Archives de catégorie : Lifestyle

Morning writing

A change of country is like the start of a new year – a chapter-beginning that provides a chance to make resolutions and adjust habits. Over a good number of years I’ve woken up early (530/545am) on week days for exercise before work; usually a run or a circuits workout from a phone app. At the beginning of this month, I’ve made quite a radical shift – no more exercise in the morning, but instead, close to two hours of writing time, with a 5am wake-up. At about 720am I drop off my daughter at nursery, and then cycle off to work for 8am.

The main idea is that if writing is something I want to do long term, then I need to be doing it regularly. Up to now, this just wasn’t happening. So far in the morning writing hours, I’ve been keeping a journal (first task of the day), going through a fiction writing MOOC course with FutureLearn (one that I unsuccessfully started back in 2013), listening to the ‘Writing Excuses’ podcast, and writing blogs (most work-related).

Two immediate experiences after two weeks:

  • Firstly, before the problem and stress was finding time for yet another priority. But, when you actually carve out a fixed time, then the whole issue with time just vanishes. It’s no longer about finding the time, because the time has been found. Instead it’s about working out what to do to fill the time. It feels very much like you’re giving yourself a daily present, a wonderful luxury. Perhaps from the outside, it’s odd to describe getting up at 5am as a luxury, but that is genuinely how it feels. It’s rapidly turning into one of my favourite moments in the day.
  • Secondly, although I haven’t yet got a writer’s notebook off the ground to make little observations about the world, I can already see that the fiction writer’s obsession with the little details, should help me to be much more observant and aware in the world. How much am I missing as the world spins by? It would be nice to get some time in a busy cafe with a notebook just observing. Eventually, being a writer would also perhaps give me the permission (like a journalist) to get into people’s lives, and asks them questions about their internal life.

The morning writing hours will be fine-tuned, but I think I’ve established the building blocks for a quite interesting life change. In addition to the writing, it’s nice to see the sun rise (my position at the dining room table faces the window and the exact point where the sun comes up through the trees). And I also see my family rise – generally E the nanny first, then my young son J, quite an early riser. Then we have to get the rest up so D can be ready for school. Back in Freetown, I would do my morning exercise and head to work all in the dark without seeing anyone up.

Planning for the future

At the weekend I was speaking with a friend of mine, a West African retired from the UN after close to 20 years work. He lives in a big house in Freetown and I go there at least once a week for a church group. He said that when they were in their mid-40s « ambitious, young and foolhardy » they had great plans as they built the house. The reality though is that their two children are in the US and rarely visit Sierra Leone, and they basically just use one of the five bedrooms in the house. He was considering selling to get a smaller place.

I imagine this sort of thing is not an uncommon story for such people – and I felt it could be true for myself and my wife too. Spending the next decade and a half saving for the future, setting up a nice home, and then when house was built, the bank accounts filled and the pension fund strong, we retire, just as the children leave home for university in a far off country, rarely to be seen again.

This train of thought leads me to two (obvious) ideas, both of which are easier thought than acted upon:

  1. That for people in my position, the strong likelihood is that future financial strength is almost guaranteed, on a current trajectory. It is highly likely that in 15 years, I will actually have saved too much money. Having spent too much time concerned with collecting enough money, I will now spend my waking hours wondering about how to ensure I can give it away to my children as easily as possible. The three practical lessons from this should be i) you can perhaps worry less about saving, ii) it should be easier to leave salaried life sooner iii) one should not spend too much time worrying.

2. Secondly, that it would be easy to ignore that the good times are in fact NOW. The family (except our two elder children at university) is united, and will be so for the next 15 years. We are both in good health. Now is the time to enjoy, not scrimp and save every penny. Key moments are holidays – so better to invest in quality holiday time, and perhaps even a pleasant family bolt-hole for adventures, than think that all this comes from early retirement.

Happy taking part

At a birthday party mid-week I met a Nigerian doctor who I used to play football with. While I haven’t found the time to play since February, he still plays every week and says it’s one of the highlights of his life. This sparked a small thought in me. When it comes to playing football, we put in a lot of effort, try to improve, and perhaps occasionally take part in beautiful actions that give us a strong sense of satisfaction. We get joy from taking part, from testing ourselves, becoming better, and the exhilaration of the game.

But we don’t tend to get hang-ups if we’re not the best on the pitch – some people (yes, through nuture rather than nature) are accepted as more talented footballers than others, and we just admire what they are doing, while measuring ourselves to our own standards.

It struck me that this sort of attitude is exactly what we often hear in wider life-management. “Don’t stress about others’ achievements and successes, everyone is starting in a different place, and your job is just to run your own race from where you are.” Yet, an attitude that comes naturally in sport, seems to be far more difficult to apply in a different category – life. That’s an area in which we are constantly comparing our performance to others – ‘how did he manage to achieve that?’, ‘if I had what she had’, ‘it’s unfair me starting where I started, while he started from a different place’.

Even worse, and I don’t know how common this feeling is, but we want to be the best, and feel down on ourselves if we’re not. We can get down if we’re just mediocre, run-of-the-mill and standard in certain areas of our lives – we want to stand-out, be admired, be world-class.

Yet that’s not an attitude we bring to the beautiful game. We’re almost never the best footballer on the pitch, on our street, and in our community. Yet that doesn’t seem such a threat to our ego.

Thoughts on the way back from New York

When I was in New York last year, I came away thinking it would be a good place to work in the future. I’m currently on my way back from New York after another week there, and I fly back with a different feeling. My over-riding sense is that New York isn’t a city that corresponds closely with my values. Perhaps three things can be taken as examples to illustrate (which are far from unique to New York):

  • In Freetown, people like looking at their phones, but you certainly don’t see the constant fixation with being online, the walking the street looking down into a phone not ahead. Perhaps influenced by my recent reading of Cal Newport’s ‘Deep work’, I’ve become much more negative about smartphones and social media. I really believe time spent on social media gives very little of value, so to see a society obsessed with this is worrying.
  • Yesterday, I had a day free, so bought a few high quality magazines and newspapers and spent several pleasant hours in Central Park. Living outside the West, and then returning to it like this, draws into sharper contrast the consumerist messaging of ‘products you need to be happy’. I felt this last month, having my young daughter suddenly exposed to all the clever marketing of attractive things for infants in the French supermarkets. She was suddenly wide-eyed with all the wonderful things on offer, and begging her parents. In the magazines and newspapers, the message is that you need an expensive over-sized watch or a luxury car to really achieve success or be a true adventurer/hero. I can just about ignore the adverts, but it permeated the writing as well. For instance, a magazine about being in nature and exploring the great outdoors, was heavily focused on ‘amazing gear you need to buy’.
  • Style is much more polarised in New York. You get a large segment that is super stylish, tanned, extremely well dressed, and clearly gym regulars. Then you get another segment that is obscenely overweight and carelessly dressed. It’s very different from France, where a pot belly or a large bicep are both much rarer.

So, I like my New York trips, and perhaps later in life I can find a three month contract in the city to really explore with my wife. But it’s not the place to be long-term I feel.

Depends how you look at it

I had a feeling it’d be one of those days, and that’s kind of how it turned out. The fact that we had a major donor proposal due to be submitted by 5pm today rather spoiled my weekend. To start the last minute work on bringing all the contributions together, I skipped the morning exercises and left for the office at 615am. This involved going under the bonnet, as the car battery had been left disconnected overnight, as I seem to have an electrical issue with the car which is draining power.

Work was intense – seeking last minute contributions, working to a looming deadline that couldn’t be shifted, while at the same time fending off several really important things that will have to wait till tomorrow. At the same time, due to my issues waiting for a US visa waiver (I’m due to travel on 30 August, I applied for a visa waiver on 11 August, but everytime I visit the website it says ‘Authorisation pending’ promising a result in 72 hours after application), I’m rushing through an application for a standard visa at the local embassy. A guy who helps me out, Lamin, was at the bank first thing to pay the visa fee (you have to pay cash at the bank and get a receipt). After three hours queuing, they told him that he needed my passport, which he came to get. After three more hours queuing, the told him he needed my application receipt. As I explained on the telephone to the man, none of this information was detailed on the website explaining how to pay the fee. At least they accepted a photo sent via Whatsapp.

Work finished late, I squeezed a session in the gym, and then on the way back from work my car lost all power, and came to a stop just as night fell, about 200m from the office. The car was supposed to go to the garage today to fix a probable alternator problem, but it didn’t because my friend was tied up at the bank on the aforementioned duty. I sat for 20 minutes on an unlit street waiting for help, with the added bonus of having taken the electric window down to handover an office key, and not being able to get it back up when the power failed. Mosquitoes are not my favourite creatures.

So an expectedly bad day. But there were some bright spots. I was trying to remind myself all day that these momentary dramas quickly lose their stress after a few weeks. In the scheme of things, they don’t amount to very much. In fact something similar was said on a podcast I was listening to this evening.

The other positives:

– After all that stress, the day is over, and here I am in a comfortable house, with electricity, and the chance to write down these things down. Even if I got home late, I still have a good hour of free time before bed.

– I’ll write a blog post soon on ‘right hand men’, but Lamin was really the hero of the day – he spent a rotten day queuing at the bank, and then rescued me this evening – swapping batteries so that my car could be deposited in the work car park and arranging a taxi to take me home.

– At the gym, I was alone with the new gym instructor, so he led me through a one-on-one training session. My shoulder injury from May still doesn’t allow much weight lifting but it’s slowly healing. The session made me feel good about my fitness and core strength.

– When the car broke down, I was not far from the gate, so I asked one of our security guards to sit with me while I waited for my rescue. We had a nice conversation, including him telling me about his plans to study economics at university. He didn’t know a huge amount about the subject, so I took him through a basic explanation of the demand curve. It takes a car break down for me to have a proper conversation with someone I see almost every day and get to know his life story, dreams and struggles.

– The taxi that took me back home, stopping for fuel at the local petrol station at a busy junction I pass everyday. I realise now that I miss West African taxi rides – it’s one of the things you no longer have in your life when you own a car. You get to observe so much more – the main thing is not having to drive and concentrate on the wild driving. But there’s also the fact that the windows are down (no air conditioning) so you feel closer to things. A busy West African junction is always full of interest, even at night.

So, light and dark today, and one person’s drama, is another’s refreshing life experience.

The French dream

For a reason I haven’t quite fathomed, depression over brexit inspired in me a strange and particular desire to read a few of those vicarious books about Brits who abandon everything for rundown rustic homes in southern France (or elsewhere on ‘the continent’). Perhaps this sort of thing won’t even be possible come 2019. I’d already read a couple of the classics of the genre; ‘A Year in Provence’ and ‘Driving Over Lemons’. ‘Under a Tuscan sun’, which I think is the Italian equivalent is sadly not available as an e-book.

Such publishing successes have spawned many copies, especially of the home-made variety (no pun intended). After all, the dream of a southern French retirement to enjoy the good life has been a British middle class obsession for a large minority over a number of years, as TV shows like ‘A Place in the Sun’ testify. In the end, I plumped for: Michael Wright’s ‘C’est la folie’ and ‘A piano in the Pyrenees’ by Tony Hawk. I added in Bill Bryson’s travels around Europe (‘Neither here nor there’) for good measure. Having finished all three, I can say I’ve scratched my itch.

For me, such a move would have its attractions – the pleasant weather, the possibility of being close to mountains and lakes, good food, and relatively cheap and attractive housing. Being comfortable in French helps as well. For some that would be the definition of the good life.

But reading these books left me pretty sure that if a French home lies in my future, it wouldn’t be a full-time residence. An over-riding feeling from these books is the self-focus involved on having a comfortable life.

I feel life should be about something more, and it’s fair to say that that something resides in the city. These rural dreams have almost no-one under 40, have none of the buzz and intellectual stimulation of the city, and don’t really have a sense of contributing anything to wider society (unless you count restoring a crumbling chateau for future generations, or writing an escapist book that thousands might enjoy) or being part of a dynamic Christian community. Maybe it’s a function of age, but I really think of life as much more about making a difference.

But perhaps if we want a place in future to retreat and write (a la Montaigne), and if children are close by, then maybe a stone cottage in the hills will have a place.

My personal SDG

The world is currently going through the process of ratifying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are the new development targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which end in 2015. The SDGs are even more ambitious, with a set of goals and targets (more than a hundred I think) to be reached worldwide by 2030.

By coincidence, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, I’ve been projecting my own finances forward, and 2030 looks to be a time in which on current trends, I might be able to ‘retire’. My definition of ‘retirement’ is having a decent income regardless of work income, and so being able to prioritize my working efforts around motivations other than earning money.

If for the next 15 years I save around $XX each year (roughly equivalent at the moment to a quarter of my salary), and that grows at 15% per year over the next 15 years, then I should be able to live off my investments, and leave the 9-5. The idea would be to dedicate more time to things that seem personally important even if they don’t pay the bills – personal writing, church work, photo/video, spending time with family, studies, and travel.

It’s of course pretty fool-hardy to project forward over such a long-term period, so everything must be taken with an extreme pinch of salt. There are major upheavals up-ahead that none of us see coming (Black Swans), and also some fairly obvious other risk factors, including (in rough order of significance as they appear to me):
– Staying in good health
– Maintaining employment with my current employer (or a similar employer) over that period
– Seeing 15%+ investment returns on my shares (I’ve always had more than that in five years on the West African stock exchange, but nothing is certain)
– Being able to save that much each year (particularly with two girls in higher education, and one starting school in a few years). Expenditures have a nasty habit of expanding to gobble up income.
– The stability of the Euro or the CFA Franc (pegged to the Euro)
– Being able to afford the rest of my children’s education post-2030.

So, I’m sure the picture in 2030 will be far from as foreseen. Nevertheless, I think it’s useful to have a long-term version, even if it’s understood that this is only very approximative. I have other goals for 2020, and even for the next quarter which sets my eyes on different horizons.

There are other dangers, in doing this sort of thing:
– I definitely come from save-for-tomorrow rather than spend-today parents. Perhaps one should spend a bit more in the present rather than straining every sinew to leave as much money as possible to your descendants.
– You can end up ‘living’ for the future – putting off life until retirement. Many people do this, and then end up being disappointed when they get to the destination they’ve been dreaming about. I enjoy my life and job, so hopefully I can avoid this ‘tomorrow’ syndrome.

Looking for a house

I’ve started looking for a new house to move into in mid-October. Hopefully it will be second time lucky for property number two in Freetown, with a slightly higher chance of the family being reunited and enjoying some time together. With the Ebola crisis, they’ve reduced the posting time to two years, which means I could be halfway through. But I think they generally let people stay several more years, so I think four years would be a good shot.

Looking around properties in Freetown, the first remark is just how expensive things are. The limited land in Freetown and extremely poor roads off major routes make it difficult. The top end of the market is almost entirely run by the Lebanese community who generally know what expats want and need. Despite clear indications to a housing agent as to my budget, I was shown a couple of apartments that turned out to have an asking price of $50,000 (annual rent). It’s amazing that people can pay so much for property.

What more do you get at the top end of the market? Basically giant hall like bedrooms and lounges. In my view you reach a point where you really can’t add much more of value, especially if you’re not going for beauty/charm/gardens/pools, which surprisingly doesn’t seem to be in the mind’s of retail developers. Instead it’s simply ‘bigger rooms’.

In the end the property I think I’ll go for is a simple detached house in a secure compound with two bedrooms and two floors. It’ll be the first time I’ve lived in a house with internal stairs since 2007.

The height of the crisis

I remember the end of 2014 like a crazy dream. Hundreds of Ebola cases a week, the stress of constant 7-day work and pressure, and above all, the existential menace that this deadly disease could catch any one of us. I say a dream, because almost everyone I was close to at the time has left. Many had families and could no longer bear being apart. Others were only there on surge, destined to leave after a few months. The dream is no more.

But I’ll always remember that surreal time, including the very regular visits to the bathroom to wash hands; scrubbing hard just in case. Most of all I think of those evenings at M’s with colleagues in which we struggled to talk about anything else. We were all suffering from extreme fatigue – but the wine, the dancing and the attempts to discuss other matters (or at least life before Ebola) were like a caffeine boost to keep us going through the hardest times. It was winter in more ways than one, but somehow we survived, if only to go our separate ways.

Like any crisis, there’s an indelible mark left behind and you consider those times in all the richness of the experience. In many ways, these are the standout moments, the story of what was going on when your first child was born, the world events that you saw firsthand. Like war, they are terrible in their time, but memorable ever after, and something remarkable to have experienced. When we danced like 14 year olds and when we played card games, daring that most remarkable of feats in Ebola times – the human touch.


My body is aching all over. A mere five weeks without any sport and the return to the gym has left painful results. It’s discouraging how quickly degeneration comes. You could spend a lifetime waking up early to exercise and then if you stop for a few weeks (say you break a leg) you could fall back so far. It’s positively Sisyphean.

Within a few weeks of going to Oxford I felt like a new person. From the regular rhythms of office work and some French studies in the evenings, I was suddenly plunged into the intellectual freedoms of constant brain-stimulation. My brain felt like a new organ. The flip side of this, unfortunately, is the degeneration of intellectual capacity – and the alarming thing is that this isn’t as apparent. Instead it’s probably an unnoticeable decline, which is almost certainly difficult to put your finger on.

If the symptoms are hard to spot, it might be best to look at whether the causes are in place. For me, yes, I’m reading and listening to podcasts; yes I’m in touch with the news; and yes, I read a fair bit online. But still, I think there are things far more important than this which give the brain the stimulation it needs to grow. For me, I need to be engaging with things in a more physical way – lectures rather than podcasts. Secondly, there’s the social aspect – I’m not really involved in discussions with my peers. In fact my social life has ground to a near halt with the departure of friends. Even if – as an introvert – I can live without society for extended periods, there’s definitely an imperative to get some social discussion to make sure intellectual degeneracy doesn’t set in.