I am a doughnut…

…visiting Berlin then and now.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.

Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.

It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.

I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.

By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.

Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.

This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.

So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.

Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can't find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can’t find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.

IMG_9077

We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.

There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.

After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)

This totally makes sense. Totally.

This totally makes sense. Totally.

We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.

Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.

It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.

It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.

In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.

They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.

By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.

The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.

Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.

My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.

I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.

I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.

I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.

Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.

I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”

I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.

Imposing is the word.

Imposing is the word.

But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.

We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.

At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

Anish Kapoor: At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.

We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)

One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.

It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)

This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.

It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.

IMG_9344

Good for the Seoul…

…a solo exploration of South Korea’s capital.

As I write (for the first time in a long time) I am sitting in my parents’ living room, the sun has just come out and I am hoping it will stay out long enough to dry the rain-soaked streets so I can go for a run.

As ever, when I visit the UK, I am waiting for my visa and my contract to be re-newed so I can return to work.

Unusually, this all seems to be ticking a long quite nicely and I am taking advantage of the fact I am not chasing stamp-wielders and dotted line-signers to catch up with all my writing. With a feature on hold until someone replies to my many phone calls, a blog seemed to be in order.

When we last spoke, I was jetting away from the silence and peace of Mongolia, and heading to South Korea to round off a three week jaunt away from Qatar.

I had hoped to have a brief catch up with an old friend who, in the surprising way life has of throwing old acquaintances back at you, has followed a remarkably similar path to my own career-wise, but in Asia rather than the Middle East.

James, it turned, was being sent on deployment the day I arrived, and a confusion of timings meant we did not manage to cross paths. He did, however, lend me both his apartment and his girlfriend as tour guide to make my time in Seoul pass pleasantly.

I set out on the first day with little to no plan, and just headed to an area James had said was fun to explore on what was to be the first of many metro-based adventures during my six days in Seoul.

My first problem was similar to an issue encountered when first travelling in Arabic-speaking countries before I got a grasp on the alphabet – that I had absolutely no way of working out how to pronounce the words displayed on the signs. (There was English underneath, but my stumbling tongue still couldn’t quite form the right syllables in some cases.)  Added to this was the fact that the people I randomly approached either did not speak English or did not want to help.

Image

An accidental moment of bliss.

Luckily, having lived in a world of incomprehensible letters, I had painstakingly copied out the characters signifying my home station, and a few stops I hoped to reach along the way. In this way, and with the help of a friendly man who also taught me how to say “thank you” I made it to the City Hall stop and roved around, taking in the Seoul Art Gallery and a narnia-esque garden in the process. (This last bit by total accident – having no sense of direction means you see far more or a city than originally intended.) The biggest shock to my senses at this point was when the construction noise of Qatar was replaced by the sounds of insects filling the air.

I also came across an exhibition of art depicting the abuse of Korean women during the war. This gallery offered no english translation, but the power behind some of the images meant none was needed and I left feeling like someone else’s pain had washed in to me.

DSCF3318

Seoul on this first day seemed oddly impenetrable. I had, perhaps arrogantly, assumed English would be widely spoken, but this seemed not to be the case, and I felt useless having to pantomime my way through ordering meals and coffee.

Part of the culture shock may have come from the fact I arrived fresh from two weeks of an almost technological celibacy, only to land in a world of lights and machines and slickness.

I tried, especially when on the metro, to find relatable figures and behaviours.

The school holidays had brought out gaggles of early teenage girls, standing in groups of five or so in the middle of the carriage, giggling, playing with smart phones, all dressed the same to assert their individuality without moving away from the herd.

The differences between here and there surround the surface style. There is more neon, more animal motiffs on bags and shirts, they all look younger than their contemporaries in London, who age before their time.

I found myself wondering when these girls, with long, straight hair and short shorts transform into the uniform older women, with stiffly permed curls and loose-fitting trousers. Few examples of the intervening stages seem visible, the transformation appears absolute.

I voiced this with my guides (who I met up with a little later in the trip) and they laughed at my observation. The story behind why all the older women look the same is quite a poignant one.

The ‘ajumma’ – meaning ‘aunt’ (I think) – are seen as hard working, slightly pushy, older women. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a term of respect (as in South Asia) or a pejorative way of talking about the older generation.

Anyway, I was told that in the past, where times were much harder and working days were long and difficult, women would have these fixed, tight perms as they lasted and lasted and never moved and the women did not have time in the mornings to style their hair before heading out to work.

(A quick search threw up this post from someone better placed to explain the lifestyle.)

I got up on the second day with far more of a plan, and a determination not to be culture-shocked out of having a great time in a city so bursting with possibilities.

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

Up and to the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, where a Korean/American girl and I drifted together in the manner of solo travellers everywhere and meandered about the place, before taking in lunch (I have no idea what I ordered – but it was delicious) and a calligraphy demonstration.

We then wandered off in our separate directions and I cable-carred up to N Seoul Tower (yes, I could have walked but *plurb* to you, I felt like being lazy.

At the top there are various over-priced places to eat and drink, a viewing station which I didn’t pay to go to, and a bunch of really fantastic displays made up of locks left by couples as a token of their love and relationship. It sounds tacky, I know, but the messages and the happiness kind of spills in to you once you get there.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Love lockets.

Love lockets at N Seoul Tower.

Guilt at not walking up came in to play, and I set off down the hill feeling all intrepid. This was eroded slightly when, during the course of my hike down the mountain, I was passed by a serene old lady, a women carrying a baby, and two blind men going the other way.

My happy wanderings brought me out at Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional 600-year-old urban environment preserved in the heart of Seoul. There, rather unexpectedly, my phone suddenly decided it could find a network provider after all, something it had completely failed to do in the more modern and shiny areas of the city.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Seoul is marvellous, but, as previously stated, somewhat mysterious at first. My trip would not have been half of what it ended up being without the wonderful Hyojin Kim who I finally managed to meet up with on my third day there.

Seoul Fish Market

Seoul Fish Market

Together with a friend of a friend we explored Seoul’s fish market, where you can purchase fish to be prepared in one of the many adjoining tiny restaurants – resulting in the freshest Sushi you are ever likely to eat.

Never able to leave my journalist hat in Doha, we also visited one of Seoul’s under-reported on slums, where I managed to conduct interviews and get some interviews which will hopefully prove useful down the line.

One minute from the slum, we sat on over-priced patchwork sofas in one of the most expensive malls in Korea, and I accepted the fact that my brain was never going to work in quite the same way since moving back to the world of reporting.

Oh, I also went to Gangnam st….ation. By accident. But still, there it is.

With all due apologies...

With all due apologies…

By this point in my extensive trip my joy of discovery was starting to wane and I will admit to a certain amount of happiness on my fourth day in Seoul when I was able to have a blissful lie-in before getting up to navigate grocery shopping before heading in to the real world for Korean barbecue and a night-time exploration of Seoul.

My fifth day was given up to packing and some last-minute exploring of the city in order to meet some people James had suggested I hang out with. The knowledge that soon my ready access to good beer and pork products would be coming to an end meant that I welcomed an afternoon exploring pubs and tea shops around the admittedly slight more westernised area of Seoul.

I was journeying home on the tube when began feeling desperately sad because one of the old women I described earlier was standing by the doors with a cloth pressed to her face. She removed it to reveal a raised, purple eye and cheek bone. No-one was paying her attention, no-one gave up their seat, I was reminded of London in the worst possible way, when everyone looks at the floor and doesn’t ask questions.

I felt trapped and isolated, wanting more than anything to speak to her, but knowing my message would never be conveyed successfully. I stood mute and screaming.

Then, she sat down between two other identical women and they immediately started talking to her, asking her questions, with faces full of concern. I was relieved they had just not seen, rather than ignoring her. I was more relieved when she mimed falling. In this situations one thinks the worst.

I felt so divorced from being able to be a caring member of this society.

On my final day I had managed to get on the full de-militarised zone tour (you need to book pretty far in advance to get anything other than the half day.)

IMG_0687It was an odd experience, walking through tunnels, seeing a train station with a sign boldly displaying “To Pyongyang” feeling the futility of the fact that the tracks just stop, that a train has never run, that signs stating “the beginning of unification” seem pathetically optimistic.

Above all that is the surreal way the place feels slightly like an amusement park. Signs and sculptures are everywhere. The propaganda reel says that when re-unification happens, they want the area to be a place of happiness and joy.

If Disneyland did military buffer zones…

IMG_8997

There were serious and interesting bits to the DMZ as well. You can stand facing North Korea, as heavily trained South Korean soldiers stand guard behind blue box-like buildings where the two sides can meet.

A low concrete line can be seen spanning the floor as the point that South becomes North.

By the end of the day, and the end of the trip, I was feeling exhausted. Nearly three weeks of adventures and new experiences and filling myself up with all the amazing tales I can now tell was been wonderful and refreshing, but I had never felt more ready to return to Doha.

Seoul is full of lights and sounds and unexpected corners that lead to hidden gems.

It is a city to explore, but it is also a city to share. The last few days of having people with me, showing me their favourite places and the hidden souls of Seoul made the tip better than I ever could have hoped, but it reminded me of the bad, as well as the good, of travelling alone.

I found peace being able to roam at my own pace, not stop until late, or coming back to the calm of the flat if it all became too much.

It is the singular joy of travelling alone that one feels no obligation to do anything and can enjoy a new place and savour it in ones own way.

With that, however, comes the loss of shared experience. A knowledge that to do something, to struggle through a mountain, or to stand in the baking heat to witness a particular event, is done purely to say “I did this” and to have no-one to laugh with about the arduous nature of the trials that were gone through so the reward could be enjoyed.

It is not to say I did not adventure and experience and live during that week.

Travelling alone opens doors to new friendships that might never have happened if the acquaintance had seen two people standing in a doorway instead of one.

As with everything, I would not change my trip, but I wonder how it might have changed if someone else were here as well.

Han river by night

Han river by night.

I need feminism because…

…my ex threatened to punch me in the face when I didn’t laugh at a joke about domestic violence.

True story.

Firstly a quick, and potentially unnecessary given that intro, disclaimer:

This post? Not a barrel of laughs. If you come here for the yuks it is probably best to look away now and come back next week when I’ll no doubt be dwelling on the incompetencies that fill my attempts to navigate the Gulf and my own apparent adulthood.

Oh, also, it’s super long, you might need a tea break or something half way through.

I have been hesitant about sharing this for many reasons. I first wrote it when it was new, and raw, and too painful to do anything about but write.

Then, after a while, I read the piece at a reading group and managed not to burst in to tears on stage.

Now, finally we’re here.

So why was I afraid?

Making the abuse and the messages return is near the top of that list of reasons.

For months after everything was finally over I ignored the sporadic texts and emails, the fake apologies and all-too-casual attempts at contact until the deluge subsided, and now has dried up completely. There is a fear that acknowledging it could open the floodgates.

But there is something else, a lingering doubt over what other people will think, how others will judge me.

I know that my situation is, and was, nowhere near as bad as that suffered by thousands of women around the world. Acknowledging it, I thought, would seem self-pitying and result in people feeling I am over-reacting.

So why have I decided, now, to share?

Again, there are a few reasons.

My worries about speaking out are shared by women everywhere, and so become part of the problem.

When it comes to abuse, physical, emotional, or otherwise, people think that talking about it will make it worse, crack the dam they have built up around themselves and let the waters pour through, drowning them and washing away their defenses.

The widespread nature of the problem is not known because people feel that their case is not as bad as those they read about in papers; that it is not worth mentioning because they got out before it was too late, or because it never turned physical, or because the scars left behind, real or metaphorical, are starting to heal. But silence can not help.

The one billion rising campaign has been making waves recently, encouraging women who can speak, to speak, and ‘I need feminism because’ shows the extent to which women are still demeaned every day.

What happened to me was a tiny drop, the ripples from which are nearly faded to nothing on an ever-calming ocean, the fact that I can articulate what I felt means that I should.

This all began to make the concept of sharing this piece seem less ridiculous and more important.

And then the final push. Waking on Valentine’s Day (yes, it has taken me that long to actually work up the courage to publish) I saw messages he had sent from a number I hadn’t saved and so hadn’t blocked. Along with the standard pleas for sympathy and attempts at getting me to reply was a “Roses are red” joke about domestic abuse.

The fact a man who had systematically gone about trying to ruin my self confidence and belief, who would scream threats at me for not laughing at jokes about domestic violence and call me a hypocrite for having a ‘line’ when it came to humour, would send me a joke about a women being shot and killed showed such a lack of emotional awareness, a disregard for what he had done and what he had put me through, that I suddenly became incredibly angry.

That anger replaced the void I had been cultivating by telling myself it wasn’t a big deal.

It was a big deal, made bigger by the fact that he seemed to have no idea what he had done. Or if he did know, he didn’t care.

The fact that he still thought it was okay to contact me felt like a personal invasion, I felt sick seeing his name, my stomach knotted with loathing, but fear was gone.

Fear had morphed into anger.

Anger at what he had done.

Anger that he minimised it in his own mind so I was over-reacting.

Anger that he would probably do it to woman after woman until he found someone who might not be as lucky as I was to spot the signs (with a little help from my friends) and get out early.

As weird as it sounds, I was lucky and I know it.

I had what thousands, millions, of women do not.

Despite being far from home, I had a support network who I knew would protect me, I had financial and personal independence, and I had become involved with someone too lacking in self control (or too stupid) to wait until I was emotionally dependent on him to show his true self.

So I got out.

But not as quickly as I should have, because like all bullies he knew how to apologise, how to get my sympathy, how to ‘change’ for just long enough to convince me it was for real. He made me feel stupid and ashamed for wanting to think the best of him again and again and again.

I think for many decent people who find themselves locked in to these situations, you don’t want to admit that you were wrong to put your trust in someone, like it is your fault and your failings when it begins again.

I realise I haven’t actually said anything about what happened.

At first it was fun, and easy, and so relaxed.

And then it became official.

As soon as I was labelled ‘girlfriend’ in his mind it seemed like that was it.

I was his. He didn’t have to try to be the ‘nice guy’ he so regularly described himself as when things began to fall apart.

On my first night back from a holiday I was told that I was stupid, that I shouldn’t have gone and that I should have stayed and “sorted my fucking life out.”

That the fact I was worried about my career was my fault. That the fact he was still in Qatar was my fault, that if it hadn’t been for me he would have left and been happy, so I should feel pressure to make things work, because it would be my fault if I didn’t. I had ruined his life.

Forget that he is a grown man. Forget that he used his weekends to get drunk, and if he did come to the things I invited him to, he was either already drunk when he showed up, or got so drunk during the evening he couldn’t remember a thing.

At first the drinking wasn’t there, or he hid how bad it was, slowly though it began to creep out.

I would show up at four in the afternoon and he would already be on the vodka. He would wake up at 8am and drink what was leftover next to him. He threatened me, he threatened my friends, he forgot entire conversations we had and made up others.

On one particularly memorable evening I asked him to come to a party being hosted by my friends for an hour before he went to watch the football.

He came drunk, he didn’t speak to anyone, he left after 20 minutes, two hours before kickoff, and proceeded to bombard me with abusive messages about how I was a disgrace, how I had ruined his evening because he was ‘too nice’ to say no to me.

He was such a nice guy.

That should have been it. And for a while it was. But he wormed his way back in. He had changed. He would stop drinking. He was sorry. He had been joking.

That was always how he justified it.

Every time I voiced these thoughts to him I was over-reacting, he had been kidding.  (Looking back I am not really sure how I thought him saying things like “I’m going to punch you in the face” would be considered funny.)

But it went on, and it hurt, and over the months he chipped away at everything that made me me. Why couldn’t I just be normal? Why was I so fake? Couldn’t I be serious about anything? I wasn’t passionate about anything.

He hated my friends, they weren’t real friends, we kissed each other on the cheek and it made him sick because it was so fake.

He accused me of thinking he wasn’t good enough for me.

He was right about one thing, then.

Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone has something that finally flips the switch and they see what is in front of their face. Mine came when he told me I couldn’t be who I wanted.

He tried to stop my dreams dead. He tried to belittle me and my ambition.

He was kidding.

I had just taken a test for a job I really wanted. I didn’t think it had gone well and I told him. There was no support, no condolence.

I was told I would never be a foreign correspondent anyway, that I may as well give up. That I was selfish for not thinking of him when it came to my life plans and my career.

That I was an idiot to believe I could do it.

I left.

He stood in the way of the lift doors, stopping them sliding shut to form the barrier I needed between us. But I was done.

I cut ties.

I was never going to forgive him.

Just before he left for home he asked to see me, so I didn’t remember him badly. Stupidly I agreed. He was crestfallen and apologetic and he ‘loved’ me.

I had never been more relieved that someone was leaving my life to live 7,000 miles away.

I thought I would be free.

The messages began when I asked him to stop contacting me via whatsapp.

I was told I was a disgrace, that I had wasted time, that I had ‘no idea’ what he had gone through when we were together.

That he had cheated on me. That the girl was pregnant. That he was lying about the pregnant girl. That he was sorry. That he loved me. That he hated me. That I should kill him or he would kill himself. That he hoped I died.

That he had changed.

That he was kidding.

I blocked his numbers, I blocked his emails, I blocked everything and embraced the silence and the emptiness.

He contacted my friends via facebook asking them for advice, to send him pictures from my account because I had blocked him.

You can probably guess their reactions.

In a move towards catharsis I wrote him a letter, never intended to be seen by anyone let alone sent to him.

But it was an outpouring of the emotions that threatened to engulf me. And it was a reminder.

I will never doubt myself for cutting ties, but in the future there might be another.

These people are not alone in the world, in fact, they are all too prevalent, and if there is another, I will read it and I will remember.

I know this is opening me up to him and to trolls. Those strangers on the internet who sit and smirk and call jokes about rape culture “one of feminism’s more hysterical talking points.” (I’m not linking to the site in question as I don’t want return traffic.)

But I’m out. And those who can speak up should.

Me

The things I miss…

… when I leave Qatar.

Ha! Weren’t expecting that, were you?

Most expats who haven’t brought their lives and families with them perpetually have half their brain at home, thinking about pub quizzes and jelly babies (although that could just be me) and fields and trees. And cricket. *Pauses to check scores.*

Oh yeah, and my family, obviously, goes without saying, ahem.

Moving on.

When I eventually do get back to all these they are just as wonderful as I remember them being, but being away from Qatar is also the time that I realise what I love about the place and what is keeping me here.

Within a few weeks of flying back in to Doha, though, I start pining for the things Doha can’t offer once again and it all goes round in a big loop that sees my always wanting to be somewhere I’m not.

Which is ridiculous because everywhere I have been/lived/visited has amazing things that you should focus on while you’re there rather than when you’ve left and it is too late to appreciate them.

So here are the things I miss about Qatar when I am in the UK, being thought about, for once, while I am in Doha.

1) People.

My friends in the UK are amazing and I miss them every day, but by virtue of the fact we have either grown up together, or had our formative university years together, or generally were drawn to each other, we are all more or less similar as far as upbringing, education and opinions are concerned.

The people here hit such a diverse range of nationalities, opinions, jobs, ages, opinions, upbringing and experience that I feel as though my understanding of the wider world as grown exponentially since I moved here.

Of course, you have the few that fit into the typical expat cliche of being here for the money and not much else, but it is easy enough to steer clear of them and seek out people that will add something to your life, either as a passing acquaintance or a close friend.

Having people to share Doha with makes Doha so much more full of joy than it seems when you first find your feet here.

2) Balloo.

I mean, look at the little guy:

I'm sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you...

I’m sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you…

He’s just a fluffy, vaguely sadistic, ball of adorable psychosis.

3) Work.

Yes, shut up, I miss my job.

I am still in the heady stage of loving my job and the opportunities I hope it will bring me.

I might have managed to and the same job if I had stayed in the UK, but it seems unlikely, and I will be forever grateful that Doha gave me the opportunity to do something I love to do.

4) The hidden joys.

Okay, a while ago I wrote a piece about how Doha isn’t boring, but that you just need to make more of and effort to find stuff to do.

The other thing is that, once you find something like the mangroves in Al Khor, or the random exhibits at Katara, or a cool display of swords at the MIA that your friend curated (go Bill), it means so much more because you found it and are able to share it with people.

Qatar is increasingly bringing in things to the country that might surprise people on the outside. Cirque de Soleil was here a while ago, today I am off to see Stomp, and there is a modern art gallery that is slowly becoming a pretty good place to be.

While I don’t specifically miss these things, when I’m in the UK there is less desire to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do, because I am doing the things I used to do all the time and now can’t.

Qatar is a place that encourages trying new things, because you’re old things don’t exist.

5) The down time.

When my mum visited at Christmas she observed “your weekends are real weekends”.

And it’s true (although now I’m doing shifts ‘weekend’ is any point I have more than one day off at a time). When we all have time off together we go and do things. Weekend things like shisha at the souq, or visiting the inland sea, or red bucket beach can just happen. No excessive planning, no worrying about the weather (most of the time) and no stresses.

Also, the head-clearing space and tranquility when you get there kind of makes you forget the construction noises the rest of the time.

The contrast almost makes the noise worthwhile.

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don't want to...

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don’t want to…

6) The inside spaces.

Green outside space does exist, don’t get me wrong, but it is getting to the time of year that Qatar’s five months of perfect weather are ending and the humidity and heat is beginning to kick, so being outside isn’t that fun.

When it is perfect for being out and about, everyone heads to the same parks and greenery, so Aspire Park and the MIA park both tend to be full of kids, as they should be, because they are parks, but it makes sitting out under a tree and writing kind of difficult.

However, some of the architecture in Doha is frankly amazing. The Museum of Islamic Art has one of the best foyers I have seen, and the QNCC looks like a frigging tree, so that’s awesome.

Also, it contains this.

Also, it contains this.

Being a grown up…

…and how I am really bad at it.

First off, sorry it has been a month since I managed to put fingers to keys and write anything. A lot has happened in the past few weeks, mostly good, some bad, and nothing that I intend to dwell on for long.

The main news is that, after months of wrangling, foot stamping and form signing, I now have a job (woop) and the incredibly messed up sleep schedule that comes with shift work.

Hence the prolonged silence.

Not that I am complaining, I am loving work and I still walk in to the new office and think “wow, I work here, that’s amazing.”

There are various blog posts milling around my head at the moment, vying for attention like children trying to be picked first in class.

In my half befuddled state, however, I am incapable of putting most of the more complicated ones in to words.

Well, I could put them in to words, but those words probably wouldn’t make sense or be in the correct order.

I haven’t really been working long enough to write anything about that other than ‘ahhhhhhhh, why do people think I know what I’m doing?’ and another post which will come about as close to writing about politics as I am ever likely to get on here is probably best left until I can form sentences without having to check if I’ve used a verb or not.

As I write this, it is about 6.30pm, a thunderstorm is raging around my building, I have been up for slightly more than three hours, and I am wondering when it will be a reasonable time to go back to bed.

It reminds me so much of university that I have decided to finally come clean and write about a fraud I have been perpetuating since I graduated nearly five years ago.

Are you ready?

I am not a real adult and I have no idea what I am doing most of the time.

Seriously, I spend much of my day blagging my way through life and hoping no-one notices that I basically have no idea what is going on.

I am also constantly wondering when someone will catch me out and realise I don’t understand how tax works and I can’t tell the difference between types of wine and I would be perfectly happy building a pillow fort or climbing trees.

I think a major road block on my path to becoming a grown up is the fact that I don’t like muesli.

As a kid, I remember looking at the glass jar of muesli in our kitchen cupboard, with its heavy top that I couldn’t remove, and being vaguely aware that it was ‘for the grown ups.’

I would contentedly tuck in to Rice Crispies or Cornflakes (or their sugary alternatives Coco Pops and Frosties depending on how amenable my parents were feeling) and eye the jar of muesli with half a mind on my glorious future as an erudite adult. (I probably didn’t think the word erudite.)

Then I got to be an adult in the strictest, chronological, sense of the word and realised that muesli is basically bits of cardboard with fruit added in an attempt to fool people into thinking it is food and I would much rather be able to get away with eating something that makes the milk go chocolatey.

And yet I still buy it, just like I pay a mortgage and have boiler insurance and cook healthy meals. Because that’s what people do.

You remember at 10 or 11 when you started ‘big school’ and you looked at all the cool kids in sixth form who didn’t wear uniform and had a common room and were really together and smart and mature?

And then you got to be one of those kids and you wondered when you would start being really together and smart and mature? But you didn’t want anyone to know you weren’t so you just kind of acted cool and hoped no-one would notice.

That’s how I feel all the time.

And around me, everyone else seems to be taking growing up in their stride.

I look at my friends who are getting married and having children and doing all those things and genuinely marvel at the fact they are capable of looking after a whole other human when I occasionally lose my cat.

Somehow, though, I seem to be able to keep alive the myth that I am responsible.

So if you see me, suited and booted, carrying a handbag, wearing glasses and heading for the newsroom, be safe in the knowledge that not 20 minutes earlier I was dancing around my bedroom in flares and a superhero t-shirt, secretly craving coco pops.

A room of one’s own…

…or making a home in a city of hotels.

 

As a result of the latest in a long line of inexplicable visa rules that seem to be controlling my life at the moment, I was given about 48 hours notice to return to the UK.

One set of cancelled flights to Beirut, an afternoon of ‘throw stuff at bag, take whatever lands inside’, an eight hour flight, and a drop of 26 degrees later and I found myself wandering around outside Manchester airport at 7.30am trying to find my friend’s car and rapidly losing all feeling in my ungloved hands.

I have been back since Friday and will be mooching around my parents’ house until my work visa is finally granted.

This will allegedly take 3-5 working days, so I might see the Dohaze again in June.

Being back in Sheffield is excellent. There is cricket, a sofa, and a steady stream of cups of tea and bacon sandwiches, but it is always a little strange to come back.

I haven’t really lived in my parents’ house since I was about 20. Summers at university were normally spent, at least in part, working in Durham. I did my journalism training in Newcastle and then went to work in Lincoln before hopping on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha for the first time.

Having said that, I have never really moved out either. Student accommodation didn’t exactly lend itself to holding an entire life and while the house I own has an attic full of the paraphernalia of my adult life, I did not live in it long enough to make it my home.

The remnants of childhood and teenage years are still very present in my Sheffield bedroom. The same posters adorn the walls (Shaolin Monks, Bruce Lee, Star Wars – what else would a teenage girl have on her walls?), the giant Taz I won at a theme park still sits in a green, high-backed armchair that used to belong to my grandmother, and the werebear I’ve had since I was five is as battered and hugged as I remember, but cleaner, I suspect he has been through the washing machine since I left.

As children, my sister and I shared a room, but she was older than me and very neat and I was (and am) one of the messiest humans who ever existed so eventually I was shuftied up into the attic, previously the play room, and the toys we had outgrown were hidden under the eaves.

Now those toys litter the floor once more, either to be thrown away (finally) or to be played with when my nieces and nephew come to visit.

Swords won at competitions hang from purple-painted beams while questionable teen fashion choices still hang from clothes rails.

It is a hotch-potch of my youth, a testament to my ever-changing identity from toddler to teenager, and it is a reminder that I don’t really have a home that displays any part of my adult identity.

My house is another couple’s home, and the rest of my adult life has been spent in a dusty city that everyone leaves eventually.

All the flats in my building are carbon copies of each other (apart from the ones that are mirror images, which leads to some very confused hangovers when you wake up on a friend’s sofa and can’t work out why there’s a wall where the kitchen should be), and so everyone tries to make little changes, little nods to who they are and how they live. Posters, plants, pots, anything that means you know you are in 2101 and not 2503.

We all try to make a home without buying anything that could be a pain to move to a different flat/building/country.

Bucking this ‘easy-to-move’ trend, my flatmates came with a piano, a drum kit, and a cat in tow and so our living area has a distinctive feel and the flat does speak of ‘us’ as flatmates, which I like because not everyone has the good fortune to find flatmates who are more than people to share the bills, but are people with whom you end up sharing your life.

For me though, apart from some photos, postcards, and a cricket poster, there is nothing in the flat that that makes my feel as though I have stamped my identity on the place in which I live.

Part of this is because I moved so much when I first arrived, and as wonderful and welcoming as my flatmates were, I always felt like I was renting a room in their flat rather than actually living there.

The new set up is different as we all moved in at the same time and have developed a shared history within the social hub of our living areas.

Still, there doesn’t seem any point in buying a lot of stuff when in a month, or a year, or two years, I could be moving house or moving country yet again, no-one wants to store, or ship, or sell a flat worth of furniture and artwork.

It might be different, I suppose, if I was with a family, or knew that I would be here for the next six years, let alone the next six months, but right now putting down roots only to have to rip them up again in a year or two, seems like an exercise in futility.

 

 

Forgetting how doors work and other tales…

…AKA ‘You know you’ve lived in Qatar too long when…”

Fellow Dohaze dweller and blogger ‘Bright Lights, Little City’ recently wrote this post about the sudden realisation that he called Doha ‘home.’ It is, indeed, a shock to realise that you actually live in Qatar.

I only fully came to terms with the fact that this wasn’t some kind of extended, slightly dusty, holiday when I moved into an unserviced flat and had to buy bedding.

But slowly, surely, and subtly, Doha creeps up on you until you stop paying attention to the weird ways that are now an almost daily part of your life.

Below is a list of moments, experienced by myself, my friends, or my ‘only-know-them-on-Twitter-but-they-seem-nice’ acquaintances, that reminded us we have been in the Gulf too long.

1) You navigate around the city using five star hotels as the only landmarks.

There are no post codes, Google maps is, at best, a vague suggestion of the road system you might experience not taking into account roadworks, new roundabouts that make no sense, or old roundabouts that *did* make sense being removed.

Sentences like: “Turn right when you see the sign for The Kempinski, go past the W, head right at the crossing and you should see the Mariott…” are worryingly commonplace.

2) This is a totally normal thing to see:

Spotted en route to the beach

Spotted en route to the beach.

3) When it reaches 20 degrees and you reach for a jumper.

I told my mum to bring a jacket when she visited in December as it was getting down to 17 degrees in the evenings.

I got a ‘look.’

For context, here is this week’s forecast:

Saturday evening is looking a little chilly....

Saturday evening is looking a little chilly….

4) When you land in another country and assume there’s something wrong with your ears because you can’t hear construction noises.

5) When you forget how doors work.

To be absolutely clear, this wasn’t me.

When I first arrived a man I was interviewing said he once went back to the States and walked up to a door. It wasn’t automatic and no-one opened it for him so he stood there for a full 5 seconds before remembering what he had to do.

6) You have never made a coffee at work.

The service culture in the Gulf is insane, but the thing I found most difficult was the fact that most offices have a guy employed especially to make your coffee. It was rubbish because it meant I couldn’t procrastinate through my usual technique of frequent kitchen visits.

7) Filling your own car up is weird.

I don’t drive, but friends have told me stories of sitting in petrol stations in the UK or elsewhere and becoming increasingly frustrated that no-one is there to fill the car up.

8) When people say sandstorm everyone thinks this:

But you think this:

Blurgh.

Blurgh.

9) You are excessively nice to shop workers/waiters etc because you feel extreme guilt about how they are treated the rest of the time.

10) You understand that speed limits, traffic lights and lane discipline are all things that happen in other countries. People making left turns from the far right lane no longer freaks you out.

11) Any road is connected to all other roads by a series of roundabouts.

Also, it is totally normal that these roundabouts are named after the thing on them or near them. Immigration roundabout, arch roundabout, Oryx roundabout, TV roundabout, and Burger King roundabout are a few of my favourites.

Slope roundabout is on a slight incline.

This was a remarkably common costume at a 'good, bad, and ugly of Qatar' party...

This was a remarkably common costume at a ‘good, bad, and ugly of Qatar’ party…

12) Your reply to being asked for anything is “Bukra Insha’allah.”

13) You know that if someone says that to you it means “maybe sometime next month, or never, whatever, where’s my karak?”

14) You are at least 40% karak.

15) When you head back to the West, the outfits seem shocking.

I mean, there were shoulders and knees everywhere. Scandalous.

16) You change lanes as soon as a Land Cruiser gets anywhere near you.

17) You use ‘shway shway’ and ‘wait’ hand gestures without realising.

18) Dropping £700 at a time in the offy is no big deal. Also, a lot of that will probably be spent on pork. Ahhh, QDC.

19) You’ve stopped checking Facebook on a Saturday night because it is depressing to see all your friends at home getting ready to go out when you’re getting ready for work.

20) Three months without leaving the country is too long.

21) Tax is a dirty word.

22) You get unnaturally excited about Ikea opening.

Props to my Gulf-ised friends who added their thoughts to this. At least we’re all going insane together…