4. You know you’re a woman over 50 when…

You have made a clear decision as to whether yoga is something you love, or something that winds you up. Ditto, jumpsuits.

You have experienced life’s high and lows to such a degree that the Himalayas look like the Norfolk Broads. And you’ve learned and grown, and shrunk and cried, and laughed and expanded, and seen the ridiculousness and the pain and the lessons in it all, and you are grateful for every second and every gift that has been given and taken away, because hey, it means life has been happening all along.

You have the general sense that someone has given you an emotional epidural and everything is just, whatevs. It’s as if you’re a teenager again, hormonally rearranging, but with more gravitas. 

Libido is something you remember as a general concept, like when you swim underwater and have a vague awareness of breathing.

Your soul starts to really scream at you, demanding your attention. It is a wolf that has been domesticated for years that suddenly smells meat or spots the moon and realises it’s full tonight, and every night, from this day forward.

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You actually don’t want to go to Glastonbury or Coachella or Burning Man as the toilet situation is un-TenaLady-able.

Your friendship circle is sleek and deep, streamlined to countable on one hand. When you meet, you talk about how you have entered ‘the drop zone’ where big things keep falling out of the sky. The drop zone is demarcated by the three ‘Ds; Divorce, Death, and Dermabrasion. When you meet, you update each other on who is currently experiencing one of the three Ds. After a vodka lime soda or two, you also discuss your righteous anger towards time and gravity.

At work, when you go into a meeting, things people say wash over you like a wave of detritus until someone mentions your name and reminds you that you said you would do something about something, sometime before, but for the life of you, you cannot remember what. The synaptic gnomes in your brain, who would once go straight to the right cabinet and extract the full file, seem to be asleep on the job, drunk, or may have quit entirely and retired to a beach house in Mexico. 

You still take notes with paper and a pen, in joined up handwriting, while everyone else is on their laptop and Evernote. 

You feel like the complex motorway inside your brain is worn out; that the smooth tarmac of focused connection has crumbled like a staff-room biscuit. All your former life-maps have faded, so you start to look for clues in nature. The changing of the seasons and the movement of the sun around the earth, and the stars and constellations are all you have to orientate you now. You develop a new interest in the details of a butterfly’s wing, or you download a birdsong app; anything that will give you a clue as to where and who the hell you are.

Your skin is a source of constant inspection and fascination; each day brings delightful arrivals of a new furrow or pock. Your bathroom cabinet teems with pots and potions, serums and promising segues between then and now, all of them useless against the papering and creping of your neck. Collagen has left you as brutally as that boy you loved, but guess what, you got along without him, before you met him, and you’ll get along without him now, just like elastin.

Everywhere is too damn hot.

In your handbag, you once carried keys to your rented flat, some Tampax, condoms, make up, 10p coins, an address book, a Sony walkman, an eclectic mix tape,  and spare pants. Now, it contains keys to your own home, a Moon Cup (you never know), two pairs of glasses, a small electric fan, vitamins, more expensive make up, bigger spare pants, phone, phone charger, breath mints.

You encourage young people to read books and they look at you like you’ve just suggested a basket-weaving holiday in Bournemouth.

You have at least one Farrow and Ball coloured wall.

You have a collection of VHS tapes that you have no idea what to do with, but you know they contain pieces of you that you don’t want to lose but are also too scared to see. So, you keep the goddamn tapes, inaccessible yet there, (like your dreams). The tapes live in a box alongside CDs you can no longer play, mini discs, old phones you can’t get the photos off, Flip cameras, burnt out laptops with hard drives of archival gold and all those cables? No idea. In fact, you have the entire history of the tech age in a cardboard box in the very same attic you’d quite like to extend and add dormer windows to.

The narcissism of Instagram makes you profoundly sad for humanity and gives you a sense of ennui you can’t quite articulate to your kids.

You wish the smart phone had never been invented because you liked it when we got lost with a crappy paper map, sat down with people face-to-face to catch the nuance of their lives, and went to the library or read a book to find out facts. But really, what you miss is the space, the pause between what we wanted and we got. You long for that yaw where you had to stretch into desire and consciously decide to discover, buy, or understand, or learn. There is no pause button anymore, and it adds to the sense that life moves too fast and that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

You still can’t believe David Bowie is dead.

You have shed your skin so many times that you can finally see the bones of you. You know there is a new identity waiting for you to step into her. Child to woman, lover to mother, useful to redundant, visible to invisible, student to teacher, afraid to unafraid, and now, what? Well, I like to think that all your superpowers are building, you are stoking an inner fire with your flushes of heat. Everything before has been a dank attempt at kindling your soul. You may not see her clearly yet, this new you, but she shimmers in the distance, beckoning like a golden jumpsuit that fits perfectly, sparking off the sun, dazzling as Beyonce or an ad for tooth whitening, regal as a stag in the Scottish mist. You are now a firefly looking for other fireflies, searching for things to ignite, on a mission to set fire to what no longer serves you or the world. 

And so you shall, sister, and so you shall.

3. nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Any time I take a dawn flight into the outrageous pinks of sunrise, I am floored by feelings of nostalgia.

I am reminded of the long-haul travel across the Atlantic of my 1970s childhood. Airlines back then had names like Trans World Airlines and Pan American World Airways. Air-hostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no vegan option on the menu. The in-flight entertainment consisted of one film projected onto a wide screen at the front of the cabin; the interior was stained with nicotine.

I would sleep for most of the journey, missing the endless yaw of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada, and wake up as the plane banked towards Logan airport, Boston. The cabin flooded with the purple hues of another dawn and I would peer out of the window, imagining that I was reeling America in by magic. Landings in those days were different, sudden and screeching.

Waiting for our luggage was a humiliating family ritual of heaving half-open cardboard boxes off the carousel to the amusement of our fellow passengers. The boxes contained ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, packets of British biscuits. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois.

US officials, bemused by our British accents and US passports, would wave us through immigration. Then I would run into the expectant arms of my grandparents, swooning at the delicious smell of my grandma; Emeraude by Coty. During the journey from Boston to the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire, someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine trees would fill the car. To this day, the smell of pine makes me feel inexorably at home.

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Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. The army even banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the ‘disease’ of Nostalgia among troops. 

By the 19th century, nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement and the tubercular masses who headed for the Alps to dream and recuperate.

Now, in my later years, nostalgia is a daily occurrence; it’s an ache, a hunger for something I cannot satiate, a mote of dust in the corner of my eye. In the time between the then and now, I imbue my experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally, and it serves a purpose. Research suggests that nostalgia has many functions; increasing well-being, providing existential meaning and comfort. Feelings of loneliness can lead to nostalgia, which in turn provides feelings of social connectedness. It worries me that super-connected Generation Z, are, according to research, also the loneliest*. Locked behind their smartphones and Fortnite games, they are less exposed to the complex nuances of sensory experience that might bring them nostalgic joy in later life. Potent triggers for nostalgia are smell and touch, which pass straight through to the emotional seat of the brain, along with things like music and even the weather. Instagram and Snapchat offer fleeting histories, they are memory banks owned by someone else. Perhaps the reason online connection feels so incomplete, is because it lacks the subtleties of smell and touch, and the small visual clues that one day in the future, will give us a past.

I’ve heard it said that ‘memory is let down like a rope from heaven’, and the older I get, the more conscious I am of determinedly creating sensory moments in time, of making memories that might one day be ‘ropes from heaven’ for my children when I am no longer here.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun, and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, surrounded by pines, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.

 

* https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/02/cigna-study-loneliness-is-an-epidemic-gen-z-is-the-worst-off.html

2. notes on Italy

There is almost certainly some place in the world that contains the essence of your story, somewhere that makes you pause for a moment when you run your fingers over a map.

Perhaps a crucial chapter of your life was written in a particular house, maybe a definitive kiss was stolen under a singular, flickering lamp post.  The essence of your story may be a river into which you fell, which changed the way you breathe forever. It could be a restaurant where you struck up a crucial business partnership over Ouzo, or a mountain top where you gleaned a life-changing insight. In this age of travel, there is nearly always somewhere other than home that carves some indelible mark on us. For me, that place is Italy.

The first time I ventured into The Boot was with my then 5-year-old daughter and my boyfriend. We slipped in, unnoticed, from France, the showy claustrophobia of Monaco giving way to the rugged green of Liguria. We took the autostrada south, through severe tunnels gouged into ancient rock. High viaducts offered glimpses of a distant Mediterranean so enticingly blue it set off an indescribable yearning within us.

We dropped down to the crazy coastal road and found our canary yellow car rental outrun by mint green scooters, braiding through the traffic like metallic wasps. We reached Chiavari, a busy seaside town where we met up with friends of ours, one of whom grew up in the area. They drove us to a restaurant in the mountains which offered dramatic views of the surrounding hills, wrinkled and warm, deep crevices unfolding into an abundance of flowers and green. Glasshouses sparkled in the sun and vines spindled upwards towards the light. We ate the best meal of our lives on that mountainside. A fresh tomato melted in my mouth, extra virgin olive oil dripped down my chin.  The restaurant owner was dismayed when my daughter asked for butter, “Cosi inglese!”.

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Later that night, hazy with wine and laughter, our friends took us to Sestri Levante and made us close our eyes while they lead us somewhere by the hand. When we opened our eyes, we were standing in a crescent moon of sand, the Baia del Silenzio – the Bay of Silence. Lights danced on the black waters that lap the shoreline. A few boats tinkled and rolled, tugging at their moorings like impatient puppies. The bay curved around us like a mother’s arm and we were bewitched. Our friends call this place Mermaid Bay as it is where wishes come true and the air sparks with enchantment. On cue, my 5 year old (who couldn’t believe she was up so late and still warm in her cotton dress) looked down and found an abandoned bucket and spade at her feet. She squealed in delight at the magic of it and rushed to the shoreline to build night castles for mermaids.

A few days later, we went back to the Bay of Silence alone to watch the full moon crescendo over the mountains. My daughter paddled in the magical waters while my boyfriend and I leant up against a beached rowing boat watching her. The moon took an hour to fully ascend and was joined by a carnival of twinkling stars.  As we sat on the damp sand, my boyfriend asked me to marry him. I said, “Yes” and the ragged magic and romance of Italy was etched into my heart for eternity.

We married a year later and over time, life happened to my husband, my daughter and I. Back in England, we lost jobs, and began new ones.  My daughter, then 12, was quarantined in China during the Swine Flu scare, and I could not get to her for days. I miscarried a baby, before giving birth to another daughter. My father died suddenly, two weeks before my 40th birthday and my husband had to spend large chunks of time working abroad while I was adrift on a sea of grief.  My ‘baby weight’ just stuck around and became, well, just weight. The joy and exhaustion of parenthood and a thousand tiny things wore us down and we worried. A lot. An aching nostalgia for a different time and place set in.

We needed Italy.

>>>>>>>>>>>>

Rome in August shimmers in a fug of dust and heat. As my husband and I walk through the Villa Borghese, the grass is straw-like beneath our feet. The sun pummels our shoulders and a trickle of sweat makes its way down my back. We take in the view and spy St Peter’s Basilica, its rooftop shining like a dull coin as we contemplate the power and weight of it. There is something available about Rome, not in a whorish way, but in a simple, inclusive way. ‘Here is my food’,  it seems to say, ‘Here is my weather, this is my history.’ But it feels like so many secrets lie in the Vatican City.

My husband is bolder in Italy and in Rome, he is alive. We walk hand-in-hand with no smaller hand between our own. We take adult-sized strides up the Spanish Steps and stroll briskly along the banks of the liverishly yellow and rumbling Tiber without stopping to study every piece of gum and cigarette butt on the pavement. We hop on and off buses with destinations we don’t know, we get drunk in the 30 degree evening air. And we kiss like lovers do. We fall into the cool shade of Pantheon and are haunted by the Colosseum where the floor is cut away to reveal the labyrinth beneath where slaves once paced the hours before being catapulted above to face their nemeses. The terror and intensity of the past is embedded in the walls of the Colosseum the way sheets soak up sweat. Blood and sand, pain, death and power, they’re all here, embedded in the brickwork as ink sinks into skin.

When I look for the women of Rome, I find them in its ghosts. There is Lady Olimpia Maidalchini-Pamphili whose angry phantom crashes a black carriage over the Ponte Sisto towards the Trastevere. The restless spirit of Beatrice Cenci, beheaded for murdering her violent father in the 1600’s wanders the Castel Sant’Angelo with her head under her arm. The beautiful hand of Costanza de Cupis haunts a window of her palace in Via dell’Anima. The lustful ghost of Emperor Claudius’s wife, Messalina, roams the Piazza Navona pinching the bottoms of young men, while Emperor Titus’s lover Berenice avenges her execution for witchcraft by refusing to leave Portico di Ottavia.  The women are phantom witches, vengeful and sad, caught in loops of their own searching. They remind me of how very easy it is for a woman to become invisible; through motherhood, through the careless privilege of men, through histories which do not honour her, through middle-age. And by their persistence, the ghosts remind me of how very real I am.

The more time we spend in Rome, the more we fall in love with the idea it conjures for us of both the ferociousness and grandeur of age. It is a city that counters the frivolity of youthful perfection with the fierce beauty of its decaying monuments. Suddenly I am a Colosseum, a Gorgon head, and all the Venuses in the world cannot reach the depths of me. Rome shows me that we are at once both beautiful and ancient, sculptors of our own histories, twisting and rumbling through the years, changeable as the Tiber.

In Rome we relearn how to mark our course without the boundaries of a map or the constraints of a watch. We fall in love with our beguiling new world of cracks and things breaking. As we step through the doors to board the plane home, a new chapter begins and we decide there will be grandeur and grace as our marriage matures, not decay and sorrow; we will be a goddam fine wine.  

 

Let’s Get Naked

Sara Bran Running Free

I’m totally about to run naked and free… honest.

Let’s get naked.

These words, at one time, would not have caused me too much fuss. I have lived in California baby, oh yes, and experienced my fair share of communal hot tubs. (The story of the hot tub, the floating cucumber and the Elvis glasses is a whole other blog post). But these days, the way I feel about getting naked or even wearing a swim suit is quite similar to how I would feel if someone offered me some pins to stick in my eyes.

When, oh when did this happen?  Okay, so I resemble a clove-pitted ham in my M&S briefs, but I call myself a feminist for flip’s sake. Moi sans clothing just ain’t what it used to be, but mind you, nor is Radio One. Why aren’t I walking my big fat talk? My own poor sense of body image irritates the hell out of me, so I have been in search of a remedy for a condition I call Noddy Horror.

As a result of my extensive research, I can offer the following to you, my fellow dreader-of-the-beach:

1. Be honest, do you really want to work that hard?

It has been good to realise that most of my friends who look holy-moly-awesome-fab in the body department work hard at it. Like, really hard. Like, more than I would ever want to work hard at anything except perhaps my marriage to Ryan Gosling. They have also not had children, and are wealthy or time rich, or both.  They prioritise fitness, I prioritise observing the fitness of others (mainly the male tennis players at Wimbledon).

2. Make a note of the practical benefits

I now consider it useful that I can keep spare change in the cavernous crevices of my cellulite. I for one will never find myself without £1 for the parking meter, no siree!  Also, if I am on a large ship and we hit an iceberg and are plunged into unforgiving freezing waters, I’m far more likely to survive due to my padding. Also, my breasts will totes help me float. Others may even be able to use me as some sort of raft thus making me actually quite heroic.

3. Get some perspective

I have stopped looking at magazines/TV/adverts that suggest I need to ‘get my beach body ready’ and begun to appreciate the fact that I have two arms, two legs and a functioning brain. Seriously, what right do I have to bemoan my wibbles when I a) can’t be arsed to do more than a paltry sun salute every now and then and b) am lucky enough to still have all my bits and wits?

4. Take a look at the real people

The greatest antidote to Noddy Horror is to go to your local swimming pool and take a look around, take a long, cold, hard look around. See the normal people? See the pitted, chthonian, Jabba-mass of humanity and remember, it’s not us, it’s them. It’s the freak show going on in the halls of Conde Nast that is ugly; them with their airbrushes and their banquets of lettuce, cocaine and Camel Lights.

So, you know, let’s run free, run naked, let’s let it all hang out this summer people.  Please don’t leave me alone in this or I’ll be arrested.

A Chaos of Edges: Welcome to the Perimenopause

Sara BranMost women are born with their life quota of egg follicles, somewhere around 2 million of them. In an average life, these eggs diminish to about 750,000 by the onset of puberty to around 10,000 by the age of 45. Medically, the menopause describes the moment when a woman runs out of eggs and has her final period. The menopause is only ‘diagnosed’  after a year without menses, but actually this varies greatly from woman to woman.

For a long time before this menopausal ‘moment’, women experience seismic shifts in their chemical make-up at a pace as individual as their life stories. This is the perimenopause, a process which begins around the age of forty to forty-five and takes several years to complete.

Although many women (and men) view the prospect with dread, the perimenopausal years present a precious opportunity for healing and spiritual growth ~ if only more of us embraced them fully, fiercely with wild and open hearts. Yep, the PM. It’s where it’s at sister. Provided there’s somewhere to sit down and it’s not too far from a toilet.

Perimenopause is a time of enormous change as significant and bewildering as its reverse mirror, puberty. Women’s later years are potentially  a time of crystallization, a process of obtaining clarity as we gather up the fragmented self and cluster into new forms. The elements are all the same; we are still us, but we are arranged differently. I personally feel a need to reclaim the missing pieces of myself, those fragments lodged in unfulfilled dreams and unfinished business; those pieces still stuck in the hearts or minds of old loves. I feel the need to gather myself home before it’s too late.

Many of my female friends over forty are feeling daunted by the imminent onset of the ‘change’. It looms on our horizon like a gathering storm of ancient soot and carnage. Our air is heavy with anticipation, we’re all forecasting doom and it has to stop.

Native American traditions view the older woman as ‘the gatherer’ who ‘walks in beauty’ replenishing her internal landscape while her external shell decays.  For women with children, the perimenopause can feel like a homecoming, a reintroduction into a extraordinary place called “the self” after many years of caring for others.  Sadly these days, there are few elders lining the streets and cheering us on in this endeavor. Many women, just like me, are going through this stage of their lives with young children to look after and the push/pull of opposing needs is aching.

As far back as fairytales, older women have either been the ‘stepmother’; malcontent, skeletally thin and brimming with poison, or the wizened yet wise. In the mainstream media,  older women are pretty much invisible. With such a narrow choice of role models, it is no wonder that, although the menopause is not a disease, around 2.5 million women in the UK choose to medicate their journey from fertile to infertile. We commonly turn to HRT or antidepressants at mid-life and risk increased chances of developing breast cancer, thrombosis and strokes among other side-effects.

Botox may freeze an older woman’s face into a fictional eternity, but we still rot inside if we hate who we are. We are so terribly bad at ageing in the West ~ it can feel lonely facing the challenge of these years in a world that takes it’s beauty one way; neatly packaged and low-fat.

As I age, I am a chaos of edges, an ill-defined mess, a burgeoning of bosom, a geology of indiscriminate crevices and I am determined not to loathe it although, sometimes, bravado crumbling, I do.

I am so tired of women hating the skin they’re in. So, so tired.

[This piece is abridged from an article, “Coiled Snake Unwinding” originally published in The Mother Magazine]

The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?