Tuesday, 19 November 2019

What Does Success Look Like?

What makes a 'successful' life? As I get older, this is a question I find myself pondering on a frequent basis. As an inherently self-doubting, perfection-striving individual, I have, throughout life, tended to view my 'achievements' as somehow lacking or not quite enough. The nagging suspicion that I may not have ever really fulfilled my potential - both at work and in my personal life - has in more recent years cemented into something much darker and ever present. I know I'm not alone in feeling like this - it's this sense of dissatisfaction that defines the classic mid-life crisis and makes many of us hit our mid forties heavy with the feeling that our lives may never be as 'successful' as we expected them to be.

But what if we really took the time to redefine what is meant by 'success', and looked at our lives through a much kinder and more rational lens? To start your own personal process, I recommend listening to the podcast 'How to Fail' with journalist Elizabeth Day, and more specifically the episode with philosopher Alain de Botton. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the 50 or so minutes I spent listening to this episode have made me completely reassess the concept of failure and see that failure as defined by contemporary standards hinders our ability to lead contented lives. 

Because at the heart of this episode is the celebration of the ordinary; a life lived that is ordinary and average (which is, after all, the statistical norm. Not many people actually become hugely wealthy, experts in their field, or global celebrities) is not a flawed life. It's how most of our lives will be defined. Hurrah! 

I found it hugely comforting to consider that my averageness is absolutely fine. In more recent years, where daily I've been reminded of the successes of others - the promotion splashed across Linkedin that contrasts with my own floundering career progression, the fabulous holiday afforded by those who I assume have made better career and financial decisions than me, the family member who only ever texts to share their child's latest glittering achievement - I've often felt overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. Why are my own horizons seemingly so limited? My financial outlook so shaky? My parenting skills so ineffective? 

But rather than consider that some failure on my part has led to this, perhaps a reassessment of expectation is needed. We've become so obsessed with a one-size-fits-all guide to success in contemporary culture. It's why individuality has been stripped away from our education system which places value on a very restricted set of skills.  It's why domestic ordinariness has become stigmatised - not only must we be go-getters at work but 'living our best lives' at home too, 'acing' our love lives, raising high-achieving children and filling our weekends with sporting endeavours (extra Brownie points if you can fit in some charity work or volunteering too). 

The very lexicon we employ reinforces this idea that we must be excelling all the time, with cloying expressions like 'YOLO', 'Good Vibes Only' and 'Strong Girls Club' (yuck) splashed across our social feeds to remind us that we must never be anything less than brilliant. 

As I've got older, I've found all this exhausting. I don't doubt social media is a major contributor to fuelling unrealistic ideas about success. But, as the podcast helpfully points out, it's important to remember that, when thinking of the personal contentment of those so-say successful people all around us, their level of happiness is much more consistent with our own that we might imagine. The point is - and this is something I find hard to remember - that even the most successful CEO will have problems of their own, or be experiencing feelings of failure too (they are just likely to be 'failing' in different areas of their life to you.)

What's also helpful about this podcast is its historical framing of success through the centuries. In ancient Greece, for example, the concept of failure - played out in the myriad of Greek tragedies - was positively embraced and seen as a vehicle for making those watching more empathetic and kind to the people around them. Those tragedies were a reminder of the capricious and fragile nature of life. No matter how wealthy, successful or noble born you may be, no one is immune to how luck (or bad luck) may play out in your life.

I think this is an important point, particularly in the age of social media where influencers flog unrealistic lifestyles and present sugar-coated images that rarely reflect that true messiness and unfairness of life. We make awful judgements about ourselves based on the assumed brilliance of other people's lives, gleaned solely from pictures featured on their Instagram feed. As the recent digital misadventures of influencer Mother of Daughters attest, the lives of others are rarely as gilded as we imagine them to be.

So, what I have learnt about my own situation? Mainly to be kinder to myself and view the small moments of contentment that pepper life as valid indicators of success. To not always be striving for societal constructs of success: the amazing job, the big house, the good school, the annual skiing holiday, for example. 

To celebrate the small but often significant wins that make a life: the fact that I'm great at organising our family's holidays; that I've discovered the joy of yoga and find the discipline to practise every day; that we have a lovely home (not the biggest, or the fanciest), decorated with care and filled with our personalities; that we have raised children who may not be the most academic or gifted but who fill me with pride when I overhear them talking to other grown ups. And I think these 'little' successes are enough....

To listen to the How to Fail podcast, click here.

I also recommend this piece on marriage by Alain de Botton here.


Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A Family Guide to New York

"New York, just like I pictured it...skyscrapers and everything..." So goes the interlude in one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs, a phrase that encapsulates the sense of wide-eyed wonder that most first time visitors experience to one of the world's most dynamic, unique cities. When I first went, some 20 years ago, the city really was just like I pictured it. Back then - when Sex and the City had exploded on TV screens and everyone wanted a slice of Carrie Bradshaw's impossibly cosmopolitan lifestyle - the New York of my imagination came to life as we wandered the streets of Greenwich Village, sipped on coffees in Dean & Deluca and spent all our wages in Urban Outfitters (this was in the days before the store had outposts across the globe) and Saks Fifth Avenue.

We got manicures at Korean nail bars, took in the art at the Guggenheim and gazed at the chi-chi apartment buildings in the Upper East Side. This was pre-9/11 and we scaled the precipitous towers we'd seen in a million and one movies and photographs. New York was everything I'd imagined, a city shaped in my mind from countless films, from Mean Streets to Falling in Love, Ghostbusters to Annie Hall. But would the city still leave me under its spell almost of a quarter of a century later, and with two kids in tow too? Well, it's New York! How could it not...

If you're thinking at this point, "Really? It wasn't stressful and frenetic and exhausting and just, well, too much, with children?" I have to point out that I wouldn't have undertaken this trip with children younger than my two (15 and 11). We'd specifically waited a few years to do our first long-haul adventure, holding off until we felt that our boys would truly appreciate the experience and that we wouldn't have to cope with jet lag and whining or find that the trip would be exhausting rather than life-enhancing. 

On reflection, we did the right thing; we had no trouble with jet lag, the boys were able to cover huge distances each day and they embraced everything we wanted to share with them, from eating breakfast at quirky Jewish diners to hanging out in Carrie Bradshaw's old neighbourhood. 

When money is an object (as it is in our case) I don't see the point in attempting a longer trip until your children can truly embrace it. In the case of New York, flights, accommodation and eating out can rack up significant costs. New York is a pricey place. We were lucky enough to have a friend to stay with for some of our stay, decamping to an Airbnb in Brooklyn for the remainder. This helped us stay within our budget, though Airbnb bargains in good locations in the city are quite hard to come by. 

I'd really recommend looking outside of central Manhattan - while parts of Brooklyn trade on their hipster credentials and can be just as expensive, when I was researching accommodation it felt like stepping across the water made prices a little more wallet friendly.

We decided to do just one major tourist attraction. As there's so much you can do free of charge in NYC, this didn't feel like a hardship. But if you want to pack in the major sights - skyscrapers, ferries to Liberty Island, a basketball game or a Broadway show - you'll can expect to pay upwards of £100 dollars per family for each experience. We opted to visit the Top of the Rock, an observation deck at the top of the Rockefeller Building. Having scaled the Empire State on my previous trip, I enjoyed this experience more. 

While you can't quite see my favourite skyscraper in full glory - The Chrysler - you do get spectacular panoramas across Manhattan, including an uninterrupted view of the Empire State. I think it's also better if you're not keen on heights; there's more room to hang back at Top of the Rock and, weirdly, the upper platform was fine for me - a vertigo sufferer - as you're not looking directly out against a sheer drop. You can spend as long as you want lapping it all up and there are indoor and outdoor areas where you can gaze across New York's inimitable skyline. Book tickets in advance to secure a time slot that suits you.

It's worth noting that you can easily 'do' lots of other must-see New York icons - the Empire State, Flatiron, Chrysler and Grand Central Terminal are all located in central Manhattan and you don't need to pay to enter these impressive buildings. The lobbies of the Chrysler and Empire State are beautiful spaces, endowed with spectacular Art Deco features, while Grand Central is breathtaking. Younger kids will know it from Madagascar while parents will undoubtedly reference that scene from The Untouchables. 

I always say this when writing about our travel experiences, but I don't think the true joy and authenticity of a place is to be found in the more touristy places; sure, when in NY, you'll want to pop your head into Times Square, stroll down Fifth Avenue and visit Macy's. But we probably had our best moments just absorbing the city's unique atmosphere rather than joining the masses for the more obvious attractions.

Eating donuts in Tompkins Square Gardens, strolling through Chinatown and Little Italy, visiting a lesser known gallery for a wonderful Basquiat exhibition...all of these felt like truly quintessential New York experiences costing us virtually nothing. Another free must-do is the High Line, a brilliant way to experience the city from another perspective. There are lots of interesting examples of modern architecture to look out for as you traverse this disused rail road, including the recent additions of The Shed and The Vessel at Hudson Yards.

Dissecting the interesting Meatpacking and Chelsea neighbourhoods, there's lots of cool stuff in this area, from the foodie heaven of Chelsea Market to the exhibitions at the Whitney Museum. We did a lot of walking around here, taking in the cooler than cool Bowery district and enjoying brunch in the gorgeous surroundings of Freemans.

On the subject of food, this is basically where all our spending money went. Eating as essentially a family of 4 adults made this a significant expense for us - if you want to venture beyond the standard chain burger joints and similar (and really you will want to - New York has a fabulous food scene) you'll find you rack up a pretty hefty bill. 

We had lunch at Eataly a couple of times, a vast food hall dedicated to all things Italian where you can take away slices of pizza or sit at communal tables and enjoy pasta and other dishes. It's a bit like the Harrods food hall but much, much bigger, and there are branches at various locations in the city. A brilliant option for keeping hungry kids topped up. 

Brunch is a must while in New York - it's something they do really well here and it's a good way of making breakfast go further so you can skip lunch when you're out and about. I loved the brunch at Mud Cafe in the East Village - the burritos and pancakes here are insane, as is the coffee (the best I had in NY). For something cheap and very authentic, also in the East Village, try B&H Dairy. 

Sit at the Formica bar and order Jewish specialities and huge pancakes, washed down with endless cups of coffee. It's a no-frills place, rather like Soho's Bar Italia. The kids didn't quite get the pared-back vibe, but I loved it. An impressive selection of bagels can be found at Tompkins Square Bagels with a cream cheese selection to match, while over in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue is home to Bagelsmith, another great place to fuel up for the day.

Before we headed over to Williamsburg for the second part of our stay, we spent a morning at Central Park (an absolute must-do) and visited the Freedom Tower and memorial to 9/11. Having been up the original World Trade Tower previously, it was at once interesting and incredibly moving to be back at the spot where those iconic buildings once stood. I did wonder if it would feel mawkish coming to see this area, but it doesn't. It's a very respectful place, not least as a tree - the Survivor Tree - found charred but still standing in the wreckage of 9/11, has been replanted in the shadow of the new building, reminding visitors of the city's resilience in the face of such terrible tragedy. 

It's also worth taking a look inside the Oculus while you're here, and then heading towards Wall Street and the beating heart of the world's financial markets. People queue to photograph the Charging Bull while it's a bit easier (and more meaningful, I think) to take a moment to appreciate the steely determination of the Fearless Girl.

You can easily access Battery Park and its ferries over to the Statue of Liberty here (the queues looked pretty off putting, though) or just take a moment in the park to cast your eyes on this indelible symbol of the American Dream. 

You might be wondering where shopping - another NY institution - fitted into all this. In short, it didn't. In today's globalised world where you can get anything online we shocked ourselves (both me and my other half do quite enjoy shopping) by not really being bothered about hitting the department stores or West Village boutiques. I had a browse in Sephora, the boys had their minds blown at Nike Town and we shopped for baseball hats at Lids, but aside from that, shopping just didn't feature. 

My 20s-something self would scarcely have believed it, given that on our previous trip involved lots of cheap Calvin Klein, a trolley dash around Century 21 and a lengthy perusal of Bloomingdales. The rubbish exchange rate and ability to buy most things back home now just didn't spark the desire - instead we came home with sweets from Dylan's Candy Bar (colour-coded candy heaven), a couple of mugs from Fishs Eddy (a brilliantly bonkers homeware store) and a vintage poster from Chelsea Market. 

The savings made on lack of retail therapy helped to justify expensive cocktails at Westlight, a personal highlight of our trip. If you find yourself in Williamsburg you must go here - it offers cocktails with a side order of incredible views across Manhattan. We really enjoyed exploring a different side of New York's persona in Brooklyn. From mooching about in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and crossing that iconic bridge to people watching on super-cool Bedford Avenue, this area has a very different feel to Manhattan. 

There's street art on every corner and amazing cafes, boutiques and bars to explore. It's worth remembering that in the US ID is required when visiting bars and that there's a pretty strict policy regards taking children into drinking establishments. You may find that many don't allow children after 6pm (as was the case with Westlight). 

Furthermore, some of the cooler restaurants might not feel quite so inclusive as similar places in the UK; a great family-friendly option in Brooklyn that we really enjoyed (and felt comfortable eating at) is Sweet Chick.

We ticked off a lot of New York traditions on our 6-day trip, concluding our stay with a wander through the West Village. When we last came, we had coffees in the sunshine on Bleeker Street and it felt like Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte might stroll by at any time. Some 20 years on, we walked past Carrie's fictional Perry Street Brownstone (and yes, people still sit on the stoop to have their picture taken) but New York has changed a lot since the late '90s. It's more expensive and a little more polished than I remember. 

There's still the sense that something is missing on that incredible skyline, even now. I don't think my 20-something self would have imagined that one day I'd be sitting in the middle of a New York Nike store, surrounded by insanely expensive trainers whilst two boys, amazed at the sense of scale of this special city, would look over to their mum and smile because I'd brought them to New York.

It's was a completely different experience coming to New York with children but a brilliant one. In the words of that aforementioned sportswear brand, if you're thinking of planning a family trip to New York yourself, Just Do It...


Wednesday, 27 February 2019

A Weekend in Manchester

Being an adult is complicated. Just when you think you're nailing life, with all its attendant concerns - work, parenting, finances - something knocks you sideways and you realise you'll probably never really know how to truly do life right. Which is possibly why I spend quite a lot of time reminiscing about more simple times: a time when work was just about financing the rent cheque and going out dancing; when weekends were for sleeping in and hanging out, not about trying to pack in as many mundane domestic tasks as possible in 48 hours just to feel slightly on top of things at the start of the new week. When I think of that pre-home-owning, child-rearing period, I always think of Manchester, of being young and in love, of having limitless time to just, well, be. 

A teenage love affair with New Order set me on the path of discovery to this great northern city. Evenings ensconced in the family living room, watching things like The Tube and Old Grey Whistle Test, made me fascinated by life Up North. Having never been further than Birmingham, I became enthralled by the idea of this mythical land that lay beyond the Midlands. Home to amazing music, charismatic impresarios like Tony Wilson and era defining clubs like the Hacienda, 'Up North', or rather Manchester in particular, had a magnetism that I found intoxicating. 

Features on upcoming bands like the Stone Roses, of 'Madchester' fashion and acid house in magazines like The Face lured me in even further. I became friends with a guy from Bury at Sixth Form and realised that I loved the self-deprecating, no nonsense attitude of Northerners, and their wit and sense of humour. It's no wonder, really, that, within months of starting at university, I met a young man who hailed from just outside the city...we're still together today.

I fell in love with a Mancunian (well, someone from Saddleworth, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it) and Manchester. Weekends at uni were frequently spent zooming up the M1 to hang out in the city. I'm sure it wasn't the case, but I always remember those days as being sunny - a far cry from the grey landscapes that come to mind when you think of the industrial North.
In those days, we'd scour the stores at Afflecks Palace, buy records at Eastern Bloc (owned by a member of 808 State) and hang out in cool stores, picking up club flyers to paste to the breeze block walls of our halls of residence. We'd go to the Hacienda and dance to Italo House and acid. Owned by New Order, I had my tiny mind slightly blown on passing Bernard Sumner in the club one night - he even said "Alright, mate" to my other half, an event that still crops up in conversation to this day: "Remember that time when Barney from New Order said hi to you in the Hac?!"
But that was a long time ago, and we don't go to Manchester much anymore. So with half term rolling around, and February always being a tricky one to get right in terms of travel plans - UK beaches seem too unpredictable - I decided we'd make a long overdue trip, with the kids, to a city we both hold with affection in our hearts. 

It's a great destination for families - easy to get around, with lots of free attractions and plenty of things to do indoors when those Northern skies, inevitably, open. It would be hard to describe Manchester as 'pretty' - it has photogenic corners, for sure, but this is a city that encapsulates the concept of Northern grit, with its imposing Victorian architecture and hints of its industrial heritage around every corner.  

There are graceful squares and smart streets here, such as St Anne's Square and King Street, while the revived Northern Quarter has brought a vibrancy back to the city that reminds me of my visits here back in the '90s. Back then it was all about the aforementioned Hacienda (now luxury apartments), Man U footballer's hangouts along Deansgate and the pre-club scene at the Dry Bar. But today the Northern Quarter draws the cool kids to hang out at its cafes, bars, vinyl stores and boutiques. 

We loved mooching about this area, stopping at amazing homeware store Oklahoma and Evelyn's, a gorgeous cafe-bar blending industrial-style fittings with a profusion of overhanging greenery - it's a great spot for breakfast, brunch or cocktails. We also loved Federal Cafe, just up the road. Plenty more hip drinking spots vie for your attention in this area; if we'd been visiting without kids we definitely would have hung out here come nightfall - I loved the look of some of the drinking haunts in the area, including Cane & Grain, The Abel Heywood and Trof.

Shopping comes in all shapes and sizes, from high-end fashion at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges (these are big stores rather than provincial concessions) to vintage pop-ups, with the huge Arndale Centre featuring all the usual high street stalwarts. But more interesting shopping lies back in the Northern Quarter, where you'll find independent boutiques and streetwear stores filled with hard-to-source Nikes and Vans in all colours and styles. 

We dragged the kids around Afflecks, our go-to shopping destination in the old days. Yes, they're still flogging 'And on the Sixth Day, God Created Manchester' t-shirts, alongside a proliferation of bee embossed merchandise (the bee is the symbol of the city) but there are lots of specialist, niche things to be found in this treasure trove of the weird and wonderful. Housed in a grand old department store, which started life as a drapery called Affleck & Brown, it's a maze of eclectic indie shops, selling everything from rare vinyl to American candy. You can pick up vintage curios, get a tattoo or a piercing, or enjoy vegan coffee and cake. It's a ramshackle feast for the eyes, with retro arcade games in the corridors and old band posters plastered to the walls - an absolute must-visit for soaking up Manchester's unique vibe.

Child-friendly all-weather entertainment can be enjoyed at the Football Museum (£25 for a family ticket) or the excellent free Science and Industry Museum - this is a brilliant collection of exhibits that trace Manchester's industrial history, taking in steam engines and locomotives, as well as textile machinery (more interesting than it sounds - this part of the country was built on cotton wealth) and early computers. The adjoining Air and Space hall is closed at the moment but will hopefully reopen soon, allowing access to a fantastic collection of planes and vehicles. An interactive science area is filled with stuff for kids of all ages to play around with. 

Manchester Art Gallery is another cultural highlight in the city. Entry is free and there's lots to see, including evocative paintings of the city by LS Lowry which are a highlight. On our visit there was a brilliant Martin Parr exhibition, featuring photos of Manchester from the 60s up to the present day, as well as a great collection focusing on Nordic Design. It's a lovely place to hang out, with a pleasant cafe and shop to explore, too.

If architecture is your thing, you're truly spoilt in this city. I love the contrasts that decorate the skyline in all directions here; it's a place where cranes abound and sleek high-rises stand next to squat old Victorian pubs and there are lovely gems all around if you look a little more closely. You can stumble upon unexpected loveliness in Manchester's urban heartland - the Peveril of the Peak pub, a beautifully tiled building and the only detached pub in the city - is a wonderful relic of Manchester's bygone days. 

Take a wander to the cathedral and stop by Shambles Square, home to the Old Wellington pub, built in the 1500s and the oldest building of its kind in the city. If quirky bookstores, housed in buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Brooklyn, are your thing, be sure to pop by Paramount Books on Shudehill. 

The sweeping square that houses the city's town hall is also worth a look, while Barton Arcade, just off Deansgate is a lovely place for a coffee - its tiled floor and glass dome is lovely. While you're here, if you have football fans amongst your number, don't miss a quick stop at the Classic Football Shirts shop.

Indoor child-friendly entertainment abounds in the cavernous Printworks complex, where you'll find a cinema, adventure golf and lots of family-orientated eating options. If you're playing it safe with food, try an find one of the chain restaurants that's housed in an interesting venue - thanks to the proliferation of vast, grand Victorian buildings in Manchester, many fail-safe restaurants have taken up residence in old banks and other impressive buildings. 

The Zizzi on King Street is a perfect example - if you must keep the kids happy with pizza, it's nice being able to do so in such impressive surroundings. If you do have more flexibility on the restaurant front, I highly recommend El Gato Negro, also on King Street - it serves exceptional tapas in a lovely setting. 

Music and football are defining features of this city; you can go on a The Smiths tour or make your own pilgrimage to key locations synoymous with this legendary Manchester band - we'd been wanting to visit Salford Lads Club for some time and did so on this occasion. With its dedicated The Smiths room and interesting history, it's worth a little detour if you want to see an old school lads club in action (it remains a working facility) and have an interest in Manchester's musical history. 

On this side of the river you'll find Salford Quays too - home to MediaCityUK, this area is well worth a visit. Kids will love seeing the buildings where their favourite CBBC and Cbeebies shows are produced. You can also visit the Blue Peter garden and check out the stars honoured in the walk of fame. ITV also has a base here, and tours of both respective broadcasters HQs are open to the public (the ITV tour focuses on its classic Northern drama Coronation Street.)

Look over the water and you'll catch a glimpse of Old Trafford, a reminder that this city is passionate not just about the arts and music but football too. I'm not really a football fan, but we did go on a tour of the stadium a few years back and I found it much more entertaining that I expected. 

But for me personally, Manchester is about music - it's might be a very long time since Voodoo Ray blared out of car stereos or members of New Order said hello to us in the Hacienda, but this city will forever remind me of my musical awakening and the vibrancy of Northern club culture, of kids wearing Stone Roses-style bucket hats and baggy flares. It's changed a great deal in the intervening years, but Manchester remains a defiantly brilliant counterpoint to its southern counterparts. And I remain in love with it.

For budget-friendly accommodation in the city, we stayed at the perfectly located Premier Inn Manchester City Centre (Arena/Printworks)

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