Suddenly Single 2: The Devilish Details

If your partner takes care of certain aspects of your life together (as most do), be grateful. Dance a jig. Enjoy it. But know the day may come when you have to learn how to do all kinds of things of little or no interest to you, just in order to keep going.

My husband Jay paid the bills, did all the home maintenance, gardening and snow removal, and dealt with garbage and recycling. He also bought the wine (and used to say he had shares in the LCBO.)

Now I’d paid bills before in my life, it’s not exactly rocket science. The challenge was in figuring out HOW Jay had paid them. Did he receive paper bills in the mail? Get email notifications? Pay by check, e-transfer or automatic withdrawal? Did he pay annually or monthly? As it turns out, there was no system, every bill was handled differently. Fortunately my children figured most of it out for me, when they were desperate for something to do immediately after he died.

Nonetheless it took a while to get everything sorted out (and I’m not even talking about closing accounts or getting insurance settlements and survivor’s benefits.) I was gobsmacked when I called Bell Canada to see if I could change the name on the account from his to mine. I’d been registered as secondary account holder for years, but no, they told me, it would be impossible to change the name. I’d have to open a new account. Seriously? Yes, seriously. So I left his name on the account and continued to receive paper bills addressed to him. Then I wanted to access the account online but I didn’t know his password. Again, this was an insurmountable obstacle, nothing they could do. Had no one with a Bell account ever died before? Honestly. In the end, by trial and error I figured out the password, but was very happy to end my relationship with Bell shortly thereafter.

Bell bills were not the only mail that continued to arrive for Jay. He donated to lots of charities and subscribed to various magazines and newsletters. Being uncertain of my finances (especially upon learning that the life insurance we’d dutifully paid for years on our line of credit covered only me, not Jay – which was definitely not the plan), I called all the charities to explain his passing and cancel his automatic donations. All were sympathetic and most obliged but still…

On a daily basis, 2-3 letters arrived for Jay. For the first year after his death, I scrupulously returned the mail, with the inscription “Recipient Deceased, Return to Sender”. Then, as the same companies continued to send letters, I added, “Please remove from mailing list”. The flood abated somewhat, but to this day most of the mail I receive is for Jay. It goes directly into the recycling bin.

The one that really kills me is the National Bank, where at some time in the distant past, Jay must have had a small investment. Despite all my “Return to Sender”s, every 3 or 6 months I get a statement from them indicating he has a balance of $0.00.

I now pay all the bills in quite a blasé fashion. I have a handyman to take care of home maintenance (very nice chap, though it took me awhile to get that together – and my world threatened to fall apart when a latch or faucet broke). I have mastered the art of getting the garbage and recycling to the curb, and I buy my own wine. I even learned how to run the snowblower – and the garden has not turned into a jungle (although it is a pale shadow of the glory it was when Jay lavished care on it).

Does this give me a warm glow of satisfaction? Well, in a way, it does. I don’t love doing any of those things, but I no longer feel helpless. It may have taken me two full years, but now I can manage. And that is something.

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Suddenly Single

Finding yourself suddenly single is a dreadful business – for anyone, at any age. Well, unless it’s by choice (you leave, or maybe murder your partner). Even then, I suspect it’s no picnic. But if you are ‘older’, and looking forward to spending those last years in the company of your life partner, it can be particularly challenging.

I was suddenly widowed. Three years ago, my partner died in his sleep – no warning: here today, gone tomorrow.

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I won’t go on about how painful that was (crying all over a laptop, not the best idea). However, such a loss fundamentally alters one’s universe – and is often accompanied by:

  • Profound grief
  • Uncontrolled sobbing
  • Disorientation, wandering about in a daze
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loneliness
  • Brittleness, which makes one move tentatively for fear of cracking
  • Confusion, lack of confidence, lack of motivation
  • A glazed look
  • Desire to avoid other people, especially in grocery stores, so as not to see their faces crumple in sympathy, or go blank with shock/horror that they might have to say something
  • Hysteria
  • Drinking and other bad habits

You get the idea (or you’ve lived it and unfortunately know what I mean). Reads rather like the side effects of a drug, right? And it is, no doubt, an incomplete list.

Immediately after the death of a loved one, you go through the motions, make the myriad arrangements, put one foot in front of the other. I had an amazing community of friends, relations, and loving (if devastated) children who came, grieved, provided support and help. I am forever grateful to them all.

But then everyone returned to their lives and I was alone. Not just at sea, but drowning, because I had no plan for this.

It would surely be worse to be deserted/dumped after thirty years than have a partner die. How could one avoid taking that personally, feeling not just lonely but rejected? There are no rituals to comfort the deserted, it is more private, and the grief would be just as intense.

Fortunately, the rawness of grief does fade with time. It becomes possible to envision (if grumpily) a different kind of life. Eventually one can stop sobbing and ranting, get up off the floor, and think about writing a blog, for example.

Change of Plan

I thought it was a good idea to start a new blog to address a new topic, but it has proved frustrating to many people so I am reverting to old blog (very sorry, very messy). New blog has disappeared into the ether and I have renamed/updated this blog. WARNING: for the moment it will NOT be a travel blog.

Rather, as title suggests, it is about being older, suddenly single, retired and not so wealthy. Which I am in spades – as are many others.  More and more people struggle with challenges in these areas and, willy nilly, I have experience, so why not share? Perhaps my experiences and reflections will be helpful, or amusing. I will try to make them both – and welcome comments/feedback.

Below is my first post on the topic, repeated so we all know where we are (and if you have read, please skip!) Sorry for everything…

What Does Older Mean?

Many people tell me I am not old. I don’t feel old; in my mind I am still about 30. I’m ridiculously healthy. But at 63, it would be absurd to say I am young. For thirty years I was in a rewarding relationship. I’ve held a number of interesting jobs, written a novel, participated in writing groups, chaired not-for-profit boards, travelled, and played a lot of great games. I have 4 terrific grown children and 3 grandsons.

You can say “you’re only as old as you feel” or “if you’re young at heart, you’re young” but that‘s rubbish. If you have lived most of your dreams and are over sixty,  suddenly facing life alone, with no job or children to keep you occupied, you don’t feel young. You’re not young, you’re “older” and facing a heap of unanticipated and often unpleasant challenges (that I’d like to explore – here – with you).

They say our generation may live to be 100. Horrible thought.

If you’re looking for reassurance that life in our golden years is actually golden, or that there is no such thing as getting old and it’s all a state of mind, this blog is not for you. It is for people who are somewhat at sea, facing the last decades of life alone and wondering WTF.

Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.

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France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.

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Paris

Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.

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Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).

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Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.

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Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral

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Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.

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Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.

 

 

 

 

Mar sin leat Dùn Èideann (Good-bye Edinburgh)

I might be almost as in love with Edinburgh as Paris, although the latter certainly wins out on weather. (And despite the title of this post, I don’t speak the Gaelic). It’s been quite cold and blustery the last few days, bits of sleeting rain and even a touch o’ the white stuff. Nonetheless a gorgeous city for walking, so many fascinating old buildings and closes, gardens, etc. Never a dull moment visually.

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interior Scottish National Museum

One of the highlights of my time here was meeting Robert, a friend of a friend, who took me on a long walk by the Dean Gardens, an area I’d never have found, which follows the Water of Leith (a river that runs through Edinburgh) for 7 kms. Robert is a retired architect so pointed out all kinds of interesting details and told me about the eras of different buildings. Our walk ended at the beautiful Royal Botanical Garden, with amazing views of the city.

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on my walk with Robert

IMG_1778IMG_1777Robert prodded me to go to a couple of other places that had not been high on my list: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Parliament. I am not an avid fan of galleries, but he was right about the Portrait Gallery – in a gorgeous building, with portraits of Scots through history, including some great contemporary portraits (some photos) of the likes of Andrew Murray, Robert Carlyle, Sean Connery, Annie Lennox.

At the Scottish Parliament (also a stunning building, very modern) I was able to sit in on parliamentary debate for half an hour – lucked out and got to see Nicola Sturgeon (first minister) give an impassioned speech encouraging the entire parliament to reject the new UK bill which only provides tax credits for up to 2 children (well, a third if the woman can prove she was raped!!!)

Robert was a wonderful guide and raconteur, we had lunch one day – and dinner the next. We were talking about how much attention J.K. Rowling gets in Scotland these days (there is a whole section of the city that is a sort of Potter shrine, and the city bus tour points out all the places where she wrote the books.) Robert then told me a story of a friend of his who years ago was sort of in J.K.’s position, single mom (two kids) wanted to write, Robert was busy feeding her and taking care of the kids from time to time. He and other friends persuaded her to enter a contest, she won a bit of money, took a year off to write her first novel and won massive awards. Feeling rather envious, I asked her name. Kate Atkinson. Imagine!

Tuesday night, Robert took me to a Scottish restaurant in Grassmarket and I tasted haggis, rather reluctantly. Delicious. Then we’d bought tickets online to see the National Theatre’s touring remount of War Horse at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. We went there, picked up tickets, ordered coffee and realized that our tickets were for 2018 not 2017!!! Both guilty, we’d separately looked it up and failed to realize they were booking over a year in advance. Oh well. It was terrific meeting Robert, he has encouraged me to come back when the theatre festival is on, even offered me a bed. Maybe next year?

An oddity of the city: the local Lothian buses are excellent, run regularly, easy to look up times and routes online. You can buy a pass, sort of like an Oyster card, but for short-term it isn’t worth it. The challenge is that you cannot buy tickets and must have correct change for the driver – £1.60 (awkward amount). So I spent a lot of the week saving up change to be sure I could get around!

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Edinburgh Castle

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Castle from below

On my last full day here I visited Edinburgh Castle, which feels like the grand dame of all castles, perched on a rocky promontory called Castle Rock (an extinct volcano), visible from anywhere in Edinburgh, with a history dating back to the 12th century. The views (and hence defenses) are fantastic, although on a very chilly day I felt deep sympathy for the early occupants….brrrr.

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“inside” the castle

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View from castle to the sea

Then I stopped in at the writers’ museum, which celebrates the work of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. A cosy little museum (where I thawed out after the castle!) with nooks and crannies up and down spiral staircases.

Finally I went on the Edinburgh Dungeon tour, which was great fun (fortunately – unlike my “theatrical” experience on the first night with ghosts and ghouls). Basically we were taken on a “tour” through quite evocative underground sets, led by actors who played the parts of famous Scottish judges, executioners, torturers, witches, cannibals, body snatchers, anatomy doctors and plague victims – threatening us poor lost souls and taking us on house of horrors type rides. But really well done. We shrieked and laughed and got all shook up (as chairs moved under us, cobwebs swept over our faces, people leapt out of the shadows, and we plunged to our gallows deaths). Not everyone’s cup of tea, but right up my alley.

And so, time to say good-bye, but I will be back!

Scotland: Tour Highs and Lows

 

Edinburgh is fantastic, such a dramatic city, in terms of both landscape and history. Oh the craggy hills and deep gorges, the castles and dungeons and rivers and bridges and gardens and narrow streets and cobblestones. And the wars and murders and reivers and Romans and clans and enlightenment. Amazing.

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Palace of Holyroodhouse

I’ve been here 4 days now, staying in a lovely spacious flat, not particularly close to the old or new town, but I often walk and the bus system is excellent.

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Grassmarket

I’ve done three guided tours and can confirm that the quality of any given tour depends on the tour guide. My first night here I went on a walking ‘ghosts and ghouls’ tour. Sounded great, but in fact was pretty lame. The guide was a Frenchwoman (what’s with that? In the south of France I stay with Scottish people, in Edinburgh…). Her delivery was melodramatic in the wrong kind of way – and she conveyed very little concrete info. So it was neither scary nor funny, and consisted largely of her telling us, as we stumbled through very dark but otherwise nondescript underground rooms, that sometimes people on the tours saw things or felt things while on the tours. I did glean interesting info about body snatchers, but overall the experience lacked substance – felt like she was struggling to fill the two hours.

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hmmm…Edinburgh

On Saturday I went on a 10 ½ hour coach tour to Rosslyn Chapel, the Border Lands and Hadrian’s Wall. Ten and half hours is a lot of time to fill (and to stay awake!) But this tour guide (and driver) – Angela – was brilliant. It was a small coach tour (maximum 16 people, we were 8, I think). She had tales to tell us about everywhere we went – both fact and myth. She had also prepared a playlist of songs and comedy bits, all of which related to the places we were going. Who knew there were so many songs about building Hadrian’s Wall? Or living north of the border? Or about the reivers (gangs of thieves who terrorized the Border Lands for centuries.) We passed battlefields and learned about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and the endless wars between Scotland and England. She told us stories about a man who claimed to have been stolen by faeries and kept imprisoned for 7 years, and Michael Scott, the Border Wizard who accurately predicted his own death (by pebble to head), an ancestor of Sir Walter Scott’s.

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Rosslyn Chapel 

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Ruins of nearby Roslin Castle

Rosslyn Chapel (alas, most renowned as location for the Da Vinci code) is gorgeous and full of really unusual carvings. The border between Scotland and England is marked by a large stone which says “Scotland” on one side and “England” on the other. Notably there is a welcome to Scotland sign in English and Gaelic, but no such welcome to England…

And Hadrian’s Wall is remarkable – not because it is high (the remains only stand about 3’ or 4’ high), but because it stretches clear across England (something like 80 miles) in absolutely desolate countryside. All the stone quarried very close to the building – and many Romans and others spent years building it, far from home and family. You can walk along the top of it (about 3’ wide), in silence and wind, and feel you’ve gone back a couple of thousand years in time.

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Top of Hadrian’s Wall

IMG_1704IMG_1701So – that was a great tour. The next day I went to the Highlands with the same company, and Paul as tour guide. It was a very different experience. I got the distinct impression that he’d been at the job for too long. His commentary was perfunctory, he left us for far too long at Blair Castle, which is an interesting building and has impressive gardens, but no real history of note, and then played rather loud music that related to nothing the rest of the time (okay when it was Beatles for an hour, but some of the rest…)

IMG_1736However, when we got off the bus to walk in the wilds of the Highlands or through sleepy little Scottish villages, it was lovely. A sunny day (not warm, but sunny!) and again very isolated and quiet with stunning vistas of gorges and rivers and mountains and sheep and heather and bracken.

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Queen’s View

We had a stop at Queen’s View, a spot overlooking Loch Tummel which Queen Isabella, first wife of Robert the Bruce, apparently favoured. It was a bit unclear to me, given the nature of the guide’s description, whether she went there while escaping the English who were forever hunting her husband and family, or whether she just liked the view – and I even wonder if it was his seond wife, not firsts since Isabella never actually got crowned queen (thank you, Wikipedia). Apparently Queen Victoria liked it too, so it is worthy of its name.

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Hermitage

Another stop, at the Hermitage, a National Park on the banks of the River Braan in Craigvinean Forest, was equally magical. We walked some distance through ancient forests to a rushing waterfall. Stunning.

So despite the disappointing tour guide, we got a taste of the highlands. One pet peeve: it seems as though many places in Scotland are now more renowned because they’ve been used as film locations (Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, Downtown Abbey) than for their actual history. I don’t really care about the films – I can watch them. I want to know the history, which is , generally speaking, very colourful here!

 

The Lives of Others

Most of the new people I have met over the past two months are not living in their home countries. Either they are travellers or expats. As a traveller who has often imagined, at least, having a place in the south of France, for example, I found myself quite interested in finding out more about people who have chosen to relocate to a different culture, or who are inveterate travellers.

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on the front terrace

My hosts on the canal du midi were an older couple (she is 77, he is 70). They met in later life. He’d never been married; she’d already been married twice and had three children. She had a colourful and challenging life, which included growing up largely in Australia, leaving school at age 14, returning to Glasgow on her own to attend drama school, working as an actress and single parenting. I learned all this in the car as she drove me from the train station to the house. She was talkative, someone seemingly accustomed to having an audience. She’d changed her name twice: the first time to a stage name, the second time to a name bestowed upon her in India by her yoga master. She wore “young “clothes, burned incense, and loved her garden. She and her current husband also play in a jazz quartet – she sings. They have us a half-a-quartet mini-performance. Interesting. He is a retired professor of geo-physics, quite no-nonsense and still very involved in research (anti-fraking).

They bought the massive house in which they live about 14 years ago – and I suspect are beginning to wonder how long they can manage it. While we were there volunteering, he had a very badly smashed toe and was unable to drive or walk much. She was not a very confident or eager driver, but fortunately had just been given back permission to drive after having a brain operation early in the new year. She experienced some dizzy spells while we were there – and I think both of them, while happy to have volunteers doing heavy work for them, found the experience rather exhausting – all the interactions etc. I know I would have. Her children are all in Scotland, and she said if anything happened to her husband, she would go back.

They have quite a community of friends – many Scottish expats, all living the life in big old French houses. The last night that we were there, they hosted a dinner in our honour and invited an American and a Canadian couple. The Americans were…very American and wealthy (he was a Trump supporter – having been forewarned , no one mentioned politics throughout the evening). They had purchased an actual chateau in Ventenac and were in the process of massive renovations with plans to offer deluxe accommodations.

The Canadian couple were fantastic – he is a retired Canadian lawyer/ambassador, Francophone (actually born in Belgium). She is originally from Finland and speaks multiple languages. He is her second ambassador husband, so I guess it’s been sort of a career for her. They bought a house in a nearby village several years ago. Both have children still in Canada. They were super lively and I connected with them closely over books – they read a lot, we found we had many favourite books/authors in common. We’ve exchanged suggestions via email and I think she is coming to Stratford in the fall with her daughter, so I hope to see her there

There was also a tenant living on the second floor of the maison, paying rent to my hosts, a German woman in her late forties (I’m guessing). A big boisterous gal who’d left Germany now that her children were grown and come to the south of France as a sort of new beginning – to work as a host/receptionist at a chateau in a neighbouring town. She hung out with us when she could and was very high-spirited and entertaining. She’d only been there a couple of months but had just purchased a small house in a medieval stone village, for 35,000€. Unbelievable! Yes, she said she’d have to put some money in – maybe another 30,000€ – but still! I began to dream again.

Although really I found I did not envy any of them their lives. Clearly almost all had plenty of money and the south of France is lovely – but expat communities are a bit like islands. If you’re lucky, you get along with the handful of people you meet. But the pool is small. And everything is challenging because of language and bureaucratic differences, not to mention the rural setting…and if you’re from the UK like my hosts – with Brexit looming – or are not getting any younger, who knows what further complications may be in store?

My fellow volunteers were an entirely different story. Both Quebecois, in their early twenties, they were on a major adventure. Upon graduating from university a couple of years ago they’d gone on a 4-month backpacking trip to Europe and Asia, then returned to Montreal, taken quite good jobs, worked for a year and decided they hated their jobs. So they quit, packed up and headed off for 15 months of travel and volunteer work – in France, Italy, Sicily and then Asia again. They had little money, lots of energy and curiosity – and spent a huge amount of their time planning the next step, trying to work out the cheapest way to travel and stay. I totally admired their spirit, enjoyed their lively company, and learned about things like BlaBla Cars from them (long-distance ride-sharing). But again, I would not want to live that close to the line or wander for such a long time.

Of course travelling at length or living in a foreign country would no doubt be more appealing with a partner (and I seem to have carelessly lost mine) … but even so, I think at this stage of life I would not want to undertake such a dramatic relocation or prolonged period of travel. Fascinating to see how people manage their lives though – and to get a better sense, at least, of what I do NOT want to do with what remains of mine.

As in Spain, I felt lucky to get to know such a disparate group of people and gain insight into their very different lives. And now, really, I am ready to go home.

But first, a week in Scotland. I fly tomorrow.