Saturday, 5 November 2016

Swimming in October, All Saints Day, olives, visits to police...

Quiet Gatwick
What a week! I arrived in Dubrovnik early last Saturday in a state of nervous exhaustion. London, with a three day trip to the north, had been a whirlwind of friends, family, and general catching up. Thankfully it had been a relatively stress-free return journey, and with 16 of us on the flight, then the only person on the bus to the ferry port, it was like Croatia was trying to tell me something. London transport had been manic as usual, so it was a ridiculous contrast. My bags and I were eventually safely on the ferry - after the usual wait - but for superstitious reasons that I shall explain shortly, I decided against the usual huge trip to the supermarket. Given I was also lugging an awkward suitcase and massive backpack, perhaps it was just sensible.
As I sipped my welcome home cup of tea on my bright terrace, it took a moment to hear the silence. My ex-flatmate's place was actually quieter than I anticipated, and certainly more peaceful than she had billed, but that's only because the permanent white noise is turned up louder to counter the intermittent peaks. Either you stop noticing it all, or you take to your own headphones to drown out everything. This deafens everything including your own thoughts, which is scary. The overwhelming sensory experience of a big city is partly what makes it stressful. Although the senses are strained and pummelled here, it is extremity of a different kind. Artificiality v nature; people v isolation; choice v seasonal availability; grey v green.
This time of year is so 'familiar' at home. I only have to smell sweet ginger, clean woollen jumpers, burning leaves and green wood, damp misty mornings, and I'm transported back to the parties we had as kids; warm spices scenting the air, lit candles in dark places, happy friends and family gatherings. Our focus in the north is necessarily on damp, dark and spooky nature, and perhaps we tend to conflate US style Halloween, 5th November and later, Armistice Day. Having only briefly experienced southern European All Saints Day with the masses of flowers, and focus on remembering the dead, it nonetheless reminds me - again - how similar we all are underneath. Our different cultures, religions, ways of celebrating only serves to highlight what is universally important to humanity.
Not spooky
The masses of flowers in the park and market in Dubrovnik that welcomed me, were stunning. Everyone was buying a formal flower arrangement for family graves. I was asked how we remember our dead loved ones and whether a particular time is set aside to visit cemeteries. There was a stunned face as I explained that my most missed loved one isn't buried, but was scattered in a wood by the side of a reservoir. My father is everywhere and nowhere; in my heart; in the open, in the nature he loved. I confirmed that, for me, that was as close to a 'heaven' that anyone could ever wish for! I don't need a special time to remember, it's impossible to forget. The unhealthy concern for bodily remains I find the most disturbing and curious aspect of many religions, but perhaps that's why I can't be doing with Halloween - unless it's a nice piece of gingerbread, with a bonfire and sparklers.
Still, it reminded me that I am very far from the UK and very much out of my comfort zone. Swimming in October, fish BBQs, tractors and olives, visits to police...this life is beyond anything. The landlord worried about my wish to be cremated, and that I hadn't brought slippers back. Some people have very strange priorities.
I had been invited to go up to the olive oil factory on my arrival but for one reason and another, it didn't happen. In retrospect, I'm glad that I had a few days in the groves before going up for the final part of the process. Instead I was welcomed home in a blaze of sunshine, and it wasn't just the unaccustomed hills that left me breathless on my late evening run. The sunset was incredible and augured well for a sunny few days. I've even managed a final dip in the glorious sea; the chilly fresh water springs that pour into the harbour had definitely made their presence felt. The light which I'd missed for two weeks was pouring into my bedroom on Sunday, which meant I was woken up bright and early, and I dashed outside on to the terrace to see the golden sparkles on the bay. Without slippers, obviously.
The coffee places in the village are now very limited and I wondered if the buzzing metropolis of Sipanska Luka could offer more choice. Taking a gentle stroll in the sun to the other side of the island, I knew that I should be starting work but it was pleasant to delay for another day. I also knew that I had to face the possibility that I could be asked to leave the country any time after Monday 1 November, which is why I had held back on doing a huge shop for provisions.
Whilst in the olive fields that afternoon, I asked about the next day's trip to Dubrovnik for a new tenancy agreement and some police lady sweet talking. It had to be done on Monday because of the All Saints holiday on Tuesday. There were grumbles. And more grumbles. The forecast was consulted and the 6am ferry was agreed upon. Just as olive season was really picking up, I was dragging the two gentlemen to town. Little Miss Popular, I was not. Still, I made myself useful in the fields.
The next day I was feeling sick by the time we were due to leave. As it happens, regardless of weather forecast, we had to take the fishing boat and car into town because the amount of running around we needed to do. The police station is right at the top of the hill, a good 30 minutes walk from the port. We started with the lady at the police station, did the paperwork, got it notarised, went back to the lady...didn't have copies of stuff, got copies and went back to her. I was to come back Friday for my registration certificate. By this point, after three times up the hill, the human blood pressure matched that of the car's, which demonstrated its displeasure by expiring in a puff of evil smelling engine smoke. It refused to start.
If you remember, I have one other experience with this car. It had failed to start back in June and we'd needed to jump it, then we were too nervous to switch it off whilst dashing around for the same paperwork. I pointed this out, and now it seems women are banned from his car. Luckily his mate was in town and we got a lift back to the village where their boat was moored. It was an extremely wet and bumpy ride back to the island as there was a strong wind blowing. I can report that my new yellow coat is wind and waterproof. All of this on a Monday before 2pm and we hadn't even started the day's olive picking yet...
To be continued...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The show must go on.

Yesterday I was sitting in a tavern on Park Avenue enjoying a drink or two and reflecting on what had been a pretty good day. And then my world imploded.

I received a message at 17:26 that opened with “I regret to inform you…”.

Five words to strike dread in to anyone. The message, whilst appearing to come from a very close and dear friend of many years was actually from his nephew. My reply was as lucid as I could manage given the flowing tears and waves of regret, but I had to be fast as he had stated that the phone would be switched off after the message.

Regret. Regret for having not seen somebody one last time, this is not the first time in the last month as my father-in-law also passed away and I was unable to see him one last time. In fact to compound the emotions yesterday was his funeral and I was unable to attend, as apart from being in New York I don’t think I would have been particularly warmly welcomed. Though I understand and accept why this is the case.

So now I have two new holes vying for position with others.

One of those past holes was made in New York. At 8:46 a.m. on the 11th of September 2001 one of my closest friends was in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. She had arrived early for a meeting at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

So I too am in the wrong place at the wrong time as multiple memories are conspiring to turn me in to a gibbering jelly.

But I will bounce back. I always do. And in the dark of the night I will remember, smile and mourn in isolation. And be grateful for what they all brought to my life.

Life that inevitably goes on.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Run fatgirl run...

In April you might vaguely recall that I had to run. Not for a bus or a train of course, honestly darling if you have to do that you need to review your life choices. No this time it was for a plane. And not as you might think that I was late to the airport but rather because I was sat at the champagne bar doing what every Contrarian should do, drinking fizz and writing. More specifically I’s been updating the new landlord with the Economy-7-not-working-so-we-had-no-hot-water problem.

A bit awkward really.

The thing was I had put that incident out of my head until this afternoon when I was standing in Gatwick’s departure hall and saw said bar. You see I had been so engrossed I’d not heard my flight called and being blind as a bat couldn’t see the display. So when I checked and saw that the gate was closing in just a few minutes time I actually ran.

And this is what I remembered. Me. Running. Me.

I’ll leave that to sink in. No giggling at the back.

So here I am at 40,000 feet somewhere over the North Atlantic en route to New York. A place that I realised would mark an important milestone. When I run there I will pass one hundred miles in my running shoes. Not sling backs, actual running shoes. It’s been a difficult journey.

So what went wrong?

Well back in August my ex announced that they would be doing the couch to 5k program. I was vaguely aware of this as I knew of one or two other lunatics who had done it. But me? Well I had sort of praised myself that I would start running when I was down to weight which, needless to say, never happened as a mixture of chrimble, road trips and general comfort eating did its very best to reverse all may good intentions.

In short dear reader, I was back to being a bit overweight. And when I saw a  bit I don’t mean a bit.

Inevitably I had to do some research, after all if the ex was seriously considering it then really anything they can do… And it didn’t look so bad. She says. All I had to do was install an app, do a little bit of walking and a little bit of running et voilá 9 weeks later I’ll be able to run five thousand metres. Or roughly the distance from my apartment to St Pauls. What?


I honestly wasn’t sure this was a good idea but I did at least see that the idea was to slowly break you in. Well, that or just break you. So off I toddled to Sports Direct, found some running shoes in my size that owing to their shocking colour were much cheaper. I suspect this is what is known as unfashionable.

Or a little something I call normal.

Anyway, I decided that there was no time like the present so on getting home I felt there was no time like the present, changed in to something vaguely sporty that I used to wear for roof exercises in the old place before the roof terrace burnt to a crisp. And fuelled by a fury from a text message I’d received I stomped out to try and make sense of the app and do a run.

Having chosen Sarah Millican as my voice of encouragement, she at least speaks like me, I headed off for that first brisk warm up walk. After the five minutes had passed it was time for a minute running. It didn’t seem so bad. This was easy, I was a natural! This was followed by a walk then another run. Still okay. In fact there would be eight one minute runs. How hard can this be?

Very. Bloody. Hard.

The first run/walk
By the last run I wanted Satan to rise up and point out that it was my round at the No Hope cocktail bar in hell. Jeez.

The 25th of August would go down in the annals of time as being the day I lost my good sense and sense of decorum.

By the time I got home I’d caught my breath and though I looked like somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me it didn’t matter. I actually felt pretty good. I mean shaky legs is good. Right? The next run would be at the weekend. This time though I
would have the ex with me as it sort of made sense for us to do it at the same time. It seemed harder this time, my body had clearly realised something was going on and it throughly disapproved of whatever it was.

Things seemed to be going well. Sort of.

The third didn’t seem as bad as the second and I decided maybe it would be okay. Well except that the next run was, well worse. The same idea but the intervals had changed a little. And it was harder though on the plus side it now meant I only had to contend with six running bits. Six perfectly formed little steps of torture.

By this point I’d decided the best time for me was to run in the morning as otherwise I would get home feeling too tired to go out again. Ladies and gentlemen, I had a routine!

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I would *leap out of bed, pull on my running clothes, head out in to the dawn and listen to Sarah both encouraging me and giving tips. She’s a canny lass.

There was an upside to all this, I was getting to see some spectacular sunrises as summer drifted in to autumn and the sun gradually sunk lower in the sky. And there were more useful benefits, my recovery time was definitely better, my heart rate and breathing becoming normal far more quickly. It was still horrible but now it was doable horrible and whilst I couldn’t quite see how I could manage to run for thirty minutes I could see that Sarah really believed it.

By week five things were getting serious, three five minute runs with a pair of breaks. But day two was different, run eight minutes twice with a break. That wasn’t so bad. Or at least it was better than what happened on Friday and day three… Run. Twenty. Minutes.

What? No, no, no, no. I can’t do that.

Turns out sometimes I’m wrong.

Week six followed a similar changing pattern but things were getting longer. Oh crikey. Friday though… Twenty five minutes. I was by now urging myself on by saying run to the next lamppost. Or any other handy landmark that was a very short distance away. It was a case of mind over body and body was presenting a very persuasive argument.

Week seven took me by surprise, I was expecting it of course, but what I wasn’t expecting was being back to the runs being the same. Or that each would be twenty five minutes. Oh hell.

Week eight topped that as we moved to twenty eight minutes. I also now had a problem, I’d run out of places to run. I had been walking to the Thames, then running through King Edward Park, around Shadwell Basin, through Wapping Woods, along the ornamental canal and then turning around at Vaughn Way before retracing my steps. And those extra three minutes… Dear lord.

The final week coincided with Missy being back in Blighty so we agreed that she would run with me on what would be my final week of the program and the point where I would run for thirty tiring minutes. Trouble is… She’s an experienced runner so our pace was up a bit. But. Incredibly…

I did it.

I couldn’t quite believe it. Fortunately I didn’t burst in to tears as I did when I reached twenty minutes but it was still emotional. As expected we ran out of track so we had to run on a way through Limehouse which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with but by this point I had to just keep moving or fail.

The second thirty minutes wasn’t much better. In fact if anything it was harder because I found that being tired has a massive impact on my ability to run and if truth be told I was running on mental and emotional empty. The route was different again, this time we ran along Limehouse Cut and past our old apartment. In fact we kept running all the way to the A12 before we had to turn around. It was difficult but doable.

For the final run we took the route up Regent’s Canal turning around at Victoria Park. We agreed that the trouble with the canal routes was that owing to the number of cyclists it was fairly unsociable as you spent a lot of time running in single file.

So what have I learned? Well the programme clearly works. And being tired is a really bad idea so I need to try avoiding late nights before a day I need to run. Similarly walking seventeen miles up and down hills and around Wiltshire is a really bad idea just before a run. I also learned that it’s nicer to run with someone, I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But the big thing I learned was
Headphone health warning...
about me and about my sheer bloody mindedness in doing something I’ve not done in 35 years. And, incredibly, that I quite like it though this is tinged by frustration of my body and lack of stamina. Only time and effort can fix that. I've also learned that sweat and headphones are poor companions, if you look like the picture to the right after running then get yourself some waterproof ones. Just saying.

So what now? Well since then I’ve run another week and even this morning though I’ll admit the runs didn’t go as well owing to a number of very late nights taking their toll. I can’t promise that the first New York run will be any better but I can tell you this, I can’t wait to put the 100th mile on my running shoes.

Now that has to be an achievement.

*force myself to move as I really wanted to sleep more