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Six things I’ve learned about life from living in London

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Next Friday, I leave London after almost four years in the UK. I’m off to New York, to make a go of it in what has been my favourite city ever since I stepped foot onto Eighth Avenue outside Penn Station for the first time eight years ago. I’m a little bit daunted, a little bit excited, but mostly it still doesn’t feel entirely real. I suppose it won’t feel real until the taxi pulls up at my (unexpectedly awesome) new apartment the night I arrive.

The last four years have been… well, a lot of things. I’ve gotten married.  Gotten a book deal and finally finished the book I’ve been planning to finish, oh, since 2009 or so? Sort of, anyway. There’s still another round of edits or two to go, but it will be on your shelves sometime next year. Probably spring if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn if you’re in the Southern. I’ve been to a “salon” in France (twice!), done a TEDx talk, seen some amazing art and theatre, and interviewed Kate Moss, Natalie Portman and Tina Fey.

I’ve also spent a lot of time feeling like London was impenetrable to me. I’ve walked into events where I’ve known no one, tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger, failed and ended up retreating into my phone to email friends on the other side of the world. I’ve bemoaned the difficulty of finding “my people,” despite the fact that I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know a whole bunch of really lovely ones (even if those who were expats like me kept leaving). I’ve felt increasingly distant from the country that I am from, and quietly grieved my loss. For a long time, I felt like I was trapped in a place where I didn’t really belong, where I had become a less interesting, confident, vibrant version of myself.

Despite this, I leave London feeling both satisfied with the time I’ve spent here, and equally, like I could happily spend another four years in the city. I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of London, made an impact (however small), and yes, “found my people” here. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and what makes me happy along the way; things that perhaps I knew intuitively before, but which were placed into sharper relief by plonking myself on the opposite side of the planet and forcing myself to start all over again.

Here are six of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Create, don’t just consume. When I first moved to London, I loaded up on events and activities in an attempt to meet new people and get a feel for the city. I joined a co-working space, went to literary events, struck up conversations with strangers and so on. This worked, at least a bit: I did meet new people, some of whom invited me to things where I could meet other new people, and some of whom I’m still in touch with. One friend, whom I sat next to by chance at a feminist conference and struck up a conversation with, later invited me to see Germaine Greer talk with her at her university in the Midlands, eat pancakes and quesadillas, and sing musical theatre songs. It was a great weekend, we’re still in touch, and I wish she lived in London so we could have done it more often. But going to events and introducing yourself to strangers is also exhausting. At least, it is for me.

I found my happiness in London increased dramatically towards the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, when I started not only attending other people’s events but creating my own, through my weekly hosting work at Hub Islington and my feminist discussion group. Being a creator rather than just a consumer helps you to feel a part of something greater than yourself. It also taps you into a community far more than simply showing up at stuff might. For my part, I love organising things, but for you this might mean volunteering at your local Oxfam shop, reaching out to someone who’s already running something you enjoy, or so on.

2. Put your hand up for things. Feel crappy that you’re nowhere near well connected/known enough to be approached by others to do the things you’d like to do? Well, no shiz – you’re a newbie. Instead of hiding in the background, get in touch with people who are doing things you think are cool and volunteer your time and expertise. Most of the time, they’ll be glad to hear from you. And if they’re not, that says more about them than it does about you.

3. If something isn’t working, let it go. A lot of my early un-ease in London was a product of the fact that I held on for too long to things that weren’t a great fit for me. I joined the first co-working space I visited, and stayed even though I barely spoke to anyone there. I chased friendships with people who, in retrospect, probably didn’t really want to be friends with me. It’s hard not to do this, sometimes. You want to let people and places find their groove. But in New York I plan to try out a whole bunch of different workspaces to see which one fits, and although there are people there I already rather adore and hope to hang out with all the time, if that doesn’t transpire, so be it. Letting go of the things that don’t work opens up space for those that do.

4. Nothing lasts forever, so appreciate it while it lasts. In my first few months in London, I didn’t know how long I would be here for, so I drank in every opportunity I could. When a then stranger invited me to attend her “artists’ salon” in the north of France, I said yes (after doing due diligence, of course), because what is the point of moving to London and working for yourself if not to be able to yes to things like that? I bought tickets to oddball plays and shows, because who knew when I would have the opportunity to do so again? Similarly, in my last few weeks, I’ve been taking in everything, gazing up at St Pauls or Trafalgar Square as my bus crawls by at night, observing the cherry blossoms that pop up on the trees in spring.

But the truth is, my time in London has always been temporary, no matter how long I was going to be here for. And if there is one thing I could go back and change about my time here, it would be to retain that sense of wonder for all four years I was here. And even if you’re not living on the opposite side of the world to where you grew up, the same is true for you. The part of your life that you are living now will only last so long, so drink it in while it’s here.

5. But don’t let the fact that it’s temporary stop you from making deep connections. I’ve only been friends with one of my current favourite people in London for about three months. A tragedy, you might say – to meet a friend crush of such proportions right as you are about to leave the country. But as I told her via song when I had her over to my place for dinner a few weeks back, I prefer to take a Sandy and Danny approach to these things: just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean the friendship isn’t worthwhile. In our globalised age, there’s no reason why my friends in London won’t someday be in New York, or Sydney, or wherever else I end up, or why I won’t end up in London again. And a great friendship is a great friendship no matter how long it lasts.

6. Don’t feel bad about hanging out with other Australians. Or Minnesotans, or Colombians, or wherever else you’re from. Sure, it’s true that you generally don’t move to another continent to hang out with the same people you spent your time with back home. But there is something nice about crossing paths again with people you’ve known in another time and place, and adding a new dimension to your friendship. I’ve gotten to know some amazing Australians in my time here whom I never would have gotten to know so well in Australia, and I’m grateful for those friendships. Plus if you’re from the same place, it’s even more likely that your paths will cross again in the future. So, don’t avoid people from the place that you’re from just to escape the “expat ghetto.” And don’t limit yourself to pursuing friendships only with the locals, either. One of the best things about living in a global city is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.

Related: Going where thousands of Australians have gone before.
Swinging London town: an expat’s lament
A tale of three cities
She who tries, wins
The Musings of an Inappropriate Woman guide to Feminist Wedding Planning
Hola 2009: meditations on a New Year

"See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes."

I stumbled upon this interview with French aristocrat and model (a combination which seems to go together more often than natural selection alone would allow) Caroline de Maigret via Phoebe, and was initially taken aback by her brazenly casual self-confidence.

"See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born tall, with a pretty face (not to everyone’s taste, I concede), and a thin body."

But then, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we all talked about ourselves in that way, even if we weren’t skinny, French, aristocratic models?

"See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born tall(ish), with a pretty face (not to everyone’s taste, I concede), and large breasts."

Feels weird to write, huh? But give it a go with your own stand out physical traits.

"See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born ________, with a pretty face (not to everyone’s taste, I concede), and ________."

My ex-best friend

(A brief exercise in creative non-fiction.)

She was the bearer of all the news you most wanted to hear. That guy you had a crush on? She could have sworn you two were going out. People were talking about you behind your back constantly, but all they talked about was how fantastic they were. You feared you were ugly; she thought you were so beautiful she had affixed your picture to her bedroom wall.

The trouble was, none of it was true.

GIRLS, and the trouble with “soulmates”

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Lena Dunham is at her best when she is ripping open the unspoken tensions and glossed over un-intimacies between friends. Take the “you are the wound” fight at towards the end of Season One, which felt at the time like an amalgam of five different arguments I had between the ages of 18 and 26.

So too it was with last night’s episode, which took the “core four” on a girls’ (pun not intended) weekend trip to the North Fork, a vacation spot “for people who think the Hamptons are tacky and don’t want to be on a beach that’s near a J.Crew.”

We open to a montage of Marnie playing the “perfect” middle-class hostess, gliding through a light-filled beach house to the strains of classical music, filling her friends’ bedrooms with artfully drawn place cards and fresh flowers. The illusion is shattered immediately when the others arrive off the bus from New York. “How was the ride?” asks Marnie. “I need to fucking piss so badly, I’m going to shit myself,” Hannah replies.

It quickly becomes clear that Marnie’s plans for an intimate, Instagram-friendly bonding weekend are not shared by her friends. When Marnie tells Hannah she’s arranged for them to have adjoining rooms, Hannah is visibly disappointed. When Marnie grits her teeth in the cold, choppy sea, insisting that “it’s the best swimming conditions imaginable, I’m having the time of my life,” Jessa says she “can’t go in open water unless [she is] menstruating” and Hannah complains about the sharp pebbles on the beach. “I thought this would just be a nice opportunity for us to have fun together,” Marnie says when she joins them on the shore.

Later, when they go into town to buy groceries, Hannah runs into her ex-boyfriend Elijah, who is visiting with a couple of friends and his new boyfriend, played by Danny Strong of Jonathan-on-Buffy fame. Hannah invites the guys back to the house the girls are staying at, and what ensues is several hours of backstabbing, eavesdropping, debauchery, drunkenness and Broadway dancing sessions, in which everyone seems to be having fun except for Marnie. Unsurprisingly, it all culminates in a “you are the wound” level blow-out at the end of the episode, when everyone involved basically admits they hate each other.

This episode wasn’t fun to watch, per se. It was painful to observe four, and later eight, people who clearly don’t like each other very much constantly pick at, undermine, and passive aggressively throw barbs at one another. At the end of the episode, I wanted to curl up in a ball and just lay there for a while.

But it was also the best episode of Girls I’d seen in a long time, and probably my favourite since Season One.

As the way I’ve recounted this story probably reveals, my sympathies lie with Marnie in this instance. I’ve been in her shoes: organised something with a group of friends in the hope that we’ll have a SuperAmazingAwesomeTime together, only to find that everyone but me is having fun and I really don’t want to be there anymore. I’ve looked across the room at people I normally love and felt like they were strangers, wondering how we ever came to be friends in the first place. In short, I’ve felt the kind of “alone” that Marnie felt in last night’s episode, and I can attest that it sucks.

And as in the show, these feelings always seem to happen – or perhaps they just always feel more acute – on a trip away. Prolonged and enforced proximity, I suppose.

I’ve trawled a bit around the internet this morning, so I know that I’m not in the majority in regards to my sympathy for Marnie. “Marnie is the WORST,” one of my friends said on Facebook. “She is literally a psychotic perfectionist,” wrote someone on TelevisionWithoutPity. And certainly, there are things that Marnie could have done to make the weekend more enjoyable for herself and her friends. Let go for instance, and accept, however sadly, that what is fun for her is not the same thing as what is fun for the people she is friends with. And vice versa. Maybe it’s time for her to find some new friends.

But although I don’t usually relate to Marnie’s “pretty girl problems,” I certainly sympathised more with her failed attempts to create the “perfect weekend” than I did with any of the other girls. (If they all hate her so much, I wondered, why did they go on holiday with her in the first place?) And I’ve found her flailing this season the most interesting of the four storylines, although I also think Jessa and Shosh have a whole bunch of narrative potential that is not currently being tapped. It’s Hannah and Adam I’m sick of hearing from, really.

Like I said above, this episode left me feeling like I needed to have a long lie down. It was sad, and not just for the girls either: Elijah’s puppy dog sadness at the hands of his quasi-abusive boyfriend left me equally hurting. But it also felt a lot more real than the friends-as-platonic-soulmates peppiness that permeated, say, Sex & The City.

Because as anyone who has ever had a soulmate - platonic or otherwise - knows, part of getting that close to someone means giving them license to break your heart every now and again.

Related: I am Hannah Horvath. And you might be too.
Yet another way in which Gossip Girl is kind of like real life.

Elsewhere: Pretty Girl Privilege (LA Review of Books)

Happy Galentine’s Day: In Praise of Being Single

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An oldie, but a goodie.

It feels vaguely blasphemous to be writing about how great it is to be single on my first Valentine’s Day as a married person. But given that some quick fraction work reveals that I’ve spent just over 85% of my life so far as a single person (by which I don’t mean “unmarried”, but not in any kind of romantic relationship at all), I feel it is a subject that I know something about. Sure, a lot of those years were when I was a child, but my point still stands.

I wasn’t a great single person. In fact, I was probably about the worst kind of single person there is. I wasn’t a Sex & The City-type woman with expensive shoes and cocktails, confidently eating up every man who crossed my path. I was that girl who would whine incessantly about being single, who would burst into tears and lay in bed listening to angsty Liz Phair songs whenever a fledging relationship fizzled out. 

Intellectually, of course, I knew that all this was ridiculous. (I was well versed in my feminist literature.) But intellect wasn’t enough to override the emotional impacts of a lifetime diet of DollyGirlfriend and Dawson’s CreekIn which dating was just what people did, whether you were 12 and going to your first middle school dance (The Babysitter’s Club), 16 and hanging with your beau at the local milk bar (Sweet Valley High), or 17 and hooking up with your lab partner because you don’t want to go to college a virgin (Britney Spears’s Crossroads). 

Plenty of people I went to high school with didn’t date: I went to a girls’ school, and the boys my friends and I met were few and far between. But that didn’t mean that we didn’t internalise the messages that we received from the popular culture that engulfed us. We “knew” that teenagers were “supposed” to date, party and be plagued by sexual temptationAnd we “knew” that girls who had boyfriends were superior to the ones who didn’t. I still recall the instant boost in popularity one of the girls in my Year 7 class experienced when she was asked out by a guy on the train. 

So when I grew up and my life looked nothing like Sweet Valley High, I took it to mean there was something wrong with me. That I was somehow defective, unattractive, abnormal. I never felt so defective that I was willing to enter into a relationship with someone I didn’t actually like, but I spent much of my youth with the niggling sense that there was something lacking in me. 

Sometimes I wonder if, maybe if I’d spent only 70 or 80 percent of my life single (as opposed to my current 85 percent), I would have felt differently. If I would have then been one of those single people who loved being single; who actively chose it instead of feeling like it was chosen for them.  

Because the truth is, being single actually was kind of fantastic. And while I didn’t always enjoy it at the time, I can see now that it actually shaped my life in all sorts of fantastic ways.  

Being single gave me the time and space to cultivate some amazing friendships; the kind of friendships people write stories about. It meant that when Mr Musings (someone with a similar ratio of single to not single time as myself) and I got married a few months ago, we were able to do so in the room filled with friends. Not just people we had passed the time with, but people with whom we had shared our lives and true intimacies, in a manner that is frankly difficult to do when you’re investing all your intimacy into one person. 

Being single meant I had the freedom (and again, the time – this one is so important, I think) to throw myself into my interests, enmesh myself in my community(s), to try new things out and, yes, to ultimately discard them if I found they didn’t work for me. It meant I could hold down a job, freelance, do a PhD and still have time to go out three or four nights a week. In temporarily forgoing one facet of the richness of life, I was able to experience more of so many others.

Having spent so much of my life single means that I will never (I hope, at least), be one of “those” coupled people who organises exclusive “couples weekends”, feels awkward about inviting single friends to dinner, or tells their single friends, “you know, maybe you’re just too picky”.

Being single gave me a foundation: of friends, of genuine intimacies, of what I was passionate about. It meant that when I did end up in a relationship with someone I wanted to stay with, I knew what I wanted from life, and to choose someone who wanted basically the same things. 

That’s not to say that serial monogamists can’t have these things, too – I know plenty who have – but I do think that having that wealth of time to myself in the first half of my twenties helped me to achieve them.

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine – a friend whose ratio of single time to coupled time is even higher than mine is – wrote an email wondering if, as a “perpetual bachelorette,” she was destined for a future of boredom and loneliness. The irony is that this particular friend leads one of the most vital, inspiring lives of anyone I know, filled with tight knit friendships, passions and projects.  

The point isn’t that the grass is greener on the other side. The point is that both sides of the proverbial meadow are green… even if we don’t always appreciate it at the time.

Related: Welcome to the Institute for Sweet Valley High-related cultural studies
Wanting to be with someone you LIKE means you’ll be alone FOREVER

The Musings of an Inappropriate Woman Guide to Feminist Wedding Planning: Part 5: The Opposite of War Isn’t Peace, It’s Creation.

Image via caradelevingnefan.

(via caradelevingnefan)