Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Girls Away...

                                                            Ducks and beers cooling...

I wrote this article for Next magazine a couple of years ago and they paid me for it but never published it. Odd, because its usually the other way around! So given that I had done a bit of research it seems daft to have it sitting on my hard drive gathering pixelated dust. So here it is- its quite long so you may want to sit down with a cuppa, or a glass of wine and soak it up. I'm all in favour of relaxing!

Girls Away

For some years now, I have listened with disguised envy masquerading as bored indifference to women friends talk about their girl’s weekends away. Some have chosen to traverse mountains, some cycle for miles, some lounge about on beaches or venture to decadently expensive health spas and in the case of one friend, go skinny dipping and take turns bathing in a claw foot bath outside, heated by manuka fueled flames. Deliciously toasted sirens under the stars. How I longed to be one or any of them. I loathe tramping and pedaling but quite like the idea of total immersion in hot water. In any case, all groups seemed to have one thing in common. Gossiping, eating and drinking copious amounts of wine. I could do that…if only I was invited. And there lay my problem; whilst all shared the fabulous highlights of their togetherness; no-one seemed to notice that I’d be quite a good sport on the next outing. I’d even muffle my whingeing whilst hauling my ass up a saddle, or even onto a saddle. Thrown right back to my schooldays where the best and most popular girls dissected the latest weekend party; who fell through which ranch slider door and then into bed with the hottest and wealthiest boy on the block, I miserably resigned myself to the league of ladies who luck out. In the girly weekend away stakes that is. Until this weekend; you see, I have just joined the ranks of the women who can flaunt their social superiority and say…’I had a great few days away with some girlfriends.’

Girls might be stretching the age boundaries a little. We were all in the demographic for an evening out at Menopause the Musical. And this was no hair and makeup fest. The laciest thing I threw on was my knickers. Over that went board shorts, vest and a thermal fleece, all topped off with sensible walking shoes. Because walk I did, down a cliff, through bush and ferns to wade across a swamp and along a steep shore to the bach which ran on 12 volt batteries. My hairdryer was immediately redundant, but I didn’t moan once. Instead I enjoyed a few days in the company of two fine women, walking, talking, rowing and reading in the heart of New Zealand. The scenery was spectacular, the old bach very comfortable, the lake surprisingly warm, but what made the holiday was the way we kept company. We were three very different people. A freelance creative, married with teenaged children, a widowed alternative health practitioner with a passion for horses and an engineer with highly technical skills, especially when it came to outboard motors, thank God. Given that our ordinary lives differed so much in content and priority, what was it that had the ‘girly’ weekend work out?
I put aside my former feelings of exclusion from other women’s groups and decided to ask a few women about their own holidays with the gals.

From my extensive research (five flat whites in a café whilst gossiping), I found that we all had the same thing in common. The preparing and the making of food and the consumption of it, with or without alcohol was a binding factor. Men may fire up the barbie and knock the tops off stubbies as they fry up a feast (fishing works up an appetite) but women discuss the menu possibilities of beef on the turn, pitted prunes and wilted celery. They chop, dice and swap methods for dealing with the aubergine, the ex partner and hot flushes. They pour in the left over Pinot and administer acupuncture to the wrist that was bruised in landing the boat. They stir the pot and complement the chefs, all of them. And when the day is done, the food is shared with generosity and good spirit. “Sharing food, eating together; breaking bread; it’s a kind of communion.”

The abundance of food and vino is common and, says Rose, vital. “Massively over cater, thinking that you’ll have more time to consume it than you’ve ever had before. In reality, you often end up going to bed at 8pm, but it’s important to know it’s all on tap. It’s about plenty and availability.” For Mary and her friends, cuisine is a focus; “Collecting lovely local food, like fresh farm eggs, farm-grown mushrooms and wine. We’re real foodies and one of us is a chef.”  A handy person indeed to have along, but not always the case.

 “Patience is a good trait to bring to a GWA (girls weekend away), as seven mothers often have fixed ways of doing things- even peeling carrots” says Sally, who is a veteran GWA devotee. She and her group organise walks through National parks, some of which have been catered but others not. “We also do our own catering to accommodate those less flush amongst us.” This goes for accommodation too; “On our recent trip, several of us slept outside. No tent, and absolutely amazing stars!” A GWA doesn’t necessarily mean an outrageously expensive retreat. These women and their friends have stayed in tents, caravans, old farm houses, communal bunk rooms in DOC huts, a barn in an olive grove and even a renovated church. They move in packs of three or more, with eight generally being the upper limit and composed of a variety of women, mostly of long association. Old flatmates, student buddies, book club members, playcentre and kindy mums (though the kids are all teens now). But it’s not mandatory to have a history. Claire organized a group of 11 for the Tora walk. “We didn’t all know each other at the start but since the walk we have had 5 reunion dinners!!!”

I asked them what was top of their lists to pack, and expecting an itemized list of books, undies and wine varietals, I was surprised by the result. Respect was the universal answer. “Be yourself and respect everyone else and who they are. Humanity is a binding factor- or is that the wrong word? We need a new one!”  How about ‘hu-woman-ty’ then? Because these weekends seem to be about more than just eating, drinking and reading books.

Rose:  “In my 20’s it was all about getting ridiculously drunk, finding a local pub and checking out the talent. We talked about sex, sex and sex. Now it’s all about bath bombs, face masks and slippers and spiritual intimacy. It’s the new embarrassment- letting others know what you believe in. We’ve all done sex; none of us has done dying…yet.” The big issues can be raised in a non- judgmental environment, to be pondered upon with differing views celebrated.

Christina: “I think these weekends should be an essential in any girls, women's life. No matter what the weekend involves is irrelevant - it is the cohesiveness, bonding and sharing that happens during it that is important. To go away with and be with a group of women who share your values and ideals (or not), listen to your dreams, care for you, laugh with you - most importantly laugh a lot with you (at you is ok too!). To be with others who understand you and if not understand you, at least accept and respect you and to have fun, laugh with and relax with them is like a health spa for the soul.”

Laughing and relaxing are well known rest cures and GWA’s provide plenty of opportunity for both. Anecdotes abounded, my favourite one being the mental image of a group of hot, tired women, weary after a long hike throwing off all their clothes except for tramping boots and jumping into the nearest body of water. Then someone loses her glasses and they all bend over to search for them. One can just imagine the DOC worker rounding a corner, looking for Old Man’s Beard to eradicate and finding something else entirely!  And then the group who went to a lavender farm with a fence to get over. The physio (who had small athletic gazelle-like daughters at Playcentre) leapt over it with ease and was halfway across the field when the journalist (with a son who preferred to sit at the playdough table) declared she was stuck. “It struck us as very amusing that this was a situation of ‘like mother like child’ and that we didn’t always know aspects of each other’s lives or character (who could climb fences or couldn’t).”

Claire: “The loveliest moment was us all in a straight line on towels on the deserted beach at sunset reading 100 year old mags drinking champagne. I think the fact that it was 3 nights was good as it gave you a real separation from the family. There’s no point in going with the kids.”

And what of the children? Given that it can be a military operation to organise a weekend away without them, can you sneak a small child into the packing?
Rose: “Sometimes we’ve taken our offspring, especially if there’s baby in tow. It’s chaos of course, but easier with three or four other women at 2pm with a glass of wine. The motto is: it doesn’t half the work but definitely halves the pain!”

Mary, now with teenagers said of her earlier GWA experiences. “Children weren’t encouraged but we accepted that for busy women especially those who worked full-time it wasn’t always possible to leave the children at home. The times children came, they were brought by women who worked full-time and/or travelled as part of their jobs and they needed to make contact with their kids that particular weekend or the children involved were especially young. One time, a woman brought her 12-year-old son who was delighted by the fields around the barn we were staying in and spent the weekend playing cricket by himself! It was like he wasn’t there. For Playcentre GWA’s kids were forbidden! We spent our Playcentre lives in and around children and wanted a weekend completely without them.”

For the women I talked to, the motherhood experience was a common binding factor. But it can also be the one to drive the group apart. “You cannot tell others how to parent,” warns Rose. So what else can’t you do?

Have over the top reactions to revelations; the GWA is a modern confessional- what goes on tour stays on tour. “Revelations are in a safe circle but if you feel the need to criticize, shut up and bury yourself in a book for a bit.”
But it’s defiantly infra dig to immerse yourself in a novel the whole time, paying little heed to others around you, unless they are all doing the same, “Preferably overdosing on women’s magazines until you can’t stand reading about Britney anymore, and long to pick up David Lange’s Biography.”   And forget trying to tune into Desperate Housewives or Greys Anatomy. T.V is a definite no-no, but if your accommodation has a DVD player, Cheese and Chick Flick videos are absolutely allowable for a cosy night with Pinot Noir. Especially trashy classics along the lines of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman.  Take good music, a sense of humor and the ability to keep a secret.

Rose: “Don’t take people who hate each other; bad history means bad karma. It’s all about good planning.” And good planning means leaving the men behind. Boyfriends, brothers and husbands are all off the invite list, even for a lunchtime visit. In fact they don’t figure in the conversation too much at all according to Sally.
 “We are all middle class family women. So far no-one has turned up with a toyboy or a stash of some class A drug (though the toyboy would be interesting! ) We generally don't talk about our husbands - it's not a conscious thing but the weekend is about us and not the humdrum of domestic life.” 

And when you’ve walked, talked, eaten and luxuriated in each others company, it’s time to go home to the partners, children and jobs you’ve left behind. The women had different takes on their return to domestic life. “Lovely, home to what you have made; the home you like. There’s a clearer focus on what you want and what you want to change. Girlfriends help you do that in a positive way,” and “Homecoming is uneventful - sometimes I'm not sure the two teenage boys have noticed I've been away but they're usually keen to know what s for dinner the next night! Unwritten rule -always arrive home after 7.00pm so you don't have to cook!” then “The kids – especially young ones – are delighted to see you and the husbands are usually relieved. It’s odd though – it takes a moment or two to settle back. It’s like tucking yourself in….”

When I came home from my days away, my pleasurable bus-woman’s holiday from cooking for the family, I steeled myself to the disorder that would be my home after leaving a husband and two teenagers in it. I had received texts from the latter complaining about the lack of food in the house. This is unsurprising as the minute I buy any; it is eaten with no thought of conservation for the days to come. The last time I had shopped was the previous week and I could pretty much guarantee that the supermarket had not come high on the list of their father’s priorities. I trudged up the many steps to our house, slightly regretting the large portions I had consumed over the past four days. For someone who had done at least one bush hike, I was surprisingly out of condition.

A shock awaited me; the house was unbelievably tidy. The progeny leapt at me with cheery countenance, desperate to impart their week’s news. For anyone with a university student and a 16 year old son, this is barely credible. The most one can hope for generally is a request for the car keys or yet another un-repayable loan of twenty bucks. Whole actual conversations belong to another time when they were at primary school and thought you were the font of all knowledge, not the black hole of intelligence.

The fridge was full. The lawn was mowed. There was a bottle of Sav Blanc cooling and my son even offered to wash my car (for five dollars) and what’s more, my husband had managed to get them both to do household chores I had given up on nagging them about. I had just planned to ignore the mess until they had left home and then have a really good tidy up, and create that minimalist look I so often admire but am never likely to achieve with a family in residence. They had missed me but they had managed. I was speechless; I have booked the girl’s weekend away again. I’m hoping the bach is free next month.

4 comments: said...

A delicious read Fifi and I'm very surprised NEXT couldn't find place and time to publish - deserves a wider readership - such a celebration and observation of the power and restorative nature of female friendships. And what a homecoming you had. Hey, they missed and appreciated you. I have to say that I find my book club(s), yes gulp, plural, fill that GWA thing for me rather well each month, where we unite in our passion for reading, oblivious to the other roles and responsibilities in our life, although always there for each other, should our other life need an airing.

Vanda Symon said...

Ahhh, sounds wonderful. I've never had the pleasure of a GWA.

Fifi Colston said...

thanks gals, Vanda, you must organise one. A writers GWA perhaps? Went on one with Fleur Beale and others and it was great and useful and relaxing and fun and we even got some writing done!
Maggie- know what you mean by the book club- the WCBA fills alot of that function for me too. Women only group and we start the meeting by catching up with whats going on with our lives: work, kids, family... none of which gets written into the minutes.

Anonymous said...

That's so sad if you haven't had one! Terrific article Fifi - as I have fairly recently had one [especially good if linked to a common interest], I can reiterate the respect component. Sometimes the person who at first raises your hackles turns out to be an interesting companion - and just needed to assert her individuality.
The complication one often has to deal with apart from specific wishes and traits - is usually kept a secret. Yeah - snoring, aaargh. My group said they didn't think I was snoring at all despite my knowledge I do - I suspect I stayed awake long enough for them all to get to sleep!
Yes, bookclubs are a very good substitute and they are regular! You don't have to bare all but if something is bothering you or making you incensed or happy you can let rip. I have to say ours no longer worries about whether we talk about books or not - if anything is interesting enough it will be discussed! If it is not more interesting than [or equal to] food, wine, movies, human foibles, the education system, the health system, offspring, partners and the gummint then it deserves to languish in obscurity.