I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Friday, 20 May 2011

You can take the girl out of the city….

Following my recent move to Poole - I say recent but it has actually now been a full five months - I have been thinking a lot about new beginnings. In the last few months, some huge changes have occurred in my life and my response to them has given me food for thought, in addition to greater self-insight.

From September 2003 until January of this year, I had been a resident of Marylebone in Central London. This corresponded to the period between my 33rd and 41st birthdays (ouch, it kind of hurt to admit to that last one!). So it is accurate to say that for most of my thirties I was a city girl, living the London life and all that it encompasses. However, the fact of the matter is that I have never considered myself to be a city girl and, although I spent the best part of a decade in the capital, I had also never thought of myself as an honorary Londoner.  But, since moving to the South West certain things have given me cause to re-evaluate my own assumptions about where I belong and what defines me.

It is true to say that over time, the environment we inhabit tends to mould our behaviour and attitudes - often without us being fully conscious of it. So, as a thirty something, unmarried and relatively young woman living in Marylebone, I was bound to be shaped to some extent by the place I was living in and the kind of people in my immediate circle.  But until I moved south, I hadn’t realised just how much London (or perhaps I should say Marylebone) had become a part of my inner landscape.

Here are some things I have noticed which would seem to prove my point. To start with, I walk like a Londoner: eyes fixed determinedly on some indiscriminate point on the horizon, I move at a no-nonsense pace (brisk would be an understatement) whilst my feet instinctively negotiate their way through traffic – both human and vehicular - as if it were not even there. Call out my name or try to meet my gaze and I will not even register you on my radar. When I walk I am not merely walking: I am a woman on a mission to reach her destination – always in a hurry even when I am not – and woe betide anyone who tries to catch my attention or block my path! I had never really noticed this small and seemingly irrelevant fact about myself until I moved to Poole where the age of the average resident is somewhere around mid 60 and people tend to walk at a more leisurely pace!

Then there is coffee. If you can work out where someone is from based on the coffee they drink, then I am definitely from the capital of this great land. You might think that a cappuccino is a cappuccino wherever you go - and London can hardly claim to be the capital of cappuccino! – however, I don’t drink any old cappuccino; I drink the Café Rouge variety – exclusively! This probably makes me sound like a snob but so be it, I confess that I am; but only when it comes to coffee. The fact is that I can’t drink any other coffee than the kind they serve in Café Rouge and frankly to call it coffee is to do it a disservice: it is, in fact, perfection in a cup!

Now you may quite rightly say that Café Rouge is not exclusive to London, and you would be right; but unfortunately they don’t make it the same way outside the capital. I should know because shortly after moving to Poole I was overjoyed to discover a branch of my favourite cafe in Westbourne. By this stage I had virtually given up trying to find a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Bournemouth or Poole (apparently Westbourne is the only place for miles around to have a Café Rouge) so you can imagine my delight when I just happened across it en route to Christchurch. Sadly my joy was short-lived: the cappuccino, when it was served, was tepid and flat with none of its customary rich, velvety texture and taste. However, this was not the only way in which Café Rouge failed to meet my expectations. I detected that something was lacking in the general ambience of the place: it lacked the buzz and upbeat glamour of its London cousin. In short, it was – dare I say it? – somewhat provincial, both in appearance and atmosphere.

These are but two seemingly trivial examples that identify me with the capital but I have also discovered a myriad of others. So it seems to me that when we move out of our habitual environment we often discover certain key things about ourselves that had previously escaped our notice. It is really only then that we begin to see ourselves as others must surely see us because we no longer blend in; on the contrary, we stand out.

To give a final example,  I only really became aware of my inherent 'Englishness' – something that I had previously vigorously denied and disowned – when I moved to Peru. Strange as it may sound, it wasn’t until I started living in Latin America that I realised that certain aspects of my personality identify me with the land where I was born. For example, I have an ironic sense of humour; a sense of humour that, sadly, no-one else in that vast territory seemed to understand! So I  guess what I have realised in recent weeks is that there is some truth in the old adage that you can take the girl out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the girl!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Growing Pains

I have been thinking recently that it is not only those unambiguously painful and distressing life changes that can cause us to recoil and retreat like a creature under attack; sometimes we are equally resistant to the kind of changes in our personal or professional lives that are clearly beneficial.

To give an example, a few months ago I left my job in London and moved to Poole.  This is not something that happened without a great deal of planning and effort on my part; the fact is, I had wanted to leave the capital and start a new life on the coast for almost two years before I was finally able to move in January this year.  In order to achieve my goal, I determinedly applied for a wide variety of different jobs in the south west.  At one point my determination to move was so great that - frustrated by the lack of opportunities in my area of professional expertise - I started applying for almost anything and everything; this included some frankly quite bizarre career options (given my lack of genuine interest or experience) such as Wedding Planner and Census Collector!  Then in August 2009 I met Alejandro (who coincidentally happened to live on the south coast) and my desire to get out of London intensified threefold; already disenchanted with my stressful, City lifestyle, our  relationship provided the incentive I needed to make the dream of moving south a reality.

In view of the strength of my desire to leave London, not to mention the extent of my struggles to achieve this goal, you might well imagine that I would have been on cloud nine when I finally landed a great job working for a prestigious charity in Poole.  The reality of the matter is somewhat different. Within a matter of weeks of packing my bags in pursuit of a life by the sea and my personal vision of happily ever after, I suddenly hit a wall of self-imposed resistance; although invisible to the outside world, this wall was as real to me as any tangible obstacle and I walked straight into it - slap-bang-wallop! 

To some extent, we are all creatures of habit and I was undeniably facing several major changes in my life: moving to a new city, starting a new job and making the transition from being a part-time (weekends only) to  full-time wife; but, I had not fully appreciated just how much of a creature of habit I had become!  Although it is common knowledge that change of any kind causes stress, I have always prided myself on my adaptability and resilience, consequently I hadn't expected this new stage of  my life to be so difficult.  My adventurous spirit and bold nature have blessed me with a natural ability to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings and, just as I can acclimitise myself to other cultures and climates, I have also adjusted remarkably well to other changes in my environment and circumstances. The greater part of my love of travel stems from a thirst for adventure and new challenges and I  have never been afraid to venture into unknown territories - in fact, it used to give me quite a buzz to arrive unaccompanied in a strange country during the small hours of the morning!  This innate flexibility and adaptability have helped me to deal with periods of great uncertainty and change throughout my life. In fact, the decade between my twentieth and thirtieth birthdays were characterised by a period of quite dramatic and acute transition: I became a mother, I separated from the father of my child, I adapted to the challenges of raising my daughter alone, I coped with the trauma of her father’s sudden death, I remarried, I adjusted to life in a foreign country and I dealt with a difficult divorce.  I certainly seemed to live life on fast-forward during those years and, at times, it felt as though my feet barely touched the ground!

In light of the above,  my difficulties in adapting to the new life that I had worked so hard to create and the strength of my resistance to my new surroundings totally took me by surprise!  For the first few months following my departure from London I became quite depressed and, far from embracing the challenges that my new circumstances offered, all I could see were the negatives.  In fact I spent quite a lot of time during those months curled up in the foetal position; much like the proverbial ostrich but with my head under a pillow rather than the sand! Fortunately the story doesn’t end there and five months on I am living my new life to the full.  I have learnt a lot about myself during this period and I am grateful that I did not allow my fear and resistance to stop me from making the most of all the wonderful new opportunities I have been given.

I think that it true to say that the most of us are resistant to change and often it is easier to stay in a situation that we are not particularly happy with – quietly and often not so quietly grumbling about all the dissatisfactions that we feel – rather than taking the necessary steps to change things for the better. My recent experiences have made me aware of how easy it is to get stuck in a comfortable rut; not because we are necessarily happy there but because we are fearful of the unknown. It is a deeply ingrained human tendency to cling to what we know, even though it may not serve our happiness, rather than risk exposing ourselves to the challenges and risks of doing things differently.

In the last few months I have realised that although I have adjusted remarkably well to the profound and sometimes traumatic changes that life has thrown at me, I have not responded so well to the less dramatic, but necessary, transformations that have recently come my way.  But, by virtue of a shift in perception, I am learning to be more patient with the uncomfortable, and sometimes negative feelings, that these changes in my personal landscape can ocassionally still provoke.  I have come to realise that these feelings are nothing more than “growing pains” - after all, sometimes it hurts to give up our old, familiar ways! - but they remind me that I am alive, that I am moving forwards and that I am stepping up to the challenges of my new life.