Last week I went to Paris overnight. It was brill. I was reluctant to leave the family but was actively encouraged by my husband who is convinced that I am a much better person for seeing my best friends. I went to visit a dear friend who is super-high flying and who is having a hard time going through a divorce. On top of all her commitments she invited me over for dinner as an old colleague of ours who lives in another hemisphere was also in town and my joining the group was to be a surprise. We had a long catch-up, some great rose’ and a heft of spanking fresh seabass with a fabulous sauce she whipped up in an instant. Sauce is sooo French. I never have my fish with sauces, mine is always simpler and less adorned, but this was ace (see end of post).
Anyway this intro brings us to the fact that I have barely left my children in 7 years. Here is the tally:
- One night at Babington when no.2 was 18 months
- One week while pregnant with the third
- One weekend in Rome
- I also just undertook a trip with my daughter alone, (a subject I would love to take up later)
It is not that I am being a martyr, it is simply that the logistics are not straightforward, what with my mother being dead and my father being almost 80 and the burden three children can be on yourself, let alone others… I have to preempt every need, every eventuality, so just organizing the childcare before the trip can tip me quickly in over into “oh let’s just forget it” territory. I also hate packing. Loathe it. I hate feeling I have to choose in advance what I will want to wear (this is aggravated by the 10kgs I still hope to lose) and I hate that naked feeling of forgetting something that makes you feel mentally complete. More that anything however, is the dread that one or all of the family will get sick, die or be hurt (terrorist attack, plane crash, infection), either myself – or those who remain at home. I never used to feel vulnerable like this before. Losing my mother suddenly and unexpectedly meant that I now know that a healthy and vital person can be ripped from you without a moment’s notice, and as much as I’d like to, I am unable to return to my past state of naïveté . In my anxious mind I can see the appeal of having us all stashed away in a nuclear style bunker, out of harm’s reach. It is certainly how my father would have loved to raise us were his over-protective tendencies not tempered by my mother’s glorious, curious, open influence. Once I am away and safely landed on the other shore, I ought to be honest and admit that I am fine.
There is, however, a Pavlovian-type response which occurs as soon as I slam the front door to leave, whereby all the countless international trips I took for pleasure and more still for work in my responsibility free-days, trigger an unsettling behavioural and mood change leaving immediately feeling about 28. I am not being transported merely to my destination, I a transported back in time. Suddenly I feel I have all the time in the world to kill, time to idle into shops and doze on trains and flick through magazines at my leisure. I see things with fresh eyes, I look at things like a regular person, with less of the parent filter that is applied to everything these days. I also feel I am viewed differently, with no pram, not changing bag, no tiny chaperones trailing me everywhere. The only undercurrent is an unsettling feeling that perhaps I have forgotten something. I can’t work out if I don’t worry because I am so hyper-connected to the kids, or whether I have this crazy shutter slam down, born of the need to lick my wounds and regain my independent thought.
To say there is no change in my travelling self would be to gloss over things somewhat. There is, after I leave home but before I get to my destination this quite disturbing intervening moment in which I feel rather ruffled and uncool. Like a person who is released in to society after serving a life-sentence. Everything feels more jostly and bustly and IN.MY.FACE. I feel exposed, naked, rudderless, second-guessing myself and craning round to see if I have misread signposts and missed turings. I start to get anxious about missing my train, clock-watch, where before I would stride, glide, advance with purpose, fully inhabiting my body and my immediate space. It is may sound kind of sad and pathetic but I simply don’t feel as assertive while out and about, I feel out of touch. And you know what? I have been out of touch. It is not as though I have been living in seclusion the last 7 years, quite the contrary, but even as a family we have been catching planes and driving across continents, I personally have assumed a new role, I have focused to intently on my task, turned my focus inwards on to my rabble that I have lost the habit of taking charge in certain situations. My husband has been making sure the connections are going to work and that all our passports are stashed in the right place and that we leave the house with plenty of time. Meanwhile I have been packing activity and snack bags, bags with nappies and wipes and spare changes of clothes. I have been and doling out calpol from the frontseat of the car and positioning sleeping children’s heads to minimize lolling. In essence, through our very efficient and clear-cut roles which make us a formidable team, I have regressed just a little in terms of my individual self. My eyes and mind having turned into the family sphere seem suddenly myopic when redirected outward.
I used to feel so sad hearing those stories of the couples married for 60 years, in which one half would die, and the other would soon follow suit after facing the harsh reality of life without their Yin or their Yang. Those people who, alone, realise they do not know how to cook or use the dishwasher… or perhaps do not know how to pay a bill or wire a plug, the effort to learn a new skill so smarting so overwhelming that they just fade away, the harsh realisation of the loneliness of the human condition suddenly dawning upon them. I know these are extremes, but I can see how it could happen to me! I used to order for the group when I went out with my friends to restaurants. I would organize trips and book tickets and shepherd others. Of course, in my experience of being young, free and single, I did also sometimes feel an element of vulnerability and aloneness, but with that came empowerment, self-sufficiency. It was refreshing then when I met my husband, to meet my mirror image, here all of a sudden was someone capable, dynamic, assertive just like me! His similar tastes and outlook allowed me to relax, take my foot off the pedal for once, nurture other aspects of my life. The downside in any food partnership however, is that by one always being the “driver” and the other the “map-reader” say, both risk losing proficiency in the areas they have relinquished. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it. I only really face up to the gradual ossification of our respective roles when my wing man is absent, such as in these travel situations.
I see this in my dad sometimes, who is turning 80 this year, even if he is very capable and travels on his own frequently. For years he used my mum as a sounding board and he took this boundary-giver for granted. Now I see how he can get hung up on details which can feel exasperatingly minor but which I must remember are only really manifestations of anxiety at the burden of all decision-making and accountability being solely his own. I used to well up with tears as a child when staying in hotels when I’d see some lone businessman chomping away on his dinner, eyes resting on the table cloth or the window, or worse still making a faint half-hearted smile. I think it boils down to confidence. It is, I think, the kind, thoughtful vibe that puts the lump in my throat, the look of someone doing their best to look “chipper”, as if their aloneness is by choice. The awkwardness the masked vulnernability are the cues that are like a dagger to the heart for me, the attempt at stoicism, fake enjoyment. My mum would try and put a positive spin on it and weave a happy story around the image but I wouldn’t buy it. Of course I used to and occasionally still do go to the movies or to museums on my own, but eating on my own has always been a sore point. The Sunday Times Style referred to solo events as Masterdating. It is funny, as masturbation is often perceived as a shameful act and perhaps eating alone is too. As much as I revel in a quiet half hour of solo lunch in my own home these days, at university I was more akin to the chipper, awkward dudes in hotels. I couldn’t bear the canteen food – although I ought to have just gone and mingled and eaten it without complaint – but instead I used to make my own lunch and sit at my desk or on dreadful institutional armchair, and read cards from my mum (email was not widespread then) and feel sorry for myself, a lump in my throat, my sandwich turning to fluff in my mouth.
So there I go, via Eurostar to Paris, feeling not so cool, foot-loose and fancy free. Feeling rather more jumpy about being late, anxiously skipping lunch not wanting to eat alone (which suited my attempts to undertake the 4:3 fasting principle) and generally radiating unease at being so out of practice . And then I find myself on the train next to a great, talented, interesting person who happened to have a terrible morning and before we know it we wax long and hard about the cosmetics industry in which he currently and I used to work. We talk about everything: work, meditation, self-esteem, holidays, our relationships you name it. I have been considering going back to work and this meeting seemed to be a sign. He was encouraging, he was insightful, he was warm and kind, he also hinted at us working together. It was like an interview with no horrible bits. I ought to stress here that this was purely platonic in that he was gay and clearly I am straight and married. It was the kind of sudden blossoming of a future friendship and alliance that is so serendiptous and inspiring yet so rare. We pulled in to a blistering Gare du Nord, shared a cab and not long after went our separate ways. Paul, if you are reading this, I will be in touch!
* * *
On the return journey most of my anxiety having dissipated, I slowly reaccustomed myself to my independence, buoyed up on a late night, sweltering heat, deep chats, euphoria and the prospect of boundless possibilities. My honeyed mood is suddenly brought to an abrupt halt as I board my compartment, like a needle dragged to a stop across a record. I sigh. I was allocated a seat between 2 giant block bookings of French school kids, sweaty, slightly greasy, rambunctious kids with no self-awareness, volume control or sensitivitiy to others and figureheaded by an equally loud and oblivious animator not more than 5 years older than the kids themselves. There I was, hemmed in to my window seat by a slightly pongy but sweet boy who clearly fancied the girls across the aisle who sang defiantly along with music they blasted tinnily out of their iphones for the whole carriage to hear. I took a haughty inhalation, turned to the window feeling like my old assertive self at last, to read my magazines and snooze as I never get to do, suddenly ready for the noisy rabble of my own I had waiting for me at home.
Oh, and here is that fish sauce recipe:
This sauce had the most remarkable tang and freshness to it. We sat around the table trying to identify what the mystery ingredient could be. The combo of the mint and mustard lends it this lovely, almost horseradishy edge which is both fresh and savoury. I had this cream with sea bass but it would be delightful with bream or sole or John Dory or turbot too. It is a great dinner-party quick fix that you can wheel out if you need to dial things up a notch.
- 300ml single cream
- 30g fresh mint
- 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard (eg Maille)
- salt and pepper to season
- Pour the cream in to a saucepan and bring gently to the boil.
- Wash and de-stalk the mint. Chop as finely as you can and put to one side.
- As soon as the cream begins to bubble, remove from the heat and whisk in the mint and dollop in the mustard.
- Adjust with seasoning according to your taste.
- Once infused and cooled slightly bring to the table in a little jug and serve with any plain roasted or grilled white fish of your choice.