With: Caroline (born 1973 in Scotland, Vale of Levan Maternity Hospital!)
Date: 15 July 2016
Where: Longleat, Wiltshire
I met Caroline at the Better Days for Moria refugee camp on Lesbos in early 2016. The one and only time I was late for my (1am) shift I arrived at about 3am having over-slept and feeling even more disoriented than usual. I seem to remember I was irritated about something (perhaps the weather, which was often very bad during the period I was volunteering, making getting up at midnight even more unpleasant than it would otherwise have been!), and made a rather expletive-filled entrance to the clothing tent that night. The other volunteers were sitting on the floor trying to pour shampoo into tiny bottles for 'toiletries packs' for camp residents. Recognising me as a cyclist from the yellow panniers hanging from my hands, the first thing Caroline - for whom it was the first shift at that particular camp - said to me was 'you can come to my apartment for shower if you like, and I have a washing machine'. I'm not sure if it was the smell of me, or what, that gave away I'd been camping in an olive grove behind a remote chapel for several weeks already. Anyway, I knew at that moment we were destined to be friends.
It turned out that Caroline, like me, retired from conventional work in her late 30s and has been doing quite a bit of volunteering in Greece as well as work in her local community in Wiltshire. She and her husband are keen cyclists; in fact Neil was at that time cycling to Greece to join Caroline. I became an immediate admirer of her hard work and can-do attitude, as we worked together over a period of several nights to tackle the notorious 'back of the tent' no-go-zone, which had become a dumping ground for anything short-term volunteers couldn't be bothered to sort. And for stray dogs. Eww. I also liked the fact that, unlike many of the other volunteers, Caroline understood my disdain for the very binary gendered ethos in the clothing distribution tent, particularly in relation to children's clothes. When children are wet, tired and disoriented they need just. need. warm. clothes.
Anyway. A few days after our first shift together I took Caroline for lunch at a taverna (grilled octopus tentacles and fresh beetroot, amongst other things!) to thank her for allowing me to wash myself and my clothes. We had a wonderful conversation about cycle touring and Caroline invited me to visit them in Wiltshire later in the year.
And what a visit that turned out to be! On my first evening at their lovely thatched cottage Caroline and I went for a short stroll through pine woods to a viewpoint overlooking the Longleat Estate. I was interested to hear about the colourful reputation of Lord Bath, who since the 60s has - allegedly - maintained a significant number of (now ageing) former concubines in cottages around the village. This led to a short conversation about relationship styles, and then to another about adult attachment styles (not the same thing). It struck me that the judgments Caroline sometimes received in the past about her long-term preference (prior to meeting Neil) for an independent lifestyle are typical of the way women in particular are seen as questionable or incomplete without a partner with whom they are, preferably, domestically enmeshed. I told Caroline my solohood is a positive and entirely deliberate choice, and that I don't believe solohood necessarily equals avoidance of intimacy as some people claim. In fact, the way I have things set up nowadays means I actually get more of my needs (both for intimacy and solitude) met more of the time than I did in the past. That said, many people - of all relationships styles - do find intimacy hard, for reasons that often relate to their families of origin. We talked more about this later in the evening over dinner with Neil.
From the viewpoint we walked down into the estate itself where we sat on a bench for a better look at the animals. Caroline had just finished telling me that she's supposed to carry her residents' card inside the estate but they never check, when up pulled a very relaxed security person who seemed satisfied with Caroline's apology that she didn't have her card.
We ambled slowly back to the cottage only to find Neil packing his hot-air balloon into the back of his van. 'Hurry!' he said, 'I've been waiting for you. The conditions are perfect to take the balloon up!' About three-quarters of an hour later I was experiencing my first ever hot-air balloon flight! The height, combined with the silence - interrupted only by short blasts from the burner - makes ballooning a very 'me' mode of transport! After helping us get airborne in an unhelpfully gusting breeze Caroline did her best to follow us in the car. We came down about an hour later just west of Salisbury Plain in a farmer's field next to a very posh house, whose residents were less than impressed. When I told Lady Flimflam, quite truthfully, that I could not give her Neil's full name or mobile number she asked 'What on EARTH are you doing going up in a hot-air balloon with a man you don't even know?' Later Neil told me that during the flight he'd suddenly noticed the badge on my cap: 'Is this a date?'
Thank you Caroline for inviting me to visit and for your warm hospitality, and thank you Neil for an unforgettable, wholly unexpected 40th birthday 'date'!