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I’ve found myself re-counting numbers recently. Second guessing myself. This morning, I counted the handful of change for my morning cappuccino three times. Three. Clearly, the trust has gone.

Maths has never been my strong suit, but still. It’s starting to verge on the ridiculous. At work I find myself struggling to grasp what the month number for May is (it’s five…isn’t it?). Is this just age? Surely not, I’m barely 32. The years of alcohol? Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling the reason behind this strange emergence of Dyscalculia is because I find myself in, well, a strange period in my life.

calc ageI have begun to question things in ways that haven’t crossed my mind for at least ten years. And it’s really annoying because, with my questions remaining unanswered, I feel lost and discontent. And the other, even more annoying, thing is that it’s only me that can provide any answers.

It’s funny how it is generally acknowledged that you become wiser the older you get and, by default, more confident. But my confidence is no longer the unwavering warrior it was when I was younger and knew nothing. Sure, I’ve got less tolerant of the selfishness of others and I am more likely to say so rather than hush into a corner and somehow blame their behaviour on my faults. And yes, I’ve become openly accepting of those with whom I shall never be friends, who shall never like me and vice versa. We are all different. But am I more confident with age? In a word (well, two) – not quite.

I suppose it depends on what confidence means to you. For some I imagine it’s having the guts to go out on stage in front of hundreds of people. To be able to take a risk, make that scary career change. For me, it’s having the strength of self-conviction – the total assurance that everything will turn out ok in the end, because you are you, and you can handle it.

My self-possession rose and peaked almost out of nowhere between the ages of 24 and 29. With hindsight – something I’m pretty sick of now – I realise this time is The Golden Period. The pressure is off. You become aware, for the first time, how far you have come in such little time. Your twenties bring with them an intense personal growth spurt that you have no real control over – grown-up stuff just happens to you whether you want it or not. You accept this fact, grow from it. You have money. You are young. You sit back and enjoy it for a bit. Uncomplicated confidence. You are going places and you know it.

But then you hit 30. Ouch. All that confidence so flippantly built ebbs away. But this time the subtle change in yourself, so frivolously disregarded when it moved in the other direction, does not go unnoticed. It starts to drive you a bit mad. You get angry with yourself. How could you let this happen? Why did you sit back and relax while youth and all its opportunities passed you by – look at all those chances you were too lazy to take. And now, now you’re just too old to do things. You’ve got commitments.

It turns out my star didn’t rise at the same trajectory and speed (hell, I don’t move at the same speed) as was mapped out in my twenties. I got too comfortable. Smug. Other people are younger than me now. It is annoying. They are annoying. To make matters worse they are more skilled than I both was and am now – they’ve been forced to do more internships than I’ve had hot toddies. They don’t need to do IT training. They don’t even call it IT – to them, technology is just life.

Life is hard enough as it is. And when the total confidence that everything will work out how you want it leaves the room, what do you do? For me, well, I’ve got to work out what it is that I want – it turns out thirty-something Gemma might have different (less ambitious) ambitions from those of ten years ago. And it’s sobering to admit that to yourself.

I think the key is nailing that fine balance between accepting who you are and what you can achieve whilst still treating yourself with the respect to challenge yourself and grow. Maybe once I solve that equation two and two might start to make four again.

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My last blog post was all about lifestyle aspirations and, since writing it, I find something not-all-that aspirational has been on my mind – the takeaway hot beverage. I remember my first. Well, I don’t actually – but I can imagine what it would have been. A tea, milk no sugar. In a polystyrene cup.

Hot drinks just taste better in a polystyrene cup, don’t they? Or is that just me. I am always a little thrilled when I get my drink delivered in one. It rarely happens now though. The last time – a time I do definitely remember, it was that significant – was at London’s Victoria bus station one chilly Saturday morning. My sister and I were on our way to Chelsea – only via the somewhat scenic and not very glamorous route of The Bus. We couldn’t find where the number seven actually stopped. (Has anyone ever been to the Victoria bus station? Nightmare. But marginally better than the coach station.) We were a bit stressed. Then we happened upon a newsagents-cum-cafe, where everything was made better by massive cups of polystyrene tea for 65p. Memorably good value. We went back there especially three years later. It was £1.00. A smaller cup. That’s inflation for you.
You might, rightly, be thinking: what the hell has this got to do with anything, especially lifestyle aspirations? Well – can you remember when carrying a portable hot drink in public became a kind of social statement? When coffee drinking became a ‘thing’ – a lifestyle choice?
I can recall when the first coffee shops came to Birmingham in this way. I’d been watching Friends for a while so I didn’t question it, knew what to expect, and actually wanted to go there. Of course, there was no way in hell my parents would have taken me to a coffee shop – why would we spend money buying a hot drink we could so easily make at home? Cradling it for bloody hours, painfully making conversation with each other. Sounds hellish.
But then I got a bit older and earned some money. I was in sixth form. I was being attacked by Friends on the one front and magazine supplements on the other, so I knew what I wanted to spend said money on. Coffee Republic.
I had some free sessions in my timetable. So I would travel into town on the 46 (always the bus), get one of their hot spiced apple drinks (I hadn’t quite graduated to actual coffee yet), and walk over to the ‘city’ to people-watch the suits on their lunch breaks. And I’d sit on a bench or bit of wall for HOURS, with my (soon) empty cup. It was a real treat. Yet it was also more than that. For me that silly, portable hot beverage symbolised adulthood. It was where I wanted to be. I didn’t put it in the bin when I was finished – I wanted to be seen with it. It’s bonkers but they talk, those cups. Look at me! they say. I belong here, I’m so city chic! I earn enough money to be frivolously throwing at overpriced drinks that I don’t need!
I still do it now. I’ve got a cappuccino on the go as I type (no polystyrene in sight). Only now, I feel too aware of what I am holding represents to me, and to others. That Costa branding, Nero or Pret or whatever. Which one you pick is almost as much of a social calling card as the drink itself. Which is probably why I now crave the unidentifiable no-nonsense of the humble polystyrene. It’s a statement of a different kind, almost a protest saying I AM NOT RIDICULOUS. OR RICH. I GOT THIS DRINK FROM A VAN. I PAID LESS THAN A POUND. Hmmm.
tea thermos edited

Social politics aside, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make you love something it’s nostalgia. Polystyrene pulls at my heart strings because it reminds me of growing up, of the first time I wanted to be like the grown-ups. Well, pretend to be one.

That first time you actually want to try a cup of tea. The first time you want to try one on the go, from the ice cream van, instead of getting a Coke. The association is as comforting as a steaming hot cup of tea after a long day.

It’s a shame polystyrene has gone out of fashion, but it was of course inevitable. And if the internet is anything to go by – polystyrene could kill both the environment and humans – then maybe it’s for the best.

But there’ll always be a place in this girl’s heart for weird creaky white stuff.

Something out of the ordinary happened the other day – I lost something.

I never lose things. I am just not one of those people. I am organised. Boring. You can rely on me in a scrape – I will have that emergency tissue in my handbag; I’ve got the map to the hotel; yes, I’ve got some suncream you can borrow; yes, I have the last train time written down in my pocket notebook.

I do not lose things. Well…apart from the time I lost my passport. Life lessons learned: 1. Don’t take your passport to a festival, even a non-camping one, and 2. Hairdressers are good people (one from the Regis salon in Debenhams found said passport and returned it to me. I went back there recently.

Ok, so I lost something once. Although, hang on…there was also that time I left an amazing paid of vintage driving gloves on the bus. I cried. Really (turns out there’s a helpline you can ring).

Ok, so I am not quite as organised as I thought I was three paragraphs ago. But I’m pretty ‘together’ most of the time. So you can imagine my anger and disappointment when, on the last short hurdle of my commute home – the number 50 bus, I realised…I had gone and lost my house keys.

It’s horrible that moment, isn’t it – you must have felt it at some point? That sinking realisation that your treasured possession is not in your pocket, at the bottom of your handbag, on the floor. This is an organised person’s worst nightmare – how could I be so careless, so unlike myself?

You see, I will freely admit that I am a control freak – I think all truly organised people are. We cannot escape from ourselves. Which is why I was so unhappy when, in that moment I knew my keys were gone, I surprised myself with how careless and unreliable I could actually be. The last thing I want is to be surprised with the hidden depths of my character –  I want to be in control of me.

But if we were to rewind to seven years ago, to when I lost the passport, it is a bit of a different story.

Of course, in that first moment of realisation there was the familiar panic / terror / rage-at-self for being so stupid. What if I had to leave the country? Or, more realistically, buy alcohol? But then once I knew my passport was safe in Debenhams, I let go a little and actually felt a bit pleased with myself. Proud, even.

Because when I was a teenager, being the organised one in my circle of friends always felt rather lack lustre, predictable. Dull. How I longed to be as carefree as they driving around late at night with boys they’d just met at MacDonalds, running off to the Welsh seaside on a whim, bunking off school, walking into an exam having done zero revision. It all came so naturally to them. It made them so appealing – sexy. There was nothing natural about me trying to climb onto a yacht late in the evening in Sandwell Valley Park, when I’d only (begrudgingly) agreed to go on a short walk.

And so as a young woman I found myself fighting against the organised streak in me, wishing I could be more like my more un-together, dishevelled friends.

But I’ve found that as you get older the tables turn. It’s funny – people actually want to be like you. Those same free spirits want to know how you manage to get through life with few dramas and disasters. “I don’t know how she does it.” You feel brilliant (until you are inevitably asked to organise a hen do.)

You find your opinion changes, too. No long longer is the total disorganisation of your friends endearing or jealousy-inducing – it is f***ing annoying. Even they are annoyed by it, too.

This, reader, is a certain sign you have become a ‘grown up’.

At the end of the day, that organised streak runs through you like a stick of rock. And if you break it, you breakdown. Having to sit outside your apartment building on a step like a cat, waiting for the other (responsible) key-holder to get home, is a low point in life.

It is no shameful thing to be the boring, organised one. But losing my keys has reminded me that I am indeed human, and still capable of surprising myself – even if I don’t like it.

P.S. A few days later I found the keys – in my desk drawer at work. I think I can actually remember placing them in there…thinking I lost something else last week – the plot.

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