5 myths about moving

I’ve been living in Donosti for 5 months now and it feels like time to reflect on the difference between what I thought the experience would be and what it actually is. Prior to moving, my ideas were guided by a number of myths about swapping one culture for another. Some of these myths were travel clichés – gross generalisations that I’d normally think I was too smart to fall for, while others were simply assumptions I’d made because I didn’t know any better. Here are just 5 of them:

tinies .jpg
Snow White and her unsuspecting dwarf. Consent isn’t an issue when it comes to dressing your little brother for Carnaval.

Myth No. 1: New place, new me. You’re lying if you’ve moved and say that you haven’t bought into the myth of a new start. Chances are, if home felt like a place of boundless opportunity and contentment, there would have been no need to leave in the first place. But while I think it’s great to plan a better life in your new location, don’t assume that the act of moving in itself will automatically remove old problems and make you immune to whatever was so trying at home. Even though your troubles didn’t buy the Ryanair ticket to Biarritz for September 15th; by October 15th, you’ll be certain that they baeged onto the flight with you.

For about a month, I was under the illusion that I’d become this bold, carefree creature, who worked from cafes, swum in the sea and was constantly meeting new people. Then one by one,  traits that had plagued me in the old country started resurfacing: shyness,  commitment-phobia and worst of all, anxiety. From these demons, in the end, there was no escape; only a decision to be made: did I want to be challenged at home in a frantic metropolis or here, at the beach?  Luckily, for me, that was an easy one. 

Back in the old country I used to think that maraschino cherries were tacky….

Myth No. 2: My previous life will vanish from sight  When I went home in December for two weeks, a funny thing happened – I slid into the routines of my old life so seamlessly, that the one I’d been making in the past three months seemed unreal. I picked up right where I left off with friends and family and was worried that I’d feel at a loss when I returned to San Sebastián in January. However, one Vueling flight later, I slotted back into the life of three months, feeling neither homesick, nor sad.

You see, the London I experienced in December wasn’t representative of the city I left in mid-September. It was Christmas and friends who had moved out of town and scattered around all parts of the world, came back to visit; which all meant that I went home to a place that exists fleetingly. Although the London of 2015-16-17 is no longer around, my connections to people from those years are solid. Skype, Instagram and WhatsApp mean that messages can fly back and forth as often as they did in London. These past weeks, especially, when I’ve been convalescing from a broken ankle and unable to socialise as much, I’ve felt that I’ve been living a double life, with one foot planted here and the other in the world of not-here connections. People who’ve lived abroad for longer than me, say that this type of duality is normal, especially in the first few months. 

A red theme and its variations

Myth No. 3: I can get away with a basic command of the language. Yes, you can. Get away with a hundred words of Spanish and ten of Basque. Hopefully, you’ll have enough vocabulary to buy bread and talk about the weather. You may even meet some English-speaking locals or British expats (don’t you know that the modern rendition of Rule Britannia is that Britons never never never shall be immigrants?) and form an Anglophone friendship group. 

Even with the best intentions you could slip into this culturally evasive state,  because learning a new language takes time, investment and energy. I’ve found that just three hours of  what is meant to be a fun night out in Spanish, can tax my brain as much as six hours of a dry academic conference in English. Misunderstandings are rife, I don’t understand half the jokes and if I lose focus for even two seconds, I’ve about as much chance of catching up with the conversation as I do with a mustang at a gallop. While I’ve improved through day-to-day interactions and the patience and generosity of friends, I’m coming to accept that if I’m not to sound like a foreigner forever, I need to boost my formal grounding in Spanish and this means one thing – committing to language lessons! 

Do they make her disfraz (costume) in my size?

Myth No. 4: I have to say yes to every invitation. If you’re a freelancer/digital nomad like me and you arrive in a city without knowing many people, you’ll be on the look out for language exchanges and hobby-based Meet Ups.  Overall this is a good move, because whatever the pretext, you can guarantee that these are places where people want to meet each other. In my convalescence, swimming, yoga and Pintxo-pote were all out, but if I wanted to, I could still go to a language exchange for every day of the week. There are the general Spanish-English exchanges; a French group and of course, my small but select bilingual ‘book-club’.  

And yet, because language exchanges can be as chaotic and exhausting as they are social, I’ve learned to apply the advice I once read in a guidebook for Istanbul : you have to be in a good mood for the Grand Bazaar; be prepared to haggle, laugh and in general, make conversation. Just as you have to be pretty relaxed to tell a Turkish spice-seller that you don’t want to buy a bag of cumin with your saffron for the nineteenth time, you have to be feeling sprightly and patient enough to be able to answer the same questions about yourself, every time you meet a new person at a language exchange. Rather than commit to things routinely out of some false sense of obligation, I’d rather do less and give more.

I really couldn’t tell if Belle’s prince came as a transformed Beast, or was just taking a break from his mask to eat…

 Myth No. 5: Setbacks are a sign that I should give up and go home.  Before I made the decision to come to Donosti, I went through a superstitious phase when I kept asking whatever Great Being is out there to give me a sign. Of course, truly desiring to go and only needing that final confirmation, I spotted every shell, horse and star that I asked for.  And now that I’m here, I’ve had some wonderful new adventures and I’ve met people I would have never found back home. However, I’ve also had set-backs and disappointments: those I became close to moving away, sponge mattresses, accidentally offending people, misjudging character, oh and that old chestnut, falling off a horse and breaking my ankle. Do these obstacles mean that I should give up and go home or set my sights on some new promised land? For me, the answer is no – because I’ve learned that fluctuations are part of life, wherever you are. Even without having to ask for a concrete sign, I instinctively know there’s more for me here, that the time to go would be when I stopped seeing the opportunities.

Bottom line, after 5 months in Donosti, I’ve learned that you should only move to a new place if you’re excited about the possibility of making a full life there; a life that will have its share of challenges as well as pleasures.

 This is now one of a series of many posts about moving from London to San Sebastián. If you’ve moved recently or are thinking of moving, I’d love to know which parts resonated with you? Also, did I miss anything out? 



TORO: Where the human meets the animal

Beauty/Girl/Prostitute. Screenshot, adapted from a photo by Emma Kauldhan

‘It’s in depictions of the monstrous that artists have the most freedom,’ says choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra, after a performance of his work  TORO: Beauty and the Bull  at Sadler’s Wells on April 25th. TORO inhabits a vulnerable zone where the human meets the animal; the staged meets the authentic. Danced by Marivi Da Silva, the Bull is a male animal in a feminised body.  Hair drawn back in a reed-slim ponytail, breasts restricted by a harness, Da Silva’s bondaged torso is counterbalanced by an explosive net skirt, which gives her the surging motion of masculinity.

The Bull and spiky, translucent Emma Louise Walker, who is cast as a configuration of Beauty/ Girl/ Prostitute, are preyed upon by alpha males who seek to  conquer and depreciate them. The men – crotch-potent stereotypes – are both lusty and automatic. They gyrate, violate and suppress; they get carried away; crow like the cocks they are. The animal realm is never far away, even for these would-be standard-setters; in the second act, the same dancers are cast as voguing dragimals, harnessed at the face and mouth, their arms wind-frittered wings.

The dance piece’s narrative is inspired by the 18th century French fairytale Beauty and the Beast.   However, it’s the fairytale as Pons Guerra has read and dreamt it.  Growing into a gay man in Spain, the thirty-year-old choreographer was often made to feel  monstrous for his preferences. In his interpretation of the classic fairytale, he identifies both with the Bull and the prostituted Beauty, who is subdued by a sexualisation that’s forced upon her.

Pons Guerra wouldn’t be the first gay male thespian to explore his own experience through the feminine – Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, claimed that his heroine Blanche DuBois was him in drag. And yet, when a woman in the audience, who couldn’t help but see Walker’s Beauty as a representative of her own sex, asked about what she truly wants, Pons Guerra admitted himself clueless as Freud. ‘I don’t know much about female sexuality,’ he said with a laugh.

While Beauty’s body has been scripted according to Pons Guerra’s narrative, or at a distance, the original fabulist, Madame de Villeneuve’s; in its passive, feeling state, it is  open to as many interpretations as there are viewers.   At the beginning of the performance, Beauty is supine, legs apart,  in a pose my yoga teacher would call dragonfly. Superficially it’s a receptive stance, open to the gaze of the audience who are still arriving; however, her eyes are closed. She’s asleep; in denial, even as the men pulse about various parts of the body.

It’s easy to read Beauty’s initial sleep, her writhing around, awakening with an ambiguously gendered Bull as non-heteronormative sexual awakening. She’s repulsed by the marital straightjacket that awaits her in the Second Act. The bridal gown is wispy chiffon, but as it alights on her shoulders, it may as well be deadly nightshade.

There’s more to Pons Guerra’s interpretation than explorations of sexuality. As a child Pons Guerra was sent to bed on a diet of bedtime stories where the beasts had non-white features; perhaps those from the Spanish colonies in South America. To Pons Guerra’s richly storied mind, the alpha males are conquistadores and map makers, uncomfortable with ambiguity. A strident brass score highlights their sense of entitlement, gilds their violent struggles. Like a colonised subject, the Bull is an entity they can never fully understand, define or control.

Still, any sense of a linear narrative or morality in Pons Guerra’s work splinters into an erotic carnival of animal movement.  It asks us as viewers to define the beautiful and the monstrous for ourselves and then, on a deeper level, to ask whether we have the right or the capacity to distinguish between the two.


If my brother hadn’t gone on that Tinder date; if I hadn’t been irritatingly hyperactive on the plane seat next to him, then I wouldn’t be here, almost two months later, hiking up a Spanish motorway. I’m in Gijón (written Xixón in Asturiano and pronounced Hee-hon), an industrial beach-town in Northern Spain that’s on the route to Santiago de la Compostela. Maps of the city have the scallop shell motif of Santiago (St James) informing pilgrims just which streets, petrol stations, cafes and kiosks they have to pass on their way. There’ll be more churches as they get closer, to remind them that their mission is holy.

Pilgrim’s choice: foot, horseback or water

Surfers, skulking around the bay of San Lorenzo are also on a pilgrimage. But their divinity, the sea is imminent and capricious. A day of blue sky and towering waves is auspicious. The tide is high in the morning; but by afternoon, when there’s barely a sliver of beach, the waves have come to meet the surfers. It’s more than some of them bargained for; only the bravest will descend the concrete steps, climb a wave.

I’m here on pilgrimage too, to see a singer called Rosalía. Two months ago, two days before Christmas, following a December that took more than it gave, I was sitting next to my brother on the plane. The five-hour fight to Paphos seemed overly long and I was restless. My brother lent me his headphones in an attempt to ‘sedate’ me. Playing was the music ‘TinderDate’ had introduced him to –Rosalía.

Descriptively it would be called urban flamenco – Rosalía, a young woman from Barcelona takes this indigenous Andalusian art form and makes it her own. Just a voice and a faithful guitar. But as an experience, it’s the kind of sound that makes you realise what other musics are missing.

Afternoon tide, San Lorenzo beach plus surfers’ footprints, Gijón

I daydreamed I would spend a few weeks in Spain, work remotely from there, on the last day of a holiday in November. In December when I had to leave the place I was living, a vague timescale was hatched – I’d go sometime around February. Now I’d add a Rosalía concert to the journey. I originally wanted to see her in her home-town, Barcelona, but only listening seats were available. However, in an obscure (to me) town called Gijón, you could have the full experience. I booked my tickets and diverted my journey.

I decide to walk to the concert hall, somewhere called Teatro de la Laboral, fifty minutes away from where I’m staying, which doesn’t sound too bad. Past residential areas, a few roundabouts, an avenue named after the German physicist Albert Einstein. Did he ever come here?, I wonder. Or can town planners name a street after anyone. Still walking, I follow the instructions on the route I copied down beforehand. A new moon sprouts to keep me company as the sun sets, turning the sky purple. As I pass a stream, a horse-riding track, a technological park and a botanical garden with a camellia festival, I don’t feel like I’m going to a concert at all. But I’m to keep going straight as as a deserted clock tower and amphitheatre come into view.

By Calle de las Clarisas, it gets dark. The road with its diminishing pavement leads to the clock tower. To my mind, Las Clarisas sounds like a remote nunnery. There are even fewer cars on this stretch of road; I wonder once more if I have the wrong route. My hands get cold and perhaps my feet too; I doubt that I have the right way. But the map, even the one on my phone, says to continue. I’m to keep walking, keep the faith, past the little cottage with the ceramic groves, up, up, up, until I reach the clock tower. Even cars are few here – but I’m to keep going, past the little house with the ceramic roof and the orange groves, until I reach the clock tower – one and the same as the concert.

granny's cottagee
Meanwhile, en-route

Travelling to places I don’t know is the biggest test of faith. At times the way is so intricate and unlikely. At the end of granny’s cottage is your dream concert; Fireworks and a Hallowe’en parade are two stomach-swirling bus rides away; that strange man named Joey will drive the two of you to your destination – you’ll arrive interrogated but unmolested.

‘Laboral’ in Spanish means ‘labour’ – so hearing on that the concert would be at a Teatro de Laboral, I pictured a brick-red venue, bustling and beer-powered. The place, surrounded by columns, topiary gardens and terraces with a view of the mountains and moon, is nothing of the kind. We’re each assigned a seat and we’re to stay there unless to give an ovation. But as soon as the show begins, I see why we’ve been placed in this stilling fashion. Because we’re in the dark and all we see of Rosalía are her open palms and the shadow of Raül Refree, her quiet guitar player. Isn’t it odd to describe a musician, a person employed to make noise that people listen, as quiet? Maybe, but it seems that the while the guitar plays, the man is mute, not especially caring to promote himself. As for her, there’s enough variation in her voice, even the movements of her fingers for the little girl in front of me to start swaying wildly, as though it’s a Stones concert she’s at.

Arrived and inserting a hair-clip

Rosalía’s voice has been described as magical. While flesh or paint or plaster sticks to the other arts, a voice is itself; made up of sounds you might or might not find in nature. The voice could be a divine gift and the singer carries it. It’s fascinating to watch Rosalía carry her songs – seated bolt upright, her legs in a wide squat, her palm an opening flower; slouching towards the guitarist as she hides behind dark hair; standing directly before the audience in the light. Throughout, you have the impression that the hands deliver the sentiment as much as the voice. My yoga teacher back in London describes the palms as the pathways to the heart; apparently, there’s a direct energy line between the two. Though it’s cold in the theatre and I’m inclined to shiver, fold my arms; I place my hands in my lap and unfurl my fingers, receptive to whatever spell is being cast.

Luckily, the route home is different, a bus-ride shared with fellow pilgrims and a walk back by the beach.

View from the clocktower includes a pea-sized new moon

Clothes for the life you have

Most of the time, it’s less a case of what’s fashionable and more of what’s compatible with the life you have. Function, temperature and mood swings all have to be accommodated. Once there was the old fashioned notion of occasion in a wardrobe: daywear; workwear; sportswear; evening wear; nightwear, even travelling clothes, but now many of us are living in ways that make those categories obsolete. This is especially the case if you work from home, like me. In a recent wardrobe overhaul I’ve been thinking of my clothes in terms of the following:


With no health and safety rules regulating temperature and humidity outside an office, chances are that as we move into winter, you’ll be in a daily battle with the cold as you sit at your keyboard. So there’ll be that knitted tank top you stole from your mum when you broke your arm; over that a fading black baseball top that’s kept exclusively for layering and to finish, the thick waffle knit that smells like weeing sheep every time you wash it.  Your inspiration – Russian doll – an ever bulked up layered version of you.

In summer, there’s of course the reverse of filler –  let’s not call it stripper –  wearing the breeziest, nothingest things you can get away with.

nesting doll. jog
Winter nesting


Of course, even if you intend to spend the day working from home, there will be a time when you will be seen by other people: the postman, the motley freelancers, parental leavers and staff of your second office – the local cafe. And then you may want to make the smallest effort. Jewels pinned to your grubby outer later-  Russian dolls are after all, decorated; sunglasses, perfume or a watch; you might even wear heels – what’s stopping you when you barely have to walk ten feet to get there?

These butterfly embellishments to your caterpillar body are less aesthetic than talismanic. Like Dorothy of Oz, your red shoes may startle the bejeezus out of your Kansas-plain frock, but in a stroke of magical thinking,  they give you powers; are the difference between you getting work done and not.

Is this too much for a Monday morning in Brexit Britain?


You may or may not need clothing for a peculiar hobby. Mine is winter pond swimming in water fourteen degrees and dropping. Summer’s red bandeau bikini is floozy as a fallen leaf,  but a black one-piece cut like an evening gown looks elegant enough with goose-pimples and raw red thighs. And then there’s the arctic level of filler you need before and after the plunge: knitted vests, fleece-lined jogging bottoms, jumpers and wellies. You can see them waiting for you on the bench; a Russian doll family of spectators when you’re in the water, pared down to your tiniest.


Money, phones, kit, food all need to be carried from A to B; B to A. The smallest shapeliest bags get an outing only to the most local socials or to a Tesco-dash when they complain about being neglected. Any commute requires a book; any book, a bag that can swallow it. Cue rucksacks.

Sometimes, shoes that won’t carry you all the way without either dismembering you or themselves, also need to be carried. There’s no easy way to do this, but drawstring or canvas bags can work. Posh cardboard store bags than can be recycled are also great, when you need a carrier from A to B, but not B to A.

Or you could get a rocket…


There comes a time in every freelancer’s week when they have to go further than walking distance, pack their carrier carefully and commute into town- that imposing lit-up place. This is where they encounter the slick,  impeccable species of office worker, a prospect so daunting and exciting that the freelancer has a whole category of clothes for going to town – you know, things that might actually have to be ironed…

Them townies are so cliquey


Ironically, the ratio of town to working from home days, bears no relation to the ratio of smart to casual clothes in their wardrobe. Tornadoing through the laundry cycle, filler fast disintegrates; but cocktail dresses, bought for single occasions that stick out like sequins, endure. If they’re not worn or given away, like the vengeful wife locked away in Mr Rochester’s attic, they will  burn your house down  –  less metaphorically, attract moths that will eat their way through your entire wardrobe. This means that in a reversal of logic, new occasions are invented to match the dresses.

Eavesdroppings of a 5/8 hippy

I go to the games, but haven’t bought the season ticket – that’s how I’d describe my new age hippy status. Almost four years ago now, a friend recommended I go to a yoga class and since then there has been no looking back. Conversations with strangers about being more open in one hip than another, cold water swimming in pond full of carp and healing via a pendulum have all happened.

‘So, which is your more open side?’  ‘I don’t know, I guess that depends which way your pendulum swings…’

In many ways it’s a natural fit – I love jasmine green tea, stretching and opening my mind to the simplicity and exploration that spirituality brings.  But amidst the teachings and awakenings and transformations, the new age is a heterotopia of purification, where participants are initiated through performing  ritualised acts. Yoga, meditation, dietary awareness and mantras are all rituals that grant people access to the privileged community of increased consciousness. Unlike a utopia, which hovers in an idealised, non-space; heterotopias exist in real space. Wholefoods, the yoga studio and my beloved bathing pond are all heterotopias, where customers engage in aspects of utopian living.

I’ve always been sceptical of utopias – and heterotopias of purification too – for that matter. They  can be overly controlling, devoid of fun and never far, lurks the shadow of their opposite, the dystopia, where rule-making becomes totalitarian. The way that some devotees swallow spiritual teachings or lifestyle prescriptions without questioning them, testing them to see if they stretch with the contours of their learned experience, makes me deeply uncomfortable. The privileging of another’s wisdom over one’s own; rules and restrictions over openness to the chaos of life, can have cultish consequences.

Being conscious? I think it’s all about keeping your eyes open. Very open.

But, it can also produce incredibly comic scenarios: where ritualism, prejudice against the unenlightened and just plain diva-ism reach hysterical levels. I find myself searching for a word that describes a utopia that’s become an anxious caricature of itself; perhaps more satirical than Orwellian?  Consider the following…

Top 5 Craics* in Utopia 

 1. The Dietary Despot    

Location: A sugar-free bakery

I have to say, this is not a risqué place: people who don’t think they will die today, i.e. the overly cautious, go here, with one notable exception…  The long-necked, dancery guy who is so ecstatic to be in a haven of virtuous treats that he’s coating his companion’s arms and neck in a flutter of kisses. Then he stares intently at the waitress from across the counter and says, ‘Look, I’ve been sugar free for five years. If I find there’s any added sugar, I’ll come back and burn the place down!’    My Greek-dar suddenly goes off. I blink, not being able to square how you’d get my aunt’s temperament in this gazelle’s physique. 

2. The Citizen of the Universe  

 Location: Nowhere near a polling station

I hear of an occasion where one lovely, enlightened person decided not to vote in the June election because she believes that life on earth is controlled by extra terrestrial activity; therefore, politicians have no power. While the past year’s politics don’t leave me unconvinced that aliens have been interfering, you simply gotta vote for the people making the laws which affect you everyday. Even if someone else is ruling them…

3. The Utopian Enterprise: Stage I    

Location: Soon to be your local high-street 

You heard it here first, but there are plans to open a vegan dog cafe, with rescue dogs trailing around its delicate punters (and Simon Cowell somehow being involved). A few questions here: What would the dogs, hungry and not biologically vegan, eat?  In the absence of corned beef, might they tuck into the vegans, or is Simon Cowell offering himself as bait?

4. The Utopian Enterprise: Stage II  

Location: Hunched over a Mac on a rainy day

Joan Baez look-alike is giving dictation to a typist, while she mooches listlessly on a sofa. I mean dictation, like you see bosses giving their secretaries in 1940s film noir. This is a phenomenon I’ve never seen in real space and I’m fascinated. ‘Those of you who know me, know I like a real transformation… you will ascend the mountain of your consciousness…. the largest Shiva temple complex in the world’ she drawls out flatly, plugging her retreat, as her assistant faithfully types. Power lingo. Hierarchies. This is when yoga enters the marketplace and you have to persuade persuade persuade to get those followers to your gig; tell them this is practice, but not as you know it.

5. The Damned    

Location: Thursday, just before rush hour.

A yoga teacher not exactly keen to commute across town to teach a group of city women: ‘It’s not yin yoga they need, it’s Jesus!’ Some (corporate) folks are so beyond guidance, they need an actual Saviour.

….the largest S-h-i-v-a temple complex in the world…

I haven’t written this piece to expose new age spirituality or mindful living as fraud – they aren’t – but because I’m genuinely intrigued at how the new age and human nature coexist.  The new age’s purifying heterotopia has features of other institutions: egos (some ginormous, some just right);  prejudice against those who don’t abide by its rules and a desperate search for something beyond the mundane. I think these craics, clumsy lapses from grace, show the humanity of new age seeking; the value of questioning and even doubt within a spiritual practice. Maybe it’s okay to chose which games you go to, not buy the season ticket wholesale.

*Craic, which I’ve bastardised in a plural form, punning on the English ‘crack’, is an untranslatable Irish word for fun/ gossip/ debauchery


Swearing, not caring,  an old lady staring. Shhhhh! or we’re going to get thrown out.  This is the one place I can work, I can’t afford to be blacklisted.  Collapsing into giggles; profanities and talk of gardens, grandchildren to run alongside one another, just as freelancers and retirees do this Tuesday morning in a North London cafe.


This is mischief, the lighthearted naughtiness that makes daily life bearable. Mischief is free as long as you’re open to it; though it has led a certain Charlie Chaplin, a certain Ann Summers to serious wealth. Mischief consists of acts that disrupt the hierarchy. They can be minuscule  – the Prime Minister running through a field of wheat or bold – Pussy Riot or the Pussy Grabs Back posters from the Women’s March.

A sort of illustration: The yellow stands in for wheat; the bull for The King’s Horse.

Mischief is often seen as a front for not being able to protest verbally. When British women were campaigning for the vote at the beginning of the previous century, they fell into two camps: by-the-book suffragists lobbied; militant suffragettes attacked paintings, police-men and the King’s Horse. The  former were praised for their methodical tenacity; the latter criticised for proving that women were irrational and therefore unfit to engage with politics. But there is no denying that mischief has energy, emotion. It laughs at the perpetrators of injustice, divesting them of their sovereignty; it unites campaigners  in body and spirit, gives momentum to their cause.

For your crusades, your jaunts through fields of wheat… dress foreground by Zoe Armeniades

Overturning hierarchy, poking fun at the old customs, is integral to creativity. The Central Saint Martins BA Jewellery Design show this year was a hotbed of mischief. At the hands of these young students, jewellery lost its fussiness and became a playful adornment for the body, taking you back to the childhood impulse of making rings out of hula hoops (and eating them).  ‘Jewels’ to be felt-tipped over your knuckles; great rusted chains to span the length of your body, heavy for the bottom of the ocean or of hologram lightness to move with you, sparkle as you dance, fidget. Jewels to free or rather multiply the nipple*; thigh bracelets made from housewives’ staples, marigolds and j cloths. The talk was mischievous too: ‘it would be cool to have a ring you could drink out of’; ‘It’s 50-50. If either one of them asked me to marry him, I’d say yes.’ 

Clockwise: Yos Sodagar, Marisa Nicole Morena, Zoe Armeniades, Colombe d’Humieres

Mischief lurks everywhere, even in the most tragic situations. Hypothetically speaking, at your grandmother’s funeral, you may look up from your grief and find the liturgy is horribly out of tune; the cats in the cemetery  piss and scratch themselves; the gravedigger’s crack smiles over his jeans; the morticians make her look like Endora from Bewitched.  And watching over it all, the Great Lady herself, half enjoying the fuss we’re making of her, half standing back to let life continue.

hell zoo
Child’s drawing, found in a tolerant but pious household


*By Marisa Nicole Morena. No website currently available

Paris : Pairs

Everything in Paris is twinned, it seems. There are companions, long-sought matches and doubles from different points in time and space. I find an illustrated reworking of Beauty and the Beast  in a graphics shop, which tilts the original, so that Beauty is as sweetened by the Beast, as he is by her. Her charms are obvious, a face of Garbo-like symmetry and intellect; his, soft fur, a pleasing largeness and a great capacity for love. Reading in French, where both words are gendered feminine (la belle, la bête) you can’t help but think that they are cut from the same cloth, are equally vulnerable, receptive and hunted.

Translation: ‘It was the first time she touched his fur and  was troubled at finding it so soft…’ Is this really a children’s book? Illustration by Violaine Leroy

During my visit, I make other matches. An accordionist is on my heels in that first transition from the Eurostar to the Metro. A serenader, he arches around the wheels of my suitcase and plays – what else? – Edith Piaf. Flattered and embarrassed, I  put down my book and listen. The trouble is, I haven’t a single pièce, only a virgin fifty euro note, which I’m not quite ready to hand over. He shrugs disappointed, when I confess the inevitable. I crane my head in shame and vow that I will be prepared when I meet his match. Who incidentally, is on the Metro the very next day, crooning out her pain in the long notes of a Spanish ballad. Emo as the cloudy Monday, this balladeer slouches obstinately in the doorframe. She ain’t serenading anyone; in fact, gives the impression that she’d be singing regardless.  Her mannish leather jacket and greasy chignon – and are those tears streaked down her cheeks?- make you think her lover threw her out about an hour ago, and she swiped his leather jacket for the running. Half-wondering whether it’s truth or Method, I’m ready with my pièce this time.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
In Degas’ time, young ballet students were nicknamed ‘petits rats,’ denoting their underworld status. Nowadays, pickpockets and street children have a similar reputation for deftness and anonymity.

On the Metro another time, I spot an unmistakeable profile – that of Edgar Degas’ sculpture, the little Dancer, aged fourteen. As bronze as the original, with the same kinaesthetic awareness, she boards the train with her sister. They file off to the available  seats on either side of the carriage; dressed in plaid shirts and ripped jeans, they almost blend in. Other passengers and an aisle are in their midst, but they remain choreographed into the same routine.  Torsos tipped forward in a preparation pose, their feet identically turned out in first position. The woman sitting next to the sister gets up and leaves. In a flash the Little Dancer is beside her- though she doesn’t appear to have been looking. They don’t converse, at least not in words. A bloke enters the carriage, with a sturdiness and milky pallor that I’d pin-point to about Yorkshire. Equally white is his shiny I-phone. And even before he notices, before his eyes twinkle, as though to say ‘Noo luv, not ‘avin’ that…,’  her sister, about a hair of an eyebrow lifting, ‘Him?’ The Little Dancer wrinkles her dainty nose, ‘Nah, not my cup of tea,’ as though they’re just two teenage girls judging a stranger’s attractiveness. But a survival instinct grips them and when the next station arrives, they scarper.

Audiobook display at Gilbert Jeune. Have to love the pixie swimsuit

Just as sisters will always be compared, so will two cafes on opposite sides of the street.  One, named for the lore of tea leaves, is world famous,  enjoying Trip Advisor fame and local acclaim; the other named Les Rosiers for the street where it stands resolutely, less so. The Lore has an Astaire-hipped host who bounds up and down the queue  telling people how long they’ll have to wait, down to the minute; the Rosiers, a lone balding waiter with a towel thrown over his shoulder. Laptops are unwelcome at the Lore: to sit there, you’ll have to be truly part of the cafe, engaged in consumption, conversation or something equally atmospheric. You are made oh-so-tactfully aware that your body occupies a precious space, and that it plays a role in animating that space –  or else here’s the cheque. Weirdly, it reminds me of a socialist play I once read, where the moral was that those who farm the land are its rightful owners; though we are about as far away from an Eastern European potato field as it gets. Anyway, not so the Rosiers – which people hit upon for the most imminent need, or greed for that matter. A student hunched over her laptop, knuckles camouflaging with a white espresso cup; a pair of new lovers holding hands over the dredges of a dry coffee pot  and a rotund-bellied gentleman gobbling a ginormous triangle of pie before his wife catches up with him and smacks an insulin needle into his right arm. Atmosphere’s a funny thing – like love, or that exasperatingly Parisian cliché, je ne sais quoi, it finds those who don’t seek it too hard.

With its neutral, sculpted exterior and marvellous fish-shaped shadow, this pigeon in the Jardin l’hôtel des senses embodies je ne sais quoi

Even in a city of doubles, some entities remain unmatched. For example, the garments that never walk the streets. Paris boutiques are flocked with dresses more confected and shapely than patisserie tarts. And yet, you never see their like on actual bodies around town. No Parisienne would ever appear so obviously ornate. Who are these magpie-teasers made for? Are they there just to draw the eye and fly out to export?

How to turn into my mother

It’s an ancient cliché that with each passing year, we grow more and more like our mothers. A carefree individual is swallowed into a resemblance of the woman who raised her.  But what truth does this myth hold today,  when women often have radically different experiences from their mothers and self-awareness is at its peak?

Women go through all manner of intricate measures to avoid becoming their mothers: there’s the therapist specialising in pattern recognition; the exercise regime keeping hereditary bulk at bay and let’s not forget the constant self-reprimand to listen, where she would have butted in, or speak up, when she would have stayed silent. We have a lot to lose if we surrender – our youth and identity for one. And yet we love our mothers, hold much of what they did as a gold standard and are anxious when we fall short.

blossomfeet w
In whose shoes?

I was touched to learn that a woman who had a hostile relationship with her tough-loving, erratic mother and dreaded becoming her, found peace in recognising that she inherited her fierceness. Fierceness, an uncommercial trait that the endless tea-parties and pink blooms surrounding mother’s day don’t account for – though anyone who has given birth, watched a wildlife documentary or dealt with a suburban woman trying to get her child through the 11+, knows it’s integral to maternity.

Growing up, I saw my mother as her own person. She worked full-time, while other mothers stayed at home, so I felt part of her life, rather than the centre. Sensitive and loving, she is unapologetically herself. I see myself becoming more like her in at least four ways, though I haven’t yet made the final leap…

1. Suffering fools badly

With the exception of mildly bigoted elders from another era, who must be half-listened to and gently corrected, my mother doesn’t give fools the time of day, let alone allow them to influence her decisions. Controversially, whenever I was upset because someone scolded me for my opinion or cheek, mum would say they weren’t as clever as me. It didn’t matter whether this was my nanny, an older relative, or a Cambridge-educated mathematician. For a young girl, this was as radical as Marx’s comment on religion – it made me think that intelligence had the potential to dethrone authorities.  Taken literally, her stance could make me arrogant or intolerant of different perspectives. It’s vital to listen, but also to have boundaries and know how to protest the most dangerous kinds of foolishness.


2. Asking for obscenely wishful things

My mother has never shied away from asking for what she wants and is relentless until she has pursued every option for getting it. I have to admit, this quality embarrassed me when I was younger – I was the sort of person who would rather go hungry than face the awkwardness of asking for a vegetarian option. But now, whenever I have a craving, however fanciful, I will go to lengths to satisfy it.  There is a bench seat in a cafe with a view of a goldfish pond. After work on Tuesday, I knew that I had to go there and write. So, I walk for an hour, uphill, in high heels and when I reach my destination, find  two others have taken the space.  I sit at a neighbouring table and can’t help noticing they are so deep into their digital spheres, the view may as well not be there. Which pisses me off. The guy is wearing headphones, so I figure the girl is a safer bet. Before I can stop myself, I’m asking if we can swap seats, because I came here to draw that view (a teeny white lie). She  refuses, saying she too likes the view and is communing with the fish telepathically as she’s magnetised to her feed. Shrugging, I slink back to my seat. A minute later, the guy in headphones come over and asks, ‘sorry, did you want to sit by the view?’ Et volià.

I capture the goldfish pond

3. Nurturing a collection of tiny containers

Like every old-fashioned housewife, my mother adheres to the proverb: ‘waste not, want not.’ Like a figure-conscious yummy mummy, she also doesn’t let a morsel of food she’s not hungry for, pass her lips. Hence the tiny containers. She drinks red-wine from a finger bowl she stole from the Eurostar; stores four remaining spaghetti strands in an egg cup and a dwindling stock of Christmas truffles are transferred to ever smaller dishes. She also collects shells and glass bottles with bases so minute, they have to lie on their bellies.

About a fifth of my tiny container collection


4. Never missing an opportunity to practice my latest skill

When mum begins a new hobby, it inflects everything she does. Now that she’s learning French, and determined to maintain her standing as étoile de la classe, she not only texts in French, but pronounces all ethnically ambiguous words and trade names in a French accent. E.g.: I-bu-pro-fén (Ibuprofen) and Có-có (Combined Codeine). She only half jokes that should she wind up on the wrong side of Article 50, she will move to France.*

Joined Instagram this week and have been finding every excuse to practice using my new app. This abandoned sticker, for one…

5. Miraculously never gathering fluff 

My mother is always immaculate. I have never seen her coats or woollen jumpers pill or attract stray bits of fluff. I think she’s a witch…

labelled cat*This is unlikely, as my mother has the immunity of formerly colonised peoples and decades of residency in this country. Only the likes of Theresa May are safer from deportation. But it’s her dream that counts.

Slinging it

Right at its snaky tail-end, 2016 tripped me up. I skidded on a patch of ice, fell heavily, broke the bone linking my arm and shoulder. New Years Eve’s cocktail was codeine and ibu-profen, the party dress a sling. I don’t know how Venus di Milo does it -asymmetry works better for statues, anyway. I’ve had to give up the ‘go’ for  while, sign off work, move back with my mum because I can’t dress, turn a lock or wash my hair by myself.

Chateau Marmont detailing, or so I like to think…


Ironically, before I fell upon that bad patch, I was in an auspicious place, grateful for the past year, a mixed bag of new beginnings, discovery and trying things out for fit. The prospect of 2017 left me feeling like I had so much to do- cultivate last year’s fertilest projects, give more and most of all, be part of a world that grows up to face its responsibilities and dreams. Then, I inadvertently slip back to childhood, dependency. Sulking becomes tiresome. I wonder, is my current state, by this indoor orange tree so different from where I need to be?

Commuting?  Better call Becky with the good hair…

So I have to move with my healing body’s rhythm and not the abracadabra speed of wishful thinking. As long as it takes. My former routines defined by external obligations and delights make no sense. Daytime naps and waking up at four in the morning to listen to music and read novels, do. I’m also cultivating some more realistic role models: 1) John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who conducted interviews from bed; 2) Tinkerbell the cat – unapologetically lazy. The Romans began the new year in March, anyway…