Switching blades…

…not switchblades, that’s a different thing.

International épée in Doha

International épée in Doha

“I think you will be a better épée fencer than you were sabre fencer.”

[Olympia Fencing Centre]

The different weapons and target areas [Olympia Fencing Centre]

My coach in Doha has said this a few times now in recent weeks. The first time he said it, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. There was the pleasure in the compliment, a rare thing among fencing coaches, a kind of latent regret that I was leaving my ‘favourite’ weapon behind, and finally a concern that if I had fenced épée to begin with, I might have progressed to the level I so desperately wanted to reach when I was younger.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that while me now might have the “potential to one day be a decent épéeist,” (as I said, compliments are hard earned) my younger self would have been (and on the few occasions I was forced to try, was) a terrible terrible terrible epee fencer.

I guess, at this stage, I should look at the various differences between the two blades (and ignore foil completely because I know absolutely nothing about it).

The various weapons come with distinct rules and techniques but also very definite mentalities that make someone suited to it or otherwise.

Sabre - it is the slashy one...

Sabre – it is the slashy one…

Sabre – my original choice – is the fastest weapon with a target area of anything above the waist. It is slashy (technical term) as well as pokey (also a technical term) although the point is rarely used. It is so quick that instead of three sections of three minutes during a fight to 15 with a one minute break after each bit, you just stop for a minute after someone reaches eight points as it would be unusual for a fight to last more than three minutes anyway.

Because of its speed, you pretty much have to decide what you are doing between hits and then just go for it. If you mess up the next few seconds are run on instinct until one or other of you lands a hit. You have to adapt quickly and there isn’t a lot of thinking time.

This last bit is why sabre was good for me as a teenager and into my early 20s. One of the reasons I crapped out of competitions is that I had a tendency to over-think everything to the point where I was basically a ball of stress with a sword.

At the same time my concentration span was such that my brain would wander off in search of entertainment elsewhere after (at most) half an hour of thinking about the same thing. It is why I would regularly get y ass kicked playing chess, even if I had been ahead for the first half hour, my mind would give up and I would do stupid stuff and get slain for it.

So the need to think fast in sustained bursts and the fact that there was little room to think the rest of the time, made sabre the perfect weapon.

In épée, I discovered, being impatient to attack, or dropping concentration, is rapidly punished by a far more focussed opponent.

IMG_9991Epee, by the way, is the slowest of the weapons. It is exclusively pokey and the target area is anywhere on the body. When I first made the switch I was pretty awful and getting my ass handed to me by people who had been fencing a matter of months.

Muscle memory meant that successful parries were followed by cut cheek (not a hit), when I got tired my blade drifted into a sabre en guarde position (very bad times), I forgot to think  about my legs which were suddenly target area and my distance was all out of whack (which it had always been, but in épée I had no idea how to compensate.)

It was awful and added in to that was the fact that I was still too impatient. If someone didn’t attack for a few seconds I got bored and lunged in, not planning, not thinking, just going, and would be effortlessly hit for my trouble. My concentration would drop after ten seconds and suddenly the box would be beeping merrily, reminding me I just got beaten yet again.

I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t use fencing as I had previously before the stress took over, as a way to relax, because when I relaxed my muscles were hard wired to do the wrong thing. It seemed to me then that the best thing would just be to stop, jack in the sport that I can’t really remember not doing and start something new.

Then, however, came to a new realisation. No one expected anything of me in this club. I wasn’t going to be expected to compete, or do well or be outstanding. I could just have fun fencing for the first time in possibly a decade.

With this turning point I started to relax. As I got used to everything and started to improve on the basics (one clue was when Christophe stopped having to yell “use your point” every few minutes) I started getting lessons again and slowly, slowly, I am starting to feel like maybe, one day, I could possibly be a half decent epee fencer.

Learning to be patient on the piste, to think while I am fencing, not to be distracted by the yells and gamesmanship, all that is still some way away, but I feel like it is reachable.

A fair while ago, while I was dealing with moving jobs, enforced unemployment, and a figurative landslide of paper work, I blogged about how I had rediscovered fencing at exactly the right time and how I had hated it by the time I quit in the UK.

Something I hadn’t considered before, but that my very wise coach suggested might be the case, was that switching blades was one of the reasons fencing became enjoyable again.

It is like a new sport without any of the baggage left over from the sabre years.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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The unusual wisdom…

…of fencing coaches

Other than my first coaches, those wonderful men who were generally too busy trying to stop 12-year-olds smacking each other with swords to focus on much else, I honestly believe that fencing coaches say some of the most insightful things you are ever likely to hear.

More often than not, the profound nature of these statement is not immediately apparent, and you are left with the unshakeable feeling that they have misunderstood something of great value.

My very first teachers notwithstanding, I have had three coaches who, in their own unique ways, have shaped me as a fencer and as a person.

Laszlo:

With the exception of my dad, I think Laszlo has had a bigger impact on my life than any other man.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Not in a Mr Miyagi, student/master zen-type way, but through the very practical fact that my decision of where to go to university was based almost exclusively on the fact that he was there.

So the four years that I consider to be the most formative time of my life, the years in which I decided who I wanted to be, and that made me who I currently am (the two things are not the same right now) where all experienced because Laszlo exists.

He was a constant presence, a more essential part of my university career than any lecturer.

Patient when I was struggling, over-joyed by my successes, deeply sympathetic when I was injured.

Generous with his time. Committed to his students young and old, no matter what their level.

A kind soul and the kind of man you would never want to disappoint.

I once worked out that I had more contact hours with Laszlo per month than any professor in my department. Which explains a lot.

I will always, in my heart, be part of Laszlo’s Fencing.

He taught me to love fencing and respect opponents. To be a good loser and a good winner and to learn from other fencers as well as him.

I think that every single one of his students learnt something from Laszlo that made them a better person. I certainly did.

And he did all this with a wonderful turn of phrase that often leaves his students baffled, but somehow happy.

Some of the more memorable Laszlo-isms are:

1) (On meeting me for the first time when I was about 15 and excessively gangly having just grown several inches) “You have no idea how tall you are, but neither do your opponents, and you have longer to find out.”

2) “You must be prepared, like hedgehog.”

3)  (After I managed not to get injured during a training camp) “I am pleased you did not break, maybe next time you will work more?”

4) (Directed at the then British number one) “You used to move like old woman. Now, sometimes, you begin to look like fencer.”

5) “Your arm is like a sewing machine, stop it.”

6) (Directed at a consistently brilliant fencer) “Chris, you have the timing of an orangutan.”

7) “There is not enough room in your head for you to let other people inside.”

8 ) “Even when you are being slow, you must be fast.”

9) “You must work at everything.”

10) “Keep leg straight, like chicken.” (Thanks to Andy for reminding me of this one.)

James:

“Terrifying” was my first impression of James. Ex-Olympian, ex-army, stacked as all hell, and not afraid to yell.

He also taught me how to let go of what happened on the piste once you stepped off it, how to stay focussed, and how not to let the noise other people made distract me.

As the only native English speaker in this post, James’ wisdom does not have the ‘lost

Commonwealths - 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I'm not pictured as I'm taking the picture)

Commonwealths – 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I’m not pictured as I’m taking the picture)

in translation’ charm of the other two, which is coupled by the fact that he was always very direct with praise, criticism, and all his other opinions.

If Laszlo taught me to train hard and be dedicated, James taught me not to moan and just get on with it.

1) “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

2) “Tell that to someone who gives a damn. That ain’t me, by the way.”

3) “If you can talk, you can fence.”

4) (After a particularly brutal lesson)

“You need to make sure you get back for your parries.”

Me (standing very upright, breathing very steadily) “Ah-huh.”

“You need to really use your length when you lunge.”

“Ah-huh.”

“You need… to vomit don’t you?”

“Ah-huh.”

“Leave.”

5) “You don’t need a jacket for the lesson, if you do it right you won’t get hit.”

6) (In a text message, sent on a hot day, having not seen or spoke to him for several months) “If you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Stay hydrated.”

7) “She’s not as good as you, she just doesn’t know it. Remind her by winning.”

8 ) “Just do things better than the other person. It’s easy.”

9) “Stop whining, get fencing.”

Christophe:

Whether he knows it or not, Christophe has pretty much kept me sane for the past few months.

A spell of unemployment, followed by being thrown into a shift pattern that risked turning me into a hermit with insomnia, training with Christophe as often as possible is keeping me happy, healthy, and focussed.

He is (slowly) teaching me the principles and techniques behind an entirely new weapon, and to think in the long term about what I want to achieve four and five matches down the line.

More than that, he is re-teaching me the joy of fencing that I somehow lost along the way.

He also has a turn of phrase so similar to Laszlo’s (right down to the animal similes) that I am convinced they are in some form of clandestine coaches club. Although there is a little bit of James thrown in for good measure:

1) “We need to make you a plan, like an octopus.”

2) “I don’t want slow, fast. I want fast, very fast.”

3) “Don’t go as I finish stopping, it needs to be as I start stopping.”

4) “I can tell from your fencing that you are very bad at maths.”

5) “See? It is better when you just don’t think.”

6) “Sometimes I think you might be a good épée fencer. Possibly.”

7) “What is wrong with you? If you do that again I’m going to hit you.”

8 ) “Allez! You’re not tired. Your mind is lying to you.”

9) “Your brain has to connect everything, but let them all do different things.”

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A celebration…

…even if it is on the wrong day

Happy Mothers’ Day America! You might get this wrong along with a load of other things (use of the letter ‘u’, pronunciation of lieutenant, etc etc) but that doesn’t make it a less important version of the holiday than the British one. (It kind of does.)

On a serious note, a special very first Mother’s Day to the wonderful Carolina who gave birth to Julia Marie a mere eight days ago and who is basically amazing and one of the only people I know who can rock the hospital gown look.

Because this is fake Mothers’ Day, I have decided to repost something I wrote for my mum last year, but which got lost in the great blog disaster of 2012.

This has the added bonus of meaning I don’t actually have to think of anything to write today.

So here it is:

“My mum… and just a few of the things that make her my mum.” (First published March 18 2012)

1) She once forgot I was in the back seat of the car and drove all the way to college only to have to turn around and drop me at my grandma’s house.

2) She made me wear a blue, knitted jacket with a bell on the hood so she didn’t lose me in shops. It made me look like Noddy. (For this I have always blamed my brother who used to hide from her in clothes racks.)

3) She once forgot where she left me and was fairly surprised when she walked into her friend’s house to find me there. She later admitted this on BBC’s Woman’s Hour to the hilarity of all concerned.

4) When I forget to get in touch, she thinks it is a good thing because I must be having fun.

5) She was always right when she told me to take a jacket and I would never admit that I regretted not listening to her.

6) When we went on ferries she dressed my siblings and I in the same outfit so she could show people in case one of us got lost. (Again, this is totally my brother’s fault.)

7) She definitely isn’t eccentric.

8) When having a bad hair day she drives wearing a woolly hat to flatten her hair.

9) In recent years she has been on more jaunts, adventures and trips than I have managed to fit into my entire life. (2013 UPDATE: She will be spending Christmas and New Year hiking to the Everest base camp. Obviously.)

10) When we were growing up, she kept our baby teeth and now has no idea what to do with them.

11) She’s always right, even when she’s not.

12) Sometimes, when she is laughing at something, she sounds exactly like Eeyore.

13) One year, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said ‘An Indiana Jones pinball machine’ (we’re still working on it.)

14) She plays the drums.

15) If she pays for things on her credit card, and then doesn’t open the bill, it doesn’t count.

16) She really definitely doesn’t snore.

17) When I was 18, she bought me a plane ticket and packed me off Greek island hopping. In the months I was away she only called me once because she thought something felt wrong. My purse had been stolen an hour earlier.

18) She has absolutely no frown lines, or wrinkles at all really.

19) If people take the time to listen, her life stories are some of the best they will ever hear.

20) She’s a journalist who would rather stay silent than tell a lie.

21) I miss being small enough to curl up in her lap.

22) Every night, she would read to us for half an hour. When we got older we all wanted different books, so she had to read out loud for ninety minutes every night. I used to follow her around and listen to the other stories as well.

23) When she read, she did all the voices.

24) She strives constantly to make me more organised and less of a procrastinator despite the fact that this has been a losing battle since the day I was born.

25) She came on our school trip to Cadbury World and so I wasn’t restricted by the spending money limit the school set.

26) She once made bread and butter pudding without the butter.

27) When my dad was on a teacher-training course, she set the fish fingers on fire and he came home to find her putting out the flames in the back garden.

28) She won’t be called grandma, but my brother’s and sister’s kids don’t know how lucky they are to have her as their not-grandma. They will one day though.

29) Sometimes, she doesn’t know what country she’s flying to until she gets to the airport. Sometimes not even then.

30) She doesn’t want me to grow up, come home, or settle down.

31) When we speak on Skype, I can only see the top half of her face and her collection of model cars. They aren’t toys, they’re models.

32) She used to sing ‘You are my sunshine’ to me until I fell asleep.

33) She introduced me to The Beatles and, at five, I would bounce up and down on her bed singing all the words Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

34) We’re undeniably similar, and I long ago gave up fighting turning in to her. There are far worse people to be.

35) For more about my mum, visit www.notdeadyettravel.com – says it all really.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

PS, I already did the discussion of where the apostrophe should go in my real Mother’s Day piece.

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.

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…

Taking the piste…

…and other fencing-related (s)word play.

See what I did there? Yeah, I hate myself a little too.

Four months in (yes, four) to my work visa saga and still no progress from *company name redacted due to wanting to keep my admittedly tenuous grasp on employment*.

People I rant at/cry on/mooch food off have started saying that they are impressed how together and positive I seem in the face of frustration and incompetence.

Would that it were thus. I fluctuate wildly between sunny and positive to woe-ist-me self pity (don’t worry, I’m aware that’s intensely irritating and I restrict talking about it to people who are obliged to love me forever.)

A while ago I wrote a piece about the ups and downs of unemployment, prompting friends and family to express concern that I was becoming depressed. I’m not, by the way, I’m just moody, but this in turn prompted me to look at how I was living while my fate rests in a pad of ink and the incomprehensible rubber lines of an Arabic stamp.

I needed something that was going to motivate me, but also something that I couldn’t just put off if I was feeling lazy (like writing, or putting on clothes) and so I turned to something that used to be an incredibly important part of my life, but that for various reasons I turned my back on about 5 years ago.

Fencing.

I started fencing when I was about 12 and did fairly well on the UK youth circuit, coming away from a few championships with medals and representing my county a couple of times.

I enjoyed it, not worrying about the fact that it ate into all my weekends, and I enjoyed the time spent with my dad on the way to competitions

It stepped up at university, but that is also where cracks began to show. I will be the first to admit that I never really did as well as I thought I could.

This was partly due to a tendency to fall off/into/under stuff and the reciprocal arrangement of stuff falling on/into me, resulting in various injuries.

Mostly, though, it was due to the fact that I would get stressed out at competitions, fence badly, get upset I was fencing badly, and fence worse.

I let other people get to me, and royally crapped out of the 2006 Commonwealths because of that.

Somewhere along the way it stopped being fun, which made everything worse.

So when I smashed my back up I was almost relieved that I couldn’t do it anymore. By the time I was fully recovered I lived in a city with no competitive fencing club or halfway decent coach and after a few token efforts of travelling back to my home city to train, I stopped and focussed on work.

Coming to Doha felt like a fresh start, in a new club, where no-one expected anything of me (largely because they all fence épée which, as a sabre girl, still confuses the hell out of me.)

The few times I went before the whole car-to-ribs incident (again with the colliding with stuff) were fun and I started to remember how fencing made me relax, helped me switch of every part off my brain that wasn’t to do with where my feet should be and what my blade should be doing.

So now, with healed ribs and time on my hands, I have massively stepped up my training. The generosity is astounding. I am allowed to train with the women’s national team (not the men’s – let’s not get crazy, this is still the Gulf), and my coach makes time for one-on-one lessons which have finally passed beyond the phase of ‘use the point’ and ‘why did you just do that?’

It is an expense that, given my current state, might not seem wise to many, but it is keeping me sane, it is getting me up in the morning, it is giving me specific places to be at specific times, which when I do eventually start work will prove essential in my readjusting to a life of shifts and deadlines.

Mostly though, it is making me happy and keeping me motivated. The feeling of triumph when you finally land that hit you have been attempting all evening, the sense of accomplishment when you beat someone for the first time after studying them for weeks. The weird pride when the coach says you’re doing better and might “one day become an okay fencer” (it turns out all coaches speak like this.)

I’m pleased I have rediscovered a love of something that has been both a positive and negative force  in my life.

And I am thankful that discovery came at the time I needed it the most.

Commonwealths - 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I'm not pictured as I'm taking the picture)

Commonwealths – 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I’m not pictured as I’m taking the picture)