Istanbul – Finding the Essence

My third and final day in Istanbul, and a much sunnier one. Finally, it was starting to look a little brighter on the outside, if not any more colourful.

Following a jolly five mile dawn run, and breakfast in the Crowne Plaza hotel lounge, I jumped on a tram to the city’s cultural centre and, on the look out for colour, headed for the famous Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, when they say blue, they mean grey with a very slightly blue tinge in the right light. It was free to enter so long as I wore wore trousers, removed my shoes and carried them around with me in a plastic bag. The shoes, not the trousers. Also I was not to be loud, so I stayed silent.

Fortunately for our feet, we kept our socks on and the floor was carpeted. Having said that, I once walked round the big temple in Delhi with bare feet on cool marble, which felt fantastic. But that was in Asia – I was still in Europe. Besides which, the Turks like their carpets.

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Speaking of Asia, I popped over there for an hour or so in the afternoon – once I finally found the right ferry – namely a cheap local commuter boat rather than an overblown cruiser.  It was a short sail across the Bosphorus. Now the sun was out, the sky was finally blue and Istanbul was starting to smile for the colour photographs.

We berthed in Üsküdar – which promised much in the write up, but delivered little in the touch down. All I found was a busy port – with lots of people and pigeons. I lingered a while and opted for the underwater train back to Europe.

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I spent the remainder of my time dragging my poor blistered feet around Topkapi Castle, another monument to Mehmed the Ottoman Conqueror with four large courtyards. Another “massive on the inside”. By now I was rather beyond caring. I was oblivious to Mehmed’s treasures and spoils, and decided not to pay extra to have a look around his harem, tempting as it sounded.

I had ticked off the final Trip Advisor Top Ten attractions. I was done and completely done in. I had clocked up 40,000 steps and that was with four tram rides, a train and a boat. But it was all worth it when FitBit went out of their way to email me to say “not only did you earn the Cleats badge for this massive step tally, you gained a serious amount of traction on the leaderboard”. I have no idea what any of that means, but I am very proud.

So ended my three days in Istanbul. All that remained was to get back to the hotel, repack my little rucksack, take the taxi to airport and try to run down my Turkish Lira.

Istanbul only takes cash. Nowhere accepts plastic. Fortunately there is a multitude of ATMs. I was surprised chip and pin had not made it to the shops. There is no shortage of other technology  with an integrated train, tram and boat transport card and the standard ratio of people with their smart phones. Maybe as a major trading capital of the world, cash just seems more honest and tangible. As for the phones – they seemed to be mainly used for actually speaking to people, which is a little old-fashioned.

And so, as we headed to the airport, I looked out of the window and observed a city in perpetual motion.

Istanbul is a noisy city – people talking, shouting and honking their horns, the whirring of trams and the 5-a-day very loud call to prayer by the muezzins from the mosques. It is a frenetic city – millions of people milling around, pulling overloaded carts, pushing overloaded trolleys and carrying ridiculously large packages on their backs. And the endless rows of small shops selling anything and everything, but mainly, it seems, dresses, Turkish delight and suitcases. There are body parts all over the pavements, displaying various items of clothing. Mannequin body parts that is, of course.

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The other ubiquitous retail offering is the daytime pavement cart outside a tourist attraction – each one selling roasted chestnuts, simit (bread)  and misir (roasted corn). Having said that, at night, I was hard pressed to buy any Turkish street food, walking for 30 minutes before I found a disappointingly chewy chicken kebab.

So all in all a bit like India, slightly less chaotic, with a little bit of European restraint. For example, the drivers seem to broadly follow the road signs and markings, although it seems motorbikes are allowed on the pavement, and white BMWs are allowed in the tram lanes. As we know, there are special dispensations for BMW drivers across Europe.

Despite all of the bustle and hustle, it all felt very safe and respectful. Amazingly, in my three days I was only once approached by someone attempting to sell me something. Whilst there seemed to be a disproportionate number of men in their twenties, in small groups, at no point did I feel threatened. There is a nod to security with scanners to walk through into many buildings, although I beeped a few times and was casually waved through.

People dress modestly, as required by the Quran. A few women wore a hijab, most wore headscarves. The men seemed to wear mainly black tops and blue jeans. Most had beards. Very few wore glasses. All in all, most people had dark or black clothing. I ran in black longs and a black top, not wishing to draw attention to myself (there are very few runners in Istanbul). So I was rather surprised to be encountered by two elderly, chubby men by the sea, jogging towards me topless. Not a pretty sight. European seaside rules I guess. Or maybe they were BMW drivers.

So that was Istanbul. The European Asian fusion, the imprint of history. Grey, scruffy and busy on the outside. Safe and secure. And massive and mainly fascinating on the inside.

Day One – Istanbul in the Shadows

Day Two – Istanbul – Massive on the Inside

More on Turkey:-

Turkish Delights – Day One: Queues and Car-sharing

Turkish Delights – Day Three: Crime and Nourishment

Turkish Delights – Day Seven : Wire-walking around the Pool

Turkish Delights – Day Eight : The Road to Ephesus

 

 

Istanbul – Massive on the Inside

Istanbul aka Constantinople nee Byzantion, is a city which divides geography and history. I am here to try to find its chemistry.

The city famously straddles Europe to the west and Asia to the east. The Bosphorus strait is chiseled between its feet providing the vital sea route between the Black and Mediterranean Seas since time – or at least shopping aka trading – began.

It is divided just as precisely in history either side of 29th May 1453, when Constantinople (as it was then) was seized by Sultan Mehmed II and converted from a Christian Byzantine city to an Islamic Ottoman one.

With such a unique pedigree, one would expect Istanbul to offer a feast of unique European-Asian-Christian-Islamic fusion delights. After all, that’s why I chose to come here.

This was my second day in Istanbul. After its less than impressive first impression, the second showing in the daylight was – well – damp at best. But don’t stop reading yet, even drizzle can have its moments of sizzle. Things did get better. My objective was to tick off the Top Ten Tripadvisor sites.

My first destination was the medieval Galata Tower which pokes into the sky on the European side, with panoramic views across the two continents. I’ve surveyed many cities from a height. Sydney, London, Vienna, Auckland and Paris paint pleasing landscapes of blue seas, red roofs, green parks and multi-coloured parasols. Today, Istanbul offered expanses of grey buildings, grey streets and grey waters. Maybe the rain had washed out all the colours.

The only thrill I got was the familiar vertigo surge in my stomach as I stared over the edge of the parapet. And before you suggest it, telling me not to look down rather negates the point of being up there in the first place. Adding to my anxiety – the lift was small and claustrophobic. I’d have taken the stairs, but they hadn’t survived.

Relieved to be back on firm ground, I strolled along Istikal, the city’s renowned shopping street. A long pedestrianised parade, much the same as say Copenhagen or Barcelona without the pavement artists. I counted the international retail brands until I got bored.

Istikal terminates at another “Top Ten”: Taksim Square. This is an expansive open space, with a statue of grim soldiers and leaders celebrating victory and liberation – de rigeur in most Eastern Europe cities. Nothing too remarkable so far here, either.

I took the metro back to the centre, which was a challenge in itself. Suffice to say, after I had found the correct station, ticket type, change, route and direction, I was rolling. In my experience, all the worlds metros are the same – mind the doors, hold on tight and stand on the right on the escalator. Still I had not found any unique ingredient of Istanbul.

I found them indoors. First of all the covered Grand Bazaar with its staggering array and display of goods for sale – ceramics, linen, leathers, ornaments and lots and lots of Turkish Delight. Not the Fry’s version coated in thin chocolate with the consistency of putty we had as a child. Rather the multicoloured variety dusted in spices, with the consistency of putty.

True to its name, the Grand Bazaar stretches over a seemingly endless lattice of streets and corridors. I thought Oldham market was impressive as a kid, but that was a corned shop in comparison. In front of each stall was a hopeful vendor, unaware that their presence was more likely to deter than encourage sales. I didn’t buy anything, but stole a dazzling collection of technicolour photographs and mentally pocketed my first Istanbul icon.

From here I walked through busy narrow streets to the spice market with its bewildering cornucopia of colours, and scents. When will the iPhone acquire an aroma recorder?

I was ticking nicely through Trip Advisors Top 10. Next up – the Hagia Sophia. A monument to the Christian Byzantine era, it was converted into a flagship of the Islamic Ottoman Empire in (remember the date?) 1453, and is now adjusted for the selfie-collecting tourist dynasty. It has an enormous, frighteningly high and cavernous central dome. Looking up was like looking at the stars. Now we were getting somewhere.

Resplendent with mosaics, chandeliers, pillars and a stone ramp to the upper gallery. I did try very hard to look and notice and not just snap and record.

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The floors are a magnificent polished white marble. It was at this point, I became aware that my damp trainers were squeaking very loudly with each step. I tried soft pedalling, I tried walking on the edge of my souls. In the end I tried not caring – that worked best of all. Everyone was too polite to say anything.

My final stop was subterranean – the Basilica Cistern, an underground tank built in the 6th century to store rather a lot of water – A bit like the cistern in your bathroom but a million times bigger and without (as far as I could see) a flush mechanism.

I walked down the stairs into a vast underground space, quietly munching a bag of roasted managed chestnuts I’d bought for a pound from a street seller. My trainers continued to announce my presence, like the annoying beepers on a reversing lorry.

“Istanbul – Massive on the Inside” may not be the best marketing slogan, accurately though it would describe the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. A bit like the Tardis or a handbag. Dull and unpresupposing on the outside? And it got you reading this far.

The cistern is massive – bigger in area than a football pitch and supported by innumerable stone pillars. It is dark but beautifully lit with carefully positioned amber lights. Another massive hit for Istanbul.

I took the tram back to the hotel, and didn’t make a squeak. Tomorrow the sun is due to shine and I’m planning a silent trip into Asia.

In case you missed it: Day one – Istanbul in the Shadows

Istanbul in the Shadows

The night time does not always provide the best first impression of a city. The colours of the day have faded to monochrome, shadows have spread like blankets to smother every flicker of natural light. Only where the darkness has been banished by electrically powered illuminations, can a city be rescued from its natural nocturnal misery.

I landed in Istanbul at dusk. The airport terminal is a magnificent and spacious like a cathedral – and largely empty with not a single person in the passport queue. I soon contacted my pre-arranged driver and was transported in a rather impressive mini-bus into the city. With no WiFi and excessive roaming charges (yes, Turkey never did get to join the EU), I was left with no realistic option but to look out of the window.

The gloominess had already set in, made more despondent by a thin soup of mist. That, and the endless parade of grey tower blocks and factories. Flashes of garish neon signs did nothing to improve the rather depressing first impressions. Down on the pavements, bearded men in dark jackets and scruffy jeans were taking refuge in small bars. Bags of rubbish were already stationed on the roadside ready for tomorrow’s collection, some having burst, spilling their intestines across the streets.

But then, rising out of the gloom, some beacons of hope. A tall stone viaduct illuminated with a warm orange glow. An octopus shaped mosque, standing proudly on a hill, bathed in a soft yellow light. And then, like a small boy putting his head around a door, the moon, low in the sky peeking around one of the taller tower blocks. It shone, as only the moon can, with that eerie silvery pale lemon radiance over the city. There is hope for Istanbul yet.

My hotel has no shortage of lights – chandeliers, standing lamps, table lamps, ceiling lights and four illuminated glass elevators positioned like guards at the four corners of the well-lit atrium. The hotel was originally constructed to accommodate victims of the 1918 great fire. In my room, I found the most comprehensive instructions I have ever read about how to survive a hotel fire. Let me know if you would like a copy or just like the idea of crawling along the floor in a wet towel.

The Turkish restaurant I dined in was also impressively illuminated – resplendent with tasteful interior lighting, complemented by the glow of the hookahs at virtually every table side. I didn’t indulge. Not for any high moral reason, simply because I didn’t know how to. Do you suck or do you blow?

So, my only concession to being in Turkey (so far at least) was to order a chicken kebab from a bewilderingly extensive menu. A bewilderingly extensive menu normally presages underwhelming, mediocre food. And so it proved with my room temperature chicken which could not possibly have been prepared fresh in the 5 minutes it took to arrive.

It was fascinating just watching the locals, whilst absorbing the ambience and inhaling the fragrant hookah smoke exhale by others. Maybe this is why Turkey has no Coronavirus.

The bill – mediocre room-temperature kebab with a side of shredded lettuce and a cola-light – racked up to a just 56 Turkish lira, a mere 8 great British pounds. As I left, the waiter came running after me with my 4 lira change, which I had been quite happy to forgo. I am nothing if not generous.

So maybe this is Istanbul. A busy city shrouded in grey, like so many others. But with a few monuments of light rising above the fog and small candles of humanity lighting up the shadows. Let’s see what the morning and daylight brings.

So what exactly IS coaching?

I’ve just come off an intensive four-day course to learn all about – and try my hand at – coaching. Fifteen strangers gathered in a hotel in the east midlands – with different careers, backgrounds,  personalities and ambitions – but all with the same question. How can we help other people by becoming great coaches?

What coaching is (and isn’t)

So, what exactly is coaching? It’s probably easier to say what it isn’t – it’s not about offering advice, expertise or knowledge. It isn’t about solving other people’s problems or offering solutions. It’s different from mentoring and it’s not psychotherapy.

So, what is it ? Our homework question at the end of the course was “how would you explain coaching clearly and concisely”.  Here is my work-in-progress definition.

Coaching is a meaningful conversation which helps a person solve a problem, make choices and/or take action, through which they can get to a better place.

What a coach does (and doesn’t do)

The first thing to say is that your coach is 100% on your side. They respect you as a unique individual with 100% positive regard. They are there to support to you, encourage you and to be your best professional friend for every minute of the coaching sessions. Typically, there will be half-a-dozen of these of 1 – 1.5 hours each.

However, this is not like the type of friend who offers advice or tells you what to do. A coach recognises that the expert on you in the room is – you! We are all highly complex and unique individuals dealing with fluid and complex situations. It would take a coach many years to understand all of the detailed aspects of our life and personality.

So, the coach is here to listen and ask questions and help you to find your own answers. To help you navigate and drive to the better place you discover you want to get to.

Five things a good coach does

How does a coach do that ? Here are the five key things that a good coach does:-

  1. Listens relentlessly
  2. Holds up a mirror
  3. Shines a light
  4. Asks great questions
  5. Empathises and encourages

When did you last sit down and talk to someone who really listens to you ? I mean REALLY listens? Someone who is paying attention to you, rather than just waiting for an opportunity to speak. Who doesn’t interrupt, change the subject, check their phone or have a meeting to go to? Who is 100% present with you, concentrating and understanding?

A coach will do this for you, with genuine interest and concern. Then, they will play back to you what they have heard, observed and understood. They will hold up a mirror, so you can see yourself and your world, with a perspective you haven’t seen before. They may well shine a light into corners of your head you haven’t looked at or haven’t wanted to look at. But again, all with the intent of helping you, without judgement.

A coach will do this not by providing easy answers, but by asking helpful and searching questions. How does it feel when? What would happen if? What would good look like? What would prevent you from doing this? What would you do if you knew it would succeed?

Throughout the process, the coach is there to empathise and encourage, even when – especially when – the conversation becomes challenging and maybe (dare I say it) emotional.

Better understanding, choices and outcomes

The aim is to help the person being coached to understand themselves better. What sort of people we are, how we react to certain situations, what impact we have on the people around us and how – by greater self-awareness – we can play these out in a more positive way.

This includes understanding our:-

  • goals & values
  • drivers & motivations
  • sensitivities & vulnerabilities
  • strengths and (most importantly) our potential

It also means critically examining the stories we tell ourselves – the self-limiting stories, the assumptions about other people, the over-simplistic interpretations we often make. The things we tell ourselves we cannot do “because”. The stories we believe which prevent us reaching our full potential and making that important next step in our lives.

Once we understand ourselves better, we can make better choices. The outcome from the coaching sessions might be making a difficult decision, re balancing our life, improving a difficult relationship, letting something go, picking something up, making a particular career or life choice. We may decide to change how we behave, or how we react, in order to be more effective and in a happier place.

What does this require of a coach?

We learned a whole load about what all of this demands from the coach – in terms of mindset, skills, and  techniques, and most importantly being self-aware and authentic ourselves. The key is to build a trusting relationship with the person being coached – all in the cause of helping them and serving their needs.

Going to the Party . . .

So many friends assumed I was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party, that I decided I may as well become a card carrying member of the Labour Party. Never one to jump on the bandwagon of a winning team (I’m an Oldham athletic supporter), I decided to join the party at its lowest ebb following the General Election red blood bath. On the positive side, it means I can cast my vote for a new leader. Hope springs eternal.

Jeremy is leaving the building. The reluctant leader, thrust into a position he was as uncomfortable in as wearing an ill-fitting suit. He retires as the tragic, heroic failure; the rebel turned would-be saviour, who was cruelly foiled by the evil press and internal mutiny. A travesty of justice for our man of high ideals and integrity, beaten by lies and misrepresentation. Or maybe, just a decent man out of his depth, or a narrow-minded idealist with little practical or political nous. Probably all of the above.

So how do we find someone to replace him, someone with all of his strengths and none of his weaknesses? Step forward the latest class of leadership candidates – Emily, Keir, Lisa and Rebecca. My daughter and I drove up to Nottingham to hear them gently interrogated in front of a friendly audience.

Unfortunately, the pre-race favourite, Keir Starmer was unable to attend the hustings. So we had the three female candidates lined up before us. Each was asked the same questions, submitted in advance by members of the audience, and had 60 seconds to respond. Like Question Time, except the panellists had to differentiate themselves whilst also demonstrating that they were all on the same side. A tricky balancing act.

84519120_10157140527346819_1422063581511286784_nWe sat through an hour – and whilst I had a favourite, I was suitably impressed with all of them. Each candidate was articulate, passionate and largely coherent. In just a minute, there was little hesitation, no deviation and only minor repetition. Nicholas Parsons would have been proud. They answered the questions they were asked and didn’t interrupt each other. Clearly that is something they need to correct back in the real world.

There was a high degree of agreement on policies and approach. We did not hear anything of left, right or centrist positioning. When asked who they most admired in their past, nobody mentioned Blair, Corbyn, Millband, Smith or even Bevan. They all said their parents (at which point I nodded at my daughter).

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the three candidates:-

  • Defeat – Having a Brexit election was a mistake, we could never change the subject. Labour walked straight into an elephant trap (ET). We failed to make a one-nation argument (LN).
  • Brexit – was was a rejection of an entire political system (LN). People feel just as alienated from London as they were from Brussels (RLB).
  • Boris – he is not a buffoon, he is canny and needs forensic exposure (RLB). Take on Boris’s lies at the dispatch batch. Pin Boris down (ET). I’m not scared of Andrew Neil (LN).
  • The Labour Party – The greatest vehicle of social change this country has ever known. But we are in a mess. We need to be cuddly lefty and winning elections. A working party not a protest party. Professional, competent and winning (ET).
  • Unity – Challenge behind closed doors, pull forwards together. Live our own values. (LN). We cannot have people castrating each other publicly – er I mean “castigating” (RLB).
  • Welfare – The welfare of the people is the highest law (RLB). We need to up our game with emotional support for teenagers (LN).
  • Human rights – need to be at our heart, we need to be a force for good in the world (RLB).
  • Antisemitism – Accept EHR commission recommendations on antisemitism and we can support Palestinians at the same time (LN).
  • Transport – We need to sort out buses and railways. We need to connect northern towns (LN).
  • Environment – We don’t only breathe out carbon we breathe out guilt (ET).
  • Local government – Keep the Preston pound in Preston (RLB). Bring Power to the people. Councils need more money (LN).
  • Internationalism – Stand up and be counted. No trade deals with countries who are not in line (LN). When did we become afraid in the international community? We must apply international law and not get involved in breaching it (ET).
  • Leadership – build the best team and trust each other – fire them if they don’t ! (ET)
  • The Future – I am determined to deliver democratic socialism in my lifetime (RLB). Build the Red Bridge. Create a political consciousness. Have humility and get out to the country. Take arguments at the core not the periphery. Identify what is not there and ask, why not? (LN).
  • Best Tony Blair Quotes – Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crimes (LN). Education education education (RLB).
  • Nice strap-lines – Aspirational socialism (RLB) The world needs our anger not our sorrow (LN). I’m a tough old bird (ET).

Rebecca Long Bailey was passionate, animated and not as high-volume far-left as she had been painted. Emily Thornberry spoke quickly but eloquently, to get as much content as she could into her minute. As ever, she was provocative, belligerent, witty, honest and (for this audience at least) engaging. My daughter described her as “scary head teacher that everyone likes ! Lisa Nandy started every answer with a real life experience, was insightful, calm and more measured, but did a very rousing and heartfelt final speech.

Here is a party undergoing a painful degree of self-flagellation and self-examination, licking its wounds and very realistic about the mountain it has to climb in the next 3-5 years. There is a steely determination to stick to the party principles, to fight injustice, defend the under-privileged and provide equal opportunity for all. A party which understands that without power, very little can be achieved.

Core to this is the realisation that all wings of the party need to work together. A fractured party does not get elected (not that it ever stopped the Tories). The party also needs to be more professional, and to deliver its message better, both in the media and at grassroots level  the people. A need to return to square one, reconnect with the people and rebuild the argument. Until then , as the headmistress has decreed “Nobody leaves the party”. I wouldn’t dream of it, Emily.

 

 

We have nothing before us, we have everything before us

Forgive the slight variation on Charles Dickens, but this is a great thought for the start of a new decade. This is a time to look forwards to the road ahead rather than staring backwards in the rear view mirror.

Our legacy from the past

The past is gone – this is an indisputable truism. Of course, we can scroll back through social media posts and emails, browse through our selfies (or what used to be called photographs) and even read through old diaries (for those of us who keep them). But even when we stitch these together with our memories and communal storytelling, we can only capture small fragments of the past and whispers of thoughts and feelings. Our brains are ruthlessly efficient at housekeeping data which they decide we will no longer need. Which is 99% of it.

What the past does leaves us with, for better or worse, are not so much the individual pictures, words or sounds but the impact of experiences which have shaped our personalities. The past bequeaths us our deepest and often invisible beliefs and feelings. The landscape of our character – who we are and how we behave – has been formed by traumatic glacial events or the constant daily dripping of rainfall on impressionable surfaces – particularly when we were children.

These are the lasting engravings in our minds, many chiselled in the days before we even remember. Those events, those people, those experiences which shaped our personality, which moulded our present day hopes and fears.

When we face the blank canvas of our future, we don’t so easily leave these behind. Whilst the past is gone forever, the one thing we take with us is its profound impact on ourselves – who we are. This is what will determine our future more than anything. For better or for worse.

If we let it.

Our mindset for the future

At the end of last year, I resigned my job and decided not to take up full time employment again in the future. So I have a 2020 diary which is straining to be 5% full. Having spent the majority of my working life with a dozen entries in my calendar every day – meetings, flights, deadlines, tasks and reminders – this is a very scary thought. I have almost everything before me in terms of time, and almost nothing planned to fill it.

A glorious opportunity of course, and one I am very grateful for. The options are endless. Spend more time reading. Learn a new skill. Meet up with neglected friends. Do more exercise. Sleep more. Take a qualification. Write more blogs. See the world.

But then I still have my personality. Those fears and self-limiting thoughts which were formed in childhood and adolescence and persist through the years of adulthood. The difficulty I have in concentrating for any length of time. The need for distraction. The need to be motivated by deadlines and pressure. The fear of emptiness and boredom, from when I was stuck in my room for hours on end as a child with nothing to do. Anxieties about what people think and whether people will like me. The loss of identity and meaning if I don’t have a job title to sit behind. The worry that I have nothing of any reverence to say.

As a manager, I coached my teams in the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is constrained by its past.  It is self-limiting, talks itself out of taking risks and making hard decisions and finds comfort in the familiar. It finds security in keeping things fundamentally the same. It is born out of insecurity, under-confidence and fear.

Contrast the growth mindset, which has learned from the past, but is not its prisoner. It has a ‘can do, will do’ attitude which will risk and even enjoy being uncomfortable. It is adventurous and seeks out new challenges and experiences.  A mindset with inner confidence and belief. It takes control of its own destiny. It boldly goes . . .

Choices we can make

Last year, I did an exercise with my team to show that we always have a choice about how we react to experiences, situations and other people. We can choose not to be frightened, not to be stressed, not to be bitter, not to be envious, not to be limited. We can decide not to be dictated to by those ghosts of our past. We can choose to let go of the baggage we have dragged behind us through the years. We can choose a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.

Now I have the opportunity to test what I said my on myself and to shrug off some of those lifetime habits and default reactions. I already made the big decision – to leave a job I loved, to give up the safety blanket of a regular salary, and to jump into almost empty space. Now the challenge is to shake off the chains of my past, work through the old fears and anxieties and tell myself that I am never too old to learn, to change my thought patterns and to learn new tricks.

So I have signed up for a coaching course and a cookery class, and have a list of 10 other things to have a go at. It’s a start at least.

Of course, there are aspects of our lives which we cannot change – commitments, families, health and mobility. And there are many things we do not want to change – where our fear is more about losing them.

We certainly can’t change other people – despite the fact most of spend a whole load of energy wishing we could or trying to do so. But we can change ourselves – how we are and the way we think about ourselves. We can choose a growth mindset. We can choose not to be prisoners of our past. We can face the future with optimism and positive energy.

“We have nothing before us, we have everything before us.”

Norway Cruise – Days 2-6 : a Week on the Ocean Waves

It’s a strange and wonderful world living on a cruise ship for a week. We are not on one of those massive 3,000 berth Caribbean monster liners with 7 passenger decks, 7 bars and 17 nights of restless B-factor entertainment.

Rather, we are on something of a mini-cruise on a robust Hurtigruten Nordic ship, working down the spine of Norway. Like a slow and deliberate masseur checking out every vertebrae of a mountain and every disc of a port. There are 300 of us, with the occasional educational lecture and one bar – unused by me on an alcohol-free week.

All Aboard the Big Floating House

So a random selection of not-previously-introduced voyeurs are squeezed together for a week into a makeshift instant community. Day One to Day Eight, each day announced like a new day in the Big Brother House. “Day Four – and Debbie is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the cloudberry cheesecake”

Unlike in that ironically labelled “reality TV” programme, in this literally real floating apartment block, there is no overt competition or confrontation. Everyone is polite, respectful and accommodating – at least on the surface. More on that later.

Each day, a different part of the world streams itself live in front of our eyes, as we sail effortlessly from one town to another. We just have to sit back, eat, take photos, post them on Facebook and then count how many people like them. What could be more relaxing?

We were warned that we could be the youngest people on the ship. Well not quite. But there is a majority of elderly couples – particularly German and French – many no doubt retired. The majority clearly enjoy the unlimited food and possibly should be taking the stairs rather than the lift. I haven’t seen any of them in the gym.

There are some folk you notice and keep seeing – others you only spot on the last day and wonder where they have been hiding. As in life.

The staff too become familiar as they too are part of the closed community – just living on a different, lower deck. Upstairs for the elite, and downstairs for the servants.

The Fullness of Full Board

Most people take full board. Otherwise, obtaining regular food would be pretty challenging. There is one shop on board selling chocolate and crisps, otherwise you would be forced to find a shop on one of the stops. Unsurprisingly, nothing is open in Tromsø at 12.30am, or in Trondheim at 7am. Or, it seems is some ports at anytime. Norway seems to have a refreshingly no-fuss approach to tourism. There is no need to open up specially, just because 300 people are landing every day in your little town of 2000 people. If we ignore them, they may go away.

The downside of full board is the constant challenge of having to eat “what we have paid for” even when we are not hungry. Two weetabix at home translates into fruit, porridge, yoghurt, salmon, pickled herring, boiled egg, cheese, cold meat and a variety of salad in a breakfast buffet. Repeat ad nauseam (if not careful) for lunch and then a three course dinner, which becomes a relative light snack, because the food is brought to us, rather than the other way round.

The constant feeling of being bloated becomes rather too much. We pretend it is something imposed upon us rather than self-selected, as we return to the dessert bar for “just something to finish us off”.

Queue the Quiet Competition

I mentioned that people are outwardly polite and respectful. But as everywhere in life there are undercover competitions and unspoken conflicts. With so many people in a closed space, accessing food, facilities and seats – there is the a temptation to jump the queue. This could be the rush to check-in, the dash to leave the ship, the stampede towards the vacant chairs, or the queue for the coffee machine.

Competition is discrete and tactics are well-hidden. Subtle enough that no accusation would stand up in court, “I didn’t see you”, “I thought you were in a different queue”, “I thought I was here before you”. As we checked in, there were two queues with some unauthorised moving between them, people using their suitcases as markers, like towels on a deckchair or a golfer marking his ball. Playing the queues both ways. Or maybe one half of a couple in each queue.

Be careful the person who tries to subtly cut in front of my wife when the waiter brings in the fresh tray of tiramisu. She has tracked it leaving the kitchen on her fine-tuned pudding-radar, and vacated her seat at the perfect time to meet it as it arrives at the dessert bar. Don’t even try to get in front of her – or the just desserts you get may not be so pleasant.

Maritime Mating Rituals

There are many rituals on board. We are invited to wave at passing ships, in some sort of international competition to see which community of passengers waves the most. I have never seen this sport on TV, nor expect to read any of the results in the maritime newspapers. So I leave it to others – mainly Norwegians with flags it seems – to take part.

What is harder to avoid is the exchange of mating calls. Our ship groans out a deep guttural and seductive B flat. The approaching ship moans out a higher pitch perfect C. Like two sea-monsters checking for a mutual attraction. Thankfully, nothing ever comes of it. Swipe left, swipe left.

A Long Time at Sea

Whilst there are lots of meals, quizzes, excursions and presentations on board and frequent stops. But even if you went to them all, there is awful lot of time simply “at sea”. Sailing along for hour after hour through water and time. Every knot is 4 minutes, every minute a quarter of a mile. Time and distance spread out – and the temptation is to keep asking ourselves “what shall we do?” The opportunity to read, write, take photos, social mediate, make coffee are all fine and not to be sniffed at. But there is also an opportunity as the beautiful world passes across our eyes simply to stare and watch and listen and notice things. Look and listen out.

Or, its quite okay to give ourselves permission to be bored and to lapse into lethargy and low-energy stupor. Even to take a nap or watch inane TV. We don’t get the chance very often. So let’s not feel guilty.

Journeys End / Carry on Cruising

And so we come to the final day, when we will all be evicted, with our tummies full, our suitcases re-packed and our batteries recharged, or at least rested. I only took to the treadmill once – for 20 minutes.

Apparently, I have 300 unread emails. So the that particular treadmill is still waiting for me. But for now, we are relaxing for the final time on our final night, watching the satsuma sun sink slowly into the sleepy blue-grey sea. A life on the ocean waves is probably not for me. But a slow week at sea – just cruising along – definitely floated my boat.

Norway Cruise Day 1 – Vardø Bewitched

Our giant ship sidles into the little Norwegian town of Vardø, gently buffering up against the daisy-chain of old tyres pinned along the dockside. Then, throwing out its ropes as an invitation, it is accepted and entwined to the harbour cleats.

Five minutes later the boat opens its mouth, sticks out its gantry tongue and spews its bellyload of tourists into the empty streets.

Stamping our feet back onto immovable ground, with our recommended sturdy shoes, warm coats and rucksacks, we obediently follow our expedition leader in his fluorescent jacket. We process like schoolchildren, away from the harbour, dissecting the town, heading with determination towards our predetermined tourist destinations – the fort, the church and the witch memorial. We have 50 minutes to return to the ship, or risk being abandoned here, maybe forever. So we walk at a pace. Vardo sits reclusively on a small island. There would appear to be no other means of escape.

Vardø is like a ghost town. We see no signs of life save a half sawn sheet of wood abandoned on a workbench and a couple of painfully slow cars. Finally, we pass two small children in bright knitted jumpers playing out in the field, oblivious to the line of foreigners invading their silent existence. I guess it happens every day at this time, this procession of strangely dressed ghosts from another world. They are best ignored. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. We shouldn’t expect a reception party.

The streets are shabby, the children’s play area is overgrown. Nothing appears to be open. There is a feeling of desolation. The daily invasion of tourists from the ship brings no money, only feet, eyes, cameras and phones, stealing easy pictures. A town, a life, a history casually encapsulated in a few clicks and engraved on a few GB. Then onto the next port.

And yet, this small silent town of Vardø hides a terrible history, recorded in great detail in court transcripts. One which it maybe prefers to keep quiet about and explains its reclusive silence even today. It is a history of trials, torture and awful executions.

We are a group of a certain age – some of more mobile than others, so we are soon strung out in a long line. We continue to follow our leader, just as the children unthinkingly followed the pied piper.

People are so easily led. A fire ignited by prejudice, and misogyny by a few, soon spreads into a wildfire of fear and hysteria amongst the many. Sane people are led into believing impossible lies and allowing and even encouraging unspeakable horrors. Before you know it, 91 innocent people accused of witchcraft – mainly women – are dead. Burned at the stake.

We pass the fort where the Finnmark witch trials took place in the 17th century. From here we cross the fields leading down to the sea at the far end of the island. Here is the witches’ memorial – a long, thin structure, like a giant elongated surfboard perched on its edge facing the waters. A small wooden bridge allows us inside.

It is dark. There are 91 small lights aside 91 windows and 91 court statements written in Norwegian. Each one names a person, the date of their court hearing, what they were accused of and all the things they confessed to. Each one “convicted of witchcraft” and “sentenced to death at the stake”, one or two “beheaded” or “tortured to death”.

What strikes me is the extent and fantastical nature of the elaborate confessions. The vast majority confessed to casting evil and harmful spells on people. Others said they had made served, made pacts with or had given themselves to the devil. Some had take to the skies, ridden on brooms, or transformed into ravens, wolves, falcons, dogs, goats or cats. Nearly every one had confessed to a dozen crimes, some only after torture, some without being tortured. What could possibly have possessed them?

At the end, a large, square, somber black building with a fire burning endlessly inside on a wooden chair.

There is no further explanation, no analysis. Only on Wikipedia do we find that the people of northern Norway – especially the Sami – were viewed with great suspicion by the so-called “civilised” Protestants from the south, who conducted he trials.

80% of those executed were women – nearly all Norwegian. Most of the men were Sami. A third of those executed had their feet and hands tied in a “trial by water” and somehow all of them survived – further “proof” of their witchcraft. The sheer numbers killed in such a tiny community is staggering. Most of the death sentences were passed in so-called panics – where one trial led to another in rapid succession.

We walk back to the boat in solemn procession. Back past the fort and through the desolate town to the giant boat. I reckon there were about ninety of us.

We return to our comfortable cabins, not to prison cells. There is no torture, no hysteria, no panic, no wild confessions, no convictions, no burning executions. Just dinner and another day of sailing ahead.

Later, suitably fed and with a cup of coffee, I read through the 91 statements in the small booklet I had picked up – bewildered and horrorified at the capacity of men to fabricate and believe such madness and to do such terrible evil.

Norway Cruise Prequel – It’s cold up north

Kirkenes is a long way north. I mean a LONG way north. For those of you in London, it’s WAY beyond the M4. Even the Watford Gap is a comparative nip to the shops.

For those of you have ventured a little further upwards, you may have seen the motorway signs on the M6 for THE NORTH which traditionally stop at Preston. And yet, to the Scots this is still, at best, the Midlands.

Even if I drove from my house in Leicestershire, past Preston and then twice as far again to Aberdeen, I’d only be a quarter of the way to Kirkenes. That’s because Kirkenes is perched on the northern most coast of Norway.

Kirkenes is RIDICULOUSLY far north – 69.72 degrees north – another 17 degree angled slice of the earth’s circle from home. Further north than Morocco is south.

The coast of Norway meanders endlessly north, leaving the Arctic Circle (at 66.67 degrees) a long way behind. Then it wraps its protective arm eastwards around the heads of Sweden and Finland. Finally, it pokes the left shoulder of Russia, as if to say – “don’t come any closer, and keep your hands off my Nordic friends.”

Kirkenes is a town of 3000 people at the very tip of that poking finger, just 5 miles shy of the Russian border and 25 miles east of Finland. Which means bizarrely you can travel west and add an hour to the clock.

Due north of Kirkenes is nothing but thousands of miles of sea until you cross the north pole and continue in a straight line back down south into Alaska.

I love geography. I loved geography at school. I loved it so much I took a degree in geography. I have travelled around the world as much as possible since, to see the geography I had only read about as a student. I work in the Nordics and have been to Oslo many times. But in all of my travelling life, the furthest north I have been is cold, arid and tree-less Reykjavik. Kirkenes is another 400 miles further north.

My wife and I are heading there now – from where we will sail back west and south for 6 days on a cruise ship, playing footsie with the beautiful Norwegian coastline. The travel advice was to pack thermals – woolly socks and woolly underwear. As they say in Norway – the weather is not a problem, it’s just people being “inappropriately dressed”. Woolly socks and underwear are – perhaps surprisingly – classified as “appropriately dressed”

Funnily enough, we came across some nicely presented woolly socks at a southern England National Trust shop last week, whilst we were looking for a “thin lilac scarf” for my mother-in-law. She is not travelling with us, it would be too risky with a thin scarf like that, even if we had found one.

But we had found woolly socks, so we asked the ladies behind the till whether they sold woolly underwear to match. We were out of luck. Apparently there is not much call for woolly underpants in Northamptonshire, not even amongst the country folk and aristocracy.

So we have settled for packing multiple layers of normal clothes. Two pairs of socks, two jumpers, two pairs of undies etc will work just as well – and without the risk of itching.

Right now we are flying due north out of Oslo. It is 7pm and sunny. We climbed aboard in single layer T-shirts. My wife is still too hot and we have both our Scandinavian Airlines ventilation nozzles wide open and aimed at her head. She should enjoy the heat whilst she still can. Hopefully our suitcases full of our extra layers are safely stowed in the hold.

They should be. As we transferred from Oslo international to domestic and scanned our boarding passes, two very grainy pictures of suitcases appeared on a small screen. We were asked us to identify them.

It was pretty hard to tell. It’s easy enough to pick out your own suitcases on the luggage carousel – much more difficult in a one inch blurry thumbnail. Yes, they were square and vaguely the right colour. But that was hardly conclusive.

I said “yes” anyway – wary of the consequences otherwise. The thought of being so far north without all those essential clothing layers – not to mention toothbrushes, contact lenses, dental floss and our emergency chocolate bars, was a risk too far. If it turned out to be a suitcase of mistaken identity – at least we would have someone else’s luggage. And maybe some of those elusive woolly undergarments.

Also, rather strangely, we had to go through security again – even though the only place we could have been since we last went through security was on the plane, oh and through Manchester T1 airside shopping emporium. Okay – well maybe they just can’t be too careful. Let’s blame Brexit. Or Eurovision.

When we land it will still be light – and when we go to bed it will still be light. And when we wake up in the middle of the night, guess what – it will still be light. 24 hours of daylight. That is all due to the 23 degree angle of the earth and being north of the arctic circle. More geography. I love it. Bring on the ice-bergs and polar landscape.

We have just stepped off the plane. As we walk across the tarmac at 69.72 degrees north, It is cool, but it’s doesn’t feel very Arctic. I slip on a thin jumper. When we get on the bus, my wife pulls off her extra later fleece. She is too hot again. The digital thermometer shows IN 22 degrees and OUT 10 degrees. We are grateful we didn’t fall for that woolly undergarments ruse.

GROUNDED – Day 8, The Great Escape

I have escaped. Having survived a whole 11 nights* of confinement at home, with the occasional release into the exercise yard of my local town, I had to break free. Yes, I know I wrote all of that positive stuff about being grounded and relaxed. But a travelling habit is not so easily kicked. As I write this, I am already at Derby station.

I sneaked out of the house under cover of darkness and on the pretence of bringing the wheelie bins in from the road. My driver rocketed me up the motorway in the getaway car, deposited me at the station “drop and go”, and ushered me out of the door. Time was critical. She only had 10 minutes, or there would be a £1 charge at the barrier.

I board the train, my clothes stuffed into a suitcase with my toothpaste, my head and shoulders in a plastic bag (just in case it leaks).

I already feel liberated. Things are returning to normal. I have a valid ticket in my Apple Wallet. My laptop is open and reassuringly low on battery. I have the warm familiarity of uncomfortable seats, unpalatable free coffee and finally – after almost two weeks –  a receipt to scan into my expenses app. It’s been too long without a receipt to scan. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I fold it neatly and lovingly into my receipts wallet. £4.17 for a cup of tea and chocolate. Perfect.

A train is not quite a plane – there is no security and no border control – at least not until we try to enter Oxford. But the broken lift at Derby station evoked fond memories of travel disruption and technical hitches of so many previous journeys. To complete my rehab., they announce we all have to change trains at Birmingham, as this one needs maintenance. Everything in the carriage rattles – windows, seats, doors, even a couple of the elderly passengers – as if to underline the point. It will be “taken out of use”.

All being well, I will arrive in Southampton after 23.07, where a prearranged, unmarked car (24 x 7 cabs) will be waiting to transport me to my overnight hiding place, the Solent Hotel and Spa. Here I will hole up, lie low, and finally get a good night’s sleep – without having to share a cell with some noisy cellmate. Hopefully nobody will recognise me. Just to be sure I will wear a sleep mask.

Outside I see the stars. This is my Shawshank Redemption, my Escape from Alcratraz. I  wait for the refreshments trolley to roll seductively down the aisle. I sigh contentedly. When I close my eyes, I can almost imagine that I am flying.


  • including weekends

BEING GROUNDED – The first 2 days

GROUNDED – Day 3, easy does it.

GROUNDED – Day 4, Loungewear to Lycra

GROUNDED – Day 5, Literally & Metaphorically