Life Skills Unlocked: Surviving the Strip Club

 

What immediately springs to mind when you think of strip clubs?

I’m not asking those of you who have frequented these places. I’m asking those of you who have always wondered about what goes on behind the black door.

Before I’d ever gone to a strip club, here’s what I pictured: Sticky floors. Girls with blank faces and bad posture. Terrible music and worse clientele. Large groups of men gee-eyed with drink, laughing and roaring unfunny jokes at each over the music.

Which is all to say that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot.

A few years ago, one Monday after work, I sat having a drink with colleagues at 4am. Having decided to try my hand at working in a bar, I had just spent a long night delivering shots of tequila and glasses of whisky with complicated names. One of the regulars had stayed behind with us as we cashed out, and somehow the conversation had turned to Frankfurt’s wealth of strip clubs.

“I’ve heard there’s a whole red light district,” breathed one of my friends, eyes wide and twinkling with mischief.

Our regular drained the end of his pint and leaned back in his chair.

“It’s true,” He said. “I’ve been.”

The whole table leaned towards him, as if he’d just disclosed he’d found hidden treasure.

“What’s it like?”

“Where did you go?”

“Are there really red lights?”

“Is it as seedy as it sounds?”

“Are women allowed?”

The questions came from all angles, and he smiled benevolently at our rapt attention before spreading his palms out on the wooden table.

“Alright then. One at a time. What do you want to know?”

It turned out our regular was quite the connoisseur. Tipsy from post-work alcohol and energised by his unexpected wealth of knowledge, we peppered him with questions. He answered them all competently, as if every visit to a strip-club had been a reconnaisance mission leading up to this precise moment. Eventually, the interrogation died down until the only other girl at the table and I were the only ones still talking. We sat with our feet up on the chairs beside us, running our fingers around the rims of our glasses, staring into space.

“I’ve always wondered what they’re like,” I said, thinking out loud.

My friend leaned over the table, her eyes half-focused.

“We should go sometime!”

I nodded in the international language for, ‘Yeah, sure, sometime, maybe, probably never…’

The strip club specialist leaned back in his chair. Very casually – deceptively casually – as if he were suggesting we all go for a coffee, he said, “We could go now…?”

The table erupted into laughter followed by a fast and furious discussion about how ridiculous it would be to visit a strip club on a Monday night after work.

“With no money!”

“Delirious from lack of sleep!”

“Not even nearly drunk enough!”

“On a MONDAY!”

We howled. As our giggles died away, our strip club guru looked around the table at each of us, gasping from laughter.

“I’ll pay. I’ll pay your entry fee,” he said.

We snorted with derision. As if! No need to be ridiculous. We started to get up, ready to disband.

“Seriously.” He said. “I’ll pay if we go now.”

There was a momentary stillness. I looked around the table. I could feel the zip of sudden energy that sparked around the room; that tiny spark that often leads to spontaneous – and not always wise – decisions to embark on adventure.

Which is exactly what happened.

I asked them to wait while I ran home to change my shoes, and rang Scrubs as I kicked off my runners and pulled on a pair of UGGs.

“I’m going to go to a strip club,” I said. “Is that alright? The curiosity is killing me and there’s a nice man here who is offering to pay for all of us. Realistically if I don’t go now I never will, because there’s not a hope I would spend my own money to go to one, and when is this likely to ever happen again? Someone is basically going to pay for me to go to a strip club. So I think I’m going to go.”

“Right now?” Scrubs asked in alarm.

“Yeah. Is that okay with you?”

There was a pause – which I interpreted as a shocked silence – while Scrubs considered this 4am excursion.

“I don’t know if you should…” He said slowly.

My face fell. Obviously I would never go if Scrubs felt uncomfortable with the idea.

“… I mean, they’re hardly going to have their best looking strippers working on a Monday. Why don’t you go at the weekend?”

Thus it came to pass that at half four in the morning, hyped up on post-work drinks and sleep deprivation, my friends and I grabbed orange juice and a bottle of vodka for the road and piled into the strip club guru’s car. I didn’t drink, but watched as my friends passed around the bottle and wondered whether I should have changed out of my round-necked white knit jumper and jeans*.

When we reached the club, our guru paid a not insubstantial amount of money and handed us each our tokens, which came in the form of strip club dollars. They looked like board game money, with the silhouette of a stripper on them instead of the round, jovial face of Mr. Monopoly. They came in denominations of ones and fives. He then paid our entry fee and the large imposing bouncer waved us into the club.

I’m not sure what I was expecting really but this… wasn’t it. It looked like a nightclub. A long bar ran down the right side of the room, with a man polishing glasses under the pink and blue club lights. It was dark, with loud music and plush velvet booths. Sure there was a stage with a pole, but other than that it didn’t look too different from a nightclub when you’re there too early. It wasn’t wall-to-wall sleaze. I couldn’t see a single pair of breasts. All it was missing from the usual nightclub experience was the tight scrum of bodies pressing up against me from all sides, and the floors that stick to your shoes from the thick lacquer of stale beer that has built up over the years.

So really, for the most part, the experience was proving to be more pleasant than a typical nightclub.

I sat with my friends in a booth near the stage and ordered drinks. Or rather, they did. I asked for water. I wanted all my faculties intact for this experience. This was likely to be my one and only visit to a strip club. I wanted my eyes wide on the night and my memories intact the next day. A girl walked past our table and I frowned; she was astonishingly beautiful. She looked as if she had stepped off the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to join us for the night. So much for Scrubs’ theory about Monday’s girls.

Another girl made her way over and asked to sit next to us. She was petite and blonde and made charming small talk with us until the boys asked for private dances. Two brunettes appeared to lead them away, and the only other girl and I were left with the pretty, pixie-like blonde. We talked a bit about college life, and then she called over her Amazon angel of a friend to join us. I was almost starstruck by the two of them. I had been expecting regular girls like me, not these glittery bombshells.

Just then, our kindly patron returned from his (second) private dance of the evening. He watched the four of us chat for a moment and then leaned towards us.

“You guys should get one,” he said.

I side-eyed him in warning. I didn’t want to get the girls’ hopes up and there was no way I was paying for a private dance.

“No seriously,” he insisted. “How much is it for a double private dance for these two?”

The corner of the pixie’s mouth turned up and she looked us up and down. She named a price and he nodded encouragingly.

“Go for it!” He said, shuffling over in his seat and stuffing money in my hand. “Go on!”

Guys, I tried to say no. I honestly did.

I balked. I tried to hand it back. I told him to keep it, but he just got up and called his girl over for a third dance. As she led him away by the hand he yelled that he didn’t care what I did with it but it was meant for a dance so I might as well get one.

I turned back to face the two blonde babes and looked at my friend, who was riding both the buzz from the vodka and the sugar high from the soft drinks she was mixing it with. I shrugged, and the two girls laughed and clapped delightedly before leading us to the private room.

The private dances took place in a U-shaped booth with velvet curtains that were pulled closed behind us. My friend and I sat on opposite sides of the room. I pulled at the edge of my sleeve nervously, trying to remind myself of the only thing I know about stripclubs, which is that you should never touch the dancers**.

A song started – I couldn’t tell you which one – and the pixie stepped in front of me started to writhe and take off her clothes. She straddled my thigh and ground against my leg. I chewed the inside of my cheek and wished I’d worn something less chafing for her than denim.

My palms were splayed flat against the velvet couch. She was so close to me. Her body glitter sparkled under the lights and she smelled of something outrageously sweet and fruity. Her hands roamed over my knit jumper, making me feel slightly ridiculous. I wondered how many people had worn white loose-knit jumpers to this booth.

She unhooked her bra and dropped it, revealing a perfect pair of gravity-defying breasts. She leaned in for a kiss and I awkwardly turned my face away. I was pretty sure Scrubs might have something to say about me making out with an anonymous Nordic stripper.

She kissed her way down my neck, and I started to feel slightly rude.

Should I touch her? Seems almost offensive to keep my hands on the couch. Should I awkwardly place my hands on her hips? Is she going to think I’m not enjoying it?

She expertly slid her thong down her legs and kicked it off.

No, no. Better to just stay as I am, I thought, mentally nodding to myself.

The pixie pulled my knees apart and turned to grind against my lap. I distractedly examined her tattoos. I had never (and still to this day have never) had somebody’s tattoos quite so close to my eyeballs before. She bent over at the waist, giving me an unexpectedly detailed look at her clitoral piercing. I eyed it and wondered how much it had hurt. I felt strangely detached from my body. Not a single part of me felt aroused. Instead, my brain was busy clinically observing everything as if I were a scientist running some bizarre experiment with a very attractive and very naked subject. I kept waiting to feel something, some tingle or particle of pleasure that I could grab onto that would explain why people found these places so alluring. Instead I just felt… bemused.

I marvelled at the way every inch of the pixie’s now-entirely-naked body was coated in this sheen of fruity body glitter. That can’t be hygienic, I mused sympathetically. I idly speculated whether or not it was likely to be compulsory for strippers to walk through some sort of spray mist before starting their shift.

The pixie knelt on the couch beside me and stuck her tongue in my ear. She sucked on my earlobe and I sat, stiff as a board, suppressing a shudder. There is something almost overwhelmingly odd about a complete stranger sucking on your earlobe for payment. She leaned towards me slowly in a second attempt to kiss me, and I turned my head to the left to dodge her lips a second time. Across the room I saw the Amazon straddling my friend, kissing her with her hands tangled in her hair. I looked back at the pixie and smiled nervously, anxious not to offend. Was I supposed to be okay with this? Was this normal? She smiled back, lifted a perfectly drawn eyebrow and bent across my lap. She arched her back and tossed her fringe out of her eyes as she wiggled her butt playfully.

Am I supposed to spank her? What are the rules here? Are there rules? What is happening?

She pulled one leg to the other side of me and bent over, sliding her upper body to the floor, leaving her bottom half spread-eagled in my lap. I felt like I was in an extremely graphic Sex Ed class. If I had leaned forward I could have touched her clit with my nose, she was that close. The jewel in her piercing twinkled at me.

She switched out with the Amazon for a bit and I enjoyed the novelty of watching legs as long as my entire body bend and flex in front of me. The Amazon ran her fingertips under the hem of my jumper, stroking my skin, making me flinch. My palms were pressed so hard into the seat that I was half afraid my handprints would be forever immortalised in the deep pile velvet.

They switched back and the pixie grinned at me before pulling me forward. She straddled me and rolled my jumper up, kissing her way up my torso. I sat, stone-faced with confusion, as she pulled it all the way up to my neck.

Thoughts ping-ponged around in my head.

Do I still not touch her? She’s undressing me! Should I say something? This is unexpected. If I object will she be offended? What if she tries to kiss me again? Is it rude to say no thank you? Why is there no manual when you first walk in? Why are there no notices with Dos and Don’ts? 

She kissed my collarbone and I felt my knuckles whiten from digging my fingers into the couch. I fixed my gaze on the brass curtain rings as I felt her drag her fingernails up my torso, and then, with startling abruptness, pull off my bra.

I was caught completely off guard.

The cool air hit my chest and gave me a momentary form of brain freeze. For a moment I felt as if my the top of my head had been opened and a steady stream of exclamation marks had been poured in. As I opened my mouth to make a joke about not having applied for a job, I felt her climb off me. She took a couple of steps back, stood in front of me, and tilted her head.

“Are they your own breasts?”

My brow furrowed. What part of the dance was this?

“Yes?” I said, confused.

“They are real?” She was still standing in front of me, no longer on her tiptoes arching every muscle in her body. Now she was simply studying my body. The cool air passed over me and I wondered if a private dance had ever been less enjoyable. I nodded.

“You have really great breasts,” the pixie said, appraisingly.

I blinked and wondered whether somebody had spiked my drink earlier.

“Your breasts, they are really beautiful!” She was eyeing my chest as if it were a painting. She leaned forward and ran her finger along the outside curve of one of my breasts. The sultry, sexy-dancer act had been completely switched off. We seeemed to have reached an interval. I willed my face to stay passive.

“Thanks,” I said, after a stunned pause.

There was silence as she continued to eyeball my breasts admiringly. I cleared my throat.

“Yours too.”

She met my gaze.

“I mean, your breasts are also…” I paused, searching my blank brain for an adjective. “…Lovely,” I finished lamely.

She made a face and looked down at her breasts, cupping them in her hands.

“Yes,” she said, as if contemplating them for the first time in a long time. “They are nice too.” She looked at me and the corner of her mouth twisted downward.

“These are not real though,” she sighed sorrowfully.

I looked around the room, fingernails still digging into the seat. It felt truly surreal to have been stripped by a stripper who now stood holding her breasts and reflecting upon her implants.

Can I pull my jumper back down? Would that be rude?

The pixie crossed the room to tug on the Amazon’s arm.

“Look, look at her breasts,” she said, gesturing towards me.

I closed my eyes briefly. Maybe I could pretend this wasn’t happening.

The Amazon came over and both of them – one gigantuan, one tiny – stood side-by-side, cocked their heads and stared at my chest.

“Are they real?” The Amazon asked.

“Y-yes,” I stuttered, feeling like a watermelon being weighed up at Whole Foods.

The Amazon nodded curtly. “They are beautiful,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Thank you…?” My voice rose at the end in tandem with my level of anxiety. The Amazon returned to her dance with my friend. I wished I’d had some vodka in the car. I wished I’d had some vodka twenty minutes before to soften the edges of this experience and make it less mind-bendingly weird.

Stone cold sober probably hadn’t been the best way to approach this, in hindsight…

I crossed my UGG-encased ankles, still exposed. I felt my eyebrows rise as I let out a deep breath and considered the fact that this precise moment (in a strip club, in front of two very pretty, very naked women) was easily one of the least sexy experiences of my entire life.

The pixie gave me a giddy smile, as if we had just had a bonding session about our awful ex-boyfriends. She leaned forward, kissed the arch of my breast, and stood up on her tiptoes before resuming her dancing. No more was said between us. At the end, unsure of the correct procedure, I clapped and somewhat hysterically thrust the money as well as a hefty tip into her hand.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, that was so nice!” I gushed, desperate to leave.

She rubbed my back as I tugged at the hem of my jumper. She had pulled a black figure-hugging minidress with strategic slits over her head as soon as the dance had ended.

“Really, it was so lovely. You’re a great dancer.” I was babbling now. She grinned shyly and looked up at me from under her fringe. Impulsively she gave me a quick hug. I looked her in the eye and smiled.

You have a clitoral piercing, I thought. I’ve seen it. In extreme close-up.

I awkwardly patted her on the shoulder.

Once we escaped the private dance booth I grabbed my friend by the wrist and made a beeline for our table, where the rest of the gang whooped as we sat down. Our guru smiled at us. “How was it?”

“It was good!” I smiled. “So now that’s done and we should go.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

I waved at the pixie and the Amazon as we left the club, and spent the car ride home looking out the window trying to process the experience.

Pros:

  • I had been to a strip club and now my curiosity was well and truly assuaged and I never had to do it again.
  • I’d had my breasts complimented by two girls who should know their good breasts from their bad.
  • I hadn’t had to spend a cent of my own money.

Cons:

  • I had to have a shower when I got home to get the sickly scent of fruity body glitter off me.
  • I had realised that as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing actually sexy about strippers.
  • I can never again watch a movie or tv show featuring a strip club without feeling my fingers unwittingly dig into the seat in raw discomfort.

Overall, a perplexing but illuminating experience.

 Would you call having done this trial by private dance a life skill? Probably not, but after having survived the bone-deep awkwardness of the whole ordeal without mortally offending any strippers, I think it qualifies.

 

 

*But what is appropriate clothing for a strip club? You don’t want to be mistaken for one of the staff, after all… A complicated-to-take-off romper? Apple-bottom jeans and boots with the fur? I’m still unclear.

**Thank you Closer for your lessons on strip-club etiquette.

 

Life Skills Unlocked: Solving the Riddle of the Strong Smell of Cat Pee

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My kitchen smells like cat pee.

Considering I don’t own a cat (yet), this is not a sentence I expected to type. A kitchen can smell like many things – the toast we burned at the weekend, the flapjacks I made on Tuesday, the cacio e pepe spaghetti we ate last night – but I would have to say that cat pee is just not one of the typical kitchen aromas.

My face crunched into an expression of distaste, I ventured in nose-first. I sniffed the fridge.

Nothing.

I opened the fridge and cautiously sniffed. I could smell spring onions and cheese.

As you were,” I whispered, and closed the fridge door.

I crept forward. I sniffed the counter.

Nothing.

I sniffed around the hob, and past the hob to the area where cereal and bread sit together in a peaceful pile of carbohydrates. I could only smell bread. I continued my search. I opened the oven.

Nothing. Just the faint whiff of something that perhaps had baked a little past its burning point.

I sniffed the sink – nothing – and opened the cupboard beneath it. Nothing there either. Just the smell of caustic chemicals and brillo pads that should be used more frequently. I hovered over the drying rack, and stood on my tiptoes to sniff at the microwave.

Nothing.

I came to the washing machine.

This was definitely where the smell was strongest. The washing machine is probably about four years old at this point. I opened it and looked inside, looking for the source of this weird waft of ammonia. My wiggling, warped reflection stared back at me from the inside of the shiny steel drum.

I stood up straight and narrowed my eyes at the offending appliance. The strange smell was definitely coming from in or around the washing machine. Obviously a second opinion was required.

I pulled up Google on my phone and typed, ‘My washing machine smells like cat pee.’

813,000 results popped up.

“Oh good,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. “I’m not alone!”

Apparently, if you don’t run a hot 90°C (194°F for those of you across the pond) wash about once a week, bacteria starts to grow in and around the seal of your washing machine, leading to a distinct and unpleasant cat pee-like scent. So all those eco-friendly, non-shrinking 30°C (86°F – seriously guys get it together) washes you’ve been putting on? Great for your delicates, not so great for your washing machine.

I wrinkled my nose in disgust, both at the smell and at the fact that nobody ever mentioned this to me before. I thought I was saving the planet one lukewarm wash at a time! Nobody told me about the cat pee bacteria, or that I need to run a hot cycle every week!

I read on.

Google advised me to throw a cup of white vinegar – not too vigorously, you don’t want it all over the kitchen; the smell of white vinegar is only just preferable to the smell of cat pee – into the washing machine and run a hot cycle with nothing inside it. So I did that.

And then, with a suspicious side-eye, I did it again, because screw trying to be eco-friendly when your kitchen smells like feline urine.

Now only the faint scent of white vinegar and scrupulous cleaning remain.

So hopefully that’s the end of it!

Life Skills Unlocked: Dog Washing

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I am dogsitting Lia at the moment, and she’s taken a particular shine to the rug beneath my dining table. This is fine (she is a spoiled baby of a black labrador), but she had a distinct doggy odour going on and I started to worry that it would permeate the rug forever, so I decided I had to bathe her.

Let me explain quickly about Lia; Lia is my family’s dog. She just turned eleven years old, and she has in the past had two separate surgeries on her legs, first for ripping ligaments in her back leg and then for a torn tendon that fell down around her front ankle like a knee-high sock that had slipped. She’s understandably sensitive about her legs and the possibility of hurting them again. At the same time, she is no stranger to bathtime given her unfortunate propensity for rolling on dead things and swimming in the sea.

She’s a little wary of getting in and out of the tub because she has a real and comprehensible fear of slipping or getting one of her legs stuck at an awkward angle. It can take her a minute to build up the courage to get into the tub, even with the McGyver-ed steps I make for her out of giant suitcases and old towels. This time was worse than usual, so I’ve created a tutorial to guide anyone else who might have an traumatophobic dog.

 

Step One: Assemble the supplies.

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  • Gather a large jug, dog shampoo, brush, treats (for bribing) and towels and line them up in the bathroom.
  • Try not to alert suspicion.
  • If you do alert suspicion, try to ignore the wary side-eye your dog is throwing you from the safety of her bed.

 

Step Two: Obtain Dog.

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  • Ask dog to come to the bathroom.
  • When she pretends to be asleep, go to her bed and try to peel her from it.
  • Try to ignore the fact that she is clinging determinedly to her manky bed.
  • Realise the manky bed cannot be washed.
  • Wonder if it is worth buying a new bed altogether.
  • Engage in a one-sided wrestling match with dog while she pretends not to have even noticed you there.
  • Finally manage to herd her into the bathroom.

 

Step Three: Settle In.

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  • This step is important because if your dog is anything like mine, this is going to be A Task. Show her the bath and the convoluted step system you have set up in order for her to get in without needing to jump.
  • Ignore her look of concern that says she doesn’t trust your mediocre construction skills at all and has severe doubts about this shoddy plan. Explain that you have experience in construction (from playing with Lego as a child) and ask her to get that look of skepticism off her face.
  • Engage in a stand off during which she refuses to get into the bathtub, and you refuse to let her leave the bathroom (this step can take anything from five to twenty minutes).

 

Step Four: Get Dog Into Tub

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  • Slowly coax your dog onto the first step with treats. Show her the step on the other side, and encourage her to get into the bathtub.
  • Once she has her front paws inside the tub and her back legs outside the tub, she may decide that this as far as her courage will take her. At this point she will lock every muscle in her body and stand stock-still, toes gripping the steps in quiet desperation as she looks to the sky with the unmistakeable plea of “Why, God?”
  • Consider giving yourself a hernia by attempting to lift her into the tub.
  • Try it and realise you can’t even lift one of her paws, let alone her whole body.
  • After half an hour has passed, begin to wonder if your dog will simply have to live here in this bathroom – half in and half out of the tub – for the rest of her natural life.
  • Sigh with relief when your dog decides to continue the adventure just as you were giving up hope and starting to think about the logistics of renovating a bathroom around the frozen form of a black labrador.

 

Step Five: Wash Dog

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  • Make sure the water is lukewarm and slather your dog in shampoo. Rub it in with plenty of water to get the suds through her coat.
  • Tell your dog that she is a good girl and that her bravery knows no bounds as proven by her heroic odyssey into the tub.
  • Once she is sudsy and smells more like tea tree oil than dog, rinse thoroughly either with the shower head or with a large jug. Make sure to squeeze the suds out of her tail, her ears and her feet.

 

Step Six: Get Dog Out Of Tub

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  • Let all the water drain from the tub before placing an old towel in the bathtub and wiping the bottom of it until it is bone dry.
  • Place treats on the far side of the bathroom as an incentive, and ask your dog to kindly get out of the tub before you fall into a coma of inertia. Ignore the look on her face that says she feels BETRAYED that after all your talk of her bravery, you are asking her to prove it a second time.
  • Stand there like a gom for about ten minutes before the lure of both treats and the very idea of being out of the tub proves too much to resist and your dog rockets out with a burst of energy probably born from pure adrenaline.

 

Step Seven: That’s A Wrap!

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  • Catch your wet furry missile of a dog, wrap in a large old towel and laugh at how much she resembles Mother Teresa.
  • Rub her until she is no longer leaving water trails wherever she goes. This may require more than one old towel.
  • Follow her to her bed and dry her using the lowest setting of your hairdryer while she falls into a deep and immediate slumber.
  • Wonder how many years that entire process just knocked off your life. Decide you may need a nap yourself, but then remember you have a large amount of hair to pull out of the bathroom drain so go do that instead.

So there you have it, the seven steps to a clean dog!

Now just try to keep her from rolling on anything dead and decomposing so you don’t have to go through that ordeal again anytime soon.

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Bonus Mother Teresa picture

Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette

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Something happened last weekend that blew my mind:

I realised that I have been eating incorrectly my entire life.

But Quinn, I hear you say, if you have been managing to successfully manoeuvre food from your plate to your mouth for the past three decades, how can you possibly say you have been eating incorrectly?

Well I’m glad you asked.

When I was a small child, mealtimes were incredibly stressful affairs. There were a few reasons for this – including the fact that I went on a self-imposed hunger-strike for about two years at the age of six for reasons unknown – but one of the main reasons was that my mother was an absolute stickler for etiquette. The rules for eating were harsh and exacting, and failure to comply led to frequent explosions of anger (on her part) and tears (on ours). Fork in left hand, knife in right. Cut your food. Swap hands. Turn the fork over and bring your food to your mouth with your right hand, tines pointing up. Do not pick up your food until you have put down your knife. Do not ever lift your fork from the plate with the tines pointing down. Hold it like a spoon when you move it from plate to mouth. I mean sure, it sounds simple now but when you’re a tiny child, all that fork-fiddling is very tricky to master.

…Skip along to last weekend, when I absent-mindedly asked Scrubs why he eats with the tines pointing down when it’s 1. wrong and 2. clearly more difficult.

He blinked at me.

“It’s proper etiquette.”

No. No, I said. You’re supposed to do this whole fork-knife-swapping rigmarole. Those are the rules.

He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head. “No, that’s wrong,” he said. “Proper etiquette dictates you eat with your fork pointing downwards.”

I grumbled, and then – as with all bones of contention – I turned to Google to assure me that I had not suffered through gruelling lessons in table manners for nothing, and this is when I learned two galling and frankly disturbing truths:

  1. There is no globally-accepted etiquette for the use of eating utensils.
  2. I have been eating incorrectly for my entire life.

For those of you thinking, “But that’s how I learned to use my knife and fork!” Well, yes. Let me explain. Back in the day, when the British were still enjoying being an empire, this was the proper way to eat using a knife and fork. Some of them sailed to America, settled there, and brought their old-timey etiquette with them to their high society functions in the New World.

Then, for reasons unknown, back in Europe etiquette changed. Someone, somewhere, decided it was too easy to scoop food up with the tines pointing upward and they were wasting too much time swapping hands, so they changed things. Suddenly the polite thing to do was to eat with your fork in your left hand at all times, tines facing down.

Bounce along a few generations, and you have my grandfather, piloting a Boeing across the ocean to New York, where he evidently picked up some new-fangled ideas about proper eating-utensil protocol and then rigorously enforced them at home, bringing us to my mother, who in turn taught us the table manners she had learned as a child.

And here I thought everyone else was just doing it wrong.

When I think about it now, it all makes sense to me. My grandfather – my Yayo – was born in a tiny village riddled with small, crooked houses on unpaved, dusty streets. When I visited as a child, the houses were still small and crooked, and the streets were still unpaved and dusty. It always seemed trapped in a time warp. Women sat outside their front doors on wooden stools dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning for a life that had passed them by. Their faces were nut-brown from the sun and deeply lined. I didn’t know this then but many of those lines were testaments to hardship. Many of those lines were evidence of unimaginable grief.

My Yayo signed up for the military as soon as he was able, and eventually worked his way up from dogsbody to mechanic to air force pilot. Later, he became a commercial pilot, at a time when flying was new and exotic. Short-haul flights became long-haul flights, and before long he was flying from Madrid to New York City.

Imagine the impression New York City’s glitziest five-star hotels must have made on a man who had come from a village in which traveling by donkey was the norm. He probably soaked up the etiquette there as gospel. After all, where would he learn more about high society than New York in the 1950s? At a time when pilots were highly admired and airline travel was considered a glamorous luxury, he learned a lot and he learned it fast. Then he traveled home, arms laden with clothes and jewellery and trinkets, and taught his growing family everything he knew.

And now here I am, with excellent training in American knife and fork etiquette.

… In Europe.

While I admire his efforts, I do wish somebody had mentioned it to me sooner. It is somewhat startling to realise that I have been eating ‘wrong’ at multiple formal occasions for my entire life so far. I suppose I should probably relearn my table manners; I imagine it will be a little easier now that I have adult levels of dexterity in my hands.

Still, after thinking about it, my foreign table manners make me feel very proud of my Yayo and his ambition for a better life. Maybe I’ll still use American etiquette every so often; a private, silent tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

grandfather yayo airline pilot when do i get the manual

 

 

 

Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

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I walked into the Katakurakan onsen with trepidation clawing up my throat.

A smiling lady handed me a small towel and a small key at the window of reception, then gestured gracefully towards a door on the left. This was something I’d noticed a lot since arriving in Japan; every Japanese person I encountered seemed to have been born with the kind of grace that eludes me on a daily basis. Clutching the towel to my chest, I pushed open the door to the women’s changing room and walked in.

In no way was I excited about getting naked with strangers.

I was dragging my feet with dread. My skin had started to itch with a strange, cold, prickling sensation that wasn’t in the least bit pleasant. It hadn’t been my idea to visit the onsen, but the lovely Japanese man showing me around Lake Suwa had seemed personally affronted when I said I would rather not. His smiling, insistent head-bowing had worn me down until, resigned, I had nodded and followed him into the brick building.

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According to Wikipedia “an onsen is a Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities and inns frequently situated around them. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsens were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in Japanese domestic tourism.”

I knew very little about onsen before visiting, other than the fact that you have to be naked and tattoos are strictly verboten. Now here I was, standing in a changing room, clutching a towel, wishing the tiled floor would open up and swallow me whole.

Once I’d accepted that this was, in fact, happening, I looked around for any hint as to what was expected of me. I knew that I would have to strip down, but where? Here? Signs in unintelligibly bubbly kanji laughed at me from the walls. Trying to act nonchalant, I sat down and started to untie my shoelaces ever so slowly as panic bubbled up in my chest. Nobody there spoke any English, and I sincerely doubted my rudimentary phrases of Japanese (O-genki desu ka? Sumimasen! Kore kudasai) would get me very far in learning the intricacies of onsen ettiquette.

Just then, the door swung open and, as if sent to deliver me to salvation, a middle-aged lady walked in. She might as well have arrived in a beam of light, I was so glad to see her. I watched her out of my peripheral vision as I pretended to be absorbed by the process of peeling off my socks. I could undress myself – that part didn’t present a problem; after all I’ve been doing it every day of my life – but I needed to know what came after. I didn’t want to have to stand there naked like a total gom while I fumbled to understand what to do next.

The woman, unaware that she was the hero of the moment, kicked off her running shoes and started to briskly remove her clothing. I kept my eyes on the bench as she dropped her blouse, her bra, and her bobby pins into a tidy pile on the pale ash slats. I picked up the pace with my own clothes, pulling off my loose knit jumper and tank top in a single movement. Now that I had found this unwitting guide, it was important I keep up with her. I couldn’t let her disappear from view.

When she was quite nude, she put her belongings in a locker.

I also put my belongings in a locker.

She used her key to lock it, then slid the elastic keyring onto her wrist.

I did the same.

Picking up her towel, still ignorant of my careful observation of her every move, she walked through the changing room and passed under an arch into the room with the main bath. I followed, now so intent on following this poor woman like a creepy stalker that I barely registered how weird it felt to be totally naked around perfect strangers.

I said barely.

It was weird. It was very weird. I have a somewhat strange notion about my body in that I’m okay with showing it off to an extent – I feel comfortable in a bikini, and don’t mind changing in front of people if the situation demands it – but I don’t like getting completely naked in front of anyone who isn’t my partner. It’s a personal thing. I’d just rather not share the sight of my entirely unclothed body with anyone else. Make of that what you will. It’s not a matter of prudishness or shame or discomfort with my body… It’s just a personal preference.

I never said it made sense.

So here I was, standing in a room in Japan decorated to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse, stark naked, holding only a small towel and trying not to stare at anybody.

…Which, I mean, if I’m going to be naked around strangers anywhere, Japan is probably far enough away for it to almost not have happened at all.

My mentor turned to an area on the right, and sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen. The stool was positioned in front of a little washing station, with toiletries on a similarly tiny counter. I followed her lead and sat two tiny stools down, with my knees up around my chest. I watched her surreptitiously as she used the shower head provided to wash herself, and copied her movements while wondering why the uncomfortably tiny stool was necessary. What was wrong with a shower cubicle?

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When she stood and made her way to the bath, I followed a couple of minutes behind. I walked to the far end of the bath and stepped into the warm water trying to look as unperturbed as possible. When my whole body was submerged in the warm water, I folded my towel and placed it on a ledge just like my onsen angel had done, and then I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried to stop thinking.

It’s almost impossible to stop thinking. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s like trying to herd cats. Emptying your mind of all thoughts is a lovely notion, but if you actually sit down and try to do it you can find yourself thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking, and then thinking about thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that my mindful meditation didn’t last very long.

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I opened my eyes to see my onsen guide walking along the bottom of the bath. I stretched my leg out and felt around with my toes. I was surprised to find that there were thousands of small pebbles lining the floor of the bath. I slid down a step so that my chin was barely above water, and pressed the soles of my feet into the pebbles. It felt good. I could see why people loved the onsen. The water was exactly the right temperature; not too hot to step into without wincing, and not too cold to lie there for an extended period of time. It was quiet. The few women in the room were absorbed in their own rituals, washing and relaxing and combing out their hair. I’d never been in an all-female space like this before, and it felt very safe.

Strange, but safe.

I soaked there until my fingertips wrinkled.

Afterwards I stepped out to find my onsen lady getting dressed. Apparently it’s good to keep the minerals from the onsen spring water on your skin, so it’s normal not to shower after your soak in the bath. I pulled my clothes back on with no small sense of relief, and emerged into the cool air with a pink, flushed face and a new appreciation for onsen culture.

I feel like maybe after a couple of visits I might have managed to feel comfortable with the whole thing (although my brother told me he had to go to one with his coworkers and even just typing that sentence out now makes me incredibly uneasy, so who knows?). I’m glad I did it at least once, anyhow.

Have you ever been to an onsen? If not, would you try it?

And the real question… WOULD YOU TRY IT WITH YOUR COWORKERS?

Life Skill Unlocked: Millinery

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If you’ve never heard the word before, ‘millinery’ is the word for the art of making fancy hats and fascinators*.

I actually have never worn a fancy hat or fascinator. Not because I don’t like them – they can be pretty amazing – but because anything small and girlie makes me feel self-conscious and stupid, and anything wide-brimmed makes me look like a peculiarly flamboyant portobello mushroom.

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There I am on the left there

Still, as you know, I like to try my hand at new crafts, so when Emergency Sister invited me to join her for an afternoon of millinery at The Design House** on Dawson Street, I jumped at the opportunity.

I have not, in the past, had the best of luck with fabric-related crafts. As a general rule, unless there is a glue gun involved there is a chance that no two pieces will ever come together. The end result of my efforts is commonly a scrap pile of material marred with the sort of stitches you’d expect on Frankenstein’s monster, and bloody phalanges from repeatedly punching holes in my fingertips with the needle.

Essentially for this exercise I will need you to take the image you have in your mind’s eye of a Jane Austen lady quietly, delicately, elegantly sewing in the corner… and replace it with what you might expect to see after a rumpled, chaotic girl has spent hours attempting to remove her own fingerprints.

Thanks to my past experience with fabric, I went into the class with high excitement at the idea of learning a new skill and, at the same time, profoundly low expectations that I would actually leave with a finished piece. Thankfully, as soon as we arrived we were offered a glass of wine to encourage the creative process. In my opinion there is no situation wine cannot improve, and this was no exception. I definitely felt my confidence in my own abilities go up as steadily as the level of wine in my glass went down. There were five of us in the class, and after listening intently to our teacher Bebh, we all picked a colour and got to work.

Five hours, one steamed finger and countless needle-pricks later, I had a finished fascinator.

I even took a photo as proof.

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Proof.

So there you have it. Life skill unlocked! Perhaps not the most practical skill, but a skill nontheless. Now, thanks to the astonishing powers of Bebh and her excellent teaching, I can go forth and make many more fascinators in the future. Despite the fact that I probably stabbed my fingers more than I stabbed the sinamay, and it’s unlikely that I will ever wear my little creation, I had a really good time and would definitely recommend it. I didn’t use the glue gun once!

Also, as it turns out, I have the perfect (if slightly reluctant) model for my work:

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Don’t worry, she was paid for this modelling gig.

*If you have ever seen a woman at a wedding who you suspected had a startled bird perched precariously on the side of her head… She was probably wearing a fascinator.

*The Design House is located at 43 Dawson Street, Dublin and they teach a number of classes there. Not only that but you can also get clothes made from scratch, or buy any number of Irish crafts in their shop. Also there’s a cafe downstairs that makes delicious sandwiches (I tried them) and, apparently, heavenly cannolis (I have not yet tried them, but they’re on my list).

cocktail bar, cocktail making, how to make cocktails

Life Skill Unlocked: Cocktail-Making

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When I was about seven years old, I used to sneak into my grandfather’s study. I would tiptoe past the piano, crawl behind the burgundy leather Chesterfield, feel along the bookshelf for the small metal key, and slip it into the lock on the cabinet below.

I would turn the key feeling like Alice down the rabbit hole, and I would slowly open the small mahogany door to reveal a glittering array of crystalware.

The “bar” was really quite small, with one glass shelf dividing the space, but the back and sides were lined with mirrors, which multiplied the decanters and glasses and bottles of alcohol until it looked, to my young eyes, like a sparkling wonderland. I never touched anything, not even the apothecary jars at the back filled with sugared almonds.

I just liked looking at them.

I fully expected that by the time I turned 21 I would know everything there was to know about this magical cabinet, like what that funny silver thing was, or why anyone would need that many different kinds of glasses…

Sadly, at the age of 21 I was still drinking WKD Blue straight from the bottle, so apparently my expectations were both too high and too premature.

I no longer drink WKD (‘Thank God,’ say both you and my liver), and I now have a space in my apartment that functions as a drinks cabinet. I have alcohol. I have glasses. I have what I think might be whisky tumblers. I even have my grandfather’s apothecary jars, which I keep stocked with sweets in his memory. And then, over Christmas, I received a cocktail shaker set.

I pulled out a familiar-looking funny silver thing and read the description: ‘cocktail strainer.’ I ran my finger over the spring and then waved it back and forth. Mystery solved! I placed it over the empty cocktail shaker and pretended to pour out an imaginary drink. Then, as I sat cross-legged on the floor of my sitting room, I cast an eye over the rest of the unfamiliar instruments and realised I still didn’t know how to use most of them. And this, my friends, is the long and winding explanation as to how I ended up in The Blind Pig on Saturday for a cocktail-making class.

If you enjoy vintage cocktails and you ever find yourself in Dublin, Ireland, The Blind Pig is the place to go. It’s a prohibition-era styled speakeasy with live music, delicious cocktails, and a secret entrance. I’d been once before so at the appointed time, I made my way in (I won’t tell you how!) and sat at one of the two tables in front of the bar.

Paul Lambert, the award-winning mixologist who would be our cocktail teacher for the afternoon, stood confidently behind the bar. As my classmates filtered in, he mixed up ten Dark n’ Stormy cocktails for us and told us a bit about himself and The Blind Pig. We listened. We drank. I briefly regretted my decision to skip lunch.

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Paul made this.

He explained to us that he would be teaching us how to make three cocktails. First he would demonstrate, and then we would all get a chance to try our hand at replicating the drink. He pulled a few bottles from the bar and launched into the history of the Cosmopolitan. At this point I had swallowed down half my drink, and was starting to feel very content. I forgot about lunch. I watched him pour things into the shaker. I opened up the Keep app on my phone and typed:

Clear triple sec

Lemon

Gin

Raspberry syrup

Then I took another sip of my Dark n’ Stormy and watched as Paul showed us how and when to use a cocktail strainer (!), and why some drinks should be shaken and not stirred, (and vice versa). When it was my turn I made a decent, although definitely pinker, version of his Cosmo, and carried it back to my table with pride.

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I made this.

I drank it quite quickly.

He showed us how to make an Old Fashioned, and then moved on to how to make a Corn and Oil. This revolting-sounding concoction is actually their bestselling cocktail, which just goes to show you can’t judge a drink by its moniker. I’m not sure where the name comes from, but I can promise you that the drink itself is delicious. I am the ultimate lightweight, so by the time we got to the Corn and Oil I was smiling happily at the rest of my table, floating on a cloud of citrus spray, rum, whisky, and gin. Paul pulled out the ingredients and announced the name of each one as he placed it on the bar.

“Velvet Valernum,” he said.

Velvet Valernm, I typed.

“Lime juice.”

Lime.

“Sugar syrup.”

Sugary srup.

“Bitters.”

Bitters.

“Rum.”

Run.

I closed the app confidently, feeling like an excellent student, and watched as he made magic happen. Then I got up and managed to make the same cocktail, only I ended up with twice as much of it. I’m not sure how that happened. I side-eyed my classmate’s cocktail, which filled half her glass, then looked down at my own which was close to spilling over. Paul’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. My classmate’s husband leaned over and grinned, “That’s the way to do it!”

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I med dis.

Glassy-eyed, I carefully carried my double cocktail back to the table and sipped on it as we swapped restaurant recommendations and alcohol-related anecdotes. The class ended, and we all decided to stay for another. And then another. By the time we stumbled out onto the street I was ready to hunt down the nearest, largest Margherita pizza and inhale it cheese-first.

The next morning I checked my “notes” and discovered a few spelling mistakes and a curious lack of instructions.

But at least now I know how to use a cocktail strainer!