Following Queenie’s orders: a 2013 round-up

My first Christmas in my new flat

My first Christmas in my new flat

It’s a tradition in our house (one of several) that, every Christmas Day, we sit down to our prawn cocktail starter and turkey dinner after the festive edition of Top of the Pops, just as Queenie, aka Queen Elizabeth II, comes on telly to do her annual Christmas message to the country.

Many mock this rather quaint set-up that our country insists on (I’m talking about the monarchy just as much as the speech itself), but as we tucked into dinner with the national anthem playing in the background, I couldn’t help but think Queenie’s Christmas message call to take time for reflection was something I should act upon in a year that, at times, has felt quite tough for me. Rather than focus on the things that haven’t gone to plan (erm… updating this blog every two weeks!) I want to take a moment to obey my sovereign and reflect on my past year (if you’ll kindly excuse the #cliche).

2013 feels like a whirlwind but when I take the time to look back on the year and reflect on everything I’ve achieved I can hardly believe just how much I’ve managed to pack in and, in the spirit of last year’s new year’s resolution, how many strangers I’ve had interesting conversations with!

Me in Gay Paris - January 2013

Gay Paris

In January, I took a pretty big chance on a stranger and went on a second date to Paris to meet someone I’d met over Christmas who lived there. Egged on by my work colleagues, who thought it was hilarious, I thought ‘why not’; with Paris only 2.5 hours away from central London it was, essentially, the equivalent of going back to Leeds, where I went to university. Though we decided to stay friends, it was an amazing experience; I’d never done something so spontaneous before, and seeing Paris with someone who lives there, watching the snow come down heavily across the city and, frankly, eating some really tasty duck pate were some of the highlights.

In February I jetted off again to Melbourne, Australia, with a close work colleague to visit another old colleague of ours who had recently moved back ‘Down Under’. We had a fantastic time: much champagne was drunk, ‘roos and koalas were spotted and we felt the sun on our backs as we drove down the Great Ocean Road, stopping to stay at Sizzle’s beach house in Lorne. Vics and I also flew to Sydney for one night only, Valentine’s Day in fact. We were in two minds but it’s a decision I will never regret as I got to see a dear old friend, Pete, one last time before he passed away in April this year. After visiting him, Vics and I spent a day around Sydney Harbour, quaffing a few spritzaroos before dining out under the harbour bridge. It was touristy, and we were surrounded by couples, but it was magical. I have more than one photo of me pretending to kiss Sydney Harbour Bridge…

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

A room with a view in Sydney, Australia

Back in London for two days only, I was then off to Berlin for a few nights with ‘the girls’ from university. In retrospect it was a little too ambitious shortly after a 24 hour journey back from the Antipodes and still jetlagged… I’m not sure I’d recommend two such trips in close proximity but I still had a great time, with lots of good meals, walks in the freezing city led by a (rather attractive) tour guide, and one hilarious night out in a German nightclub.

Saying goodbye to old work colleagues

Saying goodbye to old work colleagues

In May I made the rather crazy decision to move jobs, move house and go on holiday again to Portugal. It’s more than a slight understatement to say that a lot went on that month! Leaving my job was an ‘end of an era’ kind of decision; it was my first role out of university, I’d learnt so much cutting my teeth there, been promoted, and, most importantly of all, met some brilliant people who I count as good friends. It’s been difficult to accept that, though I don’t regret leaving, my new role doesn’t quite match up to the old, but I’m still focused on learning and achieving as much as I possibly can and with some really great new colleagues too.

In June, I ran my first ever 5k Race for Life with my sister, in memory of my grandma who suffered from cancer up until her death in April 2012. The race was on her birthday itself which we saw as a sign that we should get up off the sofa and do something for her. I’d never even properly ‘run’ before, and especially not a 5k. In typical fashion, I did absolutely no training and yet was running alongside my PE teacher sister. I like to think my gran would be incredulous at the fact I managed to finish only 30 seconds (or so…) behind her, with a first time of 33 minutes. Up there with one of my proudest moments of the year, considering you’d never catch me even running for the bus!

We were lucky that, after around 3 washout summers, we had months of warm weather and lots of sunshine. When the UK has a heatwave (or rather our British kind of heatwave, which gets to about 28 degrees Celsius maximum!) you don’t need to go away. Picnics in the parks, pints of lager shandy sitting out in beer gardens, and, for me, my very first garden to laze around in. Just need to figure out how to work the lawnmower for next year…

London skyline in the late afternoon sunshine

London skyline in the late afternoon sunshine

Nonetheless, in late August, for the bank holiday, I had another weekend getaway with my family to Cascais, Portugal. I estimate that it was our first family holiday in around 5 years. It was, surprisingly, argument-free, mostly consisting of lazing by the pool reading (and I can recommend a hundred times over ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walters). Shortly after, in September, I took another hit of spontaneity and flew to Cap Breton in the South of France to spend a few days with an amazing guy I had recently met who was travelling in London. Again, we decided to just be friends as opposed to anything more, but we had the most amazing three days getting to know each other, cycling through the town, drinking nice red wine and crashing into the waves (almost scarring some small children around me when I lost my bikini top for a moment). I honestly think I made a friend for life, and I’m so glad that I took another chance in agreeing to holiday with him.

Love these girls: Tennessee 2013

Love these girls: Tennessee 2013

Nearing the end of the year now, two friends and I headed to Tennessee to visit a dear old school friend who has moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to marry a kind, generous and generally perfect for her man. It was a great trip; we got to experience something of her new life out there, meet her new extended family including new pup Archie, drank too much craft beer, ate too many burgers and listened to incredible live musicians. We visited Nashville and Memphis, and in them, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Bluebird Cafe, the Station Inn, the Frisk Museum of Art, the Lorraine Motel, numerous hipster cafes and Graceland itself. We stayed in a beautiful air bnb in Central Gardens, where I went for a 5k jog round the neighbourhood; did a brewery tour on the outskirts of Nashville and, back in Chattanooga, did something I never thought I would do (and can safely say will probably never do again): hang-gliding on Lookout Mountain. It was also the place where I started the little experiment that will make up most of the content of this blog and I’ll update on that in a later (but not too much later!) blog post.

As well as all these standout moments that punctuated my 2013, I’m proud of smaller achievements too. Studying for my marketing diploma and passing another module of it; doing an ‘Introduction to Russian’ language course just for the hell of it; organising an internal event for 80 colleagues where I presented a new idea. I can’t emphasise enough how un-British it is for me to revel in what I’ve done; as a nation we generally hate a boaster and cheer on the underdog. The thought of someone thinking I am arrogant or cocky is almost too much to bear! I’m buoyed by the fact that it’s pretty much just me who will be reading this in years to come, and I’d like it as a reminder of a brief moment in time, sitting in a house by the coast full of good friends, who currently I’m ignoring as I try desperately to stick to a mini-resolution I made to write one more post on here before the end of 2013! (Sorry guys!)

So what will 2014 bring? A year as action-packed as 2013, I hope, as well as health and happiness for my friends and family, and all those strangers I briefly met and am yet to meet. My ‘talking to strangers’ resolution is going to stick with me for another year, and this time I’m going to expand it to include this blog and my little experiment, which has already paid off more than I ever thought it would.

Happy New Year!

Tennessee’s kind strangers

With love from Chattanooga, Tennessee

With love from Chattanooga, Tennessee

It seems I’ve already managed to renege on my promise to myself of one blog post each fortnight. But I have a reason! Let’s call it ‘R&D into my chosen topic’, given I’ve just spent the last two weeks in the midst of blissful Southern US hospitality on holiday; the likes of which I’ve only ever read about in Tennessee Williams’ plays. This seems apt given I visited his namesake state.

I spent the last fortnight in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis, all in Tennessee, USA, visiting a very dear school friend. After my time there, with two other friends in tow, I can’t say I’m surprised Blanche DuBois opined on ‘the kindness of strangers’ in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, given the willingness of strangers (and soon-to-be-not-such-strangers) to welcome us into their country with warmness and curiosity.

Only 45 minutes into our holiday, at Atlanta airport, we’d been in deep conversations with at least four separate people, all keen to find out more about why we were there, why our friend was in Tennessee (‘sounds like a man….’) and even into the nitty gritty of what we thought about their land of the free and home of the brave (we declined to even stick a toe into politics in true British, non-confrontational style).

Spending a first evening with our friend’s newly ‘inherited’ in-laws and wider family, we were also struck by the kindness and, indeed, quiet determination of, new acquaintances keen to share what they could with us. Whether it was burgers from the BBQ, a dinner to celebrate the birthday of one of our party, or even an afternoon in the beautiful landscape of ‘Uncle Bob’s’ lake and fern garden, not only did these strangers want to talk to us, they were happy to spend time with us almost immediately after a first meeting.

The lake at Uncle Bob's

The spectacular lake at Uncle Bob’s, backing onto the Tennessee River

This isn’t to say that British people can’t, and don’t, behave in the same welcoming manner, but perhaps we’re held back by a certain reticence, whether that’s because of a fear of what the object of their instant befriending may think, or a general desire to remain a step back, borne from our collective ‘stiff upper lip’?

Looking at it from another angle, maybe the UK’s easy access to other countries, particularly in Europe, could mean we take our travel options for granted, and in turn think less of welcoming travellers. In countries, or parts of countries, where people tend to travel less for whatever reason, a tourist may be seen more as something of a novelty: a shiny penny to part-possess, part-inform, part-mother? Lord knows that, in Tennessee, most people chatting to us on the street, in bars, restaurants and so on, first asked us where we were from, but then asked us, mostly incredulously ‘why are you here?’

But chat these Tennesseans did, and we lapped it up pretty much every single time. Truly the only exception I can think of was in Memphis, near Beale Street, where we were tailed by a ‘farm boy from Wisconsin’, staying in the city on business, and who repeated ‘got a wedding ring and a wallet’ to us… whatever the hell that meant!?

A holiday in Tennessee was a perfect opportunity to reinforce my resolution of talking more to strangers, and when I arrived home to London yesterday and went for brunch in Notting Hill, I found myself chatting away to the waitress far more than I usually would, even with my 2013 ‘Chatty Cathy’ confidence.  Tennessee also provided me with an opportunity to begin the very first step in the ‘experiment’ that I hope, in time, makes up the contents of this blog. All that, however, will again depend on the kindness of Tennesse’s strangers. And a smidgen of luck.

The beginning; or, New Year’s Eve 2012

In the beginning, there was a New Year’s resolution (and not even ‘to write a blog’: a digital marketing cliche I’d long resisted only to give in but ten months later…)

NYE 2012 London

NYE 2012 – London Happy in the knowledge my strenuous resolution for 2012 has been completed

For the past few years I’d stopped trying to make a list of goals to achieve, habits to quit, exercise classes to attend rigorously for, oh, at least the first 3 weeks of January. In fact the furthest I’d gone was to make the rather stretching declaration that I would consume my first oyster by the end of 2011; a resolution that led to me and my best friend frantically searching for oyster bars in Manchester City Centre with only 24 hours to go before 00:01, 1 January 2012.

For 2013, I decided I wanted something altogether… easier (yes, easier than eating one single solitary oyster in 12 months). I’d lived in London for 3 years or so, and was already beginning to feel jaded. A more than half-decent relationship had come to an end and I was seriously beginning to doubt my chances of ever being romantically involved with someone who I hadn’t met in a) the kitchen at work or b) the kitchen in my flatshare.

As anyone who’s lived in London will attest to, those in the Big Smoke like to keep their head down and safely below the parapet. Indeed I’m surprised that Londoners regularly manage to walk more than 2 metres without bumping into each other given their constant need to avoid renegade eye contact with the nearest nutter as well as their serious addiction to smartphones. Then again, given the heinousness of actual bodily contact in London, perhaps this is the capital’s sixth sense?

New Year's Eve 2012

Such dancing could be the reason for no conversations with strangers…

Why didn’t we talk to each other? In Manchester, that New Year’s Eve previous, I’d actually had a 2-3 minute conversation with the guy that served me in the M&S in Piccadilly train station. It wasn’t a case of him flirting, or being creepy or weird. In fact, if anyone was coming across as a little bit strange it was me, quite happily talking at him at length about mine and my best friend’s penchant for eating M&S snacks and canned cocktails in hotel rooms around the country whilst watching X Factor and getting ready for a night out. All he’d asked me was what was I doing for the evening. It was just…. friendliness. Interest. Good, old-fashioned and polite small talk with a stranger. And I missed having that when I was back in London.

So, a year later (it takes me a while to catch on to these things… see first sentence’s blog comment), I decided that was it. By George, I had it. My New Year’s Resolution for 2013, proudly proclaimed on 31 December 2012, was that I was going to start talking to strangers more. Not with a view to finding a mate (platonic or otherwise), not as a means to an end or a ‘networking opportunity’; simply to be a better ‘fellow human’.

10 months in, and it’s gone pretty well. To date, I’ve had some good stories and even a free coffee out of it (so much for not doing it as a means to an end, although I like to see it as balancing out the one bad reaction I’ve had so far, when a homeless man called me a tight c*nt).

My next step is to expand my adventure a little bit by saying hello to twenty six strangers and recording the results on this blog: the next ‘chapter’ of my 2013 resolution if you like (for ‘chapter’, read: ‘cop out for 2014’s’). I’ve picked the number 26 as it’s my lucky number and this is my golden year (I turned 26 on the 26th of January). It also fits nicely into 52, leaving me around two weeks to write a post on here which, whilst relatively ambitious for me, is surely doable? Aware I probably shouldn’t put this in writing.

I love to travel, in the UK and abroad, and to visit galleries, restaurants, theatres, coffee shops and, of course, M&S’s. I hope this blog/experiment/self-indulgent exercise becomes a record of 52 weeks’ worth of fun for me to look back on, as well as 52 weeks’ worth of saying hello and generally talking (or writing) rubbish to people I’ve never met before.

Now to go make a fool of myself.