Rage, rage against…everything

 

When Mr T died, I made it my mission to become an A grade widow. I have always dealt with “stuff” in a practical way. I’ve passed every exam I’ve ever sat, got every job I’ve ever been interviewed for. Surely there would be a book or a website that would tell me what I needed to do, in 5 easy steps. Once I passed the “widow” exams,  my heart would stop breaking, my stomach would stop churning, my neck would stop aching and the fear of everything would go away.

The only books that I could find contained guides to law, finance, practical housekeeping (I seem to remember reading about ensuring that I made delicious, nutritious soups to freeze, ready to eat on the days I felt unwell. Soup? Food? Freezing bags? The only thing I prepared in advance for the shit days was a constant supply of cigarettes and a barrel full of sherry. God knows why sherry. I hate the stuff but it seemed to be the only thing in the house, it being Christmas and all) and, eventually, dating again. “Don’t compare your date with your husband.” LOL. They didn’t tell you how to get through the long, lonely hours of the night, when the bed’s too big. They didn’t advise on what to do when the yearning came to lay on his grave (as I did one night), or dig him up for one last hug ( I actually asked if I had the legal right to do this. “No”, was the unsurprising answer).

 

They also didn’t touch on  how to deal with the “skin hunger”, a phrase which I came across on Google, to explain the need for intimate physical contact with someone. Anyone who could love me the way that Mr T did. I stalked people on internet dating sites and eyed up anyone new who came into the bar. I wore a huge hat with “I’m a sad, desperate, lonely widow who’s going mad, please fuck me”. No one offered (possibly the frog eyes, fag breath and drunken slur put people off. Possibly the fact that they cared enough about me not to take advantage of me). I made the bit up about the hat but I might as well have worn it, I was so obviously needy.

 

Yoga, exercise, meals out with friends, worthwhile causes were all suggested as ways of getting through the day. Which all sounds well and good when you’re not actually trying to get through the day. I was rigid with fear and pain. I couldn’t even be bothered to open my eyes. I lay on the bed and existed.

My wonderful friends adopted me and my girls and literally dragged me out of my bed, poured bottles of wine down my neck and rocked me until my sobs subsided with exhaustion. We were all exhausted.

Finally, the books didn’t explain the extreme self- centredness that would come with this horrible new world; one in which I couldn’t communicate with my children, let alone help them to deal with their grief.  On top of my own grief, I felt remorse, sorrow and guilt at my inability to deal with anyone else’s pain. I turned into a selfish, self loathing individual. I stared for days out of the window. I drank anything I could get my hands on, smoked everything that would light and wailed. Above all else I no longer wanted to be here. I resented my children for keeping me on the planet . They were going through important exams at the time. Did I care? Did I fuck.

I can recommend “A Grief Observed” by C S Lewis as being the closest I ever came to relating to someone’s reactions to the death of a spouse.  He never got over the loss of his wife. His emotions were raw, ugly and irrational. How anyone carries on with their normal jobs and their normal lives after such an event is beyond me. I knew from the moment my husband died in my arms that I was never going to “get over it”. I couldn’t be the demure, majestic Jackie Kennedy. I was snotty, spotty and a bore. I knew it and couldn’t get out of it.

My husband was dead and so was my life. It’s difficult to write without using the usual cliches about losing a half of you, feeling like you’re free falling, having a limb amputated but all of these and more are true. The grief that I felt was indescribable but – annoyingly- completely normal. No matter what books I consulted about bereavement, widowhood, grief, I couldn’t get around the fact that my feelings were totally normal. GP visit? “It’s perfectly normal for you to feel this way”. Bereavement counsellor: “You must get out more. Try going back to work, get some routine back into your life”. Surely my grief was the greatest griefs of all griefs that have ever been felt. Noone could possibly have gone through this living hell in the way that I was? It hurt to realise that I was just one of many who were grieving for someone or something, and that everything I was feeling was “normal”. “Sorry Mrs T but you’re no one special. Yes we understand your husband’s dead but that’s life”.   I read the posts of optimism and hope that people posted on my fb page and I tried. I really tried. But my soul was lost. Nothing mattered anymore.

I felt detached from the world. I watched cars go by when I was queuing for traffic and hated the fact that, for these people, normal life was carrying on. I listened to conversations on the bus as I went to register his death – in particular a conversation between two elderly ladies who religiously analysed the funeral that they had been to the day before “It was a lovely do but I didn’t like all that chicken stuff. I don’t like eating with my fingers. They needed knives and forks”.  I wanted to scream at them: “My husband is dead! Fuck the fucking chicken!”

When I got into town to register my husband’s death, I had to run the gauntlet of “chuggers”. Lovely bunch of guys; I’m sure on any other day I’d smile and maybe even donate. But on this day, I kept my head down and ploughed through. It was Christmas 2011. The Christmas market was in full swing, people were present buying and a young guy approached me with his charity tin. “Hi madam, would you be interested in donating to…. (some charity, I forget). “No thanks”, I mutter, head down, no eye contact, desperate to escape to the sanctity of the register office where my marriage would officially end. “Why the long face, let’s see a smile”. “Well, I’m just off to register my husband’s death, so forgive me if I don’t smile” I spit at the poor unfortunate guy. I’m ashamed to say I felt glad to offload some of my anger at him. He’d done nothing wrong. I left his forlorn expression and marched off. My world was shattered and woe betide anyone who came near me with glad tidings of joy.

At the Register Office, I was met with the usual sympathetic words and kind acts from well meaning people. I read the Coroner’s report on the post mortem in silence. There was nothing wrong with Mr T. In fact, they had to do a second series of tests to try to find out what the hell he died from. Natural causes. And a propensity for the finer things in life: wine, cheese, me. “Have you any questions?” asked the kindly Registrar, after I’d filled her in with the details of my husband’s demise -“He just looked at me and died”. “Well, can I still say I’m married?” came my desperate question as I looked into her eyes. She leaned forward and sadly informed me that, as my husband had died, my marriage was now over and I was no longer a wife. I had fought for years to become my husband’s wife. It lasted five.

 

 

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I’ve had enough…time to cut and run

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Ponte Vecchio in my widow’s weeds. And the beginnings of a change from dark to blonde hair.

My first experience of travelling solo came 6 months after my husband suddenly died. It was less of a rational decision and more of a subconscious uncontrollable urge to run away. The urge came on a Wednesday, built up through Thursday and by Saturday I was in Florence, Italy. By myself. In a country I didn’t know with a language that I didn’t speak.

I prepared well for the trip. I went to the hairdressers and dyed my hair blonde. I then rang my sister and told her the news. She was more shocked about the hair than the sudden trip to Florence. “Why?” she asked to both. “I just needed to” was my response. Lucky for her, I hadn’t done what I really wanted to do, which was to shave my head completely, in a outward display of the inner pain that I felt.

 

Anyway. Solo travel to Florence. Why Florence? Well, firstly it was a place that I hadn’t visited with Mr T so there weren’t going to be any memories. Keen to secure a First Class Honours in Widowhood, I had read and promptly acted on the idea that, to cure oneself of constant reminders of the past, it is necessary to create new memories. Secondly, it was a place to do things. I dreaded being alone and having nothing to do but stare at happy couples, in love, or even not in love. Everywhere I went, people were in couples. Meh…

Having a love of Art and Art History, I knew that if anywhere was going to soothe my aching soul it would be Florence, city of Renaissance Art and Architecture, where I could get lost in history, culture, anything. I also love Italian food so I knew I wouldn’t starve. It’s only 2 hours from home so it was practical, in case anything should happen at home and I needed to rush back. It was only 2 hours from home so that if I should have an attack of mad cow’s disease I could be returned back to my local psychiatric unit, which was keeping a close eye on me at this point due to my manic depression.

 

It wasn’t so much the practical issues of travel that concerned me. I was always the one to book the holidays, arrange the transfers and pack the cases. Solo travel meant being alone. Having no one to share my thoughts with. No one to enjoy a glass of cold wine or beer with. No one to share the joy of visiting places only previously seen in books or magazines. No one to say “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of ….” for the umpteenth time. Was it really going to help?

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Looking up for God in the Duomo… not finding Him. Feeling abandoned in the presence of serenity. A desperate feeling…

How does one travel alone without feeling isolation and like everyone is looking at you, feeling sorry for you and wondering just what you did that was so bad that no one would go on holiday with you? When I’ve spoken to people about solo travel, they tend to fall into one of two camps. There’s the “oh yeah, I do that/would love to do that”. Or, more often, there’s the “God, I couldn’t do that. What? Just you? No one else? I wouldn’t have the guts”. Is it guts or lack of choice? Or just a desire to be hidden amongst a multitude of people who didn’t know my story and frankly, didn’t care. I needed to escape the cloud of despair. I needed to forget what had happened for just a short time and be somewhere where no one knew Mr T. I seem to have been married to the most well known landlord in Britain.

 

It began that fateful night when the lovely police officer, whilst taking my statement, recognised my husband and  said “Is that Richard Taylor?” “Yeah”. “Blimey, I was only in the pub a week ago”. The following day I had a phone call from a local Funeral Director. “Hi Vickie, I don’t know if you remember me but it’s Debbie from the pub. You know, Gill’s friend”, “Hi”. “Er, I hope you don’t mind but the case came through about Richard and I wondered if you would like me to organise the funeral”. “I didn’t know you were a funeral director?” “Yes, would you mind?” “No, that’s a great idea”. Mr T was off to meet his maker with the help of a friend. What could be better?

 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I came into contact with: a random AA guy because my bloody car broke down (still in Mr T’s name) “Oh, I heard about Richard. Great guy, so sorry”. A taxi driver who happened to start a conversation as we drove past the pub that what was my home and now wasn’t (I moved out) – “Poor bloke had a heart attack”. “No he didn’t.” “Oh, how do you know?” “Because I’m his wife and I was there”. The teachers at my girls’ school knew what had happened before we had the chance to tell them – they used to have lunch every Friday in the pub.  My eldest daughter was having her hair cut at a local salon when one of the other customers started gossiping: “Richard from the Nurseryman had a heart attack and died” (No he bloody didn’t!) I couldn’t get away from him.

 

This still happens albeit on a less frequent basis. I learnt very quickly how much my husband was loved and respected. This had increased my anxiety about the funeral. What if people thought it was  rubbish? What if we forgot the cutlery and people had to pick up the chicken with their hands? By May I’d had enough. I was off.

Sorrow is the seventh wave…

 

Life without Mr T consists of waves. They begin in a small way. The sorrows I mean. They trickle in and then fall away again with the minutae of life. The grief appears as pin pricks in the eyes and in the heart. It  slowly retreats again as daily tasks and busyness, and joy of life takes over.

Without warning, the grief spikes begin to gather momentum and to close in. It can be in the morning when first awakening, hopefully to be calmed with life’s daily grind. Or it can be an early evening feeling, when the day’s work is done and there’s nothing to fill the mind other than the past. This is when I try to  focus on the future and make plans. Life must continue after all, in some form or other.

So I push onwards, onwards and onwards…

Then comes a day like today.  The seventh wave. A day when no matter how much the sun is shining, how many birds in the park are entertaining me with their squabbles over left overs from yesterday’s picnics or how many children run around with joy in their hearts, glad to be free of the chains of the classroom.  Or even the fact that I am travelling around this beautiful country (France), with all that it has to offer. This day belongs to my husband. I cannot “think of the good times” and “be glad that he didn’t suffer” – how does anyone know this anyway? What happens when the light goes out of someone’s eyes as they look at you? The seventh wave of sorrow will wash over me and there’s not a thing I can do about it. I have to succumb and go under. I have to take a deep breath and just hope that, as for the past 2.5 years, I will resurface. Again.

 

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I took this picture of myself and then promptly burst into tears….

 

I’m feeling sorry for myself of course. I’m grieving for the loss of my own life. Of my own present and for our future lives in Spain, which would have begun in a month’s time.

For the loss of the one person in my life (ever, including the shrinks) that truly understood me. That never questioned my sometimes skewed view of the world – because he thought that way too. That shared my love for hardware shops,  with all the paraphernalia and the smell of wood, varnish and the opportunities presented in the gadgets (I love gadgets). Stationery shops and the smell of new plastic pencil cases. The potential wrapped up in a brand new pen. For the absence of a love that understood how  people can rage and shout and still be in love. For the loss of the recognition that sometimes I need to be alone, I cannot communicate and I cannot cooperate  but how, at other times,  I cannot abide solitude and need to just cling to him, digging my nose into his womblike armpits; to feel safe.

So I try to be still. I try to let the wave wash over me and feel the emotions. To embrace them as signs of the love that we shared, of the love I still carry. And I weep. In a park. In Grenoble. Full of people eating their baguette lunches  on the grass and enjoying the sun. For me, the sun will come out again and the wave will recede. Soon…

In France and wishing I could get that Bonnie Tyler song out of my head…

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Why a French road trip?

Well, first and foremost, I wasn’t planning on doing this road trip at all. I inadvertently ended up with a return ferry ticket for myself and my Mini, and had shelled out too much to cancel/change the details. So, Newhaven – Dieppe was my destination, whether I liked it or not.

I decided to take the opportunity to do another of many firsts since Mr T left me…take a ferry from my fair isle, cross the channel and drive around a country. Since I had some spare time, and a spare ticket for France, it seemed logical. 

Except… in theory, yes, why not? Just mosey on down to the south coast of England, starting at 3.30am in order to catch a boat (do we catch boats?) in some torrential rainstorms following a heatwave. (Ok, we’re talking the UK here, so in reality we had some heavy rain after two quite warm and sunny days). Drive through France from  Amiens in the north to  the French Riviera in the south, via the French Alps (no snow at this time of year but some dodgy hill starts might still be the order of the day at some point),  in a car whose steering wheel is on the wrong side, on the wrong side of the road. Without anyone being there to back seat drive for me (sometimes this can be useful), or see around lorries/tractors/blind bends when attempting to turn right. For 3 weeks. By myself. Using another language. Extremely badly. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Sur le pont D’Avignon? Mais non…

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond

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I wasn’t feeling in the mood for dancing, despite the beauty of le pont d’Avignon.

So, after a great time in Marseille, I was flagging. I had driven 1500 miles, spent most of 15 days by myself, and lugged my rucksack, cold box and backpack up more stairs than I care to remember… and I was remembering many things…

It was coming up to Mr T’s birthday. I was having a great time, but I knew that it was coming to an end. And the sorrow was beginning to increase. More and more, I was feeling the black cloud coming over, reminding me that, in a few days time, I should have been enjoying my husband’s retirement day and we should have been finalising our plans to move to Spain to begin a new life. Except that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I was alone, grieving again.

Avignon is the place where the Pope used to have his Palace, and what a palace. It’s also the place of  the 15th century bridge or “pont”, on which traditional dances were held.  But I was tired, listless and losing enthusiasm at a rate of knots. Where previously I would have eagerly bought my ticket, a guide book and enjoyed a selfish afternoon, immersed in culture, language and history, all I could do was stare at the beauty of the place…and feel nothing. I felt ashamed that I felt nothing. As though I was incapable of appreciating the fine architecture. I apologised to Avignon. It wasn’t its fault, it was mine.

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Palais des Papes… Where I realised I’d had enough

My final meal in France was in a delightful restaurant where I ate all manner of fishy things and met a wonderful waitress called Adele (with an accent over the first e). She sensed my loneliness and pepped me up with funny stories, her own dreams of travelling to England and how she had had a row with her boyfriend the night before. My impending misery dissipated for a while… along with a few glasses of rose and a beer.

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Something fishy going on… and lurking under the white fish were 3 snails… chewy but delicious
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Adele my delightful waitress…
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Feigning happiness but feeling weary…

I sat and watched the world go by. I watched families, couples, children, all strolling in front of me, lost in their own worlds. I wondered what problems they were facing, what issues were going on in their lives. I spotted a little girl, engrossed in a cartoon artist’s work, innocent of the knowledge of future sadnesses that she was to face. I wanted to reach out to each and every one of them. To tell them that I was alone, and ask them if they would just hug me. And I’m sure if I had, I would have received what I was aching for… but we don’t do things like that, do we? I had skin hunger. An overwhelming need to communicate intimately with someone who knew me, loved me, cared about me…

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I was unsure about his artwork, however this little French girl seemed impressed… or maybe she was pointing out some home truths…

I was beginning to use alcohol as an anti depressant – never a good sign, since I get high on life. And drinking is totally useless on a driving holiday. I awoke the next morning, with a headache and heartache. My next journey was to be onwards to Arles, where Van Gogh lived and stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a while. This was becoming a little too close for comfort.

I had 4 days of my journey left, and approximately 1000km. I sat in my hotel room and despaired at my inability to carry on. My weakness for letting the clouds build up and my overwhelming feelings of isolation. I rang  my friend. He said “Come home”. It was all I needed to hear… Van who?

La mer….

 

I had to begin my post about Nice and the French Riviera with this delightful song, which always makes me think of the south of France…

Travelling solo can be tricky, especially when you only stay one or two nights in each place. It’s more difficult to form connections with people as it takes a while to get your bearings and confidence. That’s when organised outings can be useful.

So, I met JJ in Monaco, when I went for my little ride in the little red car. He actually lives in Nice which was my next port of call and so we arranged to meet up this morning, for coffee (cigarettes obligatory), at Wayne’s Bar (www.waynes.fr), his local and the place to go if you want to converse in English…

The great thing about meeting local people is that they can give you local knowledge. I expressed an interest in spending the day at the beach but wasn’t overly enamoured with Nice. It’s nice … if you like tourists, gift shops and souvenir shops.  However the shops are open all day long , which can be a relief after my failing to remember on each occasion that France closes at 12pm for lunch…until 3 or 4pm…

So I was recommended a place called Juan Les Pines… a 20 or so minutes train ride between Nice and Cannes. I could have driven but was told the parking would be horrendous…which was absolutely right. So, in my bestest (which is diabolical) French, I found the tram to the train station and then the train to Juan Les Pines.

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Nice Ville train station, waiting for the train to Cannes which stops at Juan Les Pins

 

And I did it. I have to admit feeling a sense of pride when I actually found myself at the beach (sand, Nice is pebble), with a baguette and a coke, sunbathing with all of my clothes on. Because you see, my skin hates the sun. Thanks to my Irish heritage, I break out in hives and a curious lobster like complexion if I don’t apply Factor 500 and wear the equivalent of a bed sheet on the beach. Which generated more than a few curious stares from onlookers – all French – all gorgeous (not many chip butties are eaten in these parts) and all bronzed. Not to mention the fact that I was a female, alone

 

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topless sunbathing… it’s not for everyone…
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I did bare a shoulder… eventually!

 

If you want to be a female solo traveller…get used to being looked at. Not out of any animosity, just total curiosity. But there’s no hiding the curiosity with French people. They will stand and gawp at you quite openly. I ‘m surprised I haven’t been carried off to the local zoo at an exhibit…

 

 

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Those storm clouds eventually scared everyone off the beach…

 

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Chilling in the afternoon sun…

 

My last night in Nice was great fun. JJ introduced me to his wonderful daughter Leia and in turn, I was introduced to some great (if a little crazy!) guys at Wayne’s bar. Do go here for a drink. It’s good fun (can be loud after 10pm) and it’s an English speaking bar so you can seek out people to talk to when you have tired of conjugating the past tense in French. The beer gives you courage to have a joke but please be prepared to explain yourself – British humour is different and we tease an awful lot (well, I do anyway). People can take us literally. I tell people that if I am smiling when I say something then I am joking. Then they will do the same thing with you! Just don’t get too drunk otherwise you put yourself in a vulnerable situation, which is very easy to do…

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Lovely French guys at Wayne’s Bar.

 

You can’t always get what you want…

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My little Mini and I became great friends during our journey around France 🙂

This road trip around France began as an act of defiance I guess. Have ferry ticket, car and 3 weeks to spare, will travel. It was also something of a challenge. Could little old me, all by myself, drive around France, going for weeks without any meaningful conversation, relying just on my own intuition and judgement…?

This morning I have a hangover from last night’s shenanigans with a great group of locals. So, naturally, I’m feeling a little delicate this morning. And the first thing to be affected is my Achilles heel – my mood.

Listless. Pinpricks behind the eyes. Desire to crawl back under the duvet. Being on the French Riviera, under the gaze of a beautiful sun has done little to shift this so far this morning.

It’s easy to carry on when life feels good, the emotions are in balance and positivity rules. The flip side is trying to wade through the treacle of life when the inclination is to let go and just drown into peaceful oblivion. Writing it down and acknowledging the feelings is a start. I always feel so guilty. I remember what the guys of the First World War battlefields went through, and my visit to the Somme and I’m ashamed to have so little to worry about and yet feel so angry. And resentful. And full of self pity. Because, you see, some great friends of mine are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary today.

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Driving down to Antibes and through the Cote D’Azur

 

I’m here, in beautiful Nice, about to visit Antibes, a Picasso exhibition and then drive down to Marseille. In the glorious sunshine. I’m young(ish), intelligent(ish), independent with beautiful children and all that life has to offer before me. I’m not a girl, born into poverty in some appalling country torn apart with by famine or war. I should be happy. But I’m not. Because I see what Mr T. cannot see. I do things that he would love to do. And I want to do them with him. I would just do anything for him to be here. I miss him.

 

Va, va, voom… once I’ve got the washing done

After the hair raising trip from Grenoble the previous day, I was somewhat reluctant to bother with the Ferrari trip that I had arranged. I’d had enough of cars and being on roads for a while. I wanted to lie down in a dark room and sleep. For a few days.

It was to be at 12 noon. I could have done with a good lie in but, I’d booked and paid and by golly I was going to do it! I could sleep for the rest of the day afterwards.

Since I was travelling with one rucksack only, I had packed minimal clothing. Whilst in the glorious southern French heat, I determined to do as much washing as possible. The  morning was thus taken up with my showering/clothes washing combo, where I stamp on the clothes rather like someone treading grapes, whilst attending to my ablutions. I had deliberately packed easy to wash and wear, cotton, no need to iron, vests, long hippy skirts and dresses. All could be hung up on door knobs, coat hangers and -well- anything really, to dry in the heat and be ready to wear….

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a handy shutter serves as a great place to dry undies…overlooking the Med in Monte Carlo

So at 12 I went downstairs to be met by a gorgeous red Ferrari Spider and a rather cute looking French guy, dressed in a rather silly Formula One-esque outfit. Even he looked somewhat embarrassed to be in it! But still, it was cute…

JJ was a lovely guy. He instantly made me feel relaxed. The idea of a solo, female traveller, booting it around the notorious hairpin bends above Monaco with some flash guy who does this job because he has Ferrari envy, had crossed my mind. Was I being just a little bit sad?

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Trying the Ferrari for size..

Hell, no!! JJ took me around the Formula One racetrack (which can only be driven by Monaco and French residents), past the Opera House, the Monte Carlo Casino and seemed genuinely impressed with having a half decent looking bird alongside him. He told me that most of his customers are enormous, middle aged men, living out childhood fantasies. He spends most of his time ensuring that they drive safely and have control of the vehicle, than pointing out the highlights of the Principality.

His delight was to be able to show off his driving skills (excellent), the car (goes like shit off a shovel when out of town and on the narrow, bendy roads) and his knowledge of Monaco and the local area. Turns out he’s actually a Bio-Chemist and this is a job for the summer, for fun. Not a bad way to spend the summer…

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JJ the Bio-Chemist who drives Ferraris for fun…

We tootled off around the Formula 1 track on Monaco’s streets, being photographed by tourists, much to my amusement. It was a fancy way of doing a city tour and certainly a novelty. The trip up and around the mountains was more fun however, as we accelerated and the wind whipped my hair.  Every so often the foot hit the gas and I screamed with delight at the funny feeling in my tummy and just the thrill of it all. It was so much fun!!!!! At no point did I feel unsafe but at the same time there was just enough thrill to feel what a Ferrari can do (even when never getting out of 2nd gear!)

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Above the Principality of Monaco

 

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JJ and I got on really well (but not that well… we’re hiding cigarettes, not putting arms around each other

 

JJ had the rest of the day off and so we decided to have some lunch and mooch around. Monaco is a strange place. Established in the 13th Century, it feels…well… fake. The old buildings are kept assiduously bright and clean and so look new. The Palace, for example, has been renovated and extended to the extent that the original medieval building is no longer visible. It’s a little like a toy town.

 

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Toy Soldiers

 

The Changing of the Guard occurs outside the Palace, protecting the Monarchy. The soldiers however, wear soft leather shoes, not army boots. And the trousers are just a little too snug around the bottom. Even the march has its own quirky little movements as the Guard turns around to march back the other way – a little flick of the foot as he makes the turn… more of a dance move than a military stride.  In fact, Monaco’s military defence is the responsibility of France, so the whole thing is for show anyway. Everything looks fake. Too clean. Too shiny. As though it was bought in the 1990’s from “Principalities R Us”; everything you need to build your own country.

The Police officers look as though they were chosen from Models One Agency rather than the local populace. I’m not sure if they actually need to do any policing here, or if they are just glorified traffic wardens, making sure that you not only park in the correct places, but that you park TIDILY to avoid making the place look a mess.

So, all in all, Monaco is a fun place to visit, and it is possible to stay there for a reasonable price. I stayed at a hotel called Hotel de France (www.monte-carlo.mc/france). For a clean, modern, twin bed room with modern shower and sea view, the price was £297 which, for 3 nights in Monaco is quite remarkable. Breakfast is E10 per person, continental. This includes fresh juice, a pot of proper tea/coffee, bread, cheese, patisseries, jams, crackers, yogurt and certainly set me up for the morning. I tried buying breakfast at a local boulangerie or Patisserie but the price was similar and there was only one coffee, so I think this is better value. There is no lift and it can be a pain to lug your backpack up 3 flights of stairs, but hey ho, we could all do with the exercise. Parking is available in a local car park with discount rates for Hotel residents.

Monaco is a fantastic place to visit, but do it as part of a general tour along the French Riviera. Next stop for me… Nice.

Amiens 19/07/14. The friendly city…

 

Amiens is within an hour and a half reach of Paris by train, and about 2 hours by car from Dieppe, avoiding the toll roads (if you’re English, driving at a slower speed on the wrong side of the road etc). It has a beautiful olde world bohemian area behind the Cathedral, down by the river which is well worth a visit (or in my case, several). It is not overpriced and serves local delicacies as well as more traditional tourist fare. For a local lunchtime meal try http://www.restaurant-tantejeanne.com/. Very friendly (English speaking) staff who welcomed my request for a solo table by putting me in a wonderfully shady little nook where I had a fine view of everyone in the restaurant and could indulge my favourite pastime of people watching behind sunglasses. I wasn’t even seated near a toilet! Luxury indeed!

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Tante Jeanne – worth a visit
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Ficelle Picarde – pancakes stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Tres delicieux
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Enjoying lunch in a shady nook, overlooked by the impressive Amiens Cathedral

Locals and students alike gather down by the canal, where the old town of Amiens – Ste Leu is situated. The solo traveller will feel at home here, wandering through the old streets, listening to snatches of conversation as each open window is strolled past, and finding a quiet step to rest on whilst watching swallows diving in and out of the guttering in which their nests are carefully hidden. The solo traveller notices so many things that can be missed when in the company of others.

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Amiens was all but destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily the Cathedral survived, and for me is more impressive than Notre Dame in Paris.

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Amiens Cathedral

Maybe I feel this because I had the privilege of wandering around its glorious gothic interior more or less by myself. It was 35 degrees outside, and humid. The relief of finding sanctuary within its cool walls was palpable. Amiens Cathedral was built to house the supposed head of St John the Baptist (which was served up on a platter to the wife of King Solomon). The head that is in the church (which I didn’t photograph out of respect) was very small and withered (I guess it happens to us all) and there’s no documentary proof of it actually being that of St John, however it is someone’s head and for me, that fact alone meant that a candle should be lit. After all, presumably there’s a body lying around somewhere, wondering (if headless bodies can wonder…) where the rest of it is….

The first thing that struck me about Amiens (especially as it was the first stop on my tour de France) was its friendliness. The city has a large student and migratory population, and is very welcoming to those new in town. I was made to feel at home here and enjoyed 3 nights in the city’s company. 

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My first  night was a fantastic introduction to Friday night entertainment, French style. A lively band playing electric and acoustic guitars, all 3 of them achingly beautiful, including the female singer/tambourinist. The songs were classic British and American (pleased to say most of them British – The Beatles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Oasis). I indulged in a “Janvier” cocktail – my birth month and a nifty way to entice tourists to pay 6E for a cocktail that they wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. This was followed by several glasses of local beer and some delightful garlicky canapés which helped my stomach to cope with the rather large amount of cigarettes and alcohol that I was consuming, such was my enjoyment of the evening.

Cigarette intake for me is a kind of barometer of emotional bouyancy. No smoking whatsoever usually means either 1. I’m not at work or 2. I’m not drinking or 3. I’m not either high or low. Just mooching about in the middle. However, if I’m as high as a kite, or in the pits of despair, you’ll find me chuffing for England, on some seedy little menthol number. Or 20. Yes I know it’s bad for my health. But so is banging my head on the wall, which is the alternative if I don’t have a smoke when I’m on a downer…

So much did I enjoy the entertainment that I awoke at 9 the following morning with somewhat of a headache. Still, it was worth it to be a part of the “scene”. Everyone was friendly and warm – although in these parts, not a lot of English is spoken and I appear to have forgotten every French word that I ever learnt.

 

Veni, vidi, vici…

So Florence it was. I visited in May, 6 months after Mr T died; when it’s not too hot to walk around but lots of sunshine in between the showers. Kind of what I was looking for in life, really.

The first thing to think about when solo travelling,  is how to keep yourself occupied. We spend so little time alone that, after the first half an hour of amusing ourselves by playing “spot the nationality” of other tourists (baseball cap, shorts, socks, trainers – American. Unless he’s Japanese…never was much good at stereotyping), the solitude can become wearing, not to mention the uncomfortable feeling that everyone thinks you’re a loser because you’re sitting alone. So I tried a little experiment in Florence.

After balling my eyes out at the first sight of the stupendous green and white marbling of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry where Dante was baptised – both because of their beauty and because Mr T wasn’t with me to share the magic – I stood in a shop doorway, blew my nose, checked the face for mascara runs and sat down opposite the cathedral for my first Italian beer. Actually, it was German but that’s not really relevant. I was in a fine spot to do some people watching. I decided to count how many people were, just like me, alone.

 

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Florence Bapistery

 

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Florence Cathedral – as beautiful at night as during the day

 

By alone, I don’t mean they’d left their significant other whilst they went off to the ATM machine, or to pick up cigarettes, or to find out where the nearest public toilets were. I mean actually alone. Carrying a map or a guide book, staring at the architecture, taking photographs, soaking up the atmosphere, minding their own business (which wasn’t what I was doing). Then I watched how many people were sitting outside cafes, having drinks or meals, chilling, watching me watching them (and probably wondering what Alice Cooper was doing in town). There were loads of people. I can’t say hundreds, but there must have been around 30-40 people, just minding their own business, doing their own thing and not worrying in the least about being alone.

 

I again looked around and realised that I was the only person who seemed to be the slightest bit interested in looking at people alone with their thoughts, or their iphones, or their books/laptops/coffees. In other words, no one cared that I was sitting alone. So why should I? The waiters didn’t avoid my table “Oh God, watch out, lone woman at table 28. Look, she has no friends, obviously a loser”. No one even batted an eyelid. And no one has ever batted an eyelid since. Unless I’m attempting my “mysterious lady” impression with my sunglasses, sun hat and book about existentialism which has never been opened but looks cool. So go on. Just do it. Quick. Whilst no one’s watching.

The following day I joined a tour of the Uffizzi Gallery and the Academia, had a good nosey around Michelangelo’s David and all in all felt extremely cultured. Florence is full of solo travellers, just mooching about. I spotted a couple trying to take a selfie on the Ponte Vecchio and, having just sampled a limoncello so feeling a little brave, I mimed the offer of taking their photo in return for them taking one of me. Bingo!  First proper photo with me in the picture!

 

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A selfie at the Boboli Gardens

 

 

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Proper photos are so much better than selfies!
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Getting the hang of asking strangers to take photos!