Saturday 11 October 2014

5 things I realised after my trip to France *

So, me and the lil sis just recently got back from a holiday in France. It was a holiday of two parts, a couple of days in Paris followed by a couple of days in more rural parts, visiting some good friends who’ve recently relocated there.

The holiday is already a couple of weeks in the past (or it was when I originally started to write this, God knows how long will elapse between the initial beginning and the endless edits, self-reproach, more edits, crippling self-doubt followed finally by a finished post. N.B. It’s been about a month!)

I’m well back into the swing of things now, workwise and otherwise, I’ve told my stories and the holiday feels like it was a lifetime ago, as these things always do. But I’ve had time to reflect on the thoughts and experiences of that trip, and just like all things, it’s only afterwards that we realise how we have grown, even if it is just a little bit. What follows is a consideration of how those experiences pushed my thinking along. I’ve tried to wrap these up in some anecdotes from the trip, which will hopefully make for a well-structured blog post ;) So here goes...

  1. I’m older than I used to be.
Didn’t expect that one did you? Or maybe you did. It wasn’t a mental tiredness I noticed, I was super alert for the whole time I was there, brain set on record, appreciating everything.  No, it was a physical tiredness. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a massive drop in stamina, I just felt the effects of zooming around a city more than I would have done ten years ago, or five years ago, or even a year ago. I have these amazing Dc Martens 1914 Triumph boots that I wore for most of the trip. I coveted them for years and the day I finally had enough money to buy them was a joyous one indeed. Unlike 100% of every other pair of shoes I’ve owned, these boots not only look cool but they offered genuine support and protection for all of the walking we did. Because they manage to be both hefty and pretty, I felt invincible in them (come near me mugger, and I’ll kick you in the Mary Sues!) Without these boots, I really do wonder how much harder all of that walking would have been, because it was hard enough with them. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed taking them off when we stopped by the hostel, allowing my feet to breathe for a few minutes, but overall I could not have asked for a better foot companion.

The only place where these boots were a bit of a pain was at the airports. Airport security people really don’t like big boots with thick soles, because there could be a bomb in them. I therefore, both times, had to sit in the middle of a queue unlacing them and shaking them out to prove they were bomb free, and then struggle to put them back on at the other side, while still keeping track of my luggage in amongst a sea of people.

I also got searched at the airport, on the way out and the way back. This happens to me a lot, by the way. Am I the only one this happens to most times they fly? Going through security is impersonal and aggravating enough, as humourless people bark orders at you and you try to keep up, feeling like a criminal for having the audacity to go on holiday, but getting felt up during all of that is not an added bonus. I’m not sure what it is about me that makes me look so shifty? On the way out I was wearing my uber cool ‘Much Ado About Muffin’ t- shirt, and on the way back I was wearing my cartoon incredible hulk dressed as a zombie t-shirt. Could they not see that I am clearly a respectable member of society based on my pop culture inspired clothing? Apparently not. So I got to do that oh-so-fun nervous laughter whilst a stranger asked me to raise my arms and fiddled about near my waistline. Obviously I’m aware that security at European airports is not a patch on the way the Yanks do it, so God help me if I do ever need to fly through the Americas, I’ll probably have one of the cavity searches of my nightmares. Hmmm, if anybody has any advice of how to dress inconspicuously at airports, answers in the comments section please!

Anyway, I think what I’m trying to say with this is that when I was a kid I used to get angry at what I perceived to be time wasting behaviour from my parents. Their need to go back to the place we were staying periodically to ‘rest up’ or ‘have a cuppa’ drove me potty. It always seemed to me to be a needless waste of time which could be better spent climbing more rocks or looking at more cool stuff, but now I’m old enough to see it for what it is, a necessary re-charge that allows me to have the energy to go back out and see more of the awesome stuff. The amusing thing is that even though I feel more tired than I ever used to, I also complain about it a lot less. This is for two reasons, I think, one being that moaning about what you can’t change won’t do anything but piss off the people you’re with and two, it is admitting to being that little bit older and that bothers me in a way it never used to before. So there you go, nothing major, I’m just saying, I noticed.

2. I still love flying.
Yes, I know, I’ve never experienced the joy of a long haul flight, and perhaps a few of those would go a long way to diminishing the love I have for flying, but it’s not happened yet so this remains a truth. Flying through the air at 35, 000 feet still has not long its magic for me. I understand that for some people it is not magic at any point, but a freaky reality that they tolerate only for the sake of getting from a to b, but for others, and certainly for me, it’s exhilarating. The idea of not enjoying those moments, when you’re speeding down the runway faster than you can think and then suddenly you feel that lift and know that you are no longer connected to the earth, is a really sad thought. It’s not that the idea of the plane crashing and my not being able to do anything on a personal level to prevent it is not a scary one, but I think that is part of why I do find flying so freeing. Once I take off, I give myself over to fate, and worrying about that fate is entirely pointless because I have no control over it, I let go of that control when I booked the flight. This realisation frees me from responsibility and worry for a while. For those short moments, I’m a leaf on the wind**, so what else is there to do but look down on the earth and marvel at it?

Of course, something happened to bring these thoughts into sharp focus on the flight home, which was, our plane had a technical problem. We waited on the runway for an hour and a half in 30 degree heat for the mechanics to fix whatever the problem was. When things were (presumably) sorted and we set off into the air, the thought remained lodged in my head, had the problem really been fixed? Were our odds of crashing higher than they were before the idea was planted? The main thing that ticked over my mind occasionally was this, there was a fault but we were not told what the fault was, because, why would we be? So, say the worst happened and the plane went down, you guys down there would know what the technical problem was that killed us, but we would be plopped off the mortal coil in ignorance. You would have known our ultimate cause of death and we wouldn’t, how weird would that be?

These thoughts continued to bubble around my head during the short flight and then I looked over at my sister and thought, holy shit, it’s one thing to contemplate my own mortality, but my little sister’s? Oh hell no. That thought was the one I found hardest to shake, and every time I looked over at her, I gave her this banal cheery smile in which I tried to say ‘oh it’s fine, I’m not worried, fine, finey fine!’ Little did I know that my sister’s returned smiles she later confirmed were born of the same need to reassure me, so we were grinning like carefree idiots, each thinking they were sparing the feelings of the other. But later in the flight, despite being hooked as I was on the book I was reading, thinking, if this plane is going down, I’m finishing this sodding book first, *** I looked over at my sister to find that she was writing frantically in her notebook. That’s when it hit me, she was probably having the same weird thoughts as me, and she was expressing them… And how awesome is that? How scary and how freaking awesome? That is living in the world, and in no way would I want her not to experience the same risks as me, because to take the jump is to live, and to reflect on what it made you feel is to grow. (Of course, she could have just been writing a shopping list, but I’d rather not ruin the mystery!)

But still, we got home, just a little later than expected, and my love of flying remains fully intact, despite the crazy thought bubbles.

3. Trying to capture the moment
I guess, like most people, in the daily grind, I forget to appreciate the good moments as they whizz past. I forget to appreciate beauty in the small things, in their utter simplicity. I think this is because our brains are wired with a certain need for stress, it’s the tension that keeps us paying our bills and remembering to buy milk, we need trillions of little pulls of thought in so many directions, keeping us doing what we need to do to get by. But holidays are, of course, about letting go of those responsibilities, or at least the same responsibilities, for a short period of time. And so, all of the moments I experienced over there are burned on my memory in greater detail than the many circulations of the same amount of moments in the weeks since. I could tell you in detail most of the events that happened during our short trip, how it felt looking out at the view at Sacre Cour or eating the best potatoes dauphinoise I’ve ever tasted under the warm night sky, but I couldn’t tell you how I felt walking home last Tuesday or what I saw on the TV last night. Because all of those moments were so brilliant, I ended up doing what lots of us tend to do on holiday, which is, take masses of photos in an attempt to capture the essence of those moments. This was partly for my own enjoyment but mainly an attempt to communicate to anybody who will listen, how awesome they were.

But, doing this too much takes you away from the moment as well, like all things, trying to find a balance to this process is tricky. It came to head when we were sat in a local village with our friends, watching the most amazing firework display I’ve ever seen whilst sipping white wine. I was trying frantically to capture the moment when the fireworks looked their most epic, and every time I was a second behind or a second ahead of the money shot. My friend pointed out to me that as much as you want to, sometimes the camera won’t cut it, and all you can do is take in the moment and leave it to record on your own private hard drive. My friend didn’t say it in quite those terms, I paraphrase of course because my mind has already started its process of fading the memories, but that was the gist. So we clinked glasses and sat back to watch the lights while the clouds of gunpowder thickened in the air and the music reached its climax. Seriously, to misquote comic book guy... Best. Fireworks. Ever.

Even though I still ended up with nearly 200 photos of my trip on Facebook, there were at least another 1000 that I didn’t even try to take, I was just there, in the moment. I had truly forgotten what an excellent example of mindfulness a real holiday can be.

4.  People are awesome, and dicks, the world over
We know this, but I think we always overestimate the amount of dicks to awesome people ratio. This then puts us off, why put ourselves in situations where we have to deal with different arseholes on top of the arseholes we already deal with in our daily lives? We forget that, if we sometimes made the effort to leave the house and encounter new people, we might find some of the lovely ones. Parts of this holiday reminded me of this fact in huge dollops. My sister and I opted to stay in a hostel during our time in Paris. This was a compromise to spend less money while still being centrally located. The place had good reviews and we thought, sod it, we have each other if we get roomed with bellends and ultimately, let’s just jump off for once, so many people do, why shouldn’t we?

And I’m so pleased we did. Not only were the staff funny and endlessly helpful, the atmosphere friendly and the location ideal, but we were roomed with a super nice couple from Mexico. I’m not putting names up here (it’s just one of my rules innit) but getting back to the point, they were lovely. On the second night we chatted into the wee hours about our countries and our lives, the differences and similarities, and played dominoes and taught each other card games. We also exchanged currency and sweet treats, because what is mundane to your daily life is new and interesting to another’s and vise versa. It was a pleasure to be in their company, and hopefully we’ll keep in touch. All I keep thinking is this, how sad would it have been if we had never chosen to stay there and never met them? The world really is as full of potential friends as it is inevitable arseholes, and what an immensely positive thing to be reminded of.

5. I’m clumsy over the channel too
What I mean to say by this is that I’ve realised that I’m me, wherever I go. I might be a more relaxed version of me, or a more confident one, but those are untruths too. I’m always that confident and always that relaxed, or at least, I always have the potential to be, it’s just that different aspects of my personality come out more or less dependant on circumstances. I’m as paranoid and insecure and outgoing and funny as I have the potential to be, but it’s never not me, no matter what mood I’m in.

The clumsy story came in on the train back from rural France to Paris, on the last leg of our trip. We’d had an early start and we were nearly back at Charles De Gaulle, sitting in different coaches because we ordered our tickets separately for some strange reason. I had been looking out of the window, thinking those odd thoughts you do before you fall asleep, ignoring the warning signs. I must have had a micro sleep and when I woke I thought the station we were pulling into was CDG, and so I jumped out, grabbed my rucksack, swung it over my back and launched myself towards the exit, forgetting that there was a two foot drop between the seats and the aisle. I could feel myself falling and I knew I was going to land on my knees but it happened so fast I could not think of a way of stopping so I just went with it. Lots of lovely people rushed to my aid, but it is hard to translate your words into French in your head to respond when a ringing pain is distracting it. I managed to stumble out some appropriate murmurs of thanks and assurance before leaving the train to stand on the platform. I waited for my sister to emerge from the next carriage but it didn’t happen and it was only then it dawned on me that something was up. I turned up to check the sign above me that clearly did not say CDG and jumped back on the train before the doors shut, asking people in an alarmed manner whether this was CDG, as they shouted back, ‘non madame, non!’ And so I spent the last ten minutes of our journey sat in the aisle next to the toilet, with skinned knees and bruised pride. To top it all off another person’s suitcase fell onto my head. Perfect. I’d been so cool, so confident, so with it, in Paris, and at that moment I was reduced to being the same old clutz I always am. Good – o. But then I began to laugh, because, of course I am, I’m always me, and I’ll always be me, wherever I am.

That story brings me back to another thing I’ve learnt recently, one month away from my 30th Birthday (I know, this is like the three millionth time I’ve said that in a blog post this year, but I can’t help it!) I’m starting to know who I am. I was speaking to another good friend of mine recently who admitted that, at 60, they don’t feel the pressure to be anything other than what they are anymore. They like who they are, and feel they have nothing more to prove. I would love to say I felt that, but I’m a long way off. I don’t feel totally confident with everything I am and do feel like I have a lot to prove, to myself and other people, but the who of me, that I’m starting to figure out.

My twenties were mostly spent focused outwards, on who other people are, working them out. I was a mystery, of emotional choices and mistakes I can’t easily explain. The best way I can think of to describe it, and for those who know the show they will recognise a similar analogy being used in the Buffy finale, which is, I was still baking. I never got it before, the idea that we aren’t fully who we’re going to be at that age, it always seemed like patronising bollocks to me. I knew who I was, how dare anyone imply otherwise?! But the truth is I didn’t, not fully. There was a little bit of me inside that was still raw and malleable and open to manipulation, because that raw bit was horribly in need of affirmation. It’s the nagging doubt I had that I was useless and worthless, and, human egos being what they are, I reacted to that doubt by seeking assurance from other people that I was special. I was forever looking for people to assure me that I did matter, that I was important.

Now I know, I am a person, my opinions do matter and I have a right to be here, and I don’t need anyone else to tell me that. I’ve got things I’d like to work on and change about myself and things I’ve come to accept, but either way I know what they are for the most part. The penny has finally dropped that I am special, I am unique, and I am important, but we are all are. Every single person is. Finding your own worth stops you looking for it elsewhere and on one level it amazes me that it’s taken me until nearly thirty to realise that, and on the other, it amazes me that despite all the efforts of the world pushing us to doubt ourselves, I’ve managed to make it this far at all. So, I may not be at the point where I’m all content with who I am, far from it, but I can’t help but feel a step closer on the path when I think that I at least know who I am. And I don’t hate who I am, even if I do find myself very annoying sometimes. And that feels like a start.

So there you go, a full over analysis of a mini-break, I can’t even do a holiday without dissecting it. But that’s part of the joy of it for me, and I like it that it’s not just after you come back you notice how these new experiences have changed you, just a little bit, it’s after the dust has settled and time has moved on that you realise their significance. It was one of the best holidays I’ve had, and I’ve had some bloody good ones. It has also awakened a bit more interest in the world out there for me, because if that much can happen in five days, given more time and more opportunity, I can only imagine what other adventures and realisations are out there, waiting to be found.  

*For those that recognise the format, yes, I have been reading loads of articles on recently and the influence is evident in this post. Thoroughly recommend you checking out that website, if you haven’t already!

** I love Wash. Don’t we all? ;)

*** David Wong’s This Book is Full of Spiders is best book I’ve read in a long time. Even better than his first novel, and that was brilliant. He’s got the balance of horror, comedy and philosophy down perfectly for me, all tied up in a big action adventure bow. Seriously, I’m not joking, get so

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