Things lost to exes, begrudgingly.

The Toast, April 2014. Original article here.

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Things lost to exes, begrudgingly.

– Endless loaves of bread.
After too many mornings of waking up at his house and finding there was absolutely nothing to eat, I started bringing my own food over. The coffee and peanut butter stayed in the cupboard where I’d left them, but the bread would disappear immediately. At one point I was buying a loaf a week for my own house, and up to three loaves for his. Then he started complaining all that bread was making him put on weight.
* Lesson: Bring a man a loaf of bread and he eats for a day.

– Fancy water bottle.
My ex and I had the same water bottle: a red aluminium canister of the kind that will last a decade if you look after it. I’d been looking after mine. Then at some point during the relationship the bottles got swapped, but I didn’t become aware of this until we’d gone through the only breakup I’ve ever had where things got so ugly we no longer speak. And my ex had not been looking after his bottle. I don’t want to think the swap was deliberate, as that would have been petty. But then again, he’d been known to use the Twitter account belonging to the cat he’d shared with his ex to try and make her jealous, so.
* Lesson: Trust no one.

– James Bond back catalogue.
My ex was really into TV, and as a result we watched what amounted to, in my opinion, endless amounts of crap. Amateur cooking shows and kitchen sink dramas, urgh. So the Bond films were an attempt at coming up with stuff we both actually wanted to watch, as we’d exhausted Star Wars and Harry Potter. So I bought the DVDs and kept them at his house, and we chuckled our way through them. I mean, those films are comedies, right?
* Lesson: Opposites attract, then opposites bicker endlessly over what to watch while eating dinner. Romance is dead.

– Favourite knickers.
Do women actually leave used underpants at the houses of men they are dating, or is that a 1980s film cliche? In any case, these knickers were left behind in a clean state, in a moment of optimism that I’d be returning to wear them. I did not return to wear them. At the time I was too torn up about the guy to be upset about the pink and orange lace number, but it goes without saying: I’ve never left a favourite piece of clothing at anyone’s house ever again.
* Twist in the story: About a year later I found myself back at the scene, briefly, and retrieved the lost knickers! I’ve never been able to wear them again though, so the loss stands.

– Favourite yoga teacher.
I once got asked out by a man who, like me, liked to do 90 minutes of Ashtanga yoga on Tuesday nights, overseen by a wonderful teacher named Kate. This man was attractive, as boys at yoga often are, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never met a person I have less in common with. Cue Mia Wallace in ‘Pulp Fiction’ making a square with her fingers, if you catch my drift. Fast forward a couple of weeks, to when his prettiness no longer compensated, and I saw no other choice: I begrudgingly gave him custody of Kate, and bought a bike instead.
* Lesson: Good men are hard to find, but not as hard to find as good yoga teachers.

Possibly the least you can spend on getting legally married

The Billfold, 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 14.58.49Possibly the least you can spend on getting legally married

My husband and I got married last July. We wore jeans to the registry office, and except for the three friends who were our witnesses, no one knew anything about it until it was over. For us, it was perfect. As a side effect, it was also ridiculously cheap.

***

Going out and getting a bit drunk, ending up accidentally getting engaged at at bus stop at 2am. £67

Smoked salmon bagels at the 24-hour bakery, in a newly-engaged daze. £4.80

Hangover breakfast the next morning. £18

“Do you remember what we talked about last night?”
“Yes.”
“…”
“Marry me. No, really!”

Total engagement cost: £89.80

We started the planning 10 days later, once we realised we couldn’t think of a single reason not to go through with it. In the end we were engaged for 32 days, mainly because the British system has a 16-day waiting period for marriage permits.

Mandatory “notice of intent” appointment with the local council to get a marriage permit. This also served to verify our identities and making sure we’re not already married, and/or brother and sister. £60

Hiring a room for 15 minutes at the Town Hall, with a marriage official and registrar. (This is the Thursday rate; Saturdays cost more.) £79, or £5.80 per minute.

“Rings! We should get rings!” … We got titanium bands online, and they showed up two days before the ceremony. This was the only thing we bought that we didn’t strictly need. £54.75

Bus fare to the Town Hall on the day: £2.80

Pub lunch afterwards: Free, paid for by our wedding guests.

Cards, stamps and printing of photos for the thankyou notes: £36

Replacement ring when my husband left his in a hotel bathroom six months later: £25 … Somewhere out there a crooked and/or underpaid hotel employee is trying to sell that ring, only to be told it’s not platinum but titanium, hence it’s essentially worthless. Except as a symbol, that is.

Total wedding cost: £257.55

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

The Billfold, 2013. Original article.

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

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1. Acton (1) – 6 months
The year is 2003, and two fresh graduates from Southampton roll into London to take it all on. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re doing, which is why they’ve ended up in Acton, West London. Ten years later, this is still the worst location I’ve lived at in the capital, plus the rent there was more than what I pay now. The flat itself was very nice, but the area was thoroughly charmless and it was just ridiculous to pay £550 per month each. I cringe slightly at admitting that now, but we were new to London, a city that treats its newcomers in a way that makes you understand why it’s nicknamed ‘The Big Smoke’. My friend and I broke the contract early and have never really spoken about it since.

2. Acton (2) – 2 months
As a temporary arrangement, I moved in with my boyfriend and our other friend in their cream-carpeted semi-detached Victorian facing a very loud road. The rent here was the same as the first Acton flat, but as we split it threeways it was a very manageable £360. The bus stop outside meant you couldn’t watch TV with the windows open though, and everything was beyond walking distance. I was unemployed during these two months and thoroughly miserable; I don’t want to talk about it.

3. Chiswick – 15 months?
The Acton Three moved up in the world, to a nice flat just next to Turnham Green tube. It’s pretty pleasant there: there was a lovely chocolate shop that sold lavender truffles, and a coffee shop on the other side of the park. The rent was the same as the previous place, as I’d learned something vital about the London market by this point: living in a crappy area doesn’t necessarily mean you save on rent. London started to agree with me while I lived in this flat. The porter looking after the block, however, did not; he regularly left notes about drying laundry being visible through the window from the road. I still don’t know what that was about.

4. Dulwich – 1 month
Temporary dwellings after breaking up with my boyfriend of nearly five years. This marked the move to South London, with its other-side-of-the-river feeling and tricky transport links. I don’t remember much about this place, other than there being a ghost in the master bedroom. We all agreed on this when discussing it in retrospect, but were too fearful to acknowledge its presence while still living in the house.

5. Camberwell – 10 months?
A spider-infested but otherwise nice basement flat on what was allegedly one of the most burglarised streets in London. Top tip: if anyone you know move to such a location, please do leave them to their ignorance; we have the Daily Mail if we want to live in paranoia. I think the rent was around £450, which was a bit expensive but okay. Positives to this flat included oak floors and the neighbours’ cat, but the endless bus journeys to get to the tube is the overarching memory, not to mention a general reason never to move back south of the river ever again. Prejudiced, yes, but that’s my opinion.

6. Spitalfields – 10 months
This little flat marked the wise, wise move to East London. I could see Spitalfields Market from the living room window, a fantastic feature which was strongly reflected in the price, meaning my boyfriend and I were financially unable to take advantage of our new and fancy location. Having said that, paying £600 for this flat would be a steal today; the gentrification is complete and Urban Outfitters has since moved in across the road. I spent a lot of time wandering around buzzy Brick Lane late at night. Every few days I’d get a bag of fresh bagels, which at 15p a pop from Beigel Bake was budget food. It wasn’t bad at all.

7. Shoreditch – 18 months?
I found this flatshare in a grimy Shoreditch council estate on the internet while in a daze, brought on by looking for a new job and a new house while also contract-bound to co-exist with my ex in the tiniest flat ever. The fact the ensuing dark-side-of-Shoreditch life worked out as well as it did was a stroke of luck; at £550 the rent even included most bills. The estate kids threw water balloons, sure, but they never managed to hit me, and Shoreditch was the perfect place to live when I was single and needed a crowd on my street to walk through when coming home late at night.

8. Mile End – 10 months
Really nice flat, this, and the high-speed trains from Essex which brushed up against the wall every 15 minutes provided this interesting suction effect in the air. The rent was discounted because the recession had just hit, and at £450 it was a steal for such a spacious flat, close to both the tube and the park. I lived with a friend who was a cleaning nut, and he deemed my domestic efforts so insufficient that he preferred to do it all himself. It seemed like a good arrangement at first, until his control-freakery leaked into other aspects of our lives and it became absolutely necessary for me to leave. I’d go into detail, but I seem to have blocked out most of it. Safe to say, this is a cautionary tale.

9. Limehouse – 22 months
My longest stay at a London address to date. By this point I’d started to notice how a good flat would invariably reveal an issue to do with plumbing or the other humans and lead to short stays, while the shitty flats tended to result in long stays. This was no exception: the company was good, but the Poplar border-location was terrible and every single household appliance broke while we lived there – some more than once. A constant feature was how the shower would swing rapidly between hot and cold, meaning I can now wash like I’m Roadrunner. It was really cheap though, at just £420 a month, so we put up with it until the rent went up by 20% overnight and we left in shock. It was probably for the best.

10. Stoke Newington – 16 months and counting
My favourite house so far: it’s big, it’s full of nice people and touch wood, no major issues have yet to be identified. I mean, the mice moved on almost right away once we got the sonic repellers. If anyone’s curious, I’ve identified the key to houseshare happiness: a mixed group of three to five people, a cleaning rota and a working boiler. I moved to the Stokey-Dalston borderlands after a two-week stay at a friend’s to tide me over the search, which I actually conducted with some care this time. (In hindsight, this may have been the core problem leading to many of the previous duds.) The house is massive but the room is a shoebox; the rent reflects this and consequently I have money left to spend on airfare. I am very happy about this choice. This is also my first North London postcode, meaning I’ve done the circle. To my surprise, I absolutely love it up here. “I may never move again,” she said.

[Update: 13 houses in 15 years in London]

Free rides

Published in Maura Magazine, March 2013. Original article here.

mauraFree rides: On Google Reader, my own personal internet and a grave insult
That first sip of coffee in the morning, that sense of relief hitting the back of my addict throat, the faith in the things that sustain me. It’s all there in the black liquid, the promise that it will restore me as I battle my sleepiness every morning. I’m an owl at heart, in no mood to deal with the world for at least an hour after waking, so until the haze lifts I take refuge in caffeinated drinks, blankets, and the online offerings served up by Google Reader.

So then, I was quite sleepy still when the message first flashed on my screen: “Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013.” No apology, no explanation. I was too tired to take it in, at first. Eventually, though, I started to wake up, and I got cranky. “What will they come for next, my cafetiere?” I wailed into the Twitterverse, gravely insulted by Google blatantly violating its own “Don’t be evil” code of conduct. Okay, so maybe this news isn’t exactly evil; no one has died. But my relationship with Google Reader is intimately personal; it’s as close to me as my breakfast drink of choice. And that feeling is exactly what Google – along with Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and other providers of free services on the web – set out to foster in their users. People are encouraged to share stories, make friends, and design their spaces, all while keeping a record of what they’ve browsed and reacted to along the way; these virtual places eventually become just as real as the corner shop. These companies wanted us to fall in love with them, to become indispensable in our lives and it worked: the internet is becoming real life. We feel like we own it, rolling over from sleep to wake our computers to life, hitting our favourite bookmarks where all the things we want to surround ourselves with are waiting. But now Google Reader has a “Closed” sign at the door.

It’s probably not fair to expect web services to stick around forever, especially when they’re free. Not that I wouldn’t pay to keep Google Reader, if they let me. But the impending demise of Google Reader is making me feel confused, and slightly betrayed, as this is the first time I’m losing something online that I actually love. Reader is RSS perfection, and its stark, stripped-back style is part of why I loved it: the content presented line by line, making it easy to be gobbled up quickly and without distraction. Alternatives do exist, including clever reading apps which present content like a sleek magazine. Feedly, which has an option to copy Reader’s viewing experience, arguably looks like the best alternative so far. But using them is like trying to make a restaurant meal using ingredients bought at the supermarket: it’s almost there, but it’s not quite right.

When Apple released the 11-inch MacBook Air, I was thrilled to join the cloud revolution. It’s the paperback of laptops and literally the apple of my eye, yet the Air is a cold, hard shell; none of the software belongs to me, and none of the documents, photos, or thoughts on the machine live inside. I use Twitter for social networking, Gmail for email, Tumblr for blogging, GDrive for document storage, and Flickr for photo sharing. All of these are either extremely useful or lots of fun; they’re also intensely personal, even though they “exist” far away from where I am. But sometimes when I look at my 4000-strong Gmail archive I feel uneasy; I recently emailed a friend something about bedsheets and now ads for bedding follow me around the web. There is a hidden cost: Google crawling through your words, learning who you are and what you want in its quest to know you better than you do yourself. I know friends have abandoned Gmail because of this feature, which is admittedly a tad creepy, but Gmail is the best mail service around – as long as Google wants it to be, at least.

I need Gmail as much as I need the lights to come on in my house. But Google is not a utility, and I certainly have no control over what happens to it next. Case in point: Google launched the note-taking program Keep just days after Reader went up against the wall. But how can Google think people would be willing to trust them to “keep” things? I plugged my iPod into my Mac the other day only to be told I needed to upgrade my iTunes in order to get my devices to sync, leaving me no option but to comply. Ten minutes later, I was battling a new and shiny version of iTunes whose intentions are less about me updating my aging iPod and more about getting me to buy more music – although whether I’ll actually own that music as a result is unclear. Similarly, the place I love more than any other on the internet is also the least rooted: Twitter is just one long stream, and I only am given 140 characters to express myself at a time. I’ve carefully manicured my list of people to follow there, ruthlessly cutting people who might be friends in real life but not adept at microblogging. Meanwhile, tumbleweeds roll across my family-infested Facebook, which I keep mostly for phone book purposes; every couple of weeks I log in and find invites to events long since passed.

I made my usual strong black coffee this morning before clicking the green Feedly icon. It’s not a familiar button yet. For the first week or so I’d interrupt my morning Feedly session to go back to Reader, as it still has a couple of months left on life support, but I’ve stopped doing that. It’s best to make a clean break. Feedly may become a perfectly acceptable Reader substitute at some point; “acceptance” being the opposite of love.

The internet I have in my house right now is practically flawless, piping 24 hours of connection into my beautiful little laptop, which pewters on the edge of my bed at night. It’s the portal to are all the things I love, and it’s personal. But maybe it’s an illusion. I remember the sound made by the old modems, the anticipatory crackling before I connected to the world via Hotmail. The internet never felt like it truly belonged to me back then because the connection was so tenuous; it could be dropped at any moment. I thought things had changed, but maybe I was wrong. The mechanics have improved and we feel like we own it, but the soul of the internet has its own agenda. Something’s at work, and I find myself asking: “Are you there, internet? It’s me, Jess.”

Literary pubs of London: A beer-soaked history

Published in Viator (here) and Huffington Post (here), 2013. 

london pubsLiterary pubs of London: A beer-soaked history
The two thousand year old city that is London is a living, breathing history book. While Samuel Johnson was right: “There is in London all that life can afford”, often what we locals like doing most is to haul up in the pub. Luckily, we need not choose between comfort and culture when looking for a watering hole around London town, because so many pubs are rich in historical and literary connotations. So get your pint and find a seat by the fire, underneath low beams on crooked floors, and get merry in the knowledge Dickens may well have sat in the very same spot.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street, in the City
One of many London pubs with a Charles Dickens connection, it’s easy to see the author penning some of his gloomier stories at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The atmosphere comes from the lack of windows, but take this as is part of the charm as you crawl through the many little rooms inside. There’s been a pub in this spot since 1538, but the one there today was re-built after the Great Fire of London. Dickens’ novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ makes a reference to this pub, when the characters make their way along Fleet Street “up a covered way, into a tavern … where Charles Darnay was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine”.

The Prospect of Whitby, 57 Wapping Wall, in Wapping
Whether it’s true that this pub sits at the site of the city’s oldest riverside tavern is not certain, but this is still a great place to have pint by the Thames. Legendary diarist Samuel Pepys drank here, but the pub also features in newer works of fiction: Vercors’ 1952 novel Les Animaux dénaturés, and the famous English comic book series ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.

The Fitzroy Tavern, 16 Charlotte Street, in Fitzrovia
This classic London pub was once the epicentre of the city’s literary bohemians, drawing custom from the likes of Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Augustus John. Originally a coffee house when it was built in 1883, it became a pub only a few years later and has stayed true to these roots ever since. Fame or infamy depends on who is asked, but between the 1920s and 1950s it was a popular after-work hangout for Orwell and Thomas who worked at the nearby BBC. Today it hosts the weekly gatherings for the alternative student magazine at University College London.

The Anchor, 34 Southwark Bridge Road, at Bankside by London Bridge
This is where Samuel Pepys sat when he watched the Great Fire of London in 1666, taking refuge in “a little alehouse on bankside … and there watched the fire grow”. The building standing in this spot today has gone through several modifications, not all of them for the better, meaning the best spot to sit and soak in the atmosphere today is probably the large seating area overlooking the Thames. Regardless, this is the only remaining pub in an area once popular for riverside inns around the time of Shakespeare. The site of his original Globe theatre is only a block away (the new building by the river is a replica), meaning there’s a good chance the playwright would have drank at The Anchor.

The Pillars of Hercules, 7 Greek Street, in Soho
“Who would want to hang out around the Pillars of Hercules? Only those bent by this passion for writing books. We were absolutely determined to become writers. We didn’t use words like ‘passion’, but we acted them out. Writing was the only important thing,” Ian McEwan recently said in an interview with The Guardian. The author would spend time in this Soho establishment with his literary friends Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Christopher Hitchens. The pub itself stems back to 1733, with ties also to Casanova, Thomas De Quincey and Charles Dickens.

The Spaniards Inn, Spaniards Road, in Hampstead

A literary classic, The Spaniards Inn remains a gem of a pub with beautiful oak panels and a great beer garden, where you can find such a rarity as a panoramic view of London. Dickens mentions the Spaniards in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’, Bram Stoker names it in ‘Dracula’, and Keats allegedly wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the garden. The Spaniards remains a great end point after a walk across Hampstead Heath, with a live fire and brews on tap to get the warmth back in your body on a chilly day.

How to be a freelancer and still go travelling

Published in The Billfold, 2012. Original article here.

billfold travelHow to be a freelancer and still go travelling
There was very little about going freelance that threatened to put me off, back when I did it a year or so ago. Sure, I would probably never be able to get a mortgage, and my lack of preparation meant that my savings would take a pounding as I worked to get the show on the road. These were the things that bothered my friends when I told them about my plans to quit to go it alone, my voice full of manic relief at finally reaching a point where I no longer gave a monkey’s about money; I just wanted my freedom.

The only thing that niggled at me about my plan, or should I say lack thereof, was the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to travel. I love going places, mostly long weekends in neighbouring European countries, but I suspected my hair-brained idea would cost me my precious San Francisco trip. I’d lived in the Bay Area for three months when I was a very impressionable 19, and I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the foggy city and was gagging to go back. But transatlantic vacations are for people who sweat it out in offices, collecting regular salaries … right?

Actually, no. A year and a bit after I jumped into the freelance pool I found myself on an airplane headed for San Francisco, where I stayed for 29 amazing days without putting any of it on credit. This is how I did it:

1. I’m a freelancer; I’m a minimalist. The day my pay checks stopped coming in at regular intervals was the day I stopped shopping. Goodbye to new clothes, trinkets and gadgets; hello make do and mend, libraries and hand-me-downs. This may sound restricting but I found it strangely liberating, knowing I could live on very little money. It made me feel in control. And unless you are Kate Middleton, no one needs more than five dresses, I swear. Of course, I still get coffee and the occasional Thai meal with friends, but now that my income is so closely tied to my efforts, the value of money has gone up.

2. Experiences are the new Things. As a kid I remember thinking it doesn’t count as a gift unless it’s wrapped. Don’t get me wrong: I get as excited as the next geek over my Apple products, but generally speaking, shifting my focus from things to experiences has gone a long way to make me happier spending less money. For me, freelancing meant trading money for time, but this is the thing: they were right when they said the best things in life are free. Happiness isn’t a widescreen TV, it’s an afternoon walk by the canal with an ice cream. Or at the very least, I’m convinced you can have just as good a time, if not better, at the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant where you can bring your own beer, as you can at some fancy place with linen napkins.

3. Let your freak flag fly. Of course, this sudden tightwad attitude may well cause people to think you are weird. I remember the look on my then-boyfriend’s face when I suggested that instead of spending three figures on his birthday present, I get us some fish and chips and a bottle of rum, and throw the money saved in a pot marked ‘Rome’. Apparently that’s not as romantic as I thought. So beware: once you start comparing every price tag to or airmiles, there may be casualties.

4. We do what we want. When I announced having finally bought my San Francisco ticket, people would lament over not having the money to do something similar. Then they’d show me what they’d just bought from American Apparel. I’ve realised most people resent being reminded of the connection between the two, because underneath it all, we do what we want – even if we don’t realise it. I kept thinking I wanted to buy my own place, but it finally dawned on me that I’ve moved ten times in the past ten years so I’m probably the rootless kind. I’ve now stopped reading the real estate pages. To sum it up: if you want to travel, stop buying takeaway pizza.

5. Keep your eye on the prize. I can spend a hundred on a big night out, or I can use that money to pay for a whole week in a hostel in Istanbul. Of course there has to be a balance, but chances are you can have just as good a time on half that money if you’re careful. And while being a new-ish freelancer puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to cash, the time saved on commuting alone means I now have time to cook from scratch. But all this presumes one thing: that there is something you want, and badly. For me it was a Mission burrito and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now I’m thinking it’s high time I go to a little place called New York. I hear it’s incredible.