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Looking back on 2020: Transforming the negatives into positives, and seeking the silver lining

These annual reviews are a rewarding and mindful exercise, as I love both the reflective process involved in writing them, and the knowledge that I’m building a complete set of annual recaps to reminisce with in decades to come. Do you also love this reflective time of year? The process goes as follows: I start by re-reading ‘My Travel Plans for 2020‘ blog post, then reviewing and ticking items off my private list of New Year’s Resolutions, and finally comparing my anticipations for the year with what actually happened. This post traditionally runs through the year month-by-month packed with memories and mementos of travels and milestones, but I have to a certain extent already done a fair bit of that in these previous posts:

Without a huge amount to report from each individual month due to the bizarreness of 2020, I’ll eschew my traditional format for this 2020 recap. In essence, I spent the UK’s two full lockdowns (March-June and November) at my mother’s house in rural Hampshire, and I spent the rest of the year in Earlsfield (London), alongside a handful of trips to France thrown in when they were allowed (a week off-piste skiing in Valmorel; a weekend visiting friends in Paris (both pre-pandemic); and a fortnight on the south-west coast of France near Bordeaux in September). I got promoted and started a new job, I worked more and harder than ever, so had very little free time to enjoy myself outside of work, and of course I’ve travelled very little. I’ve been lucky that my family and I haven’t actually had Covid so far, and I wasn’t furloughed nor was my pay cut, and I never had to isolate alone, so I believe I’ve fared pretty well compared to many people who’ve suffered far worse, losing loved ones or jobs.

I must have started 2020 knowing something was off, as it took me 3 whole months to publish my annual ‘Travel plans for the year’ post, whereas most years it takes me just a few days. Even on New Year’s Day I knew something ominous was in store, and that day I actually recorded a foreboding sense of nervous trepidation in my journal. The year hasn’t turned out how any of us imagined, and my entire list of travel plans and a large part of my personal New Year’s Resolutions list were rendered simply impossible. This BBC article contains some basic but valuable tips on surviving the winter ahead with our mental health intact, and I can personally recommend a number of them: daily journalling; exercise, yoga and mindfulness; distracting yourself through personal projects; and reducing exposure to the news. This blog post also contains a longer list of my go-to 2020 survival tricks.

I’m an optimist by nature and I strongly believe in the power of positivity. So in this post, I’m going to focus on the personal highlights, milestones and projects that emerged from the shadow of the dreadfulness of 2020, so I that, in future, I can still recognise and look back on the positives of 2020.

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Travel and foreign languages

Negative no.1: Travel bans and border closures across the world

Recast as a positive: The barriers to international travel meant that I explored more of the UK I would have otherwise: learning to invest my time into my local community, explore my locality in Hampshire with more local walks, cycles and hikes, as well as 3 days’ sailing in the Solent. Further afield, my father and I explored the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park for the first time on a long weekend hiking the Yorkshire Three Peaks. Watch my Insta story from Yorkshire here and you can read my tips for dealing with cabin fever and quarantine as a travel-addict.

Negative no.2: Because of the myriad travel restrictions, I only travelled to one country (France) and zero new countries, making zero progress towards my Travel Goals

Recast as a positive: Dedicating all my travels in 2020 to France gave me ample practice speaking French and boosted my attention on progressing with the language! In normal years I struggle for annual leave, and would never normally have had enough time off work to spend 2 whole weeks in south-west France, where my mother has a pine chalet, but this year I was able to spend 16 whole days there and invest time into reading French stories, listening to French podcasts, writing my diary in French and speaking to locals. This was an excellent bit of luck, considering my weekly French classes at work were cancelled in April and still haven’t resumed. Listen to my podcast episode live from south-west France, watch my Insta story and see this blog post for more language learning tips.

 

Negative no.3: My trips to Georgia, the US (for the G7 Youth Summit in Washington DC), Italy and Spain were all cancelled, not to mention my friends’ postponed weddings and big celebrations

Recast as a positive: Without any travel to splash out on, I saved a record amount of money, tripling the savings goal I set myself for 2020! Finally having the time to improve my financial literacy, I started investing in a Stocks & Shares ISA, learning how to pick funds, track markets and invest to grow my money for the future. I can recommend these two books on the theme of finance and the future: ‘How to Own the World’ by Andrew Craig and ‘The 100-Year-Life’ by Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott.

Working from home

Negative no.4: Working from home non-stop for 9.5 months, with the associated eye strain, Zoom fatigue, difficulty maintaining work-life balance, lack of social contact with my team

Recast as a positive: WFH non-stop actually forced my sister and I into creating a nicer home environment, rather than us neglecting it as merely a base from which to flit in and out. The improvements range from basic (acquiring house plants, decluttering and tidying) to more fundamental (adopting a Tuxedo cat called Topsy (or did she adopt us?!), and converting our box room in London into an office).

Negative no.5: Working from home non-stop for 9.5 months (Part II)

Recast as a positive: WFH also meant that employers, colleagues and society started placing much more emphasis on wellbeing, actual lunch breaks, prioritising fresh air and exercise, and good nutrition. I improved my cooking no end through spending so much time at home! In December I even managed to give up my daily dependence on Coke Zero. Hopefully this prioritisation of wellbeing will endure beyond the pandemic too. Here are my tips from an interview I gave on my top wellbeing tips (click ‘See more’ in the caption to read):

Negative no.6: 2020 was a really intense year as I worked on the UK-EU FTA negotiations, with the end-of-Transition-Period deadline looming over our heads all year, and it required a tremendous amount of work, stress and long hours

Recast as a positive: All our hard work proved fruitful and finished on a positive note, as we managed to agree an FTA between the UK and EU! While only indirectly correlated, I also had a good year for career progression as I finished the Civil Service Fast Stream by passing a key interview, I got promoted and started a new job with my very own team, leading Intellectual Property negotiations with the EU in Defra. The lack of holidays and other distractions, due to the pandemic, gave me the time I needed to get to grips with the new job in the challenging learning curve of the first few months.

Family, friends and relationships

Negative no.7: We lost our individual freedoms, particularly in lockdowns no.1 and no.2, and were forced by the pandemic to social-distance and stay at home

Recast as a positive: As a result of lockdowns, I moved home to Hampshire for a total of 4.5 months and spent infinitely more time with my mother and family than normal, bringing us much closer together. My move to Hampshire really was a silver lining of this whole year – and never have I spent so much time in the countryside since effectively moving out aged 18. Also, being forced to interrupt my hectic London schedule to “stay at home”, gave me back valuable time to create ‘The Well-Travelled Podcast’ series, take-up painting again under the tutelage of my aunt, cook more, walk and cycle with my father, and even read 23 books (more than I’ve ever read before in a single year)! Here’s my reading list of the best books for escapism and armchair travel during the pandemic.

Negative no.8: In December we sold and moved out of my mother’s house in Hampshire so that she can downsize to a new house in the New Forest

Recast as a positive: Knowing that our time in the house was limited made me appreciate it all the more, really savouring the capacious rooms, the outdoor space, lovely garden, views and picturesque location – which my first-floor flat in London really doesn’t have! De-cluttering and packing my belongings in November was a fantastically nostalgic process, re-reading old diaries and stumbling down memory lane at the sight of a souvenir or memento from my travels, uni or my year abroad. The positive I took from this transition is that I should appreciate the here-and-now, while also seeing fresh starts as a positive development, with a whole world of possibility and creativity awaiting us in the new house. Perhaps I’ll paint a new mural in the new house too?

Negative no.9: I went through an unexpected and really shoddy break-up shortly before the pandemic started

Recast as a positive: That episode at the start of 2020 taught me that break-ups are like ripping off plasters: the faster the action, the less painful they are! Although my ex-boyfriend handled it atrociously, the suddenness of the break-up was actually a blessing, as it meant I avoided an extremely long-distance relationship that was doomed to fail, and it gave me more time to move on and meet my new boyfriend, who has been brilliant at a time when social contact and intimacy are so profoundly restricted by the government, and when loneliness is sweeping like a plague across the UK and no doubt globally. On a similar note, I wrote this blog post about the challenges of travelling as a single woman and the stigma of being single.

Extracurricular

Negative no.10: The G7 Youth Summit moved from a 1-week in-person event in Washington DC to a virtual format, adding to screen-time and missing out on the face-to-face multilateral negotiation experience we would have had in the US

Recast as a positive: Once my delegation and I overcame the disappointment of a virtual format, we actually discovered that a prolonged process of negotiations over 2 months allowed us to build stronger relationships over time with our counterparts in other G7 nations. Needing to conduct all our consultations, focus groups and our survey online made it a more inclusive process and reached larger number of young people across the UK, and we still managed to remotely present our policy proposals to the White House and the UK’s G7 Taskforce in the Cabinet Office. Overall my experience leading the UK’s delegation to the summit was hugely developmental and rewarding! You can read my 7 lessons from the Y7 here.

All G7 Youth delegates on the final day of the summit

Negative no.11: The annual reception for University of Exeter Alumnae which I co-organise was cancelled by the pandemic

Recast as a positive: Following the cancellation of our flagship event, we instead ran a hugely successful series of 4 virtual webinars in the autumn, reaching and supporting more women than our in-person event ever could. I chaired a panel discussion on job-hunting, and we ran others on leadership, resilience and redundancy during the pandemic – you can read about and watch all of them here. I also continued mentoring 3 female Exeter students through the pandemic-related challenges they face in terms of job-hunting in a tough employment market, doing a year abroad amidst border closures, and studying remotely. And I squeezed in a visit to Exeter to speak on a careers panel and run mock interviews also

Other positives!

Although many of the plans and events planned for 2020 were scrapped or cancelled, a few good milestones went ahead regardless! I was honoured to win the Rising Star Award 2020 for female role models. I presented my Master’s thesis research (on EU citizens’ sense of identity post-Brexit) to staff at the Independent Monitoring Authority to help raise awareness of the anxiety and uncertainty these 3 million people have been suffering. I also had a second paper from my Master’s published in an academic journal, 3 long years after I first presented it at a conference in Krakow. All of which were great confidence-boosting moments that brought light to my year. And of course, Trump lost the US election! Let us not forget that tremendous silver lining of 2020, as who knows how he’d have fared had there not been a pandemic.

Other blog posts from 2020

I struggled to post as much on this blog as I’d hoped in 2020, and the mood worldwide certainly wasn’t clamouring for travel tips and advice! Besides the various posts I’ve already linked to above, here are a handful of other highlights from The Well-Travelled Postcard in 2020:

Looking towards 2021

Now that 2020 is finally over, we’re all keen to put the year behind us and move forwards into 2021! Despite the challenges of 2020, I still believe it’s important to each individually reflect back on the year in this way, adopting this attitude of transforming negatives into positives, and always seeking the silver lining. While normality won’t be handed back to us at the strike of midnight tonight as we commence the New Year, this mental framing and a positive mindset will be key to keeping our heads above water while the remainder of this global crisis runs its course. I hope you’re all able to find your own silver lining and move forward into 2021 with optimism and positivity on your side!

Have you done a similar reflection on you experiences in 2020? What were your big lessons learned? And what techniques did you find most helpful to personally get through it?

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