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2015: You Were NOT What I Expected

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I’m standing in line waiting for my chicken.

It’s two days before Christmas and in my village (as in thousands across France) we order our holiday fowls well ahead of time. I’m impatient to greet my poulet de Bresse, which the ever-modest French consider the ‘best chicken in the world’.

After the requisite 20 minutes in line, the butcher lifts his eyes towards me with concern. A veil of sorrow flits by and he shakes his head.

“Elle n’est pas arrivée.”

It has not arrived.

My chicken is lost. It has been transported to another village. It is now being traced. It may arrive tomorrow.

How can MY chicken be lost? My neighbor’s turkey has arrived. So has the florist’s capon and the supermarket cashier’s pintade. Everyone glares as though I had somehow invited this unexpected tragedy.

Yes, unexpected. A perfect way to describe 2015.

Take my 18-hour stopover in Dubai last summer, meticulously planned to include dinner with an old friend and a stroll to see the Dubai Lights dance across the fountain at twilight.

It did not include eating dinner with royals in Abu Dhabi.

Had I been writing fiction I could not have made this up – not the sleek chauffeur-driven ride, not the broken toe, not the segregated all-female Ramadan feast.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque UAE

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

So, 2015.

I had half-anticipated and half-feared it. You hear things about retirement: it’s momentous, the cap of a professional lifetime, a brutal transition from busy career to quiet relaxation.

Well, I have no idea whose book they were reading but it certainly wasn’t mine.

Like the flash of lightning before a thunderclap, 2015 was brash, at times scary and utterly unpredictable.

My relatively robust health took an unexpected beating. Twice.

First, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and in an effort to avoid a life of drugs I spent three weeks in an ayurvedic center in Sri Lanka. It worked, the blood pressure came way down, but then I got home to cheese and ice cream and meat and now my doctor’s mad at me. I’m mad at me. I’ve given myself three months to get the weight down but this has been a lifelong battle and I have yet to meet a carb I don’t want to take home.

Then there’s the time I thought I had sciatica because I can’t bend my left leg properly or sit for more than 40 minutes (particularly convenient for driving and flying). Well, I don’t have sciatica. Nor can half a dozen doctors, two MRIs and countless alternative therapists in three countries tell me what I do have. The closest they’ve come is this: those little canals the nerves travel through? Mine are too narrow. How about we settle for fat canals and a narrow waistline?

I didn’t travel half as much as I’d planned.  Retirement takes time at the UN – forms to be filled, offices visited, passports handed in and sundry bureaucratic requirements that keep you on your toes for months. To reward myself (before the ayurveda treatment) I spent a memorable week visiting Sri Lanka, a country I had identified with violent civil war and dreadful tsunamis. I arrived to discover an island finally at peace, with smiling welcomes and a feeling I can’t name but that sits somewhere between comfort, color and character. I’ve never been anywhere quite like this.

Historial Mansion Galle Fort Sri Lanka

This gentleman at the Historical Mansion in Galle was polishing gems

While I didn’t travel much, I didn’t quite stay put, either. I made it to Lyon (and the inevitable stop at Les Halles Paul Bocuse), attended a proper English wedding (my sister-in-law’s) in Newbury, managed quick visits to Chamonix and Amsterdam, and an all-too-short visit to Bern to see off a very dear friend who is moving back to South Africa.

I tried to take my writing to the next level by attending a travel memoir workshop in Paris which taught me plenty. Part of the work involved spending an afternoon at the Louvre and trying to see it through my mother’s eyes. It was not easy. She died nearly a decade ago and I still miss her every day. I’m not finished that story yet but here’s a little taste.

I’m overcome with a desire to see the Mona Lisa, surely a picture of strength in whose gentle eyes I should find my mother’s gaze, that gentle gaze she kept for her family or the few people she truly trusted.

Different from what I usually write – and far, far harder. I still haven’t finished that Louvre story, never having been good at getting feelings out of my head and written down.

I expected to see my family more. Ever since my brother moved his family from down the road to the US, not a day goes by without my missing them. This year was a cracker – we didn’t get together one single time. Things are looking up: my brother is visiting next month and my niece plans to spend a chunk of the summer with me.

I underestimated my village. When the horrible assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo journalists took place last January, our local mayor held a vigil. I went, expecting few would attend. Hundreds came, many from neighboring villages. Everyone stood in silent solidarity, grandmothers, children, families with pets, all carrying their Je Suis Charlie signs. That day I felt very French.

I expected to have more time for myself. Whoever put that ridiculous idea into my head should be handed a paddle and made to row to Antarctica. Since retiring from ‘my job’ I’m working harder and have even less free time. On the up side, the work is always interesting and ever challenging as I scribble my way through climate change frameworks, tuberculosis strategies and multilateral governance. These things may sound tedious, but they matter and (I hope) inch the world forward with every bit of carefully crafted jargon.

I never expected to miss the UN. Technically, I don’t, but I do miss my colleagues and I miss the issues. I especially miss standing at a podium and being passionate about things that matter to me, like climate change and child marriage and female genital mutilation. I plan to write more about global issues this year, much more.

I thought I would become… you know, an artist. My plan was to focus on writing, fashioning elegant sentences from exquisitely chosen words (hence the Paris workshop). Ahem. Instead, my folders are filled with half-finished stories and my book on Africa is still a sheaf of scribbles gathering cat hairs on my shelf. Note to self: next year, write more, write better, write every day. Attend more workshops. Work on that voice. Take advantage of pre-dawn creativity to put down words I would never dare write once caffeinated.

This year’s blogging output has been pathetic in the extreme. I attended a bloggers’ conference in the wonderful city of Girona (and took some time out to explore its legends) and naturally took a cooking course in Barcelona to prepare my favorite dish: tortilla española. I also experienced a fascinating visit to a school for castellers, those human towers that look set to tumble any minute. I also looked back to the past adventures… paddling my way out of a flood in the Philippines… getting hopelessly lost in the Amazon rainforest… remembering the serenos, the key-masters of my Madrid childhood… getting lost in a minefield in Mozambique… watching the sunrise in Great Zimbabwe… and finally doing a roundup of my trip to Albania from the year before.

And that’s it. A bit slim for a year.

breaking eggs for tortilla de patatas

Breaking eggs is one of the most fun part of making tortilla

I thought I would wind down Women on the Road. You may know that Women on the Road (WOTR for short because I’m too lazy to type it all out each time) has two parts: the website, which is a huge resource for women who travel solo, and this blog, where I document my travels and errant thoughts. WOTR has been around since 2007 and I thought I might scale it back. Move on. Change things, take it easy, wind it down. Well – I changed my mind. Empowering women to travel on their own and get beyond their fears makes me happy so instead, I’m ramping up. Expanding. Consolidating. Spreading my wings. Not at all what I’d planned.

I did not expect to be pushing a wheelbarrow in a garden. After a dozen years in this house we finally came to grips with what we laughingly referred to as “that jumble of weeds” – the garden. It has finally been carved, shaped, evened out and, at last, planted. The plants still look like pimples on plastic but I’m promised in a year or two I’ll be surrounded by greenery. I even experimented with some of the gardening myself – trimming roots for the first time in my life and learning how to handle shears (ouch) and a wheelbarrow (precariously). See evidence below.


What you don’t see is the number of times I spilled that stupid load down the hill

I didn’t expect to sleep in the dining room for several months. After years of eating standing up in the kitchen, the dining room was perfect: decorated, furnished, painted. Within a week my Dutch shepherd Beowulf was operated on for a crossed ligament and prescribed two full months of complete rest. Because he couldn’t climb stairs or be left alone, the dining room became his bedroom – and I became his roommate. He’s better now and back upstairs – and we’re eating in the dining room again.

So no, nothing in 2015 turned out the way I expected. Yet it was a great year in its own way, lessons and all.

Next year? Travel more. Eat less. Exercise more often. Write a lot. And all the other things I’m not expecting that I’m sure will come my way.

(If you’re curious about previous years, you can explore 20142013 and 2012.)

Meantime, outside, it’s unseasonably warm and I can wear short sleeves.

As I write, it is Christmas Eve and I’m back in line at the butcher shop, waiting for my chicken.

I peer at the neatly lined bags on the counter, each name printed elegantly and held in place by a staple.

Lila Guiri Lanack.

Sigh. That must be me.


  1. Andrea on December 31, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    Each year has its way of surprising you … in good and bad ways. Hope you have more of the former than the latter in 2016!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 31, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks Andrea – I’m learning to like surprises!

  2. Evelyn Hannon on January 1, 2016 at 3:52 am

    Gorgeous writing. Don’t take too many workshops it will spoil the lovely free and natural way you are doing it now. I loved reading about your 2015. I wish you a heathy, happy and productive 2016.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 1, 2016 at 9:33 am

      Ah, Evelyn, can’t think of a better way to start the year than with a compliment from you! Perhaps 2016 will be the year we finally meet in person? May the year bring you health, energy, drive and deep contentment, not to mention fun!

  3. Kristin Henning on January 1, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    What a nice, circumspect post. Wishing you all the best and plenty of unexpected pleasures in 2016.

  4. Lisa | LLworldtour.com on January 2, 2016 at 2:21 am

    Lovely recap Leyla! Looks to me like you did a lot this year. 🙂 Definitely hope to see you in 2016, either over there or here in the US when you come visit your brother!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 2, 2016 at 9:52 am

      Let’s make it happen in 2016, Lisa! It’s been way too long…

  5. Fida on January 5, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    I thoroughly enjoy your writing and was surprised to learn that you take courses. You are my inspiration! Never mind not being able to put feelings into words, I battle with ‘word block’ – basta – even in my mother tongue 🙂 I’ll be among the first readers of your Africa book! I wish you all the best for 2016, and may that “jumble of weeds” flourish into a French jungle!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 5, 2016 at 7:11 pm

      Thank you Fida – and my best 2016 wishes as well! Yes, I take courses – I’m an inveterate learner and am always juggling all types of learning – degrees, courses, workshops, online courses… sometimes I think I’m studying to avoid doing! 🙂

  6. Rose on January 6, 2016 at 1:09 am

    I’m so glad you decided not to wind down “Women on the Road” as I’m just about to embark on my first solo trip this year at the age of 60 and reading your blogs and your website has given me the confidence and courage to do this. Thanks, Rose

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 6, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      That’s wonderful Rose – and it’s exactly for women like you that I’m sticking around!

  7. Halina Goldstein on January 6, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Mmm, 2015… the year you inspired me, and us all, again and again. Thank you!!

    To another unpredictable year! 🙂

    Many warm greetings,

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 6, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      Thank you Halina! You do plenty of inspiration yourself over at solosouls.net my friend! May 2016 inspire you deeply and bring you so much!

  8. Jan on January 7, 2016 at 7:05 am

    Loved every sentence.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 16, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      Loved every word of YOUR sentence! 🙂 Thank you!

  9. Anne Betts on January 14, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    A beautiful piece. I love your writing, Leyla. I hope the chicken was worth the wait. May your 2016 be all you hope for, and more.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 16, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      The chicken WAS worth the wait – there truly is nothing like a Bresse chicken! And thank you for your kind words – wishing you the best as well.

  10. Andrea on January 18, 2016 at 2:43 am

    What a roller coaster … life can be like that sometimes. Hope 2016 is awesome for you!

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