petite anglaise

June 3, 2007

sunday

Filed under: mills & boon, single life — petiteanglaise @ 3:11 pm

My hair, hanging over the edge of the bed, almost touches the floor, brushing against the overflowing ashtray, no doubt. My legs are outstretched, the soles of my feet pressed against the cool white wall above. Without my glasses, my toes are blurred and indistinct. I stretch out my arm slowly, squinting at my hand, eyes narrowed, gauging how far I can see the wrinkles around my knuckles before they, too, recede from view.

I have no desire to move, or dress. Music washes over me, and I close my eyes and let a reel of images play in a loop inside my head.

I see the one who got away, sitting on his balcony, unable to meet my eyes. “Je t’adore,” he says, his unspoken “mais…” hanging heavy in the air between us. I can’t look at him. My eyes are burning. He doesn’t want me in the way I want him too. He never will. There is no explanation for this; I must simply accept it.

He will never see me like this: languid, almost purring with contentment, clouée au lit in a pleasant torpor. He may have slipped in and out of my dreams last night, but something tells me that I’ve turned the corner now. He won’t inhabit my nights for long.

A quoi tu penses?” asks the lovely, uncomplicated boy by my side, fingers softly grazing my thigh.

Oh… Rien de très important. Juste à un truc que j’ai envie d’écrire…” I murmur.

March 2, 2007

souk

Filed under: single life — petiteanglaise @ 1:29 pm


“Enticing and intimidating in equal measures, the souk thrills the senses and jangles the nerves” – Lonely Planet, Morrocco.

I sit in the courtyard outside my room, sipping mint tea and chewing on a sweet, oily pastry. It is my first day in Marrakech and I’m trying to summon up the courage to leave the oasis of calm that is my Riad hotel, steeling my nerves for the thorough jangling which the Lonely Planet warns they are about to experience.

The maps in my possession offer little in the way of reassurance. Two or three main thoroughfares are labelled north of the place Djemma El-Fna, but from what I saw when the owner, Hamid, met me at the taxi rank and led me along a warren of tiny, unmarked passageways to the hotel, there are literally hundreds of snaking alleyways joining the dots. How I’d scoffed at the guidebook’s recommendation to bring a compass. Now I can’t help thinking I’d have done well to take it more seriously. Strolling aimlessly, surrendering all sense of direction can be quite liberating sometimes, leading you to places off the beaten track, revealing gems you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. But somehow doing all of this alone is less attractive. And more panic-inducing.

The heavy door swings closed behind me and I look back at the entrance, searching for distinguishing features. There is a number 8, but no name. I retrace our steps with care, trying to memorise the route I’d trodden with Hamid half an hour earlier. The passageway snakes left, under a dark tunnel, then right, left and right again. On the wall there is a phone number, an English mobile number it looks like, with the words “poute” below it. A misspelling of the French pute? A girl who led a local on, perhaps? I’ll never know but it will useful later. A marker showing me I’m on the right track home. Finally I’m delivered, blinking in the harsh sunlight, onto what I think must be the rue Mouassine.

My modest aim for the afternoon is to find my way to the Ali ben Youssef mosque and medersa, the Musée de Marrakech and the 12th century shrine which are huddled around a square to the east of my hotel. My destination should be only a five minute walk away, but I’m daunted all the same. And with good reason.

As I plunge into the narrow passageways my nostrils are assaulted by a million unfamiliar odours. Leather, scented wood and incense, sewerage, donkey droppings and spices. The heat and blinding light of the open alleyways give way to cool dimness; light filters through the woven ceilings in dusty diagonal stripes. The stalls are covered with a profusion of goods of all colours, shapes and sizes. They are grouped by trade, and I pass through the slipper souk, the jeweller’s souk, the tanner’s souk and a square where spices are sold and chameleons and tiny tortoises roam in cages. Through doorways I can see woodcarvers, blacksmiths and dyers at work, a man deftly gripping a chair leg with his toes while he files with his hands. It’s a sensory overload, a fascinating glimpse into a world which seems to have changed little through the centuries. If only I felt comfortable enough to linger, take pictures and soak up the atmosphere.

Sadly, I don’t. I move quickly, eyes hidden behind my sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the stall owners. “Some vendors are aggressive to the brink of assault”, claims the Lonely Planet. I wouldn’t go that far, but the constant onslaught of attention is exhausting, intimidating. As a tourist, and as a lone woman I am seen as a soft target, an easy prey. I can’t move an inch without someone trying to solicit my attention. The catcalls vary from friendly to impatient to annoyed if I don’t deign to stop.

Bonjour la gazelle!” “Hello!” My carefully calibrated smile is intended to seem friendly, but disinterested. “Venez par ici…” “Non, merci, je me balade seulement, je n’achete pas aujourd’hui…” “Mais venez quand même, regardez un peu…” If I pause for long enough to take a photo shawls are wound around my protesting head, bracelets slipped onto my reluctant wrists, handfuls of dried flowers held up to my nose. Browsing without intent is not a concept the sellers want to understand. Every passer by is an opportunity to be seized. Tourists are fools who can be cajoled, badgered, even bullied into parting with their cash.

At first I’m blithely unaware that I am being followed. But when I turn, I see the boy who’d muttered “fish and chips” as I crossed the carpet souk square. Wrinkling my forehead as I study my map, trying to understand just how it is I’ve managed to walk in circles for the past fifteen minutes without getting any closer to my destination, he circles like a vulture.

“Where you want to go? I show you.”

“I’m looking for the medersa. If I take this street will it take me there?”

“I show you.”

“You don’t need to take me, it’s fine.”

“It okay. No guide. Lovely jubbly.” He scampers off, looking back over his shoulder and motioning to me to follow. I’m still smirking at his odd vocabulary, but this isn’t what I wanted at all. What appears on the surface to be gallant assistance for a damsel in distress will probably end with a request for a tip. But I’m all souked out, I need to find a way out of the chaos. I can spare a few dirhams if need be.

If I’d studied my guidebook more carefully, I would have seen the oldest trick in the book coming sooner. I follow the boy into a shabby courtyard, home to a modest looking scarf shop. Powdered dyes in wooden bowls are spread across a low table, and the vendors make a great show of asking me to guess the colour of the dye before they wet a piece of newspaper and dip it in. A green powder is violet, a deep red powder produces indigo. Every time I turn to leave they block my way. “Why hurry? I show you… You on holiday.”

“I need to go now,” I say firmly. “Thank you for showing me this, but that really wasn’t what I asked for. I don’t want to buy anything today.”

I turn, brush of the restraining arms and walk away.

“You give me twenty dirham? For guide.” He follows, overtakes me, blocks my way.

“You said no guide.”

“Ok, you give me kiss.” He gestures at his unappetising, pock-marked cheek.

I shake my head, push past him and turn on my heel, heart beating at a hundred miles an hour. I fall into step with some tourists I don’t know from Adam, finding their presence oddly reassuring. Turning the next corner, stepping out of the path of a speeding scooter just in the nick of time, I see a sign for the Musée de Maroc. I head towards it, gratefully, losing myself in the tourist throng.

Marrakech, I think to myself as I flop down in the museum café and order my second mint tea of the day, is not for the faint-hearted.

souk1.jpg

February 21, 2007

one

Filed under: navel gazing, single life — petiteanglaise @ 7:57 pm

As I sat on the métro on the way to see some girlfriends yesterday, a bag containing chablis, Nutella and maple syrup wedged between my feet, I couldn’t help thinking back to happier versions of Mardi Gras, and in particular the 2006 edition, in honour of which I threw a pancake party and invited a few friends* from work to my old apartment. It was the first and last time many of them got to meet the man I referred to on this blog as Lover (a pseudonym to which a few readers strongly objected, but I felt then, as I do now, that given just how much time we spent horizontal, the name fit very snugly indeed).

A few days later Lover brought my dreams of an idyllic life together in the Breton countryside crashing down around my ears. I picked myself up, carried on, and so much other stuff happened shortly afterwards that I really didn’t know how to feel anything other than numb for a while.

What this means is that I’ve now been single for almost a full calendar year. It’s a state of affairs without precedent, because after much racking of brains and counting of digits, I can say with absolute certainty that the last time I was single for a Whole Year was in 1988. Although to be fair, at that time I’d been single for a total of fifteen years and was breathlessly awaiting the arrival of my first proper boyfriend.

How do I feel about this? Well, of course I’d rather be happily alone than with someone who was wrong for me. And yes, messing around with few strings attached seemed like fun for a while, but now just strikes me as utterly pointless. As for online dating, I check in to look at my profile from time to time but can rarely muster up sufficient enthusiasm to actually reply to my emails, let alone drag myself out on a blind date.

I know that this year without a special (adult) person by my side has been really good for me, in some ways. I’ve built new friendships, invested a lot more in existing ones and spent lashings of quality time with my daughter. I’m sure I needed to be alone, for a while, and that I’ll appreciate sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with a special someone all the more because of it, when the time comes.

But am I truly happy with this state of affairs? Is single the best thing since the invention of Nutella? Is single the new size zero?

I’d be lying if I said I loved it. Single still doesn’t come naturally to me and I doubt it ever will. So please excuse me while I go and comfort myself with a large pot of leftover nutella, a useful side effect of which is that size zero will never, never fit.

January 29, 2007

solo

Filed under: single life — petiteanglaise @ 9:29 pm

The last time I decided to take myself off on holiday alone was almost a decade ago.

In the summer which intervened between my two years of “teaching” English conversation classes as a lectrice, I found myself in the enviable position of having a three month paid holiday to fill, somehow. None of my friends were at a loose end, so I decided to go it alone. With the wonderful Routard as my guide, I started at Avignon and worked my way westwards towards the Spanish border, staying in cheap hotels and youth hostels in Nîmes, Montpellier and Perpignan, alternating budget restaurants and ravioli from a can, getting from A to B by bus and train. In those days, the Routard rated towns of interest with a helpful number of stars, and I made a point of visiting every place I could get to without a car, and was rarely disappointed. I saw jousting in Sète, fell of a rented bicycle into a ditch just outside Nîmes (due to a tragic combination of sunstroke, oversized bike and too-short legs) and ate fresh anchovies in tapas bar in Coliloure.

At the end of my three week tour I went to stay with a British couple, George and Sylvia, friends of a fellow lecteur, who had chosen to retire in the countryside north of Narbonne and were happy to put me up in exchange for doing a few odd jobs around their house and keeping them company. My favourite memory of that holiday is of the day when George drove me out to a vineyard to buy the cheap local red which he drank with every meal. On the way back to the village he took a turning I hadn’t noticed before, a narrow track which snaked through the vines, bringing us out on top of a hill from which we could survey the surrounding countryside.

“There’s something I thought you might like to see,” said George, parking the car and leading me slowly, painfully to the North side of the hill, leaning heavily on his walking stick. He had a bad leg, and it occurred to me that he was probably over stretching himself.

I followed him, squinting into the sun, thinking that the view was pretty, but not spectacular enough to warrant his trouble until I saw what he was pointing at, and stopped dead in my tracks. From our elevated vantage point the foundations of an immense Roman villa, invisible at ground level, were laid out in front of us. The main road almost clipped the outer wall, but without my guide, the vines would have had no trouble keeping their secret.

“I knew you’d like it,” he said, pleased as punch when he heard my sharp intake of breath. “After you told me about visiting the amphitheatres, the ruins near Nîmes. I knew you’d appreciate this.” He was not wrong.

Ten years later, I found myself once more in the enviable position of having the wherewithal to go away, and the time to do it. Tadpole will be staying with her French grandparents for ten days in February, and as I haven’t been on holiday (trips to see my parents or friends notwithstanding) since the damp and disappointing week I spent in Morbihan, Brittany with Mr Frog in August 2005, I decided to seize the opportunity.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to find some winter sun without breaking the bank, I thought to myself, scrolling through the destinations on LastMinute and AnyWay, clicking merrily through the special offer links on PromoVacances. But my mounting excitement was soon tempered by a feeling of indignant despair, as I saw that not only did most operators charge a hefty supplement for single occupancy of a double room, but in some cases they simply weren’t prepared to let a solo traveller book a room during the school holiday peak period, full stop. It seemed I had stumbled on yet another of those “Reasons Why Couples Look So Smug”, and it irked me no end.

After much dispirited sighing and surfing in ever decreasing circles, I finally found my solution (and it wasn’t a holiday site for singles, although I almost considered it). No, the solution was simply to eschew packages and book the hotels myself, often finding single rooms, and never paying a supplement.

I’ll be flying off to Marrakech for five days in late February, staying three nights there, and two by the coast in two gorgeous Riad hotels. My bags filled with books to read on the roof decks, I’ll take a few guided tours, do a spot of haggling, eat tajine and drink litres of fresh mint tea.

And by some bizarre twist of fate, guess who I’ll be meeting for dinner on the first night there?

January 22, 2007

mirror mirror

Filed under: navel gazing, single life — petiteanglaise @ 8:20 pm

I frown at my face in the mirror. Make-up still looks good in the right light, but increasingly these days I find that foundation accentuates the fine lines around my eyes instead of concealing them. I prefer myself with my glasses on, because actually they hide a multitude of tell-tale signs. The days when I dreamt of laser surgery are long behind me.

Digging out a selection of eye-shadow colours, I proceed by a process of elimination. The dark brown one I should really throw away, it’s too severe, too ageing. The pearly pale colours are too “teenaged”. Which only leaves a nondescript matt beige and a dusky pink. I choose the former, applying it lightly with a brush. Less is more. The last thing I want is to look like I’m trying too hard. My lips, full and pouty, if slightly chapped, respond well to a coating of lip gloss.

I survey the finished product. Not bad, but not quite me either. My mother used to say she felt the same inside at forty as she did when she was eighteen. I don’t feel the same exactly, but whenever I look in the mirror I think I always half hope to see my eighteen-year-old self looking back at me, and can’t help but feel disappointed that she is never there.

Padding into Tadpole’s room in stockinged feet I open the wardrobe and deliberate about what to wear. I have always been what I would call “pear-shaped”, often with as much as two sizes difference between the top and bottom halves of my body. Despite my New Year’s resolutions and recent gym membership, there are few visible improvements as yet. Now, the party I am getting ready for called for “something red” in the invitation. Hmm… A raspberry-coloured dress bought years earlier, which drapes in a forgiving way around my curves is the only red item in the wardrobe which strikes me as appropriate for a party. I might feel a little overdressed, and if I get cold my nipples will definitely show, but I don’t have time to agonise further. The babysitter will be arriving any minute.

Tadpole looks up from her book and smiles. “Mummy looks like a princess,” she says. And means it. I give her a grateful hug. Thank god for unconditional love.

Later, at the party my friend and I joke about the fact that we are actually several years older than most of the other guests present (understandable, as the hosts are in their mid-twenties).

“You can tell we’re older, because all these younger girls are playing it cool, dressing down, and here we are with our grown-up dresses and our faint whiff of desperation,” comments my friend, wryly.

“Oh god, don’t, my confidence is hanging by a thread as it is,” I reply, and proceed to enlighten her as to the meaning of the wonderful British expression “mutton dressed as lamb”, before helping myself to another glass of red punch.

I’m thirty-four years old, and until now, most people didn’t believe me when I told them my age, or gasped when I told them I had a three-year-old daughter. But something – and I’m not sure what – seems to have dented my confidence lately. Perhaps it’s because there hasn’t been anyone who I could get excited about for a while, no-one’s admiration to bask in. Or maybe it’s the fact that my last boyfriend was significantly older than me, and these days I often run with a younger pack.

From experience I know that it’s impossible to be objective about what you see in the mirror. On a black cloud day I can’t help but hate my reflection. In the throes of a hormone peak I will feel big, regardless of what the scales might read.

I’m looking forward to the day when the mirror throws me back something I like. It will be a sign that whatever was faulty has been fixed, that the storm clouds have finally lifted.

And in the meantime, I’ll just keep on basking in the warm glow of Tadpole’s compliments.

January 1, 2007

taking stock

Filed under: good time girl, navel gazing, single life — petiteanglaise @ 10:17 pm

2006 was nothing if not eventful.

I got dumped.
I bought my first home.
I got fired.
I got outed.
I was given an exciting opportunity.

2007 should be a little quieter, less turbulent. A few important dates loom on the landscape. A hearing at the industrial tribunal on 19 February. A first book to deliver by 4 July.

But the thing which I’d most like to happen sometime soon, the thing I finally feel ready for, is the only thing that you can never plan. The thing which you can guarantee will only happen when you stop hoping; when you look the other way; when you least expect it.

I’d like to meet someone. Someone I can lose my appetite over. Someone who fills my head with silly daydreams. Someone who has the power to make me smile at complete strangers in the métro. Someone who doesn’t follow this blog, ideally, as I’d like to be discovered little by little, not offered up in one king-sized serving.

I spent much of 2006 keeping men I met at arm’s length, or pushing them firmly away. Partly, I suppose, because no single person I met was “all that”. Partly because I’d been badly burned and no longer dared trust my instincts. But also due to the simple fact that there was so much going on, so much that was new and terrifying that I wanted to come to terms with all the change before I let someone else in.

Taking stock, as 2006 drew to a close, I was forced to admit to myself that there is something a little empty about this life I’ve been leading. Spending hours alone, writing about events in my past, by day. Partying a little too hard by night, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I’m no fool. I see the binge drinking and bad behaviour for what it really is: a symptom of my malaise, escapism, a temporary stress release mechanism.

It’s time to set my life on a healthier course. Time to let go of my anxieties and enjoy the opportunities which have come my way. Time to let someone in, should a worthy candidate present himself.

Time for petite anglaise to take a step back and let me do the living.

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