked at it, completely dumfounded, not entirely sure how it had happened, but one thing was clear, the bed was destroyed. My tenants had been seconds away from landing on the floor so God knows what they’d been up to! But at this point, there was no reason to be dismayed. When so many crap things happen in the space of a few days, you have to laugh don’t you? On the plus side, there was one less thing to load into the van!

7. The parking ticket
My friend and I had finally emptied the flat and filled the van when one of my old neighbours, a large lolloping character called Sag who also has the unfortunate affliction of being wall-eyed, dragged himself over to where we were standing and said, “You’ve got a parking ticket.” As neither my friend nor I knew exactly which one of us he was looking at, we both looked at our windscreens. Of course, it was mine that had the violation. I ripped it from the windscreen using every swear word I knew, and looked at the explanation for the penalty charge. It said I was parked without clearly displaying a valid parking permit. We all looked at my windscreen, and there, dangling from my front mirror, was my bright pink parking permit. Only a blind traffic warden could not have spotted it. I was furious and screwed it up and threw it on the ground, immediately picking it up again and smoothing it out on the car bonnet… I’m not that much of a rebel. Sag looked at me, I think, and helpfully suggested that I don’t pay it. “Of course I’m not bloody paying it,” I shouted, “They’re all bloody idiots. ID-EE-OTS!!!” I looked around furtively, just in case a warden was lurking somewhere, and let out a loud guttural growl. £105 fine for parking legally in my own parking space. Honestly, could this day get any worse?

8. The traffic jam

We headed out of London at 3pm, me in my car and my friend in his van behind me. It was a pretty good time to set off… early enough to escape both the rush hour and the 4x4 mums picking up their kids from school. We got onto the motorway and were only about an hour from my parent’s house when my friend rang my mobile to tell me we might hit a bit of a delay because of an accident he’d heard reported on local radio. No worries I thought... it won’t be too bad. At 7:30pm, my friend called my mobile again, sounding as if he was about to commit Hari Kari. Can we please stop and get some sustenance, he begged, we’ve been stuck for over 3 hours and by the sounds of it we aren’t going anywhere soon. There are two car crashes, one car fire and the ambulance that was called out has just crashed into the back of a lorry. You couldn’t make it up! We snail-paced it to the next motorway service station and both got out of our vehicles as if we were made of stiff board. We creaked to the main entrance and disappeared to the loo, meeting up again minutes later at the food area. I have never ever wanted junk food more in my life. Fried chicken, burger? I was literally drooling as I approached KFC and was about to place my order when the whole place went black. Power cut.

9. The black out
After about 30 seconds of pitch black and a few gasps and screams, the emergency lighting came on. A sinister glow took over the building as silhouetted people began to sit closer to each other and hold their bags a little tighter. I simply rolled my eyes and looked over at my friend in the adjacent burger queue. He raised one eyebrows as if to say, “Is this really happening?” I nodded back. I placed my order and 4 young spotty-faced teenagers looked up at me from behind the counter, as if they had only just noticed me standing there. “We can’t serve you, the computers don’t work” he said glumly, staring at the screen as it began to reboot. “Why don’t I get some food, while it’s still hot, and then you can come and get me when they computers are back up, and I can pay?” I suggested. They stared at me open-mouthed, their little noughties brains not computing this at all. “We can’t give you free food!” one of the girls said, tutting. I explained that I wasn’t asking for free food, I was simply trying to get something to eat before it all went stone cold. “I spose we could take cash if you have the exact change!” The first boy mumbled as the others looked at him aghast. “I don’t have any cash” I said, “Well, not enough anyway.” And that was the end of that conversation. They returned to look at the blank screen as if the world had ended.

My friend and I managed to club together enough change and buy some reduced-price prawn sandwiches. We could only pray that the prawns weren’t so old that we would be the next culprit of my run of bad luck and soon be doubled over and squitty as we sat in the remaining traffic jam. We finally got to my parent’s house around 8:30pm. It was freezing cold and dark and my friend and I were completely exhausted. My poor parents who had been all snug in the house, came out to help unload the van, and between us, we managed to get everything into the summerhouse… and the garage. I had been storing my things in my parent’s summerhouse for the last year. It wasn’t supposed to have been that long, the plan was for me to find a new home after a few months and move out, but I had changed plans halfway through the year and so needed to keep all my things at their house for a bit longer. With the addition of these last final bits of furniture, I had outgrown the summerhouse and was now entering into a completely prohibited area of my parent’s property... the garage. My father’s man-cave, his sacred space, his workshop, his escape. It was now the new home of my sofa bed and my chest of drawers. Eeek, sorry Daddy.

10. My eye
The following day, after a fitful sleep, I drove up to London again. I had been having a few problems with itchy eyes, blurry eyes and generally a bit crap eyes so I had to go to Moorfield’s Eye Hospital to see the specialist. After a few minutes, some tests, photographs and an exam, the specialist told me I had over-enthusiastic sebaceous eye glands, that were blocking my tear ducts, and that I would have to milk them. Excuse me? Yes, milk them. I don’t know how this happened or how long it’s been going on but I have never had a more extraordinary 10 minutes. Watching this very important man demonstrate eye milking will remain with me for the rest of my days. It seems improbable too, in this particularly awful annus horribilis (that is not a rude bottom ailment for those that don’t know Latin, by the way), I have cried a lot. My tear ducts seem to be in perfect working order but hey, who am I to question a specialist!

I am hoping that this is it. Ten things in ten days must be pushing the boundaries of bad luck for one person surely? But to be on the safe side, if anyone has a spare rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover or a horseshoe, then please send them my way. I’m easy to find, just follow the trail of disasters and you will discover me locked in a padded room until the God’s of doom decide to pick on someone else!


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Madhouse.

It’s been 10 months, 9 days and 5 hours since my home address no longer existed. 10 months exactly since I moved to my parents house to recuperate from knee surgery. 10 months since I left London. I never thought I would still be here. My parents definitely didn’t think I would still be here. We are all in shock.

My Father’s old boys lunch club gathers every other Thursday at a local hostelry somewhere in Hampshire. They always choose a proper pub – no music, no video games – with good food. I only mention these gatherings because the first question they ask my Father when they’ve all got their drinks, ordered and sat down, is, So Peter, is your daughter still with you? My Father sighs dramatically and responds with a solemn hunch of the shoulders, Yes, she’s still here. They respond with understanding nods and sympathetic grunts. On the other end of the spectrum, when my friends ask me if I’m still living with my parents, and I pause and say, Yup, still there, my friends can’t hide their horror. What?? they cry, Oh my God, you must be going insane!

Yes I am. I am in my own personal Madhouse. It’s a sort of slow-burning insanity that builds up over the months and bursts forth in spectacular displays of tantrums, hysteria, crying and shouting. It’s not pretty but it is necessary. A volcano can’t stay dormant forever (ok some do, but let’s not dwell on those) and if I didn’t have a dramatic outburst of emotions every now and again, then it would sit and fester and smoulder and it would be a very dangerous thing indeed. Better out than in, some would say. I realise friends and family suffer the effects of these eruptions, like poor unsuspecting Pompeiians... covered from head to toe in verbal lava before they have a chance to escape, and I apologise to all. But as well as living in my own internal Madhouse, I have also stayed in some particularly mad houses.

Since last November, I have spent 4 months chez my parentals, followed by a sordid array of B&B’s, Airbnb’s, Guesthouses, Pubs and Hotels, not forgetting friends and family (but I couldn’t possibly say any of those were a little nutty otherwise I wouldn’t get asked back!). Let’s just say I have slept on air beds, camp beds, sofa beds, sofas, floors, bunk beds and sometimes no beds. I have been squashed into kids bedrooms, left to freeze in attic rooms, wheezed in damp basements and broiled in conservatories. I have been swathed in every kind of sheet, duvet, eiderdown, sleeping bag and blanket you can imagine. I have bounced around on hard mattresses, sunk into spongy mattresses, fallen off blow-up mattresses and been sent to heaven whilst lying on the most expensive mattresses ever made (you know who you are, you lovely lovely We just get everything from John Lewis, bugger the cost, people). I have been woken by cat mewls, dog barks, horse neighs, children screaming and babies crying and have drawn the bedroom curtains of these rooms, completely unsure of what I will find outside the next day. Views change from grey urban sprawls to green undulating countryside. I have stayed on main roads and down country lanes, 40 floors up and 2 floors down, rural farmhouses and modern blocks. I have seen it all, done it all, and am tired of it all. I want my own bed, my own space and my own home. I want to leave my parents house with them still liking me, and I want to be able to put them up in my home and look after them for a change (I don’t mean forever, you understand, I just mean the odd weekend!)

I spend, on average, 6 hours a week trying to find places to stay for the following weeks, when I may be working in London, Bath, Bristol or anywhere in between. I’m still freelancing and I’m still working all over the place so I need somewhere to rest my head that’s close by. Add in the tricky necessity of places that don’t have too many stairs (bionic knees don’t like stairs) and that have free parking (bionic knees don’t like public transport) and the choices become fewer. In London, free parking is as rare as conversations on the Tube, so to find a house with either a driveway or a parking permit, and which is available for the dates I need, is rare indeed. To then find one in hobbling distance from the design studio is even rarer. I then need to make sure I can actually eat. Many Airbnb’s won’t allow you to keep anything in the fridge, let alone use their kitchen or eat food in your room, so you then have to figure out where the nearest pub, cafe or restaurant is, and if you simply can’t afford to eat out, you have to be prepared to ingeniously smuggle in a cold sandwich and some grapes, in the hope they don’t catch you eating in bed or find giveaway crumbs on their eiderdown!

Changing beds every few days is tough because it always takes me at least one night to get used to where I am, the new sounds and smells, the bed and the pillows not being quite how I like them, the temperature always being too hot or too cold. Having to share a bathroom is one of my absolute bugbears too so I always try and rent somewhere with an en-suite. Coming face to face with scantily clad strangers in the middle of the night, half-asleep and staggering on creaking landings, blindly wandering down dimly lit hallways trying to find the lavvy, is horrendous. I hate seeing and interacting with strangers when I don’t want to, so being forced into these awkward situations is my idea of hell.

Actually my idea of hell has been fully realised. It is waking up 2 hours before your alarm goes off in a stuffy and too bright room after having a terrible night’s sleep (which are too numerous to mention), followed by the inability to have a shower in the shared bathroom as one of the other guests is using it. While you wait for the other guest to use up all the hot water, and listen as they fart, cough and spit their way to an ablution conclusion, you decide to make yourself a cup of coffee, but there are only those tiny cartons of UHT milk on the tea tray in your room, so you make do with cheap instant black coffee that tastes like gravy. Once washed and dressed, you then face the stranger you saw half naked in the middle of the night, at the breakfast table and proceed to make the most monotone, monosyllabic and cringeworthy small-talk ever! I hate mornings, I hate talking in the mornings and I hate talking to strangers in the mornings. You get the picture.

Talking of pictures, picture the listing I saw for an Airbnb property in East Bristol; Stunning 1930’s house with original features, wooden floorboards throughout, generous south-facing bedroom with homemade Kingsize bed, shared bathroom, compact kitchen overlooking sunny garden, free parking, breakfast included, friendly owner and pets, £30 a night. Yes, that’s what I thought. £30? Too good to be true. I should have dwelt more on my first gut instinct and focused on the words; homemade, shared, compact and pets. Of course I didn’t query any of this because I was too busy thinking what a bargain I’d got. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Necessity never made a good bargain.” He was right.

I arrived at the property and was welcomed by the owner and her two cats. I love cats but I am allergic. I can pick them up and stroke them but then I must wash my hands immediately. Under no circumstances can I get cat hair in my eyes or up my nose. If this happens I very quickly turn into Shrek. So I usually have to email ahead just to check that the room advertised hasn’t had cats on the bed or pillows, otherwise I’d be in trouble. I was assured that the cats didn’t go in the room but as I walked into the bedroom of this particular Airbnb, I wasn’t so sure. All the soft furnishings seemed to have absorbed the smell of cat and kitty litter and I got that sort of itchy roof of the mouth thing as soon as I put my bags down. Oh dear. The bedroom was indeed large and sunny but the homemade bed was something else. It was a humungous wooden structure with giant metal bolts protruding out of it, dominating the room at over 10 foot square. It was a cross between a medieval torture device and Noah’s Arc. As well as the prospective splinter and bolt wound hazards, it was also 4 feet off the ground. Now I’m tall but even I had to launch myself onto it, an ungainly Fosbury Flop if ever there was. I then checked out the bathroom. Jesus. Neon orange from floor to ceiling with orange accessories, orange towels and even orange shower gel. The only things that weren’t orange were the bathtub, the sink and 3 rolls of toilet paper. I went back into the hallway and noticed a piece of paper blue-tacked to my door which had JULIET x 1 written on it. On the door adjacent to mine the note said JING x 2. Another door, I hadn’t noticed before, had no note and no door handle. I gulped and went down to the kitchen to put some food in the fridge. My hostess was making a cup of tea and we squeezed passed each other in the tiny galley kitchen, reddening as we came face to face. I asked her about JING x 2 and she said, Oh didn’t I mention there were other guests staying? You will have to share the bathroom I’m afraid. My face remained blank, I think. They’re Japanese though, so I’m sure they’ll be neat and tidy, she added helpfully.

Hmm. I’ve mentioned that sharing bathrooms with strangers is my pet peeve. It’s bad enough with your own family but no one should have to endure the hair and smells of people you’ve never met before! And now I was going to have to sort out a bloody rota with strange Japanese people. Ugh, so annoying. I went back upstairs and gently knocked on their door. A teeny tiny person with lots of hair answered and immediately bowed at me. Disconcerting. I sort of bowed back and asked if she/he spoke English. The reply wasn’t in a language I understood so I presumed that to be a negative. At least the tone of voice was high-pitched enough for me to deduce that the hairball was at least female. I then did that awful slow speaking and charades thing that I see other people do with foreigners and hated myself instantly. I attempted to act out; Me, bath, 10pm tonight, and then me, shower 8am tomorrow please. Ok? I asked. She nodded. You know what’s coming right? Right. At 10pm I went down the hallway to the bathroom and could hear someone having a shower. I went back to my room and sat on the bed for 10 minutes, straining to hear if the shower had been turned off. I waited and waited. At 10:40 I was pissed off. Firstly there would be no bloody hot water left, secondly I was tired and wanted to go to bed! I went to knock on the bathroom door and suddenly it was flung open, steam poured out, and a big-haired thing emerged, bowing and uttering strange words. I went in and promptly slid across the floor. There was about an inch of water on the linoleum and all of the orange towels were heaped, sodden, in the corner. Bloody hell. I went downstairs, tapped on the sitting room door and asked my hostess for more towels. More towels! she exclaimed, But there were at least 4 in there. I nodded and shrugged and said, I’m not sure our Japanese sister understands the complexities of putting the shower curtain inside the bath, there’s water everywhere. She rolled her eyes and followed me back upstairs, reaching into a hall cupboard on the way to extract more towels. She mopped the floor and left me to it.

Having a bath in two inches of water is not my idea of relaxing so I got out a few minutes later and brooded about what to do the following morning. My neighbours obviously had no comprehension of English, or time, and I worried about the same thing happening in the morning. I would just have to get up earlier. I had a quick pee and reached for the loo paper. Nothing. I swivelled around and all discovered all 3 loo rolls were missing. Oh bloody hell. I had a quick shake, opened the bathroom door, lent over the banister while trying to hold on to my towel, and quietly shouted, Hello?? You know what I mean by quietly shouted... that sort of loud stage whisper that you think is audible to someone downstairs, watching television, but that won’t be heard by the people in the bedroom behind you. The door opened behind me and 2 perfectly formed Japanese girls stood there, black long straight hair hanging to their waists, blinking at me shyly. Awkward. Toilet paper? I mouthed. There was really no point. I shrugged and shouted downstairs again, Helloooooo? One of the girls cleared her throat, Hello, she said. It was like hearing a pet talk. I wanted to coax more out of it, feed it treats to say something else but nothing was forthcoming. Then, thank God, my hostess came upstairs, took one look at the girls, then at me in my towel and said, What now? I grimaced. There’s no toilet roll, I said, I think they might have used it all. She stared into the bathroom and put her hands on her hips. But there were 3 rolls in there and they’re only tiny! We both giggled because it was so ridiculous. Suffice to say the girls said no more, bowed and shut the door. My hostess found more loo paper and went back downstairs and I went to bed. I slept as well as I normally do in a mad house and woke at 7:30am, grabbed my towel and headed for the bathroom. There was already someone in the shower. Noooooo! Half an hour later, one of the girls emerged and seemed surprised to see me standing there. She smiled sweetly as I slipped passed her. But you say 8am yes? she said quietly as I began closing the bathroom door. Oh now she speaks!

I went to work, came back to the house and spent 20 minutes trying to unlock the front door. The key just wouldn’t work, so I knocked and rang the doorbell and waited and waited. Finally the door was flung open and there stood a 7-foot tall, 20-something black guy, holding a basketball. I stepped back and looked at the front door, thinking I had the wrong house. Um, I said. Hey, he said, I’m Lindell, and he shook my hand, stepped to one side and beckoned me in. Um, I said, holding up the dodgy key. Oh, he said, You’ve got the key that doesn’t work, take mine. And he took his key off his key ring and handed it to me. I thanked him and followed him into the kitchen. Bad idea, no room. I backed out into the hallway again. And you are...? I ventured, poking my head around the door. I’m Lindell, I live here. And gave a me a look like, duh, I just told you my name you idiot. And he bounced his basketball a few times, grabbed an apple from the fruit basket and left. I frowned, sighed, grabbed my salad from the fridge and began to go upstairs, but there was another guy, barrelling down the stairs towards me. He jumped the last 3 steps and landed next to me, grinning. Hey, he said. Hi, I said. Cool, he said, and left.

I learnt from my hostess that the first guy was her lodger, the second guy was her son, I hadn’t met her boyfriend yet but he may be around later. I also found out that she usually rents out 4 rooms on Airbnb, not 2. I was lucky, she said, This week’s quiet.


Saturday, 27 August 2016

My Bog.

I’m reading a book called The Little Paris Bookshop and I’d like to quote from it. With a few choice words it has finally given me the most perfect explanation for how I’m feeling, and have been feeling, since my knee surgery and leaving London. I couldn't find my own words.

In the book, the protagonist Jean – a middle-aged bookseller – is beginning to find a new life for himself, after years of struggle and sadness, and he is given this divine morsel of wisdom from a friend.

“Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.”


Monday, 22 August 2016

The Festival.

There were only three things that concerned me about going to a 5-day festival in a field in Cornwall; sleeping, peeing and walking.

Sleeping is always a gamble. No matter how much you prepare; getting the perfect balance of comfort and practicality with your bedding and pitching your tent in the perfect location – close enough to all the amenities but far enough from the music tents – what you can’t control is who will camp next to you or the noises that emerge from their tents. Peeing is also a major worry for someone used to trotting to the loo several times a night. By the time you realise you have to go, the rigmarole of actually getting there begins; extracting yourself from your sleeping bag and duvet (I had both!), finding your torch, loo paper and wet wipes, unzipping and sliding yourself through the inner door, putting your wellies on, unzipping the outer flaps, and emerging from the tent without knocking the fly sheet and getting thoroughly drenched with dew, is a challenge in itself. Finding a safe path through a minefield of guy ropes, tent pegs, camping chairs, picnic tables and fire pits, is even more difficult. And after all that, managing to reach your wee destination before you actually wet yourself is miraculous. I desperately needed a plan B but I will go into that later. My last worry was walking. Actually being able to walk on uneven ground for 5 days without many opportunities to sit down, was daunting. A defunct titanium knee (awaiting a second surgery) on the left and a soon to be failing crap knee on the right made doing anything difficult, but I desperately wanted to go, and the excitement far outweighed the challenges, so a few weeks ago I found myself in a car with my friend Penny, on the way to the Port Eliot festival.

We arrived an hour after the gates opened, on the Thursday. The car parks were filling up and there were already hundreds of tents pitched but we had a major advantage... like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Golden ticket, I had a disabled parking pass. Now I know I shouldn’t brag about this because it’s a pretty awful thing to have to need one of these, and I am in no way saying that I deserve it compared to people living with disabilities on a daily basis, but I simply would not have been able to go to the festival if I hadn’t had help. I wrote to the organisers, explaining my inability to walk very far (especially up hill and down dale), sent them a letter from my surgeon saying what I’d had, and what I was about to have done, and they emailed me a pass. We sailed down to the front of the car park feeling very smug, only to realise that it saved us a grand total of about 10 metres, but it was something. Penny was an absolute angel, carrying most of the heavy stuff as I stumbled and lurched slowly down the hill. We veered off the main path and headed left, past a dozen portaloos, round the back of the mobile shower unit, deciding to set up camp in front of a posh teepee and yurt field, on a slight incline, but with good walkability to everything. Our reasoning was that if people could afford to pay £3,000 to stay in a tepee or a yurt, then maybe they would be more civilised and would be quiet and respectable!!! Ha. In front of us was a roped off area that looked a bit wet and boggy and to our right a beautiful big oak tree, so there was really only free space on our left and right. We congratulated ourselves on finding the perfect spot and began putting up our tents. Not being able to crouch or kneel meant poor Penny had to do a lot of the crawly stuff but we got there eventually and decided to explore for the rest of the day.

Port Eliot Festival is not Glastonbury, nor is it Latitude, Bestival or Wilderness. It is a teeny tiny festival created by the wonderfully flamboyant Earl of St. Germans, Peregrine Eliot (who sadly died a month ago), and at its heart is a stunning stately home and grounds. It actually began as the Elephant Fayre, a hippy music festival that was eventually closed down in 1986 after the police busted it for drugs, but 17 years later it was back... cooler, fresher and describing itself as having, “All the brains of a literary festival. All the soul of a music festival”. The first time I went, I was with my friend Polly and we were completely blown away by the beauty of the estate. It sits on a tidal estuary in the shadow of a stunning aqueduct, surrounded by ancient woodland and lush green hills. It has walled gardens, a maze and the oldest church in Cornwall, and it has grown from only 17 people in its first year, to 7,000. Compare this to 175,000 at Glastonbury and you get a better idea. They keep the numbers down so that there is space to camp, space to walk around and space to do everything and see everyone. And what a space it is. Port Eliot has become the foody, drinky, literary, muso festival of choice for the more discerning reveller. It is well behaved bohemia, naughty but nice, and one of the safest, kindest and loveliest places I have ever been. It attracts authors, actors, chefs, musicians and performers of all genres because they know they can bring their friends and families and walk around without being mobbed. But don’t get me wrong, being civilised doesn’t mean you are tucked up in bed with a mug of chilli infused Ecuadorian cocoa by 11pm. You can party til dawn at the secret disco or swill back bourbon at 5am in the Black Cow Saloon by the river. In fact, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go to bed before 3am because the sodding music doesn’t end until 3am. So much for blissful peace and quiet. Can you shut up now PLEASE!!

We left our tents, happy and secure, and decided to go for a wander to get our bearings. Even though the festival didn’t really get going until the Friday there were still enough food and drink venues open to keep us happy, so we started off sharing a Burrito on the lawn of the main house as we read through the programme of events, then headed to the Sipsmith Gin bar for a very fine and much-needed cocktail as we watched the sun go down by the river. We then walked (limped) the perimeter of the grounds and passed wood fired hot tubs, oyster bars, champagne tents, bookshops, spa and yoga tents, and of course, live music stages. Penny went back to her tent to get some warmer clothes and returned with a bit of a long face, saying that our tents were now surrounded. Next to Penny’s was a huge 4-room tent with a picnic table and chairs at the front and several pushchairs and an array of plastic toys scattered around. Dotted around the table were rugs, and on the rugs, blissfully unaware of their suffocating proximity, were a very young baby, a toddler, three slighter older children and three adults, who all smiled pre-apologetically at Penny as she surveyed the scene! But I wasn’t to be left out because next to me was another family tent, pitched so close that their guy ropes were already in a full-blown relationship with mine. She counted 5 fold-up chairs! 5! There was nothing to do but go and eat and drink a bit more and try and forget about it, but by ten o’clock, no matter how much we tried to stifle the yawns, we decided to have an early night in order to be rested and fresh for the days ahead. I surveyed the neighbours tents in the darkness, swore loudly, and dug out the ear plugs.

At this point we had no idea that the large music tent, a mere 50 metres away, housed the loudest and most raucous of bands, finishing at 3am every night. I had assured Penny that everything shut down at midnight (God knows where I got that bit of info), and so by 11pm, I had gone for my last civilised pee in the portaloo, changed into my pyjamas, brushed my teeth, put in my ear plugs, and was lying there quite content, listening to the muffled music and the distant hum of laughter and chatter, knowing that it would all come to a stop in an hour’s time. Then the baby began to cry. The baby set off the toddler who screamed for 15 minutes in full tantrum mode, quietening to a heaving coughing fit for a few more minutes after that. Two people tripped over my tent and my next door neighbours returned, loudly and inebriated, just before midnight. They then decided it was the perfect time to shake out some sort of plastic tarpaulin next to my ear, which made one of them loose their balance, and I watched horrified as a hand, then a body bulged ominously into my tent from the outside, like a wayward cocoon. “Watch out!” I shouted, pushing at the bulge from the inside. “Sorry, oops, so sorry”, came the slurred and giggly reply. Impossibly, or maybe it was just the wind direction, the music seemed to get louder. I pushed my wax earplugs in further, which only seemed to intensify the bass line as it thumped and reverberated though my body. I looked at my phone and saw it was only 1am! Oh Bloody Hell, now I needed the loo.

I mentioned I had a plan B for the whole going to the loo in the night problem, and now I was about to try it out. I had read about She-pee’s, a contraption resembling a plastic watering can that you can sort of squat over, but the trouble is I can’t squat. My stupid titanium thigh and knee won’t allow me to bend my knee more than 90º, so I simply can’t get in that position. Nor can I kneel and try it that way, because the one downside to a plastic kneecap, is that you can never ever ever kneel on it (something to do with the concrete seal cracking!! Lordy!) Therefore potties, old ice cream tubs, ziplock bags (goodness) and, in fact, any of the vestibules my fellow campers had suggested peeing in, I could not do. So I decided to buy the largest and most absorbent adult incontinence pads and go in those. I apologise if you have just had a visual snapshot of that but blooming heck, it works a treat. After much rustling and concentration, you simply put it back in it’s flowery plastic wrap, and bin it the next morning! Voila. Nighttime peeing problem solved. I highly recommend it!

I finally drifted off around 2:30am, only to be woken at 6am by, you guessed it, next door’s baby crying. This continued, with additional outbursts from from its sibling toddler, until 8am, when the other neighbours decided to get up and have breakfast. Once again, they rustled everything that was rustly in order to wake me up in the worst mood possible, and then began discussing their previous night’s events, as they sat around my tent. I think I actually told them to “Ssshhhh”, in fact I know I did, but it was no good, once several tent-holds wake up, then the free-for-all begins and you might as well join them. Penny and I poked our heads out of our tents, blurry eyed, dry mouthed and just the teeniest bit grumpy. Understatement. Most people that know me, know that if I haven’t slept very well I am an absolute nightmare, so it was safe to say that if I didn’t imbibe the strongest coffee and the yummiest food immediately, the whole trip was doomed!! Luckily this was as foody a festival as you could hope for and we found our breakfast nirvana... a large soft white bap stuffed to the gills with hot crispy greasy bacon, a handful of rocket and a generous spoonful of browned butter and salsa verde. Yum. Several double-shot lattes accompanied this delight and we were all good to go.

I had pre-booked several workshops that I thought would be fun, and our first was a survival course on how to start a fire in the wilderness. I love tales of survival and watch a lot of programmes where people are left deserted on islands, sent on extreme expeditions, or hunky ex-military men go and live amongst forgotten tribes (Bruce Parry) or walk incredible distances (Levinson Wood... sigh), and they all, at some point, have to make fire with their bare hands. Some make it look easy, some don’t, but I have always wanted to give it a try. We arrived in a clearing in the woods and found ourselves in the company of a dozen very eager pre-teen boys and three army guys. Penny and I sat in canvas chairs, the boys sat on tree stumps and the army guys stood around with their hands on their hips, looking tough, with big knives strapped to their thighs. Oooh. We were shown several different ways to make fire, from using a lighter and vaseline (slightly cheating) to metal flints to sharp knives, but the most impressive was the old rubbing of sticks together. I have never seen this up close and I have to admit, I was impressed, but of course I wasn’t content watching in hushed awe, I had to ask all the difficult questions. “What happens if there is no dry wood?” “What do you use for kindling when you’re in the snow?” “How do you start a fire in the rain?” “But what if you haven’t got a tarpaulin?” He deflected my questions by asking us to start our own fire... hurrah. I flung myself on the ground, which is the only way I can get down there without bending, and Penny and I began. I tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. We both managed to get a spark and a flame and whooped with delight, but it’s keeping the fire going that’s the hard part. But we didn’t care, we were cavemen, we had made fire, rahhhhh!!!!

Next we went to the literary tent to see the delightful Michael Morpurgo. I’ve been to dozens of literary events and seen writers of all genres talk about themselves and their work, and it always amazes me how some are completely unfazed by a large audience and talk as if they are having a chat down the pub, whilst others are so excruciatingly shy and awkward, that the audience feels every cough and stutter and pause and can’t wait for it to end. Michael Morpurgo has a way of talking to the audience, children especially, that is so inclusive and generous and unpatronising, that the adoration for him is palpable. We left the tent feeling very warm and squidgy and decided the next thing to do was eat. When in doubt of what to do next, look 10 feet in any direction and you will find food. From Thai noodles to Indian thalis, Mac & Cheese to Venison burgers, sourdough Pizzas to slow-cooked BBQ’s, fresh seafood to Jamaican curries, there was something for everyone. I honestly think there were over 50 food venues, so Penny and I (both very much eating people) were in heaven. I then decided to fit in a nap. Lack of sleep, an aching knee and too much food meant an hour’s kip was very necessary, so I went back to the tent and did my best to get some shut eye. Trouble was, my tent had been sitting in the sun all day and was like a little steaming sauna so all I did for an hour was bake, sweat and get more dehydrated. Awful idea. I arose again, feeling slightly jet-lagged and light-headed, and met Penny back at the main stage to see the divine Dawn French... another person who makes you feel warm and fuzzy. In fact, if you could bottle Dawn French and Michael Morpurgo and have a little sip of it every morning, the world would be a better place. We then spent the rest of the night listening to bands, fending off hungry mosquitoes, and people watching. People watching at festivals is one of the highlights because there is something about the the fresh air and lack of home comforts that frees people to just be themselves. I know that sounds a bit hippy but put 7,000 people together in a few acres of land with no mobile phone signal, no computers, no TV, no radio, and only people entertaining people, and the kids go a little feral, the adults lose their inhibitions, no one washes for 5 days, you eat with your fingers and are exposed to all the elements, so you either embrace it or go home.

From utter exhaustion and the fact we knew what to expect, we both managed to sleep fairly well that night. The neighbours, and more importantly, the neighbour’s baby and toddler also slept through the night, so everyone woke feeling quite refreshed. Breakfast was, once again, a bacon and rocket bap and several delicious coffees and then off we went, back up to the literary tent to see the hilarious novelist A L Kennedy, followed by a chefs vs. critics food fight, followed by the brilliant milliner Stephen Jones recreating some of his more outrageous looks. More food, another (better) attempt at a small siesta, and then a re-group to see comedienne Sara Pascoe followed by my absolute highlight, Noel Fielding interviewing Bruce Robinson (infamous boozehound and writer of Withnail and I). I say it was my highlight because it should have been. Withnail and I is, without doubt, my favourite film in the whole world, and being the writer of that, Bruce Robinson is a hero of mine,  but what happened on stage was the most shocking and shambolic thing I have ever seen. Noel Fielding was sober, Bruce Robinson was not, admitting very quickly that he’d already consumed several bottles of cheap red wine before he came on stage and wasn’t sure why he was there or what was happening. Good start. What followed was the most expletive filled interview I’ve witnessed, with political rantings (Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn), demands for cocktails (the wine is shit), insulting audience members (white, middle class fuckers), bouts of hilarity, singing and then general awkwardness. Noel Fielding managed to keep it going for an hour. He was dying because Bruce was so unpredictable, and I totally take my hat off to him... being able to handle an inebriated and belligerent old man on stage, in front of 500 people, while staying charming and entertaining in his own right, was very impressive. The next morning apparently, Bruce Robinson did another interview and spent most of it apologising for his terrible behaviour the night before. But it was memorable, as was the rest of our Saturday.

Being a gorgeously warm Saturday night we decided to let our hair down, go up the hill to the walled garden, buy a bottle of Prosecco and watch the Denim Drag show. Denim are 5 trannies who I first saw perform at a wonderful cabaret lounge bar in the heart of Soho, called Madame Jojo’s, now sadly closed down to make way for a block of flats!! Gentrifying Soho is one of the worst things that has ever happened to London. No one needs another bloody block of flats or another coffee shop, they want the individuality that makes London so cool and unique. Grrrr. Anyway, their hour and half show was hilarious... part panto, part cabaret, in full drag, and the best thing about it was the fact that they would normally perform this in a nightclub at 1am to a drunk rowdy crowd, but their performance at Port Eliot was on an outside stage in broad daylight, in front of an audience of sober-ish men, women and children. The childrens reactions were amazing because they didn’t see anything peculiar at all about men being dressed as women, in fact they probably hadn’t even noticed (even though there were two with beards!)... all they saw were high heels, sequins and glitter, and they loved every second, clapping and screaming and laughing as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Several kids stormed the stage at one point to simply hug the legs of the main tranny who was pretending to cry. It was so adorable. I think the boys of Denim had an absolute blast too.

For dinner we went to the al fresco seafood pop-up restaurant in another part of the walled gardens. It looked so beautiful, lanterns hanging from the boughs of trees, candles nestled in between the plants, happy relaxed tables of friends, the most incredible food, and the sound of laughter and chatter. We filled our stomachs, ordered another bottle of fizz and decided to go to the disco... it was Saturday night after all! It was called The Secret Disco and all we knew is that we had to find a small purple door in a hedge somewhere, in the middle of the forest. We blindly headed down overgrown paths and through the darkened woods in the direction of the music until suddenly there it was. Through a tiny arched door was a circus tent with a dozen mirror balls, a DJ, a bar and a hundred crazed disco revellers. I tried to dance on one leg which was hard enough, but what made it slightly trickier was that the whole dance floor was on a slight slope. Our tent neighbour – a gay dad with 3 daughters – had told us all about the pitfalls of dancing on a slope, having been at the disco the night before. He told us to be careful because he couldn’t walk the next day after pulling all the muscles in his shins! This information was much heeded and instead of fully rocking out, we gently bounced around a bit. That night we managed to stay up until the eye-watering hour of 1am! Yup... completely crazy! Ha. We just couldn’t do it. It was the third day of surviving on only 4-5 hours sleep and it was doing us in. Plus we had another workshop the next morning at the ungodly hour of 10am!!

Even though it was Sunday, in the world of camping there are no lie-ins and we were woken at 8am. With slight hangovers, we wet wiped ourselves, got dressed and headed off down the hill for yet another bacon sandwich. Hey, no point fixin’ what ain’t broke ( or whatever it is our American friends say!) We then went along the river to meet our foraging guide. She was supposed to show us all the common weeds, flowers and plants that we could use medicinally, but seemingly a little hungover herself, she wasn’t overly brilliant. Understatement. In fact, one of the only really useful titbits I came away with was rubbing dandelion leaves on insect bites. The biting mozzies and midges seemed to be able to chomp through jeans so this was a great and free solution to a growing number of bites!! I even had 50% deet with me as well, which as most people know, is like rubbing acid on your skin and can eat through a pair of trainers in a matter of hours, but it didn’t put the buggers off. Penny had another remedy for all the itching. It was a little plastic bullet with an electrical current that was supposed to break up the antihistamine in your skin. Once bitten you were supposed to put the bullet on the bite and click away, sending shock waves into your body. Well, that’s what it felt like to me! Did it work? For about half an hour, yes, then the itching began again. So the dandelion leaves were a wondrous discovery.

We then decided to ease ourselves a bit more gently into the day by watching a few cookery demos. It began with 2 chefs from Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow, followed by the brilliant fusion Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, followed by Nathan Outlaw and his reluctant assistant, his 13-year old son. They were funny, charming and fabulous and gave us the chance to taste some exquisite restaurant food. I then went for a tour around the house while Penny went in search of some music in the church. We then had another workshop which was how to cook fish, 3 ways, outdoors. I loved this class... an open fire, some amazing enamel cooking pots and more delicious food to sample. It was taught by an incredibly posh lady and her equally posh husband. In fact, her husband’s only purpose seemed to be the fetcher and carrier, like most husbands really! “Darling, can you find me a serving spoon?”, “Darling, could you put another log on the fire?”, “Darling, could you find some more chairs for our guests?”, “Darling, could you get my leaflets for me?” Even though hubby was standing behind me most of the time, whenever I turned to ask a question, he would reply, “You had better ask my wife!” Bless. We did notice some interlopers at this class which got our backs up a bit. We had pre-paid for all these workshops but of course, being al fresco, it was impossible to stop people eavesdropping or loitering on the edges of the group, pretending to look at the trees while desperately straining to hear and see what was going on. The cheap hangers-on-ers did one worse with this class though, and actually took forkfuls of food as the plates were handed around. “Nooooooooo!” I wanted to shout, “Spit it out, it’s not your food!” I didn’t do this because I’m a lady. I just gave them a Jules death stare instead.

Moments after the workshop had ended we heard a bit of a commotion behind us and suddenly a giant paper boat came into view, carried on the shoulders of a dozen people. Ahhhh, I had read that there would be something created in the memory of Peregrine Eliot, and here it was... a giant origami boat. I decided to follow it with the rest of the crowd and see it launched in the river. Hundreds gathered on the river bank to see it enter the water, and then, at the last moment, one of Peregrine’s best friends leapt in and off they drifted. Oohs and aahs came from the crowd as the boat swayed one way and then the other, but the friend stood upright and proud in the stern, and soon the boat was gathering speed and heading downstream towards the open sea. We all watched until it was a tiny spec in the distance, and then suddenly there was murmuring from the crowd. What would happen next? Would he keep floating away, would he be rescued, would the boat capsize? And I’m sorry to say that I have no idea. Everyone I spoke to later didn’t know what had happened to him or the boat, so for all I know, he made it to France and is now sipping a fine Cabernet!

Penny and I regrouped for our final night of food, drinks and more music. We drifted from tent to tent and took it all in, from funk, to jazz, to rock, to disco, and fell asleep in the wee hours, happy and satiated. It was a fabulous few days and I’m already thinking about doing it all again next year, with a better performing knee hopefully. I don’t want Penny having to fetch and carry for me like I’m some decrepit old Aunt. I want to swim in the river and roll down hills without having to think how I will get up. I want to run and jump in meadows of wild flowers and climb tall stairs in the house to see beautiful rooms, without thinking I’ll hurt myself. I don’t want restrictions and I don’t want to miss out on anything. Well, maybe missing out on babies crying and toddlers wailing I could do. And maybe spending a bit more money so I could stay in a luxury yurt or an airstream I could do too! Other than that I wouldn’t change a thing!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Without doubt as soon as someone discovers my name – usually whilst travelling abroad – they will quote this famous line. They always think they are being terribly clever and original and just can’t help themselves, giving me a nudge or a grin, as they loudly proffer – and often misquote – the Bard’s poetic words. Whether I am holidaying in Vietnam, India or Rome, people smile when I introduce myself.

Being christened Juliet (after an actress friend of my parents, rather than the Shakespearian heroine) has its ups and downs. The benefit of the having a famous name is that it is a conversation starter, the downside is that everyone either asks me where Romeo is, or indeed, if I have found my Romeo yet. When I was studying in America I actually met a Romeo. He is still the only Romeo I have ever met and was introduced to me by a very excited friend at a ‘Eurofag’ party. They were called ‘Eurofag’ parties by our American male student friends, who believed that all European students were gay and listened to gay music... this was the late 80’s after all. In fact, most of the so-called Europeans were from everywhere else in the world, but Europe, and gay or not, the boys were better looking, better dressed and had much better taste in music than their US counterparts. Instead of drinking cheap gassy beer from kegs (a staple of the American frat party), we were offered cocktails, we danced sexy lambada and salsa instead of head-banging to hard rock, and they had names like Romeo and Rafael, instead of Blaine and Cole... preppy boys names that, to me, always sounded like an upmarket Deli chain!

“Everyone,” my friend exclaimed loudly, smooshing Romeo’s face and mine together, “We’ve actually got a bonafide Romeo and Juliet here, it’s soooooo exciting!” Everyone at the party turned to look at us as we awkwardly kissed cheeks. It was my first double kiss too, mwah, mwah, and I thought it was terribly sophisticated. I learnt he was from South America and that he was studying at Brown University (the Ivy league school next to our art college RISD) and that was about it. I apologise for not being more specific and possessing no more facts about Romeo, but I soon discovered he was rather inebriated, the music was excruciatingly loud and he had a very strong accent, so that was as much a CV as I could gather from him. Instead of awkward conversation and sign language, he did what most 19 year-old Latin males would do in a similar situation... he pulled me towards him for a slow dance. A slow dance to a very high energy, techno-pop number. It was awful. We couldn’t get in sync at all and gyrated against each other as best we could. Safe to say, apart from the friction of our clothing, we had absolutely no chemistry, nothing in common and by the end of the frantic song, we couldn’t get away from each other fast enough. My Romeo he was not.

I suppose I’ve been looking for Romeo all my life... haven’t we all? Anyone with a romantic bone in their body wants to find their soulmate, the love of their lives, the person to grow old with, and we can’t help but look to the greatest love stories in history and literature for inspiration... Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, Cathy and Heathcliff, Elizabeth and Darcy, the list goes on and on. But there is an awful lot of tragedy, pain and death that goes along with these pairings and I’m not sure anyone would want that for themselves. I am lucky to have found love many times and I know I will find love again. I have had my heart broken quite a few times but it hasn’t broken me, and I’m as optimistic as ever that I will, one day, find it again. But I’ve also realised that my life is pretty bloody good and I won’t waste a second of it worrying about when, or indeed if, it will happen. I have also been given a new and very expensive titanium knee, so I’d like to do it justice by seeing as many places and experiencing as many things as I can. (Please note: I started writing this a few months ago when my new knee looked rather promising... with the trouble I’ve had since, I’m not sure I would be so bold in my statements. However, please continue reading as if you knew nothing of that.)

An invitation to join a group of friends in Europe for a surprise 50th birthday was certainly an opportunity not to be missed. I knew walking on ancient cobbled streets and flights of stone steps was going to be challenging but I armed myself with prescription painkillers, allowed myself to be felt up at Gatwick security, and wended my way to meet my ultimate blind date, my soulmate, Rome (the omitted “O!” is simply my exclamation at every beautiful thing I saw in this stunning Italian city.) Unbelievably, it was my first time in Rome. I had vowed, years ago, that I would not visit Rome until I could spend at least a month there, immerse myself in the culture and language, and return home with Latin flair and perhaps, a Latin lover (I blame the film Roman Holiday and the book Eat, Pray, Love). But as the years passed I realised that my plan was a little optimistic, I was running out of time, so instead of full emersion, a long weekend break it was. The reason for the trip, as I’ve said before, was for a friend’s 50th birthday. It was, in fact, my friend’s dream (for the last 30 years) to busk on Rome’s Spanish Steps, surrounded by friends and family. He never thought his dream would be realised but what he forgot was that his brilliant wife – one of my oldest friends – would do anything and everything to make it happen, and had spent the last few months arranging this truly amazing surprise. The result... 24 friends and family, from Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and England, converging on Rome for 3 glorious days.

We had all managed to book into the same hotel or nearby apartments, and I was very careful to email ahead to ensure my room was on the ground floor (flights of stairs were still a challenge). Usually I email ahead to ask about having a quiet room (friends and family will appreciate this intolerance) but my knee took precedence this trip and noise had to make way for easy access. I was shown my room by the manager and gulped when I saw that it was the closest room to the lobby and reception, with only a thin glass door to shield against the noise from the street and other guests. I decided on a quick power nap, put in my ear plugs, turned the bathroom fan on (white noise is brilliant) and lay back on the crisp white sheets. Moments later I felt something drop on my face. I opened my eyes and they were immediately filled with fine dust. I sat up bewildered, raised my eyes to the high beamed ceiling and as I did, chunks of plaster fell on to my bed, narrowly missing my head. Eeek. I got up and went to reception, leading the manager by the hand, back to my room. I pointed to the bed and then mimed falling rubble. She frowned and then gasped, putting a hand to her mouth. She started to apologise (I think), and then swear (definitely), and told me to “Attendere prego”, which I managed to translate as please wait. So I waited. I listened to her on the phone in the lobby, frantically explaining to someone what had happened. She then came back to the room, asked me to pack and led me outside. She pointed to a golf cart (the most out of place thing I saw in Rome), heaved my bag onto the back seat, and before I could ask, where, what, how, I was whisked away. Golf carts and cobbles make for an interesting ride, especially at the hands of an eager bell-boy and a not so supporting bra, but by the time I’d said, “Ciao, um, dove hotel?” to him, we were there. He screeched to a halt beside a tiny medieval wooden door and produced a giant iron key from his pocket, the sort of giant iron key you see in old horror films, locking screaming captives behind creaking dungeon doors. He grinned at me, bent to open the door and quickly stepped into a darkened hallway. I gulped and followed him into the gloom. He drew open some heavy tapestry curtains, unlocked another set of doors and there we were, inside this gorgeous apartment... old flagstone floors, thick white-washed curved stone walls, and stunning arched doorways. This was someone’s very beautiful home, I thought, and later I found out it was just that. A friend of the hotel manager allowed them to use her flat when there was an emergency, but it was obvious she hadn’t been there in quite some time because it was absolutely freezing. I mimed cold, the old shudder shudder, wrapping my arms around myself charade, and the bell-boy replied, “Ah, si, no problemo,” and switched on something in a small cupboard. Perfect.

My friend D arrived at my new abode a little later and as he stepped into the apartment, he rolled his eyes with a wry smile, as if to say, “Oh bloody hell Jules, this sort of thing only happens to you,” mixed with a, “You jammy bitch!” He would have the last laugh as you will soon discover. We went to join the others in the square, the first of many to surprise my birthday friend. His face would look up every half an hour to see yet another family member or old pal standing by the table, and it was pure joy to see him so happily bewildered. We had a few drinks and arranged to meet later at the restaurant, a local Italian across the river and in a neighbourhood where every tiny cobbled street looked almost identical. Attempting to read my tiny printed google map whilst trying to look cool and un-touristy was a massive feat, so I decided to do what no man would ever do... ask for directions. We stopped to ask a man standing by some tables outside a restaurant, and he proclaimed gleefully, “But that’s my other restaurant! I show you.” What? Of all the people in Rome we found the actual owner, so a few minutes and lots of twists and turns later, he had delivered us to the bistro. Everyone else seemed to have found the restaurant without problem which was rather annoying, but we all drank and ate and drank some more, then weaved back to our little square and drank even more. The birthday boy had finally been reunited with his two old band mates, so they asked the proprietor if they could play their guitars and sing. Of course, he said. So another few hours passed, songs were sung, drinks were drunk and Rome embraced us.

Luckily my new apartment was a only a street away from the square, and I merrily stumbled my way back, only to find a girl being sick on the adjacent doorstep, her very obliging boyfriend holding back her hair as she heaved and coughed. I could still hear her as I went into the apartment and was slightly concerned until a rather more worrying thing took hold of me... I realised I could see my breath. No heat. I swore and fiddled with the switches in the small box I had seen the bell-boy open earlier. Still nothing. It was freezing, so the only thing I could do was grab anything vaguely warm and put it on the bed; Clothes, towels, an old rug, a moth-eaten blanket and a tablecloth. I got in and was immediately pinned to the bed by the sheer weight of fabric but managed to drop off, even with the dulcet tones of vomit hitting pavement outside.

I woke up with a slightly sore head and went to have a quick shower, running across the icy stone floor on tiptoes. I turned the tap, waited for the water to turn warm and nothing happened, waited a bit more, fiddled with the dials and still nothing. I went into the kitchen and turned the hot tap on. Nothing. There was only one thing for it... do an old school ‘Pits and Privates’ wash using boiling water from the kettle. I was about to fill the kitchen sink when I discovered there was no plug, and the only containers I could find in the numerous cupboards were a cup, a cereal bowl and a small pan. Oh bloody hell! I stood on a small towel and sloshed water all over myself, shivering as the scalding water instantly turned icy. I began to wash my hair over the sink and suddenly realised I no longer had access to the hotel’s toiletries... no shampoo, no conditioner, no soap, all I had was washing-up liquid. You can only imagine my mood at this point... hungover, freezing cold, knotted wet hair and nothing to eat or drink. It was the worst start to a morning I have had in years and it was all I could do to grunt a few words when we all met for breakfast in the square, half an hour later. But it was a sunny day, Rome looked beautiful, the coffee was strong and breakfast was delicious, so my mood lifted instantly.

My knee was behaving so we all set off to discover Rome. We walked and talked and pointed and lingered and saw and wondered and photographed and sat, and tried to take in all that this amazing city has to offer, me vowing to come back and do it all again and again. Late in the afternoon, we headed back to our respective rooms to change, and miracle of miracles, there was not only heating in the apartment but hot water as well. Hurrah. We all met up for another night of eating and drinking and singing. It was so perfectly organised by my old friend, allowing people to do their own thing during the day, and then meet up for celebrations each evening. On the Sunday, after another divine breakfast, we all haphazardly walked towards Vatican City, completely forgetting it was Sunday, forgetting it was nearly noon and forgetting that the Pope would be there to address the crowd. And suddenly there he was, Papa Francesco, in his white robes, standing on the balcony, speaking to us. It was very moving, even more so when you see the reactions of some of the crowd, devout Catholics from around the world seeing their religious Father in the flesh. But St. Peter’s Square was packed, so after the address we decided to do a hop-on hop-off bus tour. We saw it all, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Arch of Titus, ancient Rome, we also saw lots of things we had no idea what they were, the tinny audio guide spluttering various facts through cheap earphones, cutting out just at the wrong time... but we loved it. I used to be a bit cynical about city tourist buses until I went to Dublin for the first time, and had such an amusing guide that I stayed on the bus for 3 tours in a row. I’m now a convert and always go on them to get my bearings in a new city... I even went on the London one with D and my sister, after living there for almost 18 years, and had one of the best days ever! The only trouble with this country and open air buses is the weather. Be prepared for wind, rain, pollen, being lashed by stray branches, falling leaves and getting wet pants from laughing too hard! You’ve all seen all those idiot tourists wearing throw-away banana yellow plastic raincoats? Well that’s why... who wants to wear something nice that you might pee on accidentally?

Rome was amazing, and the friends and family that we met were an absolute joy. We didn’t quite busk on the Spanish Steps (they were being renovated) but we did go around the corner to another set of steps and sang to the nearby restaurant, passersby, and got applauded and filmed on iPhones, so I would say my friend’s dream was well and truly ticked. As for finding Romeo, well, maybe Shakespeare just got the name wrong? Wherefore art thou John, Jack, Sam, has a certain ring to it too.