I was supposed to have a glorious holiday. It was all sorted: 2-3 days (each) booked in a happy handful of glorious European cities, a healthy “HolidayLux” spending account, three guilt-free weeks off work and a list as long as my arm of pre-planned lunches, dinners and drinks with old friends. And it started out great.
I left the unhappy chaos of Lagos for Abuja at the end of August, spending two days in giddy anticipation- getting my hair done, cuddling my dog, packing and repacking my mostly empty suitcases.
I sailed through the Abuja airport with such a glow that the immigration officer said, crossly, “Ah Madam, you’re too happy to be leaving us.” I found myself sitting next to an elderly English lady, with wisps of white hair and the sort of in-depth knowledge of Nigeria that is usually the sole purview of missionaries. She was in fact a teacher, her husband an economic adviser currently working for Adam Smith Int. They’d been living in Nigeria since the 50s, both their now grown sons had “Kaduna” as place of birth in the their passports (a fact which delighted her younger son and infuriated the elder, who, frankly, sounded like a bit of a racist). She told me of early-post colonial Nigeria, of driving across the border to Cameroon on Sunday mornings to buy croissants from boulangeries, of never having to lock her doors, of peace and smiles and happy memories. She spoke wistfully, telling me that she was leaving Nigeria now for the last time- it had become to unstable for her so they were retiring to small house with a pretty garden in Kent. Her husband would follow in a year. She spoke of a Nigeria I’d never known and couldn’t quite believe in and as I helped her figure out how to make her seat lie flat, I told her of my Nigeria. Of the stress and traffic and materialism that depressed me, of the slight feeling of alienation I could never shake, of the growing pockets of hope, of the seemingly endless financial opportunities, of the immense talent and intelligence of my peers, of the shocking inequality that embarrassed me. She listened and declared “Well, anyway, you’re obviously going to marry an Englishman, dear, so not to worry.” I laughed inwardly at the realisation that marrying off young girls is an obsession shared by all older women, Nigerian or not.
I landed in Heathrow and sailed quickly through Arrivals faff into the arms of my elder sister. The least Nigerian of all my siblings, she has an accent people describe as ‘Mid-Atlantic’ and is a petite bundle of scary efficiency. Some younger siblings idolise their elder siblings in a way that’s not strictly based in fact, but in my case, there is literally nothing my sister isn’t good at. She sews, cooks, bakes, paints, is a photographer and an interior designer (having actual degrees in both), is booked most weekends to do professional makeup for brides, sings in the church choir, drops everything to help a friend and is always impeccably dressed. Oh, and she’s also a doctor with two specialisms, which as will soon become clear, turned out to be very lucky for me.
England is her home now, and she laughed at my rapturous sighs as we sped along home. After a week of bonding with (and annoying) her, she drove me back to Heathrow. First stop was Italy. An old friend was getting married; an affair which turned out be a carnival of glamour. She and her groom are French which should have prepared me but instead I found myself dazzled. Each event (pre-wedding etc, post-wedding etc, actual wedding etc) was populated by impossibly beautiful guests literally dripping in couture, Chanel and French chic. Their jewels glittered in the Italian sun and I had to remind myself to shut my mouth lest I expose myself as a provincial. Here was Lagos’s true gift to me- before living here, I would have probably thought the dresses were pretty and admired the jewellry with no concept of cost and left it at that. As Lagos however is the best crash course in couture clothes and fine jewellery available to anyone outside of a fashion internship in Paris, the scales had fallen from my eyes. And so, I was intimately aware that that necklace was Van Cleef and that dress was Dior and the pretty bracelets on every wrist were Cartier.
Apart from the fashion, the entire trip itself was almost too beautiful to be real- days spent wandering through living and ancient history and gorging on what felt like the best food I’d ever tasted, followed by nights dressed to the nines spent partying in villas, lemon-scented gardens and VIP areas of open-air clubs. I learned that some bottles of Dom Perignon come in cages and that no-one does glamorous excess like the EuroGlam set. I practiced my bad French and made friends with an Irish girl, with whom I bonded over midnight dances around deserted merry-go-rounds and whispered confessions about our shared phobia of pregnancy and childbirth (“it’s a literal horror show!”) She taught me what “good craic” meant. The only dark spot was the stark realisation that I’d allowed my plantain addiction to fatten me up to a stage only the very kind would call ‘voluptuous’. Two gallant French boys chatted me up in the way only drunken French men can do, and unknowingly broke my heart with their compliments. From one “You look like you enjoy very much ze good food” and from the other “It is not always so, zat curvy girls can move, but you are, light on your feet? Zis is how you say it? Yes?”
More than a little wrecked, I flew home to England for a bit of R&R and intense dieting. I shopped and wandered around London- spending hours pottering about old haunts and scribbling in notebooks, trying to capture the feel of London for a book that’s been sitting in my head for years. I dined with some of my Necessaries, who admitted I’d added a bit of flab but cheered me up with their faith that I could and would shift it in no time. I spent a full day in Liberty, my third favourite place in London, marvelling at the treasures to be found in the Vintage section and spending way too much money on stationery.
Soon, it was time for trip number two, this time to the home of money, chocolate and precision timekeeping. This visit was a little less hectic, but no less glam. I stayed with a friend of my heart and her gorgeous young family who, as hosts, were incomparable. I screamed my head off during nighttime Porsche power-drives, had a bad reaction to a (delicious) cucumber martini at the Four Seasons, tried on jewellery and sipped on fancy wine at Van Cleef and Cartier, had an intense afternoon at Chanel and woke every morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. I left with the kind of sadness only a good holiday can engender and meant it when I said I’d be back.
What I thought was an intense hangover however turned out to be a rather intense illness, diagnosed and discovered by my aforementioned elder sister upon my return to England. This then is why I’ve been absent for so long- I was rather dramatically in hospital for 10 days, being kept sane and out of ICU by my long-suffering sister, then spent another week as an outpatient. She bullied, coaxed, coddled and generally big-sistered me back to health with her trademark efficiency- no exaggeration, I may not have made it without her.
Eventually, after I’d started to forget what it felt like, I began to feel like myself again. One day, after being allowed to shower unaccompanied (I’d had a rather unfortunate fainting experience the first time I tried it and since then, was forced to have an escort or leave the door ajar.) I eschewed my pyjama uniform for a pair of jeans. They essentially fell off. Hope budding in my heart, I rumbled around the back of the wardrobe until I found a pair of ripped grey jeans I’d last been able to fit into in the Dark Ages. Super skinny, and purchased from Zara in a fit of madness, I’d banished them to the outer rim of my wardrobe when I realised that pouring myself into them would require liposuction or divine intervention. Or, as it turned out, a serious illness. “Maybe this is what people mean when they say God moves in mysterious ways” I thought as I marvelled at the ease with which they slid on. Days ago, it seemed, I’d been the fattest girl at the party in Italy and now…I felt as if all my birthdays had come at once. I pranced (okay, hobbled) downstairs to pirouette in front of my bemused father. The poor man had flown to the UK in a panic when informed that his youngest was seriously ill and since then had been calming himself down by cooking for me (who puts mint in okra soup? My dad, that’s who!) and sitting on the end of my bed as I slept. He didn’t really understand (or deserve) my “I’m skinny!!!” monologue but indulged it, saying only “Well I guess this means you’re feeling better.”
It did, and I am, and I’m back- to Nigeria, to work and to this blog. Thank you all for your very kind messages and for checking in with me so diligently. If there’s a thing I learned while being unwell, it was that writing here (and hopefully elsewhere) is part of my purpose, but you guys make it a joy.