Grateful for Europe (not a Brexit post)

I was lucky enough to travel to Berlin with work this week, and to meet colleagues from across Europe. Along with the absolute treat that was staying in a five star hotel, I was also reminded of how lucky we are to have the freedom and ability to hop across the channel; that within hours we can be sitting in a café in any number of European cities, eating a croissant or a bratwurst or a beef goulash; drinking a Cava or a coffee or a beer (I don’t even like beer but hey, you get the picture I’m trying to paint. It’s romantic!).

Despite the fact that we are geographically so close – and I’m sure this is only my romanticised, been-there-for-a-week-on-holiday viewpoint – I find such a positive cultural difference between the UK and the other European countries I’ve visited. People seem more passionate, more engaging, more open; daily life seems somehow more relaxed – there’s always time to sit and drink a coffee or to spend hours talking over dinner, or to have a conversation with a stranger. I realise I’m being horribly general. Maybe it’s just because they’re speaking a different language which my small mind finds somehow exotic. I don’t care, I love it!

One of the things I enjoyed most about my time in Berlin was simply having the opportunity to spend time and speak with people from other places. Living in London, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the whole world isn’t contained within the M25, that elsewhere in Europe people have similar, yet interestingly different ways of doing things, thinking about things, going about their daily lives. How fascinating to hear about a Norwegian colleague’s journey to work across the Fjord, to learn that driving around a herd of elks on your way home is completely normal in Sweden, to hear such a range of beautiful accents (all speaking perfect English of course), to greet people with two (or even three if you’re Dutch) kisses on the cheek.

And I must also give mention to the PASTRIES! Nothing in the UK ever compares to the buttery goodness of a continental pastry or a breakfast bread basket (complete with salty, creamy butter of course) – and I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who has the misfortune of being gluten free in Europe. A continental buffet breakfast is an actual dream.

We’re so lucky in the U.K. that we can pretty well go anywhere and guarantee that we’ll be able to make ourselves understood. Even the man selling sausages from a giant sausage-shaped backpack near the station speaks perfect English. I am totally in awe of anyone who speaks more than one language, and feel universally embarrassed that we as a nation are afforded such a laziness when travelling abroad that we often don’t even try a basic hello.

Having completed GCSE German many moons ago (A* might I add – check me out), I had even managed to throw a few danke schons around the place by the end of my stay in Berlin. Sadly I didn’t get to use the one phrase I do remember from Frau Dibb’s classes – Ich trage ein grun rock – but hey, you never know when you might meet a blind German person who desperately needs to know what colour skirt you’re wearing.

My experience of Europe has probably been fairly typical, and there’s still much I have yet to see. But what I have seen has left me with many great memories – holidays to France and Spain with family: long, boiling hot days spent in the sun-bleached garden of a French gite drinking Peach Ice Tea; trips to Carre Forre to buy new school stationary (when things were actually cheaper abroad), or discovering that you could eat a three course meal with wine for ten euros in Northern Spain (bye bye exchange rate, it was good whilst it lasted). Waking up to the gentle sound of cow bells in the Spanish countryside, marvelling at endless fields of startlingly bright sunflowers in the South of France, or tulips in Holland. Being completely dumb-struck by a visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, or amazed by the light and colour in Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; eating the most unbelievable marshmallows on a trip to Lille with my Mum – never to be found again, no matter how hard we looked.

There was of course also a completely culture-less trip to Magaluf, age 18 – the less said about that the better (I’m shaking my head at my juvenile self, lugging a backpack full of cheap wine and vodka onto the plane in the days before anyone spoke about terrorism and there was a 100ml liquid limit); a hen do in Berlin where – in classic Brits abroad style – we made our young, trendy guide (nose ring, Doc Martens, backpack – at stark contrast with our ‘girls on a hen do’ dresses and heels) pause the pub crawl so we could make a pit stop for pizza at 7pm (dreadfully uncool) following a day cycling around the town on a ‘beer bike’ (we drank Prosecco instead). Weekend breaks and trips with friends – discovering local bars and restaurants, smoking shisha in a ‘ruin pub’ in Budapest and nearly missing our plane the next day, drinking fruit beers in a hidden cliff-side bar in Dubrovnik, overlooking that amazing blue sea, seeking out a tapas bar for locals in Barcelona and ordering way too much food embarrassingly early.

We’re so lucky to live so close to so many countries of rich culture, beautiful food and amazing sights – and it breaks my heart that in these dark times the world seems – in a way – to be getting smaller again; that people may be scared to travel to Paris or Brussels; that others might not be able to gain access as easily as they might once have done, that children born today may not have the same freedom to cross borders, to explore, to see more and learn more. Whoops – maybe this has turned into a bit of a Brexit post. Without knowing what the future really holds, let’s make the most of it whilst we can: book that EasyJet flight, drink that third beer (even if it does cost ten euros at today’s exchange rate), try that weird looking fruit (it will most likely be tasteless) – eat as many pastries as you possibly can!

 

Grateful for Theatre

Last weekend I went to the theatre with my Dad – it was a new comedy with Nigel Herman of former Eastenders fame (sorry, that’s what you get in Birmingham); nothing to write home about but an enjoyable evening all the same. The theatre has always been a part of my life – don’t get me wrong, I’m afraid acting certainly isn’t my calling (Liza Minnelli, stand down), but having been born to parents who met in an Amateur Dramatics society, I was only ever going to love the theatrical world myself. That quiet anticipation of the orchestra tuning up as the lights dim; the striking first bars of the overture, setting the tone for the musical journey to come; lights, colour, fantasy; the weird little box of Maltesers that you only ever buy at the theatre; that burning rage when you have the misfortune of a ‘whisperer’ sitting behind you…

Musicals are the soundtrack to my childhood – I vividly remember car journeys on holiday, with my Dad blasting out the soundtrack to Les Mis (when my brother and I really just wanted to listen to Westlife or Ronan Keating; don’t judge, we were small). It annoyed me at the time but now whenever I hear the first few notes of I Dreamed a Dream or One Day More (or any of those wonderful songs) I am filled with emotion. I’ll admit, they might just be a touch better than such Keating classics as ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’.

buttonmoon

I think the first show I ever saw was Button Moon (yes, that children’s TV programme from the 80’s with characters who were spoons) at our local Library Theatre, and at this point, aged four, I used to name all my dresses; so I had a ‘Button Moon dress’ that was yellow with white flowers. Other memories include countless occasions with a coat stuffed at the back of my red velvet folding seat, trying to weigh it down so it wouldn’t swallow my little five year old self up; putting my coat on in the interval of Peter Pan because I thought it was over; and being allowed to sneak in and watch a dress rehearsal of The Sound of Music for which my Dad was working as stage crew (despite sounding exciting, it was actually heinously boring; in my distant memory it lasted at least four hundred hours thanks to them stopping and starting a million times).

As a hobby, my Dad worked as stage crew for a number of years and I used to think this was so cool; this was of course in the days before any fancy set design or automation – so as the lights dimmed between scenes, Dad and his friends – clothed head-to-toe in black – would creep onto the stage like burglars, removing and replacing scenery, pretending they weren’t really there. The excitement of spotting Dad up there in the darkness was probably more thrilling to my brother and I than the show itself at that time.

Through Dad’s connection to the theatre, we ended up with a variety of spare props and costumes at home. A giant safety pin from the stage version of The Borrowers sat on the sitting room hearth for many years, and we had a dressing up box bursting with costumes and potential – a furry tail and waistcoat from Fantastic Mr Fox, dresses and coats from a multitude of eras – as well as my Grandma’s silver dancing shoes and my Mum’s 1970s bridesmaid dress. I would coerce my brother into acting out plays, dramas and talent shows, filmed with our giant video camera and then played back to any family members who would watch.

1933749_504839623033_9817_n

Despite definitely not being made for it (that’s me, second from the left), I did also have a couple of dalliances with the stage myself, having participated in a number of shows with the local ballet school that I was part of – I vividly remember the thick greasy makeup; stripes of vivid blue across the eyelids, pots of lurid green hair gel dolloped onto the head with aplomb, bun nets, hair grips, brand new ballet shoes; girls of all shapes and sizes poured into unforgiving apricot leotards. Twenty eight year old girls packed into one dressing room; the main piece of excitement being what time you’d be allowed to eat your packed lunch. 

I don’t go to the theatre as often as I should and unfortunately it’s the prices that put me off – I’m so lucky to live in London, half an hour from the West End bursting with shows. Cheap tickets are wonderful but there’s nothing more disappointing that getting a ‘bargain’ and being stuck behind a pillar, seriously considering paying a pound to use the tiny binoculars. My parents famously saw Phantom of the Opera from the very back row; the dramatic moment when the chandelier drops from above the audience made somewhat less dramatic by the fact that it was already hanging beneath them.

Nothing stirs the emotions like a good musical – whether that’s the raw passion of Evita belting out Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, the ridicolous joy of the Von Trapp children signing Do-Re-Mi, the gritty sadness of Billy Elliot, in the scene where his mother returns from the grave to sing about how she’ll always be there, the devastation of You’ll Never Walk Alone in Carousel (why did that ever get picked up by a football team?!) or the bursting love of Mamma Mia; escapism, drama, sadness, joy, ridiculous flamboyancy – some people don’t get the whole ‘bursting into song’ thing but I love it. In today’s world of uncertainty, why the hell not?!

12144872_10100324666789793_3960886922848067960_n

Grateful for Opportunity

This week has mainly involved lots of work again and, whilst I could sit here and moan about longer hours or annoying colleagues or not enough money (and don’t worry, I do), I also have to sit back and feel grateful for the fact that I have a career: something that makes me feel worthwhile, respected, exhausted-but-in-a-good-way. That I have the opportunity to interact with people from around the world, to use my skills and let’s face it, to earn enough money to survive. It’s not something we should take for granted.


Whatever horrors life has thrown at me, going to work has always been a bit of a safe haven for me; a place where I could just pretend I was a normal person whose mother wasn’t dying of cancer, where I’ve got a job to do and other people relying on me to do it. I can’t imagine how I would have coped these last few years without that normality, that full inbox and packed to do list to occupy my mind. Of course there were many times when I wished I didn’t have to trudge backwards and forwards between Solihull and London, when the thought of opening my laptop filled me with dread, feeling that I was letting colleagues down and not giving one hundred percent (because I genuinely didn’t have the energy to give one hundred percent), but thanks to the understanding and kindness of my work family – and they genuinely are a family – I see how important it was to keep going.

Throughout my career, I have been so lucky to be handed a number of opportunities, to have had people around me who want me to succeed and who have championed me much more than I felt I deserved.

My first foray into the world of work (forgetting a forced four days at Lesley’s Bridalwear in Year 10, when my main task was taking the owner’s dog across the road for a wee), was two weeks’ work experience at Penguin on The Strand – I had never really even been in an office before: didn’t know that it’s annoying as hell to go and hover next to someone’s desk waiting for them to stop typing, or that you should say your name when you answer the phone, or that nobody goes and actually sits in Pret to eat their lunch.

I look back on those two weeks with some regret; I didn’t make the most of the opportunity, was too nervous to try and impress anyone or ask any questions or volunteer an opinion. That first day I was so terrified I couldn’t even sum up the courage to tell anyone I didn’t yet have a security pass, instead remaining frozen at my desk with no way of going outside to get lunch. The people who worked there – mostly women – seemed so self-assured, so confident in what they were doing, so unlike anything I thought I could ever possibly be. I felt clumsy and childish – because I was – not realising that everybody starts off in that place, that it takes time and hard work to develop that confidence. I’ll give myself a little bit of credit here – Penguin was a pretty intimidating place to start, and I imagine I’d still feel a little bit like that if I went back there now, but needless to say, this work experience did not result in a job (although I did get a bag of free books – every cloud hey?!). My two weeks there did also play a valuable role, teaching me that in order to succeed, I would have to step out of this terrified bubble and stand up for myself. That even with my first class English degree, I would have to give something more.

What followed was a frantic few months of job applications. It was 2008 and the peak of the recession; this, and a ‘qualified for both everything and nothing’ English degree not being the best combination, I eventually found myself in an admin role at a small company in Tooting Bec. The office was quite literally falling down, and it was full of some of the maddest people I had ever met, but it was certainly the opposite of intimidating. Throughout my two and a half years in this role, I took on greater responsibilities, grew in confidence and learnt what it is to work in an office, to be part of a team, to have an opinion that is valued; to sigh and delete one of the hundred daily emails from an office manager with not a lot better to do (example: ‘Subject header: Soap; Body: Thank you for getting the soap. Kind regards.’). I had a boss that for some reason saw something in me, who wanted to help me to develop and grow, and I was lucky.


Looking back, this was not the real world – myself and a colleague (who is one of my best friends to this day) had weekly ‘poster meetings’ where we created a decorative to do list for ourselves; we spent a high proportion of our time in silent hysteria, tapping away on MSN Messenger about what stupid thing one of the office juniors had just done, or shut in her office pretending to do something important but really just online shopping. Oh to have that much free time! But it was a safe environment for me to find my feet, and by the time I moved on to my next role in the City, I wasn’t quite as terrified as I had been that day in Penguin.

I was of course a little terrified: I had a Scottish boss who I could barely understand, a manager who had been in the Royal Navy (who had perfect fingernails and was absolutely nothing like I imagined a woman who had been in the Royal Navy could be), a South African desk-mate who spoke on the phone in a mysterious foreign language, a fearless American colleague with a flawless blow dry and a leather coat: these people would become some of the most important in my career. They taught me to speak up (and even to speak a bit of Afrikaans!), to have confidence, to ‘demonstrate, don’t declare’; they made me feel valued and important, they pushed me – and they continue to do all of these things.

I’m still with that company and have gone through so much in the five years since my first day there. I’ve learnt that what motivates me is being part of a team – is being accountable to others who you like and respect. I’ve gone through major life events and come out the other side, thanks to the amazing people that I work with.

Here in the UK, we’re so lucky – we have a choice. We can choose what we want to do; whether we want to work with children or work in sales or work as a farmer. If we don’t like what we’re doing, we can choose to do something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion that we’re living in some kind of American Dream ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ utopia. We’re absolutely not, and you absolutely can’t. As my boss once said to me, ‘the sooner you realise life’s not fair, the better’. I’ve been extremely lucky to have grown up in a family that supported my education, that could afford to send me to university (we’ll ignore the £12,000 debt for now); to have been given the tools that enabled me to attend a job interview, to write a CV, to make a (hopefully) good first impression. I have no doubt that lots of young people in this country don’t have that solid backing; don’t have the right people around them, or the right clothes to wear, or the support system to keep trying: don’t see the point. But I keep coming back to what our lives could have been like had we been handed a different lottery ticket and been born in Ethiopia or Haiti or Liberia. If I’d been born in Saudi Arabia, I could perhaps work as a nurse or a teacher or a housemaid, but I’d have to rely on a husband to drive me there. Even if I could get to work, I wouldn’t be allowed to mix with any of the male employees when I got there. When I think of the freedom that we have in this country, it’s unimaginable that someone like me in another part of the world has so little. How can we even be living in the same time period?

I’m so grateful for the opportunities that my career has furnished me with so far, but more than that I’m grateful for the individuals who have taken the time to back me, to listen to me and to be my friend. Regardless of what job you’re doing (or even if you’re not doing a job at all and are instead bringing up children or caring for somebody), as long as you’re appreciated it’s so much easier to get out of bed and keep going for another day (despite the fact that Southern Rail might be doing its darndest to stop you). Wherever my career takes me in the future, I’ll keep with me so much that I’ve learnt along the way, knowing that I do have something to offer, that I can do more than I think (and that the only person who’ll ever thank you for doing overtime is yourself). And if I could say anything to my nervous self, crying on the train home after that first day at Penguin in 2008, it would be ‘don’t worry, you’ll get there… and also, bring a packed lunch tomorrow’.

Grateful for Makeup

When I started this blog, I worried to a friend that I would struggle to find a serious enough topic each week; she said ‘if all else fails, you will just have to do a makeup post (but then follow it up with a really political and hard-hitting post the following week’. Myself and this friend can genuinely have a half hour conversation about one shade of eyeshadow, or share an hour’s worth of texts about the perfect mascara brush, so this was not a surprising suggestion.

No promises for a hard hitting political post next week, but as I pondered my complete and utter undying love for all things makeup, I realised that it has always been quite a sociable hobby for me. That even though I am under absolutely no illusions that it is just makeup, it has also been something that I have shared with friends, that has brought a shimmer to a dull day; it’s fun, it’s silly, it’s a wall of shiny new packages that promise to add glow to my skin or plump my lips or double the length of my eyelashes. I’m an advertiser’s dream when it comes to makeup, and my housemate laughs at how gullible I am, despite working in marketing myself – make me a ridiculous unfounded promise based upon the opinions of 78% of 6 women and I’ll still be first in the queue to buy it as long as the packaging is pretty.

From those first clumsy forays into the world of cosmetics – choosing a lurid green hair mascara from the Solihull indoor market; begging my mother to buy me Bliss magazine for the free rollerball lipgloss that all the Year 10 girls kept inside their blazer pockets (because who didn’t want their hair constantly stuck to their sticky-beyond-belief lips?!), to shopping for my prom makeup with Mum and choosing the perfect sparkly lipgloss and an eyeshadow quad from a proper grown up brand (Maybelline – so fancy) – I was hooked.

At this time, and for quite a few years after, there was no Instagram, no YouTube tutorials, no celebrity makeup artists – just other girls. The girls I was envious of had stripy, choppy haircuts, intense black eyeliner and little gems or stars stuck at the side of their eyes. My friends and I strived to achieve this look through an obsessive collection of Barry M Dazzle Dust eyeshadows: little pots of sparkly magic that were layered across the eyelids in four stripes of colour, and tiny sequins that were applied to the side of the face using Vaseline. There was no foundation, no blusher – certainly no bronzer or eyebrow pencils – but then they would have been pointless at our sweaty local rock club anyway. And looking back now, I’m quite sure our youthful skin didn’t miss out on any of those extra layers.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when work colleagues bought me my first Benefit makeup – a smoky eye palette and Bad Gal mascara – that I really realised the true ridiculous extent of this hobby; that there is always another step to be added to one’s makeup routine, that if you don’t buy a new mascara at least once a month, you’re wasting your time. My new job in the City also gave me new inspiration: the women in my office all seemed to have shiny painted nails, the House of Fraser two doors down was bursting with makeup counters (complete with intimidating women wearing red lipstick and tight ponytails), and standing crushed on the tube each morning gave me the perfect opportunity to examine other girls’ faces in close proximity (not as creepy as it sounds, promise).

In some small (and yes, I’m aware, completely shallow) way, my love of makeup has helped me forge friendships: ‘oh my god, I love your eyelashes!’ is now a perfectly acceptable conversation opener, and what a treat when meeting a new work colleague to discover that we both had a mutual love for Urban Decay Naked palettes (yes, you absolutely do need all of them – there is no limit to how many nude eyeshadows a girl should own); I knew at that point that we would be good friends forever. What an absolute joy to spend over an hour drunk in Inglot choosing eyeshadows like sweets (if you’ve never been, you must), or advising a friend on how to make her underage daughter look old enough to go and watch the X Factor (she got in!), or using as many products as possible on the friend who usually refuses to wear foundation.


In no way am I purporting to be any kind of makeup expert – I could only dream of that kind of Instagram-perfect, airbrushed beauty – but I think that’s part of the fun. It means there’s always a reason to buy more, to pore over YouTube videos seeking the best value make up sponge, to lament about a rubbish primer with friends or rave about an unexpectedly smooth concealer; to laugh at old photos of spidery-thin eyebrows or orange faces, to share the joy of a great product for a friend’s birthday present.

Makeup is art, expression, creativity – but it’s also just makeup. It’s fun, it’s a treat, sure – it’s superficial, but it’s a little package of sparky, powdery, glossy goodness to cheer you up on a bad day. I’ll forever be on the quest for a matte lipstick that won’t dry my lips out, a foundation that truly airbrushes my pores, a liquid eyeliner that doesn’t take four hours to draw the perfect cat eye – and granted, I’ll probably never find any of them, but I’ll certainly have fun trying.