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How I Found my House in the Magical Spanish Mountains


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I started my Spanish adventure in 1997, just as Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative rule with the slogan ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. I was one of a number of young BBC journalists helping with the count on Election Night, but soon after fled the BBC on a trip to Mojácar in Spain, on the pretext of finding a cheap house to buy. I didn’t seriously think I would get one.

Accompanying me was my old friend Mark P, who had ridden to Mojácar on his motorbike a decade before. My friend Lucy’s house was empty, so we stayed there. We had instructions to call Jacqueline, the French postwoman for the mountain villages, who put the word out for villagers with houses to sell.

It was a beautiful early-summer day and the road to the mountains twisted and turned up through arid countryside, almond trees and old ruins until arriving in the pretty whitewashed village of Bédar, with a long view back down to the sea.

Jacqueline was waiting in one of a pair of bars facing each other on the road in. Tall and thin with a mahogany tan, long black hair framing strong, handsome features, and wearing lots of silver jewellery – she was unmissable.

Jacqueline drove us down a narrow unpaved road running under the looming peaks. We undulated through tiny settlements and over a rambla [dry riverbed] before accelerating up a perilously steep bank on the other side, to end up at a collection of three or four houses strung out along the top. We bumped down a track to one, a wide, two-story house set in an overgrown garden with several olive trees.

I don’t remember much about the house, apart from that the kitchen was outside, and the water supply was rationed from the nearby balsa [water store] where you took your turn on a rota with the neighbours. There was a ramshackle outhouse, and I remember standing near it while Jacqueline and a neighbour discussed which of the stones on the ground marked the house’s boundary. The discussion went round and round, much like the roads that had brought us there. Then, none the wiser, we all piled back into the car for the drive back to Bédar where Jacqueline dropped us at the bar and drove off.

I remember feeling out of my depth, and telling Mark that what I’d really like would be something less remote, perhaps a little house on the edge of a village. We decided to have a quick drink before driving back – and then I realised that the key to our hire car was no longer in my possession. I tried to call Jacqueline but got no reply. There were no buses. We were stranded.

What happened next was, as they say, fate.

A young blonde dressed in black leather came through the door and strode up to the bar. After exchanging a few words with the bartender, she came over and asked where we needed to go. When we said ‘Mojácar’, she offered to drive us. As we weren’t in a position to refuse, we accepted.

Nadja was Swiss, and although quite fluent in English, all her sentences came out back to front. When I told her that we’d been looking at houses, she said that she had one to sell, “with mains water, electricity, a telephone socket and seven terraces.” It sounded very grand so, to rule it out more than anything, I asked how much. “Four million pesetas,” she replied (approx. £16,000). It was the same price as the house we’d just looked at.

What’s more, Nadja’s house was on the edge of a small village – just as I’d wished for.

When we reached the main road, our saviour pulled into a garage and bought three cans of lager from a vending machine in the forecourt. We drove the rest of the way to Mojácar swigging beer and listening to her peculiar jumbled steam-of-consciousness conversation. I concluded she was very sweet but most likely mad.

I didn’t think I’d call about the house, but a few days later curiosity got the better of me and we made a date to visit.

To get to Lubrín we had to return to Bédar and carry straight on, up a narrow white asphalt road that twisted its way through a magical landscape of hills studded with olive trees, yellow broom and thyme. At the top we passed the village of El Campico before descending to El Marchal where the road broadened out and continued another 5km to Lubrín.

The strange thing was how at home I felt. While the views were far-reaching and magnificent the road itself felt cocooned and cosy. We didn’t meet another vehicle that day and in the years to come, I rarely did. If it did happen, I often knew the driver, and we’d stop to chat.

Nadja and her English boyfriend Steve were expecting us. Margaritas tumbled over their garden wall, and on the left of the house were the seven terraces Nadja had referred to, planted with almond trees and flowers.

By the end of the week, we’d agreed on a price and employed a gestor to manage the sale. We sealed the deal over a breakfast of beer and tapas in Mojácar.

Back then, Lubrín was my freedom. The village seemed not to have changed since the Fifties. Set in a valley, whitewashed houses were built up the side of a hill, around an enormous red brick church in the middle.

My house, later christened Casa Becca by a guest, was set off to the right, built into the side of  ‘El Castillo’. Many Spanish towns have a ‘castillo’ hill, on top of which the original Moorish watchtower would have stood.

All the roof beams were tree trunks, gnarled and twisted, interspersed with traditional caña – cane. Stone stairs led up to a low-ceilinged dining room leading to a big kitchen with an enormous fireplace at the end. There was a windowless ‘cave room’ with a huge rock from the mountainside protruding within. More rooms led around to a third bedroom opening onto the front of the house at the other end. The bathroom, down by the main front door, was a very basic affair with an old toilet and a plastic shower over a dug-out portion of the stone floor. In its 200 years, the house had barely changed.

Although there was a phone socket, there was no phone line and, back in 1997, no Internet. Apart from the 6am bus to Almeria City, there was no public transport, either. Compounded by the feeling that I’d stepped back in time, Lubrín felt properly remote. Nobody would ever find me. I’d been unhappy at the BBC so it was a huge relief to find myself there, completely cut off from social pressures.

I turned into another person when I was in Lubrín. Scruffy, dusty, carefree. I wore flowery shift dresses and tatty shorts. The only other foreigner in the town was a Dutch guy who I never met. My friends were old men who regaled me with tales about the village and my house’s past. I found out that Casa B had been the home of the village transportista who took goods and passengers to the coast in his donkey and cart, and that a man had been shot outside during the Civil War.

My main friend was Paco, a portly fellow of about 60. He had small, dainty feet and spoke in a soft, high voice, often reciting poetry or playing with words. Like many men from the village, he’d emigrated during Franco’s rule. He’d worked in Switzerland as a carpenter – he said he’d made furniture for David Bowie.

Another frequent visitor was Christobal, a wizened, Steptoe-like man who would exhort, ‘Mujer, mujer!’ [Woman, woman] in the style of a whiny flamenco singer at the start of every sentence, while encouraging me to buy his house or be his wife.

Paco and I became good friends. Even though he didn’t speak any English and I not much Spanish, he was an excellent communicator and we understood each other surprisingly well.

Soon after I bought my house, Paco took me to his land in La Alcarria, a beautiful valley on the other side of the main road. On the land was an old trunk which he ceremoniously opened to take out two fold-up chairs – one for me, one for my friend. He set them out and we sat down – looking north over an infinity of hazy mountain ranges – the ones in the foreground like rows of reclining elephant backs. Paco loved his land and was planning to build a house on it.

When I think of the early days I remember warm friendships and laughter. Paco would accompany my friends and I on excursions in the car, or come round for raucous suppers on the patio, or we’d have mad nights out in what I christened the ‘Young Mans’ Bar’ next to the post office, where the clientele would chorus ‘Paco Toro!’ when he arrived with two young women on his arm. When I was the only foreigner in town it really was fun.

Slowly but surely, Lubrín caught up with the rest of the world.

A few settlers from England arrived every year. There was Ponytail John, who built his own house out in the campo, and Dave Beach, a lugubrious hippie with great taste in music. There was Sally and Ann, possibly the village’s first ‘out’ lesbian couple, and their neighbour Bill, a gay accountant. There was Mandolin John, always with a beautiful girlfriend. Tourists rarely found their way to the village, but when they did it felt bizarre. To me, they looked big and out of place. Sitting outside the Plaza Bar, they were like giants on a small stage.

Around 2003 the dear little road from Bédar to El Marchal was widened and tarmacked, and with that more and more foreign settlers came. The tipping point for me was when a young suburban couple arrived. Until then, the foreign residents had had something alternative about them, a touch of the pioneer. But these people had none of that. And with that, it was as if my secret hideaway had been busted and my freedom was gone.

Solo Visits

I started coming to Lubrín on my own around 2002. At first, I was nervous. I’d fly in from Gatwick, drive back in my hire car, make the bed and smoke the emergency cigarette I left on the dining room desk. Then I’d go out for provisions from Antonio and Fina’s late-night shop – and see who was around. One time I didn’t get home till midnight after being waylaid by Mandolin John and a friend of his. Another time, I woke up at 4 am in a panic. It was pitch dark and I had the sensation I was entombed within an endless Spanish mountain range – there were no buildings after mine. In my 40s I would often wake up in the night. For a while, an insomniac bird nesting in the roof would be up around the same time, moving about. I found it comforting.

Paco and I grew apart. Lubrín had won the massive El Niño lottery in January 1998 with a prize of 1400m pesetas (about 8.5m euros). Paco was one of the winners. He didn’t spend the money at first, but a few years later he bought a radio-controlled airplane and a souped-up black sports car with red flames blazing on the sides. Where once he had been patient and good-humoured, he became impatient and his gentle high-pitched voice became gruff. He’d tear off to holiday towns like Aguadulce in the sports car and return with torrid tales of his exploits.

They wouldn’t let him build a house in La Alcarria (the plot was just 1m too narrow). Bitter, and obstinate to the last, he built a swimming pool instead and put a squalid kitchen and bathroom underneath. He surrounded the pool with weird totems like plastic fans and dolls’ heads on sticks.

There was a succession of dogs he didn’t know how to look after and on occasion he’d chase English settlers in his car. The gentle, communicative Paco I knew and loved had vanished, and when I asked people how he was, they just shook their heads and said, ‘perdido’ – lost. He died in 2010.

Middle Years

So far, I’d only visited Lubrín for short holiday breaks but when I started my Spanish rug and tile business it became the base for buying and sourcing expeditions. From 2006 onwards, I’d embark on huge solo road trips around Andalusia several times a year. I visited Valencia, too, to go to the Cevisama tile fair, once driving 400km cross-country from there to Cordoba to visit our main supplier. I visited Granada and embarked on crazy missions to find new suppliers in a series of remote locations. I particularly loved going to Priego de Cordoba, a baroque gem perched atop a cliff in the Sierra Subbetica Natural Park. I’d stay at Hostal Rafi where the bar was like a Spanish version of the US series Cheers. Rafi was even playing Bruce Springstein the first time I went. My second visit coincided with a noisy religious procession, the virgin being borne through the streets, children dressed up for their communion and a major football match blaring out from TVs. Hostal Rafi was in the middle of it all – the centre of the world!

Priego was four hours from Lubrín. Driving there in the autumn you’d see bonfires blazing high on the horizon. There were deserted mountain passes where you could go for hours without meeting a soul. At these times, I’d marvel at how, sometimes just the day before, I’d been caged like a bird in my London shop watching traffic thunder by, and now was soaring free in the mountain air, maybe 100 miles away from anyone else.

Occasionally I ended up in dangerous situations like the time I took the wrong route to the pretty village of Castril, 890m above sea level on the edge of the Cazorla National Park. As the track got narrower and narrower, I found myself with no choice but to accelerate up the precipitous bends with an overweight load of wholesale ceramics in the back. Dusk was falling and I remember thinking, ‘no-one knows where I am and I might die,’ followed by a half-crazed relief when I reached the top to witness a herd of goats galloping home in a cloud of dust. It was a quintessential Spanish moment.

Now…

In 2016, Lubrín became my freedom for the third time. Disgusted by the Brexit vote in March 2016, my first thought was to leave the UK. On the basis of having a Spanish house, I applied for Spanish residency. To my surprise, the application was successful and I moved out here in 2018.

Today, Lubrín is firmly rooted in the 21st Century. There are street lamps along the road in, and a small industrial estate just north of my house. There’s a world-class olive oil press, a honey factory and modern milking sheds for the goats. The once-silent hills are full of light and noise. There’s a small housing estate opposite me, too, mainly occupied by British families who now make up a sizeable proportion of the population.

Stubbornly ‘unreformed’ for years, Casa B has been updated to make her long-term habitable. The tree trunk roof beams have gone, as has the insomniac bird. The cave room has a window. The dining room and kitchen have been knocked together and the ceilings raised. A proper bathroom has been added.

I study Spanish, teach English and Creative Writing, blog, write and walk the hills. Everyday life is time-consuming – I collect my water from the mountain spring at El Campico and drag it up to my house in a trolley. In the winter I must bring in wood, make fires and clean the stoves. More satisfying, this year I picked my olives for the first time and took them to the press in exchange for some superb Lubrín olive oil.

It’s been a little tough, establishing a life here on my own. It can be awkward negotiating social groups as an older single woman. It’s taken time to find work, or friends on my wavelength, but I keep on. Perhaps the fourth freedom will come when I really don’t care what other people think.

In the absence of family, Casa B has been my continuity. Last March, returning from winter respite on the coast, it was surprisingly nice to be back. Even though I had to hoover the flaky paint off the walls and clean surfaces thick with muddy dust, it was just lovely to hear the birds again, and the goat bells, and the church ringing every quarter-hour. Enduring country sounds. The sounds of home.

Postscript

In June 2021, I went to a dance performance at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London. ‘Dance Me To Death’ was a project started by AofA’s Rose Rouse, with all the dancers in their 60s or older. At the after-party, I was on a table with a couple from Clapham. When I asked if they knew the province of Almeria, the woman gave a little start. She said that she’d visited a place called Bédar one Christmas in the Seventies. Back then, black-clad village ladies washed their clothes at the communal fountain and collected water in huge water jugs on their heads. Donkeys were the main means of transport, roads were few, and Fi and her boyfriend had walked four miles up to the village from the bus stop. On Christmas Eve, the village ladies taught her to dance Flamenco – she pulled her body up straight to demonstrate. She looked happy as the memories resurfaced, and I thought how great it was that we should meet by chance almost 50 years later, two strangers transcending time and space to share our experiences of a tiny, faraway place that has meant so much to us both.

Perhaps the magic lives on, after all.

Becca is running a trio of online Creative Writing courses. Each runs for six weeks and a number of themes are covered, including Fantasy & Transformation, Imagery, Characterisation, Dialogue, ‘Fragmented Writing’, Theme, Plotting and more.

Classes contain excerpts from a range of relevant authors and a 25-minute writing exercise based on the theme of the week. There’s time for students to read their work and discuss, and homework is given.

Featured authors include Kei Miller, Tim Winton, Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Carys Davis, Jo Shapcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Andrea Levy, Helen MacDonald, Jeanette Winterson, Tricky, Tracey Emin and Melissa Harrison. 

The Creative Writing courses will run from mid-September, along with the journalistic ‘Write an Article in a Week’, which runs over two weekends. The price for each course is £125, with a 10% reduction if you book up for two or more. Becca is currently developing a new course on Memoir Writing.

For more info please visit https://beccaleathlean.wordpress.com or email lubrinbecca@gmail.com

My Love Affair with Italy


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Annie Llewellyn has an academic background in Psychology and has lived and worked in Wales for many years. She is grateful for the years she spent in academia because she was able to teach and research In Europe. In 2002, she met and married an Italian and has never lost her love for this amazing country. She is now resident in Italy for much of the year and works remotely while still trying to work out the bureaucracy and the language.

The route to Italy began when my daughter came home for the weekend with a copy of an advertisement that she had found in the Sunday Times ‘Lonely Hearts’ section and I think she wished to divest herself of coming to seek me at weekends so that she could spend more time with the current boyfriend. The advertisement said that the gentleman concerned had a cottage in Wales and a house in Italy and was looking for someone to share his life with and I put it on one side thinking he would have loads of applicants.

One day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I decided to phone him, bearing in mind that I hadn’t seen a photograph as this was before the days where you swipe left or right based on physical characteristics. We had a chat on the phone, and I felt quite excited to be asked out on my first date. I dressed very carefully in a red dress and high heels (never usually wear these things). I found my date waiting for me in a high street in a mid-Wales town and we went to a rather seedy pub full of slightly inebriated locals. To say it was ‘love at first sight’ was simply not the case and in fact, it was very much the opposite. He was a slightly rotund, very well-dressed businessman whose accent belied his private education and his Italian ancestry. We looked slightly out of place I have to say in this rather run-down Welsh pub on a Saturday night.

The conversation though was interesting, and we spoke of many deep things such as the sudden death of his previous partner at a young age and his heartbreak at this. I saw a survivor and someone who was very likeable. I spoke of my yearning to travel to see other countries now that my children had grown up and I had time on my hands not to mention the unfaithful but long-lasting relationship with a younger man (we can go there another time). Richard – yes, that was his name – talked of how he longed to wander the beaches with his dogs on a rope lead and divest himself of all connections with money and become a gypsy. I have to say I only found out later than he knew how to sell himself, but I digress from my story.

I got ready to leave and said that I had enjoyed his company, but I didn’t think we were especially suited. I also thanked him for arranging to meet and moved to get up and go and I wished him well with finding the right person. He then said: ‘Would you like to eat?’ and I had to admit to feeling peckish and so we found a local Indian and we ate a good curry. He confided that I was the fourth date of the evening and that there had been 350 applicants so far, but I was the best of them all.

Of course, after the troubles of my previous relationship where I had lost not only my husband but most of our worldly goods which went to buy his new younger model a house and car – this somewhat bolstered my ego. We parted as friends and he said that he would phone me before he left for Italy the next day to complete on his house and I wished him a good trip and drove away thinking that I would never hear from him again. Yet, the next morning I received a text thanking me for a beautiful evening and promising to ring me on his return from Italy. My thoughts returned to him during the week as I wondered whether he had completed on the house and then on Thursday morning he texted me to say that he had completed upon the house. And I replied that ‘I am delighted that you have achieved your dream’ as he had been born in Florence and the text came back to say ‘you are my dream’ and I honestly had to get out of the bath to read it properly because the bath was steaming up the screen of my phone. I had never considered leaving Mid Wales again let alone taking up with a foreigner who admitted years later that he had sent it over a drunken lunch with his sister.

During the time that Richard was away, there were several gossipy lunches with girlfriends and the consensus was that what had I got to lose? Well, there was the issue that he wasn’t my physical type; my style of man was more along the lines of a tortured poet but as my friends pointed out my last attempt at tortured poets had certainly not gone well. A week after Richard’s return from Italy he invited me to his farmhouse in South Wales and we sat outside drinking gin and tonics and the first night he cooked me a beautiful meal of roast duck with all the trimmings and the housekeeper had put flowers in the spare room next to my bed.

We spent the days exploring the nearby market town and getting to know each other and, in the evenings, we ate out in Abergavenny. It is true that Italian men have the gift of romance and this one played Maria Callas, and I began to enjoy the ease of his company. Despite the heavy romancing, I continued to sit on the fence but four weeks later the school holidays were drawing close; and Richard made me an offer of two weeks in Italy followed by two weeks in Spain and I was absolutely hooked. I had probably been planning to spend the holidays scrubbing the skirting boards and put that against jetting off to a country that I already loved and of course, I accepted.

Before we left, I was introduced to the Italian mother and she was utterly lovely a gorgeous, lithe lady in her late 80s living in Fulham. She had once been part of the Folie Bergère in Paris where she had met her Italian Count but sadly the Florentine family didn’t feel the same. I too was similarly dismissed when I met Richard’s children who apparently treated all his girlfriends in the same way and would clearly have preferred him to return to their mother so that they could resume their private education.

I had anticipated a lazy drive down through France to Italy but any hopes of that were dismissed as we navigated the M4 to the ferry. Once Richard joined the motorway down to the South, I began to realise there is no such thing as a lingering road journey to an Italian. It was hot and he drove very fast and in mid-France, I began to dream of flights wondering how much more I could take of this road trip with Puccini blaring from the speakers. I quickly learned that Italians manage their women in a manner that is subtle but designed to get their own way.  We arrived at the house 18 hours after we left Dover having navigated the long incline to the house, a truly nail-biting drive and one of the most dangerous in Italy. There are 13 hairpin bends and some of them are the switchback type. Passing places are few and it is a single-track road much beloved by cyclists and people in camper vans seeking a rural idyll after the joys of Florence, Rome, and Sienna. We arrived about 3 am in the morning. I was absolutely shattered and planned to catch the first flight home from Pisa as soon as morning light dawned.

I awoke the next morning to warm sunshine flooding the room and threw open the shutters and I was blown away by the view. It was literally love at first sight as my eyes took in the rugged mountains, the breathtaking views and the valleys shimmering in the warm sun below. I would come to love that view and I drank it in every morning and was there until late evening draining the last drop of prosecco from my evening aperitif. You couldn’t hear a sound and after the hectic drive and the journey, I felt that I had come home. Many people experience this when they first come to Italy and indeed, I had felt this on my first trip, but something gripped me on that visit that has never left my soul. I love the bones of Italy and I don’t feel the need to do the touristy things that Italy offers to many (although I do them in passing) but it is the experience that grabs me more than anything. It is being alive under the Italian sun as it were and simply being and there is no more pleasurable meditative state.

Every day I fell further in love with Italy and Richard. I would sit and people watch, and few words were exchanged between Richard and me as I immersed myself in people watching and eating dinner late in the evening at different restaurants. I loved to peek into doorways as we paused to gaze at the tranquil gardens where I imagined sitting in the evenings. The Italians, of course, rarely sit in their gardens during the day preferring to shade themselves from the sun. I lit candles in the evening on the terrace and Richard prepared simple food, which we bought from the market vendors during the day.

Richard and I were not lovers before we embarked on the trip but I fell in love with him during this trip. It wasn’t my usual passionate kind of encounter but the simple love of a man and woman who meet in mid-life and are appreciative of the time they spend together and are merging in a kind of simplicity that is hard to define. We spent long hours listening to the voice of Maria Callas singing arias from Madam Butterfly and indeed the aria was played at Richard’s funeral some eight years later. Richard admitted that the trip was one of the happiest that he had ever made to Italy. Just us and the landscape – what a joy!

We returned to Italy every few weeks (flying, of course). Richard didn’t change, and many times he dragged me from the sanctity of the house back into the hire car to various sites of interest such as Florence, Siena, and Assisi where I was expected to drink in the atmosphere in a few hours. Richard proposed after a visit to Bologna to see his sister and he bought me the most beautiful diamond ring and I think I was the happiest I have ever been. We married in Florence just before Christmas eighteen months later on a beautiful frosty, snowy day in the Palace Vecchio. The wedding ceremony was conducted in Italian by candlelight with beautiful frescoes in the background and centuries of history surrounding us.

The years I experienced with this man were years that I will never forget, and he never made life easy, but he did his absolute utmost to make me happy. When he became ill six years after we married, it didn’t slow him down and he didn’t involve me in his treatment. He died two years later, but he gave me something that was beyond money. He introduced me to a different way of living and a life that I had never experienced before. In the last two years of his life, I gave up my job and we spent time in Tenerife because he liked the climate and the small mountain house remained closed. I was with him in the final stages of his life and his last words to me were ‘don’t leave me’ as he sank into a morphine-induced sleep.

I was heartbroken and it was two years before I was able to return to Italy as I couldn’t face returning to the house and life there without him. He left me his share of the small mountain house and I knew it would be hard in practical terms to live there full time and so started to think that selling the house was my only way of keeping afloat. I hadn’t realised the extent of the practical problems that living in Italy inevitably brought until I started to engage with bureaucracy. I spoke only a little Italian and even now it is a work in progress, I learned that Richard’s way of dealing with taxes was to ignore them. This is not so easy for the person left behind. I came to realise that the man whom I loved so deeply had left me his part of the house but not the income to support it. I returned to my job and picked up the threads of my life and paid off all the taxes that were owed. Healing came more slowly and there were relationships post-Richard, but they were not important.

I yearned to spend more time in my Italian home and popped over for brief visits to pay bills but I couldn’t face spending longer without the man I had loved so much by my side. It was the support of a loving therapist that made me see that I could create new memories and that Richard would want me to return and I began to want to give it a try. I cleared the house of memories and had the place revamped and so I started to appreciate once more the peace of the country I had come to see as home. I decided to cash in my pension to give myself some capital and a monthly income, but I also negotiated a few hours of teaching on Zoom and I managed to sustain a level of income that would make living in Italy work. I was faced with loads of practical problems such as driving on the other side of the road in the terrifying mountainous area in which I live, but is something I was able to overcome.

My week is now punctuated with visits to the Wednesday market in the nearest village after navigating the thirteen hairpin bends where I buy locally grown fresh vegetables and fruit often for as little as one euro. I also buy a spit roast chicken from the rotisserie in the marketplace, and I eat this with fresh salad or pasta.  On Saturday, I get on the local train to visit Lucca and enjoy a cappuccino with a friend and perhaps wander around the market to see what bargains are available. I have picked up designer cashmere sweaters for as little as 5 euros. Once a month there is the antique market where people gather to buy the beautifully restored, shabby chic furniture and magnificent chandeliers. I often join friends for lunch and revel in the odd purchase I make such as crystal chandelier droplets for my Christmas tree. Trains are cheap in Italy, and I can travel to other places quite easily to experience a different side of Italian life.

I live in the moment in Italy and appreciate the compensations of my life as I get up to greet the dawn on my terrace and gaze down to the valley below watching as the sun clears away the clouds. I can often be found swaddled in a blanket, sipping my morning tea alone on my terrace engulfed by the silence. I am alone but the airport is not far away and I am only half a day’s travel away from my children and friends.

Single women are drawn to Italian life and there are always people around who will chat and readily express their envy when they realise you are not a tourist but live there. Friends who visit are drawn to choosing their own place, but when they return home; I return to my life of silent contemplation where I read by my fireside in the evening, or I light a candle and enjoy a glass of frizzante wine alone. I don’t often feel lonely because I have found my peace and I have memories from the past and hopes for the future that I am planting as I go. There is no rush even though my memories of Richard remind me that life is brief and that all we have is now. However, I know that I have everything and that is more than enough.

“Deep in the soul, below pain, below all the distraction of life, is a silence vast and grand – an infinite ocean of calm, which nothing can disturb. Nature’s own exceeding peace, which passes understanding. That which we seek with passionate longing, here and there, upward and outward; we find at last within ourselves.”

Richard Maurice Bucke

Why I had to Write This Book


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Last year, Dr Eva Chapman wrote about her book, ‘Sexy at 70’ for us at ‘Advantages of Age’. Here she explains why she had to write her latest book, ‘Butterflies & Demons’.

 Butterflies and Demons is set in Adelaide, South Australia. After a vision, in 2006, about the Adelaide Aborigines (the Kaurna), I felt compelled to tell their story, which is also partly my story. In 1950, I arrived as a three-year-old Eastern European refugee in Adelaide.

I didn’t see an Aboriginal person until my teenage years even though the Kaurna had inhabited the Adelaide plain for 40 thousand years. It was as if they had been obliterated. I was taught the European version of history at school, which was that Australia began when the white man came to her shores. I was curious and spent the next few years researching the history of the Kaurna. This entailed going back – by this time I had moved to the UK – to Adelaide, speaking to Aboriginal people, and looking through diaries, newspaper articles and archives. I loved doing the research and found that Kaurna people were so gentle, so clever, and so mindful of the piece of earth they lived on. They suffered terribly at the hands of the British Empire, as did I, an unwelcome refugee in 1950s Adelaide.

I was thrilled to come across the diaries of two Lutheran missionaries, Teichelmann and Shurmann who came to Adelaide in 1838 and lived among the Aborigines, describing in great detail, what happened to the Kaurna, as the British occupied their lands. The missionaries learnt the Kaurna language, believing this was the best way to convert the Aborigines to Christianity. I reproduce many of the conversations between the missionaries and Kaurna men especially Murlawirrapurka who was regarded as the wise elder of the Kaurna people. The missionaries recorded many conversations and events which involved Murlawirrapurka, which demonstrated the measure of the man and the delicate line he had to tread with his new masters. He was gentle and trusting and bent over backwards to accommodate the white man, working hard to ease tensions within his own people. He, as the custodian of the Kaurna people, hoped that the whites would uphold their traditions. But sadly, this was not to be, even though Adelaide was set up to be a model colony, which was not supposed to repeat the harsh treatment of Aborigines in the Eastern States.

The story in my book bounces between two eras, the 1840s, which describes what happened to the Kaurna, and the 1950s, which follows the story of a migrant child who also suffered at the hands of British imperialism. This is based on my own story and describes the prejudice I personally experienced, as I spoke weirdly, looked strange and smelt of garlic. Adelaide residents prided themselves on their Anglo-Saxon heritage and were afraid that the influx of ‘aliens’, as we were called, would dilute their Britishness. They set out to ‘australianise’ us as quickly as possible. My misery was compounded by having a violent, schizophrenic mother who thought the Communists were persecuting her.

The Kaurna story and my story intertwine in a startling and dramatic way – I personally received great healing from their loving energy, which still imbues the gum trees and blue skies of the majestic Adelaide plain.

The pivotal theme that fuses the parallel stories is that past misdeeds cannot be buried. I include a meta-commentary that illustrates this. This Greek chorus is supplied by a dreaming circle of Kaurna grandmothers who observe the unfolding drama, confront and challenge the author (often with humour), and also take part in the action. So I use it as a way of challenging myself. For instance –

Grandmothers:  Eva Chapman, who do you think you are?  Are you attempting to write about the Kaurna, the Red Kangaroo people?

Author: Hey who do you think you are? I am trying to write Chapter 1.

Grandmothers: We are the Kaurna Grandmothers. And we want to know why you are writing about us? We exist in an oral tradition. We are here to protect our sacred Kaurna heritage. We don’t want white, nosy know-it-alls, poking their pointy snouts into our business.

This dialogue device is in honour of the Kaurna oral tradition, and also of the plays or ‘ngunyawaietti’ that the Kaurna loved to put on, and which were described by Teichelmann and Shurmann, in their diaries. The other outstanding contribution of Teichelmann and Shurmann, was their grammar book of the Kaurna language which they published in 1840. This was subsequently lost for 150 years, but by a series of miracles recovered. As a result, Kaurna is one of a handful of the original 450 Aboriginal languages that is still spoken, and taught in schools.

The story ends in the present. Deeply held racist attitudes still hold sway towards Aborigine people. The author is challenged by the Kaurna grandmothers about her own racism, and the result is surprising and ultimately rewarding. Out of the chrysalis of greed, racism and demons emerge new hope – including a song that had been driven underground and a virtually extinct butterfly.

The butterflies which are in the title and on the cover are the Delias Aganippe which were in abundance on the Adelaide plain. Now they are rarely seen. Fortunately, the South Australian Butterfly Conservation Society has taken it on as its mascot and are working to restore vegetation to bring them back.

I have had many visits with Uncle Lewis Yelopurka O’Brien, the current highly esteemed Kaurna elder, who is now 91. What a lovely man. As well as taking me on a historic tour of the Kaurna sites, he read my book ‘Sasha & Olga’ and said my life had been harder than his. Excuse me! His humility is astounding. He feels very honoured that I wrote ‘Butterflies & Demons’ and has fully endorsed it.

Please message me if you want a signed copy or get it on Amazon.  Website www.evamariachapman.com , emachapman@gmail.com  

Every day, In Every Way, It’s Getting Better and Better and Better


6 Minute Read

Sex gets better with age. Hi, I’m Nicola Foster, as  Sex and Relationship therapist I spend my working days talking about sex. I’m fortunate to have such privileged, inside insight into peoples’ sex lives. Of course, it’s a subject I’m hugely passionate about. I’m sharing here 10 of the reasons why I think that making love is something that only improves as we get older. (I had to stop and 10, I could probably get to 100!)

10 reasons sex gets better with age

One – Becoming less self-conscious

The chances are that neither of you has the firm, springy, glowing body of your youth (if you even had one!). Now, we’re older, it’s bonding to share self-consciousness about our bulges, bumps and scars. They tell the story of our life. By now you’ve also probably figured out strategies for feeling less concerned – soft lighting and candlelight do wonders don’t they?. One of my favourite techniques with a new lover is to keep a silky sarong, or soft blanket to hand to drape over myself if I feel too exposed. (Top tip: these also come in handy to caress the skin of your beloved later).

Two – Better at loving touch

If you’ve had some variety of sexual encounters over the decades, you’ve most likely learned a few different ways to touch and be touched. And you may have become more generous in giving touch so that your partner can relax and enjoy. If you’ve been alone for a while – now is the time to be curious and experimental. What does your partner like? soft, firm, slow, hard, and where? Get talking about what you like in the first stages of your arousal and what works better for you when you are more turned on? Now that I’m older I understand that each person’s body (and genitals) are completely different and they like very different things. I offer a free guide to Types of touch – get a copy here: https://www.wanting-more.com/touch

Three – More skills

More time on the planet means that we have had the chance to discover that lovemaking isn’t only what comes naturally (although that’s wonderful!) There are many skills and techniques we can develop from doing some research and reading about how pleasure works. Check out OMGYes, Layla May and The Wheel of Consent for ideas on how to increase your own pleasure.

Four – Saying ‘no’

Many of us when we’re young, get good at ‘going along with’, with being people pleasers. With maturity (and some tough knocks) we can get better at being able to say, no. “No, I don’t like that, but could you try this?”  No is such a powerful sexual word!

Five – Saying ‘yes’

Yes, Yes, Yes. When we give our partner enthusiastic consent for what they are doing, they can relax into enjoying what they are doing more, and, hopefully, in return, we get more of what we like.

It’s a great sadness to me when I speak to young women about sex, many of them tell me they don’t say anything during sex. They don’t make any noises or use any words. ‘Good girl’ conditioning has led to a fear of being seen as too slutty or ‘forward’. It’s one of the best aspects of my job, dismantling this conditioning and encouraging more verbal enthusiasm for the innocence and joy of enjoying and loving our bodies’ responses to being touched. I hope that us older folks are more willing to let out an enthusiastic ‘hell yeah’ in bed!

Six – Deeper connection.

Often in our younger years, there’s an over-emphasis on performance. On wanting to be seen as a good lover. Wanting to get it ‘right’. Fear of getting it ‘wrong’.

  • Am I orgasmic enough?
    Am I  hard enough?

  • Am I wet enough?

  • Was it long enough?

One advantage of age is that we can discover that sex is much less about performing and much more about connecting and communicating. It’s a way of offering a loving presence to the person we’re with. We can let go of the emphasis on orgasm or a goal, and simply be with what is. What a relief, huh?

Seven – Getting experimental

If you held down a responsible job, could you have been fired for risque behaviour outside of the office? Now post-retirement, it’s the perfect time to try something wilder, kinkier, sillier, more taboo. A swingers event? A kink munch meetup? A  tantra workshop? Safe in the knowledge that no one from work is going to be there and you’re not going to find yourself the subject of office gossip.

Eight – Slowing down

I’ve learned as I’ve aged and now have health issues that I need to attend to my energy levels. By the end of the working day, I’m usually pretty tired. For me. if I want to enjoy sex it needs to be during the day. I use a food metaphor when talking to clients. If you want a full three-course meal version of sex – you need to set aside a really proper amount of time for that. A whole day is a wonderful thing to do. But, a little snack size taste of sexuality can be enjoyed during the week. A 15-minute window here and there. Maybe cuddle with some caresses and touch? Some gentle genital touch in the morning? Eye gazing and fantasizing? There’s a whole smorgasbord of play that can be enjoyed in snack-size portions.

Nine –  acceptance of illness.

Many, many of us contend with some level of illness that affects sexual interest and energy levels.  As we get older, we learn we need to work with and adapt to the individual and unique differences in how our bodies can move or respond.  Can we get curious and creative about what we can do, rather than focusing on what we can’t do? With warmth and humour it’s possible to avoid the vicious circle that so many couples get into. Check out the Netflix TV show the  ‘Kominsky Method’ on NetFlix for some fantastic characters enjoying a sex life in thier seventies and eighties.

Ten – New possibilities.

Rather than seeing long-term, committed sex as mundane and monotonous – the couples who have most satisfaction see it as a voyage of discovery. Each sexual experience is like a snowflake, no two are the same. There are infinite varieties of the kinds of sex, power dynamics, toys and intimacy that we can combine. When we remain optimistic, there are always new discoveries to be made. Many older men find that their genitals are more sensitive and erogenous in the soft state. Some discover that it’s actually possible to enjoy a full-body orgasm, without ever having an erection. Check out the author Gina Ogden, ‘The Return of Desire’ on womens’ sexuality in later life.

I personally find this curiosity-based approach to exploring what’s possible endlessly fascinating. There’s a freedom in having escaped the ‘shoulds’ of societal norms and knowing our bodies so much better. What can you discover about yourself as a sexual being at 50? 60? 70? 80?. For more inspiration, I highly recommend Jack Morin’s classic book ‘The Erotic Mind’. It’s a great way to explore your sexual blueprint more deeply. We’re only just getting started! Keep in touch with me on my blog www.wanting-more.com/blog  or podcast www.wanting-more.com/podcast

Age is no Barrier to Getting your Book Published


5 Minute Read

Judy Piatkus, 71, is an entrepreneur, publisher and business coach specialising in conscious leadership. She founded Piatkus Books when she was in her 20s and grew the company to become an international brand, before selling it in 2007, just before the global financial crash that she had shrewdly foreseen. She is now a keynote speaker and a coach and mentor to start-ups. In 2011 she founded Conscious Café, a network that brings people together for connection and discussion.  www.judypiatkus.com

It was 2019. I had no plans to write a book as I travelled to a café in Islington, North London, for a ladies networking lunch organised by a friend of mine. Yet one of the women I was to meet there was to set my life on a new and unexpected trajectory during the next three years.

Helen Elizabeth Evans offers a process called Scientific Hand Analysis which helps you understand yourself better. I was fascinated when she looked at the palm of my friend’s hand and revealed information about her that she could not have previously known as they had only just met. I booked my own session with Helen and discovered that I had ideas I wanted to communicate to the world, stories I wanted to share. Writing some of them down seemed an obvious route to go and so it began.

My background is book publishing and I had founded my company, Piatkus Books in 1979 and sold it successfully in 2007 to one of the largest publishing conglomerates. I had made a first attempt at writing a book after that but the three eminent literary agents I offered it to were not impressed and so I abandoned it.

At the start of 2019, I determined that writing my book would be my project for that year and that I would approach it in a more professional way. I joined a writing class run by a previous colleague from my publishing days. It soon became clear that memoir would be the form of writing that came most naturally to me and so I began. Interestingly, I didn’t write about my life in a linear way. I wrote the easiest chapters first and then amalgamated them with later chapters which were harder to write and didn’t flow so effortlessly.

After I had written 40,000 words I sent them to an experienced freelance editor who a publisher friend recommended. It was an anxious time waiting for her response. However, she was very encouraging and suggested guidelines that I could follow. I persevered and finally, the book was completed. It was a great feeling to finally write those two immortal words ‘the end’.

I sent the completed typescript which was by then about 80,000 words to the freelance editor and asked if she would copyedit it so that I could look for a literary agent to represent me. She got to work, subtly improving what I had written. Nevertheless, it was still a shock when the early pages were returned to me as she had cut 20,000 words from my text. As an ex-publisher though, I knew that whatever she had chosen to leave out would improve my book immeasurably and after a couple of days of adjustment, I was able to send it out on a quest to find a literary agent who would represent me.

Although a former publisher myself, I hadn’t given much thought to which company might publish it. Over the next eight months a literary agent took it on and she sold it to Watkins Books, a perfect fit, as it turned out because Watkins publish books in the genres I was writing about.

My memoir is entitled “Ahead of Her Time: How a One Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand”. It’s the story of how I started the business in my bedroom at home in the 1980s when I was pregnant with my second child and how my colleagues and I gradually built it into one of the UK’s most successful independent publishing companies. We became known for publishing popular fiction and for being pioneers in the area of alternative health and personal growth publishing. In the 1980s we published classic bestsellers such as Colour Me Beautiful and cookbooks by Mary Berry whose first book for Piatkus, Fast Cakes, is probably on many of your shelves. We also published the earliest works by Jon Kabat Zinn, who brought the concept of mindfulness to the West and a range of health and mind, body and spirit titles including the first UK books on detoxing and decluttering.

In April this year – 2021 – my book was published. And so, after all these years of enabling other authors’ voices to be heard, I too found myself holding my own book with my name on the front and not on the spine this time. By now the UK publishing trade has of course changed considerably. Amazon controls over 50% of the marketplace and my book is available as a hardback, as a kindle download and as an audiobook. I already had a platform on social media (essential for all aspiring authors) but it was nevertheless quite an adjustment to find myself personally connecting with readers via Twitter. There was also a lot of new terminology to learn.

The advantage of being able to look back on a richly-lived life at this time of my life has been immeasurable. I feel very grateful that, at the age of 71, I am still capable of taking on a fascinating new project and of being able to see it through to completion. Age truly is no barrier when you have the right mindset.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/judypiatkus

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/judy.piatkus/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/judypiatkus/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/judypiatkus/

AofA People: Kevin Allen – Film Director


7 Minute Read

Kevin Allen, 61, is a film director and old mate of mine from our Portobello days. He made Twin Town (before Rhys Ifans was on the cinematic map) to great acclaim and now runs the Mobile Film School where he teaches people of all ages to make films on their smartphones. His latest feature film, La Cha Cha, was shot during lockdown using Iphones with anamorphic lenses. It was a Mobile Film School production engaging a mix of students and seasoned pros. It stars Ruby & Sonny Serkis, Liam Hourican, Dougray Scott, Rhys Ifans and Keith & Alfie Allen. It’s scheduled for release in cinemas at the end of Sept – depending on the third Covid spike, of course. 

Age                                                                                              

I’m sixty-one year’s young.

Where do you live?

In a cabin by a magical lake on a farm on the fabulous Gower Peninsular, South Wales.

What do you do?

I write and direct films – and run my Mobile Film School, teaching people of all ages from all walks of life, to make films on their smartphones.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I wasn’t at all happy about reaching the big Six-Oh. It’s around about the age when my relatives used to kick the bucket. But most of them had tough lives, I guess. I suppose sixty isn’t really that old these days. I don’t feel old. I think my kids are a decent barometer. They don’t really see me or treat me as an old git, and that’s nice. Although I suffered two serious knee injuries, my body is holding out okay.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25? 

Four bird feeders and a beard.

What about sex?

It’s definitely up there with a good Sunday roast. Always up for a bit of hanky-panky when the occasion arises. Although one-night-stands cease to satisfy these days, the ergonomics of Tinder has been a Godsend.

And relationships?

My marriage broke up about seven years ago. It took some time to get over but it was a good 16-year shift and we get on well. I’m happily single. I’m not sure I could live with someone again, to be honest. I know you never know what might come along but I do like living alone in my little cabin on the farm with my dog and chickens. The relationship I have with my rescued mutt, Schmeichel, is very satisfying. Our love for one another is unconditional.

How free do you feel?

Freer than ever I suppose. I live virtually off-grid, have no debts, no mortgages, and all my kids will be adults in a few years. FB keeps its eagle eye on me, of course – but I don’t really give a fuck who’s working out my algorithms. I can slip anchor anytime I want really. I have a loaded air rifle by my front door, should I be required to join the revolution. Although I’ll probably just film bits of it and sell it to Netflix.

What are you proud of?

My four kids. They’re lovely individuals. I don’t just love them, I actually like them. I’m really proud of the house I designed and built in Ireland … of my debut feature, Twin Town, and of my movie adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. But, I’m really chuffed with La Cha Cha – the movie I shot during the lockdown. It’s a sort of counterculture rom-com set on an alternative care-home/caravan park, where creative oldies can let their hair and pants down. We treat the elderly so appallingly in this country and the movie offers a glimpse of what could be a viable alternative for those wanting to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper.

What keeps you inspired?

Since setting up The Mobile Film School, we have trained many young filmmakers from scratch. Literally thrown them in at the deep end whilst making a movie. It’s a wholly immersive alternative to rip-off three-year Uni media courses. Watching them develop and blossom on set is truly inspiring. Balm for the soul.

When are you happiest?

Pottering about on the farm, cooking outside for friends, walking the mutt along one of our many beautiful beaches. I’m very happy when I’m making a movie. After the interminable grind of writing everything opens out during pre-production, followed by the adrenalin rush of shooting a film. I feel especially happy working on the score with my long time composer, Mark Thomas. Music is a critical component of my filmmaking and it’s just so much fun to play around in the studio after wrapping a movie shoot.

And where does your creativity go?

Quite often it goes straight into the bin – and sometimes it develops into something interesting and worthwhile. The filmmaking process can be quite protracted and often soul-destroying. It’s a journey that involves a huge amount of collaboration and juggling all the individual elements that go into making a movie is such a huge creative endeavour in itself. Filmmaking aside, I try and see the art in just about everything. With the lucrative proceeds of a big studio movie, we moved from Hollywood to a remote part of Ireland where we bred free-range pigs – and four free-range kids – in relative isolation. I learned to recognise and appreciate the art of the field. The creativity that goes into good farming is something to behold, and this is what inspired me to create the Flat Lake Literary & Arts Festival in County Monaghan, with the novelist Pat McCabe. The Arts Council of Ireland told us such an event couldn’t possibly happen in such a cultural backwater. We proved them wrong, and it was the ludicrous dichotomy of farmers and urban intellectuals coming together on the border that made the festival so genuinely special. It also made a significant cultural contribution to the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland – that Brexit just royally fucked up.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Don’t trouble, trouble – until trouble troubles you is a quip I picked up while writing a movie in Alabama years ago, and it sort of stuck with me. I guess I spent too much time in my early career looking for trouble that I didn’t need to address with such cockiness. I was so hell-bent on confronting what I loathed about my cartel-run industry head-on, that it only led to burning a few too many bridges. Leaving the Hollywood treadmill behind to farm in Ireland allowed me to rethink and reprioritise what I really wanted to do, and I naturally re-engaged with filmmaking with a quieter, calmer, more sustainable approach to achieving what I felt I could achieve.

And dying?

As more mates drop off around me, I guess it brings one’s own mortality into sharper relief. I’ve lost three best mates, the most recent hanged himself. It was traumatic, to say the least, and made me think a lot more about making the most of what I have left. I want to carry on making films until I’m physically and mentally unable – then check out in a place like La Cha Cha, the caravan park where my last movie is set. I’d like to spend my final chapter bathing in creativity. Painting, sculpture, growing weed, dancing around a campfire, taking lots of drugs … and if the body and mind allow, a bit of slap ‘n tickle by the lake at twilight.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, I recently dreamt of making the perfect sherry trifle. My kids entered me into the world of sherry trifle-making championships held at Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was a close run contest between me, Salman Rushdie and Fiona Bruce. Bruce pipped me at the post, but then failed a random drugs test, so I lifted the coveted Golden Trifle. I returned to Swansea on a double-decker bus where thousands of sherry trifle fans lined the streets. A male voice choir sang at a special ceremony at the town hall where I was handed the keys to the city. The triumph was bittersweet though, as I later learned that Fiona Bruce had been dropped from the Antiques Road Show. However, we all know that the Sherry Trifle circuit is rife with drug abuse, and the way of the transgressor is hard.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I just spent 200 quid on a tin of organic olive oil from Umbria.

How I Ended Up Living on a Narrow Boat


1 Minute Read

I’m 59 and still not really sure what life’s about, but glad to be part of Advantages of Age – I feel like I may have found my tribe. I haven’t met any of you yet but can feel the positive, slightly naughty vibes leaping off the FB page.

A bit about me. In my Life Part One, which goes from birth to fifty years, I was always fairly rebellious, in my own middle-class middle-England sort of way. I was expelled during my A levels – the local boys public school trialled having girls in the 6th form – and I was culled pretty early on in the experiment. Aged 17 I hitchhiked to the South of France with a friend to try grape picking but we were three months too early so I ended up as crew on a superyacht which lasted four glorious years and taught me that I never want to be stupid rich – that, as it happens, has panned out. I got engaged to the engineer, but my parents felt there was more to life than a cockney grease monkey and I returned to England – since then I vowed never to interfere with my children’s lives.

Various other jobs including working privately for a tax-exiled British couple who wanted to develop an island in the Bahamas a-la Richard Branson’s Necker Island. I used to go out to the island with the developers by tiny seaplane but a proper runway was required so that guests could bring more baggage than they could ever possibly use on a desert island, and the Bahamian Government was opposed to it. Apparently, drug runners use these airstrips unless the island is permanently manned. I did offer to permanently man it and keep a close eye out for drug runners but that didn’t work.

In 1992 at the end of the Gulf war, my husband and I moved with Saatchi’s Advertising to the Middle East. I worked as Brand Marketing Manager for Jack Daniels whiskey – I was responsible for the Middle East and African markets. You don’t automatically imagine working in liquor in the Middle East, but the only dry countries are Kuwait and Saudi. I spent a lot of time in Lebanon even during bombings – such a wonderful little country with delightful people and a big heart. Ditto Jordan, where I navigated as a co-driver in the only female team in the Middle East Rally Championships and received a cup from King Hussein which was pretty weird.

Then in 2012 a strange fifty-year-old took over my mind and body. I didn’t recognise her at all. She took one look at the now plastic fantastic exorbitant overcrowded Dubai and said ‘Let’s get the hell out lady.’ So I did. The new me decided that as Life Part Two was about to start, going it alone would be a more dramatic change. I left my lovely home, great job, very nice husband and the dog – which broke my heart. As my two children had just finished school and my daughter wanted to come to England to study, it was the perfect opportunity to make the break. I reverted to my birth name of Hope and choose it daily.

I started my new life with six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, during Day of the Dead – a fab way to celebrate and gently say goodbye to my first life and commence the rite of passage into my next. I stayed with a super cool 70 year old American lady who encouraged me to write and started my love affair with Frida Kahlo.

I still travel regularly and cheaply, buses and hostels are my happy place and work away is a great way to meet local people and keep the costs down. https://www.workaway.info/en/workawayer/RachelM62

Since returning to England, I have not owned a home. Not only because I was too old for a mortgage but, because after working for 30 years corporately, I wasn’t willing to get the sort of soul-sucking permanent job that I knew would be necessary. My mother suggested working in nearby Milton Keynes, and that’s the last suggestion I will ever let her make. I have rented here and there but mostly travelled or stayed with family and friends, so it was never a problem. Especially as the only single one of four siblings, you tend to get more than your fair share of parent duties.

But then March 2020 arrived, we forgot about Brexit and the pandemic started. Everyone was told to self isolate and I got caught out – like musical chairs – the music stopped and I had nowhere to lay my head. I had previously thought bubble-less meant flat champagne.

There’s always an upside to life though, and I am now the proud owner of a 30-year-old narrowboat and love it.

A boat didn’t immediately spring to mind, I originally wanted to build a cabin but with no land and can’t build for toffee – that was a non-starter. Then one day, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, my favourite TV fix, featured a narrowboat. What’s more, Rosie & Jim and Prue & Tim seemed to be having a blast, so why not me?

At 55ft long and 6ft wide, it’s actually quite spacious, particularly as I don’t have to share it with a ton of coal and a family of eight. I have seven rooms if you count the two front and back indoor/outdoor spaces, nine if you allow for the dining room to double as an office and triple as a spare bed.

The galley kitchen is petite but means I can put on the kettle, wash the dishes and open the fridge all without moving my feet. Aside from having to get down on my knees and roll back the mat to open the oven door – it’s very functional.

The bedroom, bathroom and a sitting room all have doors to separate them and the large rear end – stern deck technically – and small cosy nook in the bow, are full of cushions and plants in the summer, and wellies and coal in the winter. Unless you have some form of central heating, you’re either boiling hot or freezing cold, depending upon your wood burner skills. You are, after all, living in a metal tube that, like trains and container trucks, was designed to move commodities around, and not for your personal creature comforts. As I simply cannot keep my wood burner going all night, I have installed two oil-filled radiators and only light the fire when it’s really freezing or I have enough patience.

The toilet is the compromise. There are two main choices – the Porta Potti or a pump-out tank stored onboard, most often under your bed. Not only do I not want to sleep on top of a load of crap, I do not want to keep moving my boat across to the other side of the marina to pump out. I am a learner driver whose confidence has been shattered by the person opposite who keeps repeatedly shouting ‘Don’t hit my boat, this is not a contact sport’ every time I switch on the engine.

So, Porta Potti it is. It needs emptying pretty frequently and involves splitting the loo in half, lugging the loaded part up the steps to the jetty and onto my sack barrow, that I’d only ever previously used to cart cider across a music festival. You then arrive at the Elsan which is like a giant’s toilet and deposit your goods. One year later and I still hate doing it. Everyone in the marina knows me as the ‘marigold lady’ as I simply refuse to touch it without rubber gloves.

The choice of location for your boat is varied. Canals are colourful and much easier to moor on than rivers, but personally, I like being in a marina. I need to plug into electricity, have a constant water supply and a car nearby. I also am not capable of the gipsy life that requires you to keep moving every two weeks if you don’t want to pay fees or taxes. I am technically and mechanically incompetent and simply would not survive. As soon as anything starts making a weird noise I call the marina manager to come and fix it. We pay £2500 per year for these privileges along with a boathouse and small shop. You then pay approx £1000k per annum for river or canal fees, so it’s a little pricier than some may imagine.

Yes, we live in close proximity. I could hold hands with my neighbour whilst drinking tea in bed, except I don’t think his wife would like it, but, we are right on the river with fields in front of us and a sunset to die for. I hand feed the birds, swim in the river and love the connection to nature. I am mindful – of enough water in the tank before I get in the shower, and minimal – you’re not wasteful as space is precious.

But most of all I get to live alone in my own tiny home within a wonderful community. What more could you ask for.

I’m still work-averse but love my writing. My memoir about muddled midlife is entitled The Dharma Drama – Dharma means purpose and I was rather lacking it when I started my book. This is where I want to put the link to Amazon so you can buy it, but a lot like me, it’s still a work in progress. It seems to have morphed into a journal that will never end. Journaling was a miraculous discovery. As Joan Didion said “I write to know what I think” and that seems to be the case. My pen reveals all sorts of things that I simply did not know.

My other great wonder is the tarot. Halfway through my first course in learning the tarot, my reading partner left me in tears. The teacher consoled me by saying that I really had the knack and uncovered some painful home truths for her. Thankfully this was followed up by a note from her saying that she had faced the issue head-on and all is resolved so thank you very much. Phew. The tarot is unique in that it is a mirror. It reflects back to you and shines a light and what you already know but keep deep inside. The universe then throws up opportunities and some much-needed oomph to set you on an exciting new journey.

I have recently coupled my two passions for journaling and tarot and developed them into a new business, Soul Sisters Community, which hosts retreats for midlife women looking for more. At this point, I am going to unashamedly put a link to Soul Sisters and say please take a look, ladies. And do please come. I would absolutely love to host some of you for a few fab days of self-discovery.

Apologies gents, this one’s just for the gals – but I am looking into running The Best Karma Exotic Funky House of Creation in Sri Lanka next January/February 2022 for all genders to enjoy some spiritual sunshine. If that appeals, please send me a note at: rachelsoulsisters@gmail.com I would love to gather a group who can help me shape it into something wonderful.

Carl Jung says “Life really does begin at forty, up until then you’re just doing research”. Well, at nearly 60,  I am still doing research because the day I stop being curious will be the day I die.

Soul Sisters retreats are happening this July 10th – 13th and July 13th – July 16th. Please check it out, mention AoA and I will gladly give you a super duper discount.

Look forward to meeting you all soon. Namaste!

Why Conscious Breathing Does it For Me


7 Minute Read

You realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind

( Eckhart Tolle Practising the Power of Now)

Conscious breathing and meditation/mindfulness are becoming more popular, and even more so now, as we look for ways to manage challenges of isolation and lack of connection during lockdowns.

I have been practising conscious breathing for over 30 years, first as part of my yoga practice and then as a yoga teacher. Conscious breathing allows me to feel more present, more grounded. I feel more connected to myself and to others. It also gives me a rush of energy which I channel into my writing and other creative projects. It helps me to focus, set goals and achieve what I want. Feeling better about myself, I then feel more confident in what I’m doing and stronger in my convictions about what matters to me. At the same time, conscious breathing brings gentleness.

In my first yoga training, I meditated at 5am and 9pm every day and felt a strong sense of peace. Life on an ashram lends itself to this pure practice. Back in London, I found it hard to maintain a regular practice, as do many of us, for lots of different reasons – boredom, my to-do list, that pointless anxiety for the future or the past. I needed to rediscover that peace within my busy life of commuting, teaching in sometimes challenging situations, such as prisons as well as making time for my writing, theatre-making and yoga. I needed a stress release and at the same time, the energy and confidence to keep going with all these things. Because traditional meditation is about just sitting and watching the mind, it felt like too much of a contrast to the busyness of my life, whereas in conscious breathing, there is a focus – something to do and to think about so it works better for me. It enables me to deal with some of the blocks that I put in my way and helps me to find a more regular practice.  

Conscious breathing is a series of exercises that teaches us different ways to manipulate the breath. There is a simplicity in their execution, and yet complexity in the science in which they are grounded. For each exercise, we focus on the inhale, the exhale or the retention of the breath, and sometimes all three. We increase oxygen or prana to our brain and this makes us feel good. As we become more conscious of the breath, we become more conscious of ourselves, more present, more aware and we’re all trying to be more present in life. Breathing consciously connects us to our conscience! Some say that this is our soul or the Divine and that connecting with the Divine is the key goal of pranayama.

I first experienced conscious breathing in Sivananda yoga practice as pranayama: The vital force. Prana is life, vitality, energy or strength. Ayama means length, expansion or restraint’ (Swami Sivananda)

 

And BKS Iyengar writes that pranayama teaches us to ‘Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind. . . It cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves’ (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)

As a theatre practitioner, my yoga practice was already feeding into my rehearsal room; in voice classes, as we worked on the breath; also in physical theatre classes where I was inspired by Grotowski who had used yoga as part of his practice. We all learn from each other. When I was made redundant from the Royal Court Theatre, I was hugely disappointed but, finding myself with an unexpected gap in my career, I set off to Sivananda HQ to do the teacher training and began the journey that brought me to teaching, first yoga and then conscious breathing.

I continued the Sivananda style of including some conscious breathing at the start of class in my yoga teaching. Sivananda teachings say that we must not overdo the pranayama, we need to keep a balance. I understood this but I still felt we could do more with it. I wondered if, instead of being the introduction to the class, the conscious breathing could become, as it were, the main event.

And so in 2019, I completed the first-ever training of Altered States: The Breath. The course was inspired by both Hatha and Kundalini yoga; by teachings around addictions plus it refers to breath experts such as Wim Hof. I learnt how to manipulate the breath to:

1 Change how I feel.

2 Increase the flow of ‘positive’ hormones in the body leaving me feeling uplifted, with a sense of calm and well being.

3 Decrease ‘negative’ hormones, leaving me feeling calmer and less likely to react when stressed.

4 Increase breath capacity.

How amazing to be able to create stillness and calm by increasing dopamine; exhilaration by increasing endorphins and positive feelings of well being by increasing Serotonin; this in turn improves digestion and sleep and we enter a more positive cycle.

At the same time, we decrease adrenaline and cortisol that we only need in high levels when we’re in real danger, of say, being eaten by a lion whilst out hunting!  Globally there is a huge increase in stress levels. This sometimes leads to greater reliance on addictive substances and poor mental health which can add to the sense of fear, so our bodies produce more adrenaline and we are in a negative cycle. By slowing down the breath we shift from this fight/flight mode.

To begin we release the vagus nerve, the biggest nerve in the body, which runs from the brain stem through to the guts. This resets the nervous system, it ‘powers up’ the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the hormonal flow to shift. The exercises build breath capacity which improves the health of the lungs, heart and  digestion. Reducing stress in the body has the same effect, so there are clear physical benefits as well as positive feelings of well being.

Some of the exercises are simple versions of what we all do naturally. I do one with my mum who has dementia. Others require greater concentration – and it is this focus that is freeing from my overthinking, chattering mind.

Crucially, we pause after each exercise as, to quote Grotowski, ‘It is what happens in between the exercises that counts. . .’ This is the stillness and focus on the present moment and we ask ourselves ‘How am I feeling now?’, having asked it at the top of the class. Usually, there is a noticeable shift. At the end of the class we lie in silent relaxation, then again we observe how we are feeling in our bodies and minds. I love how my yoga feeds into my theatre work and vice versa. I am constantly developing my practice and currently feeding in some movement from my theatre practice. This keeps it fresh and brings a sense of playfulness and creativity.

One of the best things about conscious breathing is its accessibility. I can do it literally anywhere: in bed the moment I wake or the last thing before sleep; whilst walking in nature or at my desk, in my garden or park. I hope to be able to do it again on a beach somewhere. I love how I can check in with myself and decide what I need, which techniques will help me today; and I love how naturally it comes. After all it is an extension of what we do from the moment we arrive on this earth, to the moment we depart – breath.

Laura is offering a free taster 40 min session plus a Q&A on April 29th at 8am on Zoom.

You can contact Laura on lauramccluskey@btinternet.com for further information and to sign up.

The Joy of Sleeping Separately


1 Minute Read

Sleeping as I get older is a huge thing!!! If I don’t sleep, then I am likely to be grumpy, reactive and extra-feisty. All day. I’m sure you agree.

Sometimes, I don’t sleep when I’m on my own – lots of restless rolling around, hotness despite well post-menopausal – so add into the mix a partner – that really puts the I into Insomnia.

I had been on my own for a decade before I met Asanga. I really thought I could never share a bed again. I loved having a double bed to myself. I liked waking up in the morning than reading or writing poems or both.

But hey, it was amazing to meet a loving, crazy, flamboyant, log-splitting, rock-climbing man when I was 60 and he was 70 in 2013 and then there were the beds and the bed-sharing. We tried. I spent many nights at my place in London and his in Wales rigidly awake. He spent nights listening to me snoring – when I first met him, he was mad enough to say he loved listening to my gentle roar. He’s changed his tune now. He gets up several times a night to go to the loo but that inevitably disturbed me. Sorry, I was never as benign as he was. I never loved the sound of him getting up!!

This painful co-sleeping – the norm for a couple – and we were trying hard to be a ‘normal’ couple in this way, went on for years. Years of misery. I’d often run off to another bed in the middle of the night. Or he would. And then we’d both be super-antagonistic in the morning. I think it’s because we were having a LAT relationship – Living Apart Together with 250 miles between us – that it felt all the more important to share a bed when we were together. It felt shameful somehow to admit this difficulty.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age
Rose Rouse with her partner Asanga for Family.
Photo by Linda Nylind

Actually, on holiday, it seems to work fine. Rajasthan – there were brilliant big beds even in budget hotels. Goa, Bali, Costa Rica – the beds all worked out. I think perhaps I’m a little more relaxed on holiday so that I can actually drop into easy slumber. Last year, just pre-lockdown, we were in Fez for my birthday – I booked an 18th century townhouse in the medina and it had been exquisitely done up. The artisan details all restored, filled with fascinating objets from all over the world and a huge, huge bed. We lapped it all up and slept too. Hallelujah!

However, over the years in our ongoing LAT existence, something more peaceful happened on our stays with each other. I think it probably happened in London first. My main double bed is smaller than his! We settled into a routine, one of us would sleep on the sofa bed in the living room and the other in my bedroom. We’d visit each other in the evening, light a candle, cuddle, talk and then one of us would slip away for a hopefully brilliant night’s sleep. In the morning, there would be another gentle or sexy invitation. There was no routine – just a series of new encounters. It works for us.

In Wales, it was less settled. Asanga has got a bigger bed – the key to non-disturbance for me, plus earplugs for him – and so it makes it more possible to sleep together. But there is always the alternative of the guest bedroom and that can be a godsend.

And we do both like to wake up together and snuggle. Well, that’s before the fire – with logs split by Asanga and often carried in via wheelbarrow by me in my wellies – is lit and the animals fed. In the cold months, at least.

Credit: Elainea Emmott

This winter lockdown has seen me in Wales for a longer stint of country living. I have learnt a lot about types of wood for burning, bill hooks, wheelbarrows and headlights! And we have established a routine. I am in the guest bedroom – it has become my writing/editing/work/Zoom room too – during the week and I migrate into Asanga’s bed at the weekend. Of course, there is the occasional evening visit during the week too. We like to keep some of the spontaneity going!

And I have to tell you mice arrived in the spare room, which saw me leaping into bed with Asanga again.

But it’s a huge relief to out ourselves. There is no more shame about separate sleeping. It means we can be more present, more loving and less likely to be irritable when we are together. And that is beautiful.

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