My First…holiday abroad

HOLIDAY ABROAD

My first holiday abroad was in 1997, when my family went to Ibiza for a week. I remember being so excited about it, rushing around imagining what it was going to be like on a plane, what the food was going to be like, whether there would be a beach or a pool. I packed carefully, over the space of about three months, conducting a little social experiment with my toys to check which ones were suitable to remove from the group for a week and to weed out those who might not deal well with the aeroplane. My brother had this fantastic book which had drawings of all sorts of vehicles that had been visually chopped in half so you could peep into all the rooms. It was meticulously labelled, and I pored for hours over the image of a military aeroplane so I knew exactly what to expect from our flight.

It’s amazing how much detail you remember as a child. I can remember the name of the person who took care of our table at the hotel restaurant – Raquel, her name was. She had a kind face and bright auburn hair, and teased us over our Spanish pronunciation. The hotel felt like a 5 star mansion to me, and I explored it as if I were its king. The restaurant was tired and clearly hadn’t been updated since the 80s, the ornate coving around the top of the room had paint peeling off it. But to me, it was a fancy palace. It was so fancy that they had wall-to-wall buffets where you could choose to eat whatever you wanted. I could eat chips for dessert? I didn’t have to eat mushrooms? I was giddy with all that power.

I feel like that was my first true taste of what it is to be able to choose, a privilege that middle-class westerners like myself are very much spoilt for. It’s a bit sad that I can remember this being a novelty. Now it’s just life, I guess.

I got carted off to some kind of activity camp for children for a number of days a week. Actually, now I think about it, I can’t remember whether I was forced to or whether I chose to. Thinking about it, I imagine I probably wanted to – I liked meeting new people. We did arts and crafts all day, and there were water fights and origami planes, and these wire bound notebooks with a very special pen that we could write in over the course of the week. There were tasks and activities in the books that we could do when we were back with our families, and we could note them down and win awards. At the end of the week there was a prize-giving ceremony, and the kids that received the awards had these weird cardboard cutouts of armless people that I now realise were supposed to look like Oscars, but at the time I had no idea what that was, of course.

The holiday wasn’t just my first trip abroad. This was the holiday where I first learned to dive, something I was both petrified and excited about. I was awful at it. Belly-flop after belly-flop I went down, red marks stretching across my tummy and my goggles dislodged. Chlorine in one eye. A tear of frustration quickly wiped away.

But I practised. Diligently, every single day, I insisted that we go to the pool. I marched us to the deep end, and I asked for help. And over and over and over again I threw myself into the water until finally – I did it. I remember that feeling of my arms outstretched, the water coming towards me and my dumpy little legs held as straight as I possibly could. And then that feeling of euphoria as I find myself suddenly able to glide down into the water with no resistance, the water pushing on my body and that second that I crash to the surface, momentarily so blinded by excitement that I forget to breathe.

I did it. But, I wasn’t done. With a determination that I wish I had even half of as an adult, I got straight back up and did it again. And again. And again. Until I could do it perfectly.

On the last day of our holiday, I was so nervous I would forget all about everything that I needed to buy a momento I could keep forever. I used all my pocket money on a terracotta figure in the tourist shop, a dancing woman with a determined grin and the fanciest ra-ra skirt. Black and white polka dot. And although I think she disappeared in about 2002 when my parents moved house, I can still remember her tiny painted face perfectly, forever engraved in my memory.

In the dark, ALWAYS watch your shadow.

The other night, I was walking home from the station. It’s so dark in the evenings now, and cold, and I was looking forward to getting in, pulling off my ridiculously beautiful but incredibly restricting ankle boots, crawling into my jammies and familiarising myself with a delicious bar of Hotel Chocolat 70% orange flavoured dark chocolate. Mmmm.

I was minding my own business, listening to some Clean Bandit and generally having a great (cold) time thinking about how cold penguins’ feet must get and shouldn’t we send them socks when it gets really cold?, when I pass the lamp-post and I notice an extra shadow. This shadow doesn’t bob in time to me, and as my shadow spreads ahead with the outline of my bag, this new shadow it somewhat streamlined and clearly does not belong to me. I casually glance into the window of the car next to me, using the reflection to subtly take a peek at the owner of the streamlined shadow, and there’s a gentleman with a scarf around his face walking uncomfortably hot on my heels.

To be fair, it was freezing cold and no doubt he was just eager to get home and willing to ignore the British social convention of ‘keep back at least 5 paces’. Just to be sure nothing was going on here, I act as if I hadn’t just sneaked a peak at him and mildly panicked – and I cross the road. My headphones are hidden underneath my scarf/hat, and better than a female James Bond I pretend to caress my ear and as my hand travels back down I tug the headphones out from my phone.

Suddenly it becomes deadly silent. It’s weird how music can give you this false sense of security; like you’re in a musical and any minute some dancing kangaroos are going to conga out from behind a tree singing something about how much better summer is. Instead, I hear my heart thumping and the quick steps of someone behind me.

Shit, I think. He’s crossed the road. There are cars lined up along the road and I use the glass to check. Yep – still hot on my heels. Dammit.

Now I’m not sure whether it’s coincidence or not. Maybe he lives on this side of the road, and it JUST so happened we crossed at the same time? My brain is running through all the excuses, trying to find one that convinces me to stop worrying about it.

No chance. I’ve quickened my pace; his has quickened too. No doubt left. He’s following me.

I gulp back the metallic taste of adrenalin in my mouth and force myself to stop panicking. It dawns on me that there are three options. 1) He’s genuinely on his way home. 2) He’s going to try to mug me. 3) He’s going to chop me up into tiny bits and feed me to his rabbit.

So far, it seems like option 1 is increasingly unlikely, and option 3 is a little far-fetched. The road is well-lit until right at the end, when you’re suddenly plunged into darkness. This was the bit I was concerned about, really. This was, as I had always thought when walking home, a prime spot to jump someone – out of the way of CCTV and after dark it was pitch black so even if you were filming it, you wouldn’t see anything.

I walk past the penultimate lamp-post and glance down at our competing shadows. The distance between us has narrowed. He’s definitely catching up, but I doubt he’ll do anything until I hit the corner. I look ahead – about twenty yards. Right. I’m walking briskly, but not quite power walking; I don’t think he’s twigged that I might have caught on to him and I don’t want to make it too obvious.

Ten yards. I walk past the last lamp-post – he’s even closer. My heart is in my mouth. Questions run through my head; what if he takes my Foyles loyalty card? What if he uses up all the points I’ve collected? What if he takes my Westfield VIP card and uses my 20% discount whilst I’m left crying at the counter begging for the salad man at Tossed to not charge me the full amount? What if he runs off with my whole bag, keys included, and I freeze to death and in the morning a dog discovers me when he starts licking the huge icicle that’s suddenly materialised at the side of the road?

Five yards. And suddenly –

I SPRINT.

My Foyles loyalty card is on the line here, and I take that really fucking seriously. My bag is banging against my spine as I run, and it really hurts, but i’m trying to ignore it. I can hear that he’s started running too – there are four slapping shoe-meets-pavement sounds. I am properly panicking – but there’s a road just 30 yards away, and I’m running for it like my life depends on it. Like my VIP discount card depends on it. I’ve probably got less than a second on him, and that’s not a lot of time considering I’m weighed down with my bag. I only have to get past the pitch black 15 metres and then I’m exposed to the bright lights of a main street again.

I don’t think he counted on me begin able to sprint, because luck has it that I make it to the road, and I hear him slow down and stop suddenly behind me, when the slapping sounds of shoes on the pavement halves from four to two. SLAP, SLAP, SLAP, SLAP. I don’t stop running. I wave breathlessly at the car who had to screech to a halt at the zebra crossing  and the driver who (probably quite rightly) waves back with his middle finger. I don’t care – I am back in the light and I am ALIVE.

Not rabbit food tonight, Mister Mugger.

I run all the way to the door. Tears are streaming down my face, but that’s mostly because it’s fucking cold and the frozen air is blowing straight into my eyes. I can’t really see, but I can make out the pavement through my blurry vision.

I get to the door, and brave a look back.

Nothing. Nobody. Just one mad woman, me, breathlessly panicking at the front door, and cars gliding along the road as though nothing happened. And, to be fair to them, nothing actually did happen.

I let myself in, I sit on the stairs, and I sadly retrieve a popped bag of popcorn from my bag. There is crushed popcorn absolutely everywhere, and I spend days afterwards trying to get bits of it out of the lining of my handbag.


A true story. Originally written in February 2017 on a really fucking cold night.


Commute like a total nutter with this one weird tip

Mile End in rush hour is like the next level down from Hell where even Satan refuses to go to; throngs of people armed with what seems like a million suitcases, and armies of commuter clones ready to elbow you out of the way for the benefit of added room for their Starbucks extra-wet skinny soya mocha-latte.

I arrive to the central line platform of Hell at the beginning of rush hour this morning to find the expected crowds are somewhat larger than usual, thanks to a well-timed signal failure.
Figuring I am at the back of a queue of about 500 angry now-late Eastenders, I pop out for a cheeky coffee whilst the queues subside slightly.

30 minutes later, fully caffeinated and ready for some commuter action, I saunter downstairs and wait patiently for the train to arrive on the, now significantly emptier, platform.

The train pulls in — and I am pleasantly surprised to spot a seat available in the middle of a row. Hungry for the touch of that worn, soft, blue fabric that has graced the derrières of thousands of strangers, I gingerly approach, warding off any other seat predators with my best ‘don’t fuck with me’ expression. There aren’t many, so I just look like a mildly disturbed young woman (which is not far from true).
With an expert precision known only to regular Central Line travellers, I twist about and tuck myself into my seaty prize without headbutting the pole. Win.

Immediately, I register a problem. No, it is not the seat itself — which is, it had to be said, just averagely sticky at the edges and only mildly stained.

No, it is a lot worse than that. The large (and by this, I mean tall and broad and with the mean look of someone who could knock a man dead just by tapping his shoulder) businessman next to me has a problem. Which is now my problem too.

This man is a very serious manspreader.
I mean, THE WORST.
Imagine you measured every manspreader in history with a metre stick to mark the distance between the knees: this man would require at least four metre sticks, and is definitely in the upper percentile of gentlemen-whose-legs-are-extremely-wide-apart-when-seated-on-public-transport.
The distance between New York and Beijing would have nothing on this guy; he is virtually running his own airline from knee to knee. Each leg has its own ecosystem.

Initially, feeling that my personal space is being violated by these offending ecosystems, I privately bubble with fury over how selfish and inconsiderate he is being. I find myself getting increasingly angry at the touch of his enormous knee on mine. His patella is doing an excavation to find my hip bone, and it was in every way just as bad as it sounds. It hurts.

Then I have a thought. Why am I just sitting here and letting it happen? Am I not becoming part of the problem if I just sit back, silently infuriated, and allow this kind of behaviour to happen?

London, it was time to make a stand. I do what I’m sure every one of us poor individuals imposed on by these power-high twitheads has always wanted to do, but felt too angry and violated and British about the whole thing to do so.

I TACKLE THE MANSPREADER. HEAD-ON (or leg-on, whatever) in the most passive-aggressive way I can possibly think of.

I widen my legs (luckily I am not wearing a skirt) (actually, so what if I am? I have nothing to hide and that would just add extra drama to my story) and gently nudge my thigh back into his enormous leg — which is no small feat, I tell you.
And because he was just so large and so imposing, just for extra points I push out my elbows. Just slowly, so it isn’t too obvious.

And just like that — war has been declared.

In retaliation, he pushes his knee into mine and the silent battle well and truly begins. I respond by sitting further back in my seat and widening my legs even further. Then everyone else gets off the tube and we’re both still sat there, many other seats now available but still pushing knees. His leg starts shaking so I guess at least he’s putting some effort into it.

This continues for a number of stops. I think about all the empty seats opposite us and dream of a parallel world where I had got on a different carriage and was having a nice, uneventful journey to work. Instead, I am locked in an endless battle of pride and strength with a total stranger, neither of us willing to just give up and move to one of the many, many beautiful empty blue seats around us.
It’s gross; his leg is so firmly wedged into mine that our femurs are basically kissing.

I eventually realise that like true war, this was not going to be won by the troops downstairs. (In fact, my knee is beginning to hurt a bit. And anyway, by this time my legs are so far apart I’m virtually doing the splits. On the Central Line. It’s very uncomfortable.)

No, this needed to be won through charm and diplomacy.

I tap his knee with my finger.
“Do you mind?” I say, edging my knee further into his.

His head snaps up like one ugly balding Jack-in-the-box and he glowers at me furiously. “Yeah, I do actually.”

“Well maybe you could consider how much space you’re taking up.”

He looks incredulous. Oh good, I think. Touched a nerve. Excellent.

And it then descends into everyone’s childhood.
“Maybe YOU should!” He gesticulates at my lap.

I shrug. “You set the example, I’m just imitating it.”

“But you’re on my side of the seat!”

Laughable, because I point out where the line between the two seats should be, were it not for his leg/bottom/existence. (If I could do the emoji face for how I felt right then it would be the squinty grinning face with those little tears of laughter coming from both eyes.) “Actually, see, I’m not,” I reply. “You’ve imposed yourself on both sides around you. That woman to your left has been squashed into the glass. And you’ve actually moved your legs closer since I pointed it out.”

He pauses. “And so what if I am?”
He shoves his knee back into mine. (Mature.)

“Wow. I’m not sure I’ve sat next to someone before with such a total lack of respect for the people around them.”

“And I don’t think I’ve sat next to such a total nutter before. Justify it, so what if I am?”

“Well, I think it could be viewed as sexist if you’re imposing yourself into women’s personal space because you think you can get away with it. I bet you wouldn’t be acting this rudely if I were a large burly man.”

Silence. He looks at me, and it is not a glare, it actually looks like a mixture of embarrassment and horror.

I break the silence.
“You’ve never been pulled up on this before have you.”

Small pause. “No.”

I move my legs back to a normal seating position, and in a voice reserved for only those in which I am EXTREMELY disappointed, I say, “Well, next time be a bit more considerate of those sat next to you.”

The train comes to a stop at the next station.
And wordlessly, he gets off.


Originally written in 2016. Whilst nobody was harmed in the making of this story, some egos may have been.