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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… The Other is Wings

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My children are comfortable on planes. They’ve flown—literally and figuratively—from infants to pre-schoolers to teenagers to young adults. Through it all, I made sure they could find their way independently around the world.

As soon as they could carry a backpack (about eighteen-months old, if I remember correctly) they packed their own bags. Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle came everywhere for a while. She even got her own napkin tied around her neck by one kind flight attendant. Paddington Bear, with his wellies and hat, was another Gemmell family frequent-flyer. Later, the stuffed pets remained behind as more entertainment became necessary. My kids learned what was acceptable to play on a plane: no noisy electronic games, no Snap—a card game that requires you to slap your hand down on cards before others do—guaranteed to irritate the person whose seat was attached to the tray table. And no small pieces that required, at the first sign of turbulence, someone to scramble under rows of seats and countless feet in order to retrieve them.

Learning to pack the correct snacks was also an important skill. A sweetie bag was carefully planned and rationed on long journeys. The kids knew how many pieces of hard candy it would take at a couple per hour to last them between New York or Chicago or Los Angeles and London. They learned chocolate wouldn’t survive the trip to warmer climes like Costa Rica or Bora Bora, but Werther’s Originals would.

They learned what to do in an emergency. When stranded for twenty-four hours watching Scooby-Doo in Flemish due to a missed connection, eating the Nobnob biscuits they’d bought as a gift for Dad was the appropriate thing to do. Luckily, they also knew to over-calculate how many books or magazines they’d need to last a trip.

The kids worked an airport like pros. Is there anything cuter than a little girl sitting on the floor at security ripping at the Velcro fastenings of her shoes so as not to hold up the passengers behind her? Or a little boy tipping a pencil sharpener from his pocket into its own tray to go through the X-ray machine? They knew what was allowed in carry on bags; though one time my youngest did manage to get a rather large pair of Fiskars scissors into Paris in her pencil box. They were caught and confiscated on the way back to Chicago. I got some nasty stares that day. But for the most part, the kids made sure I followed the rules.

These experiences have translated into an ease with new assignments and opportunities in my children’s current lives. I’ve set them up to take on the world. I’ve done well.

Or, so I thought. One of my happy travellers got married this weekend. It was a lovely day. But during the ceremony, it hit me: I’ve made a terrible mistake! Is it too late to instill a fear of flying? You see, I always hoped I was teaching them to fly towards me. Not away from me.

To our children we can give two things,
One is roots, the other is wings.

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Changed, But the Same

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Old friends are like favourite books. You can read them over and over again and never get bored with the plot or the characters. When you move around a lot, as I do, those friends take on even deeper meaning. They’re not only entertainment during the good times and a shoulder during the bad, they ground you somehow in a way your unfamiliar location can’t. They remain a constant in your ever-changing time-space continuum.

I just got back from a nostalgic trip to England with two friends I first met in 1978, while training with horses on Exmoor. We’ve remained firm friends, though live thousands of miles apart. They are both from the United States and one hasn’t been back to England in thirty-nine years. We visited our old haunts, reacquainted ourselves with the local cuisine—that would be cream teas—and brushed off the cobwebs of vague memories. Was that hill so steep back then? Oh, what was her name? Are you sure this was the place? Remember when …?

We attempted to relive our glory days on horses. We used to be able to ride fancy dressage moves and fly over fences. Let’s just say those days are gone. Despite the aching muscles and weary bones, it was still great fun. On our last day in England, we met up with another student from the old days; one who’d gone on to great success in the equestrian field. We were jealous as we wondered around his beautiful stables and stroked the noses of majestic horses.

What if? What if the three of us had stayed with horses? What if we’d stayed in England and stayed young and stayed …? Just stayed. Doesn’t matter. We didn’t, and we all gained new lives and interests and homes and families and friends. It all turned out as it should. But, boy, do we miss the old us at times.

Our worlds collided on Exmoor, then we splintered off into space. We got one delightful chance to reconnect almost forty years later in a place that will remain in our souls for life.

Exmoor and us. Changed, but the same.

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My Foreign Native Language

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I enjoy discovering new words (well, new to me), especially those evocative of home or homesickness. Hireth and coddiwomple are two favourites. I recently heard another: hygge, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’. Translated as ‘cosiness’ once it leaves Danish waters, hygge means more than an evening in sheepskin slippers with a hot chocolate. In Denmark, it’s an entire lifestyle of living in the moment and forgetting life’s worries in tranquil, informal spaces. It’s about warmth and candlelight.

I discovered hygge in a BBC article, dated October 2015. It said the Danish concept had invaded the United Kingdom—but I’d never heard of it. And we all know reclusive authors are the first to hear of new fads and trends. By the way, there’s this Canadian singer called Justin Bieber about to hit the airwaves …

Anyway, turns out I missed hygge completely. In the United Kingdom, the word is already passé. The furniture stores advertising hygge sofas and designers touting hygge room layouts have moved on. The restaurants dolloping hygge comfort food onto rustic plates are serving something else. According to Ideal Home, the Swedish word lagom, meaning ‘just the right amount’ replaced hygge in 2017 in the UK.

But I feel cheated. I miss hygge. I want to be part of the hygge phenomenon, to prove I’m ‘current’ on the goings on in my native culture and language. I know, I know—Danish isn’t my native language, but try and keep up here. The point is, something else has come and gone in my homeland that I was completely unaware of. So, does a lack of hygge knowledge make me less British?

Think I’ll make some hot chocolate, light a candle, and ponder that for a while.

Final Boarding Call

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I recently got that awful phone call: my father had passed away, four thousand miles from where I stood. The news was a shock, though not a surprise. Dad was almost ninety-one years old. A long life, lived on his terms.

No matter whether you live next door or across the world, this is a tough time. But as an expat, one of the first people you talk to after hearing the news is an airline representative. Before you’ve had time to even begin to process events, you must find the resolve to make complex travel arrangements. It’s a good job you can do it in your sleep after so many years abroad. The logistics would otherwise be overwhelming: the first available flight to the United Kingdom, a ferry across the English Channel, a drive of several hours to the small French village Dad called home for the past fourteen years.

Yes, he was an expat too; putting down new roots in a foreign country in his 70s. He didn’t seem to feel hireth as I do. He also never felt the need to learn the language of his host country. In typical English language arrogant fashion, he just gestured and ‘s’il vous plait’d’ his way through daily transactions and social gatherings, leaving it up to the French around him to learn English. Now, there’s a confident man. And a very gracious host nation.

Though I speak reasonable French—due to a former life as a groom for horses in France— I don’t speak the language of funeral directors and condolences. I don’t speak ‘French florist’, as I found out as I tried to obtain a wreath for the casket. I think I told the poor lady behind the counter something like, ‘Father dead. Need flowers for box.’ She may have thought the English rather disrespectful at that moment. She nevertheless produced a lovely arrangement. But the confusion cemented the notion that I was different in a place where Dad was different too. I spun from grief to guilt to regret for all the time we’d spent apart and for how foreign I felt going to see him one last time.

We chose this expat world; Dad and I. We undertook our travels in the full knowledge that connecting grandfathers and grandchildren would be hard, expensive, and exhausting; that birthday parties would be missed and Christmases shared only via phone calls. And we knew a long, drawn-out illness would be impossible to manage with so much distance between us. So, my father and I are grateful for the speed at which the final boarding call came.

It’s not easy, this expat life. But neither my father nor I would have missed our foreign adventures for anything. Having spent time last week at Dad’s funeral, having wandered through his beautiful French village, having met up with my step-mum’s family—themselves from all over the world—having listened to stories from Dad’s ‘new’ friends and neighbours and watched them shed tears for him, I know my father had found home. For that, I’m very grateful.

Bon Voyage, Dad. Fair winds and following seas.

Apostrophobia and Expat Fears

apostrophobia Haroldsplanet.com

Perfection. It doesn’t exist. You know that, right? Not in a single geographical location. Not in writing. There’ll always be a compromise, an error, room for improvement.

Much of my week has been spent pondering an apostrophe. You see, it’s in the wrong place. On the first page of my book, ‘Dunster’s Calling’. How many times have I read that line and not seen the error? How many other people have seen it? How many have since told me not to worry, as they didn’t notice it either? Are they just being kind? Should I recall every book? Refund every purchase? Are the goods so damaged as to negate the entire purpose of the book?

Just stop it, Tracey! It’s an apostrophe, for crying out loud! Look at what’s going on in the world. Should I really be spending another single minute worrying about an apostrophe?

Yes, actually. Because that’s what I do. I write, and there are rules for writing. And I know the rules for apostrophe usage. An errant apostrophe means I have no street cred. I failed.

Now I’m questioning everything. Confidence has fragile wings. If I can’t get the small stuff right, can I be trusted with the big stuff, like where I live? Am I not really suffering from hireth? Is Exmoor not really the perfect fit for me? Have I missed a thousand geographical apostrophes that, if I’d noticed them, would have directed me to consider moving somewhere other than Exmoor? Should I just maintain my expat status here in the US?

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J.K. Rowling saves me. She tells me I can fail and still be okay. I can move back to England and if it’s a mistake, I can go somewhere else. I can miss typos—okay, not too many—and still be a writer. I can try again, fail better, live as an expat, or not, in the liberating knowledge that a perfect decision doesn’t exist.

But imperfection still stings. After all, it’s my name on the cover of the book, or on the relocation decision. The Buck Stop’s Here.

Damn it! I hate apostrophes.

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Something Old, Something New

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When you live far from home, you tend to spend your holidays going … well, home. There’s Mum to see, and Dad to see, and sisters and cousins and friends to see. You want your children to live the other half of their heritage and your non-British spouse to understand your weird jokes about cricket and suet pudding. You want to be part of weddings and funerals and family reunions. So, you go home as often as you can. Your friends in your adopted country think it’s exotic, asking, ‘Are you off to Paris/London/Timbuktu? Lucky you.’

Well, yes and no. A funeral, anywhere in the world, is definitely not exotic. That family reunion? Comes with the same baggage, whether it’s across the planet or down the road. Uncle Albert’s just as you remember him—unfortunately. But you need to be there, so you go. Then, one day, your children look at you and ask, ‘Do we have to go to Paris/London/Timbuktu again?’ And you wonder. Do we? Should we? Have the same lucky forces that made our children dual citizens and/or frequent flyers restricted them in the variety of places they go?

As spoiled as it may sound, as ‘First World Problem’ as it is, when you start recognizing the flight crews, you feel maybe it’s time to reassess your destination. When was the last time you scrolled through the TripAdvisor website looking for a new world to explore? French Polynesia looks so cool!  But what excuse will you come up with when you tell Dad your holiday won’t be spent at home? Of course, your family won’t make a fuss. They’ll understand.

But then it hits you. One day your children will be finding excuses not to visit you. You have a decision to make …

‘Hi, Jackie. Yes, we’re going home again. Looks like a full flight today. How are your kids? Captain Mike okay? Good. Yes, we’ll have the chicken. Same as last time.’

 (Image: Pixabay)

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Hireth-Tinted Glasses

Rose tinted glasses Derek Gavey

I’ve just returned from a visit to England. I wore different glasses on this trip. Not rose-tinted—or is that hireth-tinted?—glasses, but realistic, magnifying, research glasses. I was on a mission to find answers to some important questions: Is Exmoor really the place my husband and I can live? Permanently? With purpose? In harmony with both the natives and each other? All very different questions to the ones I’ve asked over the last few decades: Can we have a great time on holiday? Can the children ride a pony? What time does the tea shop open? Tee shirts or raincoats for the hike?

I began this visit by looking at the area through the lens of a Californian. My husband’s birthplace offers the Pacific Ocean and endless sunshine. Exmoor offers the Severn Estuary and no one’s idea of a perfect climate. I worry he’ll notice. But he’ll also notice the sparkly clear skies and the scent of heather that leave his smoggy air and car fumy smells in the dust.

Big issue: he doesn’t like clotted cream. How could I have missed such a basic character flaw? But will that flaw grow into a major fault line when he lands in this creamy mecca? Will it turn into nights on the couch? Marriage counselling? And is there even a marriage counsellor in Porlock? The organist at our Porlock wedding years ago was the local milkman. Is the counsellor the post lady? I think I need to do more research …

But enough about husbands. What about me?

All I used to need from Exmoor was a horse—make that multiple horses—a place to dance and the occasional train ride to London for more exciting options in entertainment and shopping. Look at me now: a former horse-riding expat, who’s grown used to robust water pressure in showers and twenty-four-hour pharmacies and grocery stores. Dancing? Unless it starts at four in the afternoon, the volume is turned way down low and there’s a selection of fruit teas at the bar, you’re not going to find me in any nightclub. Is Mr. B’s nightclub even still open in Minehead? If I asked a local youngster, he’d probably look at me like I was a visiting professor of prehistoric history. Hey, kiddo, I used to get up at five in the morning, show horses all day, then dance until two the following morning, often repeating the process that same weekend. Oh, and I danced at Studio 54 in New York, by the way. What? No, I don’t need help crossing the road. Clear off! Cheeky blighter.

But seriously, before packing the shipping container with all our worldly goods, we must look long and hard through multiple lenses at our lives. What do my husband and I need to feel settled now? Does Exmoor check new boxes that weren’t even the tiniest consideration decades ago? Like a small community that knows us: check. Opportunities to volunteer, with both local and national endeavours close to our hearts: check. (The National Trust and endangered Exmoor ponies are top of a very long list.)

Montacute Gardens Geograph

We need a place the children will want to visit: check. They’ll be back often—maybe too often. (We stupidly offered to pay airfares.) A place to write: heck yes on that one. And stately homes and beautiful gardens and stone walls and bluebells and cottages and teapots and no one thinking I have an accent and … and … a connection to my heritage. Check, check, and check again.

Oh, and one more thing: peace. We can find that on Exmoor in spades.

My research from this trip tells me Exmoor will work. Unless my husband’s clotted cream issues interfere. I need to go and talk to the post lady. Wish me luck.  

If you want to help the endangered Exmoor pony, visit  http://www.exmoorponycentre.org.uk/. Tell them Dunster sent you.

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Images: Rose-tinted glasses by Derek Gavey, Montacute Gardens by Geograph, Exmoor pony by author

‘Foreign’ Isn’t A Place

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I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to be ‘foreign’. It’s hard to know how to answer because most days I’m not foreign. I’m like everyone around me, complaining about the weather, politics, cost of car repairs, or trials of parenthood. I share my plans for the weekend, the home remodel, the upcoming family celebration. The common ground overrides the accent or the physical attributes.

But then there are days I can’t work out for the life of me how I landed on this alien turf—the days I feel like a complete stranger. It’s the look I get when someone says, ‘You remember the show “Welcome Home, Kotter”?’ Er, no. No, I don’t. It’s when I use a simple phrase like ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ I may as well have spoken Klingon. It’s wondering if the Schwan’s Guy they’re talking about is some new sit-com actor, only to find out he delivers food to your doorstep. Everyone knows the Schwan’s Guy; he’s part of everyone’s childhood. No. No, he’s not.

But if you’ve never had those moments, of getting in the passenger’s side door and trying to drive the car, of having no idea what that road sign means, of offending without meaning to offend, of just not getting the joke, how does one describe being foreign?

Here’s my explanation. If you look up ‘foreign’ in a dictionary, some synonyms are ‘distant’, ‘far-off’, ‘external’. You can feel all those things without leaving your backyard. It’s not your geography that makes you foreign. It’s the context that makes you foreign.

It’s that first day of college as a ‘mature’ student. You may as well have stepped outside the Apollo capsule. That cocktail party your spouse couldn’t attend, where you stood with the pasted-on smile and laughed too loud, struggled to find a common interest, tried an ice breaker that remained an iceberg.

It’s the changing room at Victoria’s Secret. Who was that person in the mirror? Was she even the same species as the long-legged, huge-breasted, pert-nosed aliens pictured in the catalogue?

Maybe Macy’s (the outerwear section) will feel more like home. But you tried to emulate the latest fashion trend and ended up slinking down the street in something that made you look like a ripe squash of some variety. High fashion is a foreign land. Four-inch heels are a foreign land.  

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Sitting in the doctor’s office-slash-spaceship being told you have cancer or your loved one has dementia. The sense of ‘this isn’t me, this isn’t my life or where I belong’ is universal—whether you’re four thousand miles from home or in the surgery a mile from where you went to high school.

So, what is foreign? Not an accent, or a passport. It’s a feeling. A context. We’ve all been foreign. In the land of our birth. In our homes. In our heads. In our lives.

Now, when I’m asked what it’s like to be foreign, I provide a few of the examples above. And everyone understands. All heads nod.

What does it feel like to be foreign? It feels like being you, when you’re in a Victoria’s Secret changing room.

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Nothing personal, Flamstead.

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Flamstead High Street (image: Fine and Country)

Flamstead is a beautiful English village, situated north of London in the rolling countryside of Hertfordshire. It was my home for the first sixteen years of my life. Quaint, safe, surrounded by bucolic fields full of horses to ride and hayricks to climb, it provided the backdrop for my childhood. So why don’t I think of it as home?

I was born there, went to Brownies there and entered the beauty pageant there in my Spanish dress. I danced around the Maypole there and rode my first pony, Bridie, along every lane and bridle path for miles. I kept score for the cricket club on Sunday afternoons, held all my birthday parties, complete with rabbit-shaped blancmanges and homemade fairy cakes, in the back garden of our house on Singlets Lane.

st-leonards-church-geographSt. Leonard’s Church (image: Geograph)

I walked to tiny Flamstead Junior School through ancient St. Leonard’s churchyard. I competed in the school Sports Day, which comprised of the three-legged race, the egg and spoon race and the mother’s race. For a grand finale, the most adventurous of us would run a lap of the entire school property. It took about forty-five seconds.

I acquired my life-long sweet tooth at Bell Candies, about as Disneyfied a sweet shop as you’ll ever find. Nestled in the bay window of a tiny cottage were the jewels of childhood; white chocolate mice, Blackjacks, Flying Saucers, jelly babies, gob-stoppers and barley sugars. Jars and jars of heaven lined the walls. I stopped on the way to school to spend my pocket money, the owner shooing me out the door if I stayed too long.

I played in Jacks’ Dell, an old crater of unknown origin on the edge of the village. I climbed in, hid in, made forts in, pushed friends in … (Sorry, Paul, about tying you to that dustbin lid and sending you over the edge. Looking back, not one of my better decisions.) I told ghost stories there about Jack the Ripper, who supposedly hid in the dell when he wasn’t busy in London.

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The Spotted Dog (image: Thespotteddog.com)

I listened to Sunday evening bell ringing practice, hung out on the bus stop bench with friends, dreamed about being old enough to drink at one of the local pubs …

I grew up there.

I knew everyone. Everyone knew me.

I left my idyllic village to train to be a horse riding instructor on Exmoor. And I never went back to Flamstead again. Never even looked back. I found my soul drawn to Exmoor like a moth to a flame—in a way it never was to Flam-stead.

I don’t understand why. I have no control over it. It is what it is.

Almost forty years after leaving my birthplace, I offer my thanks and my apology. Nothing personal, Flamstead. You did nothing wrong. You were perfect.

You just weren’t Exmoor.

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