Three years on…

Short story: In September 2016 I started a part-time sabbatical after a long-term contract ended. Fast-forward to September 2019 and my daily life is very different with the green shoots of new things starting to sprout.

The initial “beautiful empty-brain feeling” of wide-open horizons and unstructured time has long gone. My non-work time is filled, almost to overflowing. Full-time work at least used to restrict how much stuff I could pile on my plate.

I guess transitions take time. I’m still not sure what to focus on but I’m trying to be more open-minded and less prescriptive. I think my September diary (outline below) says a lot about how life continues to change and grow and move in unexpected directions. Three years ago, I would never have guessed this is what I would be doing…

1. Kayak trip

Spent a beautiful sunny Friday evening kayaking the canals of central Birmingham as a try-out for possible volunteering work next year. There is an opportunity to train up as a kayak guide for the National Trust for free in return for a minimum volunteering commitment. I’ll probably stick to walking but anyone interested in kayak tours can get more info from the activities officer, Keith Wraight, at the Roundhouse.

2. Birmingham Royal Ballet – class on stage

© Birmingham Royal Ballet

What does a world-class ballet dancer do to prepare for a performance? I spent a fantastic Saturday morning watching the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s class on stage at the Hippodrome. It builds from stretches at the barre to full leaps and pirouettes across the stage.

After dabbling with ballet fitness last year this has totally reignited my interest in the art of ballet, so much so that I have finally set up the home gym and do nightly wobbly arabesques and rondes de jambe before bedtime using an Ikea Lack shelf as a barre. #toptip

Next class on stage is in November and costs £10: details here.

3. GILF Island

Vortessa in action, reclaiming public space with a giant pink flamingo and let’s-have-fun attitude.

This summer I asked Kate Spence, a live artist from Birmingham, if she’d be my art mentor. We arranged a skills swap. In return for her art guidance, I’m her occasional assistant, taking notes, collecting feedback or photographing a performance.

In early September we both took part in LADA’s GILF Island, a weekend-long live art workshop about female gender and ageing, invisibility and desire/desirability.

It was a big challenge for me to do something so ‘out there’ but I guess my perimenopausal hormones are driving me to be more pro-active about this stuff. I frequently find myself angry at everyday ageism/sexism and wanting to be the opposite of middle-age invisible. So here’s the big blog post about my live art debut and what happened on GILF Island…

3. Irish passport and a day trip to Liverpool

Jim Lambie op art at Tate Liverpool

My UK passport runs out early next year and I’m not sure I can travel on it after 31 October. So I went to Liverpool to put my Irish passport application in. This was not just for practical travel reasons but because I strongly want to remain a citizen of the EU – for peace, prosperity, human rights, animal rights, women’s rights and many more things I think will be eroded in the name of British sovereignty under a Conservative government. Irish citizenship is suddenly a big privilege here in the UK – what a change from when my parents were essentially herded into Irish ghettos in the 50s.

The Passport Express service took just 10 minutes so we spent a lovely day seeing (too much) art at three galleries, including Double Fantasy: John & Yoko at the Musuem of Liverpool, Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan film series on migration at the Bluecoat, and the Tate’s highlights from the nation’s modern art collection, including Hito Steyerl’s fantastic and funny video installation How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.

4. Potato harvest

Heavy crop = tipped barrow

The Irish roots live on at my allotment, potatoes being the only crop I planted this year. This month I harvested half my spud crop. The Desirees were huge, up to seven inches long. Another half to go. Will be in potatoes past Christmas.

5. Bread course

Yeast-free bread is better for you.

Pete and I spent a day learning how to make sourdough and rye bread at Loaf in Stirchley. More courses in top food skills are here…

6. Dementia group

A longtime family friend was diagnosed earlier this year with vascular dementia. Each week I take him to a group therapy session for carers and those with a diagnosis. I’m really enjoying it despite the serious nature of the illness. We all take part in weekly gratitude and goal-setting exercises, and share our experiences.

I’m learning a lot about how dementia affects people and how to help not hinder. Last week was about understanding confabulation and when to push back against inaccurate memories. This week was all about life story work and using long-term memories to stimulate the brain. There are former lawyers, teachers and tradesmen in the group. Dementia can affect anyone.

I’m proud that Stirchley where I live is aiming to be a dementia-friendly area holding memory cafes and choirs for people to engage in.

7. Bird rescue

Spot the cat about to pounce.

Rescued a wood pigeon from certain cat slaughter. Took it to the vets for a check over and it is now in rehab at Ray and Ann Dedicoat’s amazing Hollytrees Animal Rescue in Wythall. Bung them a cash note if you can.

8. Digitising old diaries

Just some of my diary collection.

I have done a load of digitising of the eight months spent in India, Maldives, Nepal and Thailand back in 1997 – have just hit 10,000 words. Those really were some of the craziest times of my life. Meeting a millionaire in India was just the opening gambit. Yes, diaries can be boring but the fact that I can’t wait to read my own story is a good sign, isn’t it? Here’s what the diary project is all about.

9. Toddler-sitting

Tickle the knees on the upswing. Photo: Pete Ashton.

Family stuff… Took my great nephew to the Lickey Hills playground with Pete. He is a ball of energy but thankfully mostly likes to sit on the swing and count to a million. Aw. We also did some budgie sitting for a friend – they are so much easier.

10. Spouse birthday

How do we use chopsticks for soup?

Pete’s birthday gave us a good reason to dine out at Stirchley’s new Eat Vietnam (banana blossom curry!), drink at the Wild Cat, and have a couple of friends over for dinner. If you see Pete around town wearing a customised ‘Trans Lunar Injection Burn’ T-shirt, that’s from me – with grateful thanks to C2O Clothes 2 Order for replacing my totally wrong-sized order without charging me for the stuffup.

11. Walking conference

A rest somewhere on the SW Coast Path.

Pete leads photowalks for Photo School Birmingham and has used walking as an art practice in the past. I do more informal guided walks and talks for friends around Stirchley perimeters, and might be volunteering as a walking guide for the National Trust next year. So I spent some time this month organising a trip to Plymouth in November, where we will attend a walking conference (!) at the university and take some winter walks along the South West Coastal Path. Pray for sunshine!

12. Analogue columns

Analogue-columns
Old school lifestyle planner.

This year I’ve been trying to form better habits through what I jokingly refer to as my ‘Analogue Columns Lifestyle Planner Tool’ – basically a daily set of columns in a notebook for ticking off stuff I want to do more/less of. Most things have been going pretty well, especially spending time outdoors, trying to catch the sunrise/sunset, having quiet time and exercise (walking and tai chi mostly).

Writing and art have been harder habits to form. This month, for example, I can see I’ve done 7x writing sessions, 8x art sessions – not bad for me, but not daily. Miscellaneous is often about helping people or getting out of the house and meeting friends. Overall, it’s kind of like having a shorthand diary.

13. More book reading

Favourite female artists – in the reference library.

Missing a daily commute meant my reading time disappeared a few years ago. This year I’ve made a concerted effort to get it back. Bath time is now also book time (TMI, I know). I also rejoined the library, which has been fantastic for even the most recent releases.

In September I read nearly four books: Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature about kayaking on Birmingham’s canals; Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a non-fiction book about three women who have warped their desires according to the men they love; What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, a travel memoir by Kristin Newman; and Grace Grace Grace – a LADA book exploring gen-age issues. I also spent two hours in the Library of Birmingham reading Marina Abramovic and Sophie Calle not-for-loan art books. Libraries are bloody great. We should keep them.

**

So that was September. In October, the balance will surely change again. The bottom line of my post-sabbatical life, as ever, is to stay healthy, be kind to others and try to stay afloat financially in the process.

Swamped thing: dealing with ‘overwhelm’

FIona brain.
Fiona brain (circa 2006).

One of the things I’ve wrestled with during and post-sabbatical is that I’m a generalist. I’m interested in many things. Here are a few of them, not including family and friends, who deserve another big pocket of time:

…art, rabbits, Stirchley, writing, photography, diary mining, bushcraft, animal tracking, composting, ballet fitness, collage, reading, ukulele, walking, ASMR, sunrises and sunsets, trips away, dementia befriending, the politics of data, the practicalities of privacy, tai chi, surfing, bodyboarding, diving, ageing, stargazing, snowshoeing, drawing, publishing, origami, MOOCs…

The list goes on and on…

Often I get temporarily obsessed by some solo female traveller/adventurer or global photojournalist or fit-at-50 Instagrammer (cue another list:

@corinneredfern, @smillieonsea, @jasonflorio, @megan_hine, @missholldoll, @victorilou, @womenandwaves, @jannerobinson, @goodbyecroptop, @baddiewinkle and @nickheyward – yes, the Haircut One Hundred dude, who has muscles and a nice life, although he’s no @renner4real or @samneilltheprop.

I guess these are the new media models we aspire to (or rather fail to live up to). I get inspired but then feel limited because hiking, photographing, adventuring or just looking Instafabulous is their singular focus. There’s no room for anything off-brand. Choosing one thing to be, no matter how fab, means saying no to the wild panorama of other things in the scene, my scene.

And so I desperately try to find connections and overlaps between my peculiar combo of interests just so I don’t go mad. I’ve taken to whiteboarding my life just to get it out of my head, print it off and then rub it all out.

I think feeling overwhelmed is due to the inability to make some hard decisions about what to do first. As my sister points out, it’s good to have choices. It’s also good to make them.

The past few months have felt like receiving a year’s total of work  and having to sort it into something I can get my head around. Where to start?

A word came to me while swamped in the interests mire: SEASONS.

‘Seasons’ is a looser, more easygoing and less worky word than priorities or commitments. Like some longhaired hippie supervisor, a seasonal focus allows me a time to write and a time to create (my two main conflicts at present), and these gently overlay the daily necessities of health, fitness and meeting financial commitments.

So I decided to spent the summer season writing and the autumn season on art stuff (I’m calling it pre-art).

Of course, as soon as I decided to put writing first, I met with my art mentor (yes, I have an awesome art mentor) – and she rooted out some really interested ideas.

So, I’ve now got a few backburner art tasks to break up writing season. And I’ll likely do some editing and proofreading and learning about e-publishing when art season starts in the autumn.

My plan may not be Instagram-sexy but it’s a pressure drop.

If I’ve been out of touch recently, this is why.

My goals for 2019

My goals for 2019 have mostly developed out of my sabbatical break in 2016-17. But there’s also a few random things in there for fun, such as developing independent toes (yes, you read that right).

It’s a longish list, mostly so I can get all the ideas in my head out of my head. In reality, there’s no pressure. The ones I want to do will no doubt develop into some kind of habit, the random one-offs will or won’t happen, and the rest will fall away.

I’ve been doing this annual list thing since about 2002. This is the first time I’ve blogged it. I’m not sure why I’m putting it out there. Maybe it will inspire someone else (I know two other people who are doing the splits challenge) or maybe it will create a potential collaboration.

Usually I break it up into sections – work, health, life, etc – but this year, I’ve split it into more general areas: mental/emotional, physical, creative, financial and random. The ones in green have already been started/done – that’s the January effect but also reflects some longer projects that I’m working on.

Mental/emotional

  • Sunlight – more sunrises, sunsets and sunshine walks.
  • Morning hour – plan the day so it doesn’t get derailed (try to take in medium/long term goals not just daily stuff).
  • Daily pockets of stillness – meditation, walks, unstructured time.
  • Weekend interesting read – set up RSS feeds.
  • Internet shorts – ahead of TV viewing – see #filmshorts list on Pinboard.
  • Make “good enough” decisions but make decisions.
  • Clear out attic stuff + finish Marie Kondo.
  • Read first chapter of unread books.
  • Create/contribute more, consume less.
  • More stargazing, more celestial events.
  • Join the Royal Geographic Society.

Physical

  • Do the splits (document the change over the year)
  • Flex individual toes on command.
  • Surf fitness (+ Point Break night!)
  • More elegance, strength (ballet fitness, gym).
  • Parkrun (Jan and Dec).
  • Diet – more greens and juices, less carbs and crap.
  • Dive off a high board.
  • Update Active Parks calendar.
  • Learn full Tai Chi Yang 24 short form.
  • Physical challenge that I can work towards, eg coastal walk, bodyboarding, mountain summit, snowshoe, swimming trip.

Creative

  • 1SE photo project – colour spectrum.
  • Learn to draw, use new pencil set.
  • Draw (a bunny?) or make an art each day for a month.
  • Publish one of my ebook ideas.
  • Zine: guidebook to Stirchley.
  • Develop a writing habit towards a longer project.
  • RTW Google Earth tour.
  • Origami a giant rabbit.
  • Create an artwork inspired by Sophie Calle or other female artists.
  • Digitise backpacking/travel diaries; stories/art/workshop?
  • MOOC – photo/videography, photojournalism, art.
  • Get three songs playable on guitar.
  • Find all animals on social media called Fiona.

Financial

  • From ‘The Examined Life’ – don’t just reduce, give back, eg, for every new clothing item I buy, give half the cost to charity.
  • Review monthly spend/savings – spreadsheet.
  • Household and travel budget – annual spreadsheet.
  • Possible New Zealand trip in 2022 – research costs/start saving.
  • Digital detox: get Facebook off phone, trim Twitter. set up RSS feeds.
  • Professional development/training courses: SEO + Google Ads through Udemy. Or certification through Google Digital Garage
  • Work half days only on screen.
  • Find one more regular client.

Random

  • Help fix an issue that has always bothered you through volunteering, eg, Fat Fluffs rabbit rescue – next steps (medical care)?
  • Research Nat Trust jobs.
  • Monthly date night.
  • Meet the oldest people in the city.

Two years on…

It’s been two years since I went on a semi-break/sabbatical. I know this from all the lovely Aberdovey (Ooberdoobey) sunset photos popping up in my timeline. I remember a most beautiful empty-brain feeling of heading to the Welsh seaside just to read and write and walk and relax.

Occasionally I look back and think how much taking a break brought a seachange in my work-life balance. I’m fitter now and hopefully a bit healthier than when I was a full-time sedentary editor. I try to only work on screen for half a day at a time; the rest involves some kind of balancing exercise, anything from tidying the house to health-checking rabbits as a Fat Fluffs volunteer to going for a 1km swim or walking up the Malverns with my 72-year-old mum-in-law last weekend (see main pic).

I now have strength in my arms and tone in my legs. Yes, I still have a waist tyre and bury tension in my shoulders but the feeling of being stronger is making me feel good, and that’s inspired me to step up my exercise routine to include tai chi, aquafit and even a bit of upper body conditioning using weights. Chiselled shoulders a la Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 is a life goal!

I’m still writing and editing because leaving behind the trade I learned at 19 feels impossible. It’s what I’m trained for and I enjoy it, but I’m determined not to take too much client work on because I’ve enjoyed having the time to work on my own creative projects for a change.

Taking on a bit more work means finances have eased a bit. The bodyboarding dream trip may still happen after all, fitness permitting… although it’s not a cheap hobby when you live in landlocked Birmingham.

I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. I’m looking for my next adventure but it needs to be more meaningful than just bumming around as a solo backpacker of old. I’m torn between the simple aim of escaping the winter to work overseas for a few weeks and doing some kind of reportage story work (I have a several Instagramming photojournalists I admire).

I don’t want to end on a downer note but if I were to die tomorrow, I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed taking some time out of my working life to stop and look around for a while. Like having a glimpse of retirement.

It’s the simple things that have been the best, such as  enjoying the sun all day long, not just in a lunch hour; watching the buns hop around and surprising the squirrels (don’t ask); listening to my great-nephew as he discovers talking; catching a wave in the middle of February; working on my own writing for a change; watching the allotment sunset with Kerry and co; meeting up with friends and family in unpressured environments; colouring-in and collage nights in the local caff; having a lie-in on a weekday; hanging out with Pete; playing music; reading books; midnight blogging…

If you get a chance to take a work breather, even if only for a short while, I highly recommend it. I’ve had a very contented time thanks to working less.

Thankyou for reading this post-sabbatical ripple.

Career ideas on a postcard

Potential future office view from El Nido

I guess I should do an update of the post-sabbatical kind since I’m 18 months on from wanting to change my work/life, and six months on from the End of the sabbatical.

I haven’t touted for more screen-based writing/editing work (yet) so I’m still figuring out what to do for money – you’ll know when I start earning properly again as I’ll cut my ridiculous hair off – but I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and my work-life balance is much healthier now that I’ve halved my desk-based work.

Sabbatical hair.

The natural consequence of all the cyber security stuff has been to set up Observed.city data privacy email via the Mozilla Open Leaders project. There’s no income in that but it is in some small way campaigning for a better, less-1984-like path in our increasingly quantified and machine-judgmental world.

Subscribe here…

I seem to have started writing a blog post so my next big aim is to be more of a digital nomad, working from different cities occasionally and maybe even a surf beach in winter to escape the SAD and work on my Point Break moves.

Winter boogie

First, I have to figure out what that work will be. Maybe it’s time to resurrect my failed Thai Massage business ( ‘No Pain, No Gain’). But more likely it will involve some kind of digital comms or editing work, given I now have 30 (!) years’ experience in journalism and online content – just not too much! Or some other skill as yet unknown.

Ideas on a postcard, preferably to somewhere nice.

End of the sabbatical – so what’s new?

looking ahead
Thinking, thinking…

A year ago yesterday I logged off a seven-year freelance contract and started planning a different life – a healthier one with a better work-life balance preferably, and maybe a change of work focus, and maybe take some time to explore all those things I’d been stacking up on the backburner, fancy stuff like learning Indonesian and skating backwards and the more mundane, like sorting out all my crap and finances.

I’ve spent much of the past year, getting fit – through walking, swimming, Scottish dancing and tai chi – but the biggest health difference has been the ability to leave my screen and just potter. The second biggest revelation was that shorter hours meant less stress-based eating and drinking. I’ve lost a stone. I barely drink. I feel calmer. My neck and shoulders rarely ache and my arms have even redeveloped some muscles.

The big project, the thing I thought I would do was write some kind of memoir based on my travel diaries. That failed fairly quickly. I just couldn’t seem to settle into the slog of a book-length writing project while long solitary screen-based hours were the very thing I was trying to escape. I decided to just explore instead.

One year on, I’ve reinvented this project into a much more fun thing – different ways to mine a diary. Every morning I sit down and carve out something fresh from the diaries, whether that is a code-generated poem or a reworked story in a literary style or a haiku distilled from old travel emails or a vertical date slice juxtaposed with a historical event. I actively look forward to sitting down to work now.

The other big project resulted from the first book I read after stopping full-time work – The Snowden Files on Day Five. I immediately signed up for an OU/Futurelean course on cybersecurity basics, then spent the next year following its advice, from setting up a password manager to sorting out my backups to learning about privacy settings, file and disk encryption, two-factor authentication, PGP, email encryption, Tor browswer and so on. I go to everything I can on infosec to learn more – then I blog it and also share the 101 basics with others in a local café. It’s a fascinating and scary world out there but I’m aiming for practical rather than paranoid.

All this effort has led to something quite exciting…

Yesterday on the anniversary of stopping work I had a phone interview and got the ‘job’ of an Ingenius at the forthcoming tech/art pop-up event, The Glass Room London. Training begins soon and I am very excited to be part of this dystopian tech store where data privacy is the stock in trade. It signals a new beginning, of something, and hopefully something that I can bring back home to Birmingham

So yes, all the big things have changed. I’m earning a fraction of what I used to but I’m healthier and happier for it – I needed to buy time not stuff at this point in life. I’ve also done some mentoring and digital/tech/infosec help sessions and campaigning and protesting, and generally tried to give a little back. I did some long-distance travel, to Eastern Europe by train. I sorted out finances and clutter (ongoing that one). And I met a lot of people in coffee shops to ask their advice.

No, I didn’t write a book, hit my Indonesian 2000-word target (I got to 500 words on my app), invent a moveable maze for rabbits or learn to skate backwards. But I’m ok with that and, besides, there’s still time.

Still my favourite phrase of last year is ‘Everything does change, something is happening’ – it’s still changing and happening now. The sabbatical was slow to start in some ways but it has had a deep impact. The idea of nicking back some of your retirement and living it now is a good one if you can manage it. Because as my hero Ferris Bueller always says:

All my Sabbatical posts are rounded up here.

Challenge: Get up early for a week

Kings Heath Park
Park report: King’s Heath is my current favourite to walk to. KECH girls are already going to school at 8am, flicking the finger at friends/enemies and checking out the boys. Drivers are driving like arses in 20 zones. It’s warming up for a 27 degree day. Grass is dewy but drying. A bee is hovering and checking me out – probably the smell of Soltan. Baby Driver soundtrack is playing. A hay fever sneeze. End of year accounts await and later an epic Moselele summer singalong. It’s gonna be a good day.

A random wish on my sabbatical list – and one of the toughest for me as a night owl – was to get up at dawn for a week to see what it would feel like and discover if/how it would change my day/life.

With sunrise at 4.45am in June and dawn at 3.55am, this was a bit too much of a stretch. Still, on the week of the longest day of the year I started to go to bed at 10.30pm in order to get up at 6 – three hours earlier than usual.

Three spare hours at the start of a day! What would you do?

Birmingham is a city often maligned and mistaken for a concrete jungle. Its critics are not aware of how much greener it is than, say, London. We have so many tree-lined streets but also a multitude of parks and recs. Within 30 minutes walk of our house, for example, are 12 or so parks: Kings Heath, Highbury, Cannon Hill, Holder’s Lane playing fields, Row Heath playing fields, Hazelwell, Stirchley, Muntz, Cotteridge, Cadbury’s ladies recreation ground, Bournville and Raddlebarn/Selly Park.

Waterwise, there is also the Lifford Reservoir, the Rea Valley Route, and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. And, of course, my local Hazelwell Allotments to which I have the key.

I didn’t consciously set out to explore the parks and open spaces of south Birmingham in the early morning hours but it was a natural consequence of walking any short distance. The sun was shining, most people were still asleep or at breakfast, the day felt fresh and new. I downloaded a playlist on to my phone and started walking wherever (admittedly sometimes singing, dance-walking or air-drumming) to the beat of the music.

Here’s what I saw…

Hazelwell Allotments
Cotteridge Park
Muntz Park
Cadbury’s Ladies Rec
Rea Valley Route
Birmingham and Worcester Canal at the Lifford Curve
River Bourn at Stirchley Park and a shadow-me on the bridge

The walking felt good, the views were uplifting, the day started with a feel-good factor, and the music was a key part of the experience, giving me a lift and making me walk further and further, for an hour or more at a time. Coming home, my tea and toast never tasted so good. I even fitted in a meditation for extra deep levels of calm and relaxation, or visited a friend for a tea. And I still haven’t got over the weird feeling of having done so much and it being only 8 o’clock.

There were some downsides: losing my creative time at the end of the night and needing a nap to get through the day. But…

At the end of the week I was convinced enough to keep going with this new regime of getting up early Monday to Friday (and lying in at the weekends). Sunset walks were added, walks with friends and some trips further afield…

Harborne Walkway with Danni and Emma – a disused railway line close to the centre of Brum
Cannon Hill Park
Cannon Hill Park
Holders Lane playing fields and a paddle in the River Rea with sis
Kinver Edge walk with bro
Kinver Edge Rock Houses and breakfast overlooking the Black Country

On one walk I even discovered a secret canary yellow canalside breakfast caff in Stirchley, called the Barge Thru Café. It caused quite the stir on Twitter and I felt a little Lewis and Clark, discovering new things in an area where everything seems to be known. A breakfast expedition with other Stirchillians is already being planned – and if not a walk, an approach by raft or inflatable like the pioneers we aren’t. The adventure continues.

Brazilian-looking cafe at Stirchley ‘marina end’ – an unexpected find

And so…

It has had a big effect on me, and my mental and phyiscal health, this getting up early malarkey. This is the call to action bit. Is anyone else interested in an early morning walk around the B13, B14, B29, B30 post codes – there are some areas I don’t want to venture alone, namely the canals and commons.

Get in touch if you do.

The bonkers magic of KonMari

‘Sorting out the house’ was mentioned several times when I asked friends what they would do with a few months off. I’ll look back at May 2017 as the month of decluttering. Like many others, I tried the Marie Kondo book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, aka the KonMari method.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and now bestselling author. She sounds insane when you read her book – she was addicted to tidying up by the age of eight – and her methods are no less bonkers.

But… it works.

I still can’t quite believe how folding your clothes so that they stand up has actually transformed what I wear simply because I can now see it all in one go. Or how asking if something ‘sparks joy’ has allowed me to emotionally, rather than practically, let go of things I’ve kept for decades – from university research papers to my 1990s Thelma and Louise denim top that never came back into fashion.

It could be procrastination from other more creative work or it could be life-transforming as the book promises. I’ve cleared out so much crap, I do feel lighter and freer, and more pertinently for an allergic person, the house is becoming easier to clean. The really sentimental things are to come but that’s why you practice with your socks and pants first. It gets easier.

Here are some before and after photos. Sorting is done by category – another trick that helps massively when facing a big clear out.

TOPS

BOOKS

ACADEMIC PAPERWORK

The nice thing about this is the focus is less on throwing things away and more on only keeping things that you love. But possibly the biggest lure of the KonMari method is that you only have to do it once. We’ll see if that is true in time but my socks do remain firmly folded for now.

Overland to Eastern Europe: Kotor to Dubrovnik

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik

It’s raining heavily on arrival in Dubrovnik and it’s freakishly cold. We are wearing all the clothes and hats. This is not the only shock. The taxi from the bus station to Ploče charges a £12 set fare to go a couple of km, it’s £18 just to walk the town’s bloody walls – that’s each – and, worse still, a medium glass of so-so wine costs £7. Come back Zurich, all is forgiven.

“Everything is better is Croatia,” my Croatian ‘sister-wife’ Anita, the UK-famous inventor of the chocolate crumpet, repeatedly tells me – and I want to believe her. An old guidebook tells me the walls cost only £3 for access not so long ago, so this is probably the Games of Thrones effect. There really should be a different Dubrovnik price for non-GOT fans.

Being British, we of course mention the weather to our host Stijepo at Apartment Love and Hope and thank him for waiting for us in the torrential conditions.

“I would be happy if this was my biggest problem!” he exclaims, several times – a reference to being caught up in the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik with no electricity or water and weeks of bombardment by Serbia/Montenegro. After that, we pretty much shut up about the weather and the price of bread.

Once the storm clears, it is indeed truly lovely inside the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, so clean. I mean, really clean. (Well, all that tourist money has to go somewhere I guess.) We enter it at sunset so that we can immediately leave it, as Stijepo has sent us for a sunset drink at Buza, a well-known drinking hole on the rocks outside the wall. Pete nearly chokes on his £6 GOT-priced Leffe but it’s the view we are paying for and a ringside seat for sunset in the Pearl of the Adriatic.

Day 13: Lokrum Island

Stijepo recommended this nearby island as a lovely spot for a picnic, with botanic gardens and an old fort – but, who are we kidding, we mainly go because he told us there were loads of friendly rabbits roaming freely about there. There are. Here is a bun the size of a banana…

… and also an array of randy peacocks parading and trying to win over peahens to the point of fighting.

It’s quite something to watch baby bunnies hopping around giant prickly aloe vera succulents while peacocks shimmer and shake erect feathers next to the deep blue Adriatic. Only unicorns could have topped off the fairytale if anyone has Photoshop skills to add one here…

Day 14: Dubrovnik

We check the cruise ship timetable and head into the Old Town as the passengers leave. After a picnic on ‘the outside’ wall by the harbour, we randomly bump into Hannah and Myk who, being super-speedy Americans, have caught up with us despite leaving Belgrade four days later. Their Podgorica train journey, taken on May Day weekend and packed with students heading back to Montenegro, makes ours sound a Four Yorkshiremen sketch – luxury. The next day Mark from the Belgrade apartment will fly in as we fly out. More travel connections in time.

We buy a Ferrero Rocher-flavoured ice cream from Stijepo’s recommended childhood ice cream parlour Dolce Vita and sit once more outside the walls, on a tiny beach that has the most beach glass I have ever scavenged in my life. You know when you start a collection and become enslaved? Well, mine is a worldwide beach glass collection and this tiny beach just tripled it – as well as producing two rare pieces in blue.

Pete and I discuss biting the tourist bullet and paying nearly £40 to walk the 2km city walls but it comes down to this on our last day – we can either walk or eat. So we eat: a tuna pasta and beer and wine and chocolate feast on our Love and Hope balcony overlooking beautiful Dubrovnik.

A male voice choir carries up the steep hillside from Banye Beach as the sunset does its glorious hazy coloured spectacle thing, and we have a little last-night-of-the-holiday dance on the terrace because we’re married now and it’s legal.

I may not be as enamoured of travelling as I used to be, and I can’t wait to see our own little floppy-eared dudes and the rest of the human-eared family, but I sure could do with a little bit more blue sky, sea and sunshine in my UK life to be happy.

Perhaps everything is better in Croatia after all.

</The end of the Balkan blogging beast. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. Other blog posts are available. > 

Overland to Eastern Europe: Podgorica to Kotor

Day 9: Podgorica to Kotor

A bit of perspective arrives overnight and my appetite comes back for a full English breakfast out on the Hotel Hemera’s street terrace. No generic continental breakfast buffet here.

We have one hour to look around Podgorica’s sights – a bridge, a river, a statue of a Russian rock star – before we have to get to the bus station. Our local street of  bars and cafes, which closed around 3.30am last night, are all open and packed with people by 11am.

Our bus to the Bay of Kotor takes a 2.5-hours and the journey is a pretty one with snow-capped mountains, Lake Skadar in the distance and dizzying views down to Budva and Sveti Stefan beach resorts. We arrive into Kotor into an apartment overlooking the jade green bay and the Old Town, and sit on the terrace. We have a whole three days here.

One week into the trip, the holiday feels as if it about to begin.

Day 10: Muo, Perast 

It’s 24 degrees and we are wearing shorts and sun cream and sun hats. This has been the hardest trip to pack for: just a week ago I was up in the snow-covered Alps. We spend almost all day at ‘home’ in our Muo apartment, lounging and reading and writing and admiring the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and the Unesco Heritage Site of Kotor with its walled, almost triangular Stari Grad (old town).

We are about to leave the apartment when Pete gets the news that his Arts Council England grant application has been successful, which means he will have his first solo exhibition this autumn at Birmingham Open Media. We celebrate by hopping a one-euro 13km bus ride to Perast, a small Venetian-style village further up the bay, for an afternoon beer and sandwiches by the waterside.

A cruise ship enters the bay on its way down to Kotor, ready to disgorge several thousand people into its tiny port. We have learnt to timetable around them and I’m relieved to be in quiet Perast, wandering its tiny alleyways and stone staircases, while Pete 3D-scans a church square bust. Such is our life. We often enjoy our own little worlds, like our rabbits, each somewhere in the vicinity of the other.

Day 11: Kotor

No cruise ships today so Kotor Stari Grad is clear and we can explore at our leisure.

In truth I am ready to go home; yet when I am home I dream of being away. Both realities are perhaps tainted by a rose-tinted perception of reality.

Yesterday I came across another younger backpacking Brummie called Fiona on YouTube who is travelling for three years (as I did at the end of the 90s). I think of her at the future version of my past self – except she is vlogging her travels, advice, inspiration and reassurance. I simultaneously I admire her and think that I can’t go back in time to my own days cross-crossing Asia. I don’t envy the pressure she is under having to serve up daily content to an audience of followers. I remember how great it all was but now find myself annoyed by the narcissistic, self-focused, singular, young backpacker’s viewpoint. And yet… so fascinating and familiar that I think I must hate myself.

Solo travelling felt (still feels) like such an achievement for me, a shy Brummie who fell surprisingly in love with solo travelling as a teenager on a US road trip, enough to later hit the backpack trail to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand…

Travelling opened up my eyes to new lands, people, religion, cultures, perspectives, politics, ways to live, ways to die, ways to think. I even learned the value of my own country when I had the chance to leave it permanently. And later I began to change how I moved through the world, more aware of the impact of travel and tourism, and my own privilege involved in traversing someone else’s land. Travelling humbled me in many ways.

So the other Fiona, the one I found myself watching dispense travel wisdom on YouTube, arrived as an echo from another time and place. She reminded me that I am no longer her and can’t go back to that youthful time and place. That is her present, my past. I am now a traveller who has to some extent settled down. And that makes me question who am I without it? Is there such as thing as being a ‘post-traveller’? How do I travel now, if at all?

Other Fiona is asking for volunteer vloggers to expand her coverage and I’m tempted to offer as Future Fiona – a potential talking futurehead from two decades on. Or just leave her to get on with it. She’ll figure it out.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I am caught in another time travel loop of see my own future 24 hours ahead. I have connected with a friend’s Instagram friend who was in Belgrade, took the train to Podgorica, and arrived in Kotor a day before us. Each day I check her Instagram feed to see where she has gone, before posting variations of her photos a day later. She is currently staying across the bay in Dobrota and that we have probably taken a shot of each other’s apartment. I wave and wonder if she is waving back. From this yester-stream I know we will be climbing to the Kotor Fort and I find it comforting to folllow in a future traveller’s footsteps, at least until the near connections across multiple dimensions via the internet start to melt my brain, for behind us, Hannah and Myk from our Belgrade dinner, will be following us a few days behind.

Climbing the 13oo or so feet up cliffside steps to the Fort is painfully slow but we press on despite the jellylegs and panting for breath. I’m nearly 50, losing my balance and not the fittest but I did it. I got all the way to the top, where the mountain goats frolic and the kids graffiti and the soda sellers sits. I can still do it. I feel good.

At dinner, we toast scaling the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, the success of Pete’s funding and the longevity of us – eight years together, coming up to three married. Achievements.

Tomorrow we cross our final border and my eighth country of the tour, into Croatia. As with all journeys, it feels as if it is ending before it has ended.

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik