Letting in ‘la vie en rose’

I realised recently that I seem only to have written for this blog recently when I have been particularly down or irritable about things – if indeed any of the last few posts can be called ‘recent’. This was not why I started writing this blog. Or it was, but not as a vehicle to share my woes, but rather as something to distract me from those woes and encourage me to focus on the bright side of life (cue Monty Python whistle) by sharing funny moments and yummy cakes as I learned more and more about country life. The problem with this theory, I thought, was that as I became more acquainted with mud and any terminology associated with it and its world, the fewer and further between the anecdote-worthy moments came. I have realised that I was wrong; in fact, firstly I became less embroiled in country life when I got a job in the wine trade, a distinctly less tweedy industry than the shooting one. I also broke up with Mr Farmer, meaning no more weekend jaunts on Sally the Combine Harvester. Secondly, upon leaving the shooting trade and joining the wine trade, life just got busier. And moving from WineWorld to Unilever only intensified that busyness.

Amid this busyness, life, to paraphrase a postcard I saw recently, is trying not to pass my family and me by so much as to run us over – and then reverse just to be sure. Despite this, I don’t want to turn this blog entirely into a portal of doom and gloom. I think as it evolves, this blog will become a blend of woe and (I hope) wit, of complaint and cake. In short, it will continue to be an outlet for whatever is on my mind. But I want so very much to push and push and keep open the door that life is trying so hard to close, and to let in la vie en rose as Miss Sabrina Fairchild would put it. And as such, I want to refocus on why I started writing here – to refocus my outlook on life, to see the Mississippi pie amid all the mud. As such, I have been wracking my brains to think of something positive or at least humorous to write about, say a scrumptious new recipe I’ve tried, or an amusing anecdote to share. One of the few new recipes I’ve attempted in recent months, I sadly cannot claim as my own – I followed someone else’s recipe, almost verbatim – but it WAS a cake and I DID make it, so I figure it counts. It was also my little brother’s wedding cake. (My ‘little’ brother is in fact a great dangling thing of almost 6ft 4, with arms too long for his already-overly-long self.) That cake was by far the most all-American thing I’ve ever cooked, in honour of the all-American bride. It was baked to welcome Ariel into our family and, at least as far as I was concerned, to cement her role as ‘sister-in-law’ in my life (because let’s be honest; that was the point of it all!) with as much chocolate icing and peanut butter cookie dough as it is possible to fit into one cake. As such, it deserves a post all of its very own – so you can be confident that the future of this blog does still hold some cake.

Since moving to my new cottage in Cobham – yes, Cobham, and no, I can’t afford it – I have noticed that I seem to have succumbed to a Waitrose infection; the only recipes I’ve really tried other than the wedding cake have all felt deliciously middle class. I sometimes feel I should be somewhat ashamed of this, but I’d be foolish to pretend I’m not middle class, surrounded by matching tea towels, oven gloves and apron, with my yoga mat out in the sitting room. So instead I’m choosing to embrace it! I’ve tried cooking quinoa, but as I’ve not yet really created a recipe using it worth sharing, that’s pretty much a dead-end (or more of a cul-de-sac?) I have made rosemary-roasted almonds, which have potential to be absolutely delicious, but I’ve not yet executed them to a standard to make it a recipe worthy of sharing. I’ve made hazelnut granola, but it’s a similar situation there as to the almonds with regard to the standard of execution. This whole non-Aga oven thing takes some getting used to. The homemade granola was attempted partly to avoid the extortionate prices of this newly-fashionable breakfast fodder[i], and partly so – I kid you not – I could add soya powder to the mix to get more protein into my breakfasts. I’ve made peanut butter Overnight Oats as per the minimalist baker’s recipe, fed to me via a friend. In fact, I’ve made them regularly and am about to whip up another batch to take to work tomorrow. I may not be dating a Chelsea footballer, but I am still feeling remarkably Cobham.

At dating footballers I may have so far failed, but at just plain dating I have… well, so far, also failed. My ‘single’ status indicates fairly accurately that every attempt I have made at a relationship has not exactly gone veil-inducingly well. Since Easter however, shortly before the aforementioned move to Surrey, my love life has been as unsuccessful as any moment in my romantic life.[ii]

After my best friend, her boyfriend and I has between us consumed more than a bottle of wine a piece, I decided she was right that after over a year single online dating was a great idea, especially as I was moving to a new area where I knew no one. This moment of enlightenment was followed by the two of us (she and me) composing a lengthy and beautifully written Ode to Me with which to grace my shiny new dating profile. Once done, and thrilled with our masterpiece, we submitted it to be reviewed and edited by her lovely boyfriend. What had been a number of paragraphs of positively stunning prose describing every favourable aspect of myself (at least if read through rosé-tinted spectacles) was streamlined down to about five lines. And while I say ‘edited’ I’m pretty sure our original version didn’t include the line,

“Good brain, good eyes, good abs, good c*ck = a good start!”

But, while it may deceive potential suitors into thinking I have the ability to be succinct (HA!), we decided to go with it. They say ‘in vino veritas’ so I’m not sure what this says about my friend’s boyfriend. However, given that subsequent male friends’ amendments to my profile include clog-dancing, bear wrestling and intergalactic conquest on my list of hobbies, I’m not sure I’ll take any of them too seriously.

While the online dating site in question wasn’t actually Tinder, a friend of mine has taken to posting Tinder Tales on Facebook, and I am going to steal borrow his title for the anecdotes that now follow – so thank you James for being my inspiration. If I’m really lucky, a little extra humour from your original posts may have become mixed up with the plagiarised titles.

Tinder Tales: #1

My first date actually didn’t go too badly. It was spur of the moment – always good – with one of two guys with whom I’d been chatting a day or two. He offered to drive to my neck of the woods – apparently a good start. He could only make it quite late, but as it was near me, I wasn’t too fussed. He said he’d be wearing a red jumper – so I was now only going to be peering curiously at every guywearingred alone in the pub, rather than every guy; a marked improvement. I couldn’t get the pub on the phone, so set out a bit early with a book to secure a table. On walking in, the pub confirmed that they had plenty of tables available – because the kitchen was closed. Sunday trading. Bugger. Never fear, I had an idea; I drove quickly to another pub nearby, and confirmed that they had both space and an open kitchen. Brilliant. I quickly texted my date, hoping to God that he would illegally check his phone while driving.

Installed in a comfy window seat, I wait…

I read my book.

I hope he got the change of venue.

I order a drink.

Please don’t let me have been stood up.

I read more of my book.

Lucky it’s a good book.

The barman comes over. The kitchen will be closing in five minutes.

I order two burgers – you can’t go wrong with a burger, right? Is this confidence or arrogance? Or foolishness?

Please God don’t let me have been stood up.

I read some more.

The food arrives.

Oh god, I can’t eat two burgers.

Well, let’s be fair, I can – but it wouldn’t make it any less embarrassing.

At that moment, a guy with a familiar face walks in. Is that him? He’s wearing a red jumper, and he’s evidently looking around for someone, but he’s not who I was expecting to meet. But he’s not the guy I thought I was waiting for. Didn’t he say he was 6ft 2? Oh shit. Of the two guys I was chatting to, he’s the other one. Hmm. I evidently haven’t quite got the knack of this online dating thing yet.

In fairness, I would still have agreed to meet up with him had I correctly associated profile-to-person, so decide to go with the flow. And – yesss! – he likes burgers. It was purely confidence after all (or so I tell myself.)

We eat our burgers, we chat, we have another (now non-alcoholic) drink (we’re both driving) and we’re getting on quite well. Then they start stacking the chairs upside down on tables around us. Oh yes. Sunday trading. We have now been on this date for less time than it took him to drive to it.

Date 1: 4/10, though not actually in virtue of anything to do with him. Fanciable, easy to talk to, no immediate spark fireworks. Would probably have scored the date a 6 if it hadn’t been for the series of organisational debacles. We have actually stayed in touch, so who knows? As yet, still firework-free, but maybe one day things will change (and we’ll remember to have dinner on an evening when pubs are open normal hours.)

Tinder Tales #2

Having agreed to meet Date 2 in a wine bar in St Pancras on my way back from a meeting in Bradford, I am a bit flustered and hot after rushing around to find the place having got off my delayed East Coast train. But he’s wonderful. We get on like a house on fire, the wine is good – and he’s not put off by my interest in it. The bar lets us order by the carafe – perfect for trying a couple of different bottles without having to get through a couple of different bottles. We venture into the treacherous waters of politics, and survive! We get into philosophical debates that at no point evolve into arguments, and yet are utterly absorbing. He isn’t afraid to disagree with me – bliss – and can actually hold his own in terms of number-of-words-spoken-per-minute – no mean feat. The words ‘awkward’ and ‘silence’ did not feature in our language. I glance at my phone – and gasp when I realise I’m going to miss my train if I’m not careful. We carry on nattering on the tube to Vauxhall. And, upon saying goodbye, I realise the fatal flaw. He’s really, truly great. He’s interesting. He’s attractive. But I’m just not attracted to him. We go to say goodbye, and as he leans down, I find myself figuratively scrunching my eyes closed and wincing, desperately thinking ‘don’tkissmedon’tkissmedon’tkissme’. I spend the train journey home feeling such a bitch – as though I’d led him on my enjoying myself. Turns out enjoying someone’s company does not chemistry make.

After I let him down, I received a message saying that he was already considering me “the one that got away.” Slightly scary. Slightly glad he doesn’t know where I live. Still, a lovely evening. (5/10)

 

Tinder Tales #3

This date could not have been more cringeworthy. I’ll spare you the finer of the details, but after much optimism-inspiring Whatsapp chat, my balloon was burst with a sharp pointy thing. Or, to be more precise, a dull instrument.

He wanted to meet in Wimbledon, because there were ‘nicer bars’ than in Epsom. I’d not been to Wimbledon since a shopping trip at about 16, so I went along with it. On the train on the way there, he asked me if I was “classy”. He also joked that if I wasn’t attractive enough, he’d pretend I was his sister when we were having a drink. Nice start.

We met outside the station. He didn’t know where we were going. Thought All Bar One would be a good place to start. Wasn’t sure where it was. He wasn’t pretending I was his sister. A compliment? With a bit of help from Siri, we got to All Bar One and at the bar, I ordered an Old Fashioned. He didn’t know what it was – ‘cause cocktails are a bit girly for him.

Hmm.

The Old Fashioned wasn’t on the menu, but classic that it is, the barman offered to make me one anyway. I said thank you. The drink I was presented with had bourbon in. That’s about the only resemblance it bore to an Old Fashioned. It also contained fruit juice, a wedge of lime, and a good head of froth after being traumatised in a cocktail shaker. Call me a stickler for the rules, but that just isn’t an Old Fashioned.

I’ll spare you a blow by blow account, but as the evening progressed, conversation proved to be painfully slow moving. But never fear; he’d obviously read some advice on dating, including that it was a good idea to ask your date questions about themselves. Phew! Cue his question:

“You don’t have very long fingernails, do you?”

It’s not often that I’m stumped for words, but that did the trick. At some point, we set off to head to our second bar – somewhere he apparently really liked. We went in, I went to look for seats while he went to the bar. There were no seats. I got back to the bar. He had decided it was too loud, so why didn’t we go back to a pub-y place we’d passed on the way? And without so much as a drink, onto bar three. In fact, bar three/the pub (and yes, the pub-y place was in fact, a pub) brought with it the highlight of the evening – a live guitarist complete with some pretty good acoustic covers. I hummed along as we attempted to make conversation, until a game of Name That Tune evolved. This was going quite well, relatively speaking, until Mr Guitarist decided to play his joker and switch to a medley. I got quite excited with the first couple of lines and explained it was a track from one of my favourite albums (Woodface by Crowded House if you’re interested.) I carried on singing along to the medley, and he said something along the lines of ‘wait, I do know this’ at which point I turned and explained that was because this part of the medley was Rhianna. Mr Guitar continued to chop and change songs and track after track, mostly well-known, passed by prompting no response beyond a frustrated and/or bemused look from my date, who didn’t understand how the guy was getting through the songs so quickly. I tried to explain the concept of a medley. I gave up. I heard a few chords from Wonderwall and thought we were on to a winner. And yes! Sure enough, he says “Wait… I know this one…”

At this point, the guitarist is singing the word ‘Wonderwall’. My date turns to me blankly; he in fact does not have it. I tell him it’s Wonderwall by Oasis. Oh yeah. He paused. Yeeaah I knew I knew it. Silence. Increasingly awkward silence, but thankfully the guitarist continued. My date then made the awkward silence more awkward, if less silent, by saying,

“I really think I’m more intelligent than I’m coming across.”

Lost for words twice in one evening. A record. I told him musical knowledge didn’t equate to intelligence, which is true even if both tend to feature relatively highly in guys in whom I’m interested. But he may have very different musical taste to Mr Guitar. But then again, doesn’t everyone know Wonderwall?

I’d have given him the benefit of the doubt, even if not a second date, until he turned to me and asked rather pointedly “so do you consider yourself quirky?” I don’t know why this got my shackles up, but it really did.

Two days later I get a message from him. There was apparently something he didn’t like about Saturday night. Morbid curiosity got the better of me and I asked what. I wondered which, of the many, many awkward moments had irked him most. His answer was that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. This took me by surprise, and was in a peculiar way even quite sweet. I told him I was surprised, that I hadn’t thought he’d had a great time and that I’d felt he thought I was a bit odd.

“I do think you’re odd. It’s endearing.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was one slightly patronising step too far for me. We haven’t stayed in touch.

Score out of ten: two, because I didn’t go home crying, it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t stick it out for good manners’ sake, and if I’m honest 1.8 of the score is for the guitarist and the fact he included It’s Only Natural in his medley.

At this point I’m going to pause with the Tinder Tales, and shall resume another time. Please be reassured that a) there aren’t too many, b) I will tell you all about the wedding cake just not right now, and c) I actually went hedgerow-harvesting today, and have bowls of ‘hips, haws, sloes and even a few blackberries scattered around my kitchen, so will be playing with those in coming days – and will do my bestest to write about those escapades.

To end my post, I want to gift to you one further dash of la vie en rose, by sharing with you one of the stories that has made me laugh the most in recent months.

Last year, a friend of mine ordered an almond hot chocolate in Starbucks as a treat for himself. He paid, likely chatting with the baristas as he’s a nice guy like that, and knowing him very sweetly thanked the person who handed him his hot chocolate. He took a sip, right there and then… and pulled a disgusted face. As the barista hurriedly queried if anything was wrong with the drink, his expression melted into dejection and disappointment – in himself, as well as his drink. “No, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said, “I just forgot I don’t like almonds.” The barista, at least in my imagination, tried to hide her smile as she asked if he would like another drink instead. But, never wasteful, he told her he would keep this drink as a punishment to himself, so he wouldn’t forget next time. I don’t know why this anecdote tickled me so much, but it had me in fits when he first told me, and still makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.

[Exit stage right, whistling:]

Quand il me prend dans ses bras…

 
           Slightly overdone Hazelnut Granola   The Wedding Cake   Peanut Butter Overnight Oats

[i] Or lunch. Or dinner. Or dessert. Or whenever you’re peckish, and have a large spoon to hand.

[ii] … except for one misguided relationship towards the tail end of my time at university that included letters exchanged between solicitors, 4am texts to my boss at the time threatening to end the relationship if I didn’t leave work early, being kicked out of the house, buckets of tears, and briefly an unwelcome third party briefly getting involved (a very pretty English Lit student. Not my favourite person in the world) and the hideous moment where you realise HE is breaking up with YOU. Resulting note to self: even doormats have too much self-esteem to put up with that shit. Rinse (very well), but do not repeat.

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Strong Enough.

Walking around London yesterday, the city seemed almost exotic. It shouldn’t;
I grew up here. Admittedly in the suburban outskirts, but I’m no stranger to the city. Yesterday however, with my stilettos safely stowed in my borrowed handbag, I wandered the streets after an interview in Holborn. I met a friend for a celebratory debrief of the alcoholic variety, and then had the afternoon to myself. Claire Balding would have been proud of me as I rambled from Bank to Covent Garden and eventually, hours later, to Victoria, seeing the city entirely through the rose tinted glasses of a child or a lens of a tourist’s camera. I wandered past the Gin Palace (“Gin doesn’t ask silly questions… Gin understands.”) and through the gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral. I saw mounted police (turns our horses exist in central London – who’d have thunk it?) and ate cake in the base of Gherkin. Despite only last week complaining about the crowded, dirty streets in the capital, yesterday I was captivated. The juxtaposition of shiny new Shards and Walkie Talkies of glass with history illustrated in aged stone; suits with creases ironed in by dry cleaners strutting past me, and the dirty back alleys and filthy, graffiti-emblazoned abandoned shop fronts; and people upon people upon people.
Not literally – though I did walk past Coco de Mer on my travels – but as you walk along, everyone you pass is different, a person in their own right, and they have a story of their own, are fighting battles of their own. And some still have the energy to grin back at me when I dare to break the unwritten rule of Commuters, and smile.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve said in the past few months and years,

“I’m not strong enough.”

Strong enough for what I’m not even sure. Opening up to friends and colleagues about my Depression[i] recently has shown me very clearly that I’m not alone. And I’ve been amazed and honoured just how many people have confided in me about the experiences and battles that they and their loved ones have fought, and are often still fighting, with Depression. I capitalise it because as much as I dislike, hate, loathe it, I have come to respect it. Someone very dear to me once said to me that he knew that there were powers far greater than he out there, simply because things can influence and control him against his will. For me, Depression is one of those things. It saps my identity from inside me and replaces it with a bitter fog. It managed this for weeks on end earlier this year, binding me to my room and my bed with closed curtains, darkness and too many tears. In the past, I have cried literal puddles on bathroom floors, and been unable to leave the house or even my bedroom. While I have thankfully never actually been suicidal, I remember many years ago wishing I had never been born. I have felt overwhelmed by the entire world, getting up in the morning seeming as daunting as climbing Everest. Through all of this, I have come to respect Depression.
Giving it a little room to breathe helps, not least to prevent it getting out of control. Respecting its power over me makes me appreciate and be grateful for every win I manage to achieve, no matter how small. The ability to smile at strangers in the street, amid the cacophony of smells, sounds and stresses London has to offer, is one of those little triumphs. And the person who returns my smile may have just won a battle of their own, as significant or more so even than mine.

While burdened by my Depression, both pre- and post-diagnosis, I have travelled to the other side of the world, trekked through Costa Rican rainforests, dirt-biked around volcanoes and snorkelled with sharks. I have bungee-jumped and learned to safely use a machete. I have achieved a first class degree in a complex subject. I have crossed the spectrum of employment from the Oxfordshire gun trade to dealing with the country’s largest grocery accounts, giving insight on a product that two years ago I knew next to nothing about. Now I have a merit in my advanced Wines & Spirits qualification.

Yet all the while I have continued to say,

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have learned to shoot both clays and game, and bought my first gun. I’ve baked countless cakes, some rosette-winning, and learned the best secret ever about improving any and all pasta dishes ten-fold. I have learned a little bit of Krav Maga and intend to learn more. I argued last year for a promotion and pay rise, and was given more than I asked for and got to choose my own job title. I have written – this blog for starters – and I have read. I have co-founded a literary society to share my love of books with others and widen my literary horizons – and maybe theirs too.

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have toured Burgundy, visiting countless wineries, from one functioning almost entirely by gravity to one built underground, in caves beneath the vineyards. I tasted hundreds of wines, and learned even more than I ate (if you’ve ever been to Burgundy you’ll know what a feat that is. If you haven’t, you like wine and cheese and are not a vegetarian or on a diet then I highly recommend it.) I have run, for more than five minutes at a time. In fact, I have run 5k. I also have run 10k (and a hilly one at that.) And I have run 10miles, with the horse brass on my bedroom wall to prove it.

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have started doing more resistance at the gym, have actually managed a press up (on my fists to boot) and can now pull up over three times what I could when I started. I have lost over a stone over all, including putting on 2kg of muscle. I am quite literally physically stronger than I was this time last year, achieved as much through will-power as physical exertion.

And still; “I’m not strong enough.”

It is only since facing looming redundancy that I have realised my mistake. It’s amazing what writing CVs, cover letters and completing endless job applications reminds you of. Suddenly you are forced it list not your failures, but your successes. I am not weak. I am strong. And the fact that I have achieved everything listed above while facing dramas, demons and traumas with my family; while coming to terms with own genetic medical diagnosis and the accompanying pain and haunting spectre of a degenerative but otherwise unknown future; and while all the time shackled to Depression; well, that just makes me all the stronger.

Sometimes he takes charge and pulls me back down into the gloom. But not for long. However heavy my bitter fog, the sun will rise tomorrow whether I like it or not. A day will always be twenty-four hours and the minutes will always tick past sixty seconds at a time. The fog will pass. I will continue to fight, and I will continue to achieve, to win, to conquer, to succeed. I Am Strong Enough. I will count my wins and learn from my failures, and I will give myself and my Depression the recognition we deserve, being lenient and forgiving and all the while determined. In doing this, I will hold my Depression by the hand and we’ll walk side by side, rather than dragging him by the chain around my ankle, or him dragging me. It makes for a much easier journey.

So if I, or anyone for that matter, smiles at you on the streets of London, or any city, town, hamlet, anywhere, please try to achieve a small triumph of your own and smile back. You never know what smile has cost them.

 

strangersmile

 

[i] In my head, my Depression has an identity: a Glum. A Glum is a creature made up by a friend who wrote a good old fashioned letter to me years and years ago. In fact, he wrote a few letters, and they were generally illustrated. Really rather lovely. While the letter is, I think, in a dusty box, in a cardboard box, in my parents’ attic, I still remember his illustration, and will never forget that “a Glum is small and round and fat and carries a small glumming bat.” This is now how I personify my Depression, as a Glum, and when I’m having a bad time it’s because he’s threatening or worse, beating me with his glumming bat. But on good days, he just sits there on a rock quietly, not getting up to any mischief.

I’m not mad, I promise.