2018

We are now in 2018. Welcome everybody! Grab a glass of bubbly! I’m glad we both made it. It’s so good to see you again!

I always start the new year with a niggling feeling like I just barely made it through a stargate and am now standing in a random field, swinging my arms, wondering what happens next. I swear I spend the first week of the year with a cloud above my head that says, ‘NOW WHAT?’ in bubble lettering.

Even though the passing of a year is fairly arbitrary.

Even though it makes no real difference.

Even though it should just be a continuation of what came before, and not some odd date on the calendar that feels like a new page, a clean slate, a blank wall of concrete staring you in the face when you have an unused can of spray paint in your hand.

It’s time to start over.

You know….

Again.

So here we are, in the future of the past which is now the present. I rang in the New Year in Spain, choking on grapes and crying with laughter. I spent the first day of 2018 exploring small towns with medieval walls, before chasing down chocolate con churros with a single-minded focus usually found in bloodhounds on a hunt.

Nothing gets between me and my churros.

Today, the world is glitteringly cold. The sky is a clear, pale blue and if you run outside in your socks (as I – very briefly – did), it feels as if your feet might stick to the ground, rooting you to the spot, freezing you to the flagstones. Everything has been delicately brushed with a thin coating of twinkling frost. In patches of sunlight the ice has melted away, retreating to the safety of the shade, revealing the bright, true green of the grass or the vibrant red of the few remaining autumn leaves.

I have no list for this year. No boxes to check. No impossible goals or overly ambitious aims. Instead I have a word that I’m hoping will propel me into the new year with all the fire and energy I felt I was lacking last year:

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Great things happened in 2017! I visited Mexico! I visited Bali! I swam with sea turtles! I got engaged! I got two enormous kittens with over-sized portions of personality! I planned an apartment overhaul that has turned us into nomads with capsule wardrobes that consist of jeans and more jeans (the toilet did eventually arrive by the way, for those of you who have spent the holidays on tenterhooks waiting for an update about our plumbing)!

I’m hoping that by the end of this month, we will be in apartment 2.0. I’m hoping that it will be the first of many great things in 2018. Part of making that happen, however, involves taking action and pulling on a blue boiler suit (size XL; I look like nothing so much as The Michelin Man in a cleanroom) and a respirator so I can continue the work I started yesterday*.

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So far, ‘action’ is turning out to be deeply uncomfortable…

If you have a word or a resolution, let me know – I find they rub off on me sometimes! Whether you do or you don’t, I wish you all the luck in this new year. I wish you personal successes and private accomplishments. I wish you joy, and love, and happiness. I wish you a minimum of tears (unless they’re from laughter – those are allowed), and I wish you pride in yourself, bravery in your actions, good company and great friends.

Now if you could all just wish me a bit of sunshine so that I don’t freeze and spend the first month of 2018 as a glittering but immobile garden gnome….

 

*I am in the middle of spray painting our kitchen cabinets, and it is both messier and slower than is truly ideal in minus degrees.

 

Regarding Writers…

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There is something acutely personal in talking about your favourite writer.

For me at least, I often hesitate to name my favourite writer because I feel like it reveals a part of me I’m not sure I want to share. I somehow feel that by saying his name out loud, my soul is been sliced open by a knife with an edge so sharp I can hardly feel it. I can be peeled back in layers so fine they are practically transparent, and somehow their name, like an incantation, allows whoever hears it to leaf through my innermost thoughts as if they are flicking through a book.

I don’t know why this is. It’s only a name, after all. The writing doesn’t reflect my life experiences, or expose any dark secrets I might harbour. All I know is that anytime I say his name, I feel like I’m divulging some confidential information that cuts right to my core. In some ways, I feel that – ludicrously – just knowing the name tells you everything you need to know about my likes and dislikes, hopes and fears.

I can still remember the sentence that cemented my obsession with his writing. I remember reading through a book and reaching a metaphor that made me double back and start the sentence over. It bounced around in my head, and that night as I lay in bed I said it out loud. Softly. Just to myself. Just to hear what the syllables sounded like in the darkness.

I fell in love.

I don’t always agree with the subject of his writing, but I always enjoy reading it. I love the way he constructs a sentence like nobody else. I get an actual, physical thrill out of some of his descriptions, where the words seem to crawl up the back of my neck and tickle my mind. I see through his eyes, and even if I don’t agree, I understand.

Any time I start to read something of his, I can feel a low hum inside me as my creativity stirs. When his words make me laugh or cry, feel anger or dismay, I can feel it stretching, as if after a long nap, and it nudges me gently, saying, ‘Look what words can do. Look. Look how they can make you feel. Look how you go from tearful eyes to unwitting giggle in a single paragraph. Don’t you want to sit down and write? Don’t you want to try?

If I fear I’m losing myself, or losing my way, or losing my words, I read a few pages from his book and I remember why I love writing. It makes me feel, even when I’m not feeling much of anything else. Tripping my fingers across the keys lifts my mood. Usually by writing about certain thoughts or experiences, I get a clearer, more honest look at how I feel about them. Sometimes I even surprise myself with the words that appear on the screen.

Of course, this can and sometimes does stop me from writing about certain topics.

I avoid the painful, the awkward, and the inconvenient. I skirt around them as if even the merest mention might prove agonising. I hate confrontation of any kind, and I know that writing about certain things will mean confronting myself, in a way. I will spill out – and spell out – thoughts that were previously only a nebulous, amorphous fog. When they stay in my head I don’t have to examine them too closely. I am aware of them, but they exist as old, dusty books in the attic of my mind. ‘I’ll get to them in time,’ I tell myself, and carefully sidestep the ladder that leads up to where I’d rather not go.

And sometimes, when my mind is all fog and I can’t see my way out, I know I should write.

And sometimes, when this happens, I reach for his book.

Guided by his vivid, powerful imagery and a healthy sense of humour, I reignite my sputtering love of words. I feel it again, the tingle of carefully, precisely placed consonants and vowels stacked against each other. Like building blocks, they allow my imagination to get to work building landscapes and concepts I might otherwise struggle to see.

Later, I sit down, and I write.

 

The Blog Went Boom

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Last night, as I lazily clicked my way through a WordPress wormhole, I decided at the convenient hour of 1am that it was as good time as any to switch over to self-hosting. I popped gummy bears into my mouth until there was more sugar than blood in my veins, and then without giving it too much thought (this will become evident in a moment), I signed up for 12 months with Siteground.

Here are the things I did not consider before pulling the trigger:

  • There are many things that might be recommended activities for 1am – having a gin & tonic, dancing to terrible music, getting into a deep and meaningful conversation with a close friend, having sex, eating horribly unhealthy food – but switching to self-hosting is not one of them.
  • I had no idea what I was doing.
  • I don’t have a laptop, I have a chromebook, and so can’t actually run any programs or plugins at the moment.
  • I’m not in a position to be buying a new laptop anytime soon.
  • I had no idea what I was doing.
  • Would have really been a great idea to have done some reading before jumping in both feet first, true to form.
  • I had no idea what I was doing.

So.

I nuked my blog into a billion wordpressy pieces in a matter of minutes. Before I knew it, it had completely disappeared only to be replaced by a privacy error.

Excellent.

Three conversations with tech support later, they assured me that in the morning I would be switched over and privacy-error free. Everything would have returned to normal! It would be fine!

It was not fine.

I woke up in the morning and the privacy error was gone, yes, but now my blog had disappeared entirely and what was once my paradise of blog posts was now an empty default blog theme with a smug succulent in the header image, laughing at me.

I went back to tech support, starting to feel that familiar gnawing panic of having bitten off more than I could chew. A nice man talked me down from my freak-out and led me through the process step by step until I was back at what you see now; almost all of it, put back together in a haphazard way. Then he said what I can only assume is the virtual tech support version of a pat on the hand and a ‘there, there now.’ He said:

“I know it seems a little hard to do – I myself when I did it the first time, it was extremely hard for me as well – but do not hurry, and I believe you will do it and will work like a charm!”

Feeling boosted by this random stranger’s belief in my extremely limited abilities, I thanked him.

“I wish you all the great things, Quinn!” He said then. “Have a happy, wonderful and great time ahead of you!”

I mean…

The whole ordeal was almost worth it just for the tech support alone.

 

 

 

Travel Review: Sensimar, Riviera Maya

Sensimar Seaside Suites
Credit: Tripadvisor

When Scrubs and I walked out of Cancun airport, we were completely unprepared for the heat. I was wearing a thick grey woollen jumper and jeans and immediately started panting like a fat King Charles Spaniel. In hindsight it would have made a lot of sense to have changed into something summery on the plane. However, I’m basically myopic when it comes to looking ahead so instead I took off my jumper, stuffed it under my arm, and greedily gulped at the bottle of water I’d been carrying ever since we left Manchester. Looking up, I snapped a photo of the palm tree overhead and felt a deep calm wash over me.

Heat.

Sunshine.

Palm trees.

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Yes, I liked Mexico already.

A smiling man with our names on a sheet of paper led us to a large taxi, where a driver was waiting to take us to our hotel. Located just outside of Tulum, it took an hour to reach the resort from the airport. I spent most of that hour in an exhausted but excited stupor, staring out the window at the tropical flora that lined the motorway. Every once in a while the giant gates of a resort would loom out of the greenery, looking like cheesy Disneyfied versions of Maya architecture, before receding back into thick jungle for another few kilometres.

Our resort had – thankfully – no giant fake huts or Mayan pyramids adorning the gate. A large stone arch led down a narrow, tree-lined road down to a pavilion, where our friendly driver dropped off our bags and we got our first look at where we were staying. Our hotel, the Sensimar Seaside Suites, turned out to be part of a complex housing three  different (but connected) adult-only hotels.

Sensimar, to the right, was a complex full of little condos. It housed about six restaurants, had multiple swimming pools with swim-up bars, a few thatched cocktail bars, and a long expanse of beach. It was also populated almost exclusively by European tourists.

To the left lay El Dorado, the hotel that catered to American tourists. El Dorado was one large rectangular hotel block, with its own swimming pool and restaurant but not much of a beach. The people staying at this hotel could – and often did – spend their days and nights roaming Sensimar where they had more options, more food, and actual sand.

… And then, tucked away neatly in the middle behind a large white wall with a wooden door, was Hidden Beach, a small, boutique, nude resort. According to the googling I did about this place, it’s one of the nicest nudist hotels in Mexico, so. You know, if you’re looking for a place to get a tan where you don’t need to worry about tan lines…! I didn’t venture in, mostly because I read some reviews by grumpy nudists giving out about people popping in to have a look IN THEIR SWIMSUITS. THE VERY NERVE! I wasn’t prepared to strip down again just to have a nosy, so I decided to leave the wooden door unopened.

On arrival, we were presented with glasses of prosecco, which was nice, although really all I needed at that stage was a change of clothes and about five gallons of water. We were given a mercifully brief explanation of the facilities available, and told that there would be a more extensive talk at 9am the next morning with our personal concierge. At this, Scrubs and I immediately shot each other the universal look for ‘No way in hell are we doing that,’ and then we smiled at the nice man as he gave us our key and directions to our suite.

Our suite was lovely.

We stayed in a premium suite, so we had one of those bathrooms with two washbasins, a jacuzzi, and separate little rooms for our shower and toilet. Whenever I see a bathroom with two washbasins I always wonder who are these desperately busy people that can’t stand waiting to use the sink while the other person brushes their teeth? I’m really not convinced there’s ever truly a need for two sinks in one bathroom, but I do concede that it gives me a lot of counter space on which I can spread every unnecessary item I own, so I’m not complaining.

We also had robes and slippers in the room, which I love … even though for some reason all robes seem sized for giants so I always look like I’m being kidnapped by an expanse of white cotton.

After setting down our stuff and changing into clothes that didn’t feel like thermal underwear, we unpacked the essentials (Scrubs unpacked suncream and sandals, I unpacked my inflatable donut and snorkel) and set out to explore the place. It was a bit cloudy that evening, but after picking up a cocktail from the bar we watched the sunset and agreed that it was a beautiful place.

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The resort is really spectacular. It never felt crowded, each little path was hidden between large patches of leafy vegetation, and it’s all-inclusive so as you can imagine there were many, many cocktails consumed.

Here is a hideously unflattering photo of me fresh out of the sea doing just that:

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No make-up, no shame…Great cocktail! (Electric Lemonade)

The Sensimar has hammocks strung up around the place where you can read or worry about the coconuts overhead, a beach volleyball area, a ping pong table, and also a giant chess set for the less athletically inclined (me). We spent most of our days on the beach, because I am a sea baby through and through and God knows we don’t see much of the sun back in Ireland.

Also, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the beach when it looked like this:

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Seriously. Look at that sand.

On our second day, when we returned to our room, I found a towel animal on the bed. I can’t fully express my excitement at finding this towel animal, except to say that I made a noise that sounded not dissimilar to what I imagine a surprised chimp might sound like. I took a photo of it and then very carefully lifted it off the bed and moved it to the table in the corner of the room.

I then wrote a note for housekeeping asking them to please not remove Towelephant, because I loved him. I mean, just look at him. He’s adorable!

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Housekeeping not only honoured my wish, but the next day when they did up the room they left me another towel animal! I’ll leave my disproportionate levels of enthusiasm to your imagination. I carefully scooped up Towel Rabbit and placed him on the table next to Towelephant.

This continued for each day that we were there. Not only did housekeeping not say anything about my growing menagerie of Towel Animals, they actively encouraged it by making me a different animal every day. On the last day I made a little conga line on the floor and photographed them, so here the rest of them are for your viewing pleasure:

We tried most of the restaurants. They all had decent food, although the one night we had booked for the fancy asian fusion place I was feeling pretty rough thanks to serious dehydration, so I didn’t get to enjoy the food there as much as I would have liked. The buffet breakfasts were my favourite though. There are few things better than hotel breakfasts; you can get first breakfast (cereal), then second breakfast (yogurt and waffles with maple syrup … or fruit, I suppose, if you’re so inclined), then third breakfast (custom omelette and toast), and just keep going until you have to roll yourself out to the Balinese beds to digest under the sun.

Ideal.

I loved the wildlife around the place – iguanas, Fiddler crabs, geckos, coati, agouti – they could all be spotted around the resort. One of the days they even had some casual hawks just… around the place, chilling on their perches, looking very disgruntled (although I think that’s just their usual expression).

The swimming pools were also incredible, although we didn’t actually use any of them.

… Sea baby, like I told you.

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Even when it was cloudy, like it was on the day we were leaving, it was still a beautiful place.

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What else is there to say about Sensimar… The location is great; Tulum ruins and town centre are only a $4 colectivo away. If you want to eat at either of the two restaurants that take bookings, try to make the booking as soon as you arrive (or even before) because they seem to book out about four days in advance. Definitely drop by the personal concierge because they will swap out your pillows (if you prefer them softer or firmer or whatever you’re into yourself), and they will also change the contents of your minibar if you want less beer or more juice or extra packets of crisps. They’re really nice. Actually that goes for everyone who works there; the staff were amazing, and I don’t just mean housekeeping. They are the loveliest people and their curiosity about you is genuine.

Also, and this is more of a general Mexico rule, if you do go, don’t bother bringing a hair straightener. I’d straighten my hair, and five minutes later it looked like this:

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That’s after just eating breakfast! Three hours later I looked like a Springer Spaniel.

If all-inclusive is your thing, I would definitely recommend this place. It’s beautiful, it’s spotless, the drinks are delicious, there’s plenty to do, and – obviously – towel animals. We got a great deal on flights and the hotel with TUI and I think these deals come around pretty often, so could be worth checking. That was my first time at an all-inclusive place and I have to say that, going forward, I’m not sure it’s for me. I felt it really limited us in terms of exploring, since anytime we thought about going for a drink or a bite to eat in Tulum we would think, ‘OR we could just stay here and have it for free‘ which is what we would inevitably end up doing.

The other thing is that they had these (very lovely) reps going around every morning trying to recruit you for group activities like beach volleyball, or table-tennis tournaments, which made me feel like I was in a modern version of Kellerman’s from Dirty Dancing. I am not about group activities. I am not even really about activity in general. I think I prefer hotels in which I have to actively seek out things to do rather than feeling like I’m being conscripted into some sort of cheerful chain gang.

Still, it was a beautiful place to spend a few days. I had a brilliant time! I ate myself silly, I tried almost every cocktail on the menu, I got pretty close to petting an iguana, and I successfully avoided participating in any group activities.

Sensimar gets two thumbs up from me!

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I reached 1000 followers!

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I hate being asked to retweet/regram/re-whatever accounts when I want to enter a giveaway so I’ve decided I’m not doing that, but I did make a facebook page (I know, look at me and my notions) for my blog, so I’d really appreciate it if you’d hit the ‘like’ button! I haven’t decided how I’m going to do the giveaway, although I’m toying with just entering anyone who comments on my Friday post… What do you guys think? On one hand I run the risk of leaving out lurkers, but on the other hand, I’d like whoever wins the giveaway to be someone who engages with me because then I can tailor the little package a bit, you know?

Has anyone else done a giveaway? How did you do it?

Life Skills Unlocked: Reading for Enjoyment

“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage thr.png

When I was a child, I would read books to teleport out of my life. One moment I would be lying in bed staring at the white ceiling, anxiety clawing at my throat, and the next I would be visiting prickly Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, or laughing at Dogmatix and his fondness for trees. My introduction to reading was a steady and consistent diet of Beatrix Potter, Goscinny and Uderzo, Hergé, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Enid Blyton. I read compulsively, almost obsessively.

As soon as I was able to read by myself, it became a fixation; whether we were out for a walk or it was after dark, I would have a book in my hand. I became adept at reading while also watching where I was going. I would fall asleep with my cheek pressed against the page.

My mother made us members of the public library and each week she would drive there and let me check out seven books, since that was the most that was allowed at the time. I still remember carrying my wobbly pile to the counter and watching the lady methodically stamp each one before handing them back to me with a smile. If I close my eyes I can still smell the ink and paper.

For a time, Enid Blyton was my crack; Wikipedia tells me Enid Blyton published 762 books and I’d say I’ve read the vast majority. My addiction was so intense that my mother actually forbade me to borrow any more of them. There were multiple trips to the library where I would have to engage in serious subterfuge to get my fix. I would pick out my books, wait patiently for my mother to go out of the room, and then rush the counter in a blind panic to get them stamped before she returned. I would hide them under my jumper or tuck them into the waistband of my highly fashionable corduroy trousers. I could carefully conceal two Enid Blytons (three if I was wearing a jacket). Of course, to avoid suspicion, I would have to then borrow four or five books just for show. When my mother inevitably wondered why I hadn’t checked out the usual seven, I would have to pretend I couldn’t find anything else that interested me.

In hindsight, I wonder what the librarian made of us…

After Enid Blyton I got hooked on Nina Bawden, R.L. Stine, Bill Watterson, K.A. Applegate, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix and eventually just a broad scope of authors from all different genres. As I grew up, I continued to see books as an escape route to other worlds. Anytime I was feeling too much stress or anxiety or discomfort or worry, I would open a book and disappear into it head-first. It was like a wormhole to another life; a sort of body-swap, if you will. I would slip into the shoes of the main character and do what they were doing, feel what they were feeling. I was Sabriel learning to ring the bells, I was Lyra leaving Pantalaimon on the shore. When I finished a book I always felt bereft, like I’d been kicked out of a temporary home.

I think that all of my time spent inside stories – looking through the eyes of different characters and experiencing their adventures, loves, heartbreaks, successes and betrayals – has made me a more empathetic person. I think it taught me so much more about life than what I could ever learn from my own experiences. I won’t say reading makes someone a better person but I do think it makes them a more rounded one. Books have taught me so much more about people than I could ever have learned otherwise. It gave and still gives me insight into lives completely different to my own, motivations I could never share, and realities I could never imagine. In a way, reading other people’s blogs is an extension of that. Reading other people’s blog posts lets me share in their feelings and inhabit their world for a minute or two.

I have a clear and vivid memory of sitting on the windowsill in my 4th class classroom, reading during lunch hour, when a friend saw me and said, “Quinn, when you grow up you’re probably going to marry a book!” At the time I was upset by the comment because I wasn’t an overly sociable child and my interests were pretty much restricted to hanging upside-down from trees and reading. Sometimes I combined the two and hung upside-down from trees while reading. I remember wondering if that would be my life as an adult; just me and my books. I wondered if I would die crushed under a tower of heavy hardbacks that had just been a little too precariously placed.

Now that I am an adult, I am in a much better place. I live a happier, less stressful life. I no longer feel the need to body-swap with fictional characters. These days I read because I enjoy it, not because I need it. I no longer desperately try to make out words by the light of the moon (terrible for your eyes, by the way), or escape into stories like I’m using them as a hiding place. I’m glad to say that now that I am a bona fide grown-up, it’s not just me and my books, and my heavy hardbacks are tidily stacked on a sturdy bookcase where they pose no danger to anyone.

[Just a quick note to say that (astonishingly) I am getting closer to 1000 readers and if I do reach that number I will be doing a weird but fun little giveaway! 

… Well. Even if I don’t ever reach that number I’ll probably do the giveaway. Basically, I am planning a giveaway and writing it here so I don’t forget because although I’m excellent at compiling things I always slack on actually going to the post office! I mean, I have three things that I’ve been meaning to post out for about a month now, so might as well add this to the list. It’s happening! Don’t let me forget!]