Bootcamp with a balcony

How many EU stars does it take to make a bed? Answer: between five and six, depending on your view of Brexit.  A Dutch lent her sleeping bag, an Irish his yoga mat, a Romanian  a pillow and duvet and a Mexican Hungarian and British Cypriot carried and assembled the parts. What could be the occasion? The visit of Cristina, a friend who shares her name with Donosti’s most monumented royal, a Queen with a park, hotel, bridge and a couple of stores to her name. Unfortunately,  Cristina didn’t get to sleep in her namesake hotel, Maria Cristina, but had to make do with the bootcamp conditions in my shared house –  hell, at least there’s a balcony.

When in Donosti, build like the Donostiarras do

Cristina was the easiest guest. She was gearing herself up for her Alpha Spanish holiday the following weekend, at the Feria de Sevilla, so Donosti was a strictly Beta destination. She didn’t drag me up a mountain, to a museum or even insist on staying out all night, trying forty different pintxo bars. No, she was more than happy to take pictures, buy organic lipstick and follow her gut towards her Spanish holiday staple – churros and the Acai bowl and bulletproof coffee, that she takes for her health. I smile at these metropolitan traveller quirks, the expectation that the city should meet you half way, rather than adopting a when in Rome attitude. And generally,  holiday destinations do meet metropoles half way. Waiters baffled as to why someone would order a dish of butter without anything to spread it on,  will no doubt hear the order repeated as guiri (Northern European foreigner) season approaches and by next year, are likely to have bulletproof coffee as a standard on their menu.

Cristina’s attitude reminded me of how I was when I first moved here; how I sought to replicate my habits of yoga, tea and reading in cafes, regardless of what everyone around me was doing. Some things I’ve given up, though, like the expectation that I’ll be able to get my five, or even one a day, from a pintxo bar; that people will be understand my badly-translated reflections;  that I’ll be able to attend a social event after 8 pm without drinking. All this, to be able to participate better, to fit in.  

When in Donosti, day drink like the Donostiarras do

Did I mention that When in Donosti drinks more? That she knows local bartenders and includes them in the treasure hunt she makes for her royally-named guest? That she swears? A lot. After seven months in a country where a teacher can get away with calling a twelve-year-old a gilipollas (douche bag) and puta (whore) and coño (cunt) are common currency, I’m no longer holding back. Unfortunately, for me, the c-word comes out in English, where it’s especially taboo.  There’s cunt noun, when you’ve stubbed your toe, cunting participle for something you don’t want to do and cunty, an adjective that usually accompanies a noun. Like many well-educated girls, who were told to wash out their mouths with soap after the mildest blooper, I feel exhilarated when I swear. Parts of my psyche that were once blocked off are accessible again; it’s like I’m nearer to my emotions, especially the messy ones. 

Another influence on my swearing, are the male friends I’ve made here, none of whom are shy of blue phrases, some of them, in more than one language.  Of all the myths about the differences between men and women,  I’ve found this one to be the truest: men have an innate sense of entitlement. They take up space, demand respect, expect money,  status, satisfaction and infinite second chances. Feeling that because they are born on the planet, they deserve to take from it, they make use of every word at their disposal, both inside and out of the dictionary.  Curses accompany their statements, but rarely attach themselves to their personalities; if anything, swearing makes them seem more authentic. 

As women, on the other hand, we can feel more liminal and take up less space on the planet we were born to. We ask whether we deserve the things we want, we second-guess ourselves before we speak, we think and we think again. When it comes to vocabulary, we limit ourselves from certain words and phrases, because they are offensive and will cast us in a bad light. It’s like our words can make our reputation; that we won’t be able to recover as fast after saying certain things. As much as I enjoy swearing in the moment, I’d like the reassurance that I can snap back again, have the containment of proper language, the elegance of restraint. 

When in Donosti, dance to the tune of the local graffiti – Maite zaitudalako souzen dut

Cristina’s visit prompts me to think about taking up space in a way that’s different from an automatic sense of entitlement.  She’s a person who gives off the impression that she deserves to be here, not because she is, but because she cares.  In her way of inhabiting, you make an effort, aware that you might not yet pass. You look after the people and land you call your own, you learn the local language and the different kinds of sevillana so that you can better dance in the Feria. And then you  jump and say because you care, you will dare to take up space, to make demands, just as you are in this moment .

This is one in a series of posts about my first seven months in San Sebastián/Donostia. For more on moving from London to San Sebastián, see A Change of Scale check out this earlier post on a similar theme, Archetype: The Lady and the Tramp. 


The Mermaid Prescription


mermaid tail sea.jpg

Get into the sea, breathe in the salty humidity, stick your head under, blow bubbles. Bring up the gloop and spit. No matter that it’s April in Northern Spain.  This is Doctora  Aczuarte’s prescription for a cough, sore throat and wavery voice.

Doctora Aczuarte’s, is my second water cure in this town: on removing my cast, I was told to undertake baños de contraste and swirl my healing ankle for five minutes in hot water, before plunging it in cold. The idea was that the water’s resistance, would reintroduce mobility to my cast-stiffened ankle. It was a notion foreign to the Anglophone internet, but appropriate for this Belle Époque seaside town, which has traded in the medicinal properties of water, since the nineteenth century, when aristocrats and royals headed here for their health, wearing bathing suits so hefty, it’s a surprise they didn’t  drown. You can see a remnant of this aquatic health culture today, at La Perla thalassotherapy centre, where bathers immerse themselves in salt water pools, wearing turquoise cloth swimming caps and severe expressions. Sometimes seaweed or sponge enters the water, but no-one acts like it’s anything extraordinary. The contrast of voluptuous water and convent-like sobriety gives proceedings a ritualistic, medicinal air. A place for jumping around in a jacuzzi, La Perla ain’t.


In literature, water is often used to tame and discipline women of unruly body and mind. Take for example,  The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, where three sisters are forced to perform torturous underwater activities in a pool, in order to be able to withstand an invasion of their island, while Lila in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of A New Name,  is prescribed swimming by her gynaecologist, who says that she needs to get stronger in order to conceive. I’m to resume my old hobby, winter swimming to get rid of my cough, a surreal, embarrassing reflex that makes me forget the previous moment, that important thing that I, or someone else was saying. Estoy tosiendo (I’m coughing), I have to tell pharmacists, doctors and everyone I meet – all the while blushing, trying not to think about what English word toser sounds like. I mean, coughing is Anglo Saxon and guttural, almost onomatopoeic, but tosiendo, is more sibilant, like you’re renegotiating your liquids.   


So, Playa Ondaretta, the small beach off the famous La Concha,  is my destination for health. I approach the water, first from the rocks, where I can see the shape and size of the waves objectively, then the rippled sand, finally the place where the tide meets my toes. The afternoon of my first swim is bright and beamy, with the odd drip of rain that pings off my shoulder blade. Unlike La Concha, which has extensive shallows, Ondaretta will gulp you whole. As the water-level reaches my belly button, I retrieve my hair, which is thick as a muscle and liable to soaking up the entire Cantabrian. On a count of three, I’m in. Everything moves quickly in water this cold. Breaststroke towards Santa Clara island and on my back, to the castlely-looking Palacio Miramar. Flip over again, stick my face in the water and blow bubbles. There’s coughing resistance, a feeling that I can’t breathe and then, at last, air.

eveningfrill .jpg

This is just one of a series of posts about moving to San Sebastián from London. Head to my blog home page to check out my other posts and I’d love it if you would like, comment or share. 


A change of scale

San Sebastián is technically a city – it has a cathedral, its own local government and a self-sustaining economy. But in terms of scale, it is more like a small town, having neither the large distances, nor the anonymity of London, my previous city.

Detail of a door, artist Naiara Palacios

Human beings and even dogs, who accompany their owners day and night, are distinct figures here. As you walk about the city, you’ll see a person once, notice them the second time and by the third, their face and habits, will become clear in your mind. As a result, the streets are filled with characters, rather than an animate blur. Things and people enter your consciousness in the singular – the jazz club of Donosti; the other Greek girl in Donosti; the Mick Jagger of Donosti. Logically, you know that there’s likely to be more than one other Greek girl in town, but when two different people have mentioned the same girl to you, she seems like the only one you could speak your mother tongue with. Similarly, there could be 19, 119, even 1119 guys in San Sebastián with a Jaggerish way of getting through women, but the place is small enough to give the one you know a reputation. The same epithet wouldn’t work in London, not least because the real Mick Jagger lives there.

Did I mention that you’re always meeting people you know here? It’s not like London, where your friends are far and you’re losing people as soon as you find them. When you’re new in town, the frequency of spontaneous meetings makes it easier to build on connections. Plans change as a result of these meetings: let’s do something now, or in an hour? But planning for next week? Forget it. Who knows what everyone will be in the mood for so far into the future?

Whether you like it or not

But there are downsides to Donosti’s human scale, like passing the local busybody or the guerrilla grammar corrector (she exists!) when you’re in a rush or just not feeling up to it.  For these occasions, it helps to master the travelling Kaixo (hello). I’ve been told that a skateboard helps with this, but if you don’t have one, you can adopt the posture of a skateboarder: snap your head around long enough to deliver the greeting, but keep your feet angled forward and most importantly, moving, to signal that you are not stopping to chat.

Donosti’s not a great place to make enemies. It’s not like in London, where once you cut ties with the arsehole, they get sucked into another orbit and there’s a good chance you won’t see them until three years later, when you’ve both forgotten. No – here you should expect to bump into that person at any time, including the worst time. Be prepared to meet that guy who you blocked, to look him in the face and tell him that you don’t want to receive his desperate messages anymore. And your ex? They’re not just a painful figment in your head, but a three-dimensional being, who passes through the same few streets as you, moves on right before your eyes. Still, as in all cities, people here go out of  their way to lower the probability of meeting their ex; they stop going to certain parts of town, sometimes depriving themselves of the only X/Y/Z in Donosti. One man knew that his ex’s movements were limited to the road between home and work. By avoiding that street, he managed to turn the city into a place that didn’t include her. When an ex’s routine is less predictable, though, you have to rely on the travelling Kaixo – see above. 

It helps if your ex’s movements are as routine as Lola Flores’

London may be a fashion capital, but there’s less pressure to look good when you’re not constantly running into people you know, or even people who recognise you as a distinct character. As you are seen, so are you judged – this is especially true in towns where people actually see each other. I wonder if this is why pharmacy shelves are loaded down with expensive hair products and everyone looks presentable most of the time, even on occasions where you wouldn’t think it was necessary.  I’ve always seen beaches as carefree, let-loose places – the wind will do what it likes with your hair, so why bother styling it anyway?  But walking on La Concha boulevard on a Sunday, is a singularly old-fashioned experience – congregations of black, Basque berets, fur coats and glaring shades of lipstick come your way. It’s the kind of scene I’d only previously witnessed in early twentieth-century fashion plates; an attitude that you make yourself beautiful for the Belle Époque surroundings and the people who have to look at you.

After 6 months in San Sebastián, my own sense of scale has changed. Being able to walk everywhere and seeing people I know in the streets, has become a habit. Tomorrow I’m moving to a house in Antiguo, a place I think of as the Monaco of Donosti, for its nearby mountain, wildish beach and grand, witchy buildings. The distance from the centre is about that between Big Ben and London Bridge; in other words, walkable for a relatively fit person. But my feeling is that I’m going very far.

Between me and civilisation

Mind the (Ferrante) gap

It was Ferrante’s rusted safety pin that did it – the one that could give you tetanus if it pierced your skin while you played with it. The death-dealing prick at the beginning of  My Brilliant Friend, is a Sleeping Beauty curse and the same one my grandmother feared. When Elena Greco, Ferrante’s narrator, says that she grew up in a time when children died, lost eyes and limbs – not to mention teeth – it’s a familiar story, even if it’s mine by inheritance, rather than by firsthand experience. Elena’s poor, tight-knit community in Postwar Naples, is one where you live in intimacy and suspicion of your neighbours – they might do you a favour, but they can also ruin you. We grew up with the  duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us, Ferrante writes. No-one in my extended Greek Cypriot family spoke these exact words,  but I heard enough iterations of this sentiment to know that it was true.

Setting the scene

My cousin, who I saw on a recent trip to London, testifies that Ferrante’s world of fearful convictions existed for our mothers and grandmothers. They’d witnessed not only the fragility of the human body in its poor, undernourished state, but colonial oppression and war. Even when life around them changed, they’d not quite felt the horrors pass, or maybe they saw them take on different forms. As we grew up, the rusted safety pin became a heroin needle, that we’d somehow be tricked into using.   (Our grandmother could never believe us capable of direct misdemeanour)  These days, my cousin laughs at their fears, though she wishes that they’d allowed her to discover life for herself, rather than telling her what to expect of the world.

My grandmother’s world, her ways, come back to me in flashes. Reading Ferrante, who was my work assignment and constant companion the two weeks I was in London, felt like haunting my ancestors’ minds. Though I grew up with the tall buildings and city grit, the hum of the tubes, I can’t help but feel that Ferrante’s Naples taps into a more essential part of my past.  Elena’s feelings about the island of Ischia, could be mine on the Cyprus of my grandmothers: The island faded, lost itself in some secret corner of my head.  As the years pass and I grow more distant from my now late grandmothers’ memory, I worry that I have lost their stories; but all it takes to refind them is the trigger of another, complementary narrative.

Blast from the past 

I’m far from the only person to stumble upon their own story in books. I recently read a New Yorker interview with young Irish writer, Sally Rooney, who says I feel extraordinarily connected to (Henry James‘) novels, like my whole life is there. And I still have so many of them left to read! Makes me feel very lucky. Rooney’s comment, in its allusion to novels, both read and unread, references the past and telescopes into the future. I wonder what she means by finding a whole life in the complex, psychologically acute American writer. Does she mean the actual incidents of her life, or rather, her mental and emotional experiences? Does she expect to find more and more of herself in the James novels she is yet to read? And would it matter what order she’d read them in – if The Portrait of a Lady, a young woman’s story, was left for her to discover at 52 and she’d managed to get to The Ambassadors, a more mature novel,  at 17?

For me, Ferrante seems to document a whole life  before I existed. The time before their birth is an important concept to Ferrante’s heroines Lila and Elena. The before is an invisible mystery and yet underpins the structures and expectations of their neighbourhood.  Lila and Elena’s own tale fills the gaps in my before,  helping me to understand and perhaps imagine, things about my family that were never articulated.  I am living out my cousin’s wish, discovering and creating impressions, instead of reading obediently.

This post takes a break from my regular San Sebastián-themed posts, but it reflects my experience of boarding tubes and trains and planes and buses in the past two weeks, always accompanied by ‘My Brilliant Friend.’  To experience the Elena Ferrante phenomenon for yourself, get your hands on the Neapolitan novels, or look out for the recent TV adaptation of the novel, by Italian director, Saverio Constanzo.



Passing with Spanish

Tomato, salt, olive oil a la Donostiarra

What do speaking a foreign language and cooking have in common? Technique, triumph, embarrassment and a ton of substitutions, when you can’t come up with the desired ingredient or word. I’m in the Basque country, a part of the world famed for its inventive cooking  – the challenge being to combine as many flavours and textures as possible in a single mouthful. But, I find that people are just as inventive in the way they speak. Sentences can begin in euskera (Basque), end in castellano (official Spanish dialect) and be bolstered by a couple of words from other Spanish dialects in the middle.

A Handful of Regional Words:

The first language of the Basque country, is of course euskera, an ancient language without Indo-European roots, which means that it sounds nothing like the Spanish and French regional languages that surround it. For example, the basque word for breakfast is gosaria, whereas the Spanish is desayuno and the French, petit dejeuner. Even the name of the city sounds completely dissimilar, being Donostia in Basque and San Sebastián in Spanish. Basque is the official language of schools and local institutions and is therefore on the rise after the Franco years when it was repressed. Certainly Basque is no decorative appendage; amongst youths it’s often the language of gossip and graffiti and I wonder if you’d get mugged in it? But don’t let the cool kids fool you, grammatically complex, with wild regional variations, Basque is difficult to master.  Unless you’re going to enrol yourself in a language academy, you’ll be getting by on a few choice expressions, the kaixo (hello), agur, (goodbye) eskerrik asko (thank you) and the all important, on egin (bon appetit). This might seem a trifling effort, but making it gives you a regional passport. You have, as the graffiti reads, acknowledged that you are in Euskal Herria as opposed to Spain and while you could never pretend to be an insider, it’s important to be interested.

basque gr
‘I think because I love you’

Everyday Expressions:

I’m conscious that I’m passing with San Sebastián’s second official language: castellano. This language doesn’t have the happiest history in the region: it snuck in there with industrialisation in the 1800s and was imposed during Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, when euskera was banned and driven underground. Still, despite the efforts made with primary school education in Basque, castellano is the  globalised language  preferred for connection with the rest of the country and hispanophone world.

The more exposed I am to Spanish, the more I see that there are numerous ways of communicating the same concept, the same word, even. It’s like deciding whether to cook with a red or yellow pepper. Or should that be a green? I’m the most indecisive when it comes to the letters c and z– whether  to pronounce them with my tongue between my teeth as Spanish people tend to (thhe) or in a sibilant hiss as Latin Americans do. In the company of older, more proper people, the kind that might call you cielo (heaven), the tongue goes between the teeth. In a freer, more playful mood, I convert c to s, because it’s the way of Shakira and Luis Fonsi.

Sala Equis, Madrid has a globalese feel

I’m not alone in stealing from the Latin Americans, who are prominent in the city both in person and culturally, through their music and throng of salsa academies. Lately, the Argentinian expression ¿y vos?, which literally means and you?, has become a breezier, dare I say, a flirtier replacement for the Spanish equivalent, ¿y tú?.  Spain may have conquered much of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries out of a sense of cultural superiority,  but with time and distance, Spaniards have come to view Latin America with a mix of nostalgia and fantasy. It’s funny to me that people in Spain, imagine Latin America quite a lot like Britons picture Spain : a hot mess of violence, sensuality and men who dance when they’re sober.  It’s funny how this fantasy is continually deferred to another place, one that you probably couldn’t live in, but are comforted to know exists. What’s more, you can approach it linguistically.

This is my third post about life and language in Donostia/ San Sebastián. Check out my previous posts on moving to San Sebastián and the city off season. I’d love it if you’d like, share or comment.


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

Creature discomfort: strutting, squabbling and defence of territory

I should have seen the signs when my flatmate showered with the bathroom door open – twice. The steamy pink flesh and torrent of water weren’t about what you think. They were a defence of territory. Him taking back the flat for himself. He’d decorated it for that purpose a long long time ago, with sub-letters coming, dropping their revenue and going.

My other flatmate decided she was leaving a month earlier. More bang for her buck elsewhere and contributing factors she said elliptically, in a manner that might procure symptoms of guilt in anyone ever disposed to them.  All those campaigns to occupy the living room with her posse from a previous flat-share, did little to make her feel more at home. And in less than a month after her announcement – the morning of the second open showering incident, I was to be evicted, leaving my flatmate/landlord to be king of his castle.

A head-scratching, hair-adjusting situation

‘I’m turning 36,’ he said, ‘my dad needs somewhere to stay in town; things are getting more serious with my home-owning girlfriend. I’ve enjoyed living with you, but it’s time to be living alone.’ My immediate reaction was acceptance. ‘Okay,’ I say, knowing that as a sub-letter without my name on the tenancy, there is no way I can put up a case for staying. I swim for a while in conflicting thoughts – on the one hand, the social dynamic in the flat, building works and even a few intrusions have meant it hasn’t felt like a home for a while; on the other hand, it’s the beautiful place where I’ve lived and even worked for a year and a half. The local area and community fit me like a glove. I wait for some feeling of grief and like a ‘due’ 214 on a bus-stop flashboard, it’s imminent but not here.

I think how leading up to this there were squabbles and resentments about heating, food, use of living room space. Always the kind of things that won’t matter in 5 years time, or even in a month, but enough to ruin your day or even your hour.  Everyday things: you might come home expecting to eat something and find it gobbled, an electric heater burning unaccompanied. But then the regular heating starts working again, making fights about electric heaters obsolete; you buy a new jar of peanut butter and hide it better this time. There are distractions – someone goes on holiday, someone starts seeing someone new, someone’s working late. There’s ease where the friction used to be – for a while – until the next inevitable conflict.

The paper sanctuary

I’ve always thought of myself as a stealth warrior. You can get so angry about these everyday things and then that resentment takes up the energy that could be used for bigger picture dreams. So my strategy was to make my bedroom into a sanctuary and focus on long-term goals, whilst tiptoeing round piles of dishes that weren’t mine, Hurricane Sandy mood-swings and the light that creeps through thin curtains. ‘That place isn’t right for you,’ a friend said. ‘It’ll do for now, until I finish XYZ,’ I replied, though I did buy some gorgeous dark green curtains. But then, when on the day of my eviction I fall over and scrape my knee, come straight into contact with the feelings I was protecting myself from, I realise that as humans, we’re not merely idealist entities, but creaturely too.

Just think how often people complain about how their colleagues, partners and housemates are using space, compared with how little they complain about their character. No one really cares if you’re a bad person in the abstract. We’re more like cats, judging people most for banging doors, having bitchy resting face, or taking our food.  Most importantly, if someone is staking a larger claim on your home than you, you might feel un-homed. Like you can’t quite land. And this inability to fully rest inevitably affects how you work and play.

Though it wasn’t my plan, I’ve been forced to put my creaturely needs at the centre, expect more from whatever home I find next.

A different view

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

The Predator Instinct

Last Tuesday I woke up to the smell of incense. Strange that someone was burning that at 6 am, but it wasn’t wholly unpleasant. I might sleep, daydream a little longer. A few minutes later, the smell seems more tobacco; I really should open my eyes, at least take a look. When I do, there’s a face – a man grinning from behind my curtain, which he’s reached through my open window and parted.

Roleplaying the situation using fish: I’m the one sleeping on the log

I start shouting and run from the room. My first instinct is shame, to cover up my skimpy summer pyjamas and shove on my denim jacket as though to say, I didn’t ask for this. I wake up my flatmates, who come and inspect the scene; but the man has scarpered. I wonder how long he’s been there –  smoking, watching me. On the benign end of the scale he’s a Peeping Tom who found an opportunity to get a kick out of watching, taunting a sleeping girl. On the more severe end, he’s a pattern stalker, who has maybe come before and intends to return – possibly one day to do more than just watch.

This is the sort of thing I never see coming – it never occurs to me to be afraid for my safety; that other people are out there to deliberately harm me. While my ancestors who grew up in conflict zones, would sleep with a knife by their bed, a revolver folded under the crease of a pregnant belly, I’ve been lucky enough to not have to live in fear of attacks on my personal space. On hot summer nights I’ve been sleeping with the window open because the outside area is safe and off limits to the general public. Every other night I’ve been undisturbed.

Just one intruder, or a whole school of them?

I scribble a note to my neighbours, describing what happened. When I’ve written it, it sounds defensive. As though I’m trying to clear any culpability I have in allowing this to happen. It seemed important to emphasise that I’ve been sleeping with window open and the curtain closed in the hot weather; to reinforce that the back area of the flats is locked. I worry that my description of the man –  tanned, brown-eyed, dark crew cut, leather jacket – sounds a bit too much like the proverbial ‘tall dark stranger’ of romance novels and fortune tellers. What if they think I’ve dreamed him up and don’t believe me?

Then, I get angry. Resent the man because I have to behave as though he is a stalker on return.  Or as though there will be another just like him. And this limits my freedom. I will have to sleep with my windows closed, even on the most stifling nights. I will have to stop hanging out of Peeping Tom’s window, the only place I can get reception in my room. I will have to reassure myself at night that the drilling I can hear is just my neighbour’s electric toothbrush.

While I’ve never had intrusion on my private space before; I’ve had some pretty extreme interventions, shall we call them? – in public space.  Once my red shoes and brisk walk were an invitation for a man to expose himself to me in broad day light. ‘Slut,’ he said, like I was asking for it. The incident made me uneasy; I felt like I’d stepped into a grimy update of The Red Shoes fairytale. But I sensed I wasn’t unsafe, knew that he was unwell and that I could outrun him, even in heels.  I vented the incident at the birthday party I was going to; happy and proud that I’d escaped, but also wishing that it had never happened.


The worst thing about these kinds of situations, is that they make women feel hunted. Even if the pest doesn’t get what he wants.  The man who calls out in the street or intrudes on a woman’s private space, wants to affirm his masculinity, his power. Nine times out of ten, our street-caller is surrounded by an entourage and shouting out to a girl is a roundabout way of bonding with his buddies. In a society that disapproves displays of affection amongst heterosexual men, ‘Check out that ho,’ is code for ‘I love you bro.’

Interestingly, I also think that in a culture where  human-phone interactions are fast replacing the human-human kind, our natural curiosity about each other gets repressed. Not to mention our interpersonal skills. When people are less likely to approach each other in the street at the human level of eye contact and a greeting; reading each other’s cues and respecting each other’s wishes to continue or abandon the interaction, this contributes directly to objectification and stalking. Once a man gets out of the habit of talking to women and loses sight of their humanness, his desire turns voyeuristic and sometimes predatory.*

Distance turns us into predators and prey

Where does this leave you as a women? You learn that because your body kinks in and out in desirable places, is weaker than the male, you should feel unsafe and watchful, always watchful. And you’re kind of to blame for the attention you get, just for, you know, being. And men can’t help themselves; it’s instinct. If you don’t want all the attention, you have to make yourself small, discreet.  Live on your knees; seek shelter and stay there; be bored and boring.

But what if the solution isn’t to enclose yourself in a fortress, fashionable as walls are these days? What if it’s more about honing the muscle that responds to dangers present? So instead of being afraid, I can be confident that I have all the resources I need to protect myself: fast reflexes, a voice, a support network. The weather cools, making the window-closing habit natural and Peeping Tom doesn’t reappear, so I’m back to using my phone by the window- even a night. I’m feeling more like myself, though I’m left wondering about the whole screwy system. How do we change our culture from one of predator and prey, to one of conviviality and respecting personal space?



*This may also be the case where the protagonist is female and in non-heterosexual interactions, but I’m writing from what I’ve seen and experienced.


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.