HOLLY MIRANDA SMALE

Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.







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Friday, 29 April 2011

Weddings

It's all over. Mum's long cherished ambition of her eldest daughter becoming Princess of England is now officially caput. Kate has married William, and ten years of my mum ending every conversation about my love life with "if you'd just taken that place at St Andrews Uni instead of going to Bristol, Holly" have all come to nothing.

I'm not a particularly big fan of weddings - buying a contract phone brings me out in commitment hives - and yet something made me watch the ceremony live this evening. And that something is Yuki. Who is more of a British royalist than anyone British I've ever met. Despite being 100% Japanese.

"We need to be home by 7" she told me while we were lying on the beach this afternoon. "I have to see the wedding. I need to compare my wedding dress with Kate's wedding dress."
"Your wedding dress?"
"Yes."
I stared at her. "Yuki, you're not even dating anyone."
Yuki stared back at me. "So?"she asked in confusion. "What's that got to do with my wedding dress? It's my dress, isn't it?"

She then spent the entire wedding hour sighing. "I want a dress with lace, now," she told me emphatically (or, as she later emailed me, "race"). "Lace all over. I have to change everything. It's so confusing. I thought I wanted one like Diana." And then she sighed again. "It's so beautiful. Just like a Disney wedding."
"This is a Britney Spears track, you know," I told her as the choir started singing.
"Really?" Yuki leant forwards to listen more carefully. "Wow. Which one?"
"I think it's Hit Me Baby One More Time."
Yuki leant forwards a little bit more. "I can't make it out," she said.
"That's because it's been adapted for Westminster Church," I explained, biting my bottom lip.
"Ah." Yuki nodded knowledgably. "It's beautiful. But I don't want Britney Spears."
"Lady Gaga?" I suggested. "I think they do Westminster versions of that too," and Yuki finally worked out I was winding her up and smacked me.

It was lovely, watching the event through the eyes of someone else. It's true that a little bit of the event seeped into me too, although millions of screaming fans don't exactly epitomise romance to me: it was a little more like a Beatles concert than a sacred and intimate event between two people in the eyes of God. Nevertheless, it was very pretty, it was very British, and they seemed genuinely very happy, so I was pleasantly touched and surprised at myself for being so, although reassured by the cynicism I felt over the blubbing strangers who had camped out for seven days to watch a carriage drive past (I wouldn't camp for seven days to be a part of my own wedding).

Through the eyes of the enraptured Yuki, though, I saw an entirely different event. I saw the climax of a dream: the way life should be. Life as a beautiful Disney movie, where we all meet a Prince, wear lace and live in a castle. And nothing bad ever happens again.

And the fact is: it's what we all need now and then. Not the truth - nobody ever wants the truth - but a version of it that makes reality go away for a little while. And so what if it's covered in lace and we've never met it before? It just makes the dream that much easier to believe in.

Me though? I might always be the little kid at the front of the balcony, with the scowl on her face and her hands over her ears (the kid who made me laugh just at the point where Yuki burst into tears). But it doesn't mean I don't believe in love, or in happy endings. It just means it can be a little overwhelming sometimes.

And maybe that's exactly what this wedding was supposed to remind us. That in a world where horrible things happen all of the time, love is the only thing we all stop for. That we can plough through death and hunger and war and cruelty and broken hearts and recessions and keep moving, but love is still the only thing that will make us all stand still. All over the world. English or Japanese; French or Chinese or Mexican or Russian or Australian; anywhere. Overwhelming, elaborate, glorified, gold coated love.

Or - perhaps more specifically - the little bit in the middle we all know is simple.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Never List

When I was a teenager, I walked to school every single day with the same girl. We had little in common apart from form teacher and the direction of our houses, but these two factors were enough to tie us into half a decade of tired conversations that both of us enthusiastically forgot a few seconds after they were finished.

All, that is, apart from this one:

"Are you revising for our exams, then?" I asked her, a few months before our GCSEs. She laughed.
"No way! Are you kidding? I just sit and watch telly every night."
"Really? You`re not revising at all?"
"I`m so bad, I know, but I just can`t find the energy after school."
"Me neither," I agreed, and - comforted that it wasn`t just me who was using my maths books as foot rests - went home that night and watched telly with a sense of peace I`d been missing for weeks that had been filled with my mum`s anxious nagging.

I checked in every week or so after that: was she studying yet? No, she consistantly told me. She was not studying. She never studied. And - just to be sure - I checked in with a few of my fellow schoolmates. Were they studying? No, they all told me. They never studied. Who could be bothered to study? Who had nothing better to do than study for stupid exams? And, they implied with a few raised eyebrows, my fierce questions about studying were making me look deeply eager and uncool, and so it was probably a good idea if I stopped so that I didn`t slip even further down the Geek ladder. So I relaxed, and - slightly ashamed that I`d been so worried - also refused to study. We would all fail together, I decided. It might even make me more popular, if I got the same grades as everyone else. Perhaps people would stop writing things about how Geeky I was in the school toilets.

And then came the day of our first exam, and as we walked to school - batting the same inane topics backwards and forwards - out came the revision cards. Hundreds of the buggers. Colour coded, printed, notated, filed in a little plastic box. Worn down by busy little thumbs.
"Eh?" I said, still confused. "Where did they come from?"
"Oh," she said, looking shifty. "I threw them together in about ten minutes."
I looked at the cards - a ruler had been used for all of the straight lines - and immediately suspected she was lying. And then I looked at the dates on them. Four months previous. And I knew.
"You`ve been studying, havn`t you," I said in a flat voice, panic rising up my windpipe. "You`ve been studying for ages."
"Not really," she said, without making eye contact. And then she lifted her chin and looked at me defensively, as if it was somehow my fault for believing her in the first place. "But, you know, Holly, these are our GCSEs. They`re kind of important, after all."

I`m not sure I ever got over the shock. When I said I wasn`t studying, I meant it. My not studying had been part of a greater plan to make me like everybody else. But the fatal flaw I hadn`t foreseen was: everybody else had been lying. When we got to school, everybody had revision cards. I was the only moron who had decided to tell the truth because it hadn`t occurred to me I`d get further ahead by keeping quiet. And the only thing I could do to save myself was hope and pray that I had studied hard enough for the last five years to be able to smudge through on long-term memory instead of short term (I did, but that`s not the moral of the story).

I`d been Nevered, I finally realised, and I didn`t forget it. Throughout life, it turned out, there are always people who will pretend never to do something because it makes them look better, look cooler, look less bothered, and because it fools everybody else into not doing it either and therefore gives them an edge over the competition. Because let`s make no bones about it: everything is a competition. Life and everything in it is a competition: to win, whatever the topic, even if it`s just to stay alive when everybody else is dead. It`s just a question of how seriously you take it, what you`re prepared to do to win, and exactly how you want to play it.

After my first Nevering, the list grew quickly. The Never Studyers continued all the way through Uni - sneaking in ten hours of essay writing time a night and then playing table football in public all day so nobody could ever guess - and then morphed into the Never Really Workers (the I`m on Facebook All Dayers, who absolutely were not). The Never Savers were the next big gang: the people who pretended that they didn`t have four pence to rub together and then bought houses with the 15 grand they`d accidentally saved on the quiet and looked a little bit smug when everyone asked how the hell they managed it. Then there were the Never Eat Vegetablers, who claimed to feast on kebabs and yet stuffed their faces with broccoli when nobody was looking, and the Never Do Exercisers, who pretended they could barely lift themselves off the sofas and yet ran 15k as soon as everybody looked in the opposite direction. There were the Never Drink Enough Waterers - insinuating that the only thing that ever passed their lips was beer and vodka, and secretly rehydrating - and the Oops, Never Use Contraceptioners, who were somehow never the ones who got pregnant. There were the Never Look After My Skiners - with AHAs and RetinAs and a Harry Potter cabinet full of potions and lotions to keep them looking pretty - and the Never Watch Calorieers who somehow stayed 4 stone forever, and the Never Dye My Hairers, whose locks remained gloriously and expensively highlighted.

I was sucked into all of them: partly because I`m stupid, partly because I`m incapable of detecting a lie, or a falsehood, or a smudged truth, and partly because I wanted to. I knew - deep down - that everybody I knew probably wasn`t broke, lazy, full of fried food, smoking and drinking chocolate milkshakes all day (the way they pretended they were), and surfing the internet, but I preferred thinking they might be, because I was. And it took me a very long time to realise that the only not to lose in every single way was to ignore what everyone else was saying and get on with my own plans. Like saving money. And looking after my skin. And eating vegetables. And drinking enough water. All of which I try very hard to do, incidentally, and I`ll happily admit it to anyone who asks, however uncool it makes me. Exercise is the last on the list: and that`s what I`m tackling now. And while I don`t like it much right now (it hurts), I`ve been amazed by the amount of Never Exercisers who have admitted to exercising regularly now that I say I`m trying to.

It will never end, of course: the claims will just start to shift. And they always come out in the end. The Never Wear Sunscreeners? Let`s see just how unwrinkled they are in fifteen years, when everybody who actually wore none looks like handbags. The Never Started a Private Pensioners? I wonder how many will be jetting around the mediteranean when everyone else is dividing their baked beans in half. It`ll be interesting to see just how many of the Never Do Weights group fail to ever get bingo wings, or how many of the Never Eat Non Animal Protein Equivalents have incredibly low cholesterol. As for the Never Do Exercisers: just how many will inexplicably still be able to touch their toes past the age of 50? Quite a few, I reckon.

And hopefully - with a little bit of effort now - I might be one of them.

I just won`t be pretending at any stage that I can`t.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Little Ones

Fear is a strange thing: absolutely none of it is proportional.

I can go through any number of natural disasters, any number of miles, any amount of strange countries and languages and people, any number of muggings and threats and violence, and still nothing scares me quite as much as a little emotional rejection. There may have been a lot of earthquakes during my visit to Tokyo, but it was visiting my little students in Yokohama that set the fear of God into me. And it was with some sense of irony that I trembled at the entrance to a restaurant with cartoon pandas on the walls, knowing I`ve had my wallet taken at knife point and felt nothing. Never in the history of the world has a smiley faced potato croquette been so scary.

I didn`t expect them to remember me. A year`s a long time, even for an adult: for a three year old, it`s a third of their life. I expected tears, hostility, suspicion, shyness: I prepared myself for a lot of Why are you making me play with this strange lady, mum? and Why does she keep trying to hug me? Tell her to leave me alone or I`m going to kick her. I was ready for the most painful of all things: approaching a person you love and having it made clear that they do not feel the same way, except with the eloquence that only a four year old can have. I was ready for rejection in the most open, screaming, loud way possible. And I was frightened.

And so - because I approached the situation behaving like a small, scared child - they responded by doing likewise. When they pretended to ignore me and hid behind their mums, I barely noticed because I was so busy doing the same thing. When they scowled at me, I scowled at them back. When they refused to make eye contact, and stared at the floor, I was too busy staring at the floor to see it. When Shion`s chin started wobbling, so did mine. And when Kou tossed his head and marched off to a distant seat - punishment, for leaving him for so long - I tossed mine and did it too, except I pretended it was because I was putting my handbag in a safe place rather than that I needed to be far away and safe from his rejection.

Three or four minutes later, when the children had established that I was far more immature than they would ever be, they realised that they could never win - that three or four or five years of experience was nothing in comparison to my twenty nine - and buckled. Suddenly, they were pulling at my shorts: "Hollllllyyyyyyy. HoollllllLLLLLYYYYYYY. Loookkkk attttt mmmmmmmeeeeee." They were fighting each other to get on my lap. They were ripping up tissues to present to me, and offering glasses of water until nobody else in the water had anything to drink from. They were showing me their new chopsticks, and their new karate moves. They were asking me if I liked soccer any more now than I used to (the answer? no. And it`s still football). And, with things exactly as they used to be except one year later, I relaxed and started behaving like a small, happy child, instead of a small, defensive child: playing with my food and turning the napkin into a beard and the chopsticks into horns. And - for the record - they can practice as much as they like, but not one of them has a `funny face` yet to rival mine. I know this, because we tested it. They have a lot of work to do, but they`ve got another twenty four years at least to reach my standard of facial flexibility.

They haven`t changed at all. That`s what surprised me the most: in one year, they`ve not changed a jot. They`re a tiny bit bigger - and quite significantly bigger than when I first met them, nearly two years ago - and their hair is longer (and some of them have more teeth), but they`re essentially the same. The same movements, the same ways of making them laugh, the same things that make them cry (having a piece of your smiley pancake stolen, for instance, in Shion`s case). They eat the same: Tensho still pulls his meal apart, and Shinnosuke still works his way methodically around the plate, and Kou still attacks his from the middle, and Shion still defends hers like a small tiger. Some of them have grown up a little (more than I have): Shinnosuke is a little less cripplingly shy, Tensho no longer chews his own feet and Kou has a love for his new little sister that is protective and defensive - just as his love for me has always been - but they`re exactly the same little characters. And when I tickle-attacked them in the ball pit and they defended themselves by throwing balls (very hard: I got bruised) they did it the way they always have done: Shinnosuke, in a fit of giggles, Kou, with a little set chin and spark in his eyes (and the little damp fringe I know so well from when he was a toddler and needed a towel down the back of his t-shirt), Shion with perfect aim and Tensho, permanently hugging my legs.

I had missed them so much, and - honestly - the two hours I spent with them was two of the happiest hours I have ever spent, even if a large proportion of it was spent being ball-pumelled by fifteen toddlers (my kids totalled five: another ten decided to join in the fun of beating to death a big blonde girl). And what was amazing was the realisation - for the first time, really - that people don`t change. That the essence of each of these incredible children was the same as it was two years ago, when I had to sit one year old Tensho in my lap because he fell over when sitting on his own, and the same as it was one year ago, when I left them, and will be the same in years to come. That they`ll get bigger, of course, but Kou will probably always get pink cheeks and a sweaty fringe when he`s over-excited, and Shinnosuke will always work round his food in circles, and Shion will always growl like a fierce little cat if you try and touch her food. They`ll be the same people, but larger and more complicated versions of them. And the big things that scare them now will probably always scare them: just as they scare me, they way they always have. And they`ll love the same things they love now, just as I do too.

When I left them for the second time, I managed not to cry. I`ve promised to see them again - how, I don`t know, but I`ll do it - and the mums and dads have all emailed me since to say that they hope I come back for them. But of my entire time in Japan, my departure from my little ones this time was one of the moments that will stay with me the longest.

"Tell Holly you love her," Kou`s dad told him firmly in English as I said goodbye.
"No," Kou shouted, embarrassed and furious.
"Kou, you won`t see her for a long time again. Tell her you love her."
"No, I don`t," Kou yelled, hiding his head in his dad`s shoulder.
"It`s okay," I said, finally managing to behave like the adult I am. "Kou, it doesn`t matter. I love you."
"No," Kou grumped again, without moving his face. "No love."
And so I patted him on the back, gave the others a cuddle and walked away, fighting the bit inside me so silly and hurting.

I got twenty metres before "Hoooolllllllyyyyyyyyyyyy" started echoing around the packed shopping mall. Every shopper stopped and turned - as I did - to see five little people hurtling along the corridor towards me. "Holllllllllyyyyyyyyyy" Kou was screaming, followed by four smaller "Holllllyyyyyyy"s (Kou is the oldest).
I knelt down on the floor and watched them pushing through the crowds towards me, parents still standing where they had been left.
"Are you coming with me?" I asked them, laughing.
"Hollllllllyyyyyy I love youuuuuuuuu," Kou yelled, and then all of them hurled themselves on top of me.  And when they`d been eventually pulled off by their parents, I got barely another twenty metres before they were all screaming "Hoollllllllyyyyyyy I loooooveveee yyoooooou" and hurtling towards me again. Three or four times, until their mums held on to their little arms and told me to run in the opposite direction or they`d chase me all the way home and I`d never get away. And a hundred shoppers stood, mouths open, staring at the only foreigner in the entire shopping centre, being chased by a herd of tiny, English-screeching Japanese kindergarteners, as if it was the strangest thing they`d ever seen. Which it may well have been.

These little children will always be who they are now: in one form or another. And the knowledge that I have been a small part of that - that I have been a part, in only the tiniest way, of who they are growing into - is one of the best experiences I have ever had. And of my two years spent in Japan, being chased across a shopping mall by a group of tiny children shouting in my own language is one of the highlights.

And that fear: the fear that they would no longer love me? It never had to be there. But it`s okay that it was, because that`s who I have always been too. And it`s who I will always be.

And - as tiresome as it often is - the people who love me probably wouldn`t want me to change either.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Smales Do Japan

I`m back.

Not with a vengeance, because a vengeance is a very silly way to write, but back nonetheless. I`m rested, I`ve been fed on things other than my own burnt offerings, I`ve laughed a lot, and I`ve had my self-induced hermit-status blasted into smithereens. Frankly, it`s amazing what ten solid days of your parents will do. By the end of the visit, I didn`t know whether to hang on to them with my fingernails or boot them out by their bottoms, because my mum and dad are simultaneously the best people I know, and the most frustrating. I`d cleaned my house from top to bottom before they turned up, and they still managed to find ten or eleven things wrong with it and then give me a stern "Holly, you will always be single if you don`t learn how to pick up the post from the doormat when it`s delivered" talk. It turns out that you can be as old as you like, and as independent as you like, and as far away and as much missed as you like, but the first thing your mum will do when she sees you is still wipe her finger along the top of your shelves and announce that you`re a slob (okay, the first thing she will do is cuddle you and cry, and then she`ll hunt for evidence that you can`t survive without her).

It was a fantastic holiday. Dividing the time between Tokyo and Nichinan meant I`d done everything before, obviously, because I`ve lived in both for a long time, but it was a glorious, surreal thing to be able to repeat it all with people I loved. And - strangely - they didn`t respond the same way I did at all. The things I initially found difficult to handle - the crowds of Tokyo, the unknown language, the strange food - were taken entirely in their stride: literally, in the case of my mum, because she got run over on the famous Shibuya crossing, which resulted in my dad losing his temper and kicking the crap out of the poor cyclist`s bike. The food was of interest but only from a distance (in ten days we had two MacDonalds, a TGI Friday, five Starbucks and a billion tuna sandwiches) and the language wasn`t really an issue because I did all the talking. All of it. Every single word, apart from a few pinked cheeked "arigatos" thrown in by mum for good measure. And yet we still had an amazing time. Evidence, perhaps, that I made it rather more difficult for myself than I probably had to the first time round. Which, I think, comes as no surprise to anyone.

My family fell in love with Japan too, I think. Or, if not in love, then definitely in crush. I did everything I could to make them: showed them as much as I could that would make them love it the way I do. And it worked. They loved the excitement of Tokyo, and the incredible natural beauty of Nichinan. They loved Baba, who continued as only Baba can and chatted away to the whole family as if they had any idea of what she was talking about - and shouted at me for a million different reasons, including leaving my washing out again - and they loved Jiji, who set himself up with some ume-shu and grinned at them in silence for half an hour. They loved the amazing customer service, the politeness and sweetness of strangers, the amazing shrines and temples. Dad was made very happy by Mount Fuji, and mum managed five earthquakes a day from 35 stories up with amazing dignity and aplomb. They loved the rice fields, and the sea, and the mountains, and the high rises: we all very much enjoyed our Posh Dinner at the top of the Park Hyatt, aka The Lost In Translation Restaurant, during which we all pretended to be much cooler than we actually are.

And my current school behaved impeccably: namely, the children threw themselves at me with so much love and genuine enthusiasm that even my dad welled up, and my sister announced that she was leaving England so she could teach in Japan and be "loved like that" too. Apparently - according to Tara - I`ve not only passed on my accent to the little ones, but also my unconscious lifelong habit of touching the finger tips of the person I`m talking to: as my sister pointed out, every child approached me with their hands held up, and it was "like watching a hundred miniature Hollys". Which is a terrifying thought, but also an incredibly satisfying one. As my dad pointed out, after a little five year old formally marched up to him with no fear whatsoever and started a conversation about the weather, I`ve "really made a difference". And I`d never felt it quite so strongly as when the people I loved could see it too.

It was just what I needed: my family, being allowed to fall in love with Japan all over again, and not being on my own anymore. Ten days of love, and laughter, and company. It has re-set me: when they left, rather than hiding in my bedroom as I did before they came, I immediately organised drinks with friends, and planned a full weekend. I feel more relaxed, more happy, and more normal than I have in a long time, simply because allowing my family to see my life has made my life feel real, and has made me feel real, and has made everything feel less far away. Because I needed that love and support to reboot me. When I walk down the road now I know that my sister has walked down the same road, and just that knowledge makes it easier to walk down it and not feel so alone.

The irony is: now that my family have seen Japan, they want me to stay. They love it so much they no longer want me to leave, and they understand why I didn`t run away when everyone else did (we were the only foreigners in Tokyo. It was embarrassing, how Fair Weather the gaijins are. Last year it was full of them). They can finally see why I gave Japan two years of my life, even when it took so much out of me. And they can see it, just as I`m getting ready to leave.

I`ve got three months left in the country I love, and will always love. I`ve got three months before I leave Japan behind to start on my next life adventure. But with the new energy, new calmness and new happiness I have now, I think it`s going to be a wonderful three months. And I`m ready to enjoy them totally.

And that`s what a good family does. It strengthens you while they`re with you, and leaves you stronger when they`re gone.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Anticipation

I`m so excited that Harai keeps asking me what`s wrong.

"I`m excited," I tell him every time he asks.
"But why are you singing?" he demands. Or "why are you bouncing up and down in your chair?" or "why do you keep making peep noises like baby bird?"
"Because I`m going to Tokyo tomorrow and I`m seeing the toddlers I taught in Yokohama, and then my family arrive on Sunday morning. And I haven`t seen the children for a year and I haven`t seen my family for eight months. So I`m excited."
"Yes," Harai confirms, still confused, because he knows this. I`ve told him every day for the last two months. "But why are you singing?"
"What`s not to sing about?" I squeak, pulling my hood over my head and dancing.
"Please stop," Harai says, and then goes back to doing whatever it is he`s pretending to do on his little computer just because it`s better than watching me dance.

I`m so excited. I never thought I`d see my little Joyland class again: when I knelt on the floor of the classroom in Yokohama one year ago, covered in kissing three year olds and crying my eyes out, I thought I`d have to imagine them growing older and never be a part of it. That`s the way of teaching, and especially in a foreign language: teachers are replaced too frequently to form real attachments, and ties are never deep. I`ve taught nearly five hundred children over the last eighteen months, and yet only five children have stuck: Kanata and his brick banging, Shion with her Minnie Mouse hood pulled over her eyes, Shinnosuke and his sniffles (hayfever), Tensho and his beloved red fire engine toy, and the inimitable Kou. But, while they`d stuck with me, I never for a minute thought I`d stick with them.

Apparently, I have. When I told their mums I was visiting Tokyo they said the children still ask about me, and have said they want to see me. Every single one of them: the whole gang, plus sisters, brothers, mums, dads, and - possible - grandparents. We`re all going for lunch, and - frankly - I`m terrified, because I`m not sure I believe the kids remember me at all. It took them four weeks to stop screaming with terror every time they looked at me the first time round, and I don`t have four weeks this time. I`m just hoping they can get their inevitable shyness, fear and shrieking out of the way in the space of an hour and a half, so that we can all have a lunch that doesn`t resemble some kind of Hannibal Lecter tea party except from behind their mum`s skirts. Failing that, they`re two, three and four years old: I`ll take a huge amount of presents and aim to buy their love back as quickly as possible. That will probably do it.

And then - even better - I get to see my family. My beautiful, dishevelled, sleepy and grumpy after a 14 hour journey (Tara) and tail wagging (dad) and scared of Tokyo radiation and earthquakes (mum) family. And I can show them exactly what I`ve been doing for 18 months: where I`ve been, what I`ve eaten, what I`ve seen, what I`ve experienced. I can show them the country I have loved so much - and hated with nearly as much passion - and it will all finally be real. And we can all spend ten days doing our best to get mum to eat something other than pizza.

I`ve not been truly excited for a long time, but now? I can`t stay still.

And if that`s not something worth singing about, I don`t know what is.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Fashion

Fashion is subjective.

A large part of that statement goes without saying: of course it is. If it wasn't subjective, it wouldn't be fashion. It would be called telling us what to wear and then making us wear it.

The thing is: I don't think I've really been aware of just how subjective it is until recently. Today, actually. Specifically: 45 minutes ago.

I love fashion. As with everything, I'm divided into two: the part of me that adores fashion, and thinks it's incredibly important as the only art form we become a part of, and can - at a push and with a pinch of luck - be quite stylish, and the part of me that wears a tracksuit, Crocs and a hair scrunchie and thinks nothing of it. Were I ever to become famous I can guarantee that the latter would be what would go in the papers, but - truly - I do love fashion. Or at least I thought I did.

Recently, in what I can only describe as my umpteenth late 20s crisis, I've been deciding that I'm too old: that my heart just isn't in it anymore. In anything, but specifically in fashion. I've lost the will to style. I've been slipping down the slippery slope from casual to chav: from not caring too much if I'm caught in red rubber shoes, to realising I haven't worn anything else in 3 weeks, and that on putting a normal pair of 4 quid pumps I actually said "Oooh, real shoes". Today I wandered to the shops in stripy fleece trousers - fleece on the outside - (too short, too tight, not quite meeting my shoes), obligatory red faux-Crocs, chiffon scrunchie, hair band I bought to use when washing my face, jumper with natto stuck on the front, and didn't even realise I looked like Waynetta slob until I was at home, getting back into my more comfortable clothes. Seriously: these were the less comfortable clothes I had worn shopping. I owned items even more hideous.

In a panic - in a moment of Jesus-Christ-and-I'm-not-even-30-yet horror - I tugged on some normal-ish jeans and scootered as fast as I could to the local clothes shop. And then I scootered to another. And then another. Because all I could find was hideous, lace covered, flower covered, button covered, frill coated, beaded, sequinned monstrosities with bad English written cheekily all over them. Clothes that have clearly been designed for teeny tiny children, and yet somehow accidentally made large enough for adults. And I wandered the clothes aisles, picking them up in confusion, holding them against myself and thinking: this is it. It's all over. I don't understand fashion anymore. I'm out of the loop. Fashion looks more hideous on me than my stripy fleece trousers do.

And then I took myself to Uniqlo, which is completely bereft of all flowers and sequins and frills and lace, looked at the plain black tshirts and grey trousers and thought: oh God. And this stuff makes me look like a teacher. Like a teacher. And I might be a teacher - temporarily, for now, and somewhat reluctantly - but I don't want to goddamn look like one. I used to work in PR, for God's sake. I used to be cool

At which point I gave up entirely, went home, lay on my bed and decided that it was all officially over. That my shot at style, and fashion, and looking remotely edgy or attractive - or even like I don't have old food stuck to the front of me - was done. I would just have to fade gracefully into the countryside, count myself lucky that my boobs don't yet touch my navel and hope that when death found me at least my knickers were clean.

And then - as if as a message from the universe - I remembered: the world doesn't end and start with Japan. Maybe, somewhere else - in a far off, distant land - there is a happy medium. Maybe, somewhere many, many miles away, there are clothes that are neither covered in lace and ribbons nor the fashion equivalent of an army uniform. Maybe - just maybe - there are clothes in the world that would make me want to wear them. That would make me want to get out of my tracksuit before the rot set in. And, with that glimmer of hope, I got up and looked on TopShop UK online.

And there they were. Clothes designed for adults, by adults. Clothes I could wear, happily. Better: clothes that I wanted to wear. That, frankly, I was clamouring to get my hands on, just so I could feel human and young and female and cool again. Instead of an old, frumpy countryside teacher which is how I currently feel (and, in fairness, look).

It's all still there: I'd just forgotten there was a world outside. And I've been so long in Japan, I'd forgotten that fashion exists that isn't Japanese. And let me tell you something you've probably already guessed: frilly, flowery, lacy little dresses look adorable on 5 foot 2 Japanese girls with no boobs and swishy black hair, but on a 5 foot ten curvy blonde? Not so good. I look like a cross between a fat giant Barbie and one of the little dolls my aunt puts on top of toilet rolls.

Frankly, if anything has made me realise how much of a shock returning to the West is going to be, it's the last 45 minutes. I'm an English girl who used to work on Carnaby Street - literally where the fashion of the 60s started - and I'd forgotten British fashion existed. Actually forgotten. I'd started believing it was me that was built all wrong, and not that I was in the wrong place for me.

I'm not too old at all, and I'm not dead yet. I'm not too tall, or too fat, or too blonde, or too "masculine" because I look terrible in a ra-ra skirt. I'm not fading anywhere gracefully. But I think it's time for me to start preparing myself to finally come home.

To a place where I can finally be myself again.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Road trip

To be on holiday, sometimes the best thing to do is actually go on holiday.

It seems obvious, but it's not. It's quite easy to spend the time at home, sleeping and burning multiple pieces of toast, but the fact is: unless you go somewhere else, it doesn't actually feel like you're having a break.

I've not been on a road trip with another person since The Boy. We went on multiple beautiful, landscaped mini-breaks, most of which were spent with me either crying or wondering when I would probably cry next. And - let's be frank - it doesn't matter if you're camping at the base of Mount Fuji at sunset: if you're crying while you do it, or on edge just in case you start, some of the magic tends to evaporate from the experience. So I was a little bit reluctant (read: terrified) to go anywhere else with anyone else, whether a romantic partner or not. I didn't want to spend any more time seeing Japan countryside through a quarter inch film of tears or staring out of a car window with my chin wobbling.

I needn't have worried. Yuki had zero interest in making me cry, and apparently - and this was a revelation - I don't actually burst in to tears for no reason at all, so our 36 hours were spent blissfully histrionic-free. In fact, despite the fact that 15 of the 36 hours were spent driving, in the car, with nothing but each other for company, I discovered that I can spend large, undiluted amounts of time with another person without being constantly scared of getting into some kind of fight, or of saying something wrong, or of getting a pain straight through the chest as a result of them saying something even more so. This was also a revelation. I realised I'd avoided being in a small space with another person for over a year because I assumed that one or all of the above would be the outcome.

No: our trip to Beppu - the Onsen capital of Japan, and therefore my Mecca (making this my pilgrimage) - was marred only by Yuki's driving. Some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen - sunlit mountains, herons in flight, large red sunrises over the ocean, winding roads, large lakes and turquoise rivers, fields lined with cherry blossom - were interrupted, frequently, with "Jesus Christ, Yuki, why aren't your hands on the wheel? Either of them?" At which point Yuki would inevitably laugh.
"We're going to have a crazy trip," she would say happily, continuing to check the internet on her multicoloured, flashing phone. The car would wobbly climb another steep mountain to our doom.
"Yes," I would respond, taking her phone from her and putting it back in its fluffy holder (Yuki - and her car - are very female, and very Japanese: everything is lined with fluff, or leopard print, or swinging cartoon characters). "We are going to have a crazy trip. But we are going to have safe driving."
"Crazy trip, safe driving," she would repeat like some kind of mantra, turning around to see if she could find her fluffy box of tissues and letting the car do what it felt like doing in the interim.

According to the Road Law as interpreted by Yuki, you are allowed to stop whenever you want wherever you want: when I said I needed to throw out some of my Oden juice (Japanese stewed vegetables), she promptly slammed her foot on the break and brought the car to an immediate standstill, regardless of the fact that were were on a corner, and there was a lorry behind us. "I meant at some stage," I whimpered when I eventually got my breath back.
"Oh," she said, giggling. "Okay. Shall I carry on driving then?"
"Yes," I said, bowing to the lorry sitting furiously behind us.

According to Yuki's Road Rules, red lights are also not demands: they're suggestions.
"Gomen nasai!" (sorry!) she would shout, accelerating through them, as I held my hands over my eyes. "Well, I don't want to be rude, do I," she told me when I asked who she was apologising to: me, or the lights, or the other drivers. "I'm just apologising to all of you."

According to Yuki's Road Rules, the speed limit is also up for negotiation.
"You follow speed limits in the UK?" she asked me, going 100kmh on a 50kmh road. I think she could tell that I was leaning forwards every three minutes, looking at the speedometer and very quietly and very internally writing my own will.
"Yes. We do. More than this, anyway."
"Ah," she said, laughing again. "For the Japanese, it's more of an idea. We look at the speed limit and then go 30, 40, 50 kmh over."
"And the police don't mind?"
"Not if they don't see," she said, accelerating a little bit faster.

The only time she wasn't a bonkers driver was when we stopped at Takachiho Gorge and hired a row boat to paddle around the famous river at the bottom of it. And this is simply because she couldn't get the boat to move.
"It's impossible," she said after four or five minutes of grunting and waving the oars in the air. "We'll just have to stay here and look at the gorge. Our boat is broken."
"It's not broken," I told her, taking the oars off her and rowing away from the edge. "You're broken."
She gaped at my oars. "Oh my God. You're amazing! You're like a genius rower!"
"I'm not. I just understand that boat oars need to go into the water in order to work." Yuki started clapping. "Yuki," I told her firmly as I paddled away. "If we ever have to escape jail together, you are not allowed to be in charge of transport."

We survived, though. Actually, we did more than survive: we had a great time. We went to the best onsen either of us have ever been to - a natural hot spring in the middle of a pile of rocks, under the stars - we visited the local wild monkeys, and I got so close I could have touched one if it hadn't jumped up and screamed blue murder at me (Yuki nearly started crying), and we ate takoyaki (octopus balls) until both of us had stomach ache. It was lovely. Exactly what a holiday should be.

I feel more refreshed now that I'm home, and more eager to get moving again: I'd forgotten that travelling, and moving, and seeing new things, breathes life into me. I'd forgotten that I'm not a maniac, and can spend large amounts of time with one person without fighting, crying or staring at the horizon without actually being able to see it. And I have a new found respect for Yuki and her car. Both of which, apparently, have the power to make sure I never see anything ever again. Ever. Screw volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis and nuclear radiation: my life is in far more immediate danger because of a teeny tiny Japanese girl and her fluff filled, leopard printed car.

I have four months left in Japan, and I'm going to see as much as I can of it in the meantime: go on as many tiny holidays as I squeeze in. Because you know what?

A change is not as good as a rest at all. It's much, much better.