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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Gold? Sold.

I love driving away from the charity shop, both my car and my conscience lighter than when I set out. Dropping off a whopping great bag of dust gathering knickknacks and clothes I'll never wear again is, for me, a truly cathartic experience. Knowing that someone else might get some use or pleasure out of said rejects, and that the money earned is for a good cause are both a bonus. But what I really like is the space where once there was clutter. The absence of things that I neither want nor need.

A dreaded drawer of useless clutter.
Funnily enough, however, I have never embarked on a selling kick. Once I decide I don't want something, I like to see it off the premises as swiftly as is humanly possible. I don't really have the patience to take pictures of it looking pretty, put it on EBay, wait for someone to buy it, and then schlep off down to the Post Office, most likely all for a measly profit. Sounds like a mug's game to me, even though I know full well that people make tidy little sums from doing just that.

So, this blog is all about my first experience of selling something. For the first time in my life I came out of a shop better off than I was when I went in. I suspect this will not happen many times in my life, so I'm glad to have an excuse to note it down for posterity.

For my 21st birthday, my then-boyfriend gave me a matching necklace and bracelet, in white gold.  Said boyfriend had persuaded my best friend on a FOUR HOUR shopping trip to help him choose it. During this shopping trip he forbade her from entering any clothes shops, but browsed in a camera shop for a good 45 minutes. On the way back, she asked if he'd wait whilst she popped into the supermarket. He said he didn't have time and left her to catch a bus. After all that, he'd chosen the jewellery on his own anyway. Unsurprisingly, my friend was not impressed.

I of course, was VERY impressed. WHITE GOLD? It was undoubtedly the most expensive present I'd ever received from a boyfriend. The necklace didn't half catch at those little hairs at the back of my neck, but I was besotted and wore it non-stop. Until he dumped me, when I took it off, put it, and the bracelet, back in the box, and forgot about it as swiftly as I could. It's been in the box, in a drawer at my mum's house, for nearly ten years. Every now and again I'd get it out and wonder what the heck to do with it. There is no pain associated with that relationship now, but no sentimentality either. We were a highly unlikely couple, and I was the only one who couldn't see it.

Blah blah blah. The necklace. On a whim, I decided to try and sell it, just to see what it felt like. 

The offending necklace, in use.

Once upon a time the small Spanish town of Estepona was all about family businesses; cafeterías, bakeries, boutiques for older ladies and quirky little jewellery shops selling a mix of antiques and modern pieces. Then, suddenly, between last summer and this Christmas, the WE BUY GOLD stores appeared. Not one or two of them, but at least six, with their gaudy signs and security windows. They look alien and ugly in this gentle place, a sign of the terrible times that have hit Spain during the current economic crisis. I feel an inherent distaste for places that seem to take advantage of people's encroaching poverty in order to make a fast profit. But then again, if selling an old piece of precious metal means the difference between having a family Christmas or not, maybe these places are not such a bad thing. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been selling something simply out of curiosity, and because I had no desire to keep it.

So, down in Estepona, mum and I trotted into the first of the big gold buying shops. I handed the necklace across the counter (protected by bullet-proof glass, of course) and we watched as the man set about rubbing the chain on a stone, leaving a faint orange scuff. Intriguing.  Then he took a little glass vial from his alchemist kit, and dripped some clear liquid onto the stone. The scuff made by the necklace disappeared. He repeated the process, dripping liquid from a second vial. Same again. Then again, from a third. By this time, mum and I had our noses pressed right up against the glass. “What” she asked, “has to happen, exactly?”

The alchemist´s equipment.

“I'm testing for the quality of the gold” he explained. "The little mark made by the gold has to stay on the stone.” He turned the vials towards us. The first said 18k. The second, 14k, the third, 9k. “The mark almost stays with the 9k solution, but it fades a bit, meaning this is pretty poor quality gold, just under nine karats. And it's very light too” he said, putting the necklace and bracelet derisively on his little scales. The $ signs disappeared from before my eyes, and mum and I whispered a synchronised “cheapskate” under our breaths. We were referring, or course, to the old boyfriend, rather than the gold guy.

Not quite nine karats. Get it?
“So, what's it worth?” I asked. He explained that he wasn't really allowed to buy gold that was under nine karats. He might be able to get authorisation from the big boss, but he could probably only give us €70, max. I was unimpressed, especially since the rubbing against the stone had buckled the delicate necklace so that it didn't have much value as a piece of jewellery anymore, either. “You could try the other places” he said, “they might give you a better price. If not, come back to me.”

This seemed sensible, so mum and I went round the corner to shop number two. Shop number two wouldn't touch my just-under-nine-karat-nonsense with a dirty barge pole. In shop number three, we had to queue behind a lady who was selling something for €450. She looked deeply sad when the gold purchaser wished her felices fiestas, happy holidays, and I was reminded that I really didn't have to worry about what I made from the necklace. This guy was also unimpressed with my flimsy offering, but proposed €50. I may have been relaxed about the price, but I wasn't quite silly enough to take €20 less than I'd already been offered. So, as is so often the case when shopping around, we ended up back at the place we started.

The necklace is admonished for being significantly under weight.

“No one else buys nine karat” I lied, demonstrating my clearly superior bartering instincts. He weighed the gold again, made a quick phone call, and we agreed on the €70. I suspect my ex-boyfriend paid slightly more than this in H. Samuel, back in the day, but there was no way in hell I was going home with the jewellery in my bag. I handed over my ID and the gold guy tapped away at his computer. Meanwhile, I asked mum to take some pictures with my phone. We snapped me in front of the sign:

Apparently these people buy gold. Who´d have thought it?

Signed, sealed, delivered.
We snapped the tools, and the jewellery sitting on the scales. When we snapped me signing the contract, the guy couldn't help himself. “You two really do like to keep memories of everything, don't you?” “Oh yes” we agreed, “now just hold still and smile whilst you hand over the cash.” I think he'll remember us.

I felt lighter when I left, and not just because I wasn´t carrying the necklace, which I think we have established didn't weigh very much. I suppose part of me wishes someone else could have found pleasure in wearing it, but there's also some magic in the idea of it being melted down and made into something new. Hopefully it will meet some other white gold and will be able to get over its complex about being so flimsy. It is probably too much to hope that it ever knows the glory of being greater than nine karats, but I certainly hope that its next incarnation is worn or enjoyed, and that it doesn't find its way back to a drawer too soon.

The gold guy gamely poses for a pic.

As for me, I have €70 sitting in my wallet and just dying to be spent on something that I'll really enjoy.

And, should the need ever arise, I now know that I have the killer instincts required to sell off the silver candlesticks for a tremendous profit. Or maybe not. 

Sixteen down, fourteen to go…

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

All by myself.

It is somehow apt that this post should mark the halfway point of the Thirty@30 experience. Challenge number fifteen is not one that I have chosen. It is not one that anyone has suggested. It is not, perhaps, an unusual challenge; millions of people all around the world do it every day. But for me, it is completely new. For the first time in my life, I am living on my own.

Aside from the fact that I neither drink nor own pyjamas, this is basically me...

I have had a few different living arrangements in my life. Home was mum and me, just the two of us for nigh-on eighteen years. Then university, where I had a small room in a beehive full of people my own age. After university, I worked two ski seasons in the French Alps, with trips to my mum and dad - respectively in Spain and London - in between. In France it was three girls to a room; the first time I had ever shared my sleeping space with anyone else for an extended period of time. When I moved back to London I took a room in the house of a friend. Then I moved in with my boyfriend. 

I suppose, technically, that I lived on my own when that relationship broke down, but I was already in love with Justin, and spent most of my time at his home. I never felt alone. Until, after nearly five years together, Justin moved out two weeks ago. This isn't the place for an evaluation of my relationship, but I need to state that this isn't Justin's fault. Or mine. It's just one of those stupid, inexplicable little disasters that happen along the way.

This is not a post about heartbreak, though right now my heart is broken. It has been broken before, and I suspect will break again, if I am granted life beyond the forthcoming end of the world, due in approximately twenty-four hours. I am writing this on December 20th, 2012. The Mayan calendar comes to an abrupt halt on the 21st, and there are people out there who are in possession of enough Spam and bottled water to survive the inevitable apocalypse. Personally, I have just purchased a box of FORTY TWO Ferrero Rocher, which I think will effectively serve the same purpose, as well as tasting considerably nicer than Spam. I have just eaten seven of them, but I'll slow down now. Honest. I will.


So, here I am, thirty years old, living all on my own for the very first time. For the record, my ability to inhale Ferrero Rocher is not a direct consequence of this alteration in my co-habitation status. It is a power I have always possessed, and of which I am inordinately proud. I can do the same thing with satsumas. Anyway, I'm rambling. This is the first time in a while that I've written anything other than an email or a to-do list.

I'm taking one day at a time. For the first week, I didn't look at my flat. I came in from work and kept my head down. I put the telly on and stared stupidly at it until it was time to go to bed. I cried a lot. I tried not to see the vacant picture hooks, coat hooks or shelves. I very definitely did not look in the wardrobe that I knew was empty. After a week, I finally got out the hoover and redistributed the books, and life stopped being quite such a blur. I started to notice the odd details of this life for one, which are, in no particular order:

  • Stuff lasts longer. Especially toilet paper.
  • I can choose whatever I want to watch on the telly. There's never anything good on.
  • When there is something good on, it’s kind of cruddy not to have someone to share it with.
  • I worry a lot about locking myself out of the house. Getting keys cut is unexpectedly expensive.
  • The laundry basket has become magically bottomless.
  • Late at night, when you’re half asleep, it’s difficult to remember that you’re alone in the bed.
  • I can make the bed beautifully without even pulling the duvet off. Score.
  • I can go a long time without talking to anyone, but most days will talk to myself at least once (OK, more than that.)
  • I am, however, doing a good job at not being scared of knife-wielding psychopaths hiding in the empty wardrobe.
  • A hot water bottle is a magical thing.
  • Christmas is not a great time for the newly single. Bah Humbug. I went Christmas shopping today and came back with a four-pack of wrapping paper and the aforementioned mega-box of Ferrero. No presents. Not a one.
  • It’s grand to have whatever you want for supper, but things don’t taste quite as good if you don’t have someone else to appreciate your cooking.
  • Being home alone is survivable. Arriving to an empty house feels, some days, like the Mayan end of the world.

I’ve just realised that this post kind of is about heartbreak. Sorry about that. I’m still in the very first phases of this solo living, and my observations probably bear no resemblance to the experiences of someone who has lived alone for a long time, or lives alone by choice. Maybe that is part of the point of writing this all down. For myself. For posterity. Every experience we have in this life is, at the end of the day, ours alone, even if we live with a family, a partner, a parent or a friend. Everyone sees and feels things differently. Which is why it’s so enriching to try new things for oneself. Even scary ones, Even lonely ones.

Who knows how long this particular challenge will last? Only time will tell, but possibly only another twenty hours and thirty-five Ferrero Rochers, if the Mayans have any say in it. If not, I’ll be back soon, probably significantly fatter, slightly crazier, and still without ever having eaten so much as a mouthful of Spam. And no, you can forget that idea right now. I draw the line at Spam. I'd prefer the apocalypse.

Fifteen down, fifteen to go…

Monday, 10 December 2012

Get to the chopper! Montserrat by helicopter.

The helipad at Caribbean Helicopters, St John's Fort Road, Antigua.

I developed a fear of flying after 9/11. My vivid imagination told me exactly how it must have felt for those people to be on board a plane they knew was going to crash. To know that their lives were over. That they would never see the people they loved again. These images and feelings wiggled into my brain and ate away at me. I never didn’t fly when I had to, but I spent the majority of each journey in a fit of terror, clenching my hands, sweating and crying. It was worse if I was with someone. If there was someone whose knee I could grip, and whose loving concern for me could feed my fear. Booking holidays became a mental and emotional battle, and I would spend weeks beforehand building up my anxiety.

I have my indomitable mother to thank for finally shaking me out of this fear. After many years of not travelling together, we found ourselves in each other's company on a flight across Spain. She hadn’t seen my near-hysterical take-off behaviour before, and she looked at me like I was sprouting scales before her very eyes. She gently distracted me, and when I had calmed down and the plane was cruising, she said, simply: “Don’t be one of those people.” With those words, I saw what my fear was doing to me, and how I was allowing it to exert control over my life. I decided, in that very moment, not to be one of those people. I’m not saying I love flying, and bumpy take-offs or patches of turbulence still make my palms sweat and my pulse accelerate. But I have learned to look into the faces of the cabin crew, and take comfort from their absolute nonchalance. If they’re not showing any signs of alarm, there’s probably nothing to worry about. Besides which, anxiety never stopped a plane from crashing…

I hope you enjoyed that brief interlude into my psyche, plus my example of the power of tough love. I have many such examples, including “no, you absolutely cannot have a Cadbury’s Flake until you have learned to tell the time” – my mum is one darn smart cookie. 

But I digress. I should probably get on with telling you about my latest challenge, which was to take a ride in a helicopter. The more observant readers among you may have guessed this from the title of the blog post. And the picture of me at the helipad. I may need to work on my suspense-building...

Anyway, let’s start by saying that just because I have attained a level of Zen when it comes to 747s, I am not suddenly of a mind to spend my life in flight. My happiest moments are still when the plane touches safely down, and the idea of a helicopter has always had an added level of terror attached to it. Something about the noise, and the strange manoeuvrability, I think. Below you see my very first excursion in a helicopter. You can just glimpse my hands, gripping the rudder like grim death. What you can't see, thanks to the chopper's windscreen, is that I am absolutely bawling my eyes out. I bawled my eyes out the whole time. I remember it vividly. There's that maternal tough love again, merrily taking pictures...

So began a lifelong aversion to helicopters. And fairground rides.

Apart from the early trauma, also in the helicopter cons column was the fact that part of my mission for this blog was that the challenges shouldn’t be too expensive. Helicopter rides do not come cheap. In this case, $250 for a 45 minute flight. Ouch.

But putting all that to one side, how many times in my life am I going to have the opportunity to ride a helicopter around an active volcano? Not that many, I’m guessing.

Montserrat is a small island in the Leeward isles. It was virtually decimated by the eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano in 1995. The latest eruption, in 2010, wiped out the 19 Montserratians who had staunchly, doggedly refused to leave their homes. Most of the island is now an official exclusion zone, though a small settlement is springing up in the northwest corner. Caribbean Helicopters only has permission to fly over Montserrat because it dedicates at least one day per week to taking a team of scientists to the island to study the volcano. All things considered, and since I’d already braved the flight from London to Antigua for some winter sun, it would have been churlish not to cough up the cash, don a headset and fasten my seatbelt.

Looking sexy with my lifejacket.

Facing backwards. Motion sickness GUARANTEED.
It’s a real shame helicopter rides are so expensive, because I am going to tell you now that despite falling victim to the worst case of motion sickness I have experienced since 2008, I absolutely LOVED travelling by chopper. Firstly, the take-off is a total breeze. There’s none of this horrible run-up business required by aeroplanes. The thing simply floats up into the sky. It’s magic. And then, instead of disappearing beyond the clouds, you stay close enough to the ground to become completely absorbed by the view. Of course, the Caribbean Sea and the white sandy beaches of Antigua make for a pretty stunning view, but I honestly think that seeing almost anything from a helicopter would be enormously exhilarating. Minutes in and we were surrounded by a double rainbow.

You don't see one of those every day.
Beautiful Antigua.

And then, Montserrat. The jagged cliffs, streaked with ash. The houses whose roofs have clean melted off, revealing rooms once loved and lived in. The five storey building, only three of whose storeys show above the mud. The W.H. Bramble Airport, now nothing but a spread of lonesome grey. Not a trace of its runways, terminal buildings or control tower remain. The churches, the schools, the home of the governor, the hotels, all of them lifeless. It is the perfect ghost town, its roads untrodden. It is disturbed only by the shadow of the helicopter passing overhead. 

The five storey building...

And then the volcano. The fumaroles and the stink of sulphur. The great gash of a scar from the 2010 eruption, ripping through the rock. The ash and the boulders, crumbling and exploding from the force of the gases still trapped inside. The pilot revved the engine and raced close to the ground, to let us feel the speed at which lava travels as it spills and bubbles and destroys all in its path. 


The scar in the earth,

Jurassic Park.

Yet there is also the lush, emerald green of the vegetation which has grown back. The tenacity of life, clinging to the sides of the burning hill. I gazed from the window, eyes straining for a glimpse of the dinosaurs I was sure were being cloned by mad scientists and left to roam this primal place. I felt sick as a dog, but awed, reverent, thankful to have been granted the privilege of such a sight.

 Of the three tours we did whilst on holiday in Antigua, this was the most expensive by far, and yet the only one that I feel was worth every last cent. The helicopter itself was a blast, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ride in one again, should a passing pilot/rock star/random multi-billionaire ever offer me a lift. That early phobia is well and truly done with (though my fear of fairground rides definitely isn't. That's another story). But what will really stay with me from this challenge is the volcano, and the haunted houses prostrate at its feet. Those memories aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Thanks to Justin for this great picture, and for coming flying with me, even if you did get the front seat, you lucky sod.

 Fourteen down, sixteen to go…

Friday, 7 December 2012

Flying Fantastic: An evening of Aerial Silks.

Every now and again my blog does something a little bit magical. A few of weeks ago, it was retweeted by Amanda Palmer. Previously to that, I had been contacted by a total stranger telling me that it had inspired her to start her own Fifty@50 challenge. And, somewhere in between these two events, just after I posted my piece on trapezing, a company called Flying Fantastic dropped me a line and offered me the chance to try out an aerial silks class. This is one of the reasons I love not having a pre-defined list to adhere to. Sure, it's scary not to have a plan. Sure, there's a good chance I'll reach May 9th 2013 and realise that I have two days to complete ten challenges. But I love the fact that things can just pop unexpectedly into my life and steer me off course. 

The first time I saw aerial silks was on a BBC ident. Since then I've seen them on TV and on stage several times, most memorably and creatively in a Hindi version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was incidentally one of the most moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen in my life.

The first part of my aerial silks adventure involved hauling my backside to Battersea. Once upon a time I was a Battersea regular, and I thought nothing of a ninety minute journey from North London to deepest, darkest South West. The things we do when we're young and in love... But it's been a long time since I ventured into such alien territory without the protection of my car, and Justin gallantly agreed to come with me to snap some photos. We meet at Queenstown Road station after work and snaked our way through a series of council estates until we found the Wilditch Community Centre. There aren't that many places in London where you can learn aerial silks, because you need a seriously high, seriously strong ceiling. The Wilditch Centre ticks both boxes and the hall was decked out with eight sets of silks hanging down to the ground, each set with a large crash mat beneath it. I was nervous but excited, and ready to get climbing, yes yes yes.

No no no. Before anyone goes anywhere near a silk, there is a warm up to contend with. Sometimes, running in Hampstead Heath, Julia and I see the crazy people doing the crazy military fitness. Well, this warm up was definitely the equal of the military madness. I was seeing spots by the fifth plank, and the instructor kept throwing press ups in between the other exercises, as if they were merely an aside rather than a method of torture in their own right. The less said about my pitiful performance at the warm up the better. If trapezing and silking have taught me anything at all, it is that circus skills require extreme fitness. If I ever decide that the time has come to acquire a washboard stomach and biceps that would embarrass Madonna, I know exactly how to do it.

There were four people in the absolute beginners group, and we were looked after by Claire, one of the head trainers for Flying Fantastic. She quickly explained the theory of climbing the silks. It requires a certain level of strength, but the key is in achieving the correct grip with your feet. If you can hold the silk firmly and effectively between the outer ankle of one food and the ball of the other, you should be able to move yourself up the silk with minimal physical effort. That's the theory, anyway.

The beginners group learns how to wrap the silk and angle the feet.
The theory made a lot of sense. but in practice, when your feet don't know the drill, getting up the silk is a lot harder than the non-beginners made it look. A combination of wobbly technique and sheer determination got me up there, though not without considerable effort. Please note, many of the photos that follow contain very silly faces. These include such gems as: This is difficult; Serious concentration required; Holy crap this is significantly higher than I thought; I might be about to fall over; I am a bit smug because I am up a silk; and Ow this hurts. Feel free to collect all six. 

Look mum, one hand!

I really have no idea what this face is all about.

After (sort of) mastering the initial climb, we had to test out the strength of our arms. For ten seconds. Cue some more interesting faces. 

Putting your tongue aids strength and concentration. Fact.
I think I can, I think I can...
Next to learn was a foot lock. This entailed wrapping the silks around the foot in such a way that it anchored itself. If you've seen the professionals, you'll know that they do some incredible drops, unravelling with death-defying speed and then miraculously stopping, sometimes inches from the ground. This is achieved by wrapping the silks in all sorts of intricate ways, far too complicated for someone who never even managed to knot a half decent friendship bracelet in her youth... The foot look was pretty basic though, so I almost managed to do it without pulling a silly face. Almost.

Yep. There's the face.
Then it was time to throw some shapes within the frame created by the two silks. Lots and lots of fun. Plenty of smug happy faces.

Figurehead-tastic! Thanks to fellow beginner Leanne Parker for this pic.

Another pic from Leanne Parker.

Yeah, this was pretty entertaining.
The class lasted an hour and a half, and (apart from the plank and the press ups, upon which we don't need to dwell) the time absolutely flew. I want to take this opportunity to thank the team at Flying Fantastic, and especially Claire. We ended with a quick and very necessary stretch, safe in the knowledge that the next day would undoubtedly dawn complete with significant muscle pain. In order to mitigate this, I decided to have a very hot bath before bed. Which is when I noticed my foot. Look away now if you're not keen on feet.*

No pain, no gain.

*As a completely random aside, I once knew a girl who had a serious foot phobia. Now, I'm mildly OCD and have some damn odd habits, so I don't judge, but she had to slap her cheek several times, hard and fast, whenever she saw a foot. Or a picture of a foot. Or a foot on screen. She slapped her cheek for a good fifteen seconds in the cinema once. There's nowt so queer as folk. Anyway, that's neither here nor there.

So, that was my aerial silks experience. Looking over the photographs now has reminded me of how much fun it was. Why do so many fun things have to hurt? (And while we're on the subject, why hasn't someone designed a calorie-free brownie and ice cream sundae?) I was, unsurprisingly, pretty stiff the next day, and it ached every time I coughed, which I took as an excellent sign that my abs had shown up to the aerial party.

Between the trapeze and the silks, I'm fairly sure that my future lies in escape to the circus. I shall have to toughen up some, and clearly have to work on my face control, but otherwise I'm all set. Roll up roll up.

Thirteen down, seventeen to go...