Tuscany: To Gallop or Not to Gallop?

tuscany-Pixaby

Tuscany: To Gallop or Not to Gallop?

I’m off to Tuscany in a few weeks. Haven’t been to Italy since a school ski trip saw me in the Italian Alps and Venice—so long ago the Alps were shorter and Venice wasn’t sinking yet. Loved Italy back then and sense I’ll love it even more now. But when I venture into unchartered territory, I always find myself wrestling with the same quandary: gallop like a mad woman all over the place to take in as much as possible as quickly as possible, or chill the heck out? It’s a holiday, for crying out loud! A chance to relax, stroll, sip, live in the moment, save something of myself for later. It’s a retreat from the craziness of life. From minutia and housework and diet plans. From deadlines. A chance to stop and smell the Chianti. Why do I find that so hard?

I sometimes wonder if my fear of missing out is something to do with being an expat. As you know, I tend towards the “grass is greener” philosophy of life, always worrying I’m missing out on something somewhere else. This results in hurtles through foreign cities, blurred sightings of famous artifacts—Louvre Lite, anyone? —scarcely slowing down long enough to smile at the Mona Lisa. It leads to studying maps on the sightseeing boat ride, planning the next venture before this one’s absorbed and filed for posterity in the memory banks of life. Why would I add more craziness, more wake-up calls, more deadlines? Even if the deadlines signify more enjoyable reasons to be on time, like closing hours at the winery, restaurant reservations, sunsets from castle battlements?

My get up and go has its advantages. I’ve lived several lives, several careers, several manifestations of myself; all driven by hard work and a sense of ‘better get it now while the getting’s good’. But I’m starting to think trying to take in everything means I’m missing out on something vital to existence: peace. Serenity.

Tuscany, if everything I’ve heard about you is true, I’m going to be relying on you to show me the way. Don’t let me down.

To read more about finding your serenity, check out Pauline Wiles’ blog, The Serenity Project at https://www.paulinewiles.com/serenity-project/. She is soooo much better at it than I am!

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Image: Pixaby

 

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The Day I Missed the Mark

Watson

The Day I Missed the Mark.

The best piece of author branding advice I’ve received to date was to be myself in my social media interactions. So that’s what I am; an oddball mix of England, America, dogs, horses, gardens, world travels, cream teas, books, epic fails and homesickness all bundled up in self-deprecating humour. And, it seems, I’m slowly finding my tribe online.

But one day I missed the mark. I shared me on a bad day.

The US administration began separating children from their families at the border. That should have been a bad day for all of us. But I took it very hard. After all, I write about finding home, about separation from home, about missing home. I’m also an immigrant and a mother. I couldn’t imagine losing my children in exchange for a shot at a safe home. I. Just. Couldn’t.

So, I posted the following on Instagram and Twitter on June 20th, along with a photo of one of my dogs staring up into the camera: ‘Not feeling very funny today. I’ll be making a long journey with this face soon. If he’s taken away at immigration, I’ll die. And he’s just a dog!’ I hash tagged ‘children first’, ‘immigration’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘no separation’.

Within a few hours, I lost five percent of my Instagram followers.

Now, I’m no JK Rowling with millions hanging on my every word. Five percent can hardly be defined as a mass exodus in my case. But to me it was significant. We indie authors compete for attention against millions of other voices and I treasure each follower on my social media platforms. I’m honoured you’d want to spend a few seconds of your day with me. Losing you hurts.

I asked myself why I lost followers. Was the subject matter unexpected, coming from goofy old me? Was it taken as politically biased? I didn’t mean it to be. I figured every affiliation would be struck dumb by the cruelty. Were followers just jaded by the barrage of negativity? Possibly. I know I was exhausted by it. Maybe you were all bots and got booted at that particular moment. Truth is, I don’t know what happened. But, slowly, over the next few days, I came to this conclusion: I don’t care what happened. If you look back at the list of criteria for being me, you won’t find ‘cruel’. And I won’t let ‘cruel’ be added to that list by default because I didn’t speak up.

As I write this, an effort is underway to reunite families. That’s good. It’s a better day. But what about the next bad day? Will my followers tolerate me sharing my bad days? Guess what? That’s the last time I’ll ask that question. Because if you want me to be myself ‒ and I hope you do ‒ you’ll need to add ‘not cruel’ to the list of fun facts about me.

Note to self: being you is not going to please everyone. Be you anyway.

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The Birthday Present

wheelbarrow2

Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?

This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.

Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?

Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.

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Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

Cake IMG_20180519_122901Today I watch the royal wedding with billions of others around the world. The joyous scenes of castles and bunting and English flowers and beautiful veils and adorable bridesmaids never gets old for me. But I can usually watch these occasions with a sense of separation; that this vision of life is not part of my world. Today is different.

Today I watch the lovely Meghan become an expat and I understand the consequences of that decision. For all she gains, she will have time over the years to reflect on the joys and anguishes of exchanging a birthplace for a different culture.

Meghan and I reverse roles. I ‒ a Brit through and through, never dreaming I would ever give up my life in England ‒ married an American. The 1989 ceremony was held in an ancient church on Exmoor. English tradition and bridesmaids in Wedgwood blue dresses all spoke to me of my homeland. The heavy wedding fruitcake, standard fare in the UK, was a novel experience for my husband. He tapped his slice of cake on the side of his plate to see if he could chip the china with the icing. He assumed there’d be something vanilla sponge-like under a thick layer of buttercream, apparently. (He should have married Meghan. She’s having that kind of cake.) Turned out our cake was only the first of many surprises as my husband learned about British culture through my eyes ‒ and stomach. It’s been a fascinating journey for us both and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That said, it’s not always easy to live as an expat and days like today are the hardest.

I enjoy every moment of the wedding and marvel at the sunshine and the glory of Windsor Castle. I hold my homesickness at bay. Until the bells.

It’s the church bells that break the teary flood gates. That quintessential English peal of wedding bells from an ancient tower moves me like nothing else. I can’t pretend I listen to them from inside a church very often, but they stir memories of Sunday evenings, birdsong, cobbled lanes, hedgerow flowers, teaspoons tapping gently on china tea cups, cottages and … home.

I wish Harry and Meghan all the best. I hope they find home together, wherever that is. I hope they discover the best in every culture, as I’ve tried to do. But those church bells – they call me back to England. It’s time. Luckily my husband understands and is ready for our own role reversal. We’ll make the journey together, as he becomes the expat.

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Over the Rainbow Bridge You Go

Basil 2

Over the Rainbow Bridge You Go. Named after Basil Fawlty, my Golden Retriever lived up to his namesake. When it came to not quite getting it right, Basil was a champ: couldn’t find a ball if you wrapped it in bacon, let rabbits run right by him, couldn’t get himself the right side of a single wire fence. He once hit a fencepost he hadn’t seen while running at great speed. He did a complete 360 in the air, hit the ground and kept running. The list goes on. We hoped our lives would never depend on his Lassie skills. Brilliant? No. Adorable? Only the most adorable fella ever. Always game for a car ride, a sleep over in a tent full of little girls, a pirate treasure hunt in the woods. He even wore an eye patch. But he’s been gone a while now, felled by the scourge of cancer as a seven-year-old; scattered in the back garden with the rabbits. I miss him every day. As I contemplate returning to England, it still hurts to think of leaving Basil ‒ my soulmate ‒ behind.

It’s been six years since Basil’s passing, and I’m ‘Mum’ to two huge five-year-old canine kids. Duke’s better at the whole rabbit thing, Watson’s fantastic with a Frisbee, and they’ve both stolen my heart as dogs always do. As part of our expat family, they’ll make that journey to England with us, whenever it happens. It will be tough on them ‒ crates and noises and strange smells. But it will be worth it. Family members sticks together, no matter their geographical location, no matter how limited their Lassie skills.

I wrote the following tribute to Basil for a writers group competition. It won. As did Basil. Even when he failed spectacularly. He’ll never really be left behind – with me always.

Slip That Collar

Slip that collar. Forget that leash. Over the Rainbow Bridge you go. To new rules, no rules, the scent and promise of eternal me.

From now on, disremember the blood tests. Sarcoma, Arthritis, and Rheumatism are Greek gods with doggie heads. Wormers are a gang of punk-like Boxers standing in the corners at parties, wearing matching muscle shirts. Anal glands are never engorged or expressed. In fact, they are checked at the bridge. You get a ticket in case you want to reclaim them later. But you can eat that ticket. It tastes of cheese.

From now on, barking at nothing is a skill in high demand. Defecating on the lawn is protected under the ‘Right to Bear Down’ Heavenly Amendment. Sleeping on the bed is a given—even if someone’s home. Squirrels fall from trees right in front of you. Fences disappear. They were only ever mirages, anyway. ‘No’? Only at the beginning of ‘No, really, please take more chicken off the countertop.’

So, slip that collar. Forget that leash. Over the Rainbow Bridge you go. To new rules, no rules, the scent and promise of eternal me. When we meet again, I’ll have no memory of the old rules. I’ll be canine; accept you as you are. Never a pet. Always a friend. The scent and promise of eternal you.

Image: The Last Supper: Basil passed away a few hours after this photo was taken.

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Reviewing Reviews

Blog photo
I’ve been an avid reader since birth. (Yes, the plastic, floatable book about duckies Mum put in the bathtub with me counts.) I now read multiple books a week, so can’t even guess how many that is over a lifetime. But I’m here today to confess to a crime. I’ve only recently started reviewing books. Only since I became a writer have I realised the importance of participating in the author’s journey.
We all dream of quitting the real world and writing full-time from a yacht in the Caribbean, a lighthouse in Maine, an overwater villa in the South Pacific, or a cottage on Exmoor. (I vote last one.) Okay, that may just be me as a travel addict and homesick expat. Other authors may dream of covering publishing costs and paying a few bills with their writing, but you get the point. Anyway, do you, the reader, realise your part in helping an author achieve that dream? Buying the book is a lovely start; reviews are just as important in driving the machine. So here are a few points for your consideration:
1) Just fifty reviews on Amazon gets a book more exposure.
2) Reviews shape future work, and not just the good reviews. The author learns much from the reader who found their child-killing dragon’s love of teddy bears unreasonable. But the author is also encouraged by the reader who ‘gets’ their vision: dragons have needs too. And they’ll write more of what the reader wants.
3) A review only needs to be a few words. Sure, we’ve all seen the thousand-word theses on Goodreads. But ‘I enjoyed this book’ on Amazon is equally as helpful.
4) Giving a book lower than three stars impacts rating algorithms. I’m unlikely to finish a book I’d rate one or two stars anyway. It may not be a bad book, just a mismatch for the reader.
5) You can review a book on Amazon even if you didn’t purchase there, which brings me to my next point.
6) All the books in the photo were found on a charity fundraiser table for $1.00 apiece. I bought them, because, well, I’d have been stupid not to. But I did worry about the authors. Not one of them got a single penny from my purchase, which may not have worried Stephen King, from a financial viewpoint, but could have impacted others. And forget the money, what about the talent? John Green spent six years writing ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ and, in my humble opinion, it’s a work of genius. That deserves to be rewarded. So … if you borrowed from a friend or a library, purchased at a garage sale or half-price book store, please consider reviewing. If you paid full price, first, thank you! Second, you’ve definitely got skin in the game. Help shape what you want to read next by reviewing.
From all of us writing in basements or on the bus to work or at 5am before the household wakes, thank you for playing your part in the author’s journey. You and your reviews are appreciated more than you will ever know.
Now, I’m off to review that bathtub ducky book. My apologies to the author for my tardiness.
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Expat No Longer

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Up to this point, my traveller’s life has involved ping-ponging across the Atlantic ‒ except for a few southerly dips to places like New Zealand and Bora Bora. But last week I added a third continent to my travels: South America. Brazil, to be exact.

I’d picked the rainforest mainly to check a bucket list box about seeing flocks of parrots fly in the wild. You don’t see these birds on Exmoor in England, or in the snow drifts of Wisconsin. But as I lived this long-awaited ‘parrot moment’, I found the most moving experience wasn’t the parrots at all. It was finding myself deep inside two million square miles of ancient forest.

I never got too excited about North American history. So much had been written over in order to fit what the early European settlers needed this continent to be; a blank slate. European history wasn’t my ‘thing’ either. I got an F grade in ‘O’ Level history. (Keep that to yourselves. My mother doesn’t know yet.) However, the older I get the more I appreciate ancient castles and abbeys, Roman ruins and Iron Age settlements; an attempt to understand one’s place in the world before leaving it, perhaps? That said, a few thousand years was the extent of my limited historical understanding.

That all changed in a split second in the Amazon rainforest.

I was on a small skiff, deep into a narrow tributary of the Rio Negro. Night was falling fast. The captain cut the engine. I sat, surrounded by the hums, cracks, buzzes, howls, screeches of the jungle. I became primordial, part of millions of years of history, evolution happening right in front of my face. Trees adapting to life in sunken status ‒ full of secret compounds and potions. Caiman staring from the waters, straight out of Jurassic Park. Tapirs – the likes of which I’d only pictured posed next to wax figures of early Man in museums – picking their way through the trees. As I stared in awed silence, I became a million-year-old tree frog, a pink-nosed Boto, a squirrel monkey, a seed pod so advanced it put NASA to shame. I mingled with the stars, the night so dark I reached up and pulled a planet into my lap. I asked it questions about its origins as it sparkled and nodded to its forest acquaintances. Or maybe I was just suffering the effects of the anti-malaria pills, known to give one strange dreams. No matter. The impact of that experience will rewrite my own history.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’m now hyperaware of how small I am, how much I don’t know, how an indigenous child understands more about life than I ever will, how pathetic the current US political situation is ‒ well, maybe I was already aware of that last one, but you get the idea.

Most importantly, I finally understand the line from ‘Desiderata’:

‘You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.’

I am changed. In this alien rainforest, the likes of which I’ve never seen, I realised something: I may still be an expat in a superficial, border-controlled manner. But as a being on this planet, I am home.

Image: author’s own

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It Takes More Than a Cheap Ticket

My_collection_of_passport_stamps

I recently heard a fellow expat say they couldn’t afford to renew their passport; therefore, they couldn’t go home for a family funeral. This struck me as sad on so many levels. Of course one should be able to attend a loved one’s funeral. Of course a passport should be an affordable document. Then I asked myself, why do we have to pay for a passport at all?

I did a little research. A United States passport costs $110. It costs $450 to renew a green card ‒ which needs to be done every ten years ‒ and a whopping $680 to get US citizenship once you qualify. A United Kingdom passport costs £72, more if you apply while in a different country. And you’d better sit down for the next one. It will set you back £1282 to get British citizenship once you qualify. That’s right, £1282 for one person. Can you imagine the cost for a family? And, that’s if there are no complications requiring legal assistance. Then there are the notarized copies of birth certificate fees, travel costs to interviews, photos of yourself fees … Well, I could go on and on.

Passport control Flickr

I know we have to save up for airline tickets and hotels and other travel expenses. These are luxuries I don’t take for granted. The financial ability to travel, or lack thereof, is something that will never be equitable. But if you are eligible for a document that proves you are who you are and entitled to live where you live, or entitled to travel across a border and back again, shouldn’t that document be accessible to all, regardless of income level?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Traveling and Settling

If you’ve been with me long, you know I love to travel ‒ to places both familiar and new. But you’ll also know I struggle to settle anywhere. Wherever I am, I’m planning to be somewhere else. This causes some friction in the Gemmell household. My nomadic tendencies appear to be both my joy and my sorrow.

To alleviate this friction, I decided to focus all my attention this year on my creative writing home, rather than my physical space. No sooner had I made this decision, travel opportunities arose en masse. So many, in fact, that 2017 turned out to be the greatest travel year of my life! Funny how that happens; you finally decide to dictate to Life and Life just laughs at you and says ‘Look, lady, this is what’s actually going to happen here …’

Anyway, I found myself in Hawaii, England (twice), France, the South Pacific Islands and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Fabulous trips, all. But in amongst the luggage, airports, hotel rooms, and about a billion digital photos (no selfies ‒ there will never be selfies), I found myself deep inside that creative writing space I can truly call home. That home just happens to involve multiple locations.

I don’t think I could ever write about places I haven’t been as I need to feel a setting in my heart before I can see it on a page. So, I end the year with three photos from my creative world, all places that have grabbed my heart with their beauty, but more importantly, their welcoming vibe. Maybe that’s why they keep spilling out across the page, dictating my writing, just as Life dictates to me.

 ex-porlock-bay National Parks UK

‘Dunster’s Calling’, my first novel, is based on Exmoor in England. This tiny corner of the world is still the brightest flame to my moth. Glorious scenery, steeped in history, and of course, enhanced by the exquisite Exmoor pony. There is nowhere like Exmoor.

 Arenal Volcano Flickr wallygrom

My second novel, ‘More or Less Annie’, complete and working its way through the publishing channels, is set in stunning Costa Rica. Beautiful beaches and volcanic topography are only a part of the magic. The eco-friendliness is just as big an attraction.

 Valensole Provence Flickr Matheus Swanson

My novel-in-progress features the splendorous lavender fields of Provence, France. I find myself almost trance-like in this part of the world, drinking in its Roman legacy and its Medieval chateaux; not to mention spending more than a little time in its vineyards and lavender fields. This may have to be a looooong novel. Leaving will be hard.

I may still be predominantly a traveller more than a settler, but my creative endeavours have seen me delightfully ensconced in a sense of home. My friction leads to fiction. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to express my feelings for being able to do what I do. And I’m enormously grateful to you, too, for taking this journey with me. Let’s see where we end up next year, shall we?

 Image credits:

Porlock Bay, Exmoor: National Parks, UK

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica: wallygrom

Valensole, Provence: Matheus Swanson

 

 

Dinosaur Christmases and Hireth

Christmas_fossils Wikimedia Commons

As an expat, it’s typical to feel hireth during the holidays. But what exactly am I homesick for? Do I even remember?

Am I missing my childhood Christmases? Missing enough chocolate and sweeties to kill my current self, and fighting with my siblings over who accidently – or intentionally –  did the first picture in my paint-with-water colouring book? I remember when applying a little water to a black and white page and watching it turn to colour seemed like magic. Makes me sound like a complete dinosaur. Now it’s all amazing colouring apps, that not only change hue based on your mood, but glow in the dark and automatically email your picture to Grandma after analysing which famous artist you colour most like. Yep. I’m a dinosaur.

Surely, I can’t miss making paper chains – those ubiquitous red and green links stuck together with disgusting-tasting glue you had to lick, that cut your tongue and detached from the ceiling above your bed in the middle of the night, prompting screams and a groggy parental search for the push pin that must be in your bed somewhere. I can’t miss pulling Christmas crackers – then pulling dangerously small plastic toys out of the gravy while trying to keep the tissue paper hat from slipping over my eyes.

Do I really miss my young adult Christmases, typically spent working? Horses don’t have an ‘I’m out of the stables for Christmas, so please leave a message’ setting. As an instructor at a large equitation centre, I was often on duty. Christmas smelled of straw and warm horse breath, cooked barley to add to the winter feeds. In fact, it smelled and felt like every other day of the equine year – which could be translated as every day with a horse is like Christmas.

So, it would seem I remember every detail: every song, every whiff of brandy-soaked Christmas pudding, every favourite film, every Christmas horsy hug. Maybe I do know what I’m homesick for.

Oops! I almost forgot Thanksgiving! Though I’ve celebrated more Thanksgivings in America than Christmases in England, holiday traditions, apparently, must start young to be ingrained in the psyche. But I wish all my American readers a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Whichever holiday you’re celebrating, wherever you are in the world, may your festivities replicate your fondest memories.

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