Category Archives: passion

Say You Do, Barcelona

A steady rhythm of our steps pounded to the loud beat from the speakers we were carrying. To the curious onlookers, we must have seemed like we’d escaped from a video game as we ran through the streets of Barcelona. As we reached Placa de les Drassanes by the port before 9 pm, there was a brief moment when we held our breaths: “Now what?”. Seeming just as (un)likely, we were equally nervous about whether all or none of the 10,000 people who’d indicated interest in the Barcelona Midnight Run would actually turn up. The latter fear was soon dispelled, as the first interested party appeared. The police car.

The guardia civil soon found better things to do on a Friday night, and one by one small tribes of people started filling the plaza with a cacophony of neon. When I looked around, there were TV cameras. Despite MRs seeming to have some of the coolest gadgets, Greg turned into a human microphone welcoming (or ‘yellcoming’) the crowd. Our salute to each other that night became ‘THIS. IS. FUCKING CRAZY!!’ The doubts I had entertained in my mind, were swept away by the Mediterranean breeze, as I leapt over the benches at the beach as if I had three lives.  When one of the MR captains yelled whether I had seen the back and that we should spread out, I turned around. For the first time that night I was breathless –  not because I’d been running and samba dancing at the same time – and counted, as if I was watching the world’s longest freight train disappearing into the night.

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By Tanya Raab http://tanyaraab.uk

Three days later I was waiting for a train to take me to work. Above me, there was a billboard where two men embrace under the caption “He said ‘yes’”. While fighting back the tears of joy for the men having Lloyds bank accounts, I was thinking that saying ‘yes’ when this society wants us to, tends to come with a life time of compromises and monogamy or eight years of David Cameron. At the same time, when it comes to lots of other things, sensible adults say ‘no’. If you’re female, there are even more denials, and nowhere is it packaged so beautifully as in the cult of motherhood. 

I’ve never been a very good member.

As a single parent, any adventure – well, anything – is about weighing the reasonability of lugging the offspring along versus the (financial and social) cost of leaving them home, while maximising the fun (or minimising the misery) for both. I call it finding your opti-Mum. Sometimes – like earlier this month – my whole family comes to rescue, but as the closest member lives a three hour flight away, it’s not the default childcare option unless I’m in hospital or at the risk of missing a marathon.

But let’s not overplay external constraints. Logistics are easier to fix than attitude. I’ve been thrilled about discovering Midnight Runners, the biggest threat to the gym dressed as just really nice individuals, but the idea of doing one of their trademark high steroid 10k runs 36 hours before the Marathon when other runners get sports massages and eat pasta, filled me with hesitation. A week before the trip, I was sitting at Serpentine Cafe in Hyde Park listening possibly to the vaguest event brief in my life. Greg, one of the founders, was telling us how the Facebook event had gone viral and attracted 10,000 joiners and a million visitors. We had no idea what the average bail rate was in Spain. We knew we were twenty people, had three Beatbringers, six speakers and zero permissions with the local authorities. Fuck it, I’m in!

I was excited about going to Barcelona. It’s hard to explain to Brits, to whom Spain is either party in Ibiza or a pensioner resort in Malaga, that for me, Spain was the context of self-discovery and spiritual growth. When many of the Midnight Runners were still having midnight feedings, I travelled to Spain on my own, and walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (self-discovery); met my father for the first time and asked him why (self-discovery); and tongue kissed an unknown Italian guy at an unknown tube station in Barcelona (spiritual growth). Flying back was like opening an epilogue to my teenage diary.

Our base camp in Poblenou would have probably sent my mum into a mild hysteria and motherly guilt had that been my accommodation fifteen years ago. The building rising opposite one of the biggest clubs in Barcelona, also housed an African pentecostal church and despite its windowless front, it boasted a concrete step that was enjoyed as a break-out area by local crackheads, who we skipped over on our way out for early breakfast before pre-inspection of the night’s route.

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The HQ

It was colder than what our choice of fashion and Norah Jones playlist suggested. The Midnight Runners do exercise stops every couple of kilometres, so what might have been mistaken for a leisurely stroll along the beach on sunny day, was actually really hard work to confirm and memorise their locations. I can confess that I couldn’t remember any of them. I could hardly remember that I was going to run the marathon hours later or that I had an inflamed tendon. The experience has already been remembered in a confetti of photographs shared by hundreds of people of the 3,000 who turned up. What those pictures don’t tell, is what we reminded ourselves over a dinner at our arrival: none of us knew each other a year ago. Let alone any of the hundreds of wonderful people who we were high-fiving later. Cheers for that.

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Tough day in the office. By Daniel Varga. From the London Midnight Runners FB page.

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Just before I knocked off the cyclist with my enthusiastic high five. Vamos, Barcelona! By Daniel Varga. From London MR FB page.

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I (at the back) may not look like it, but that’s how I felt too. By Daniel Varga. From London MR FB page.

It was hard to beat Friday night, but Sunday’s Marathon was what most of us were there for, and while some chose to run it together, to me it was a return to introspection. I read a lot of running blogs and admire the authors’ ability to recall each kilometre. As established, details are not my forte. I felt strong and chose to ignore what I had thought my pace should be. Underestimating myself had put me in with a later start, which resulted wasting a lot of time trying to get past people, like it was a Monday morning at London Bridge and the world had come for a visit. Ten kilometres in I tripped over on the asphalt, which could have ended much worse than in a few scrapes. I was pulled up by a stranger and was able to maintain 5:00/km pace. I decided I wouldn’t worry about going too fast but accept positive splits (slow down) when I got tired, and still be able to achieve my goal of sub-4 time. I did eventually get tired and started to die – but not before the 40th kilometre (which, by the way is when they always take the official race photos. WHY?)

People, with best intentions, will tell you how fast you should go, where and how often. Sometimes they’re right. But most of the time they’re not me. Passing the 3:45 pacers felt unreal. My Barcelona room mate, a tall blonde woman in her 50s, said she didn’t really think about pace at all. Or bother with a watch for that matter.  She’d just run. And did she run – finishing third in her overall category in three hours and ten minutes.  I still have a lot to learn.

I’d been quietly hoping for a sub-4 time, but with 3:42 at 34 I got a ‘good for age’ for London! It will automatically guarantee me a place in one of the most popular and difficult to get to city marathons in the world. No ballot bullshit! No stressful fundraising targets! I had hardly collected my medal and before I had changed into a dry top, I turned on data roaming just to check that I missed the qualifying time for Boston by a couple of minutes. If I need to beat myself about something, I’ll go with that. 

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The medics not even feigning an interest in my life-threatening injury.

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Four times sub-four time

As to my first love, Spain, I won’t let another fifteen years pass before my next visit. In fact, I’ll be back in late August to walk the Camino de Santiago again, but this time I’ll be taking my daughter with me. I can’t safely say how many miles of ‘I spy with my little eye’ I can put up with, but that’s why we’re going to walk one of the busier routes. Sorry, pilgrims.

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My best photo from the trip. Welcome back.

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For a Reason, for a Season

“For a time, then, we stay. For a time. Till the changes.” 

Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Our life has settled into a contract with its new landscape, allowing to be shaped by its busy architecture while also leaving its own mark on whatever it comes in touch with. It’s made a few twists and turns and a couple of backflips to get over obstacles on its way – before quickly resettling into a forceful but steady flow.

Getting up before the sun is finally getting easier now that even the sun doesn’t want to get up. The only souls I meet during my morning run in the city of ten million inhabitants are a couple of dog walkers. Saturday mornings are a happy exception: I join two hundred other runners to race two laps around Finsbury Park in the weekly Park Run event. I’ve made it from the fourth to the second fastest woman in my category (aren’t you proud, mum?) in a distance I didn’t much care for in the past. Afterwards, many of us gather in the park cafe for this latest British sports nutrition fad you should try: tea and cake.

I have some fruit in the office, as part of this new ‘old’ life, too. There are baskets of small, unripe bananas, mandarins and figs with the succulent taste of corporate wellbeing. Desperate for a gustatory reminder of our year in South America, I’ve been looking to find a custard apple in London’s best markets and whole food stores, to no avail.

So I sketched new plans on new projects in countries where fruit is being grown. Where people produce and don’t just consume. The advert panel on my browser flashes pictures of apartments in suburbs which I can’t pronounce. But basically what happened next is that when I disabled my out-of-office I mistakenly forgot to disable ‘me’, and soon came a friendly but stern management reminder that this was a “business”, not “a travel agency”. One shall not just butterfly around without a business purpose. One shall articulate her commercial story and take every opportunity to bore everyone to death with it. That’s the company policy.

For one solid week I cried over this unsolicited psychoanalysis. It was true and I needed to hear it. Out of all the wicked things one could be in this world, there’s nothing quite as lowly than a person who makes a career out of always wanting to be everywhere else apart from where she is, and transports that over-sized dissatisfaction wherever she goes weighing down not just herself but those who love her:

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Many years ago, I had a dream where I was on a cruise ship. Walking along the corridors, opening doors that blocked my way, I climbed up narrow steps from deck to deck, and passed other passengers. After a while, I noticed that the doors didn’t change. Each deck I arrived on, I had been on before. Not only that, but the faces I saw were the same. The events repeated themselves. It was like being entertained by a 90s Microsoft screensaver. I was locked inside a matrix of de-ja-vus and to get out, I started harassing fellow passengers for directions. Their insouciant answer was that there were no exits, only entrances, but why would anyone want to leave such a great place!

I probably wrote this dream down all those years ago, because at that point I had nothing else to write about. I had finished my degree, broken up with my boyfriend, and been rejected for a grant to study in New York. Because there were no other viable cities on the earth, I returned to my old depressing waitressing job in a sandwich bar and became a 3-D public health campaign against studying Sociology.

Having the sense that tomorrow is going to be a repeat of today is a prison sentence – and I’m basing that analogy on a wholly personal experience of watching three seasons of the Orange is the New Black. It has a catchy theme song by Regina Spektor, which goes “taking steps is easy, standing still is hard”. It’s still bloody hard, even if I’m no longer 23 and have a better albeit fleeting understanding of the seasonality of life.

I think there’s a subtle difference between ‘comatose’ and ‘still’, which is why I’m dismissing ‘hatha yoga’ when I say the closest I get to stillness is when I’m running. It’s when I achieve what  Ultra Runner Girl describes as “the comfort of the void”:

“…when my legs are in motion, I’m there. I’m in the present – I’m at ‘more’, if only for a brief minute. This is the comfort of the void. In the pain, the suffering, the triumph, the struggle, my constant drive for ‘more’ is silenced. By moving forward in space, I allow myself to stand still in time.”  

It is in these moments when I admit that the only thing wrong with the present is that what it is followed by may go wrong. But after a week in an emotional state, my future tapped me on the shoulder and told about her frustration over always being the one that gets judged. I promised to give it a break – at least until I’m in that chapter. Right now I’m on that page where we watch fireworks with friends we didn’t know three months ago. I’m in that part where the autumn days have spilled over to the early winter, and the leaves have missed their cue to die. Their lingering red tones have been so awakening I could hear them. I could hear them in Elizabeth Gilbert’s voice: You. Are. Here. This is not a conviction. Your life is not happening somewhere else, and you’re not on hold until that moment comes. (If that’s not quite what the leaves are saying where you are, you can download the podcast here.)

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An imam once said that whatever is meant for me will not miss me, and whatever misses me wasn’t meant for me. A friend  once said that that was bullshit. So listening to both, I’m choosing to believe that, if you’re called for an adventure, it will come and find you wherever you are – so you better be there. In the meantime, I’ll keep my (bull)shit together.

PS. The other day I walked past my corner shop, like one does. And there they were, understated between your avocados and your mangos: small but ripening.

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Please Disable Your Out-of-Office

In my last post I said this blog was about to get really interesting, and I have more than exceeded expectations.  I’ve been back at work for over two months now, and in my current role as a ‘leadership and cross-cutting issues performance driver’, the following quote in my Facebook feed today resonated with me enough to write a blog post:

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

In a glass building in London it is very difficult to make “I ran around 80 km per week” sound like a good use of time – especially if that time consists of a full (financial) year. What, I didn’t found even one teeny-weeny start-up? Or a charity to capacity build  indigenous women to make bracelets perhaps? Taught English? Nope. I just was. In Peru. And occasionally I ran.

“Yes, but what did you actually do?”

The funny thing is why I’m not asking the people in the office the same question. To an extent, a time could have been stopped for the whole year – bar some changes to a desk booking system (which doesn’t work) and the canteen, and a few greyer heads, everything looks more or less like I left it over a year ago.

If anything, I feel even less motivated by this emperor’s new clothes business, where I currently am the one with the responsibility for booking meetings for the senior needle and doing the admin for the senior specialist thread. As you might have guessed from my fancy job title above.

Your identity pends on your job, and not on the other things you do (if you have time to do other things).  On my career break, I used my business card to get access, and in the Immigration forms I would write as my occupation the one that I was having a break from. This would make others see that I’m not just a single mum, I am someone. Whether that job has any point is beside the point, and while it makes me feel worthless it is why I’m worth something, as the Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt recently reminded.

I’ve learnt there are a lot of things in the world that make me happy and that are not my job – or maybe any job out there apart from being a judge at the Great British Bake Off, and that’s ok! Perhaps it’s not in your job’s job description to be fulfilling in every sense, just like it’s not your partner’s responsibility to maintain your expected levels of happiness (although there are  some minimum standards).  I’d like to reclaim the word ‘passion’ and ban it from every single CV. I love writing, running, chirimoyas and my daughter. None of them earns me a living, but does that mean they are not valuable for their own sake? Today I managed  to get up at 5.30 am (this is much harder when it’s colder, darker and waaaayy lonelier than in Lima) and run 10km catching the sunrise over Alexandra Palace. A few hours later, in the office I responded to a request to invite someone to a meeting who had already been invited by another colleague, so I sent a couple of apologetic emails to clear the confusion. A bit of email traffic back and forth. Then I printed  a total of 160 pages of documents (containing an options appraisal for instruments to inspect inspectors, or something in this vein), which nobody in the meeting read, so I chucked these in the confidential waste bin.

Economists may disagree, but I think my most productive moment of the day was before 6.30 am.

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On doing what you love and being productive, last month I ran with the guys from Haringey Good Gym. There are GG groups all over London and the UK and they basically do a weekly running session combined with a bit of community work. The picture is from their Facebook page

Disclaimer:

If you are from work and you’re reading this, I’d like to say that I’m completely passionate about my job, the every day challenges it brings, the people I meet, the value I bring and the sustainable difference I’m making. I thrive on solving every day problems with printers and meeting bookings. Just in case that message was somehow unclear.  

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