Thoughts from 40,000 feet, en route to New Zealand: 2019 so far
I’m currently at 40,000 feet somewhere above the Dutch-German border, at the beginning of a 25-hour journey to New Zealand, with a short stopover in Doha. I’ve long loved the effect of my iPhone’s Airplane Mode on my mood, and I use it in real life more than I perhaps should: while sleeping, while running and cycling, while at work, when I’m lucky enough to be at a spa – all to avoid notifications, distractions and procrastination. Each year I try to fit in a 5-day digital detox to fully disconnect, although it’s not until a holiday in September that I’ll next have the opportunity to do that! But knowing that Airplane Mode is fully enforced for the next 7 hours to Doha, and then the next 16 hours to Auckland after that, has finally given me a moment to pause and take a deep breath!
The New Year always brings with it a new energy and drive to tick off those to-do lists and nail those New Year’s resolutions (all 60+ of them in my case!), and I feel like life has been non-stop since I wrote my annual blog post about my travels in the year to come! I’m ashamed to say that there’s a direct correlation between life busy-ness and low frequency of blog posts – a multi-tasking skill I seem to have dropped somewhere along the way!
So I’ve been trying to pack in too many things into my my last few months, and a reflective stock-take is overdue. We’re already a quarter of the way through 2019, and the year has already delivered so much excitement and activity, so there’s plenty to reflect on during this 25-hour odyssey to the other side of the world!
So what’s happened in 2019 so far?
January saw a fantastic week’s ski racing with the Kandahar Club in the Swiss Alps: The 2019 Inferno Ski Races in Mürren. February involved a family spa day at Carey’s Manor in the New Forest, near my home-home, which is turning into something of a much-loved annual tradition! March began with a long weekend near Polzeath in Cornwall at a friend’s house, including a murder mystery, beach-side runs and walks, games galore and even a bracing swim in the sea to banish the hangovers!
Later in March I flew with my Kiwi friend Jess to Israel, predominantly with the aim of running the Jerusalem half-marathon. A lot of people have since asked me: “Why on earth in Jerusalem?” Well, over Christmas we hatched together the idea of running a half-marathon abroad, and we looked at a map of Europe, searching for countries that neither of us had been to before… Ruling out tiny places like Lichtenstein and San Marino, we stumbled upon Israel, and in doing so both made our first visits to the Middle East! Another one of my travels goals before 30 complete!
It was actually one of the most educational trips I’ve taken in a long time and I’d recommend Israel immensely, although be warned that the customs officers on departure treat young women pretty offensively, which rather tainted what was otherwise a great and very welcoming experience.
Closer to home in London, some friends and I have started walking sections of the North Downs Way through Surrey – which feels very grown-up compared to our more nocturnal and drunken antics back when we first became friends at university!
I had a satisfying-but-frustrating-at-times first three months of the year, the highlight of which was a fortnight’s secondment to the Foreign Office, which was a very long-standing dream come true! I spent 18 months in that role, longer than the anticipated 12 months, and while I found the subject matter fascinating and suitably challenging, I was keen for a change of scenery and fresh air. Two weeks ago I moved to my second posting within the Civil Service Fast Stream programme, in the Department for International Trade, working on government policy for export controls and trade sanctions. I’m new to trade policy and I have a huge amount to learn, but so far I love this new international dimension to my work and the intellectual stimulation of a policy role. I’m hoping that trade policy will be another useful arrow to add to my bow, so I’m happy with the move!
I also escaped the Whitehall bubble to travel down to Plymouth in my beloved Devon, to speak at a conference on Careers in International Relations, and I loved seeing the enthusiasm and energy of the students: remembering how I felt at their age, in wonder at all the different career paths and exciting opportunities opening up beyond the horizon of graduation. I found it amusing to reflect on what I dreamed of doing with my career when I was a student, and whether I could have ever predicted that my life would take the random, but ultimately more varied, zigzag path it has followed. I had a great mentor in my second year at Exeter University, and I myself now have a mentee at Plymouth University – and it feels wonderful to pass on the favour to the next generation, and recognise that I have acquired some experience and career know-how that’s useful for someone else! I used to write more blog posts with advice on international careers and tips for linguists, and it’s been a while since I did, but maybe now’s a good time to start again?
I honestly believe I may have spent more of 2019 wearing lycra and sports kit than either pyjamas or work clothes! As a result of a New Year’s Day beachfront walk on the Isle of Wight with school-friends, we signed up for the Jersey Triathlon in June, and I have slightly regretted the rash decision ever since… It will involve 1.5km sea swim, 40km cycle around the island’s hilly coastline, and a 10km run: and I’m hoping all that will take me under 4 hours to complete.
Yikes. I’d completely underestimated the amount of training needed for an Olympic distance triathlon and I feel like every spare waking hour ever since has been spent on a bike or running! Strava has swiftly become my most-used social media app. I dipped a toe into the world of ‘group cycling’ with the Dirty Wknd club and learned how to ride a road bike, and taught myself to swim bilateral breathing front crawl. I’ve run a few races in London and Jerusalem, getting new personal bests at 5km and half-marathon distances. So although my muscles may be exhausted and I’m mildly sleep-deprived, at least I’m burning enough calories that I can eat whatever the hell I like without a care in the world for my waistline!
On a less sadistic note though, I’ve played lots of tennis and have joined Putney Lawn Tennis Club – which I’m thrilled about as they have 3x more applicants each year than they have spaces, so I’m really excited to play more with that club.
Studies and learning:
My French is going from strength to strength after two terms of lessons with biweekly classes, with teachers from the Institut Français (kindly paid for by work). I started at A2 level, although in reality, I was practically mute in my first class after a 7-year gap in lessons. Now though, I’m moving into a B1-B2 class next term and I’m starting to think about preparing for an exam or certificate of some kind in the long-term…
I’ve been working on a “sizeable academic project” (if you can decode that…), which I’m not supposed to talk about on my blog for a couple of different reasons, but if you follow my Instagram stories then you might know what it is. Without giving too much detail, it has involved interviewing over 20 EU27 nationals living in London, and two days ago I very excitingly completed my final interview – totalling 33 hours! My work on that project isn’t finished and will take up much of my summer to be honest. I’m so grateful to all my interviewees for sparing their time, and to my many friends and contacts who helped me find the interviewees in the first place. It’s been a real effort and it’s relied on the helpfulness and kindness of strangers to meet with me for interviews. It’s also opened my mind to ideas, concepts and perspectives I never would have reached alone – reinforcing in my mind just how important it is to broaden our circles and meet new people in order to keep learning.
Writing and blogging:
My blogging output has been exceptionally low this year: just 3 posts in 3 months. I slightly blame that on my decision last summer to start writing a diary to document the last year of my twenties. Keeping that up-to-date has been enough of a hassle that it’s sucked all energy out of me for any other kind of writing! I managed 7 whole months of the diary before finally admitting defeat and giving up in February. Since then I have unquestionably felt more inspired and motivated to blog instead and it’s not for want of topics that I haven’t actually published much – I have plenty of unfinished drafts pending a bit more time to be completed. I did however also write an article for work to mark International Women’s Day, along the theme of #BalanceForBetter. The three angles I raised were:
- The need to improve low female participation in certain sports I’ve tried this year (eg. squash, boxing, ski racing, cycling & triathlons)
- How working mothers maintain their work-life balance (for which I interviewed my Deputy Director on her experience and tips)
- The toll of gender-based trolling and online abuse on the mental health and resilience of women in the public eye and female politicians (reflecting on one brief experience I had of this in 2015)
Another side project is the launch of my podcast: ‘A Journey Across Borders’, which you can find on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, etc. It was a fun experiment learning to use a new medium and I’ve loved hearing your thoughts on what works well and what kinds of travel-related topics you might like to listen to in a potential future podcast. If you haven’t yet had a listen, please do and let me know your thoughts!
Exploring London and downtime:
A whole section of my ‘30 before 30’ list is dedicated to exploring more of London and breaking out of the south-west London bubble, and it has ensured that I do give myself a break and enjoy the present! These have included firsts like watching the ballet of Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House (prompting such pangs to visit Spain!), doing a full-day Mexican cooking class at the Waitrose Cookery School in north London (prompting pangs for Mexico City, to which I nearly moved in 2017 for a semester of my Master’s), and visiting the London Aquarium at night (prompting pangs to snorkel and scuba dive again in the Philippines, where I spent 3 weeks in September 2018). As well as the occasional French or Italian film at the Ciné Lumière or the Italian Cultural Institute, which only fuels my wanderlust more! I’m also busy planning a celebration for my 30th birthday in July.
I’m currently en route to New Zealand for a two-week road trip from Auckland to Queenstown with my sister and our housemate! From there I fly to Melbourne and have a further week in Australia, also exploring Sydney before I return to the UK on the 6th May – a whole 3.5 weeks abroad! This trip will also complete another of my travel goals before 30: to visit Australasia. With today marking exactly 3 months until my 30th birthday, it’s just in the nick of time too!
I’d love to say I’ve been counting down the days to this mammoth holiday, but it’s actually crept up on me as quite a surprise, as I’ve been juggling too much else to have really had time to look forward. Which is complete nonsense and definitely shows my work-life-other balance is off. I also haven’t researched New Zealand and Australia as much as I’d have liked, so please do send me tips if you’ve been to either country!
Beyond this trip and into the longer-term, you can probably detect from much of this blog post that there’s been a fair amount of dreaming of overseas. It’s certainly been tough to spend a second consecutive winter in the UK after several years of hopping from country to country and having that coveted variety handed to me on a plate! In honesty, I’ve been avoiding the question about where I want to live longer-term. I certainly can’t imagine spending the next 10-15 years in London or the UK, but if elsewhere, then what steps or decisions would I need to take? And would “elsewhere” also be temporary or can I realistically see myself committing to stay anywhere for longer than 1-2 years?
I’ve now reached the longest period I’ve ever spent living in London in one stint: 18 months, and it’s bizarre to realise that. I’m certainly in London for the next 6 months in my new posting, and most likely for 12 further months after that in my third posting in the Civil Service, unless some international roles open up (only a slim chance). But the idea of 3 years non-stop in London… I find it hard to conceptualise!
Dreaming of overseas is a great thing Virginia, I know what it’s like once you’ve tasted that particular lifestyle, you can never quite dispel it totally and, unfortunately, it doesn’t get any better with age! My first overseas posting was in 1984 (Nigeria) and the longest (Hong Kong) was 12 years. I’m happy to report nevertheless that, despite three quite serious attempts at repatriation to the UK, I’m still at it and once again living out here in Hong Kong. We love it, there’s a great balance between things you might find familiar and that wonderful Asian exotica – all in all a great place to be. Have a safe journey and enjoy your time in NZ/Aus!
You’re very lucky – I’ve loved Hong Kong both times I’ve visited and would happily move there for a while. And thank you!
Sounds great..was in Thailand a while back.. very cool. Did you get a job in the home office.. Cheers Jason
A lot of thoughts and a certain full and busy schedule you’re following. Enjoy your 3 weeks in Auz/NZ
Hey Virginia nice to see you again! I am simple impressed with you, you always come up with such things which i have never seen yet. And this post seems to be one of my fantastic post. Good work!