Sexuality and Feminism

Translating Parenthood

Being a Translator and a Parent

Translating is generally a pretty solitary occupation. Even if you are sharing an office with people, you spend most of the time in your own head, reading, thinking and writing.

Amazingly though, we sometimes venture out to socialise, even managing to find partners and produce kids. In turn, having kids leads to a whole new level of socialising, whether we want to or not. It takes a very special type of misanthropist to avoid any kind of interaction with other parents at the playground. And especially if you are a single parent these are opportunities not to be missed. During my many years as a largely single parent*, I ventured out to parties and social events as much as I could bring myself to (I much prefer one-to-one interaction) knowing that they were vital for networking and for my children.

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At social events, once you got the teething/sleeping/teenage tantrum topics out of the way, people at some point would ask what I did for a living, and the responses to the words “I’m a translator” could be quite unexpected.

Ranging from: “Can you make a living from that?” (Err, did you see the great bottle of wine I just walked in with, and the designer Lala Berlin suit I’m wearing?) to: “Oh, like in the Nicole Kidman film?” (Nope…that’s why the film is called ‘The Interpreter’!) Some people would just draw a blank and say “Ahhh…interesting!” before heading to the bar. But sometimes I’d get asked why I chose translating as a career.

I don’t know about you guys, but I think most people don’t actually sit down after college and PLAN to be a translator. It often seems to happen by default when you find yourself in a foreign country and need to find a way to pay for meals. Having acquired the host language and being bombarded with requests to translate CVs, job applications, and song lyrics for friends for free, it simply makes sense to turn your hobby into a money-making venture.

But that’s a long answer unsuited to party banter so I tend to stick to Confucius’ quote about finding a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

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But if I am completely honest, the reason is: I needed a job where I could be at home when my kids got home from school, and a job where, if needs be, I could lie next to them with one arm around their hot sticky fevered body, while I typed one-handed on my laptop so I could hand in my copy on time.

I was interviewed by my first “proper” client while a friend pushed my 6-week-old daughter round the block 20 times, and I was so exhausted I thought seriously about telling them I couldn’t take it on. But I did, because I knew this would be a way to have a more flexible life. Love for the job came later.

So that’s not the answer most people want to hear. Probably not the answer my clients want to hear either! But, when you are a mother of two, you get to stare reality in its puke-stained face quite often, and you kind of stop getting scared of looking at it.

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So here are my top ten tips on working as a (single) parent:

  1. Feverish kids are usually really low-maintenance
    I used to panic when my first daughter was coming down with something. But being freelance means you don’t have to call in sick. As long as I had enough water, flannels and storybooks nearby I could get plenty of work in while she slept. Bored kids are far more demanding.
  1. A laptop is great for impromptu emails or working on the sofa in the kids’ bedroom while they are falling asleep, but before you send off that document, sit yourself down at your desk, upright, with a clean T-shirt on and read through it once more. Also, the kids need to know that your laptop is not a toy: it’s their meal ticket. I cried once when my daughter accidentally dropped my laptop on the floor (it survived). After that she treated it with the respect it deserved.
  1. Just attached the doc you translated and about to click send? My blooper-radar always makes me open the document again, in the email programme, just to make sure it really is the version I thought it was, and not the one full of highlights and notes that I was working on while the kids were played bowling games in the corridor. That instinct has saved me from many embarrassing re-sends and apologies.
  1. We’ve all done it: taken a phone call from a client by accident while we are in a queue for ice cream with our kid in tow or while pushing a screaming pram in the park. And that should be the most normal thing in the world. I don’t know who invented this idea that we (women!) have to somehow keep our reproductive abilities under wraps. Isn’t it enough pressure on women to be “doing it all” without having to keep half our lives secret in order to keep our clients feeling what we assume is more comfortable? I am not suggesting we bring them up to speed on our children’s education in every email but sometimes it’s time to simply tell it like it is and explain that you have a childcare emergency and you will need to send something later, or that you will call back AFTER you bought your kid the ice-cream. Nine times out of ten the client turns out to be human, and will completely sympathise. We are not machines and even our clients like to know that we are not infallible at all times.
  2. Use the Village
    After a night with a vomiting kid, or spent in hospital because your daughter jumped off a 2-meter-high bed at her friend’s house and broke her collarbone, it is really good to have either someone who can drive you and/or look after your kids for a few hours, or a colleague who can at least do a rough draft of the translation project you were working on, so all you have to do is polish and shine.Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 20.12.08
  3. First quality time then TV.
    I learnt the hard way that if I stick the kids in front of the TV first, to try and get some work done, they will hassle me for all kinds of things and be all grouchy afterwards and we all end up getting very annoyed at each other. On days where I know I have to work, I do the “quality time” first, and tell them I need to work this afternoon so they get to watch a film. That way they have something to look forward to, we have time to prepare snacks together, and I feel content that I have also been a “good-enough” mother.
  1. Put the guilt monster in the corner
    Sometimes when I do something like a) work b) have fun without my kids, c) take an evening course to further my education or to do some sport, the GUILT monster comes up from behind and grabs me. I have to tell myself that I am paying for their food with my “selfishness” and that I am also allowed to enjoy my free time. I did a personally funded study** which proves that the joys of parenting increase the more fun you have in your life.
  2. Skill trading
    There are some things I am not very good at— like sewing, or cleaning. So as often as possible I do a skill-trade. For example, translating a small website in return for three wonderful hand-sewn animal costumes that I could never have made or bought. Another time I looked after a translator friend’s dog (which my kids loved) and in return she took on some translation work while I took a holiday. Even if it’s just being treated to a meal and a glass of wine in exchange for working on someone’s song lyrics with them, it’s a fun way of keeping your job varied.
  1. Don’t commit to too many evening things and always have emergency food in the freezer. I don’t know why, but a lot of my jobs come in at 4pm just when I am knocking off for the day. The plus side of being free for my kids in the afternoon is balanced by the minus of spending a few evenings a week working.
  1. Don’t be disappointed if your kids don’t want to follow in your footsteps. My eldest said she would rather have a job where she can call in sick, instead of working from bed even though you are ill. She also said she wants to know ahead of time how much she will be earning every month. (Always trust your kids to tell you the hard truth!)Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 20.11.32
  2. And the bonus point as always: Keep laughing! At the latest when I am sitting at the table with my daughters for dinner and laughing about something or other, I know that I made the right choices for us all.

*I have two very dedicated “baby-daddies” for whom I am very grateful, so although I always had to support myself and the kids, I did also always have childcare which is/was invaluable.

** It was a very objective study called the “Let’s see what happens if I enjoy myself a lot this month study”.

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Translator aka People Pleaser

It’s a good thing no one has ever asked me to kill someone for them. Because I am highly likely to say yes. I am the kind of person who worries for two hours after having given a tourist directions, in case they get lost despite it all. I hate the idea that I could somehow negatively impact someone with my actions or lack of them. The other day I picked up a jacket a woman had dropped on her way past and sprinted 200 metres down the road to give it back to her. Mainly, because I knew I would be ridden with guilt all day if I didn’t. Strangely, I am perfectly fine with saying no to my kids. This people-pleasing trait is ominously restricted to strangers and work colleagues.

Beyond the cliché of “caring professions” and burning out from giving too much, some character traits, despite contributing to your career success, can also become a hinderance.

Of course being a freelance translator is a dream job. Theoretically you can work anywhere, any time. At a secluded lakeside cabin, in bed, in your favourite café. You can schedule your work around the needs of your kids, PJs at the desk and all that. But wouldn’t it be equally great NOT to work in all those places too?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I often wake up looking forward to getting my teeth into an interesting project; I get a big grin on my face if one of my favourite clients calls, because I know it will give me enough adrenaline (deadline pressure) to make me feel the “flow”, combined with fascinating content where I will get to do lots of interesting research (and get gloriously sidetracked in the process), gathering nubbets of fascinating information as I go. (Regrettably I forget it all within a week: I am a translator for god’s sake, my brain’s hard drive has to be cleansed regularly to make room for the next job.)

But the problem comes when it is time to shut down the computer and switch off. These damn smartphones make it so hard…but of course no one is forcing me to leave it on or check my work mail during dinner. And as I recently learnt from a tech-friend, when I was trying to make excuses for the fact I had been working every weekend in living memory, you can even selectively filter certain numbers for times of day and days of the week, so that client calls aren’t even put through.

The real problem is: I am a people pleaser. I enjoy the rush of being “can do” and flexible. I thrive on the relief I hear in my client’s voice, when I say “No problem, we can squeeze that in”. I like being part of the solution and not the problem.

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And I haven’t been taking my own advice, and have been working waaaay too much. So when I was told repeatedly by people who care about me that I NEED to take a proper holiday (at least 10 consecutive days of non-screen time, with no emails and no work, not even small projects) I said yes, yes, yes, but deep down inside I wasn’t even sure if I really even wanted a holiday, because my identity and feeling of self-worth is so wrapped up with my job (where does the translator stop and the me begin?) and the feeling of being needed is pretty addictive, as all people pleasers know. Plus, I simply love the English language and words in general. A conurbation of commas to kill? Repetitive use of “thus” to excise? Finding a solution to the word “Auseinandersetzung” being used 10 times in one page? Wondering if I can get away with coining the word “multiperspectival”? Not for nothing do I write a blog in my spare time. And it doesn’t stop there. When we are on holiday (armed with laptops of course), my colleague and I love photographing menus and sending each other snaps of badly misspelt signage. Never quite off duty, not even when eating “crisply fried cancer scissors” at a beach restaurant.

My “aha moment” came this summer when I was heading off for a couple of days’ bird watching with my dad and kids. I had completely cleared my schedule, informed my major clients and was determined to switch my phone off as soon as we hit the road. It was a Friday morning, a key time for translators, which makes or breaks the weekend. I needed the navigator on my phone to get us to our destination, and no sooner had we hit the borders of Berlin, did my mobile start to vibrate. I only answered because I was turning into a petrol station. Although I did manage to stutter the words “Er, actually I am on holiday right now…” (pat on the back, that wasn’t easy for me) I also added the words “but don’t worry, we’ll take care of it, I’ll get back to you asap to let you know price and schedule”. My dad and kids patiently sat in the lay-by with me, watching me send urgent whatsapp messages to my colleague, whilst cursing the lack of internet connection, begging her to take the job on which (bless!) she did, forwarding it on to her, (dammit, PDF, 1.8 megabytes) and then calling back to coordinate with the PR company. That day I knew something had to change. I realised I couldn’t be a people pleaser to everyone.

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I didn’t want this horrible feeling of guilt toward those I wanted to spend time with, and accountability toward my clients. I didn’t want to feel angry about clients “stealing” my time, because that was unfair too. I was the one who needed to set clearer boundaries. I didn’t want to have my feet in the lake while my head was in the office.

I used to feel indignant when reading the jaunty “I won’t be at my desk all summer” kind of out-of-the-office emails from clients and colleagues, thinking “Well, they obviously don’t love their job!” but now I nod appreciatively and realise that that is probably someone who has wised up to the fact that if they really want to do a good job, they also need to recover from the long evening sessions and weekends that they spend working. As freelancers we don’t have a boss to stand up to, and no one to tell us when it is time to go home. We know the bottom line is, if we stop “people pleasing” our clients we are out of a job. But there is a difference between people pleasing and being a doormat.

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So, despite really enjoying being the solution to other people’s scheduling issues (we translators are so often the forgotten link between journalists writing an article and having it layouted and then go to print, or websites that need to go live tomorrow but haven’t been translated yet) I have set myself a few new rules:

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  1. I don’t have to answer the phone right now. To be a good translator I need to concentrate, so it is perfectly acceptable to have my phone off. I have email and if it is urgent they will write. Or I can call back later.
  2. Office hours: After four I’m not at my desk. I have written office hours into my header so that everyone can see I am available between 8 am and 4 pm. After that, even if I am working on larger projects in the evenings or weekends, I don’t have to react to requests until the next morning, or the following Monday.
  3. Take a leaf out of other people’s books. Read other people’s out-of-the-office emails. See? Other people really do go on holiday and are not destitute or out of a job, and what’s more, they still have all their friends.
  4. Tell your kids when you are planning not to work. There is nothing like a small kid giving you a disapproving look after you promised not to check your mails all Sunday to make you realise that your priorities might be skewed.
  5. Pricing. I now have a pricing scale. I offer a “normal” three-day turnaround, or fast-track 24-hour service. This is my way of training my clients to plan better to save them money and me stress. If the project is REALLY that urgent, then the client won’t mind paying a 25% premium to get quality work in such a short time. Surprising how often the job can actually wait till Monday after all…
    and just to prove it, the next few blog posts won’t have anything to do with work at all. Promise!

HAVING IT ALL

We usually think of choice as a good thing. Capitalism even defines quality of life along the lines of having endless choices. Forty types of toothpaste to choose from? That’s seen as a prerequisite for a “good life”. And the same goes for our lives as women. We now get to choose between a whole raft of options when it comes to our needs and desires, having families, careers, lovers. The inherent inequality of our society is sold to us as merely one more kind of choice. What are you complaining about, you can CHOOSE between having a high-flying career and being a stay-at-home mother. Hell, you can even have it all, but at what cost? The result is often major dissatisfaction and a sneaking suspicion you may have made the wrong choices.

Give a kid a lolly and she will be thrilled to bits. But make her choose between five lollies, and what’s the betting she will be wondering all day long if she made the right choice?

I am deeply grateful that centuries of strong women have organised and blazed the trail that means I can now vote, have my own bank account, have children out of wedlock, and, albeit at great cost, even have a career whilst raising my kids. I can get divorced, or live in separation, I can join a union, I can get a restraining order out on an abusive partner, I can even go online and meet any number of random men to have sex with. Spoilt for choice? Not exactly.

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I’ve just finished reading Rachel Holmes’ biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter to the infinitely more hirsute Karl. I had been hoping for an uplifting tale of how this intelligent, strong and independent woman fought for working women’s rights to unionise, to vote, to live independent lives. Well, yes, I got that of course, but what depressed me to the core was the fact that her attempt to “have it all” pretty much led directly to her suicide. She worked her fingers to the bone to be “independent”, translating and writing for numerous books and magazines, choosing not to marry her long-term partner (the abominable reptilian Edward Aveling) whilst supporting him financially and intellectually, delaying her obvious desire for children indefinitely, in favour of working for socialism and gender equality, and was rewarded by a lying, cheating partner who, as the final insult, married his mistress behind her back. No one really knows exactly why she killed herself, but a damn good guess would be that being confronted with the terrible contradictions of her egalitarian, thoroughly modern romance, she couldn’t bear the conclusion: that perhaps we can’t have it all.

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Would you give it all up for this guy? (Edward Aveling)

A novel from 1971 by Alice Monro still seems painfully relevant to this day, when she has the character of Ada in Lives of Girls and Women say: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up to now is their connection with men …Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake of being distracted over a man, your life will never be your own.”

OK arguably Eleanor Marx was a poor judge of character when it came to men, but how many poor judges of character are there amongst us? Intelligent bright funny creative women…Hilary Clinton, Demi Moore, Ségolène Royal (Francois Hollande’s long-term partner and mother of their four children), the list is sheer endless.

A century and a half on from Marx, one of my other heroines, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recently suffered the same fate, albeit not feeling it necessary to top herself; instead she worked through it by writing the book “Girl in a Band”, hopefully handing us a few insights into the pitfalls involved in being a successful creative woman, mother and lover along the way. (The book is out in four days so I haven’t read it yet!)

Even now, with all these amazing female role models in art, politics, music to chose from, it is our depth and ability to create that is so intimately intertwined with our ability to love: that tender soft spot deep within that makes us so damn vulnerable and so resilient at the same time.

All the more galling then, to read about Thurston Moore’s male midlife crisis. How fucking boring and predictable. Gordon writes:

“The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock’n’roll world, was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure – a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.”

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But at least Kim Gordon managed to be creative, indeed prolific, whilst also being a mother. I imagine though, that hardly a woman exists on the face of this earth, who doesn’t feel guilty about working late sometimes, being absent minded or checking emails whilst feeding the kids. Whilst men don’t seem to feel the slightest twinge. Where does the guilt come from?
A study by the Economic and Social Research Council at University College London found that children actually thrive on the fact that both parents work, with the small but all-important qualifier: “as long as parents are supported, do not have to work long hours and are able to combine child-rearing with paid work…”. Hmm.

And along with the guilt, is the omnipresence of our “other self”: two sets of needs and desires that so many women are plagued with. A feeling of dissonance, of always having two lives to live. Parenthood is a privilege (need I even say?), something I longed for, for two interminable years before it worked out, so I am the last to suggest skipping the motherhood part on the route to deeper fulfillment. But I sometimes get so ANGRY at the other me tugging at my sleeve while I am trying to stay present during a game of cards with my children.

Sheila Monro’s touching biography of her life growing up as Alice Monro’s daughter also ruminates on if and how a woman can manage to tap into her true talents (writing in her case) whilst still being a good mother. Just a few pages in and my spine tingles with recognition:

“How well I know this feeling, this sense of having to be on the surface of life, not really thinking, not focusing, sitting on the edge of the sandbox while my three-year-old plays, following him around the garden, all those hours with trains and trucks and stories, wondering what to have for dinner when all the time you want to go deeper, when all the time you are desperate to get to some other part of yourself.”

Björk, in her interview recently in Pitchfork magazine sums it up beautifully:

“… I was being like Kofi Annan—I had to be the pacifist to try to unite the impossible. Maybe that was a strange, personal job between me and myself, to show how overreaching I was being as a woman. That’s what women do a lot—they’re the glue between a lot of things. Not only artists, but whatever job they do: in the office, or homemakers. Biophilia was like my own personal slapstick joke, showing I had to reach so long—between solar systems—to connect everything. It’s like the end scene in Mary Poppins, when she’s made everyone friends, and the father realizes that kids are more important than money—and [then] she has to leave. It’s a strange moment. Women are the glue. It’s invisible, what women do. It’s not rewarded much.”

Yeah, you can say that again. For the first half of my life, I genuinely believed I could have it all, and set out to prove it. I worked very hard to convince everyone that “Look! You can be superwoman, bake cakes at midnight, translate PR texts as a freelancer in the evenings when the kids are in bed and run to the market first thing after the school run in time to open your own café complete with freshly pressed juices and homemade soup at nine every morning. You just have to want it enough.” Yeah. Let’s just say it wasn’t so much “having” it all, as “doing” it all. And it was brain-jarringly exhausting. I had exploited myself to the core, and after a few years I was ready to hand in my membership of the human race in favour of sweet oblivion on a psychiatric ward. I had had enough. Sure, on paper I had it all. But my spirit was charred and twisted out of all recognition.

It is an untenable dichotomy. And I am one of the lucky ones. I had the luxury of choosing (was it really a choice?) to work freelance from home, and managed to solve the either-or conundrum in my way. But without generous help in terms of childcare from their fathers and the state (after-school care) this wouldn’t have been possible either. If I lived in New York or rural Texas, or London? Forget it. Not on my pay.

And despite a certain equilibrium, I still feel torn: torn between wanting to spend a week completely free of any motherly responsibility, to immerse myself in takeaway sushi and writing in bed, and between wanting to be the kind of mother who always pays attention when her seven-year-old rambles on about the intricate plot twists of Emil and the Detectives.

As Björk says, mining ourselves and our deepest longings, whether for children, or for creative processes, we sacrifice ourselves on the alter of family and love and connection.

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that I am going to try to stop feeling guilty about it. And do my best to raise strong daughters who will maybe get a large skip and a jump closer to answering the questions we have raised in our push toward “having it all”. Despite all our hard-won rights, and the ability to earn our keep (Eleanor Marx was very clear that inequality was a question of economics, as she describes it in her pamphlet The Woman Question: from a Socialist Point of View), our Achilles heel remains our tender hearts. And that isn’t really something I am willing to forfeit. A woman like Marx, who was intimately acquainted with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, who believed in free love and equal marriage, helped countless women strike and organise across Europe, simply couldn’t see that she was sharing her life with a prime arsehole. Maybe that is the best lesson we can teach our daughters. First and foremost: live your own truth and love yourself. Then hopefully, there will be no room left for arseholes and more room left to be creative and mine our inner depths.

 

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 Further Reading

Eleanor Marx A Life, by Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, 2014

Björk interview:

http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9582-the-invisible-woman-a-conversation-with-bjork/

Girl in A Band, Kim Gordon, Harper Collins (Release date: 24th February 2015)

Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Monro, by Sheila Monro, Union Square Press, 2008.

 

 

 

 

ANGER MANAGEMENT

Ask my friends, I am a sweet natured soul. I will bring you soup if you are feeling poorly, and I will smile sweetly even as you take my last cookie.

But some things make me ANGRY.

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And by the time you reach my age, you will know, “we” (society) don’t like angry women. Be honest, society doesn’t even like “neutral face in repose” women. No, we have to be Pharell-friggin-Williams-happy just to be considered normal women.

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Cheer up, luv, it might never happen! (This is the male equivalent of me on a normal day.)

The other day my friend was standing in line at the cash till at Kaisers (Germany’s equivalent of Sainsburys). Just for all you lucky non-Germans out there living in capitalism-gone-crazy-land where you get fired if you don’t zap 10 barcodes every 4 seconds, in Germany it is quite normal to wait 15 minutes in line for the privilege of paying for your groceries. Let’s just say it’s not my favourite part of the day after working, picking up the kids and picking out food for our dinner. I try to turn it into “meditation-time-of-the-day”, thinking, “Oh look wow, I have time to just BE for 15 minutes because I have absolutely no other option.” Works almost never but I am not giving up just yet.

So my friend must have been doing something similar and had her “resting face” face on. Ok and we ain’t 20 anymore. Gravity is having its dirty little way with us. But despite this, she is a happy soul. Good man, good kids, good genes, great skincare products and great coffee shop on the street corner. What more does a Berlin gal need? So she definitely wasn’t miserable.

And this TOURIST in front of her at the till starts SINGING about MISERABLE Germans….I mean, really??? Said tourist was a younger woman, English or American and not quite hitting the high notes. But the gist of it was, that Germans are miserable and should cheer the fuck up. Yeah, thanks for that. My friend isn’t even German. (Like 90% of the population in New-Prenzlauer Berg). She happens to be Polish. But she has been here long enough to bark out our Brötchen-order in a Berlin-appropriate fashion.

You try standing in a queue every day of the week flanked by visitors to the city having deep conversations about the pros and cons of cotton tote bags over plastic or how cheap the rent is here and where the best club to have darkroom sex is and why the fuck don’t they sell decent bagels. We try to be tolerant, we really do. We are well aware that we are also tourists almost everywhere in the world and also need to buy groceries there.

But where is the sign that says we can’t look miserable if we want to? We are not here for your entertainment! If my friend had been a guy, she could have looked like her wife just walked out with her best friend and her cat just got run over and no one would have raised an eyebrow. Men are always looking miserable. But their resting faces get called things like “enigmatic” “grave” or at the very worst “asshole resting face”. I’ll still take being an asshole over being miserable any old time.

But really, I would just like to actually exist without the whole world assuming they have a right to comment on my exterior. Luckily, usually it’s positive stuff…But sometimes I just want to put a paper bag over my face and not have anyone comment either way. It really doesn’t affect my ability to go buy milk and bread for my kids. It makes me start to understand the women who wear Yashmaks.

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Last week I was standing on the pavement across from the selfsame supermarket having a natter with a mother from my older daughter’s class whilst holding my youngest’s hand. This guy, trying to push some newspaper or other, makes the journey all the way across the road and asks if we want a newspaper. Slightly startled at being so rudely interrupted in mid-flow, we both shake our heads, and by way of explanation the guy says “I couldn’t resist coming over, seeing three generations all together in one spot.” My friend and I exchanged looks and started giggling. We were both in the same glorious fifth decade of our lives and neither of us had plans to be a grandmother in the near future. The young dude (18 tops) beat a hasty embarrassed retreat realizing his mistake.

But afterwards, I actually felt kind of angry. a) because he interrupted my conversation and b) because, had we been men, (going as grey as we pleased, thank you) he would never have had the nerve to assume anything about our relative ages c) because he imposed his vision of us on us. There we were, contentedly discussing our latest romantic exploits, she with a New York curator, me with an Italian wide boy, and this overly self-assured guy felt the need to tell us what WE look like to him. Just go ahead and guess how many fucks I don’t give.

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Good Women

Before I get to the post I promised last week about “The Good Man”, I feel I need to get one for “Good Women” in my life out there first.

I always feel that women’s friendships are underrated, especially when compared to romantic relationships. Any woman who has “broken up” with a good friend knows it hurts just as much as the break up of a relationship with a man. In some ways more. She was your ‘person’, the woman you could call anytime and say “could I just offload at you about something really really boring for 10 minutes?” or call up all snotty and tearful because some guy was making you feel just so sad and bereft. Letting go of a close friendship for whatever reason is very hard. And we have all been there.
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But sometimes you get through it, with a bunch of honesty and bottles of whisky.

Measured by the bottles of wine beheaded and the number of hours spent in dark bars and cinemas and toilets, you can bet your last tampon that you’ll be spending more time with those girls of yours than most men in your life. And let’s not forget that men die way earlier than women on average (we’re talking five or six years earlier, depending). Six years, alone, or with your crazy-ass friends? Your choice.
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So these are the things that, for me, make a great friend. They really are the eggs and sugar in my cake, and I hope I am for them too.

  1. Not Judging
    Judging people is really a way of saying “My way is best; you are wrong and I am right; you suck and I am great.” The day I first realized how refreshing the lack of judgement coming off my girlfriends was, was when all four of us decided to put our kids in completely different schools with a different orientation (a bilingual state school, a private English school, a Waldorf and a classic German state school). We all chose the school we felt was best for our kids. Without presuming to know what might be best for another kid. And turns out, we are all pretty happy with the choices we made back then, and all the kids have matured into very cool young people.

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  1. Knowing when it’s time to be brutally honest (just hold that thought till there is no room for anything else: that’s the right time.)
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Getting drunk together can be fun, but really good friends also tell you when you’ve had enough. My dearest friend struggled with alcoholism for a while, and there came a point when it stopped being fun, because she got so out of hand or went comatose on me, and I really did end up with a body to dispose of at the end of the night, but it was my best friend and there was no one around to help. First I made excuses and tried to meet up at lunch times instead, just to avoid the situation, but then I finally faced it and told her she wasn’t so nice to be around when she drank, and, with other factors playing in, she actually and awesomely kicked it, and so became my biggest hero at the same time as being waaay more fun to be around.

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3. Getting your friends in on the gig

Guest lists, parties, back-stage passes. Everyone has one of those friends who are always telling you about the A-mazing time they had out at some gig or other and “You would’ve LOVED it!” but they never seem to invite you. Isn’t a great night better shared?  Really good friends don’t mind sharing you and will happily introduce you to people they think you’ll get on with. Some of the nicest parties and gigs I’ve been to were ones where I knew no-one except my one friend, who then took the time out of her own ego to introduce me to people in such a nice and fun way that the conversations that ensued were effortless.

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4. Regular love life updates

My two dearest friends actually WANT daily updates on my love life when I am going through a hot phase (or are they pretending? Maybe they are, but only cos they love me!)  like it was Olivia Pope’s affair with Prez or something.

5. Which brings me effortlessly to point 5:

Sharing really stupid stuff
I am kind of ashamed of this one, but one of my besties and I really bond over Scandal. We get so excited on the phone to each other when a new epi comes out that we can’t stop giggling and saying “I know, I know,” and flapping our hands with excitement (well I am anyway….) Talking about Olivia’s latest wardrobe piece or steamy scene in the White House or laughing at some improbable plot twist with my friend on the line is almost as good as watching it.imgres-1

6. Going out for dinner
Having gone out for meals with girlfriends over years, I have noticed all kinds of changes in us. The  vegetarianism, the vegan phase, being completely skint and just eating the breadsticks so you can still hang out with your friends, not wanting to eat mass-farmed chicken, constantly finding an excuse to leave the table to have a cigarette but feeling ashamed of smoking when all your girlfriends have kicked the habit, not being able to share food with others because of childhood sibling rivalry issues, checking your phone under the table nervously waiting for “the” call from some guy you end up marrying; we all have our weird stuff going on, but we evolve and the great thing is, the older you get, the more you have to laugh about.
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When I am out with the girls we sometimes get a bit too raucous and loud because we are laughing so hard. And you know what? I feel guilty for a second, but then I forget again because I am laughing so hard…who cares what we eat? And if everyone else thinks we are crazy bat-shit cat ladies.

7. Keeping in touch

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Even if your friends move away (and they will), nothing beats a good natter over the phone with a glass of wine in hand. I have a friend in Hamburg who I have to make phone dates with because, well, we are just busy living our lives, but I really look forward to those talks. Every time I get off the phone with one of my long-haul best friends who destiny has flung to other ends of the world, when my kids are around, they look all concerned: “What happened to Petra?” they say. And I am like, why, what? “Well, because you kept on saying ‘OH MY Gooooddddd!’ and it sounded like someone had died or something…”.
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8. You look amazing
Everyone knows someone who, when they meet you on the street, will look at you with concern and  say, “Are you sick?” or “Man, you look like I feel!” Seriously, even if you really were sick, has that ever made ANYONE feel better? My best friend tells me I look great almost every time I see her. Sometimes I am almost embarrassed because even I know I can’t be that good looking ALL the time, but I think she sees me through a fog of loving friendship. No matter how grey our hair may get, or how bad our skin is or whatever, I see her laughing kind eyes, and she is beautiful to me always, too.images

9. Being up for crazy ideas and projects

My girlfriends dream up the craziest ideas sometimes. That’s because they are creative and dreamy and fun and hungry for life, and maybe just a little bit unrealistic and crazy. It ranges from multi-storey translation agencies specializing in ornithology to a late career as a hospice nurse helping people die in dignity, offering personal shopping services to rich tourists to show them the “real” Berlin with all the cool designers. Or running a language course cum tour guide service in Norfolk for country-loving Germans. Or cooking and conversation classes combined. Or opening an own yoga studio. I am one of the most skeptical people I know when it comes to trying new projects for myself, but I am the first to make them a flyer, if that is what they want to do!  And believe it or not, some of these ideas really do come off!
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10. Be the biggest fan

The people I admire most are the women I am close to, because I have seen them go through hard times and great times too. I met them in completely random ways: one I got talking to because we were at a party and both about to pop (end stage pregnancy), one because she bothered to stop and ask me where I get my clothes, one because I had a tin of golden syrup she coveted at a neighbouring café table. One at the playground where we were both craving decent coffee, and ended up running our own café business together for ten years. One I worked with online for years (correcting each other’s work for a magazine) before we even met, but who probably knows more about my shower-habits and coffee-breaks than anyone else on this planet. These are women I tell other people about because they are so great, or recommend as “the best **** ever” when it comes to a job. And my biggest fans are my friends too. They are the ones who relentlessly “like” every last blog post I do, or, the ones who are really crap at computers but still send me a text message saying “like!” instead. Thank you ladies!

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Almost Famous: Aren’t we all a little bit Groupie?

When reviewing my life and all the stupid things I did as a young woman, (yeah, that’s what I do in my spare time….) I realise there are a lot of things that are specific to the female experience. Things that most men would simply not have bothered wasting their time on. They do other stupid stuff admittedly (like dealing drugs, or drag-car racing) but one of the fads exclusive to us women is the groupie experience. What is it about men on stage, no matter how geeky or skinny or unattractive, that makes them irresistible to us women? Is it the lights, the makeup? The hair?

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And there we are, before we know it, age 13, screaming our virginal little tonsils out at Dave from Depeche Mode (in my case). Fast forward two years give or take and you’re sitting on a pile of cables and cinches in the back of a rusty van in transit between Chester and Liverpool with Dr.Phibes and the House of Wax Equations, with nothing but a packet of biscuits and a 2-litre bottle of cider between you and the call of fame.

But instead of being groupies, why aren’t hordes of women picking up the guitar and learning to rock it themselves if they are all so interested in the limelight and the glory? Why don’t we covet fame for ourselves? We have women like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Joan Jett and Patti Smith as role models thank god, but in general, why does it seem preferable to most women to be close to a famous man, rather than seeking the limelight ourselves? Speaking for myself, I would honestly rather hike once around the world wearing a onesie than stand on stage in front of an audience and perform anything. And the most musical bone in my body is definitely my funny bone, (interesting fact: in German the selfsame bone is called the “Musikantenknochen”, the musician’s bone)  but despite all that, I was always drawn to flats and squats that also contained lots of hairy men making music.

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Almost Famous: Like this but less well dressed.

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Yes, more like that….The Senseless Things

It was never a conscious choice, But in all my years sharing flats and squats I always lived with musical people. In Liverpool I had an enormous ancient wooden double bed (hate to think how many people were born and died in that thing!) that hosted many an impromptu sleepover. But I was a pretty crap groupie. What other young blonde long-legged thing can claim to having shared beds platonically with at least a dozen band members without actually shagging any of them? (Women, howl in derision all you like, it just didn’t come up.) I wasn’t even that keen on concerts either. I never quite understood how anyone could get THAT excited over a bridge. A Witnesss, the  La’s and the Boo Radleys, along with a bunch of other bands, had their practice room in our squat in Liverpool. Dr. Phibes lived there half the time.

To be honest, the muso guys were actually the best flat mates you could have wished for, because they were all really girly, always up for a good long chinwag about who said what and why. They were always appreciative of good home-cooked food, and tended to wander in at 4am with a rolie or joint at the ready.

In Berlin, after breaking up with the drummer of some medieval punk band (yes that’s a musical genre in Germany) with an unspeakable name (The Inchtabokatables, well you did ask),  I moved in with half of what was just becoming Rammstein. It was perfect because they were just as erratic and nocturnal as I was, but when we were all there, there was always sparkling wine for breakfast and no one hassled about money, disappeared food or washing up.

I remember one of the guitarists asking me to translate one of his lyrics (something about a black crow) into English. After I’d finished I said I thought it would be much more powerful if he left it in German….I like to think they took my advice, leading directly to their stellar fame, even though I suppose it reflects rather badly on me that I did such a shit job of my first-every translation.

So, after my vast experience as crappest groupie ever, all I have to show for it are a few pearls of wisdom to pass on:

1. Shared bathroom facilities in the kitchen are the greatest leveller of all (yes, the shower and only sink were in the kitchen).

2. The guys crooning about love up there on stage? They are usually singing love songs to themselves.

3. And if there is one thing they’re going to get passionate about? It ain’t you, babe, it’s the music.

4. If you act famous and rich, and have a modicum of talent, you may well end up famous and rich.

5. If you have sparkling wine for breakfast, the rest of the day usually turns out just grand.

6. If you really want to be a groupie, make sure you have a good book with you at all times because there is A LOT of downtime.

7. Anyone can play that bass line. Even your dog.

8. That sexy eyeliner they’re wearing? It belongs to their ex-girlfriend.

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Gimme back my eyeliner!

Let’s face it, most women of my generation have a story or two to tell about nights spent in a transit van, or in a backstage room, and every woman “almost” failed her ‘A’ levels because of some dickhead with a guitar. Which is kind of annoying. So I am hopeful that the next generation, in that respect at least, are “doing it for themselves”. Thank god the young women I know (my daughter included) concentrate on serious self-created fun, education and having good friends, and if they are crazy for a band, it’s because they really dig the music.

I recently bumped into the Rammstein keyboarder again, with his daughter, and he asked “Hey, still doing translations?” and I said “Yep, still translating. And you? Still making music?” Apparently, yes, he is. But the really good news?  So is his daughter.

 

Fun Statistics

Cups of tea made: 1324

Bowls of tuna salad shared: 42

Hours spent waiting in draughty corridors after gigs: 213

Nights spent in stinky backstage rooms with roadies: 11

Nights spent in vans in transit: 9

 

 

Gene the Clean: Clean it like a Man

I have a couple of important men in my life. But up there in the top three has to be Gene the cleaner. And before you even start with the clichés: no, he doesn’t clean like this:

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All my non-single girlfriends spend major beer time detailing the toilet habits of their male cohabitees, and complaining about beard trimmings in the bath, pee on/under/around the toilet seat, snot/dribble on the pillow cases, I could go on…so you could be forgiven for thinking that all men are really crap at keeping the place buffed and shined. But have you ever seen a man clean his car? Or phone? Or computer screen? Oh, yes, let’s make a frigging science of it. I bet pretty much any man you know can tell you a recipe for perfect homemade screen cleaner, along the lines of ‘3 parts water, one part lemon juice’ or something. Go on, ask.

None of this spit-on-a-tissue-wrapped-round-your-finger crap you learned from your mum when she was cleaning the chocolate off your face. My mum actually told me that cleaning your hands with leftover orange peel was the way to go if you didn’t have a tissue at hand. It was only years later that she admitted she simply never seemed to have a tissue on her (but apparently bagfuls of oranges!) and so had fed me this housekeeping lie, to get me off her back! I spent 10 years of my life with pith-covered sticky fingers…

It just seems to me that men really might be better at it than…well, at least than me! I am about to go really un-PC on you all, so close your eyes NOW if you think men and women are identical in every way except for their junk). Gene the Clean has a plan. A big plan. He works systematically, with a tool kit and a bottle of organic orange-oil-based cleaning fluid always at his side. He makes every minute count. He enters the flat, takes off his shoes and socks in a slightly ritualistic way, rolls up his trousers like he is about to enter the swamplands of Southern Louisiana or the boggy wetlands of Romney Marsh (I try not to take it personally) and gets to it.

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This man puts fresh sheets on my bed. He folds my shirts in origami-like exactitude. He gently lifts up my collection of animal skulls one by one, wipes underneath, and puts them back. He oils the floors like he is giving them a massage, he polishes those tiles to high shine. He makes me feel ….oh so much better than most men in my life.

Yes, I went through the moral quandaries all middle-class feminist do: I generally believe if you made it, you should clean it. But: if someone is really good at something, well, we can’t all go around painting our own modern art, and soldering our own wrought iron bedposts can we? Write our own books, make our own music?

I do a lot of things myself that other women (and men) are happy to pay for. I’ve laid my own floors, my dad even taught me how to change a plug, last century, and I can put up shelves with the best of them, but it doesn’t mean I really want to. Why is it OK to pay good money for clothes someone else has sewn (preferably not 6-year-old waifs in Indonesia), but not for someone to hoover the flat?

Then there is the feminist issue… I still don’t think I could bear the idea of another woman cleaning my mess. Or maybe I just don’t want to be judged by another woman. Being judged by a man? Well, we women got used to that as soon as we hit puberty so it’s no biggie. So, why is it less of a problem for me to have a cleaner who happens to be a man? Does that make me a sexist? And what if he happened to be black? Would I still be good with it? Asian? Polish?

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Or is it all about class? I am British after all. This guy is training to be a dancer, he is American, I am guessing from an ok-income family. He probably earns more cleaning than he would making lattes for the tourists.

But the bottom line is this: If you do a job you are getting fairly paid for, and you are being appreciated for it, then it’s good with me. And it makes me happy. Happier than getting nine likes on a blog post.

Plus, my girls get to see that it’s not always mummy cleaning the bathroom (he comes once a fortnight, so it’s not like I don’t have any housework to do). Being a single mum makes it hard sometimes to supply good male role models. So, it’s all about compartmentalizing. And if I had to choose just one man for regular access to my sheets…it would have to be Gene the Clean every time.

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