Seaside towns off season

The bordering French town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz on Jan 4th

Winter, in my adopted town, San Sebastián*, has a bit of a reputation.  It’ll be a ciudad fantasma (ghost town), my new friends warned me – the population shrinks and the streets go quiet early. Early being about 11pm on a weeknight, which doesn’t sound too bad to a Londoner used to the sight of defeated bodies collecting around tube stations three hours earlier than that. But by the standards of a Spanish city, the cessation of street life before the early hours is a stigma and gives ol’ Donosti no chance of competing with its cooler metropolitan rivals, Barcelona and Madrid.  The missing inhabitants are tourists, who with their fast money and Promethean livers keep the bars open longer. 

All this, makes me think of  Agnès Varda’s  1958 documentary, Du côté de la côte, which describes the Côte d’Azur’s permanent residents in a single shot of an old man and his donkey.   Varda would rather lavish her attention on a tautological list of tourists, the curious, the emigrants and the amateurs.  These improvising sea people look like tropical fish in their patterned swimsuits and require just as delicate a climate before they are exposed to nature, namely warm air and sea temperatures. As far as Varda is concerned, they are the most animate presence in town; their beach lifestyle is aspirational rather than a matter of chance. 


Having spent a few weeks in the alleged ciudad fantasma, I think the people who engage with the coast in winter are themselves worth documenting. My cast would be surfers, fishermen, collectioneu/r/ses, swimmers and revellers. These are of hardier stock than the tourists,  making the most of whatever conditions nature sends their way. They are more at the mercy of non-human entities such as weather, tides and shoals. Make no mistake, these are dreamers too,  but the chancier kind, willing to be frustrated, elated and overwhelmed by forces they can’t control. My sea swims only last about five minutes at a time these days, but the waters have never been so cold or clear, the colours so brooding, the release so triumphant, when I emerge. My companions are fish,  an island in the middle of the bay and people more practiced at this than me. 

The festival of San Sebastián also happens to be in January and from the 19th – 21st,  the city is decked out in local white and blue and parades of drummers saunter through the streets. The oldest and youngest drummers have serious faces, but the mood is  jubilant and magnanimous. I can’t help but think that this is the locals’ way of reclaiming their city  from the tourists after the summer and autumn months.  Around 3am on the 20th, when the heel broke off my boot and the barman’s liberal handling of the gin bottle all but knocked me out, I limped on home,  thinking I’d call it a night. But the bands were still marching, the cafe next-door had turned into a dance floor and unable to resist, I changed my shoes and partied with some people who were travelling in from Santander. None of us spoke Basque, though we could sing in it. 

Donosti bat bakarra munduan…

Living by the sea, you get the most classic sense of January as a two-faced god.  On one side of the revolving door, there are intense rains that paint the cobbles black and empty the streets, perhaps making space for ghosts. On the other, you sense that the days are getting longer, so that the living have more light to go by. 

Ghost, thy name is rainbow

*The city where I’m living, San Sebastián/ Donostia, goes by two names, one Spanish and one Basque. I use both interchangeably to reflect the experience of being here.

This is the second in a series of posts about moving from London to Donostia/ San Sebastián, a small city on the Basque coast. Feel free to comment, like or share! 

A daydream with legs and an EU passport

Have horse, will dream

In November 2017, the life I’m living now was a daydream, one I came up with on the last day of a holiday to San Sebastián.* I was walking on the boulevard overlooking La Concha bay, thinking, what if I didn’t have to go home this evening? What if I had my laptop and could work from here? How would I make friends? Would I take up running, like the people on this boulevard? Even if I haven’t run since school and even then only because I was forced to. But here, I suddenly feel like I might want to try…

I let the thought go and boarded my flight back to London, got on with life and forgot that I might one day go swimming every day of the year, run on Mirakontxa like a local.** But when I unexpectedly had to leave my flat in London and spent some months living at home, with the item: look for a room, forever on my to-do list, I felt a weird sense of discombobulation. Though I was already living in London, I couldn’t picture myself there anymore. Couldn’t imagine myself commuting there, working there, dating there, spending there, following the latest twists and turns of Brexit, there. I lived for my work, nights out with friends, chats with my mum at her kitchen counter, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.  For better or worse, I’m a dreamer and when my sense of possibility about a place dries up, I have to go.

blue bay
One beach, two names. La Concha/ Kontxa Hondartza 

National identity is another factor: being ethnically Greek Cypriot and culturally European, I’ve never really felt British. There are things I’ve never understood, such as why is the national anthem about saving one rich nonagenarian and why does the world stop when one of her offspring marry, breed or even just appear? I mean, I understand such things in a factual sense, but feel no sense of belonging in the facts. And now, with Brexit a near-reality and the reassertion of a cultural identity that’s never been mine, it’s time to nurture parts of me that I’ve repressed, while I’ve been in London.   I keep thinking of that blue scallop-shaped bay, the little island in the middle and remember that I’ve wanted to live by the sea ever since I was a teenager. I seek out people I can practice my Spanish with and recall that being multilingual has been part of my identity ever since I could speak. Still, it’s hard to leave home. On the one side you have networks, history, trodden ground; on the other you have uncertainty and hope.

I came back to San Sebastián, in February and June 2018 and once again in September, just to get it out of my system. But by October, I happened to find an apartment and decided I was going to begin making a life for myself here. I still have to take up running, though…

beez in the trap
Gathering sea glass = participating

* I apologise to anyone who was mislead by my opening sentence, which sounds a bit like one of those ‘get rich and emigrate’ posts you see on YouTube. But here’s the thing, an EU passport means that you can enjoy the basic privileges of any smug prick on the internet: the sea view without the penthouse apartment, the glass of good wine without owning the vineyard. An EU passport gives you the freedom to move and work and try things out for a while. That’s why I’m taking measures to make sure that I still have one, after March 29th!

** San Sebastián/ Donostia, is a city with two names and two languages, Spanish and Basque. I’m going to use Spanish and Basque names interchangeably, to reflect my experience of getting to know the city. Mirakontxa is a Basque name.

This is the first in a series of posts about moving from London to Donostia/ San Sebastián, a small city on the Basque coast. Feel free to comment, like or share! 


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

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

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

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.


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?

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…