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Road Trip: Romania Part 2

When I turn off the lights the house is enveloped by silence, broken only by the purr of the crickets outside in the grass. I’d never heard crickets in England – and they’ve become an emblem of my past. I’m suddenly moved by my parents’ effort to make their home comfortable, finding the right balance of elegance and cosiness. Every little detail shows planning and care: the arrangement of the sofas, the easy access to the house’s only balcony, the ladybird shaped night lights. My bathroom is bigger than most single rooms I’ve seen in London, in those dark years of renting before finally buying my flat.

And then it strikes me: this house was designed with us in mind, a house for the parents and the children, in the spirit of our Eastern culture. My mother often boasted of how much intimacy we’d have, if one of us decided to stay. They hoped it would be my sister, Andra, the one to settle in the silent rooms upstairs. About me, my father would say that I’m as volatile as wild water, a wanderer to the core. They knew I’d never return.

My sister and I exchanged looks whenever the discussion moved towards settling down in the sleepy town where my father left his native Transylvania to live with my mother in 1981. She, too, had dreams – and they were more than allowing her family to help her own a private practice and treat people who could afford it. She dreamed of being a medic without frontiers, a researcher, a medical expert. A winner.

We knew it without saying it, and they  knew it too: our charming town just wasn’t good enough for us. As children, we had access to a world of knowledge: ballet lessons, French lessons, Music, Drama, Art. We both speak four languages, but we lived in a bubble, in a place where we’d never be able to really practise them. It was a tough world, ruled by the post-Communism mafia, a mined field where every step could be a trap. Preventing us from making bad friends or developing bad habits was Mother’s explanation of why we weren’t free to play.

It was, perhaps, to be expected that their tireless determination, fueled by an acute sense of class often found in provincial towns, would backfire. We would always want to do more, achieve more, BE more. We left home at eighteen to study in Bucharest, and never returned. My sister  would never be the smiling middle class country doctor. I’d never teach English at the grammar school that terrified me with its cold exam rooms and the dreaded gyms.

When I think of my highschool, I think of the teacher who couldn’t teach me Latin and the neverending German lessons ( I can’t speak German, or Greek; as with perfumes, which the brain can’t register more than three or four at a time, the brain must have a satiation point with languages, too). I think of looking out through the hundred years old windows to the changing seasons, wishing to be anywhere but there. I think of the urge to run away. I think of wishing school to end at 16. I think of the longing to travel the world, away from the eighteen year old lawyers’ sons with toothpaste ad grins taking their virgin brides for rides in the same sports cars they used to pick up whores. Honeymoon in the mountain resort an hour’s drive away, splashing out Daddy’s cash on some fashionable gambling habit. I think of dreading to graduate because you were expected to be engaged and marry the summer you finished Uni (or the one after), and I couldn’t see myself in a long term relationship.

I could fall in love, but could I stay in love? That was the question.

Unknown to us (or at least not to me) Andra and I left our home town with the thorn of ambition deep in our souls, a taste for luxury, and not knowing how to use a vacuum cleaner. I remember sitting in my condo in Bucharest, on my first week alone, staring in awe at the pile of dishes in my sink, the realisation that they won’t wash themselves hitting me like a punch in the stomach.

I’ve now lived in London for twelve years. I do a lot of things I thought I’d never do, like cooking and cleaning my own flat and going back to University to do another degree – this time, one I’ve simmered over long enough to let it ripe. I’ve seen parents loving their children and saying that not being very academic is not the end of the world. It makes me smile, and in fact I mentioned it to Andra the other day, when I visited her in Cambridge. In our world, not being very academic WAS the end of the world.

The thirst for achievement is still there, perhaps dark and unhealthy, like a vampire’s love of blood. Comfort is the motivation killer, and in England, we haven’t always been comfortable. Being ‘home’ reminds me of how hard my life really is, being a working mother, raising my own child, without the network of family support, grandparents and aunts and cousins, that many Romanian mothers enjoy.

Sometimes I allow the thought to brush against my heart, intimate like a kiss, each summer when I indulge in the beloved corners of my parents’ home: sunbathing on the balcony, lounging on the sofas, having a water massage in the ultramodern shower cabin. This is more opulence that I can ever hope for in London, and I ask myself: could I ever go back? My life would be easy. I could just go back to my room and pretend the last sixteen years never happened.

But when I shut the windows, I notice the night smells of smoke. I’m reminded of the bonfires I witnessed as a teenager, the burning wood scents that made my heart ache with the panic of being trapped in routine. And I notice something else: the windows open into a dusty road, where the dogs bark louder than the crickets. The next house belongs to a judge, a man with a grey beard and a Hemingway hat who breeds his own pigeons.

And then, further down the street, but not much further, is the DEAD END.

I smile to myself and go to lie down next to my sleeping son. The road trip starts tomorrow. a present from my parents, all expenses paid for. A new chance to reconnect, to find each other again, or maybe for the first time, before it’s too late.

When I close my eyes these words come to my mind. I can’t remember who said them, if anyone said them at all. Most probably I found them in a book, and now they have a new flavour.

DON’T STRUGGLE SO MUCH. BEST THINGS HAPPEN WHEN NOT EXPECTED.

The words warm me up like cinnamon tea in winter. I wrap my arms around my son and fall asleep.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Road Trip: Romania

My parents’ house is large and airy, built over two floors, full of the things I’ve known as a child: my father’s football trophies, including the battered football signed by celebrity footballers, given to him as a retirement present; my mother’s art, naked angels with full breasts and flowing ringlets and the gloomy scenes that a Dutch painter, Mother’s favourite, seemed to have painted with his moods.

My mother taught us Art. Not just the different styles, currents and ideas, but who the artists really were, what drove them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I know that Dali bought his older wife a castle where she partied with her young lovers; but what would his art be if Gala was the typical housewife? Gaugain defended the Tahitians in the times when racism was a fashion, and being liberal gained him important enemies; this didn’t stop him from surrounding himself with the adolescent nymphs he would immortalise in the colours of the jungle: blood red, and the snake green of the murderous foliage that concealed their voluptuous bodies. A flash of dark nipples, the simple coquetry of exotic flowers, bright loincloths. Today his  canvas sell for £ 200 million. All because he chose free love over the hypocrisy of nineteenth century Paris.

Goya, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Tizian. Impressionists, expressionists, surrealists.Of all the quirky fairy tales Mother told me, Picasso’s drew me the most. I’m one of the women in his power. It’s just like him to continue to seduce even in death. I fell in love with his madness.

Reading about him made me feel it was okay to be different. It was okay to love something and hate it the next day. It was okay to fall in and out of love, to be excited by the numerous possibilities of life rather than conform to a boring destiny. What’s more, in Picasso’s case, his constant excitement and infatuation with women made his art.

What’s more, it made him a genius.

He might not have been a safe husband, but he was a man of many stories.

A few facts about Pablo:

His first long term relationship was with a married woman.

Two of his muses were from Eastern Europe. He married Russian Olga Khokhlova, but she hated his bohemian lifestyle. They later separated when Picasso’s new lover fell pregnant.

Picasso signed some of his paintings ‘I love Eva.’

At 54 Picasso started an eight year old relationship with Yugoslavian Dora Maar.

At 62, Picasso had two more children with a young Art student.

At 79 Picasso married for the second time. His marriage lasted until his death twenty years later.

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To be continued…

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Don’t Kiss the Prince Who Treats You Like a Frog

I know it sounds like a cliche, but I mean it. If I remind you of the witty ‘Sex and the City’ spinster stereotype, it’s because I’ve become rather skillful at carving the crap off the truth. At 35, after two marriages and having met more time wasters than I care to acknowledge, I think I qualify to give some advice. Men are not princes – they are men. Prone to mistake and every inch of them will not be perfect, so if you’re anywhere between teenage and middle-age and your guy looks too good to be true, then he probably isn’t.

Listening to your intuition is a good way to start. Even in sweet-talk there are hints of what men want. Others hide them, more insidiously, in intelligent conversation. If you look for clues in how men treat you, you’ll get a real idea of where you stand. And if you’re not in a good position at the start then it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be. Men give the crown to their queen, they don’t make a real queen sweat for it. Getting to the top of their ego will be like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, only you’ll be too tired to enjoy the view.

Men don’t fool us, ladies; we fool ourselves.

It’s very simple. Follow the rules. If a guy is taking his time with you, cross him off the list. He’ll always come back if he’s serious – but they often aren’t. A guy who really wants you won’t risk you being snapped up by someone else, unless they get a kick out of keeping women on their toes or are incredibly arrogant – and you don’t want any of that.

Let’s get this straight. Men are not shy when they REALLY want a woman. Men fight wars and play big games. If he treats you like a frog, then you are NOT his princess.

Ask yourself these questions:

Do they ask for your opinion?

Do they care about what you think?

Do they share emotion with you?

If all they do is tell you how attractive you are, you are as much fool’s gold to him as he is to you.

In their behavior there is always the CLUE. And trust me, it’s a BIG ONE.

This is a photo from my first wedding. I was just 24 and thought I could wear green and get away with it. I didn’t feel like the typical bride and I’ve always hated convention. It makes me smile because the photo is blurry – unlike my memory of the day. My memories of the day and everything that followed are still vivid.photo-wedding

My marriage ended just a year later, and I thought it was the end of my life. I would lie to say that it was a truly horrible year – after all, the evil lies in the fact that bad things are not ALL bad. There were good things, like trips to the cinema and holidays and laughter. And bad things, like an abortion and another woman.

What I want to share with all those young girls out there looking for love is the ugly break.

Because that’s what it was – nothing like the amicable separation I fooled myself with. It was ugly and vicious and unfair and heartbreaking. But the worst of it is that I lived for far too long thinking that I deserved it.

It’s funny how clear they are, the memories. To this day I can’t listen to the rustle of the waves without feeling nauseous. I remember sitting on a beach with no idea of what to do or where to go. Divorce was an ominous thought. He had promised me eternal happiness and a good life and another baby – in the place of the one he begged me to abort.

I know we all get the ‘sack’ at some point. Some are dumped on trains and buses, at home or in parks or more commonly at parties. I was dumped on a beach in Costa Brava, in the bright July sunlight, a day after my birthday.

My birthday was as sweet as it should be for any young woman – with flowers and coffee in bed and a gift of gold and sapphires under my pillow. And yet the next day it was all over – all the niceness just meant to make the blow harder, like the cigarette one smokes before a firing squad. Not only a goodbye, but complete destruction.

He timed it well. The break came right before a huge family event, in a culture where, ten years ago, the stigma of divorce was still strong in our middle-class background. In fact, we were meant to fly back home. Only that I flew alone.

And that wasn’t the end of everything. Over the next few days, my credit cards were canceled. My flat mates, whom I’d been close to, started asking when I’m moving out. The house contract was in my ex’s name. I felt cornered, humiliated and homeless. With no family, friends of my own, savings or a stable job, I had no choice but to go back to my parents and live comfortably in a dull town ever after.

Only I didn’t. I stayed. I don’t know what I was trying to prove. Maybe the fighter in me was protesting to the unfairness of it all. Or maybe I made the decision in a moment of insanity, against all odds and logical reasoning.

So I found a job. I made friends. And I wrote books.

The divorce papers were the last blow. The things written there utterly heartbreaking. Just ‘lawyers talk,’ he said, to get things moving quickly. I don’t know what should be more insulting – that he served me such an obvious lie or that I believed it.

I kept those papers. Not because I wanted to – but they’re something I have to show for the rest of my life. Looking at them is staring into the depths of a horrible  water. Almost mesmerizing, like watching something hideous unfold before you. Their purpose is to remind me what I mustn’t forget.

I suppose I should feel lucky that I kept some luxuries – like I said, neither divorce nor marriage are all bad. But since I received no compensation, it would be only right that I keep the nice pans and the flashy Prada phone.

It’s somehow astonishing that the girl who wept over losing the comfort of a tiny shared flat in a not-so-nice part of London now owns her own in affluent West London. Even better, she shares it with a man who’s never been to Neasden.

What you must remember in your dark time is that you aren’t the dirt others throw at you. You have to dream BIG, and you have to play BIG. Modesty is rewarded in fairy tales, but life is completely different. Too many princes who’ve got the croak, for one.  And it’s not always about fair play.

Life doesn’t always give you what you want, but it gives you what you need. Embrace change, because it might be the only way that you’ll meet someone wonderful. When you let go of your expectations you’ll discover the joy of following life on its terms. Why walk in circles when life plants you exactly where you need to be?

When I met my now husband, our relationship developed into something far more meaningful than I’d ever experienced. Nothing like the first marriage that lacked the complexity and depth of true love. Like scuba diving after learning to swim in a pool. It takes courage to plunge into the depths of love, knowing that you might never emerge.

Without sounding too pompous, it’s really nice wearing real gold after having fake gold taken from you. My engagement ring is more expensive than I’d dreamed. But the true gem is the man who held the box down on one knee on a blustery February afternoon in Paris.

Four years before, I was wondering how can LOVE ever find me in all that hate. Then suddenly time whooshed forwards and I was in Hatton Garden sitting on a velvet stool at one of the finest jewelers in London. And I’m sharing this to show you that life can be that perfectly amazing. Don’t give up on it. Don’t ever think it won’t get better.

Sometimes, to grow, to change, to heal, to start again, all we need is LOVE.

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Gabriela Harding

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Playgrounds – a Brutal Reflection of Society?

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Before I had children, I paid little attention to playgrounds. To me, they were sad little urban prisons for children, full of noise and dirt; desperately boring.

To some extent they are still exactly the same; the only difference is now I have to endure them. The first thing my son wants to do on a Saturday morning is scoot to the local park, where he sits on a sheep-shaped bench licking a horrendously artificial, BRIGHT BLUE bubblegum ice cream. We have an argument in the shop, where I try to convince him to get something more NATURAL, like strawberry or lemon. In the end I give up. I suppose they’re all as bad,and it doesn’t really matter if he looks like he drank a bottle of ink for the rest of the day. We sit there watching the kids play, while his eyes move over the playground considering the…

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Playgrounds – a Brutal Reflection of Society?

Before I had children, I paid little attention to playgrounds. To me, they were sad little urban prisons for children, full of noise and dirt; desperately boring.

To some extent they are still exactly the same; the only difference is now I have to endure them. The first thing my son wants to do on a Saturday morning is scoot to the local park, where he sits on a sheep-shaped bench licking a horrendously artificial, BRIGHT BLUE bubblegum ice cream. We have an argument in the shop, where I try to convince him to get something more NATURAL, like strawberry or lemon. In the end I give up. I suppose they’re all as bad,and it doesn’t really matter if he looks like he drank a bottle of ink for the rest of the day. We sit there watching the kids play, while his eyes move over the playground considering the day’s plan: first the climbing frame, then the swing, the slide and the rocking horses. I’m reminded of the pet pony I had as a child. My son doesn’t ride. He’s never been on a sledge or climbed a tree. When the ice cream is finished he runs along. For a while he moves from challenge to challenge, from dirty frame to greasy swing, and when he’s done he asks me if the farm I grew up on has penguins.

It was on one of these outings that I had the idea for this blog – I used the watching time for philosophical reflection. I was enjoying the sunshine and a caramel ice cream when something other than the hum of the nearby river made me look up. The ground shuddered, as under a herd of buffaloes. I barely had time to blink before the gates of the playground burst open and a crowd of school children stormed in. I was nearly knocked off my feet, while they spread around like ants, making mothers pick up their toddlers in panic. In seconds they were all over the swings, slides and seesaws, shouting and cheering while the little kids watched in wonder, their hands on their ears.

What was meant to be a blissful morning in a quiet area of London turned to chaos. The sharp squeaks of the swings on the point of breaking filled the air. Unsupervised ten year olds walked up and down the baby slides and tried to squeeze themselves into baby swings. I was reminded of the article I read in the paper about the teenager rescued by firemen from a baby swing. Why someone would want to trap themselves voluntarily into an uncomfortable piece of equipment, when there are perfectly advanced swings for older children in every playground, beats my imagination.

I lost my focus for a second and when I turned my head, a child was ordering my son to evacuate the rabbit burrow (even though he could see I was right there watching). I was just about to say something when I heard my four year old telling him NO – and it made me realise just how much a Londoner he really is. A city boy. Growing up in playgrounds gave him a knowledge of the world that I only learned much later in life.

So, I guess the question is, should playgrounds be age orientated? Should older kids be restricted from ‘younger’ playgrounds and viceversa? The council leaves this to the common sense of the parents who, in most cases, are absent – either at home, having lunch in the cafe at the other end of the park or absorbed in their smartphones.Every week, I find myself watching out for children who are ALONE in a playground. A month ago I found a two year old girl wandering by herself in an open playground while her mother was having a picnic a mile away; two weeks ago, I stopped a five year old from jumping from a ridiculously high frame because an older child had dared him to. These are the ‘ALONE’ children of the metropolis, cleaner and healthier than the Dickensian hawkers, but ALONE nonetheless. The parents will tell you that they ‘reach an age when they can go off and play’, though what that age is and how long they should be left unsupervised, is open to debate.

The downside of growing up on a farm is that it makes you see the world in a rather sarcastic light. To us, cities often seem like poor imitations of nature and all its wonders.After all, what clever artifice could replace the swings made of elastic apple branches, heavy with fragrant summer apples? What climbing frame is ever like the sleek trunks of hazelnuts?

At times, even wonderful London feels like a zoo where everyone is caged in their own tiny property,high on the illusion of freedom. Growing up, my playground was only limited by the boundaries of our land – but I rarely went that far. I remember a swing dangling above a steep little valley; swimming in the sea of gold crisp sweetcorn; the gate to my back garden opening to more fields and orchards, ending in the fabulous skyline. The only noises were the whistling of a train in the distance, the barking of a farm dog, the neighing of a horse.

My son must grow up in the wickedness of modern playgrounds. Maybe it’s part of growing up, a preparation for facing the diverse society, a lesson in war. I suppose it’s something you need to bear in exchange for city life. Isn’t London the place of all possibilities?

The problem with my idyllic childhood is that it taught me little about the real world. How could love prepare your for hate? How could the logic of a traditional family tell you anything about how illogical life really is?

My independence was the freedom of a lion cub running in a safari. It’s the city with its cubicles and fenced play areas where the real battles of the world unfold. Freedom is not a liberty, but a skill.

And maybe giving up freedom is true freedom after all.

As Carlos Castaneda said in his unforgettable ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’:

“In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”

The Dark Side of Childcare

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This summer my son turns 4, and I’m coming to the end of a financially crippling time in my life. Like many working mums in the UK, I’ve been sweating blood to pay my child’s nursery fees, calculated at an average of £1,000 per month. Even if you’re lucky enough to receive childcare vouchers from your employer, like me, or you qualify for working tax credit (I don’t), the cost of a part-time place for a child under two has increased by 32.8 per cent over the last Parliament, while wages stayed the same.

“It’s just something you’ve got to accept,” people tell you again and again, as if social injustice is a passing bout of bad weather. We live in a world where success is measured by how much you can endure in silence. There’s a fundamental difference between diplomacy and obedience. And it’s somehow a paradox that obedience…

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The Dark Side of Childcare

This summer my son turns 4, and I’m coming to the end of a financially crippling time in my life. Like many working mums in the UK, I’ve been sweating blood to pay my child’s nursery fees, calculated at an average of £1,000 per month. Even if you’re lucky enough to receive childcare vouchers from your employer, like me, or you qualify for working tax credit (I don’t), the cost of a part-time place for a child under two has increased by 32.8 per cent over the last Parliament, while wages stayed the same.

“It’s just something you’ve got to accept,” people tell you again and again, as if social injustice is a passing bout of bad weather. We live in a world where success is measured by how much you can endure in silence. There’s a fundamental difference between diplomacy and obedience. And it’s somehow a paradox that obedience is so sought after yet so bitterly despised.

You accept a stormy day, a burnt dinner. Missing a train.

You don’t accept being stripped of your right at making a living. Going back to work is a right, not a privilege you should have to BUY.

I know, all of us grumble about how expensive it is to send our kids to nursery, but for some the fees are only a small chunk of their salary. For me, however, it was crippling – at least until the extra income from my writing started coming in.

Those of you who have kids know how 24 hours shifts feel like. In many ways, I was lucky. Being supported by family meant that I had some money left at the end of the month, and even time to write. It also meant I had to accept help from my family at an age where a full time job should have made me entirely independent.

I come from a tightly knit Eastern ‘clan’, and in our culture you’re never really alone. I’ve spent next to nothing on toys or clothing, music lessons, or holidays. Having my child looked after by my in laws two days a week also gave me some relief from feeling so humiliated and helpless.

In the dark hours I had to repeat these words in my head, like a mantra:

I’m educated. I’m skilled. I can achieve things. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I have a voice. And one day everyone is going to hear it.

But while I was slipping into the poverty trap, no one seemed to care.

So I have to care. I vowed to try and change something for women who aren’t as lucky as me.

Women whose families don’t look after their children because they either can’t or won’t.

Mums who have to go to second hand shops and sift through dusty toys and clothes, despite working full time or wanting to work full time (it is estimated that at least 600,000 stay-at-home parents would prefer to work if they could afford to do so).

Mums who aren’t married. Women whose partners earn as little as them.

I’m writing this to honor those for whom motherhood means the end of their working life.

Those for whom the thought of another child is a harrowing prospect, but they do it anyway, because the clock is ticking and after all, once you get used to it, poverty isn’t really that bad.

For those who can’t afford to get depressed because even mental health is expensive to maintain ( £60 per hour, to be exact).

For the mothers who are single out of choice or circumstance, for those studying or training.

And how about the people who love their job but aren’t paid that much, like teachers and librarians and writers?

Several pieces were written about the parents’ struggle with childcare fees, but here are some statistics. The minimum national wage is £6,70 an hour, even less if you’re younger than 21. That’s about £53 for a full day’s work. Deduce tax, and you’ll be going home with barely enough money to buy your child’s nappies, let alone pay the extortionate £50 a day nursery fees.

For a lot of mums this means that it’s just not worth going back to work. If I made a wild guess, a lot of childcare workers, carers, medical technicians, lifeguards, mechanics and nurses won’t be going back to work after the birth of a child. This impacts heavily on the economy, and who might be there to take the blame but the young, the healthy and the foreign.

Let’s face it, there’s little place for breastfeeding mothers and their snotty breed in the brutal world of business –  a world for the fit, the white, the rich and the male.

I know there are many judges among you, and you will say, well, they should’ve had an education. Work harder, be more driven.

How about those who can’t afford a higher education? How about those who don’t even want one? A society where there are more chiefs than Indians is simply not realistic.

And the educated? There’s the famous case of Jack Monroe, the food writer reduced to begging when she became a single mother, and we all know J.K. Rowling’s modern Cinderella story.

Besides, what would we do without waitresses and nurses and receptionists?

Why are they being pushed to the bottom by something that should be the most natural thing in the world?

Parenthood is not a disease. Still, for many, it’s an unbelievable luxury, and the expense of it – the reason why they start a family late or not at all.

We are all equal, until we get a childcare bill that some can pay and others can’t.

You can change this NOW. You can speak out. You can share your story and join the campaign by signing the petition below.

http://www.womensequality.org.uk/childcare

Next week my son officially finishes nursery. A whole month earlier than planned, but the family are helping, and like I said, we are a strong clan.

It’s been a bumpy ride. Four years ago, I didn’t think politics was my cup of tea. I was a writer and a dreamer.

I’m still a writer. Even more of a dreamer. But somewhere along the way I shed my baby skin.

I know little of wars but my words are my swords.

And wherever they take me, I’m headed that way.

Dear Emilies

This week I sat at my desk and wrote a speech on bullying. I was invited to an event – a book fair – where besides signing books and meeting a bunch of interesting authors, illustrators and publishers, I planned to do something inspirational: talk to young adults about coping with the dark reality of bullying.

Arriving at the church hall, I was Alladin walking into a wondrous cave: all around me was the smell of freshly printed books, paper and ink, and the crescendo of so many cultured voices was the best music I could hope for. Somewhere in between a war veteran selling his memoirs and a widely published author of twenty five children’s books, was a stall bearing my name. And, even if instead of setting up all I wanted to do was do a round of all the other stalls and buy everything in sight, for a moment I stopped and thought.

I thought of the friends who made me feel as if I’d never achieve anything. Twenty years ago, I would myself have laughed at the thought of walking into a hall where my own books would be sold, in a stylish London suburb. That I’d be a wife and mother, own my own West London flat, and have REAL friends would have sounded like impossible dreams. Just the thought of it would make my bullies roll on the floor in fits of laughter. Yes, they were that nasty. But I bet none of them is laughing now, not because they’re awed that I’ve made something of myself, but because they’ve forgotten all about me. They moved on to the next weak victim; I’m no longer a target; not to THOSE bullies anyway.

The twelve year old me would have been enchanted by the vision of a future where she meant something. It’s in memory of her that I’m writing this blog post.

Graduating from University, my confidence was still shaken after failing to find a job in the elitist Bucharest workforce. I moved to London from the naive belief that the West offered justice, equality and protection from the bully dragons. And after yet another failure, I sank into the deepest pit of despair. Maybe THEY had been right. Maybe I was really worthless, and they simply had the insight to see it straight away.

What I didn’t understand was that my fight with the bullies had not ended. In fact, it was only just beginning; I’d never had the confidence to challenge them before. And victims never win.

I still recall the feeling of devastation when, barely two years after my wedding, I walked the streets of London looking for something – anything – to distract me from the loss that was eating me inside. I had not only lost my best friend, but also the little confidence I had, my dignity; I was running a knife through a centuries-old web of traditional marriages. I would always remain the first woman in my family to get divorced.

I’ll always remember that year. I was twenty five years old. It was the year I started writing professionally. You see, writing stories is even better than reading them. I’d never feel lonely or empty again. Storytelling was my miraculous gift. As long as I had a story inside me, I was both immortal and invincible.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote.

To quote one of my favourite authors,

“Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.”

I joined a writing group. As I read my first story aloud, I felt my head would explode – but I found that there, between the cozy, book lined walls of the local library, no one misunderstood my words. No one thought I was different, or inadequate. I was accepted for who I was. And accepting myself came as easy as my next story.

As I was setting up my stall, Emily came to my mind. When she approached me, I felt like talking to the old me – the teenager I have so much to apologise for.

For not believing in her. For forcing her to conform. For not listening to her voice.

Our conversation brought back a whole lot of memories from my own school days, when I was ridden with the constant guilt of not belonging. Her fears were mine; so was her shine – the hope and strength born from courage and injustice. It makes it so much easier for bullies to target you when you’re different. No matter your talent, whether you’re a writer, an artist, a musician, if you have something that the world doesn’t understand, you are put under scrutiny and made to feel like the fish who couldn’t climb the wall.

What I told this young girl – who, by the way, is a talented, award winning dancer – I told her that, actually, it’s okay to be different. Being different is not being inadequate. I warned her that, sadly, bullying won’t necessarily stop at school. Everywhere you go, you’ll have to deal with people who make it their life goal to belittle you – people who will see you through the ugliness inside them. Whether you’re thirteen or thirty five, you’ll have to fight them off with your core strength, the same thing that they’re attempting to weaken in their mean and mediocre ways. Whether it’s your talent, your faith or simply the gift of kindness, this is what lifts you above them. And this is something you must remember, dear Emilies.

You’re above them. Remember your worth. And remember THEIRS.

I have a message for the bullies, too. Envisage this.

You’re alone on a stage, in the crude spotlight. The spotlight is not something you love. You may be small, but you have good instincts, and they tell you that you’re not something people want to see. Your comfort lies in the dark dusty rat holes. You love shadows and corners. But now, the holes are blocked, all the corners flooded by light. The only door you want open – the exit door – is bolted.

And then the audience you failed to entertain starts booing.

Breaking through the crowd is more difficult than you think. You wish you were just another face in the crowd. As part of a gang, you were powerful. But because your friends are exactly like you, you sink alone. You have nothing to give. You crouch somewhere. A snail out of its shell: spineless, defenseless, small.

And then you realise with horror that you stand in a shadow – the shadow of a foot. You look horrified into your own monstrous face. You barely have time to register your fate before the foot makes a sickening crunching sound.

And if you’re really a bully, if you’re reading this, you won’t even know I’m talking about you.

So, that’s why I’m writing books. To be a voice for the children. A voice for the frightened children inside bullied adults.

‘Santa Claws’ is a story about coming of age – a tale about a girl who learns that things get better only to get worse again. Just like night follows day, so do unfortunate events follow moments of happiness. Tragedies are pearls of wisdom meant to strengthen and teach us.

I model my female heroines, such as mischievous Honey Raymond, or Eliza Vissarion in my new young adult novel, on myself as a teen – a time I sometimes feel trapped into. I’ve never really lost the zest, the courage, the spirit of rebellion or the hunger for adventure; these are things that help me go back in time and speak with my fourteen year old voice. Honey and Eliza are characters who start off by feeling inadequate, only to find their own better way in the world. They are curious and question everything, especially authority and stupid rules. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they turn into adults like me, wanderers and dreamers, fighting battles not for the taste of power, but in the spirit of justice. The feeling of being separate will stay with them for a lifetime. They’ll learn to embrace it.

And they’ll be forever fighting evil monsters. After all, what would stories be like without monsters?

 

Note: My anti-bullying speech has been published on the TSL Publications website.

http://tslbooks.uk/a-letter-from-gabriela-harding-to-emilies/
 

 

 

 

 

The Princess (Knight)

The Princess-Knight is one of my favourite picture books.

I wanted to be a knight for as long as I can remember.

My oldest dream. My strangest dream.

There was only one problem: I was a girl. I was meant to wear hair garlands and grow my nails.

One of my first memories is seeing the president executed by firing squad.

There was so much blood and people were cheering and clapping. The sky was full of fireworks and the blasts of the machine guns I’d been hearing for more nights than I could then count had stopped.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s that early childhood event that triggered my love of murder mysteries. Maybe I wanted to understand how death can have so many faces, and how could wrong and right be the two sides of the same coin.

Up until I turned six and my parents had to drag me to school in a stiff uniform and itchy white tights, I lived with my maternal grandparents on a vast country estate in Southern Romania. We had a vineyard, and one of my best memories is lying in the tall grass, in the shade of the wild apple trees, on the sun-drenched hills. Or reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my reading hut, where I sneaked with an old blanket to read by candlelight.

The grapes were the best I’d ever tasted. The wine was even better. And I was always covered in bloody scratches from trying to rich the fattest blackberries right in the heart of the thorny bushes.

I still long for my grandparents. My grandmother, a carer and a dressmaker, made rose petal jams and loved fried fish and melons. My grandfather, an ex military pilot, watchmaker, and silversmith, often stayed up all night to read books.

As a child, I didn’t have a set bedtime, I could pick up any book I wanted and, from a young age, I was part of a wine culture that only wine makers really understand. We made wine. We sold wine. And we LOVED wine.

After a bliss childhood in the country, there came the nightmare of city life. I hated the cement shapes people called homes and the absence of trees left me gasping for air. I was like a fish on shore – my every breath was a dying grunt.

Then came the EVEN WORSE things. I was made to wear tight shoes, and there wasn’t enough grass in the new cement world to dip my feet into. I had to leave my pets behind: my cats, my dogs, my ducklings. And, worst of all, I had to go to school.

My parents were much stricter than my grandparents had been. My mother was a teacher, my father an engineer and footballer. He would soon follow a lifelong aspiration and become a successful football referee.

Private tuition was probably the worst part of my punishment. I was a six year old who recited French rhymes, a ten year old who wrote stories in English, but not even the sharpest mathematicians could grant me entrance in the world of algebra and geometry. I simply dreaded Maths.

I dreaded school. Mostly because it never ended. All through primary school, my tutors were my playmates. Several teachers told my mother that I was showing some mild inclination towards languages and writing. And she has been encouraging me to follow this dream ever since.

Writing came easy to me. I started with poems. I joined a writing group and a drama class. I had my first poem published when I was 13. At 16, I had completed an entire collection of poems and sent it to a national competition, without mentioning my age.

To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, I won the first prize.

It was the second time I’d earned money for writing. Little did I know that I’d have to wait a long time to start earning from writing again.

But then, I was full of hope. I was an aspiring movie director. I dropped out at the last minute, choosing English Literature instead. It was a bit of a last option. A kind of punishment for not being brave enough.

It was a decision I regretted for many years, but I tell myself that it doesn’t matter – because I found my path anyway.

And that road took me to London.

Up until then, my parents were the driving force behind everything I did. They had the right connections. They knew the right things to do in any situation, the right people and the right places.

But they weren’t right about EVERYTHING.

They were wrong about ME. Just as I was wrong about them.

See, I was able to survive on my own, out of my comfort zone. I could earn my own money and make sensible decisions.

I wasn’t a princess. I was a warrior.

And they were able to love me despite not following in their footsteps. Despite being a princess-knight after all.

Eleven years later, I am the published author of a children’s novel and numerous articles and short stories. I have another novel on the way – yes, a murder mystery.

I love working from the comfort of my duvet, ignoring the rumbling and shattering sounds coming from my broom cupboard, where Christmas decorations, golf clubs and boxes of clutter huddle together in a very artistic mess.

So, this is me.

I haven’t always been a writer.

In fact I used to keep my badly typed stories in the same closet with the clothes I loved but didn’t dare to wear.

Because I thought I wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough.

Because I thought being me is wrong.

Because I thought someone as shy and insecure as me would only get laughed at.

I still worry about that sometimes.

But now I care less about pleasing others and more about being happy.

I was afraid of being a writer.

What I didn’t know is that I already was one.

While I was too busy fighting a war with God, I was holding the key to the life I wanted.

So one day I took a big breath and opened a door. And then another. And another.

I am still opening doors – cursed to forever enter rooms and not settle in any of them; wandering in search of new stories, new emotions, new truths.

Writing the end line is not THE END, just like writing the first line of a novel is just one of many beginnings. Sometimes I’m simply in search of something I want to long. And this curse and blessing are, like life and death, the two faces of the same coin.

I hope one of them will be YOUR door. And I hope that I’ll stay long enough that you find something in me you’ve been looking for.

Something that will make you turn the page. Now that is, in truth, my greatest wish.