Sunday, 11 August 2013

Lone Traveller

My Biblical Archaeology lectures were illustrated by slides of the lecturer at various ancient sites (an über-early adopter of the selfie?) looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and Mr Bean.  Not only was the subject fascinating but his slides made this strange and historic land seem accessible and familiar. 

Having been on several family holidays to Europe I decided, at 19 full of the arrogance of youth, that I was amply qualified to toddle off to Israel to check out these places for myself; no one would come with me so I stubbornly decided to go on my own. 

That was 17 years ago and the beginning of my solitary travels.  I am currently alone in Malaysia and thought this would be a good time to provide some reflections on travelling as an unaccompanied woman.  One of my pet peeves is people who imply that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to travel, so I am merely offering one perspective, based on my own experiences. 


Total freedom
On that trip to Israel I visited the Western Wall approximately six thousand times – I was absolutely mesmerised by everything about the place.  Not having to justify or explain that decision to anyone, or forgo that experience to accommodate their desires, is self-indulgence on a level that’s hard to get in real life.

Meeting people
An interesting one, this.  Personally, I am something of a misanthrope and am not really interested in meeting people for the sake of meeting people.  Small talk gives me the eye-rolls and most people (myself included) are fantastically dull until you get to know them properly (which rarely happens in a ‘travel’ scenario).  That said, being alone makes you more approachable and allows you to sort the companion wheat from the dreary chaff fairly easily.  I have met some amazing people on my journeys who I would simply not have got to know so well if I had had someone with me to dilute my (and their) attention.

Easier to squeeze in
There’s often room for one more person on a tour / bus / table where there wouldn’t be room for a couple.  This can lead to…

Getting adopted
I have been adopted by trainee priests, expat families and hotel staff, giving me access to experiences I would never have had otherwise.  This rarely happens to couples (though does happen sometimes to single sex pairs) and I think is particularly likely when you are a female alone – people often want to protect and nurture you, which I’m fine with!

Superior people watching opportunities
One underrated advantage of having no one to talk to is that no one knows what language you speak.  This opens up a whole new and wonderful world of eavesdropping on monumentally unguarded conversations (just be aware of that when you're the one having the inappropriate chat and thinking no one can hear you!).


Most hotels are charged per room rather than per person.  Since accommodation is one of the biggest expenses when travelling (if you’re fussy, like me) this is a very real issue.  There’s no real way round it if you're not prepared to share with strangers.

Sometimes it’s just nice to share stuff with someone.  Evenings can be particularly difficult on your own; you need to get comfortable with just a book or a notepad and pencil for company.  Modern technology is your friend here; the invention of the smartphone since I started going away on my own has removed a large part, though by no means all, of the loneliness factor.

So, you’ve decided you can handle the occasional bouts of loneliness and your bank manager has confirmed that you can afford not to share accommodation; here are my top tips…

  • Always carry something with which you can reserve a seat – a cardigan you don’t need to wear or a book, something you can live without if it gets pinched when unattended – it is incredibly frustrating to have a prime spot in a café only to lose it when you need a wee.
  • Take pictures of maps or directions.  If you feel vulnerable wandering round alone with a map out – basically screaming ‘I’m a tourist!’ – use your camera or ‘phone to take a picture of it.  That way, you can be checking out where to go whilst looking like someone nonchalant and local enough to be walking and texting.  Clearly, there are places where having your ‘phone out is ill advised, but this works really well in lots of places.
  • Wear really dark glasses.  For the people watching.
  • Take tours.  You’ll meet people whilst having a set time to get rid of them (at the end of the tour) or carry on hanging out, as well as learning loads.  When you travel with someone you discuss what you’re seeing and hearing, which deepens the experience and is missing when you’re solitary – a tour can fill this gap.
  • Don’t bother with a fake wedding ring.  I’ve seen advice that says wearing a wedding ring will minimise hassle.  It won’t.  Knobheads will be knobheads – the kind of guy who’s going to hassle a woman on her own is not the kind of guy who’s going to think ‘oooh, she’s wearing a wedding ring, I’d better leave her alone out of respect for the ancient and venerated institute of marriage’.  Sadly, in many countries, hassle is what you will get (and this doesn’t just happen when you’re alone or when you have a vagina, it’s just a frustrating part of being a visitor in some parts of the world).
  • Enjoy yourself!  Make the most of the freedom and pack something to cheer yourself up if you feel a bit blue (personally, I like some good undies and some fancy shower gel, but each to their own).

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I prefer travelling with a good companion than without one but that's not always possible.  Lone travel is, for me, always going to be preferable to no travel.

I'll finish with a small selection of things I would never have seen if I refused to go away without a friend as a comfort blanket.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Horrible Housemate

Sharing is not a strength of mine.  

Fleeing the marital home meant making a jump from financing 0.5 to 1.2 households.  As a woman used to living to the limits of her means, this was going to involve some major lifestyle changes; keen to minimise these, I briefly considered renting a room in a shared house.


Then I remembered the previous times I’d shared houses with people who were not bound by matrimonial vows to put up with me and decided that it wasn’t fair on anyone to pursue that option.

As an undergraduate, I shared accommodation for three years.  Whilst I dearly loved many of the people I cohabited with (indeed, fourteen years after graduating, I still count three of them amongst my absolute dearest friends) I never particularly enjoyed communal living.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy company – when the wind is blowing in the right direction, there’s nothing I like more than hanging out with my nearest and dearest – it’s just that I like solitude too.

On the recommendation of those who’d trod the path before me, I spent my first year at The University of Manchester living in Owen’s Park – the largest of the halls of residence.  Somehow, I ended up as the only first year on a corridor of third years, sandwiched between an Italian dentistry student and another girl I only remember as being big and geeky.  Right now, I imagine there are some very lucky Italians getting their oral hygiene attended to by a beautiful woman in her late thirties.  Sixteen years ago however, she was just a stunning student with a steady stream of European suitors who, disappointed with northern England’s female offerings, were content to sit in her room all night and remain sexually unfulfilled while listening to loud europop.  They also had to deal with me knocking on the door every hour or so, apologetically asking for the music to be turned down.  I could see them turn to her for guidance as to how to respond – do we laugh in the face of the quiet, nerdy young girl from next door in a bollock-waving display of masculine dominance, or do we politely and considerately acquiesce to her request in an attempt to showcase our maturity and new-manliness?  Either way, it didn’t win me any friends.

The housemates of 1 Latchmere Road
Second year was spent in a mould-filled house with five other people, one bathroom and a shoebox-sized kitchen.  I was the asshole who was never happy.  Why couldn’t people wash up their crap after they’d used it?  Why did they feel it necessary to share their shitty music tastes with me?  All night?  Why did the door have to be slammed?  It was unlucky for everyone that the room-allocation process plonked me in the ground-floor bedroom between the front door and the living room.  As the least social member of the household, giving me the room which everyone had to walk past when they got in late at night was a bad idea.  With hindsight, it would have made sense to stick me in the attic.  It didn’t help that I was exceptionally uncool and sharing a house with a bunch of people who were into the kind of lifestyle that necessitated coming home at 4am on drugs which made them noisy.   It also didn’t help that I was incapable of putting up with this without coming over all snotty and uppity.  Either way, 4/5 of those housemates realised they couldn’t stand living with me, so when the time came to look for accommodation for the third year, only Lucy came with me.

The ladies of 255 Yew Tree Road
255 Yew Tree Road was a beautiful house.  Four of us lived there during our third year and I imagine that the reason I am still close to all of them is because I was rarely there.  I met my future husband at the end of my second year of university and spent half of my third year at his house, meaning my uncanny ability to piss off everybody with whom I live was diluted by half.  Hurrah!  Clearly the way to keep my friends was to not live with them – I am only a nice person to be around when I have chosen to be in company.  I am not good enough at the social dance to follow the steps when I’m not feeling the music.

My long-suffering ex-husband lived with me for thirteen years.  During that time he was berated for just about everything.  I need my home to be a place of safety, sanctuary and stability so if he so much as changed a door handle without telling me first he was in trouble.  Toothpaste and stubble in the sink?  Big-time bollocking.  Recyclables put in the normal bin?  Unforgiveable.  Dirty crockery left on the side rather than put in the dishwasher?  Banshee-level outcry.

I don’t mean to be a difficult housemate.  I consider myself to be thoughtful and reasonable though I guess my cohabitants thought the same about themselves.  Currently, my tiny house is shared with a cat.  So far, she’s not showing signs of wanting to leave.  We’ve only been here a year though; it’s early days…

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Single Dweller

Invisible from the road, my house is reached by a single-track private road off a single-track public road on the outskirts of a single road village which no one’s ever heard of.  It’s three miles from the nearest pint (of either beer or milk) and about an hour’s drive from the nearest motorway.  During spring and summer it’s like living in Disneyland; as I come home I am accompanied up the driveway by partridges, hares and squirrels and I often share my space with swooping barn owls and circling raptors.  In short, it was the perfect place to flee to twelve months ago to lick my wounds and recover from the break-up of my marriage.

Whilst I knew I would appreciate freedom, I hadn’t entirely realised the many forms that freedom takes, or how much joy there would be in the simplest of them. 

If I want cereal for dinner, I’ll damn well have cereal for dinner.  And if I want to cook a massive stew and eat it every day, then that’s fine too.  Washing up been sitting there for a few days?  So what?  There’s no one to blame but myself, and somehow, when it’s only my mess, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Invitations can be accepted or declined without giving any consideration to anyone else’s social responsibilities or desires.  Stay out every night for a week or lock myself in with a bottle of wine and a cheesy rom-com?  Not only do I get to make that decision, but I get to make it at two minutes’ notice. 

My books on the shelf, my knickers on the floor, my wine in the cupboard – being in control of one’s own surroundings is like building a hug you can live in.  Add an open fire and a year without discovering a single odd sock and suddenly you’re swaddled in an all-enveloping embrace from a favourite, fragrant, buxom, childless aunty that you haven’t seen for years.

Obviously it’s not all red wine and daffodils.  It took me a couple of months to develop an effective way of folding fitted sheets, and I am too short to vacuum the spiders’ webs out of the top of the stairwell, but all in all it’s been a much needed year of breathing space.  It’s been a year which has allowed me to experience these freedoms and realise that I don’t want them forever – they come at too high a price to be a long term indulgence.  Is going straight from work to the pub without having to make a quick ‘phone call first worth a lifetime of having to nurse my own hangovers?   Probably not.  Is a ‘Step Up’ trilogy marathon three nights in a row worth never again smiling as I glance at a nicknack which evokes shared memories?  Almost certainly not.  Is the pleasure of eating a bowl of Shreddies whilst my knickers languish on the floor worth the sacrifice of not regularly waking up next to someone who loves me?  Definitely not.

Disneyland may be magical, but magic must be shared to be fully enjoyed.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


On March 24th I will be attempting to run just over 13 miles on forest trails for no reason other than bloody mindedness; I didn’t think I could do it so now I have to prove myself wrong.  Twisted, I know.  The upshot of such recklessness is that I have been training pretty hard in an attempt not to embarrass myself on the day.

In the last few days, several people have assumed that I am exercising regularly because I want to lose weight.  I comfortably fit into size 12 clothes – below the national average size of 14/16 – and am a healthy weight for my height, with a BMI in the normal range; why would I want to lose weight?  I am strong and supple with a wonderful wardrobe that I’d hate (and can’t afford) to shrink out of.  Sure, I wobble, and there are bits of me that aren’t as perky as they used to be, but that would still be the case if I were smaller, I’d just be colder and less well dressed.

If intelligent grown-ups are still buying in to the idea that women should be trying to be thinner then what hope is there for young girls?  How can we show them that healthy and strong is what matters?  The Olympics helped but there’s more to be done.  The average person in this country is overweight so I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that most people should be trying to lose some poundage, but when skinniness alone is the goal, it is often achieved (or not) at the expense of health.

One of the things that I love about roller derby is that there is a place on the team for anyone who is fit enough and dedicated enough to earn it.  The teeny blocks of solid muscle who don’t present a spare inch to hit; the long, lithe girls who pass you with one slippery step; the powerhouses of unshiftable mass who are speedy and nimble enough to always be in the way – a group of roller girls is like a campaign poster for all the different ways that strong and healthy can manifest itself. 

I’ve been fat and unhealthy.  I’ve been slim and unhealthy.  Being strong brings confidence and happiness.  Busting out a hand clap push up makes me ridiculously proud, as does knowing that I am in control of my body, it isn’t in control of me.  Come the 24th March I will run that half marathon with my super fit friend and I will not let her or myself down.  She’ll beat me, but that’s fine; my competition is with myself.  Physical strength and mental strength feed off each other and this spiral can serve to strengthen or weaken – take control of the direction yours is going in.  Be strong.