Whew, The Virginity Project has been swept away lately by absorbing ‘educational’ courses, more work than you can shake a stick at and my first trip out of London, tragically, for almost ten months. One does have a nasty habit of staying put and then wondering why one is so sick of the sight of one’s own surroundings. That is all, thankfully, to change soon as a trip to the motherland – Greece – is in the offing.
All the while, small things sustain me and they are often to be found in books. Two have amused me lately. The first was ‘Diplomatic Baggage’ by Brigid Keenan. I bought this book for my mother because it is a first person account of a diplomat’s life, as told from the view of the wife, or the ‘trailing spouse’ as she was known in days gone by. My father was a diplomat so my mother knows only too well how it feels to be a trailing spouse. In her case, trailing with three small children in a highly complicated country: Beirut, in the 1960’s - a hotbed of diplomatic activity if ever there were one.
When I gave my mother the book, she said ‘Oh I read that ages ago dear’. And I realised that I had actually bought it for myself. I shan’t go into one here as its not the point of my post but if you are looking for a decent, heartfelt and highly original book – and you are probably a woman, after all today’s post is rather woman-centric – you could do a lot worse than to read this very smart book.
Brigid has lived a life that is so very different to the rather stationary, well, at least in geographical terms, life that I live right now, that it takes the word ‘peripatetic’ to a new extreme. Can you imagine moving, not just home, but country, every two years for the rest of your working life? Dropping into entirely different cultures, customs, social circles, climates and geographies, whilst ‘trailing’ your children, your pets, your furniture, your pretty much everything from one place to the next?
The beauty of this book is the humour with which she observes these changes and the vast array of characters that come into their lives, frequently in the form of ‘help’, or servants as we might have called them way back when and the nebulous, ever changing landscapes in which they find themselves in. Humour, as ever, saves the day and our author possesses this quality in bucket loads.
I was thrilled to discover, upon finishing the book (which I was gutted about by the way), that Brigid Keenan and I are two ‘acquaintances’ away from being friends. That is to say that my boss’s partner and Brigid occasionally work together. Whether or not she might like to be my friend is quite another matter.
But if you think that ‘Diplomatic Baggage’ sounds like a woman’s book, wait until you hear about this one. To be perfectly honest, I only ordered this book because it is based upon a similar concept to my own. Take one universal truth, one experience that a vast tract of the population is likely to have experienced and then get people to compare stories. In this case, a woman’s first experience of her monthly period.
Eeek, I thought, do I really want to go there? Could it be that interesting? Is one story not much the same as another? Apparently not and frankly, I should have known better. Having worked my way through myriad different virginity loss experiences, I think it is safe to say that no two people have exactly the same take on either of these potentially life changing experiences.
Besides anything else, these accounts are not only about our first time experiences but the acknowledgment of the passage of time and how much our lives have changed over the last eighty years. Here are stories from the present day and from a time when some young women had absolutely no idea what a period was and subsequently suspected, occasionally for months on end that they may just be bleeding to death.
There are also stories from other countries. There is one from a young Polish woman, fleeing persecution from the Nazi’s on a train in 1942, the border crossing strip search tragically timed to arrive at just the same moment as her first period. And the shocking realisation that the economic disparities in our lives are huge. Many young African women still stay at home when they get their periods because they cannot afford simple sanitary protection. That is one lost week of education, every week, for the entire duration of your school years.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are comedy moments aplenty and truckloads of familiar observations…the memory of those curious boxes of wrapped paper objects in all different shapes, sizes and formats that were kept under the sink in the bathroom. ‘It’s like living in the house with a spy’, my own mother was heard to exclaim when I had checked out the contents of these boxes one too many times.
And then there is the remembrance of all that yearning and the longing for that moment to arrive, because much as it really doesn’t make sense to look forward to bleeding once a month, there is still the overriding urge to belong. To have joined the club, to have become an adult, much like the many voices we have listened to who have said the exact same thing about virginity loss.
These are landmark moments that punctuate our lives. These are events that divide our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages. These are the instances that make us feel like we have stepped through a door into a new stage of our lives and they are important to acknowledge.
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, the eighteen year old author of this book has made a great job of gathering stories from literally every nook and cranny you can possibly imagine. She takes us on a journey, through the lives of other women, through history and most importantly, through ourselves. I thought a lot as I read this book, in much the same way that I hope people will one day think when my own book is published. I went on a very poignant little trip down memory lane whilst I read this book and you can’t say fairer than that. Period.