Encounters of the random kind

I seem to attract odd people, or at least odd situations – there was the woman who whacked me at Oxford Circus, and the incident of the naked women on the toilet with the door open at the gym, to name but two.

In the last couple of weeks there appears to have been a sudden prevalence of these encounters, in fact the three chronicled below all happened in the space of 24 hours. I wonder whether I have some beacon on my head that attracts such things…

1. The tourist photo shoot
In the defence of these total strangers, we were in Hyde Park, there was snow on the ground and the sun was starting to set – all those things combine to produce a near perfect photo opportunity. A man stopped me as I trudged through the snowy fields (deliberately ignoring the dry path – who wouldn’t want to tramp on snow?) and asked in broken English if I’d take a photo of him and his friend. Once I’d realised he wasn’t trying to mug me (ever a typical Londoner) I was happy to, and took a couple. So far, not so weird…

…Then the guy stood next to me and indicated to his friend that he should take a photo of the two of us. I’m wondering if it was the presence of the matching purple ski-jacket/purple wellies combo that attracted him? Anyway, for some reason, two guys are going to be returning from their London jaunt with an odd photo of a purple girl standing in the snow.

2. The French school boys
Firstly, this took place less than half an hour after the photo-shoot. Secondly, it also involved tourists (the bane of the Londoners life – particularly mine, as I appear to be the perfect person to ask for directions). Outside Hyde Park, two French teenagers approached me with matchsticks. Being a cynical Londoner, I was expecting a scam  – what I ended up with was my participation in an English conversation class. Apparently the boys’ teacher had challenged them to approach total strangers and engage them in conversation about matchsticks. I guess that’s one way of forcing them to use their English vocab – when we visited France as school girls we simply practised by going to boulangeries and buying croissants (or, if we were feeling adventurous, pain au chocolat). Anyway, I did not accept their offer of buying matchsticks for 15p.

3. The woman in the steam room
The first rule of steam rooms (and saunas) is that YOU DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS IN THEM! Seriously, why are people unaware of this fact?? The only time I’ve ever chatted in a steam room was when my friend Claire and I had a mini-spa day and basically chatted our way around the venue – but we were not strangers and there was no one else there to disturb. This doesn’t stop certain people though, a while ago I had the very uncomfortable experience of watching a woman try to flirt with a guy in the sauna, she really didn’t know when to give up.

Relaxing in the steam room after a swim, I replied politely when a woman asked me if I’d had a good swim – but this encouraged her. On asked whether I just swam or counted lengths, I replied that I’d just swum 50, which elicited an exclamation of “But darling! That’s phenomenal!” [It really isn’t, it’s not an Olympic sized pool.] Silent, apart from a brief “thanks”, seemed to suggest to her that I wasn’t up for chatting. However, once out of the room and gathering my things together, we got into a conversation about the water temperature versus the outside temperature (and the ridiculousness of the gym to have a hose blasting cold water into a warm pool during sub-zero daytime temperatures). For some reason she took it upon herself to emphasise that I must make sure I dried my hair properly before I left – to which I replied that I’d made that mistake once, but never again. “But darling! You could have died!!” That could be a slight exaggeration…

Needless to say, I find total strangers referring to me as ‘darling’ very bizarre.

When the going gets tough…

I’m angry. Almost (but not quite) hurling things around the room angry. But I’m not going to write about it (I’ll internalise it as usual and gradually turn more and more bitter and twisted…) instead, I’ll write about what I do when I get angry – burn off energy.

I have a love/hate relationship with running. I know it’s very good for me and tones my body in a way that a lot of other exercise doesn’t, but I hate how much it hurts and how awful a bad run can be. A great run is fabulous; a bad run is utterly dispiriting.

Thanks to a running injury over 6 years ago (I love that I have an actual ‘running injury’! Sounds fancy, though it’s only a recurring incidence of ankle tendinitis.) I’d almost entirely abandoned outdoor running, favouring very occasional speedy moments on the treadmill. Since the end of the summer gym running has increased in an effort to tone up a bit more. However, the looming prospect of more impoverished times when extortionate gym membership might not be feasible have made me wonder if I should start taking outdoor runs again – after all, it’s completely free.

So on Saturday, discovering that I didn’t have enough time for the gym, I decided to brave it in the park. All was well and good – the weather was fine, I had the motivation (plus a phone call that made me angry on someone else’s behalf, so there was even more energy to burn) – my only qualm being that I wasn’t sure how to carry all my stuff…

Thing is, when you’re running au natural, there’s no handy little cubby hole in which to place your iPod and water bottle and no locker in which to leave the other essentials like phones and house keys. Back in the day when I ran round Gloucester Park it wasn’t so much of an issue – iPods were the domain of rich people and there was usually someone at home to let me back in. These days, an iPod is as essential to a decent run as a pair of trainers, and you can’t leave a front door unlocked in Bermondsey.

Thus, I did what any sensible social networker would do – I consulted Twitter. In return I got a couple of sensible responses and a hugely embarrassing moment. It went something like this:

Liz: Lack of time means outdoor run instead of gym – only question is, how do I carry my keys etc? Never before have I wished I had a bum-bag…
Kate: I always carry keys in my hand when I run. I do keep meaning to invest in jogging trousers with decent pockets. [Eminently sensible – just what I needed.]
Jon: I have the same dilemma.A bum bag or fanny pack as the Americans would say is simply not an option for a macho man like me. [This might be a good moment to mention that I don’t know this Jon person, but we communicate via Twitter – I find this slightly odd, but I believe it’s the whole point of the concept.]
Liz: Right. Following 2 distracting (but v important) phone calls, I’m off for a run, keys in hand and iPod in bra.
Jon: Nor is the bra option I might add.
Matt: Re-tweets the above bra-related tweet. Then writes: I’m afraid I really didn’t mean to RT that! Sorry! Meant to reply to say I momentarily misread iPod as iPad. V worrying. [Matt is a good – and married – friend, albeit with a slight warped sense of humour and fat fingers…]

Never again am I tweeting anything about my bra…
(Plus, I’m not entirely sure if a guy even momentarily thinking I might fit an iPad in my bra is a good thing?)

In actual fact, the keys ended up in my bra too (the bottle of water stayed in my right hand, sports bras really aren’t that capacious); it’s amazing sometimes how being a woman has its advantages! However, before any future outdoor runs are contemplated, I will be making a trip to the fabulous Decathlon to purchase joggers with zipped pockets and some kind of iPod carrying device (and probably a new sports bra while I’m at it).

And a note on running music. Good gym playlists are essential – mine is (of course) eclectic, consisting of music that I both like and has good rhythm, while possibly being more than a little cheesy (I confess that there is more than one S Club track in the mix). Last month a friend gave me an entirely unexpected gift (I can say with some confidence that he’d not bought me a present since 2005) of 101 Running Songs. It’s a genius collection of excellent gym accompaniment, including two classic Journey tracks, the Proclaimers, a little Britney, some Blondie, my all-time-favourite Wham tune as well as some of the more acceptable dance tracks. It’s done wonders for my running capabilities – practically every run in the last four weeks has been an excellent one.

The etiquette of getting naked with colleagues

I’ve often wondered how people with workplace gyms cope with seeing their colleagues at inopportune moments – sweaty on a treadmill, doing an inelegant stretch, mid-change of clothes, in the sauna, in the shower…depending on your colleagues (and your own appearance), it can’t be a good thing.

[Incidentally, nor is running into colleagues in your pyjamas. At this year’s Greenbelt I was emerging from my tent first thing in the morning – in pj’s & bedhair – when a voice said “Liz! George thought it was you and it is!” and I discovered two colleagues were camped in adjacent tents. I had to watch my tongue and my outfits for the rest of the weekend.]

This morning I appeared almost naked in front of a colleague – but it’s ok because…
(i) I had a swimsuit on
(ii) It was a colleague who isn’t likely to get lecherous

Swimming with people is a risky business as it’s quite literally frightfully exposing. It’s not something to be done with male friends you’re remotely attracted to and even hanging out in a sauna with a good female friend is a little daunting.

Staying at a hotel with a pool last night, the plan this morning was to have a swim before breakfast and a vague time was arranged. In a fit self-consciousness, I decided to make my way down early so that I’d already be in the water when colleague arrived. Thankfully, colleague seriously overslept and I was in the jacuzzi after completing my 40 lengths by the time he appeared. I’m pretty sure he was then more interested in his own swim than the sight of me walking from jacuzzi to sauna to steam room and back to the jacuzzi again.

Occasionally I complain that my office didn’t install a gym/pool/hot-tub when it had a major refurbishment two years ago. Then I remember moments like today’s and realise that really, my colleagues are the last people I want to be sharing a changing room with. Sometimes perfect strangers are just, well, perfect.

Postscript on Saturday morning:
Last night’s accommodation was in an old university college in the north of England. Quaint rooms but no en suite facilities. Somehow I hadn’t fully realised this when packing and therefore didn’t have my most communal bathroom friendly PJs with me. Even worse, my neighbours weren’t office colleagues, they were a collection of national ‘experts’ (in a field that I’m definitely not an expert in).

I figured I could possibly make it to the shower and back without being spotted, but failed on both counts – jumping spectacularly when I opened the shower door to leave and bumped into one of my fellow delegates (she was in slightly more respectable PJs, I just had a towel on…plus she was at least someone I’d been drinking with the night before). Next time, I’m bringing a dressing gown.

The best things in life are free

It’s not often in life that you get really good stuff that costs absolutely nothing – especially in London. True, we get a fair number of free live events (West End Live being a favourite) and a certain amount of tat handed out at train stations, but otherwise it’s pretty much the most expensive place you could live.

When you do stumble across an excellent freebie it therefore tastes all the sweeter. Who’d have thought that I’d manage to get a morning at a delightful spa utterly gratis? Plus, any of you people reading this in Britain could benefit too. All I had to do was hand over the lid from a water bottle and voila!

Yes…a water bottle lid.
Not any old water bottle – Schweppes Abbey Well (available in both still and sparkling). It’s not the most common brand, but I’ve found it in my local newsagent and it was the water provided at Conference last week (I went round collecting lids from unattended bottles, I’m a total menace).

Schweppes currently have a promotion (amusingly named Schwim Free) which enables you to have a free swim at selected pools across the country, Monday to Friday. The cunning thing is that some of the pools are in rather swanky health centres, so you can get on to quite a good deal.

The friend who introduced me to this scheme had discovered a particularly classy venue in Canon Street, complete with decent pool (we did 40+ lengths before doing anything else), jacuzzis, steam rooms, saunas, relaxation area and a balcony adjacent to the river. Beautiful. A particularly amazing facility was a jacuzzi in which you lay on a submerged sun lounge type thing and were then pummelled with jets of water. An utterly delicious experience. Definitely the perfect way to start my final day off, especially when accompanied by a friend you can natter with in the steam room, sauna and while lying on sun loungers…if only there’d been a cocktail waiter too.

Sadly not hi-res, but that would be the laned pool. On the left is the jacuzzi with the loungers in, below is another, smaller pool. Directly opposite is the ‘relaxation area’. Yummy. 

A word of warning: some of the venues have very specific times when the offer is available, so check thoroughly before you try it out. But, I’ve had a bit of a look around a few locations (other bits of London, Tewks and Brum) and there are other spa-associated pools, so it’s definitely worth investigating.

Near disenfranchisement owing to fire

Thursday’s trip to the gym was already proving blog-worthy, thanks to the conversation I walked in on as I entered the studio:
“…it’s good. You know how Original Mint Source shower gel feels? Well, it’s even better than that…”
I have no idea what the two men were talking about, but I’d love to know what manages to surpass the tingly feeling that particular brand of shower gel induces!

Twenty minutes into my bike ride, with my iPod turned up loud to drown out the studio music, a trainer tapped on my shoulder and pointed out that the fire alarm had been sounding for some time and I needed to get out. We traipsed out of the gym and up the steps to the streets as instructed, passing through a cloud of smoke as we did so. This was no false alarm, there was an actual fire.

Dozens of us were left standing on the pavement, clutching only what we’d taken into the studio. In my case this was my gym kit (vest top and cropped joggers), iPod and book. Everything else, including my towel, phone, keys, oyster card & purse was locked inside a locker in the changing rooms. Needless to say, during an arctic first week of May I was rather chilly – chilly and embarrassed in fact. My gym’s rather centrally located, so our evacuation point was opposite both a major train station and one of London’s top tourist attractions. I don’t plan my gym outfit for its attractiveness, it’s solely practical and not meant for public consumption.

Anyway, I felt less conspicuous when I spotted the women in towels. Yes, the answer to the question ‘what do you do if you’re in the shower and the fire alarm goes off?’ is ‘you put on a towel and head outside’. Poor things. (The towels aren’t generous in size either…)

We were only (only?) on the street for half an hour, before being moved to a moderately warmer bit of the building. At this point we were warned that it might be some time before we got back into the gym (the fire brigade hadn’t been able to locate the source of the smoke – worrying), but that anyone who wanted to continue training could head over to the other branch down the road – how very helpful. My main fear at that point was that I wouldn’t get home in time to vote, kicking myself for not voting in the morning. [Though my midday political epiphany changed how I voted – this is an entirely separate story.]

So, we sat in the corridor for what seemed an eternity. I was still cold, but buried myself in my book to try and forget about it. Thank goodness for reading on exercise bikes, otherwise I’d have been severely traumatised. (Shame the book in question was a definite children’s book, but thanks Becki for the loan!) At one point there was the possibility we’d be unable to get in that night and I was facing the prospect of being locked out of my flat till 10.30pm, with no food and no means of buying any, clad in just a vest and shorts. (Though I could have voted, that would’ve used up some time.)

In the end, it was 7pm when we got back in – only an hour after the evacuation, but a very long hour. Barely taking the time to do more than throw all my stuff into my bag, I left as quickly as possibly and caught the train home. Talking to my mother on the phone, I realised that I was in fact on a train that I’d probably have caught if I’d done my full workout, so hadn’t lost any time at all.

It was 7.20 when I joined the queue at the polling station and I cast my vote 15minutes later. I probably needn’t have panicked, but I’d have hated to have democracy snatched from my grasp through no fault of my own – like these poor people.

Oh and as for my public dignity, I cast that to the wind and voted whilst still wearing my gym kit, with just my jacket over the top, such is my dedication to the democratic process.