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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Thirty Five Candles. Celebrating, Not My Life, But Being Alive

Yes, THAT many candles

A year ago to the day I decided it might be a good idea for me to go into hospital for a while, because of my depression. I realised that my ability to cope with the day-to-day had become severely impaired, and that I had been more stressed than ecstatic to have my friends over to ‘celebrate’ my birthday (which is today, by the way.)

Me last year

The worst symptoms of my depression and anxiety were in full flow: I was trying to do everything possible to make everyone at my party have a good time. It had been a miserable failure of a plan, since the bouncy castle I’d organised for the fun of it and trip to the park with friends and their children all had to be called off on account of rain (just like most sports days I remember) and I was rushing around our flat instead, frantically getting drinks, food, conversations going and feeling my heart beat quicken and quicken in my chest.

Enough. Time to talk. Time to act. Time for the truth.

The final straw was when I had a wobbly moment with a good friend I thought I had offended. To a people pleaser like me, to please is the goal (a short term goal, because I believe I’m only as good as my next act of goodwill towards others) and to displease is catastrophe, causing internal combustion.

Ugh. Hate displeasing people. 

So, the next day, sitting on the sofa and tidying after the night of many drinks, laughter, conversation and lovely people, I quietly called the hospital where I see my psychiatrist and enquired about in patient care for the first time. I wasn’t a suicide risk, and I knew from past experience that my mental illness was not (is not, has never been) bad enough for me to be admitted under the NHS. I learned that there are usually beds available at the hospital. I learned I needed to speak to my insurer. I
learned that I could arrange the whole thing with relative ease. (Thank goodness. I was not well enough to do anything difficult.)

It was the first step towards admitting to myself that my depression (and anxiety, which I hadn’t even realised I had, despite running around like a headless chicken and running (literally) myself into a skinny nervous wreck of a person) had become so debilitating that work was becoming impossible, and social gatherings also a major challenge.

It’s pretty bad when you see your best friends around you and you feel utterly disconnected from them, and from the world you’re living in. Yes, I was smiling and laughing and passing around drinks, making conversations happen and passing the canapés, but all at top speed, almost as if to slow down and drink in how I genuinely felt would be as calamitous as a car smashing into me at top speed, obliterating my whole being into the mess of blood and cells and harmful thoughts that I was subconsciously aware were what made up ‘me’ at the time.

I didn’t know anyone who had ever been in hospital for mental illness, except a distant cousin’s mother of my mother, years ago, when that sort of condition meant a long term stay in the type of institution that can rarely be found anymore. I made that phone call to hospital because, practical as always, I wanted to know what my options were. I realised I couldn’t go on. It’s not ‘just the way life is’ to cry at spilled milk, spilled anything in fact, all the time, or at a lost book, a broken pencil, at the thought of getting off the sofa and walking to Marks and Spencer just across the road. It’s not normal, i.e. healthy, to dread going to work and to cry every morning about it because of the untouchable contractors who are ignoring you or bullying you with snide comments and belittling at every opportunity (well, it would be normal to dread going to work, but I would certainly say to anyone, don’t put up with it if it’s happening). I am a planner, I am practical, I am resourceful even in the face of damnable, draining and dreadful depression, and I suddenly realised that perhaps there was an option not to feel so terrible every day; not to wake up and wish that I had actually not woken up at all.
The steps on from there have been mostly documented in my posts over the last nine months or so. I have morphed into someone who not only accepts her depression as something acute and (currently) looking like it may be with me forever, despite best efforts to relieve the symptoms through medication, rest and cognitive behavioural therapy. I have also, in the last year, spoken out about it, and with every conversation (and I don’t have that many, I’m not one of those people who, when asked “How are you?” gives you a twenty minute account of the minutiae of having depression) I have felt a little more self-accepting, which is the biggie. Everyone else has been lovely. I have been hard on myself, as I always am. Do better. Do more. Do everything. Do it now.

Okay, okay, depression, I'll do it, I'll do it. Now please sod off out of here.

I’m still that person who wants to do it all, now, to perfection. I have my manic phases where my brain goes into overdrive trying to predict every possible outcome from every upcoming conversation or exchange to ensure that I have planned my behaviour to be ‘correct’ (and, really, what the hell does that mean?). If I am on a non-sedative night my legs will shake and shuffle around with restless leg syndrome that stops me from sleeping and my brain will kick in to that mode of restlessness, endless opening and closing its many filing cabinets to pull out all the items on my various to-do lists, work to be completed, meetings to be held, weight to lose, events to organise, friends to see. It’s exhausting. It’s impossible to maintain.

Take that, Depression (and, naturally, David Bowie)

That ‘me’ can’t last, so I’ve allowed some other characteristics to enter my personality: the ability to relax (okay only sometimes, but sometimes is a lot better than never); the ability to be honest about how I’m feeling, even at the risk (in my mind) that people will judge me for it and that I may never get promoted at work because I have an acute problem complicated by a catalogue of physical injuries.

You said it Cher.

But it’s worth accepting those risks, those potential, may never happen but possibly might risks, because I can’t live without changing into the ‘me’ that is sitting here, typing this on her thirty fifth birthday. I don’t know that I’d be typing anything, doing anything, if I hadn’t taken that risk and started being honest to myself and others about the fact that I do not have an unbreakable exterior shell. In fact I’m all eggshell, to be broken again and again and again.

Just because it's an awesome song. Nothing's gonna stop us!

When I blow out my candles today (and yes, of course there will be candles, because I do love birthdays even though celebrating the fact that I’m alive seems like a bad idea to me (sometimes) because I (sometimes) wish I were not) I will sit and acknowledge the past year. I’ve said ‘Here I am’ and then jumped off a cliff into the rocky seas of honest living. It’s terrifying and tricky and hard to stay afloat, and I will keep being bashed around by depression a while longer. But I made it, and if that doesn’t deserve a hot dog with all the trimmings, Champagne and a day where I celebrate being still here at all, then I don’t know what does. Happy birthday to me. Jessica, you made it. One foot in front of the other and maybe you’ll make it to 36. 

Me this year. Well, not quite, but time to dance!

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Poland Pick and Mix: Pork, Pork, Pierogi, Pope(s) Piwo and Przepraszam

We just got back home after a whole week in Poland, the country I’ve been trying to visit with Mat for over nine years. Both exhausted because I now (as previously documented) score points on the Richter scale for my snoring, I wanted to capture some quick, light reflections on the elements of Poland I’ve now experienced first-hand. And then go to bed so you can read all about it and tell me what you think tomorrow. So, I bid you goodnight, but before I go, having seen some of Warsaw and Kraków in Poland, I can now confirm the following:

1.    The concept of vegetarianism is still a relatively new one. I mean, you can order some vegetables. Especially potatoes, the Poles love potatoes. And they love red cabbage and all kinds of cabbage actually – sauerkraut and more, and you can expect mushrooms to arrive with your soup. But you can also expect your soup to have sausage in it (because otherwise, well, it really wouldn’t be a proper soup, would it?) and your potatoes will probably have been cooked in pig fat. And your cabbage? It’s very nice, but really just as an accompaniment to the duck, rabbit, venison or other game you must have it with. You really can’t just want cabbage, of course!

 Pork, glorious pork, served in so many guises 

2.     Every food must be accompanied by some sort of pig product if it is to constitute a Proper Meal. For example, a Proper Salad will include bacon. (I knew this already, Mat having already explained that Proper, Proper Salads are in fact burgers with bacon and cheese.) Pierogi (dumplings, nomnomnom) with meat is meat that is porcine. Cabbage leaves stuffed with meat (Gołąbki) means two cabbage leaves with a sliver of tomato sauce and a whole lot of minced, spiced pork. (Apparently, Mat tells me, it’s meant to have rice somewhere in with the stuffed pork. Clearly I missed this carbohydrate addition when I was stuffing my face with the stuffed cabbage leaves the other day.) Żurek (the name given to soup made with rye) contains rye, yes, so nothing against the trade description act there. And an egg, just so you get the full picture here. But it’s also guaranteed to have at least two if not three different types of sausage thrown in to make sure you’re hale and hearty for a day of logging the next day or, erm, walking the half a mile into the old town to eat a massive lody (ice cream), possibly phallus shaped if you’re really lucky.

Duck, with vegetables. Or vegetables with duck. 
You got vegetables, so you must be happy right?

A hot dawg to end all hot dawgs (bottom).
Yep, for pork, you cannot go wrong in Poland.

3.     There is a lot of vodka. A lot. And it’s on sale 24 hours a day in shops which don’t try to dress up their wares with off-licence or liquor store or wine merchant. No, it’s “Alkohole” or go home. Lemon vodka, ginger vodka, bison-grass-pee vodka (Żubrówka), traditional vodka, special vodka, ordinary vodka vodka. They pretty much have it all. And if you don’t want vodka, well, then you can buy pretty much anything else, especially if it comes straight out of the seventies. I don’t know how many years it has been since I saw a bottle of Sheridan’s cream and coffee liqueur, but if you ever wonder where you can get some, you can put your money on Poland to come through. (Although, caveat emptor, really, why would you want that dreadful stuff? Just have some vodka. Really.)

Just a smattering of supplies on offer

4.     The people who sell the vodka, in fact the people who sell pretty much anything at all, practise a sales technique entirely unfamiliar to me as a Brit living in London and as someone who has lived in America. There is rarely a welcome as you enter most (admittedly the more mundane types of) stores. Yesterday Mat tried to buy a bottle of traditional vodka (see above) in one flavour. He and I were discussing which type he should by from the selection of fifty to seventy choices of vodka before us. (Just think of a Lush and how many of those soap bars they have, and now change each bar to a bottle of vodka, each one unique, with its own special something). “What do you want?” (“A co Pan?”) the delightful sales assistant asked Mat without making eye contact and using a tone some might describe as ‘abrupt’. 

It appeared that we had inadvertently walked into a shop wanting to buy something. This is not what shops are for in Poland. Shops are there for the employment of customer service representatives whose joy it is to sit texting or chatting to their friends or perhaps filling out a Sudoku puzzle during their shift hours. It is the height of rudeness to interrupt this delightful, lucrative way of passing one’s leisure time by entering a shop and expressing an interest in one of the products, let alone wishing to purchase it. Be gone, heedless traveller, out of the shop and onwards without your shampoo, your shoes, your fizzy water, and never darken the doors of this establishment again.

5.     See 4, and then add to this the extra pain you cause the unfortunate sales representative when you not only attempt to make an unwanted contribution to the takings of the unlucky establishment, but endeavour to complete your purchase using a note in excess of two or three złoty of the price. How could you be so thoughtless? Surely you would not be so simple-minded as to expect the boutique in question to have such a thing as The Correct Change for notes over and above the exact amount or very near to it? Again, take note, traveller, and ensure that you speak sternly to any ATM machine whose hole in the wall you may darken to clarify that only twenty złoty notes (and preferably tens) should be issued to you. Fifties may gain you a sigh, a casting down of the eyes. Hundreds may cause ill-contained shouting. You have been warned.

"Errr, what? You don't have a ten? Well then, why should I sell you the biscuits?"

6.     You want to pay by card? Game over.

Really? I don't think so.

7.     In direct contrast to 4, 5, and 6, above, and very like the British but – I would hazard – even more so – the Poles love to apologise. Przepraszam is the word you say when you want to apologise. Please use it liberally when you:

  • Want to look at or (God forbid) buy something in a shop
  • Want to pay with a note that means the shop assistant has to phone a friend to get change from down the road
  • Want to pay with a card. (Likely conversation: You “Przepraszam.” Him/her: silence. Facial expression = [Sod off back to where you came from.]
  • Do anything else at all. Pass someone in the supermarket. Use the toilet. Ask a question. (And, obviously, when you don’t speak any other Polish other than this and you can just look simple, say “Przepraszam” and emit the confident look of someone who expects to be helped despite trembling inside.
Say it like you mean it.

8.     On a serious note, don’t diss the pope (and DEFINITELY don’t diss JPII), 

(He is (was / is) The Man)

And be careful around discussing issues of homosexuality. A beautiful artificial rainbow constructed of artificial flowers in Plac Zbawiciela has apparently been burned down 6 or so times, for its (unintentional) connotations of accepting attitudes to LGBTQ. Such was the appetite for burning this accidental effigy that sprinklers now moisten the rainbow at intervals, and a 24 hour police guard protect it from further attack.

9.     Poles are sticklers for rules, so the above may indicate the problems caused by ambiguity: perhaps they might have change; perhaps they might be able to serve you, they just weren’t planning on doing that today. Woe betide the wanderlusty traveller who tries to cross the road without waiting for the green man, though. You’ll get a sharp ticking off from a Polish local for jay walking, and not following The Rules. (Also, you’ll miss the sight of a green man who looks like a character from Funny Bones.) 

Green Funny bones guy says it's okay to cross. So cross!


Then again, you might also find yourself being heartily encouraged to drink up your vodka shots (as we heard one poor Pole, Adam was his name, being exhorted time and time again to do) just because it’s your birthday. The Poles wish you ‘may live for one hundred years’ when they say happy birthday. Not likely, with 6 shots for 10 złoty. You’ll be lucky to last till your twenty third birthday. On which note, after no shots, I bid you goodnight and if you are taking some shots in, well then, good luck to you.

Just say "No (thankyou)", and "przepraszam". Obviously.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Do Widzenia Warszawo and worry warts: working to be well

Warsaw's old town outskirts, near to our apartment on Senatorka

Today we left Warsaw after three days staying in the old town for what was my first ever visit to Poland. Mat used to live in Poland – in Toruń – where he taught Philosophy at Toruń University for a year or so. Again I was reminded of the privilege of being able to travel the world with very few words of the foreign language spoken in my country’s destination. Mat speaks fluent Polish, give or take the odd word (sorrel, for example, which he then remembered seconds later), so I knew that I would be fine with making myself understood, albeit through an interpreter.

Reconstructed part of Jewish Mosque in Jewish Museum, Warsaw. Stunning.

On my own in a few shops, though, I felt rather lost. I could say good morning (Dzien dobry), good day (which is really 'see you again soon', i.e. au revoir', (Do Widzenia) and hello etc. (Cześć). I could also say cheers (Na zdrowie) but very little else, except perhaps to recite the first person present of the verbs to be and to have (Jestem, jesteś, jest…mam, maśz, ma…) The loss of language for me brings a sense of disorientation, because I rely so much upon my written, spoken and read words to make myself feel understood, either through the way I express myself or the way that others express themselves, and how I identify with them. A particular favourite photo of two of my favourite things included below, proving that false friends in language are still alive and well.

Luckily, eating is a great Polish pleasure.
Surely it was here among the smalec that the phrase 
"I am the greatest thing of all time," says Bacon, was coined.

We’ve met a few of Mat’s old friends here in Poland, and I’ve sat beside them as they speak (quite often in Polish) which I say little because the odd word I understand amounts to ‘and’ and ‘of course’: nothing more than the connective tissue of conversation.

Remember to breathe!

Social outings have been few and far between of late, at least ones with close friends, and I have been trying (and I’m still trying) to reconcile my social presence with my totally private one, the one which no one else at all sees, and where I don’t by habit wonder at all times what others are thinking of my every move, glance, gesture, thought, expression and so on. These two presences have always been present in that I have performed to (my own concocted) requirements of an occasion: recounting anecdotes gregariously for the entertainment of others, speaking seriously on business topics with a studied air of what I considered to be appropriate gravitas. Having acted on stage as a child and teenager I had applied myself to the art of creating different personas, and this I carried off stage and into my own existence.

Whichever part of me is writing this blog,
 this guy should have thought twice before ordering that ice cream.
Just my two cents.

As a management consultant it is a key part of my job to get along with people, people of all different personality types and characteristics (or, as we sometimes refer to this in my profession, of different ‘social styles’). Now considering the number of colleagues I have and have had in the past, I am so impressed that anyone speaking a language that is not his or her mother tongue can even try to develop this nuanced approach towards language style in an effort to build greater empathy and trust with other colleagues or clients.

Ice creams. They come in all different flavours and guises. Like all of us.

What I am trying to learn now is not to abandon my ability to flex personae entirely; I accept that there is a time and a place to allow myself a chameleonic presence, and that it is useful to me (and others) that I have this trait. After all, we are all made up of many pieces of us, whether we consider the many emotions that we all feel on any given day, or the fact that we may have a passion for Brahms and Blur or for margaritas and Mexican food as well as Meringue, for Matisse, Monet and for Mondrian. There are the friends I see chick flicks with, the friends I discuss Latin literature with, the friends (most of my like, friends) who like good food and company. And there are the times when I prefer to be alone and enjoy a film or food that I know I particularly like, alone, selfishly, just for my own sake.

Breakfast Martini (right) or vodka sour(left). 
Sweet or sour...we all have elements of both within us.

There is no dishonesty in having these varied tastes, nor in expressing agreement with someone else that Turner was a great painter, while also wondering at the completely opposite, hard lines, abstract and precise painting of Dali.

A face with many sides, and many facets beyond (Dali)

A woman in a hat, but what lies beneath? (Matisse)

Sometimes I am gregarious and loud, and sometimes I am totally silent. It is probably these traits that are more likely to be noticeable to others, so that I might seem to have an erratic, changeable personality. This is true, and I have to make a choice about how I tailor these characteristics publicly. I recognise that if I behave overtly enthusiastically or gushingly, that this can be exhausting for me and for others too. I am equally self-conscious of myself acting this way or being silent and unresponsive, wondering (fearing) that someone might judge me in some way based on this behaviour. (Mind reading, again. Not beneficial to my health.)

It is a blessing to be able to be either of these (or neither) with Mat who has seen me in all dispositions and realises that I can switch from tears to tantrums to laughter with little or no warning between them.

On holiday I can find that I become stressed by a desire to please my travelling companions by going along with what they would find interesting, regardless of whether I do. Also I don’t always do well without structure, and holidays to unknown places are naturally without a defined structure (or at least, I can’t always confirm exactly how they will go) which can make me feel anxious in case I am not able or equipped to go along with plans. I used to be very unfit and once worried intensely about a hill walk with friends. They all went tearing off (or so I felt) up the hill in their walking boots, practised walkers with much more stamina; I panted along behind, feeling incredibly self-conscious that I was holding up the group and spoiling the fun.

Now that my physical health has imposed its constraints I’m trying to take a more holistic approach to speaking out about my needs (as well as imagining other people’s for them), hoping to strike a balance with friends / family when making plans. I will say when I cannot walk on (or am close to running out of steam), when I am tired, when I need to sit and rest (probably for a combination of mental health and physical health reasons). On the train out of Warsaw today we are speeding along for Kraków and my heart is racing on one of my more anxious days. It is unclear to me what combination of factors leads to one day becoming worse than another, but any event where I must get from A to B, pack, move, negotiate tickets, platforms, disability requirements (especially in a foreign language) brings with it added events to contribute to a feeling that all is not well. Added to this a bad night’s sleep, and I’ve had a run of them so far in Poland, with nightmares all night filled with nearly-real-life possibilities of what ‘might’ happen as a result of our continued efforts to move house (among a host of other things) and I am feeling fairly sick.

Calming lunches in Kraków and Warsaw. 
Healthy foods ahead of the lard. And that's not a metaphor.

In my role as a training specialist I tell others that 70% of what we really learn during a change is learned through how we apply what we have formally learned or learned through coaching. I have taken a number of classes on how to apply techniques to combat anxiety (cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety) and also on stress management. Deep breathing is a simple one, mindfulness trickier to master, but good to know that I am feeling anxious in the moment and that ‘this too shall pass’. I learned to schedule time for ‘worrying about that house move’ at 5pm and not allow myself to worry until then, and even then, only for 10 minutes. (There’s nothing I can do about it, after all, so why torture myself?!)

I learned all these things, and more, and yet on the train my heart is racing and I feel sick to my stomach; I feel sluggish because of the effort all the cortisol racing around me causes my body to absorb; I need to nap but my head is flying around, and I haven’t taken a sedative for two days because my snoring is threatening to cause Poland’s first earth quake caused by human activity.
I breathe deeply (Step one). I look out of the train window and remind myself that there is beautiful scenery outside and it is fleeting, like my anxiety, and that at some point it will pass (step two). I tell myself that just because I’m on holiday does not mean I have to have an ‘all singing, all dancing, ridiculously raucous and jolly time, all the time’ (step three). And step four, I schedule worrying time for later. Finally (no steps above listed) I just tell the truth to Mat about how I’m feeling, which makes me feel less burdened to hide my anxiety and jolly myself along (falsely) to do things I have no desire whatsoever to do. Which means I have a much nicer time immediately because the trap of being dishonest has gone. Phew.

Deep breathing whilst mindfully looking out at this
en route from Warsaw to Kraków. Sticking at it does really help me.

We are off to Auschwitz-Birkenau tomorrow. I imagine I will have much and little to say of that, so for now, I will continue to breathe deeply, and absorb the Polish scenery mindfully, because even when I am anxious, I can still try to use the skills I’ve learned. I have to. It's a continuous work in progress though, so I can present myself as an example of the 70:20:10 rule of training, or we all can. We get our prescriptions. We get our physiotherapy exercises. Do we always take them to the letter and continue to progress? Do we always eat healthily when we know that's the best thing for us? Don't we sometimes think ice cream rather than a piece of fruit is what's really missing between us feeling satiated? I can't speak for you, but for me, it's a continuous work in progress. So here I continue...

Pacifying Pierogi. To be recommended in all their flavourings

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Story of Us: Ten Year Anniversary Post

Wednesday, 17th June, 2015. 10 years, 11 months and 364 days post courtiship commencement.

I’m taxiing out of JFK as I write this to return to London after a beautiful New York wedding and a precious few days spent re-exploring and adoring the wonderful city that I was once, for two years, so lucky to call my home. My eyes always dart around expectantly the various paths leading from gate to runway because I am so accustomed to this being the place I depart from, not just to return to London, the town I call my home, but to return to Mat, my now husband, but always lover and friend, who is my home.

Cutting the cake on the happiest day of my life

Again and again, by habit, I look out of the window as once I did aged seven on my first ever flight. “Will this be the turn that takes us from ground to the sky?” “Surely we’re travelling too slowly? How will we ever get off the ground?” “Surely we’ve been taxiing for hours. When will we take off, when?” “Is it time to take to the sky now? It must be, it must.” “Are we nearly there?” At every turn or surge of the engine from the plane my heart beat quickens, my breathing shortens. I am, with each slow turn of those three small aircraft wheels one step closer in my mind, always, from here, to being back ‘home’: back to my beloved.

Goodbye JFK and NYC. See you soon!

Tonight it is different: here we are together sitting side by side on the aeroplane. I’m not finishing up wiping my eyes and ordering Thai food from Enthaice to help create a carbohydrate food coma and lull me to sleep as he flies off. He’s not sleeping already as I excitedly board the plane and wait for every tiny movement forward towards being at home with him once more. We are travelling, hand in hand, to the place we have made our home, but which is, in reality, wherever we are together in all of the world, as long as together we are.

Here's a little more about my husband, whom you know less well than me. Mat has just jeopardised any chance of sleeping soon by delightfully extracting a stray eyebrow hair (very discretely, of course) with a spry finger and thumb, and now sits with eyes watering and nose recoiled beside me. I’m changed into my flight gear, i.e. comfy jungle pants and sweatshirt, wiggling my toes in sadly non-couture red and navy striped furry flight socks. We are – as ever – carrying on the life that we have built with one another day by day since we first met more than ten years ago, and since we started “going out together properly”, as I put it, ten years ago this day.

In The Smith, having brunch. Note Mat's inability to smile naturally 
for the camera. I love it when Facebook friends comment that
 he's looking as if he would rather be anywhere else. <3

I have planned to write a post to celebrate our ten years together for at least the last two months. “Mat,” I said (although we call each other by different, special, just-for-us names which I will refrain from citing here, since something of our private life must, I believe, be preserved just for us) “would you mind if I wrote in my blog the story of how me met and started going out as a celebration post for our tenth anniversary? I would so love to tell it because it makes me happy every time I think of it.”
“No,” he replied, neutrally, “that’s fine sweetheart. That sounds like a lovely idea.”
He is so giving. One of the shyest people I know, and he consented to my whimsical fancy of describing the miraculous wonder of our two separate souls coming together as one. Thank you, my love, for giving me this anniversary gift. The fact that you have shared it is yet another display of your acceptance that I am the way that I am and that we are especially suited to one another in spite of our differences.

Friday, 19th June, 2015, 10 years, 1 day post courtship commencement.

So, how did it all begin? Like many of the great romances, it began by being a total non-starter. I had just left Oxford after my final exams and a great friend and tutor had recently passed away, which had left me spinning in grief and devoid of my usual structured direction; A kind mutual friend of my late friend helped me to continue to live my dream of being in London despite the additional complexities that grief brings to moving away from one, safe, known life to a sprawling metropolitan new one, by arranging a short term position from me at the Institute of Education, working for the (then named) London Leadership Centre. It was an admin position paying a basic starting salary for such a city-based public sector post, and we were to be based in Tavistock Square. After leaving all my designs on a Brideshead Revisited life in Oxford, here was the entrance to another such dream-like existence, among the Bloomsbury set and within one of those talled terraced houses with their Juliet balconies and French doors, from where I continuously expected Mrs. Dalloway, or one of her descendants, to emerge.

Such was (is?) the lack of any kind of disability accessibility support in those buildings that it was to the third floor (i.e. up three tall flights of stairs) that I must climb each day to my new administrative post. Our office rooms were tiny and housed at most two desks at a time. Dorian* was my office mate, a thirty-something officianado of the place who not only knew everyone who was anyone (or wasn’t) but could also tell me how to swing two council flats out of the London borough of Hackney, plus apply Touche Eclat and eyeliner to perfection before our (many) outings for lunch and dinner in the area. 

(*not his real name)

Bloomsbury, where romances begin...

Dorian was a gossip specialist, and with an extremely practised and rarely convincing air of disinterest, politely asked me for my background: university education, origins, love life etc. At which point he declared when I confirmed that I was without a boyfriend currently, that he had the perfect match for me, a Cambridge-educated Philosophy graduate with a PhD who was to be found somewhere in the basement of the building, and apparently was also single and potentially slightly melancholy and quiet. Dear reader, I confess these qualities did not present themselves to me as recommending traits for a future suitor. Added to which, the thought of being matched on a blind date I found abhorrent in the extreme: think: if you are matched up with someone by a friend, if you find yourself going out with someone who is markedly less a) intelligent, b) funny, c) good looking (okay, clearly ‘c’ was ‘a’ but I didn’t want you to have ultimate confirmation of my propensity (especially in my early twenties) to be shallow).

No, oh please no, not the multi-coloured jeans and shell suit combo!!!

As it turned out, the mysterious basement man was as reluctant as I to proceed with the proposed blind date, and so it was called off. It was not until four or five months later that I finally came face to face with him, in the basement, which also happened to be the stash for stationery. In case you are not aware, allow me to enlighten you that working for an institution linked to education almost undoubtedly links you inextricably with a world where post-it notes are king. Scarcely a day goes by where the tiny sticky multi-coloured paper pages are not employed for a multitude of means. I ventured down to the basement in search of this very thing, but was almost mortified with embarrassment at the prospect of meeting someone to whom I had not been formally introduced (I really was still very much in the Oxford world) and with whom I had been suggested as a potential romantic target. Therefore I marched, face downcast, past this chap who appeared to be wrapped entirely within a navy overcoat covering all of his person except his slender neck (and it was a very cold room) and muttered a quick “Hello” before retreating once more to the safety of my tiny cubbyhole four floors up.

Not that we still have any of these. No, not at all.

For the next few months I drifted down from North London where I lived to Bloomsbury each day, enjoyed outings to the museums and bars nearby and felt quite the thing at times, especially when a good friend and I blagged our way into a London Review Bookshop event and he and I both ended up giving interviews to camera in celebration of its publication, in spite of the fact that neither of us had the faintest idea for which occasion we had crashed the party…and I ended up in the BBC2 programme about it (vague sentiments of praise are clearly useful to editors everywhere). I also dated a young French man and had a fun time visiting some swanky restaurants in my London-styled looks. That was not to last, but luckily it was my pride rather than my heart which hurt more as that liaison ended shortly after it began.

Great Shop. Great Party.

At some point I realised that I really must find something to do – some direction – and that this could not happen at the Institute. Over a lunch at Heals with the same wonderful friend who helped me to find the job there in the first place, she suggested I apply to the Teach First scheme, which apparently was ‘very up and coming’ and a good idea for a bright graduate. It appealed to me because it was a two year programme. I thought, “Well, I can probably stick it out for two years, if I get in, and it would be good to have something like that on my CV perhaps.” A tome-sized application form and an assessment centre later, I was lucky enough to gain a place. Great!

Heals: where great ideas are formed and great lunches had!

Wait, though, I don’t actually know anything about teaching. (Not so great.) So what will I do now?
During the time of this application, our Bloomsbury existence had been uprooted from its styled, decaying glamour, to a chic new location just off Tottenham Court Road, with security badges, glass and chrome and spacious open plan design. This meant a move, of course, plastic crates for the removal of our belongings I.e. the post-it notes) and a reshuffle of desk arrangements. And thus it came to pass that I was allocated a place in the ‘temporary staff’ section of the floor, opposite that same young over-coated gentleman who was my one-time blind-date to be, Dr. Matthew Carmody.
Mat (as he is known) came in once a week just for the afternoon, since he was administrator for the course “Working Together for Success” or something like that, and sat quietly at his (brand new) white desk eating a baguette sandwich and eating his Walker’s crisps, usually plain, sometimes salt and vinegar. Reader, I may have been too bashful to attempt a self-introduction when we had no reason to speak, but at the rustling of a crisp packet I could no longer resist. I. Had. To. Have. A. Crisp.

We started to make polite conversation, once a week, as I sat there pretending to work despite the fact that my programmes had largely concluded, and he sat there doing (I assume) the same. We chatted about this and that and then we went our separate ways until the next week. It was only when I received a telephone call from Teach First to accept my application that it struck me to ask Mat for assistance. I had learned from our chit chat over crisps that he was also a teacher aside from his IoE job – and I needed (I really, really needed) some advice in that respect. Mat – thank you, Mat! – accepted my invitation for an after work drink for the selfish purpose of my learning what on earth I was letting myself in for by signing up to teach a bunch of kids in Walthamstow and Chingford aged eleven to sixteen.

Now then, it is time to point out that in no way was this invitation issued as a date or anything like. I was asking for advice from a work acquaintance. End of. To illustrate this point I will introduce the following evidence: that en route to our chosen venue of The Sun pub on Tottenham Court Road, I asked Mat if he wouldn’t mind stopping off, on the way, so I could go to Boots, and then proceeded to buy a packet of feminine hygiene products which I (quite publicly) purchased in full view of Mat. This was not, therefore, I repeat, not, intended to be a romantic encounter.

A very serious Mat. A very amused me.

In The Sun, I think I remember Mat kindly got in the drinks, a large glass of red for me and a pint of London Pride for him. And we talked about teaching: what sort of lessons did he teach? What were the students like? Did he give homework? Did anyone actually do the homework (yes I know, former teachers, I never did it!)? What format did lessons take?

In the hour and a half that passed I learned two things: one, that teaching in 2005 was different than anything I had experienced or was thus far expecting from my next job; two, that Mat Carmody was definitely amusing, interesting, and someone I felt suddenly a sense of sparkle in my stomach for. I did a figurative double take. “Huh. He’s really nice. Was there a frisson?” We parted and I went on back up to north London to see a friend, to practise some singing together and catch up post Oxford. “So, how's your love life, Jessica?” he asked (or something like that. Bridget Jones eat your heart out!). And I looked at him, straight, and said, “Well, maybe, because I think I actually just had a drink with someone who is really nice.”
And so, reader, we all lived happily ever after. 


Of course we didn’t! This is Britain. It took me long enough (and him for that matter) even to say “Hello,” let alone to acknowledge an interest beyond simple, uncomplicated, no strings friendship. What did happen was that we were very definitely friends after that night.

Truckles: Where much red wine was drunk in the London summer sunshine

We arranged drinks again, this time just for fun, in a couple of weeks, and spent a happy two hours drinking red wine in the courtyard at Truckles near the British Museum talking all things, Classics (me), Philosophy (him), music (both of us) and his dashing tales of derring-do, such as being so squiffy at a friend’s wedding that he looked out of the window and his glasses fell off his face, to be retrieved the next day in the flower patch outside, and the fact that in the car going back the combination of hangover plus student car vibrations meant he temporarily lost sensation in both arms. (I then went off to the opera, quite half (or more) cut, myself, after that. The opera I saw is a distant memory. But I’m sure it was very good and the Champagne at half time was excellent.)

No idea what was happening but it was surely very good.

We had another such drink, and by this time I knew that I was, pretty much, in love with Mat Carmody. He was so funny, interesting, kind and gentle that I had set my cap at him, but even had I not my heart had decided that he was for me. At this point he had still not asked me out, but I had invited him to attend my birthday party with other friends, a dinner in central London in a few weeks’ time. I had had a long experience of the classic Oxford ailment that is unrequited love throughout almost the entirety of my degree, and had no desire to repeat two and a half years of a similar experience. Therefore, I thought, there is only one option. You cannot wait for him to make the first move in case he never does. You must ask him out. And so I (sort of) did. And what is more, I told myself, you must hope that something happens before that, but if nothing does, then you must ask him out (properly!) yourself, and if it doesn’t work out, never see him again until your heart has 100% moved on. No more nonsense waxing and waning. Get on with it!

At our last drink before this event, knowing we were both soon to leave the IoE anyway, there was little risk of meeting Mat again should my bid (if it had to be me who made the move) so I had a plan in place which meant I could thoroughly embarrass myself at my birthday party, in the presence of all my closest friends (which, in reality, doesn’t separate this birthday from any other). Unfortunately we had relatively little time together at this drink as Mat had to go home to mark essays.
At this point I wasn’t exactly optimistic. I mean, what guy picks essay marking over drinks with me? Answer: someone who is clearly not interested.
Despite this, we walked together to the bus stop and I still hoped that we might at least reach that ‘awkward moment’ where, waiting from the bus, we might share a first kiss? As we walked there I said, gesturing towards Rathbone Place, “So, I’ll see you on Saturday?”
“Yes. Hang on, so when you said you were having your party at the Eagle, I assumed you meant somewhere in Clerkenwell, not the Eagle round here.”
Great. Not only is he dashing home to mark third rate philosophy essays rather than staying in town for dinner and drinks with me, he very nearly lost any chance of turning up at my party at all by heading to a place miles away from the actual venue.

And no. Transport for London did not deliver our first kiss, because, contrary to every other time, the bloody bus turned up right on time. Thanks a lot TFL. You really outdid yourself this time in your support for romance.

Thanks a lot TFL. Crushing romantic liaisons by turning up on time. How dare you?!

So how did the story end? With the help of my best friend and me drinking Champagne at 10am (as she couldn’t attend because of a very serious back injury), we had our little birthday brunch of our own with some cheesy chick flicks and brut Champagne to give me Dutch courage before we left.

Champagne, giving la courage to les braves everywhere.

And at a dinner on one of the hottest days of the year, surrounded by my friends and being grilled by all sides, my beloved Mat (who hates hot weather and was looking massively annoyed and about to expire) took the oh so subtle hint I dropped as a practised flirt with the classic, never again to be used line, “Please come and sit next to me because I want you to sit next to me,” and finally. Finally. At after dinner drinks he bought me a gin and tonic, and as we waited for it to arrive, he put his hand on my hand. And that was the start of us.

Our first date venue. Happy Memories!

Ten years later, here we are, still holding hands. A fair few challenges along the way, the path to true love never did run smooth, and there were job changes, commutes, many tough times with our health and trying to be together across London and also across continents, but here we are. We went back to our first date venue - Putney's Boathouse down by the river for a celebratory drink to toast ten years together.

Thank you Mat Carmody for sticking around with me, and for being so understanding about everything. My partner in life, love and laughter. I love you always. (And thanks for all the post-it notes. They've come in very handy over the years.) x