The Year of the Wedding: Part Two

Reading time: 5-7 minutes
Recommended accompaniment(s): A large gin and tonic, served with a slice of cucumber and an environmentally-friendly straw

[Catch up on Part One]

Since my last linguistic foray into the ever-embarrassing world of British hen dos, I have attended two more weddings and one more hen. So that’s now three out of three hen dos complete, and two out of six weddings yet to come (not that I’m counting). I have also, already, got three weddings firmly in the diary for next year, one of which I have been asked to be bridesmaid – totally unexpected and totes emosh (another blog post in itself quite frankly). But before I commence my future bridesmaid taskettes, I must – as promised in Part One – divulge my second wedding-related misfortune of 2019.

Having been asked back in 2017 to be bridesmaid to my lovely friend Sophie, I had been waiting for the big day to come around like a child (or myself) waiting for Christmas. Then one sunny Saturday in June the day was finally here. Woohoo! The morning spent getting ready seemed to go very smoothly indeed. In many ways I was the model ’maid. I was first to arrive for hair and makeup; I came armed with fizz; I volunteered my painting services to the bride’s naked toes. I did have to de-top as soon as I arrived – as I came dressed in a white over-the-head strappy that would have wreaked havoc if taken off post-makeup application – much to the in-room photographer’s alarm, but, in all honesty, he was much more interested in catching the kilt-clad groom in a gust of wind, if you know what I mean, so I don’t think it caused too much of a ruckus. And anyway, as soon as we were all present we were given goodie bags by the bride, containing a fortuitous dressing gown that covered up my bra, restored my modesty and, hopefully, improved all future photographs.

With my hair and makeup completed early on, I had a good few hours to gossip, giggle and guzzle multiple glasses of champagne. It’s a hard life being a bridesmaid, let me tell you. Sophie, bless her, didn’t want to drink because of her nerves, but when a large gin and tonic arrived to our room from a mystery admirer (please Lord let it be from the groom), she couldn’t resist but take a long, lengthy, gulp. As she put down the glass and declared that first sip sound of ‘ahh,’ I asked her if she would like me to add any of the tonic water, by its side. Her eyes grew wide, her complexion rosy, she looked down at the neat gin she had just, moments before, necked. She laughed. We all laughed. Then I poured the entirety of the Fever Tree bottle into her glass. Responsible bridesmaid? Tick.

As the morning came to a close the ceremony drew ever nearer. We were made up, our hair was perfectly preened, and all we had left to do was get into our dresses. And this was stressing me out. Having tried on the dress maybe three times prior to the wedding, I, and everyone else, had become acquainted with the villainous zip. It was tough; it was sticky; it certainly didn’t respond well to human hands. It was, let’s just say, a wee bit problematic. So I was keen to get into it as early on as possible, to give myself the longest possible time with which to ease and entertain the zip up. Everyone else, it seems, was on a wavelength much more ‘chill’. I tried to meet them there, for as long as I possibly could, but after fifteen minutes of pacing and checking the time, I opened the wardrobe and pulled out my floor-length frock. This was it. This was the moment. I was going to put the ruddy thing on.

The other bridesmaids joined me in the bathroom. Getting dressed was most certainly a three-man job. I first attempted to get in feet first – to save the hair and face – but posteriorly this was not a feasible option. So we abandoned ship and went in over the head. For some reason I held my breath and shut my eyes while positioned like a stationary rocket, to try to slide in more easily. As I opened my eyes, and took in some air, the dress was on and my hair was untouched. First hurdle: flawlessly complete. The second and final challenge was to do the bloody thing up. This is the moment we had all been dreading. And it quickly steamrolled into a nightmare we could never have dreamt up.

I held my arms up in the air while Claire pulled the sides of the dress together and Sarah, simultaneously, pulled down on the material below the zip and tugged up the fastening itself. This needed serious concentration and teamwork. The zip began its ascent armpit-bound, in a not-too-turbulent transition. Sarah expertly manoeuvred over the join in the fabric – the danger zone, if you will – with ease and grace. Our tensions subsided; we were on the home straight. 

Then, about two inches below the finish line, the zip decided veer off course. It became caught in the fabric; its journey to the summit suspended. The tension in the room returned. We decided the best course of action was to retrace our steps, a couple of centimetres or so, to disentangle the fabric, and then resume our valiant climb. We went down, but this only pulled in more fabric. We went back up, and even more became entrapped. And then, very unaccommodatingly, the zip decided he’d had enough. This up- and down-motion had tired him out; he was not, with all his might, going to move any more.

Tension transitioned to panic. The Mother of the Bride was called into the room. An emergency was announced. 

With just fifteen minutes to go until show time, the other bridesmaids, mother, and bride needed to get dressed too, so I was passed on to the unsuspecting hair and makeup artists. Greeted with an increasingly sweaty armpit it didn’t take them long to assess the situation. We had hairpins, tweezers, and all manner of appliances to try to prise the zip free, albeit to no avail. The scissors came out, as a last solution, but no amount of interior trimming had any impact whatsoever; it was stuck, I was stuck, but the show had to go on.

A safety pin became the next fixation, in order to join the flap at the top. Alas, of course, one was nowhere to be found. With my arm by my side one would never have known the mishap, so this is how I was to spend the duration of the day. This was actually surprisingly easy, and only required a slight toning down of my dancing to YMCA, Mr Brightside, and (hen do favourite) I Predict A Riot.

As midnight struck the dance floor emptied and we headed back to our rooms. I tasked my boyfriend with the mission of getting me out of my dress. He trained as an engineer, after all, and so would make light work of the unmovable fastening. Twenty minutes later, with tweezers, eyelash curlers, and anything else remotely tool-like from my makeup bag scattered around us like a pair of beauty junkies, we headed down to reception to find something stronger. Not whisky, unfortunately, but that might have made the whole fiasco a little less painful.

The night-hours receptionist was really rather handy. He got for us scissors, pliers, and, in fact, a fully-fitted-out tool box. Gijs started with the pliers, aiming to bend the metal slider cleanly off the troublesome teeth. If anything this held its grip tighter. Then came the scissors: he was going to have to hack. He started off tentative, not wanting to harm me and only minimally disfigure the dress. This tactic, though admirable, was not getting me any closer to freedom.

Opportunely, fellow bridesmaid Sarah entered reception from the bar. She saw the scissors in Gijs’ hand; his pained, nervous expression; and took matters into her own hands. Literally. (After all, she did used to be a hairdresser.) After a few savage snips the zip was cut loose; the fastening released; Django was finally unchained. The dress, on the other hand, was ruined. 

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Musings on Life, Happiness & Writing

Reading time: 5-6 minutes
Recommended accompaniment(s): A large glass of full-bodied red wine, ideally from Southern Italy, served at room temperature

Some people want to be a doctor when they grow up. Others want to be a teacher. Others an entrepreneur; an astronaut; famous (whatever that nowadays means). So many dreams harbour in the minds of naïve and ambitious children and teenagers, and even as adults the idea of ‘when I’m grown up’ is a state not yet accomplished. My current biggest wish is to have a bedroom door (the perils of a studio apartment); when I was younger my aspiration was to be happy. Truly happy. And it still is. Hence the name I have chosen for this blog.

I remember a class we had on this during high school. We must have been about fourteen years old, and – no doubt as part of our one-hour-per-academic-year session on things that actually matter in life, as opposed to the ‘everyday applications’ of trigonometry or the internal musings of Caecilius while in horto – were asked to write on a scrap of paper what we wanted to become when we were older. I wrote down ‘Properly happy’, with a very intentional, nay crucial, opening adverb.

“Are you not happy?” asked one of my friends, genuinely confused, who caught sight of my sheet after scrawling down ‘actress’ herself. 

“Are you?” I countered, just as confused with the concept of whole-hearted contentedness.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, as she joined the queue milling out into the corridor and onto our double period of I.T. with an ethically, and child protectionarily, questionable male teacher.

To me that said it all. I mean, a shrug and a non-committal affirmative are not exactly signs of absolute agreement, are they? She felt exactly the same as I did. She just wasn’t as aware of it.

I then had to decide whether I was wanting too much from life, or if other people were not wanting enough. I chose, and continue to believe, the latter, and hope that I am onto something. Of course I don’t believe in a life smelling of roses and consisting of unadulterated bliss, but I do believe, and am optimistic about, a life centred around people and love and happiness and experience and honesty and creativity and connection and passion and joy and gezelligheid (non-Netherlands-residing readers are invited to look this term up, and be prepared to be jealous of my new country’s favourite concept).

The next immediate hurdle is figuring out how this life can be achieved alongside the unavoidable requirement to earn money / keep financially afloat. For those whose life’s passion is to be a brain surgeon or lawyer, I really do envy you. For those who are carrying out these jobs sans satisfaction, I honestly don’t know how you do it. The idea of a nine-to-five job – no matter the field or level of challenge or mundanity involved – to me is so excruciatingly depressing (literally, I’ve been there) that I have simply had to look for an alternative. Which is where the writing has come in.

Starting a blog – this blog – while travelling in 2017, aged 25, was where my love of writing developed. Though I never dreamed of being a writer when I was younger; I stopped studying English at the point where it was a choice; and I have never been an avid bookworm. I don’t have any of the characteristics or merits of a successful writer, yet this is the perhaps preposterous aim. (I’m counting on the fact that innate talent and determination win all, and, of course, that I have at least a sliver of both of these things.)

My journey as a writer so far can be viewed in two very different ways. With optimistic eyes, it is going swimmingly. Through a short series of rather random circumstances a London-based publisher read my blog, liked my writing, and commissioned me to write for them a book. (I mean, does it get any more fairytale that that?) It is to be published first in Chinese and then in English, perhaps this year, and hopefully translated into a number of other languages thereafter. Spurred on by this experience, and, again, following a random (or fateful) meeting, I am 50,000 words in to my second book, which I hope to be taken on by a literary agent, sold to a publisher in a bidding war, and turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. This is not even an exaggeration; this is truly what I hope it becomes.

Under a pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, lens, things can sometimes seem somewhat futile. I was paid a pittance to research and write an entire book that is yet to be published and may never materialise. I haven’t received a decent pay check in over two years, and rely financially on others to stay afloat. I spend much of my time alone, typing away on my laptop, crafting a manuscript that may never be read by more than a handful of people. But I continue to do this, and believe that I should, because the glimmer of hope that I might become successful feeds me much more than the thought of a steady and secure and strangling employee situation. After all, if I don’t give it a go then it is definitely not going to work.

But that doesn’t mean to say that it’s easy. Writing, as a career (if you can call it that before you have been aptly monetarily rewarded), for me, is like being in a constant battle, in so many ways. It takes time, of course, to create a masterpiece, or something at least vaguely masterful, during which time you are constantly aware that you might be simply wasting time. I feel I need to be ‘in the zone’ to write well, but have not yet figured out whether creating that zone – both mentally and environmentally – aids my writing, or whether consciously writing something of value or elegance transports me into that all-encompassing sweet spot. I want to have integrity and commitment to my goal and beliefs, but I also want to have the disposable income to be able to go clothes shopping on a whim. I am unsure of when tiredness and illness bleed into procrastination and self-absorption. I feel brave and worthy and confident in my abilities, yet constantly worry about judgement from others for my choices and lifestyle and tendency for a mid-week lie in. And I am uncertain, or undecided, as to whether that mid-week lie in improves my focus, when I do start writing, or is a brilliant, self-sabotaging, scheme I dreamt up through utter laziness. And those are just the thoughts I’ve had while enjoying my porridge-based breakfast.But to achieve that life of love and happiness and experience and honesty and creativity and connection and passion and joy, I know I have to persevere. Because those pulls of uncertainty and doubt and niggling nags are not through an unwillingness to continue, but through an unknowingness of where this might lead. Of whether I will succeed. Of whether this turmoil will pay off. And I’m willing to take that risk as the alternative is, quite frankly, not an option. For me, anyway. Wish me good luck. (And for heaven’s sake – if it comes out – buy my bloody book, please.)

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He Will See You Now

Reading time: 10-15 minutes
Recommended accompaniment(s): a strong mug of Yorkshire Tea and a digestive biscuit, for dunking

Looking after one’s father during and after hospitalisation is not something that one expects to do before the age – of said father – of perhaps seventy-five or eighty. One hopes, really, never to have to do such a thing, not least because one never wants to see someone they love go through any sort of hardship or suffering. But when, last month, I volunteered to care for my father (sixty years of age) for one week pre- and post-operation, I didn’t know how entertaining the whole charade would be. For my father, the publisher, sailor and windmill-dweller, is really rather amusing. (Especially when strapped to a hospital bed with tubes and wires and electronic leg warmers.)

The operation in question was not emergency surgery or a life-lengthening procedure. In fact it needn’t have been a lights-out operation whatsoever. It could have been an in-and-out twenty-minute jobby. But Daddy Dearest, as squeamish as he is strange, could not face the thought of seeing someone cut into his eyes, remove his actual eyeball lenses, and replace them with shiny, full-sighted, new ones. I have to say I can’t blame him. So for his surgery – cataract removal with a hope to improve his dilapidated minus-twenty-two vision – he opted for general anaesthetic, the medically-practised knock-you-out-of-consciousness drug, which truly worked a treat.

I arrived at The Windmill, father’s modest six-story abode, the evening before the operation was scheduled. We went to the pub for his last supper (the last one in which he didn’t have a clue what he was eating). On doctor’s orders he was forbidden to consume alcohol the night preceding, as well as three nights after, the dreaded operation, which, as you can imagine, made his temperament a little…well…frosty. I left my handbag at home intentionally before we headed to the pub. Not only to ensure that this one was definitely on him, it also gave me some leverage if I had to talk him out of having a pint with dinner. You see, the last time we frequented this pub I was refused even a look at the wine list because I didn’t have my ID. (I am twenty-seven though the years have been too kind, and as you can imagine this did not go down swimmingly.) So I figured that if he tried to order a drink, but then I was refused service, he would think again and stick to sparkling water. Luckily this back up plan was surplus to requirements and the embarrassing intervention not needed. I mean, I should have known. As much as my dad is a fan of the strong stuff (though, if you’re buying him a Christmas gift, for heavens sake, under 4.5% ABV, please!), he is even more so a sucker for following rules, to the T, and so wouldn’t have dreamt of disobeying doctor’s orders. 

(To give an example, also medically-concerned: I was once looking after him after a severe case of man flu. He was in his bed for about four days straight, which was more time than he’d spent there in the whole year leading up to that point. It got to the stage where I needed to call the doctor, and was put through to a very helpful out-of-hours assistant. She told me just how much paracetamol and ibuprofen he could be taking, and, well, it was about twenty times more than what he had been taking up until that point. There were timing implications, of course, to ensure that he didn’t overdose, but, generally speaking, it was basically do one then the other equally spaced throughout the day, no more than four rounds and have a biscuit when you take the ibuprofen. He was so concerned with timing the gaps at exactly four hours between doses that he actually set his alarm for six in the morning, to not be late for the next set. I explained to him that sleep was a very beneficial healer too, and took over charge of his pain killer intake from that point on. Needless to say he made a speedy recovery.)

Anyway, back to the eyes. We arrived at the hospital promptly at seven a.m. and were shown to his private room. We were then visited by a seemingly never ending number of medical professionals of different standings, all coming to ask the very same questions and perform the very same checks. They were particularly interested in whether he had crowns or dentures – God knows why – but this was the one fact that he simply could not remember. He had to explain, each time, that he just didn’t know, but that the person before them had had a look and didn’t seem to think so.

The best moment is when they ask what procedure you’re having done, almost like a lawyer in a courtroom questioning the alibi of the defence. “And which eye, or eyes, are you having done?” they would ask, making a subtle but noticeable smirk at him as they said the word ‘eyes’. This was giving the game away, I would say, but did mean that we managed to get through the three rounds of that question without a hitch. Phew.

Last to visit was the anaesthetist, a friendly-looking rather rotund man who appeared through the window in his surgical-scrubs-and-hat situation. I missed the part when he said he was the anaesthetist so was very confused indeed why he was so interested in my father’s medical history, and his choice of general anaesthetic. I thought maybe he was looking for a life partner, but I didn’t think that he was my dad’s type. And anyway, they could never be together because my father, it turns out, cannot say the word ‘anaesthetic’. With a dry mouth already from a total ban on fluids, this enunciation problem was only magnified. Listening to him attempt to say it was even more cringe worthy than him explaining how he couldn’t remember his dental history, but I was there to support him and so wouldn’t dare to ridicule him for it (until now).

The anaesthetist asked the million-dollar question too, while staring down at the answer on the bundle of notes slowly accumulating on the table. “Both,” my father replied, now confidently, to which the man looked up, smiled and agreed, “Yes, indeed, that you are!” And then he came towards my dad with a marker pen and started scribbling on his face.

I felt a sense of intrusion, almost attack, vicariously from this stranger graffitiing my father’s forehead. Until I realised that he was just marking the eyes on which they were to operate. Which in this case, as we all at this point were certain of, was both. As he retreated with his pen, and my dad looked at me, I saw that he had drawn a letter ‘R’ on his temple to my left, and a letter ‘L’ on the other side. Ah, I thought. They’re just making absolute sure.

When he left the room and we ascertained who the hell he was, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a photo-sesh. For my dad was now dressed in his hospital robe, naked underneath except for a pair of threadbare rusty red socks, and his rather fetching new facial art. I photographed him from a number of angles and distances, and I do believe that the results make very comical iPhone screensavers.

After three hours of waiting, questions and mouth excavations Dad got walked down to theatre where he would be put to sleep, lenses replaced, and back up on the ward in time for lunch. I took this opportunity to hot foot it to Coffee Architects to enjoy a humongous plate of the most beautifully presented banana bread, fruit, coconut yoghurt and edible flowers. I really should have taken a photo. It would have rivalled that of my dad’s mug shot as my next background image.

I got back to his hospital room with plenty of time to spare, although I was now rather desperate for the toilet, given the magnificent proportion I had just consumed. And here lay the conundrum. Do I stay or do I go? I tried to stay for as long as I could, crossing my legs in a whole manner of contortions but eventually giving in to the need. I rushed to the hospital toilet – the disinfectant-smelling cube of sanitation and ill health prevention posters, and did my business as quickly as I could. But, you know, you can’t really rush these things. As I walked the fifty metres back to his room I could tell immediately that I had missed his return, as the door was open and the light back on. God damn it. He was being manoeuvred atop a typical wheelie bed into position, now not only dressed in ghastly hospital gown and rather distasteful temporary facial tattoos, but also a Spiderman-esque clear plastic mask shielding his brand new lenses from the germs and interference of the outside world.

He was awake already, having been let to resurface in the basement before being brought up for air. His first words were not, “Hello,” “How do I look?” or “I think it went well.” No. They were: “I need the loo.”

Given the lack of beer he’d drank the previous evening, and the nil-by-mouth orders he’d been following since six a.m., I was finding it hard to comprehend where any liquid could have come from. Then I feared the worst. Did he really need a number two?

Proceeding to try to get up from his cot-like bed, he was firmly restrained by one of the nurses and told, “you can’t get up yet, Jeremy.”

“He needs the loo.” I interjected, feeling like a translator between newborn baby and rushed but capable midwife.

“You need the toilet?” she asked Dad directly, adding to the adult-child atmosphere quickly settling over the room.

“Yes. I need to pee.” He stated, much to my relief.

“You can’t use the toilet,” she told him, “so I’ll go get you a bottle,” and off she went.

Oh. My. Lord. This couldn’t be happening. She was going to get him a bottle. And then he was going to wee. And I was sitting there in the room!!!!! I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know whether to stay silent or make awkward small talk. It went on for an awfully long time. And then it was over. I breathed a sigh of relief. And pretended it had all been a horrible, horrible dream.

Thing was, he needed a pee, as he so delicately put it, another three times in the next two hours. Each time causing me to have to sheepishly go to the nurses’ office, knock on the door, and ask for a toilet device thingy watchamacallit for my dad, in Room 17. He then did his business into it, with me waiting at his side, and I had to take the vessel, like an angular cardboard milk bottle in form, pour the contents into the toilet in the en suite, wash my hands and erase my memory. Dad – I love you, but I’m never bloody doing that again.

When he was a little more with it (a little), he asked me if I’d been there when he’d “had a fight with the nurses.”

“No, Dad,” I replied lightly, “you didn’t have a fight, she just wouldn’t let you walk to the bathroom.”

“No!” he retorted. “I did have a fight! I did! I was trying to get up and we got into some fisty cuffs!”

“Ok…” I concluded, not wanting to make this into a(nother) battle. And just prayed that this belief was as a result of the strong, overwhelming anaesthetic, not an incident I had missed in the recovery room.

Dad was supposed to be fit for discharge two to three hours post-op. So roughly two-thirty in the afternoon. At eight p.m., however, I was still sitting at his side in the outpatient ward, in an increasingly uncomfortable chair having scrolled through the whole of Instagram at least three times over. Just when I thought I couldn’t cope any more with the boredom some alarms started ringing from the blood pressure monitor. Ooh this was an unexpected turn in events!

At first I didn’t know if I should call someone or if the bleeping enough would alert them sufficiently. Alas the bleeping doesn’t alert anyone at all, merely giving the drowsy patient and their companion the starts of a headache. So I went to the nurses’ office once more, slightly concerned about the situation but relieved not to be asking for yet another blinking urine bottle. The nurses seemed pretty chilled about the situation and said someone would be along shortly. Someone was along shortly – Karen, if I remember correctly – who proceeded to engage the blood pressure monitor once more. She then became a little less chilled. Dad’s blood pressure was very, very low. Even to my untrained eye, hitting figures of about forty or fifty less than on admission did not seem good. But, to me, Dad seemed his usual, bumbling self. He was even cracking a few jokes! As far as I was concerned, he was absolutely fine. It was just his body’s way of telling him to get some bloody rest, man! (As I don’t believe he has done since the summer of ’72.) He seemed to agree with this analysis and told Karen of our suspicions. She did not seem so convinced and made him lie down more horizontally to ensure enough oxygen was reaching his brain. I took this opportunity of his total lack of autonomy to book him in overnight, order him a Full English for the morning, and make my way back to The Windmill for a well-earned glass of red.

The next morning I was back in at eight o’clock. A condition of his overnight stay was that he be out by nine, as the room was booked for another day guest, soon to arrive; and that he ‘didn’t make any trouble in the small hours’. Having no control over his late-night behaviour, I made sure I would take care of the former request. As I entered his room he was up and out of bed, eating his breakfast in an armchair while sporting the fetching Spiderman eye shields. It looked bloody delicious (and that’s coming from a vegetarian), and I was a little regretful that I hadn’t stayed overnight myself. But I don’t think that they served wine there in the evenings, and I definitely needed that after the exhausting day I’d had.

Halfway through his feast we were interrupted by another nurse, a new one who had not been there the day before, who announced that the eye surgeon would like to see Jeremy. Now. Downstairs in his clinic. I looked at my Dad, I looked at his food, I turned to the nurse and asked, “well, can’t he come to us?”

He could not.

As I led Dad down to the ground floor by the sleeve of his pyjama, I wondered what the eye surgeon was going to say. Dad for one said that his sight didn’t seem any better, so I waited with baited breath as the expert studied the newly inserted lenses. “All looks good!” he beamed confidently, “Now let’s have a look at the vision.”

He re-angled the mirror in front of Dad so that it reflected the back-to-front letters displayed digitally in the back corner of the room. Dad began to read – no spectacles present – and got every single letter on the top row correct. He moved onto the next and then the next, and then jumped straight to the very bottom, very tiniest, line. Near perfect recital. He mistook an A for an H but I think we can skip over that. I stood behind him to see what he could see, and removed my minus-four-grade glasses. I couldn’t make out any letterforms. All I could see was a blurry white screen.

I think – technically speaking – that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a bloody great success.

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The Year of The Wedding: Part One

It’s official. The invites are in. The RSVPs have been returned. The outfits have been planned. I have reached the age in which everyone I know (only partially exaggerated) is getting married. And this age in question is twenty-seven. I have come to the conclusion that the number twenty-seven is in some way symbolic in the matrimonial occasion, and that, having achieved this number of candles on the cake, my year was always destined to be ruled by hen parties, marriage ceremonies and hideous amounts of Prosecco.

My sister got married four days after her twenty-seventh birthday. There’s that rom-com starring Katherine Heigl as a perennial bridesmaid, 27 Dresses. The number twenty-seven is a perfect cube: 3(3 x 3 x 3) – isn’t that harmonious? And the very first result search when Googling ‘number twenty seven’ is Number 27 Floral Design: A natural, unstructured approach to styling flowers for weddings. Spooky.

We may be two-thirds of our way through 2019 (yikes), but I count my progression differently: I am two-thirds of my way through 2019’s hen dos (of which I am attending three), but only one-third of my way through 2019’s weddings (of which there, for me, are six). (And guess what happens if you deduct one from the number of hen dos and add it instead to the number of weddings…?) So all in all I am thoroughly immersed in my wedding-heavy twenty-seventh year. And so far it’s been rather entertaining.

As you can imagine the hen dos often bring out the biggest laughs, and the hilarity has been heightened thus far due to the addition of mothers, aunties and honorary both on the guest lists. This adds a whole ’nother dimension to the traditional bride-to-be send offs, especially combined with the exploitation of penis straws, Prosecco Pong, and a penniless student moonlighting as a rather excitable nude life model. The inebriated shrieks by the over fifties of “drink the willy” will forever be etched on my memory, as will the image of a blindfolded soon-to-be aunt-in-law cupping her way to a concealed ball of Sellotape (which, much to her dismay, was hidden behind the ear – not a more southerly part – of the very naked life model).

Of the four events I have attended this year so far I have only experienced two embarrassing situations, which is somewhat of a relief and in many ways a bloody miracle. If one hadn’t already grasped, embarrassing myself in public has become something of a recurring problem, so I am mightily thankful that half of the occasions to date have gone by without so much of a hitch (in both senses of the word, come to think of it).

First up was the travel sickness. If you have not yet read, or have somehow forgotten, about my less-than-savoury experience on a coach ride from Nice to Lyon back in summer 2017, I suggest you refresh your memory with a quick glance over previous post Did She Get On The Plane? (and pay particular attention to paragraph two). This provides both a foundation of understanding for my sensitivity to travel, as well as a much worse example that may invoke – of the coming story – a better view of me. 

The main problem at this hen do (the first of three) was that we had to take a coach from our lovely rental house in Eggleton (between Hereford and the Malvern Hills) to go on a boozy night out in Cheltenham. This coach ride took one hour each way, which is approximately fifty-five minutes more than I’d like to be spending on a coach, on winding roads, on even a tee-total weekend. An added annoyance was the fact that I, for some unsubstantiated reason, thought that this journey was going to take half an hour; a still unenjoyable but certainly less nauseating travel time. When, on our way to the city, the half-hour mark passed, I was left with an uncertain road ahead, and at the same time was being passed more than enough unidentified alcoholic concoctions in dinky plastic cups. I chose to hold onto mine, at a distance of about twenty centimetres from my nose, to reduce any potent wafts coming my way, and as an attempt at damage limitation for my outfit were the coach to mount another speed bump at breakneck pace. We eventually made it to Cheltenham city centre and I disembarked the vehicle with an even paler than normal complexion. As all good hens would, I gave my untouched drink to the pregnant bridesmaid and hoped she would get rid of it for me. (I think the great aunt finished it off pretty swiftly.) Part One of the coach ride had been completed, sans any sicky situations. We now had seven hours of drinking to endure, before being collected by our driver who was to deposit us back at home, safe and sound.

Following a cocktail masterclass, three-course dinner and numerous dance-floor position changes, we filed back onto the coach – now a different, slightly less robust, model – and began our north-westerly descent. With foresight I chose to sit at the front, and was grateful to be joined by fellow hen Claire. She soon fell fast asleep and I fixated my focus on the digital clock directly ahead. On departure it read 01:25. I knew I just had to survive until 02:25. Spoiler alert: I did not make it.

I decided to count down in chunks of five minutes. One-minute chunks seemed far too overwhelming and slow; twelve lots of five seemed much more manageable an exercise. 01:30 eventually arrived, mocking my desperation in its green fluorescent light. 01:35 took even longer to appear, but its presence marked the accomplishment of one-sixth of the torturous trek. 01:40, 01:45 and 01:50, too, came and went, as did 01:55, but that was somewhat of a blur. 01:57 was an important moment as that was the point in which I knew it was going to happen. You see, I’ve become very sensitive to the individual pre-vomit signals, now, so I know which sensations are false alarms and which ones mean business. And at 01:57, ladies and gentlemen, the fizzing in my salivary glands meant business. 

Turning to my right to face Claire I realised that she was still very much asleep. I nudged her with my elbow and made strange noises from my tightly shut mouth. My memory is of something resounding, “muregh eerugh.” She slowly awakened and smiled sweetly towards me. “Hey, how’s it going?” she asked, wiping the sleep away from her mascara-encrusted eye. I didn’t want to risk opening my mouth so widened my eyes and stared demonically at her, which I felt unequivocally expressed, “I’m going to be sick. Like, right now this second. Please help me.” Perhaps my days of amateur dramatics were behind me; she didn’t have the foggiest what on earth was going on. With no other option I risked opening my mouth, for the shortest period possible. “Sick bag! Sick bag!” She quickly understood. Leaning to the driver she asked if he had a sick bag. “No,” came the accommodating reply. I widened my eyes once more, this time not as any sort of communication but in pure, unfiltered terror. If I did not get off this bus now it was going to get very messy indeed. I managed “I need to get off,” and Claire dutifully instructed the driver. Performing a near-emergency stop (I’m glad he understood the gravity of the situation), I was practically flung to a standing position ahead of the door, and squeezed through the gap as soon as it was open enough to allow me to. In all the panic I didn’t think to move away from the open door of the coach, and proceeded to throw up, three times, five feet away from the disconcerted driver, and unflatteringly illuminated by the coach’s interior strip lighting.

As the ailment began to subside the lovely pregnant bridesmaid came to see if I was ok. “Can I get you anything?” she asked tentatively. “Water?” She went back on board to investigate, and reappeared with her hands full. Alas water had not been brought onto the Hen Do Express, but a pocket tissue did help to clean me up and bide me a little time before facing the other hens. I politely declined the pre-mixed vodka and lemonade. Getting back onto the coach was really rather embarrassing. I made it very clear, for the remainder of the journey and the party itself, that it was travel sickness – not drink related – and that I was really a very mature and sensible young lady. They all nodded in agreement the following morning as I handed out penis straws for our morning cup of tea. Gratefully last night’s shenanigans were never spoken of again.

And as for the second misfortune… I think I’ll save that one for next time.

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Spice Up Your Life

*WARNING* This post contains the word ‘bitch’. Multiple times. If you are of a delicate constitution I advise you skip this one and read an older entry. (But under all accounts avoid my depiction of visiting Amsterdam’s Red Light District in Finding Netherland.)

***

It has been fifty days since I fulfilled the childhood dream of all high-kicking Millennial girls (and many boys): attending the legendary Spice World tour, the nineteen-years-later reunion of four-fifths of, like, the best pop group ever on earth. It was a blast. Having booked the tickets as a thirtieth birthday present for my sister, this outing was well and truly a celebration of girl power; sisterhood; and swinging it, shaking it, moving it and making it.

First on the agenda was gaining access to the stadium – Coventry’s answer to the O2 – the Ricoh Arena. If you haven’t been to Coventry before: don’t go. And if you’ve never heard of it: I envy you. No one wants to be sent to Coventry. Apparently it was a rather lovely city pre-World War Two. But, you know, the Nazis put a stop to that. Once within the stadium’s bounds, however, one could detach oneself from one’s geographical placement, though the steadily-growing abyss of unfortunate Coventry accents made this exercise somewhat challenging. But we survived.

Finding the correct door, as indicated on our tickets, was a trek and a half. Imagine the circumference of the venue as an elongated clock. Our door was at twelve o’clock. We started at one o’clock. We set off in a clockwise direction… When we eventually round up in the right place we were scanned through and security checked in a jiffy. Fabulous! You might say. No long queues or unnecessary waiting. Hoorah! This was my reaction, but my safety-conscious sister had other ideas. The breezy bag check left her feeling uneasy and unsafe. She was certain that we were going to get bombed, and proceeded to point out every pen cap and sweet wrapper on the floor as potential terrorist paraphernalia. Thankfully we made it to the end alive, with the only explosive episodes arising when we were rudely pushed in front of by a group of three venomous bitches. But more on that later.

A grave mistake I had made when booking the tickets was leaving it until late on the day of release to actually get round to buying them. As 5 pm struck I logged on to the ticketing site, which had now been open for over seven hours. The standard tickets had all sold out; the VIP tickets were all that were still available. Working against the clock on my iPhone SE (I know, frightfully behind the times), I scoured through the abundance of VIP packages offering slightly different privileges for mouth-watering amounts of money. It was seriously ridiculous. Who would pay that much for this? Well… me, it turns out. I found the cheapest possible option (Zig-a-Zig-ah VIP) and punched in my credit card details. They were booked. I had done it. This was going to be the best thirtieth birthday present ever!

On obtaining the VIP aspect of the Zig-a-Zig-ah tickets I felt more like a Victim In Pain than a Very Important Person. With our exorbitantly-priced tickets we were entitled to a goody bag, consisting of a ‘Spice World’ emblazoned water bottle; a ‘Spice Word’ emblazoned pin badge; a set of ‘commemorative’ postcards; and a ‘Spice World’ lanyard. It specifically stated on our tickets that we were NOT permitted to enter the VIP area (which we duly checked and were downright turned away from), which meant that the VIP nature of the ticket was this goody bag alone. And an ugly bloody canvas bag it came in. Without divulging exactly how costly this Very Idiotic Purchase was, let’s just say it sat in the low three figures. Per ticket. On top of general admission.

With a beer in hand (I needed something to numb the pain) we ventured into the arena to set up camp for the night. It was remarkably empty. Clearly most people adhere to the frightfully depressing reality of full-time work and are unable to step foot in the Ricoh at five o’clock on a Monday afternoon. For me this was no such problem. The hardcore fans had begun to populate the area immediate behind the security barrier, but other than that we had pretty much free choice. After an exploratory wander we opted for a spot slightly right of centre, about three metres back from the protruding walkway on which we would soon see Sporty, Scary, Posh and Ginger. OMGP (Oh My Girl Power.)

Supporting the Spice Girls on their long-awaited tour was singer / songwriter Jess Glynne, who, despite the meagre crowd and haemorrhaged vocal chord, was really rather good. And who knew that I knew all the words to every Jess Glynne song ever released? I impressed myself! My sister was more bemused than impressed – it must be the first time that I’ve sung more, and more loudly, than her in our lives, and – if she wants her eardrums to remain intact – I’m sure she won’t let that happen again any time soon.

But as the Jess Glynne set came to an end our evening took a turn for the worst. By this point we had amassed a posse of SGFs (Spice Girl Fanatics), and some lifelong friendships were beginning to blossom. There was the calm looking blonde girl, who would become our closest ally. The friendly male couple, whose whooping and cheering would bring a smile to even the poshest of spices. And the gregarious, gargantuan Spice Girl devotee, whose bosom alerted you (in the back) to her presence in the row behind, and with whom we placed bets on which song the girls would open up with. (Louise and I were correct: Spice Up Your Life; she, regrettably, was wrong: Wannabe.)

We had our crew, the countdown was on, and then the most obnoxious threesome (two women, perhaps sisters or friends, and one very uninterested husband) stood immediately in front of us, completely blocking our five-foot-two views. Calm Blonde was the first to make a stand. “Are you actually planning on standing there?” she asked one of the less-than-empathetic women. “No,” came the sullen reply. This, it transpired, was a lie. A flurry of vexed glances were exchanged between myself and my sister, and between us and Calm Blonde. I don’t know what was said next but the reply from CB to BF1 (Bitch Face 1) was, “Don’t speak to me so patronisingly.” Eek. Things were really tensing up. Louise then got an understandable bee in her bonnet. The man of said trio was standing right in front of her. Did I mention that he was six foot three? She cleared her throat and gave me a quick, sideways, cautionary glance. “Excuse me,” annunciated with impeccable diction, “are you actually going to stand in front of me? I’ve waited for two hours [both excellently stressed] to secure this position and now you’ve come and are completely blocking my view.” Well said, sis, I thought, cowering from all the confrontation. He took a small step to the side and replied in THE MOST PATRONISING VOICE, “No, don’t worry, I’ll stand to your left.” In unison we gave him one of our signature looks: the head tilt / fake smile / eye scrunch combination. It seemed to work a treat, as he stayed there, stationary, for the entirety of the gig. (I don’t he think he even swayed to Viva Forever. Must be really cold inside.) Bitch Faces 1 and 2, however, needed more time and effort to overcome.

As the Spice Girls emerged onto the stage – obviously we couldn’t see them but could sense their arrival due to the uproar of the crowd – BFs got their phones out and didn’t seem to put them down. For two and a half hours. Not satisfied with stealing our carefully selected spot, they were intent on filming / photographing the entire concert, or taking selfies of themselves with the stage in the background. This proved to be extremely awkward, as they would turn their backs to the stage and directly face us, and I didn’t know quite how to react. I tended to just look them in the eye for an uncomfortable amount of time without blinking, in the hope that they would leave. Alas they did not. And once they’d taken the ruddy photos they would – right there and then – upload them to Instagram, taking a good few minutes staring down at their screens to think of a caption, while Mel C was strutting her stuff just a stone’s throw away. It was excruciating to observe. One: photos at gigs are always rubbish. Two: no one cares. Three: watch the bloody concert!

After half an hour of trying to peer over their shoulders or watch through their phone screens, Louise made a dash for it and managed to re-position herself. She was now in front of the lanky man, to the left of the BFs, and to the right of Calm Blonde. We were all mightily pleased. Still recovering from the initial confrontation, though, I was slower to reassert my position. I didn’t want any more animosity, but I did want to stop having to stand on tiptoes. My neck was also in spasm, but I’m unsure if this was due to the bitches in front or my rather bitching dance moves. Never Give Up on the Good Times gave me just the crowd movement I needed to squeeze between then and emerge in front, victorious, at last. 

And do you know my immediate reaction? Well, my reaction that immediately followed my elation and sense of righteousness? Guilt. I felt just a little bit guilty for pushing in front of them. I wonder, what is the correct etiquette in terms of the pushers and the pushees? How long must the first be in their looted positions before it becomes theirs? Would they now have a go at me for pushing in front of them? I think they wanted to. I think they were overcome with rage. But they knew – just as well as I did, and my sister did, and Calm Blonde did – that we weren’t going to take any more of their sh…enanigans. This was it. We were back. And, boy, were we going to milk it.

As a collective force we were unstoppable. Our dancing and singing became wilder, louder, even more energetic. An unexpected cover of Sister Sledge’s We Are Family blew the roof off. Louise and I were now on full throttle. The group was back together and we were jumping and bosom-bouncing like there was no tomorrow. I accidentally stood on the feet of BF1 a number of times, and flailed my arms in the air like I didn’t care. I do hope it didn’t ruin their Instagram stories…

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Hello, Donkey

Amidst the breathtaking white-washed buildings and blue-domed churches of Santorini, tentatively tackling the cobbled, uneven labyrinth of streets with tanned and handsome beau in tow, one might expect to be beckoned by local business owners into their café / terrace / Swarovski-embellished jewellery shop. This is a given in established tourist destinations. And given that Santorini – an island spanning just seventy-six square kilometres (making it smaller than the English seaside town of Brighton) – welcomes some two million visitors each year, this vocal advertising, one would assume, must be part and parcel of how things work; how the Summertime economy keeps the island afloat all year round. The Greek restaurateurs and shopkeepers did, indeed, try to coax us into their establishments and to buy their wares, but they were, in fact, the most unimposing and polite touts I have ever come into contact with, across Europe and beyond.

Holidaying in Turkey, for instance, was for me a tricky game of ignore and/or eyelash-flutter; anything to avoid being all-but-physically manoeuvred into each and every open door. Tunisia was even worse. Travelling there aged eight I was told to stay with my father at all times for protection, while my mum and sister were constantly accosted by leather goods salesmen desperate to bag their next commission. Though intimidating as a child I have grown to become quite thick-skinned in relation to the hard holiday sell, and have perfected my ignore or eyelash flutter response over years of practice. In Santorini, however, this charade was surplus to requirements. A simple “no thank you” or even a non-committal smile was sufficient in communicating our wishes, or lack thereof to surrender our custom, and resulted in a warm expression in response, and a genuine desire for us to have a lovely day. Wow. I could get used to this.

There was, however, one memorable exception to this rule. It was the fourth day of our week-long holiday and we were making our way down to the port to commence a full-day boat trip. Life was good. The five-hundred-and-eighty-seven steps down to the port made life somewhat sweaty, but still enjoyable none the less. On our descent our senses were treated to a kaleidoscope of information: the sublime views; the dizzying heights; the jaunty stairway; the inescapable sun. Avoiding the deposits of horse poo scattered haphazardly along the path required precision of foot and strength of character; on meeting the stationary horses themselves my heart strings were pulled with an overriding sense that whatever they were there for felt wrong. 

We had decided to take the route down on foot. Many a holidaymaker instead pays just €6 to mount a donkey and let him or her do the hard work for them. No wonder they shat all over the bloody path. As we passed the two dozen or so horses on the steps they stood motionless, almost frozen, with their heads bowed down and their eyes fixed on the cobbles. They were not tied or restrained in any way physically, but adorned with brightly coloured beads and ropes to appear more cheerful to weary passers by. I stopped to take a photograph of them, feeling more like a National Geographic reporter documenting animal cruelty than an avid holidaymaker, and feeling guilty while positioning the lens in case doing so was in some way aiding and abetting the practice. I took the picture even though. At the time, and when I look back, the animals reminded me of the battered wives I had learnt about in A Level psychology: their coping mechanism to deal with the suffering to simply stand and bear it. But I digress.

As we reached the last step, caps now stuck to our heads and leg muscles twitching sporadically in recovery, we entered the port. Not before, of course (?), passing a security guard who scanned our bodies with a pogo stick from a three-metre distance, and waved us through the archway without the will to search our backpack. I couldn’t understand why there was a security guard positioned here (and only here) on the island, and clearly nor could he, if his proficiency was anything to go by. Hey ho. I doubt many terrorists would bother with the trek down to sea level… They’d surely make much more of a killing up on the caldera edge.

Once through passport control we walked out onto the port and I felt the luscious sea breeze calm, ever so slightly, my rapidly rosaceous face. And relax. Just as I was returning to a skin tone and perspiration level of semi-normality (well, what’s to be expected as a pale-skinned Brit abroad), I was called out to by the most insulting, and bewildering, pet name. Literally. “Hello, Donkey.”

Now, I may have felt some kind of connection to, or at least concern for, the four-legged creatures en route, but I certainly hadn’t morphed into one of them. My boyfriend and I exchanged nervous glances. Who was this cry coming from, and what on earth made him deem it acceptable to address one, or both, of us in this manner? Before we had time to come to any solid conclusions he bellowed once more, in a very Greek-sounding voice, “Hello, Donkey.” And then he repeated it again, and again, and again. We stopped in our tracks, determined to discover the man behind the mantra.

Perched upon a tiny – really impractically small – wooden stool, safe in the shade of a large ceiling overhang, was a slightly rotund and grubby looking old man, at a guess approximately eighty-two years of age. In his right hand he wafted a double-size ping-pong bat, plastered with an image of the horses we had encountered moments before and the word DONKEY, written all in caps. Ah. He was not, after all, passing judgement on our equine features or lack of appropriate toilet training. He was seller of the donkey ride, poised and ready to exchange a handful of shrapnel for an equestrian chair lift. But us realising this didn’t shut him up. With him a polite “no thank you” was barely acknowledged; a non-committal smile most definitely beyond his short sight. He was like a broken record, in the figurative sense, and almost the cause of a very broken chair.

His catcall echoed in our ears until we were on board the boat and at least twenty metres away from the port. Six hours of volcanic exploration and Aegean Sea swimming later we disembarked back where we had begun. Donkey Man was nowhere to be seen, nor his chair or ping-pong paddle. I felt an unanticipated sense of loss, and the glorious sensation of quiet. As we waited for the cable car to take us back up to the centre – we certainly weren’t going to exploit the lovely little donkeys, donkey caller or no donkey caller – a slightly rotund old man staggered towards us and joined us in our cable car. It was the Donkey Man, sans signage, now without a voice (or the inclination) to make small talk. Perhaps he felt exactly the same as me about the donkeys; perhaps he was only doing the job to make a living during the summer months, his ethics pushed aside for want of a better life. Or perhaps his bottom was so darn sore from six hours on a pinhead stool that he needed some proper seating for his ascent home. Who knows? All I do know is that I now have a lovely new greeting for when my partner gets home from work. Hello, Donkey. 

Fira, Santorini, Greece

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Race Day

Sunday was a big day. It was the fourteenth edition of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Vestingloop. Yes that’s right. The fourteenth annual Fortress Walk of possibly the most unpronounceable of Dutch cities. (I mean when does anything actually beginwith an apostrophe?) Though I have to admit: there was no walking involved, or fortresses, but, you know, it was definitely in Den Bosch (the slightly more pronounceable shortened version of Eindhoven’s next door neighbour’s name). 

There were three options for what I can only describe as a charity run: 5 km, 10 km or 15 km. I chose to spectate. My boyfriend, on the other hand, opted for the 5 km (most importantly deciding to take part, unlike muggins here). But do not be fooled into thinking that this meant that I didn’t break a sweat. Oh no. I did indeed. And was certainly not in the appropriate attire to be doing so. For Gijs, who had to run 5 km with a group of about five thousand others, and whom I was there to support, did in fact beat me to the finish line, as my 2 km jaunt through the backstreets to get to the end became something of a farce.

Indeed, before we even got to the start line the day was a little chaotic. First minor catastrophe was our lack of safety pins, with which to pin Gijs’ race number (with tracking device) to his t-shirt. He asked if I had any in my make up bag. I’m not exactly sure what he thinks I do to my face every morning, but I had to explain that pricking myself or securing myself was definitely not part of the routine. He was a little disappointed. He then proceeded to look through our bucket of mixed-currency shrapnel – ever the optimist – in the hope that four hidden safety pins would suddenly reveal themselves. I am very proud of myself for resisting the urge to question his dead-end search, and proceeded to tell him of my achievement when he came to the conclusion that no, we absolutely did not have any safety pins at home, and that he was going to have to ask a colleague (with whom he was running) if he could pinch a few. He got a reply back in seconds reassuring him that his safety pin needs would be met at the gathering point of his office thirty minutes before the race, and his attachment anxiety was finally laid to rest.

Accompanying Gijs to his office to meet the gang was an exciting experience for me; I had never been to his office before and enjoyed seeing in person the place in which he spent many of his waking hours while I would sit at home and watch re-runs of Friends(I mean work on my latest novel). I was quite impressed. The desks were height adjustable, allowing the workers to sit or stand as they so wished. (In my case all of the height options would require standing, given my stunted appearance in the land of giants.) There was a communal lunch area, with long wooden tables and benches inviting conversation and community; and a small games area involving ping pong and foosball tables, where I could see myself hiding when all the stand-up working got too much. And the main entrance was like a designer furniture showroom! A high wooden bar with perfectly pert stools sat adjacent to a stylish distressed leather sofa and a spectacularly soft oval rug (I didn’t kneel at its feet to stroke it, but golly was I tempted to). Anyway, with the office tour complete we made our way back up to the meeting room where everyone running the race was gathered. Only they were no longer there; the room was entirely empty. We had spent so long admiring the soft furnishings that they had actually left without us…

We both checked our watches and we still had ten minutes to spare until start time – it was going to be ok. Making our way back to the lifts we heard distant calls of “Gijs! Gijs!” from somewhere within the shaft, and we were pleased that they hadn’t forgotten about us all together. Travelling down just one storey, to where Gijs thought his mates would be, we stepped out of the lift to respond to the bodiless voices. “Hello?” “Are you there?” Nothing. We were on our own. We got back into the lift and took it down to the basement, during which time Gijs got a call from a colleague but was cut off as soon as we dipped below the ground floor. The elevator pinged and we disembarked, and caught sight of his sportswear-adorned co-workers at the far end of the underground car park. We looked at each other and did a quick sprint to meet them, trying to act as unflustered and calm as possible, now with just five minutes to go before the whistle was due to be blown and with no start line in sight. Emerging into daylight and rounding the corner we were there, the street filled with Lycra-clad runners filtering into the fenced-off starting lane. This was it. It was showtime.

Taking Gijs’ phone – for documentation and safe-keeping – I made my way slightly further down the route to capture him crossing the start line. It seemed to take an age for him to appear, behind hoards and hoards of equally optimistic starters, but at last he passed and, even though I say it myself, I made a rather spiffing five-second video. My accomplishments beyond this point, however, were a little bit lacking. 

Not that I’m blaming my tools, but the tracking app that was meant to provide me with real-time updates on his progress was singularly useless. According to the app for a further twenty-five minutes he was wachten om te start, which I knew for a fact was untrue. So as soon as he had passed me at the start I made my way in the opposite direction, along with another supportive and unsporty girlfriend, to the finish line to cheer him on when he needed it most. I was very glad that she knew the way we needed to go, meaning my only worries were not dropping his very expensive new phone, and periodically refreshing the app to check if it had caught up with him.

Approaching the city centre we met the running route again. But we needed to cross it, which was a little like playing chicken run with angry motorists (not that I have ever done that, but I imagine that it’s similar in experience). There must be nothing worse than missing beating your PB because of a dawdling bystander stepping on your shoelaces. So I was ever cautious to cross at a sensible place during a wide enough gap between competitors. Successfully dodging the onslaught we took a breath at the other side. At which point a group of his colleagues darted past us; Gijs, however, not in tow. I then had to weigh up the options: would Gijs be quicker than them, and thus have already passed this spot; or would he be behind, and therefore worth us sticking around for a couple of minutes to give him some vocal support… It was a tough one to call. The first group did look quite sporty and fit, so I erred on the side of caution and stayed put to send him some loving whoops and cheers. Another group from the office passed a few minutes later, but Gijs, again, was nowhere to be seen. Now I had another decision to make: was Gijs even fasterthan the first half of the team, or even slowerthan the tail end? This seemed to me a question much deeper than just probability, and I settled – for the longevity of our relationship as much as the logistics of the race – on him having already passed us and now steaming his way into the third kilometre. 

So we began walking again, taking a shortcut across the huge market square – sidestepping market stalls, pigeons and tourists – in the direction of the finish. For anyone who hasn’t been to Den Bosch, it is a lovely, charming little city with winding, narrow streets, quaint independent shops, and it’s very own pastry: the Bossche bol, a 5-inch spherical profiterole coated entirely in chocolate fondant icing. None ideal for navigating from A to B under strict time restraints and with one hand busy holding someone else’s mobile phone. As we entered a labyrinth of passages just off the main square I checked the app once more, just in case. It was now miraculously working, and Gijs was (miraculously) almost at the finish line…oh sh*t! Not knowing exactly where we were on the map, I needed a quick moment to acclimatise myself and judge if we were anywhere near the end. We were, but Gijs was nearer. And so my race began. Clutching his iPhone XS as protectively as I did my undersupported bosom, I started a trot-to-canter-speed beeline to the Parade, where all of the other – better prepared – supporters were waiting with banners and signs for their loved ones to cross the finish line. I was also wearing a backpack, filled with jogging bottoms, a spare t-shirt, a towel, deodorant, water, etc., for my beau, which was bobbing along behind me, almost as buoyantly as those at the front. I must have been quite a spectacle, especially given that I was not a formal participant in the big event.

With less than 50 m to the finish his phone vibrated in my hand: Gijs has finished! it enthusiastically informed me. I, on the other hand, had not. The last stretch became a bit of a blur as I elbowed my way through the thickening crowds to greet my hero and try to pretend that I had in fact seen his magnificent accomplishment. 

The set up was a little confusing and it took me a couple of minutes just to work out where on earth I would find him, but I did eventually spot him on the other side of the railings, sports drink in hand, face red and moist, breath still recovering. He gestured for us both to walk around the side of the area, to where we could be reunited and him adorned with praise and superlatives. 

His first words to me were, “Never again.” Thank God! That was far more physical exertion than I’d bargained for on a sacred Sunday morning. We celebrated with a beer – my word did I need it.

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Yogis and Vegans

As someone aspiring to be both a yogi and a vegan, a full-day yoga and vegan festival sounded like the perfect Sunday activity to reignite my lapsed and not-quite-fully-committed-to holier-than-thou lifestyle. For, before Sunday just gone, I had not taken part in a yoga class, or solitary practice, for at least seven months; and my near-daily chocolate habit is regrettably not confined to milk-free dark varieties. So I was definitely in need of a gentle boost and some yogic and plant-based inspiration. 

The Yogific (yes, Yogific) Yoga and Vegan Festival was just the ticket. Off I tootled on my bicycle on sunny Sunday morning, yoga mat slung slapdashedly over my shoulder, legs peddling at double speed to make it in time for the 11 o’clock session: Fundamentals of Ashtanga Yoga for All. (It was the ‘for all’ of the title which piqued my interest most; I, like you, hadn’t the foggiest what Ashtanga was, but knowing that I wouldn’t be completely out of my yoga-less depth was reassurance enough to give it a go.) The bike ride itself turned out to be a warm up for my core, having to balance (precarious as ever on my bicycle) with the added imbalance of a right shoulder bearing the weight of my Dopper (my Dutch friends will know) and the cumbersome length of my rolled up mat, which proceeded to jab me in the thigh on each and every peddle. I spent the entire journey trying to readjust my baggage while staying upright on my bike, as well as avoiding any bleary-eyed pedestrians who lingered on the bike path just a moment too long. It was quite the journey. I arrived red-faced, on edge and thoroughly ready for some Ashtangic healing.

I realise in hindsight that the ticket collection situation was another preparatory exercise to get your body (and mind, to an extent) feeling flexible and fluid. While at the time, for me at least, it felt awkward, unnecessary and a little bit painful (I suppose the perfect introduction to a day-long yoga session). The three or four ticket attendants were sitting inside the building, the Klokgebouw (Clock Building) to be precise, each with a top hung window separating them from the outside world, which opened approximately five centimetres at the bottom, to give a kind of boob-height crevice through which to conduct their ticketing business. One either had to stand up straight and shout at the volunteer through the glass, or bend down to align mouth with opening to ensure audibility of a more socially acceptable conversational volume. I opted for a combination of the two, which, after my slightly stressful commute there, presented itself as a confused mime artist with passive aggressive tendencies. Anyhow I got the ticket and gained access to the event.

Ashtanga Yoga appeared to me quite similar to how I perceive and know ‘yoga’ as a pursuit to be, with the main difference being the conscious attention paid towards two specific muscle positionings: the Mūla Bandha and the Uḍḍiyāna. Just hearing the sounds of these words made me feel more yogific. Accompanied by hand movements gesticulating an upturned jellyfish contracting followed by the stylised removal of a cloche from said jellyfish, our instructor explained these muscles to us laymen as the pelvic floor and two centimetres below the belly button. Right. That I can understand. Trying to hold them both in while breathing and performing various poses and Sun Salutations, however, was another challenge entirely. I persevered, though, and felt good for it, and definitely forgot the woes of the outside world, which I guess is one of the main objectives. 

Next on the agenda was a series of talks, spanning meditation, mental health and meeting your nutrient goals while following a vegan diet. Each talk and speaker was very different and very good, and each displayed a distinctive yogi / vegan / hippie accent to their appearance. We had the dreadlocks. We had the patterned harem pants. We even had the FiveFinger / ‘minimalist’ / ‘barefoot’ running shoes (you know, those reptile-like ‘shoes’ that separate the toes and look to induce four inescapable toe-wedgies in each foot of the victim (I mean wearer)). We had it all. 

The talk room itself was almost as off-putting as the choice of footwear. It certainly wasn’t made for talks, and clearly had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate them. Bearing in mind that the yoga sessions had a capacity of two hundred, the talk room had an advertised capacity of thirty-five, but in reality could seat ten comfortably, with the rest having to find a section of floor space on which to perch in the lotus position, with (perhaps) an unfortunately closer look at the individual toes of the speaker. Fear not, though, I always managed to bag myself a chair or slice of sofa – anything to not be at eye level with the twinkle toes of Spiderman.

An overpoweringly large silver table also featured in the room, slightly off centre in its haphazard placement, with no purpose or function other than to get in the way of the already limited floor space and provide a strange focal point that the speakers were forced to work with. My favourite speaker verbally acknowledged the barmy layout, much to the relief of the audience who had – for five plus hours – been questioning the choice of furniture individually, and felt a great sense of togetherness when this confusion was out in the open and shared collectively. Ah. There’s nothing like feeling part of a community.

As this was a vegan festival, I had high hopes for the lunch offering. These dreams were quickly dashed on realising that there were a total of two food stalls, between them serving vegan ‘chicken’ for an unbelievable three euros (I can never understand why anyone who choses not to eat dead animal is tempted by fake dead animal…but that’s just me) and vegan poke bowl for an eye watering €9.50 (my dish of choice oftentimes, but on this occasion marred by the presence of broad beans (?), unseasoned non-sushi rice (??) and dubious tasting grated carrot). I went for the poke bowl and was unsurprisingly underwhelmed, and now near penniless. Satisfied I was not. And what better way to compensate then a large piece of vegan (naturally) baklava? Nothing, as it happens, as that put me right back into my Zen-like headspace. Om.

My final session of the day was Yin Yoga for Stress Relief and Ultimate Relaxation. Turns out I clearly needed it. We were in Seal Pose (yes), which involves lying face down on your mat, hands underneath shoulders, then straightening your arms and hollowing your back to look up at the sky. I thought I was doing quite well until the instructor tiptoed up behind me to push my shoulders down, pull my head up, and say to me, very deliberately, “Relax!” Approximately two feet of space opened up between my ears and shoulders after her intervention; it is conceivable that I was holding some tension there. 

On my cycle home I did feel calmer, freer and a little more mindful. I got back in time to watch the second half of the Premier League final, only to discover that our sports channel was solely showing the Man City match, cutting to Liverpool (whoop whoop) only when something exciting was about to happen. This made for some less-than-relaxing viewing of a less-than-ideal result. But I was Zen now. So I just watched those City goals drift into the net; observed their presence, without judgement; and let them pass, as if into thin air. 

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Why the Dutch are Different

A couple of days ago I began reading Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates (a Christmas present from my father – thank you very muchly). Now, I’m only on page twenty-five at this point, but I can already confirm that it is a ruddy good read. And not just because it confirms my growing suspicion that the Dutch are, in fact, those of a very different breed. Having lived in their country for just shy of eleven months I have come to understand – or at least recognise – a number of Dutch ways, if you will, and for the past year have been trying to acclimatise myself to these new phenomena, one (clog-footed) step at a time. Some of them I am adopting quite happily; others perpetually make me wince. But through reading this book I am at least gaining a better understanding of some of the reasons behind the differing behaviours I am witness to this side of the North Sea.

I am also, in a matter of just twenty-five pages, becoming acquainted with more of the Netherlands’ history than my Dutch-born and -bred partner. Last night in bed, for instance, we did not whisper sweet nothings into each other ears, nor did we enter into any kind of dirty talk (I am British, after all, and the thought alone sends a subtle injection of embarrassment through each and every vein). No. I sent my boyfriend off to sleep with a lullaby of the history and significance of the Dutch windmill; the dairy industry’s supposed impact on the height of its citizens; and how ‘the need to coordinate the construction and maintenance of flood defences’ has shaped the country’s current political landscape. It’s no wonder we both had a terrible night’s sleep.

But before I delve too deeply into Ben Coates’ – I’m sure highly considered and witty – conclusions of how the Dutch are different, I want to make some of my own. Mostly so that I can congratulate myself on those, if any, that we have both observed, but also in a bid to unveil, slightly, the realities of moving to another country, no matter how similar on the surface, and trying to become fully integrated into day-to-day life and all that is deemed ‘normal’.

First on the list of differences has got to be the language. Of course the vast majority of Dutch people, especially those living in the city, speak near-fluent English, with a better grasp of grammar than I’m sure a large proportion of the British population. (This is not a jibe at the Brits; merely praise of the Dutch and their excellent adoption of our funny old language.) Coates describes Dutch as ‘a language that sounded to an outsider like a drunk man gargling soup.’ He is pretty much spot on. Although I have to say, during my time in the country so far, I have become more used to, and even affectionate towards, the sounds that appear in Dutch dialogue, and am improving, albeit very slowly, my ability to pronounce some of them.

There are many sounds in the Dutch language that we simply don’t utilise in English, which makes learning them all the more difficult, especially as an adult. I have come to realise that it is in the manipulation of the shape and formation of your lips and tongue that produces these otherworldly noises, and I can tell you: re-training your mouth is harder than lifting any set of weights in the gym. But before I feel too down in the dumps about it I must take a moment to think about the Taiwanese guy in my Dutch class, whose native tongue is so far from the position needed to make an ‘r’ sound, let alone a rolling one, that really I don’t have much to complain about.

Aside from the problematic sounds, the Dutch also have a wonderfully troublesome habit of joining words together to create seemingly endless terms consisting of far too many double letters and far too little opportunity for breath. Meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornis, for example, translates to dissociative identity disorder, formerly known asmultiple personality disorder. Split up it is much easier to understand: meervoudige(multiple); persoonlijkheids(personality); stoornis(disorder). But joined together, as one frightfully long single word, it is overwhelming and confusing and enough to make even the most promising of language students run for the hills (if they had any in this country, that is). If only the Dutch suffered from multiple word disorder instead… But perhaps it is intentional, thought up by a secret journalistic society, and meant for people just like me who often have to stick to word counts and have far too much to say. “Just bung them all together and the word count is effectively doubled!” A brilliant feat of Dutch engineering.

Now I’m afraid the time has come for me to get onto the kissing situation. On the cheek, of course – they may be different but they’re not animals. It’s three here. Right cheek to right cheek; left to left; and back once more to right against right, just in case your presence had not yet been registered. The main problem is: I’m not much of a cheek-kisser on the best of days. I’m more of a hug kinda girl. So the already uncomfortable closeness of one skin-on-skin interaction is tripled here, and compounded by the fact that I’m never one hundred per cent sure that the three kisses are going to materialise, so I hover, awkwardly, between the first and second and second and third respectively, creating an even more excruciating situation trying to avoid any unintentional lip-on-lip action.

I’m not sure that it’s the closeness, per se, of the kiss on the cheek that I find so unbearable; I think it is the sound that I find more off-putting. Hugging, after all, if very physical and very intimate; but kissing on the cheek has the unavoidable lip-smacking sound effect, which – especially with elderly male relatives – I find thoroughly nauseating. I tend to make an audible ‘mwah’ sound as my cheek touches theirs, which in itself sounds absurd but it at least masks the stomach-churning gentle ‘kissing’ sound.

On birthdays this ordeal is amplified, with a concurrent handshake added into the mix. It’s almost like rubbing your tummy and tapping your head – you have to really focus and get into the rhythm to complete the act successfully. If you were to get out of flow you would end up holding hands and smooching your father-in-law in the middle of the living room, so concentration really is key. But if all goes to plan at least the extra brainpower required distracts you from the gesture itself, which is a welcome relief.

Last but not least, the Dutch and their behaviours surrounding tea drinking are somewhat of an idiosyncrasy. Firstly, they take their tea – their English Breakfast Tea – without milk. Well. That is just sacrilegious. I mean… I have no words. It is, in my humble opinion, unacceptable in all circumstances, and I am slowly trying to change their ways but have had little to no success as of yet. (I will persevere.)

Their ritual of serving tea is also very different to that back home. On asking for a cup of tea here one is presented with a clear glass mug (no personalised or comic ceramics in this country), filled solely with hot water. One is then presented with a chest (!) of teas, with all manner of flavours to choose from, from the comfort of the sofa. One is also presented with a little dish (that might be used for olive stones, for instance) in which you are to place your used teabag once your cup is brewed to your liking. For most Dutch people the brewing period takes approximately 2.5 seconds – a couple of dunks of the teabag and they are good to go on their slightly seasoned hot water.

While English Breakfast Tea served black is against my lifestyle and life values, the little pot in which to deposit the used bag is a habit I’m more than happy to adopt. I aim for the recommended two to three minutes brewing time for my EBT, and the accompanying saucer allows me to take my brew to wherever I so wish, granting me the ability to continue with my work, or Friendsmarathon, uninterrupted, knowing that a simple lift of the string (the teabags all have strings here) will transform my cuppa from work in progress to gloriously rich hug-in-a-mug. And then it is like I’m transported home, to times gone by, when a Yorkshire Tea and Rich Tea biscuit were all one could possibly ever need. Bliss. Or should I say, gezellig.

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A New Experience

Have you ever been in a room and thought, “what the %$?! am I doing here?” At a zumba class perhaps, or a dubious country hostel in the outback of Romania… While both of these scenarios I have indeed unluckily found myself in, the event in question here is the south Netherlands spectacle that is CARNAVAL. The block capitals are in sympathy to the manner in which the word is spoken inside my head. When I say spoken I mean screamed. And when I say inside my head I mean reverberating inside my skull for time immemorial from the lungs of every native of the North Brabant and Limburg provinces.

It’s a big thing here, the ol’ CARNAVAL. It’s bigger than a British Christmas. And as my mother’s daughter that is truly saying something. People takes days, sometimes weeks, off work to partake and indulge in it. It hasn’t even begun this year and I’ve already attended two absolutely absurd events, and missed many, many more. For this year not only am I residing within the country; my boyfriend’s younger brother has also been nominated / chosen / selected by God / Allah / the Dalai Lama to be one of the Prince’s helpers. Yes. A helper of the Prince. And that makes CARNAVAL a mere ten hundred times more intense. But also a lot more enjoyable. And also makes me – the strange foreigner – the talk of the town.

CARNAVAL, in short, is a three to five day festival (depending on how committed you are, and how far south you live; which for the in laws is very and very, respectively), involving the teeny tiny tots to the unsteady elderly dressing up in garish outfits while men in tights and long-feathered hats ‘get the party started’. The Prince is King of ‘getting the party started’. And the Prince’s two sidekicks, of whom I have a familial connection to one half, are his wingmen, if you will. But that is not all. Prior to the five pre-diarised days of pandemonium, one has the event to reveal and crown the Prince (and his sidekicks), and two weeks later the grand Prince’s Reception.

The first event – the crowing of the Prince – was thrust upon me quite unexpectedly. (As has the whole concept of CARNIVAL been.) I was, in fact, on a rare girls night out on the town, enjoying scrumptious sushi with a Roman (Federica, a girl from Italy’s capital, not a relic) and a Kiwi (Bhamita, a girl from New Zealand, not a luminous healthy snack). We were planning on continuing the evening at a nearby bar, where our partners would meet us following our girls-only dinner. As the last drop of Chardonnay was poured from the bottle my boyfriend walked into the restaurant. He’s come to join us early! I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For he had come to inform me that his brother had just informed him (at 20:30 on the night of the ‘crowning’) that he was, in fact, the Prince’s second hand man, and would we like to watch his big reveal. His parents, too, had been dutifully informed at the last minute, but for them the logistics were a little less challenging as they at least resided in the same town as the party. We were in a different city, 45 km away, not to mention the fact that I was otherwise engaged with some rather tasty tuna tataki.

As my boyfriend went back to our apartment to pack an overnight bag (due to the timing and distance we would need to stay at his parents’ house; there goes the lovely brunch I had just ordered and collected from Too Good To Go), we (the tempura trio) decided it really must be a big thing for him to come in like that, especially given that he had actually been out with a friend of his own, whom he had unceremoniously ditched to attend the great unveil (but the friend apparently totally understood, because, “he was from the south too”). So I needed to get a move on. It was now 9.20 pm and the train we needed to catch was at quarter to ten. I met my boyfriend outside our apartment, overnight bag with all my essential requests in tow, and we made a dash for the station.

On arriving into Horst Sevenum, a ten-minute drive from where the event was being held, we were collected not by one of Gijs’ parents – gosh, no, they were locked in the stock cupboard of the venue, not allowed to be seen by any party-goer’s eyes as that would immediately give away the game of their son’s involvement – but by someone Gijs went to primary school with, who had been sent to fetch us, along with a black cape for Gijs to wear when entering the venue via the back entrance, just in case anyone were to catch a glimpse of him too. There was no need for me to be camouflaged – no one knew who the hell I was, and as the night(s) progressed this fact became increasingly apparent.

We inconspicuously made it up to the waiting room and were greeted by a sea of adolescent males wearing silver trimmed capes and boat-shaped hats, drinking beer and complaining of bursting bladders (as they were not allowed out of the room either (one actually went on the roof to take a leak and got locked outside in the process)). I started taking photographs, naturally, and was reminded not to put them on social media before the announcement in ten minutes. I reassured the master of ceremonies that, in case he hadn’t noticed, no one knew who the hell I was and certainly wasn’t a friend of mine on Facebook! My English accent suitably reassured (and humoured) him (and them all).

When the announcement / reveal / crowning took place we still weren’t allowed in the main auditorium; we had to watch backstage from the gallery, and I felt as if I had won a VIP ticket to an intimate One Direction gig in which the band mates were in a school play and the crowd was everyone but 1D fans. There were no screaming girls here, just a lot of knee-slapping men in tights drinking pilsner and jigging to ear-jarring Dutch ‘music’. I realised there was a lot I needed to get used to.

Once the Prince and his best men had been announced we were allowed to join the masses, and take part in the knee-slapping, pilsner-drinking and joyous jigging. This went on until around 1.30 am, but this was by no means the end of the event. No. For as tradition goes, after this (and other) CARNAVAL events the entire crowd is offered an open invitation to the Prince’s home (or parents’ home in this case), for which no written directions are required because everybody here knows who everybody is and where everybody lives. (Except for me. He he he.) So we trundled on to the prince’s house, which, hats off to his parents, had been pet-cleared and plastic-flooring-fied in preparation for the masses.

The tradition is not only for an after party at the house of the Prince, but an after party involving fried egg sandwiches at the house of the Prince. We arrived at his home, walking straight through the front door without even knocking, to a domestic scene of bread-slicing, plate-arranging and egg-frying from all the Mums. It was quite a spectacle. The egg bap was actually very pleasant, while the infatuation of one Prince friend or relative to my English accent was a little overbearing but nonetheless complimentary. On his fifth utteration of, “heeeeeerlijk” (delightful, wonderful, lovely, delicious), my boyfriend and I decided it was time to make tracks.

The event if this weekend just gone, the Prince’s Reception, was similar in format although there was a lot more hand-shaking, present-giving (one must buy presents for the Prince and his helpers), and a lot of shoulder-saluting when anyone was adorned with another necklace. There were (many) speeches in a dialect I cannot understand, but I have to say that this was far preferable noise to the previous CARNAVAL ‘music’. I managed to escape Sunday’s shenanigans after just two hours, to go back to his parents’ to watch the Liverpool game and have a nap on the sofa, but was back in time for the (earlier than previous) egg session at, this time, the house of the parents of the other Prince’s helper. At 8 pm this equalled dinner so I had three egg baps a bottle of beer and said goodbye to any concept of nutrition.

The CARNAVAL proper is happening this coming weekend, which oh so unfortunately coincides with a friend’s wedding back in England – so I’m only going to have to miss it!!! I will be back in time for the final day, however, next Tuesday, one week today… On this day there is a play of a farmer’s wedding and one must dress how a farmer from eighty years ago would when attending a wedding. Nothing easy here. But with enough pilsner I can pretend I am back at the British wedding and sipping glorious prosecco. Prost!

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