Tales from The Corona Cruise

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Hubby and I never thought of ourselves as ‘cruise’ people. We met when he was in the Navy and I was crewing on a private yacht. Needless to say, our view of the ocean waves was through a prism of hard work, narrowly averted disasters, and exhaustion. But a South American cruise, thirty years after our professional seafaring days ended, would allow us to check off many bucket list locations quickly before moving to Europe. Jet lag wouldn’t be an issue from the US as we’d be heading south. It all seemed so simple. So relaxing. So normal. So … a different world ago.

In February, back when coronavirus was still (in the minds of some ‘leaders’ in the US anyway) a flu bug, weaponised to impact elections and all that bologna, we headed to Santiago, Chile, to meet the Viking Jupiter. Now, if you’ve ever seen the living quarters on a submarine or jammed yourself into a tiny crew bunk on a small motor yacht, you may understand how Hubby and I reacted on seeing the Viking Jupiter. Talk about all your bells and whistles: A large balcony as opposed to my tiny porthole – and Hubby’s no porthole at all. No nuclear weapon codes to worry about. No being responsible for cleaning up the vomit from that guest who decided to have three Bloody Marys before heading out fishing in choppy waters. Oh, and did I mention the bars of Toblerone replenished daily in each cabin? Maybe we’re cruise people after all.

With no frame of reference for cruises, we figure maybe they always take everyone’s temperatures as they embark. It doesn’t faze us. The days tick by in splendid isolation from the world. The occasion message comes through about increases in coronavirus cases and maybe it’s not just in China and Italy after all, and maybe some things were going to have to change. But I’m busy eating the Toblerone and Hubby’s busy looking through the binoculars at whales and we’re floating above the clouds at Osorno Volcano and gazing at the emerald waters of Petrohué Falls and marvelling at Amalia Glacier and strolling through the stunning Tierra del Fuego National Park and learning how to drink the local Pisco Sour and falling in love with quirky Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. February ticks into March and all is right with the universe.

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Except it isn’t. As we round Cape Horn in the smoothest water some of the crew had ever experienced, things are getting distinctly choppy in the real world. Washington State is struggling. Seattle’s shut down. Our financial portfolio is making strange throat-clearing noises. The UK is still avoiding following Europe’s lead of restricting travel and shutting down schools. There are mutterings from older retirees in the ship’s stairwells and restaurants. Increased vigilance at the handwashing stations. A crew member on permanent duty, wiping down handrails. Hubby and I look sideways at each over Pisco Sours, the hairs on the backs of our necks rippling with the first brushes of alarm.

We arrive in the Falkland Islands after a couple of isolated days at sea. Tours continue as usual and I check off other bucket list items – hanging out with the King penguins at Volunteer Point and paying my respects to those lost on both sides during the war of 1982. Another two days at sea, then a cancelled port of call in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, as high winds preclude docking the ship. Or do they? Rumours are rife. Are we being denied entry into Argentina? No. Can’t be. And I do believe we got accurate information from the Norwegian company. Just high winds.

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It’s information coming out of the US we’re struggling with. Erratic. Contradictory. Inflammatory. Unhelpful. We start looking at info coming out of Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, out of step with initial UK info about herd immunity and how to obtain it. The whole world out of step. It’s impossible to form cohesive plans, to know what’s really going on.

The awesome Viking crew keep smiling and the food keeps coming and I keep eating the Toblerone, though I’m chewing slower and it may not be tasting as good as it did back in February. We check on the crew, asking questions about what happens to them if the ship can’t dock. The crew doesn’t know. The Cruise Director and Captain (or Designated Driver as he calls himself over the Tannoy) tell us information is being collected and analysed. We find ourselves trusting these non-sensationalized, apolitical messages, reporting exactly what they know and don’t know. No one pretends to be a stable genius. No one points fingers or rants or covers up. It’s refreshing. We need that reassurance.

It’s March 10th now and we head into another two days at sea, wondering what happens once we get to Montevideo, Uruguay. We needn’t worry. A wonderful welcome awaits us and we revel in the colours and culture of this great city.

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Breaking news! Our US house isn’t supposed to go on the market until March 22nd, a week after we return from our cruise. But we get an email from our realtor. Subject line: Hold onto your breaches! She has two interested parties offering ‘site unseen’ bids above listing price. Are we interested? As a matter of fact, we are! We can move England sooner than we thought! We high five the bartender and I plan on three desserts for dinner. We accept a bid, electronical signing the contracts as the Viking Jupiter slices smoothly through the South Atlantic waters, heading towards Buenos Aires. The man on the couch next to us offers to take a photo as we send off the contract. Woo hoo! Job done! We’re practically in England already with all our furniture and a gorgeous summer on Exmoor ahead of us!

But wait. Our retirement accounts give us the international signal for choking, both hands around their necks, whites of eye showing. Rumblings about our Buenos Aires port-of-call. Then comes the announcement, piped into every cabin, which is unusual. ‘Viking Cruises is suspending services as of today for six weeks.’ I put my Toblerone back in the fridge and plonk down on the couch. Dinner is a quiet affair. No drinks. No dessert. No clue how to react to this new world order.

Cities are shutting down. Cruise ships are the new leper colonies, unwelcome everywhere. We open our eyes first thing in the morning on March 14th hoping we’re docked in Buenos Aires and not spinning circles somewhere out in the ocean. Like the refugee vessels we’ve broken our hearts over so many times. I work with refugees. Am I one, now?

The world has changed. Argentina announces it’s shutting its airports exactly one hour after our flight is due to take off on March 15th. That’s too tight. We run to the Help Desk. Administrative crew are helping other passengers change flights. The ship was supposed to go on to Benidorm, Spain, and many passengers were due to stay onboard for another twenty-one days. We understand they need to get flights out first but we worry about ourselves too, of course. Tense messages are coming in from friends and family. Where are we? We should try to get across the US border soon. Very soon. We’ve seen this movie a million times. But never starred in it.

The Viking crew are awesome. They assure us they’ll do their best to find a flight out for us but in the meantime we should take advantage of the final tour of Buenos Aires, about to leave the dock. In a daze, we go, not really knowing what else to do. There are no coronavirus cases on the ship or in Argentina at the time. Surely, a tour is better than twitching with nerves in our cabin? And it is. It’s an amazing city. The only problem is we’d dressed to bike around the city in sunshine but that tour’s cancelled so we set off to walk. I’m wearing white shorts. I read somewhere, a long time ago, you shouldn’t wear white underwear under white shorts. You should wear nude-coloured underwear. Then nothing shows through. Typically, that’s been good advice. But not in a rainstorm. The skies open, we’re drenched in seconds. White shorts become translucent and I look completely naked. It’s too soon to laugh about it, okay.

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But we tour on. Stiff upper lip, right? I cringe as I say this to Hubby. What we’re going through is hardly heroic, and, looking back, may have been foolhardy. A luxury cruise. Safer environment than back home. Emergency assets for a hotel if we need to hunker down in Buenos Aires. We shouldn’t be sweating anything. But we are. We have kids in harm’s way on two continents, a dog in a kennel, vulnerable neighbours, friends, family, already struggling with health issues. A house sold, no new home in sight. We need to get back to the US. And I need to change out of these darn shorts before I’m arrested!

The tour guide informs us we are indeed the last tour. He’s been told his job is finished, all other cruise ships cancelled for the foreseeable future. He has a new baby at home. We’re ashamed of our worries. The hospitality industry will be decimated. Our daughter works in that industry. Every member of the crew, people we’ve come to care about, are at risk. Interestingly, we see shops, restaurants and tourist spots still open in Buenos Aires: except for La Ricoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried. That’s closed due to the coronavirus. Let that sink in for a minute. We stare through the sealed gates. If it’s bad enough that the dead should be protected, we need a new plan.

We bolt back to the ship. Viking Cruises has found us a flight to Miami. We have twenty minutes to pack up our cabin and get a taxi. As I fling stuff into suitcases and panic-eat the last of the Toblerone, I’m so grateful I thought to thank and tip our cabin crew the day before. No time to say goodbye to anyone else. The taxi’s travelling way too fast for comfort and rap music has never soothed my soul. It doesn’t today either. But our driver likes it. He’s all that stands between us and a very long stay in Buenos Aires right now so we don’t complain.

My new suitcase and favourite travel handbag break on the dash through the airport. A pandemic ago, this would have been worthy of complaint. Today, I simply pick up the case and keep moving.  We secure boarding passes and a wave of relief washes over us. Few people are wearing masks at the airport, though as we watch the New York Stock Exchange ticker tape scrolling across the TV screen, our retirement hopes scream for ventilators we know aren’t coming.

We arrive in Miami to warnings of extra health screenings. It’s one question: Are you feeling ill? We pass the test and spend the time between flights watching footage of the chaos in Chicago: four-hour waits for temperature checks. We’re heading to Chicago. We’ve been awake around twenty-seven hours by the time we land, to no extra health screenings. Our phones ping like demented xylophones, family checking on our progress. House sale documents rattle in, requiring our immediate attention.

We’ve no idea if selling now is a good idea. Can we get to England to find a new house? Unlikely. Even if travel isn’t officially restricted, it’s unacceptable to try to get there until we know we’re not a risk to those around us. But if we don’t sell now, who knows when we’ll be able to again? We decide to sell. Hubby and I drive from the airport in silence.

As I write this, our fourteen-day quarantine is behind us. No symptoms. But we’re under ‘safer at home’ advisories in Wisconsin, restricting travel and human contact for another month at least. In the UK, moving companies aren’t moving furniture, home showings have been suspended, mortgage applications aren’t being processed. Visa offices are closed so Hubby’s application can’t be processed. We can’t find information on when we’ll be able to ship our dog. Our US house sale closes on May 22nd and we’ve nowhere to live after that. Our son and daughter-in-law in the UK have been furloughed, our daughter in the US laid off.

We’ve waited thirty years to move back home to England. And thirty years to take a cruise. Our timing is impeccable. The notion of a world cruise takes on new meaning: we left port in one world and docked in another. But we’ll carry memories of the splendours of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falklands into our isolation. Who knows when a trip like that will be possible again?

Though this adventure wasn’t exactly as we imagined it would be, we’re willing to try again. One day. Some day. We have nothing but praise for Viking Cruises. As I now say, it was the best of cruises, it was the worst of cruises. We’re also seeing the world’s people at their best and at their worst too. And I will get home to England at some unknown future time. I’m lucky. My family and I have our health and that’s all that matters right now. Everything else must wait.

I wish you all safely through this extraordinary time. Sending hugs from a socially acceptable distance.

Author’s own images: Looking down on cloud cover from Osorno Volcano, rainbow over the Chilean fjords, penguins at Volunteer Point, author (before the shorts turned translucent!) in Buenos Aires. (Permission required for sharing.)

 

When Was The Last Time You Did Something For The First Time?

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‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ John C. Maxwell

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We spend so much of our lives repeating the same limited array of actions; the routine so ingrained we don’t even miss what we’re not doing. Oh, I know, we sometimes look up from the alarm clock, the grocery cart, the housework, the dog in need of a grooming, the editing, the writing, the rewriting, to say, ‘I should do that’. But don’t.

This past year, though, I’ve broken out of my personal routine. I’ve committed to doing something I’ve been just talking about for years. Yep. Going home. Back to the United Kingdom. Back to fish and chips, egg cups, dog-friendly pubs, good chocolate and exorbitantly high petrol prices. And the National Health Service and BBC license fees and Trooping of the Colour and stunning national parks and Brexit. Leaving behind endless snowy US winters, stunning national parks, two-year-long election campaigns (Do they ever really end in the US?), school shootings (Will these ever end? Seriously, America?), uber-convenience (think warm cookies delivered to your door, 24/7) and extra sugar in everything, including bread and possibly soap.

With this dramatic change on my horizon, there’ve been a lot of first and a lot of lasts lately.

The Firsts:

Searched for a house to purchase on Exmoor. Signed contract on a house on Exmoor. Retracted said contract when things fell apart. Continued search for a house.

Researched shipping a dog from the US to the UK. It’s not cheap, is it? And it’s stressful, for all of us but Watson. He’s none the wiser at the moment but that will change when he sees the crate. Which, unfortunately, must be ordered in ‘Woolly Mammoth’ size due to Watson’s mixed heritage including a large dose of Great Pyrenees.

Got US citizenship. (I know, I know. Why, you ask if I’m going back to the UK? It’s the travel restrictions on green card holders. Have to be free, man.) Attended my own citizenship oath swearing ceremony and assisted at another for refugees.

Travelled on a US passport. The only thing I enjoyed about this was the photo on my new US passport is much nicer that on my old UK passport. Now it’s not such an ego-bruising occurrence as the immigration officer sniggers behind his screen.

Lost European Union citizenship. I think. Not sure of the exact date that happened/happens. Was it January 31st or is it the end of 2020? Who knows?

Published a second novel. That can never happen again. So is it a first or a last? Luckily, publishing a third can happen for the first and last time also. It can also happen wherever I am in the world.

Paid off our thirty-year mortgage. That felt good! Can now afford the Woolly Mammoth crate.

Witnessed my youngest graduate university.

The Lasts. (At least, I think they are…)

My youngest graduated university, which means no more payments, or summer jobs, or ‘Can I borrow the car?’, or ‘Send food parcels, please’, or sweating grades. It’s been a jolt to realise I no longer have a dependent child. Luckily, I still have a dependent hubby and dog. Or maybe I’m the dependent there. Depends on the day.

Celebrated last Christmas and New Year in the US.

Spent six hours in one day shovelling a massive amount of snow from my driveway. (Should this happen in my new English home, I’ll be upset. Seriously upset. But packing one snow shovel, just in case.)

Applied for citizenship in a foreign country. At least I hope that was the last time. The paperwork was mind-boggling! The emotional toll was also greater than I expected.

Filed taxes for last full year of earnings solely in the US. 2020 will see filings in both the US and the UK. Can’t wait.

Photoalbums

Condensed photo collection from what seemed like a hundred boxes, envelopes, drawers and albums into five photo storage boxes. While I enjoyed the sentimental journey from my own childhood through my children’s childhoods (went digital in 2006 – thank goodness!) it was a massive task I hope never to repeat. I hear you saying, ‘If she’d been more organized through the years, it wouldn’t have come to this.’  I don’t need this from you, thanks very much. But come over and I’ll show you Every. Single. Photo. You’re welcome.

Weighed – literally – the value of items based on nostalgia. Does that child’s tent, book, box of baby clothes, wedding dress, favourite leather chair, china serving dish I’ve never used but was given to me by a favourite person, etc., warrant the expense of shipping?

Bought my last roundtrip ticket from the US to the UK and back. Next time I travel, it will be roundtrip from the UK to the US and back. This may not seem a big deal to you, unless you’ve spent thirty years away from the place you consider home. The roundtrip starting point becomes a huge deal. A Woolly Mammoth deal.

So much still to learn and organize before the move. So much still to experience here in the US before saying goodbye. So if you ask me, ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’, I can say, ‘Oh, about lunchtime.’

Wishing you every success with your own firsts and lasts.

Wrong Time Zone. Right Book Zone.

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The last decade ended with great excitement. I thought I’d purchased my first house in England, ready to move home after thirty years in the US. This new decade began with great disappointment. The purchase fell through. Hand wringing, lamenting, and yelling ‘A pox on all your houses!’ didn’t seem to accomplish much. A change in tactics now finds me waking at 4:30 a.m. to peruse real estate websites and badger all my Exmoor friends to be on the lookout for suitable properties. Many have stopped answering my calls and it’s only … still January. Anyone would think they feared my return. Fear not, brave allies! I shall return in all hast to force copious amounts of clotted cream on you. In the meantime, I remain in the wrong time zone.

As a distraction from lamenting and house-poxing, I turn to books. Not my own as I’m too distracted. Haven’t written or rewritten or edited a word in a couple of months. Luckily, other authors are filling the void and I’ve read some awesome works, many outside my comfort zone. Out of necessity, I spend a lot of time reading within my genre. I need comparative titles for agents, a current view of the publishing landscape, a familiarity with like authors, what’s working and what’s not. Reading is certainly pleasurable but it’s also work. I used to read everything and there’s no reason to stop just because I’m now a writer in a certain genre, right? In fact, every reason to broaden my horizons. So, 2019 was the year I stepped back outside my humorous fiction cave and blinked in the light of forgotten categories.

I found some of my 2019 reads through PBS’s Now Read This (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/now-read-this/), and still others at my new favourite hangout, the reviewer’s copy table at Barnes and Noble: new releases at discounted prices. Some of my reads are brand new releases, others are old classics. I’ve linked to reviews rather than sellers where possible as I know you have your own purchasing preferences. I hope the links work wherever you are. I’d love to hear your recommendations from your own reading adventures. Here goes:

I’ve never been a big fan of autobiographies but Casey Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here and Damian Barr’s Maggie And Me cured me of that.

Spy thrillers became a favourite genre after meeting Tom Clancy at a book signing, then marrying a US Naval Officer. But that was years ago and I’d let the spy work go. Daniel Silva’s The English Girl brough me back with a vengeance. (Though I could never write this. Here’s why.)

Nonfiction has been on the backburner for a while. It moved to the front of the stove with To End A Presidency (Lawrence Tribe and Joshua Matz), Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending, John McFarland’s The Wild Places, and Jane Friedman’s The Business Of Being A Writer. All fascinating and informative.

Everyone should top up their classics reading each year. (Tracey, that means you.) My choices were I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, American Gods, Neil Gaiman, and Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). How could I never have read Rebecca before now! It’s awesome! But most of you knew that already, I suppose.

The flip side of the classics is to take a chance on a debut author. Beneath the Flames by Gregory Lee Renz is a great place to start. I met Greg at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute and, boy, can this former firefighter tell a story.

War and violence are topics I steer clear of if I can. There’s just too much going on in the world for me to find the awful things we do to each other entertaining. But A Woman Among Warlords, Malalia Joya, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri, are eye-openers. I’ve started 2020 with Olga Grjasnowa’s City Of Jasmine, about the refugee crisis brought about by the war in Syria. Foreign translations haven’t been on my radar for a while, yet City Of Jasmine, translated from German, reminds me to look outside my native language. It’s a fantastic book. Never will images of boats full of soaked people leave my consciousness. I volunteer with refugee populations, but I need these non-fiction and fictional accounts of prior lives and journeys to help fill my knowledge gaps.

I didn’t abandon the lighter-hearted, fun read. Far from it. I read many. A favourite was Rules For Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. Maybe it was the timing of my own hopes to reconnect with old friends in England (those still taking my calls) that deepened the meaning of this tale. Or maybe it was the protagonist’s job, her world filled with plants and flowers. Either way, I enjoyed it.

I read my first Stephen King, Duma Key. The author has the potential to do quite well. You heard it here first.

Some 2019 reads I didn’t fully appreciate and one in particular was downright awful (mentioning no names), but each one sharpened my senses for what kind of writer I hope to be. Stephen King (an up-and-coming author I’ve mentioned before) says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ I believe him. Here’s to taking my open genre mind into 2020 – and into my own writing.

One more thing: I’ve decided not to participate in the Goodreads 2020 Book Challenge, where readers are encouraged to set a goal for number of books they’ll read in a given year. I’m too numbers-oriented for this. I find myself focusing on book count, finishing books I’d rather put side, choosing a shorter book over longer just to chase an arbitrary target. Which I missed. Two years in a row. Dropping that stressor (I need to save all that dopamine and epinephrine for house-buying) means I’ll read exactly what I want, when I want.

I’ll still write reviews of everything I read, of course, as reviews are the lifeblood of any author. If you’ve enjoyed my novels, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble. Then go and read something outside your comfort zone – and review it. Your new favourite authors will thank you. Hey, even Stephen King needs validation every now and then. Wonder if he’s tried to buy a house lately?

Happy reading and/or house-hunting to you all.

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From Y2K to Brexit

'The Sky is Falling'

How can it possibly be twenty years since the whole Y2K thing? Remember all that ‘Your laptop will explode at midnight because it won’t be able to tell the time’ or some such nonsense? Well, nothing happened to my laptop or the oven clock. My car didn’t swerve off the road because the radio malfunctioned and here we all are. Twenty years wiser and about to start the clock on the next decade.

And here I am, shaky and nervous and pondering the next ‘Will the sky fall?’ scenario. You, see, in my infinite wisdom, I’ve chosen the era of Brexit, – nay, the very month of Brexit – to return to the United Kingdom after thirty plus years in the United States. Well done me. But how was I to know my US ties to a mortgage and college payments would end, my homesickness would increase, and the fiasco that is US politics would all collide at the stroke of midnight New Years Eve, 2019? Well, not exactly at midnight but you get the idea.

Chaos and the unknown aside, my mind’s made up. I’m going home. It’s not about perfect timing as there’s no such thing, in my opinion. It’s about making the time fit your needs. In preparation for departure, I’ve spent the last two months emptying out my house of all the detritus of a lifetime – and yes, so much of what we hoard and shift from place to place is detritus. Seriously, a popsicle stick with a red pompom nose and just the glue left where the eyes used to be that may or may not have been made by my child (but which one?). The cracked orange dressing table dish that a cousin (or friend, or business colleague or who remembers?) gave me in 1979 after their trip to Asia – a place I’ve never been? I’ve been dragging this from coast to coast and attic to attic for all these decades? And now I’m downsizing by about 75% in square footage, where exactly is the cracked orange dish going to go? Toss it! But wait. Maybe it was special and I just don’t remember. I’ll put it over here and decide later. Next to the popsicle stick, because what if one day a child (but which one?) says, ‘Mum, remember that popsicle stick reindeer I gave you that I was so proud of? I’d like to show it to my own child now. Where is it?’

Clearing the detritus, that turns out not be detritus but is in fact little pieces of my soul, is emotionally draining. But the dream moves closer, the purchase of my first ever English house moves closer …

As I get to the very last box of photos from 1989, as I sell the last string of Christmas lights and the childhood puzzles, that house sale turns shaky. No one’s fault, just a kink in the housing chain that throws everyone off balance. But it’s really thrown me. From certain where my boxes were going, to visions of looking for a different house ‘just in case’, all happened in the space of days. And I’m back to wondering if the sky is falling, my laptop will explode, planes will be grounded, the earth will swallow my dreams of returning to England in January right at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, 2019. But I’ll make it work. It must work. The clock’s ticking. It’s time.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year, wherever you are, whatever your dreams.

Image: Lauri Vain, Flickr

Finding Home in Saffron Sweeting.

Pauline Wiles, a California-based British writer, and I first connected via social media after I published Dunster’s Calling. Seems we both had anglophiles in mind as we wrote. Pauline’s novels are set in the fictional English village of Saffron Sweeting, where the quirky characters and beautiful settings transport the reader across the Pond for a fun dose of romantic comedy. To celebrate the release this month of Pauline’s fourth Saffron Sweeting novel, The Ten Things My Husband Hated, I’d like to share the conversation from our ‘tea and cake’ chat at Glastonbury Abbey, mingled with email musings. Enjoy!

TG: Were you a risk-taker or world-traveller before emigrating from the United Kingdom to the United States, or was this a huge leap of faith?

PW: I definitely didn’t consider myself a big risk-taker, although I wasn’t the type of person to sit still and complain, either. As for world travel, I worked for British Airways for several years but in that time only saw a tiny fraction of the world. It did mean, however, that I’d been to San Francisco twice: once as a tourist, and once to view it through the lens of relocation.

TG: How long have you lived in the US? How do you feel about life in a foreign land, or do you even feel foreign?

PW: I moved from London to northern California in 2004. My husband was offered a tempting work opportunity, and since I was miserable in my job at the time, leaving the country seemed like a splendid excuse for handing in my notice. With hindsight, that was a crazy notion and I’m incredibly lucky it didn’t backfire. Yes, I do feel somewhat foreign, but the San Francisco Bay Area has people from all backgrounds and if anything my accent has helped, not hindered me. I’ve got fairly good at spotting when something I’ve said doesn’t translate, which still happens after 15 years.

TG: How long did you initially plan to be away from England?

PW: Permanently. I shipped the piano so that says it all really.

TG: When did you make the decision to apply for US citizenship and was that difficult?

PW: I applied as soon as I was eligible [five years after receiving permanent resident status] as we wanted to buy a home with security. The decision was an easy one. If I had been required to give up UK citizenship in order to “join the other side”, the issue would have been far tougher. I’m not sure I’d have taken that kind of leap.

TG: Do you feel you could ever return to the UK permanently?

PW: My husband has made it clear he’ll never return! But I’m settled and happy in California too. I’d like to be able to maintain my twice-yearly visits [to England] though.

TG: When you say you’re going home, where do you mean? If it’s the US, was there a moment when you felt the ‘switch’?

PW: It does mean the US, yes, although I can’t be sure of the moment that switch came. Probably fairly early. I’ve always loved interior design so as soon as I can “nest” in a place and call it mine, I start to feel settled. Buying a home in California was hugely exciting. I think a big part also was being here alongside my husband. Home is where your soulmate is, perhaps?

TG: Any regrets about leaving the UK?

PW: I wish I’d travelled in Europe more before moving to the US. It’s now an expensive and tiring proposition, whereas it’s quick and cheap from the UK.

TG: Do you ever experience homesickness, or hireth, as I do?

PW: When I wrote Saving Saffron Sweeting I was definitely processing some homesickness: the book was thinly disguised therapy for me. But I’m lucky that I genuinely love living here (in California), and being able to visit Britain twice a year is very fortunate. I do wish it wasn’t so draining to jump on a plane to see family, and if I ever hit the mega-bestseller list I might consider a small home in both countries. But I’ve grown enormously as an individual during my time here. I’m not sure, in England, I would have aspired to run marathons, or publish books. It’s hard to know if those adventures have been encouraged by the innovative culture of where I live now. It’s possible, of course, that they’d have happened anyway, but I suspect not.

TG: Three things you miss about the UK. Three things you don’t!

PW: Three things I miss: bacon, John Lewis (a British department store), fireworks night (an annual celebration commemorating the thwarted 1605 attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament). Three things I don’t miss: manual (stick shift) cars, gloomy skies all winter, lousy plumbing.

TG: In your novels, you make Saffron Sweeting feel so real I want to visit it! How do you keep England fresh in your writing when you’ve lived away for many years?

PW: I visit England about twice a year and I try hard to notice the details which help create the sense of place in my novels. When I lived there, I wasn’t especially observant of things like plants or birdsong, so now I make more effort. And I’m constantly looking up things like what time it gets light in June, or dark in November. I haven’t yet been cheeky enough to deduct my trips to English tea shops from my taxes, but they feel like especially vital research!

TG: Would you have to change your mindset to write about a fictional US village? Have you ever looked back and realized you unintentionally injected America into something you wrote?

PW: I can’t yet imagine feeling qualified to write about an American village. There are so many details in place, character and dialogue that would be easy to get wrong. I still worry that the American characters in my books don’t sound right. Everyone knows about the most common differences in words and spellings, but some things are far more subtle. For example, an American would probably glance out the window, whereas a Brit would glance out of it. I employ a British proofreader for my novels so she can catch tiny slips like that, which I’ve now started to make.

TG: Some of your characters look to settle in new locations, some return to old haunts. How much of your own adjustments to living in the US are reflected in your writings?

PW: My adjustments to living in the US don’t feed much into the novels, but the things I notice when I now return to Britain as a relative outsider definitely do. In the first novel, when Grace gives advice to the village pub keeper and bed & breakfast owner about customer service, those are based on direct observations. I will say, though, in the 15 years I’ve been away, it’s become much easier to get a glass of tap water with a meal in England, or to swap crisps for a side salad, without being treated strangely!

TG: Will you ever write about a character who relocates from the UK to the US?

PW: Potentially … but at present my audience is highly appreciative of a British setting. So I’ll stick with Saffron Sweeting for at least the next book, probably more. I have far more American readers than British and I’ve deliberately played up the aspects of an English village which make for an attractive travel destination, if only vicariously.

Thank you, Pauline. I can testify to Saffron Sweeting being an ‘attractive travel destination’! The Saffron Sweeting novels stand alone, so you can start anywhere in the series. Here’s the link in the US for purchasing Ten Things My Husband Hated, out now in paperback and ebook formats: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07WHZKQ1M/?tag=paulwile-20

Pauline is the author of Indie With Ease, a helpful resource for the indie author. (It even includes some advice from me!) She also designs websites for authors, promoting user-friendly, yet polished, social media platforms. See links below for more details about her Simple, stylish websites for writers and authors:

www.paulinewiles.com

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Excuse Not to Write #46: Transatlantic Distractions and Dance Parties

I admit it. I’m distracted. Which doesn’t bode well for a writer. A recent trip to England, a house search while over there, a million things to contemplate about relocation across the pond, and, well, it’s all spinning in my head and any kind of writing gets side-tracked.

Today, I determined to plonk myself down in the chair and at least write my monthly blog. After all, so many of you wait with bated breath for my confused confessions of an author who feels she’s living in the wrong country. (Note to self: do something more interesting that requires confession. It may increase sales. But I digress …)

With my blogging brain in full rebellion, I vow to write about the first story I see on the internet this morning. With everything in the news right now, I admit it’s a risky strategy. I don’t know enough about Syria, Brexit, the 25th Amendment or the college admissions scandal to educate or entertain you with my analysis. But today I luck out. The first story I see is that Mike Posner has completed his coast-to-coast walk across America. The image is of him rejoicing as he reaches the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who don’t know Mike Posner, he’s a singer-songwriter famous for his ‘Cooler Than Me’ and ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ chart-topping hits. Oh, wait! I may have something to confess. I absolutely must dance to these songs. I defy anyone not to. They pound in your head and whoosh through your system, your shoulders, hips and feet soon in full party mode. I’m always close to getting a speeding ticket if they come on the car radio. I jack up the volume to an unseemly level for a woman of my … maturity. The arresting officer would say, ‘Aren’t you a bit old for this kind of music and do your children know you listen to songs with four-letter words in them?’ In my defence, the lyrics are rather poignant if you listen to the acoustic versions without the techno-pop-rock beat. And there’s only one swear word in ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’. That I bleep out when I sing along. (I’m playing ‘Cooler Than Me’ as I write this. Thank goodness for a standing desk as I rock my moves. No, there’s no video of me dancing. There will never be video of me dancing. You’re welcome.)

But how does Mr Posner’s six-month walk across America relate to me? Well, in all the coverage of his journey, he states he is not the same person as when he left the East Coast of the United States several months ago. A snake bite requiring hospitalization may have something to do with this. But I put to you that no one is the same after travel. Plane, train, automobile and sneaker travel changes you. The people you meet change you. The scenery, the food, the effort, the politics, and yes, even the music, changes you. On Posner’s website, he states one of his goals is ‘Enjoy where I am in the journey. Don’t waste time obsessing about getting to the end.’ His mantra throughout the journey was ‘Keep Going’. And that’s what struck me. Keep Going. As I gear up for the fights ahead with transatlantic property financing, shipping containers, what to leave/sell/donate/destroy, and how to say goodbye to America, I’ll keep Mr Posner’s words close: Keep Going. I’ll get to England eventually. I just needed this reminder to appreciate every step of the journey.

Soon enough, I’ll get back to writing and editing the two novels I’m working on, too. Wish me luck.

Next month, Pauline Wiles, author of the Saffron Sweeting anglophile novels, will be guest blogging about her own transatlantic journey from England to the sunshine of California. Join us!

(Image: Mark Morgan, Flickr)

So, A Veggie Platter Walks into A Courthouse …

I assisted at a US citizenship oath ceremony last week, held at the District Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. By ‘assist’ I mean I crinkle cut vast quantities of veggies and lugged a cooler through courthouse security. No mean feat, actually, as the handle of the cooler wouldn’t fit through the scanner. Therefore, umpteen gallon-size baggies full of carrots, celery, peppers, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and cauliflower florets had to be hand-screened by three guards wearing earpieces. Can just imagine the conversation with the control room:

‘Sir, she says she cut all these herself using the neighbour’s Pampered Chef crinkle cutter.’

‘No one’s crazy enough to cut that many vegetables by hand.’

‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’

‘I see. Let her in but keep an eye on her.’

I, of course, had wanted to go all out roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, gravy, trifle, treacle tart and custard. Greater minds prevailed and it was suggested I just go for the veggie platter. Good job, too. Can you imagine the trifle after the hand-screening?

Anyway, security cleared, I waited for the other volunteers to arrive. Soon, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, cheese platters, sheet cake, and baklava were trundling out the back of the security scanner on the conveyer belt. This isn’t what typically comes through the court’s doors. But this ceremony was unique. Open Doors For Refugees – the organization I volunteer with – arranged a special ceremony to be held in Madison. Court officials had to travel from Milwaukee to Madison. The least we could do was feed them.

To be honest, the food was mainly for the oath takers and their families (though we fed everyone – including the security guards). Naturalized citizens – like me – and immigrant organization leaders, including former refugees, provided a welcome lunch for the new citizens once they were sworn in. This is the third year Open Doors For Refugees has held this ceremony in Madison. Apparently, the judges are fighting over who gets to administer the oath. It’s a bright light in what can be a dark world in the district courts. Every other case posted on the courtroom door sounded, let’s say, less upbeat.

Finding myself back in court only a few months after my own Milwaukee induction into US citizenry, it seemed strange to watch it from the other side. Oath takers arrived, nervous, dressed-up, clutching paperwork. Family members followed, excited and proud. For so many it had been a long and arduous journey. If you haven’t been through it, it’s a bit like being the bride: months of prep, of stress, of dress fittings and venue food testing and sweating the cocktail napkin colour choices. When the day arrives, you’re too tired to care if the tiny ring-bearer hurled the cushion into the koi pond or the groom forgot his vows.

Only it’s more than that. It’s many more years of preparation. It’s an even bigger – in many senses -commitment than marriage. It’s loss, or at least change, of one’s long-held concept of home. One of the guest speakers, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke of the changes in terms of grief and the notion that things will never be the same. She spoke of the underlying battle to process who you really are now and how others will view you. What to hang on to and what to leave behind. I found it moving in a way I hadn’t expected. It was my first time holding my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the US flag. It centred attention on divided loyalty and homesickness and pride and yes, grief; of being separated from one world while stepping through a door into another. I did it by choice when I married an American and it was still difficult for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for those who had fled their beloved homes and would choose to still be in those homes if not for war, violence, fear, or persecution.

Some oath-takers brushed away tears through the whole ceremony. What did those tears represent? Regret, homesickness, gratitude, honour, a sense of loss, or a sense of gain? Another gentleman held his right hand so high while taking the oath, I worried he’d lose all feeling in his fingers. It’s a long oath. But his great pride was front and centre. Some spoke fluent English, some struggled to keep up as they read the oath. Some smiled at family, some appeared alone. Some waved American flags, some stared at their flags with looks of confusion. What does it mean to wave this flag now after a lifetime of waving other colours?

It’s a process, this citizenship thing. And I don’t mean just a complex, confusing paperwork process. It’s a process of moving on, of hoping to be accepted while questioning what you’re being accepted into as immigrants at this particular time in American history.

The judge shook my hand and thanked me for all I do for our local immigrant populations. I do so little, wrist brace notwithstanding. I just tutor families in the English language and help with childcare while mothers take classes. Many do so much more. I was embarrassed by the judge’s kind words. But he reminds me these little things send ripples across oceans and influence generations.

It felt good. To belong. To welcome. To feel part of something so much bigger than myself. As this country struggles to redefine itself as part of a global community, I know, wherever I live, I’ll continue to reach out to those from somewhere else.

Welcome, new citizens. Hope you enjoyed the veggies – and that you get the chance to welcome others yourselves soon. Thank you, Open Doors For Refugees, for this opportunity to serve.

This event was part of Welcoming Week 2019, one of 2,000 events held across the US designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in a welcome for all.

For more information on Open Doors For Refugees, go to  http://www.opendoorsforrefugees.org/

World Chaos, Transatlantic Relocation – and Painting the Bunker Red

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I’m gearing up to sell my house in the spring. If all goes according to plan, it will be my last house sale in the USA in preparation for my first house purchase in the UK. With me so far? Plan – move – UK? You have questions, you say? Oh. You mean why are my American husband and I relocating across the Pond when we have no clue how Brexit will impact the UK or how Trump will continue to influence the US? When all rational thought suggests we hunker down in a bunker stocked with tinned mandarin oranges. (Are there tariffs on those? Maybe the tins, you think, not the orange segments? No, I have no idea either. Hard to plan what to stockpile, isn’t it.) But I digress …

Obviously, you’re right to be confused as to my relocation timing. I agree to a little apprehension myself. Confusing times lead to confused decisions.

But enough of politics and world chaos. Here’s what really confuses me: All those things I said I’d do to this house when I moved in thirteen years ago and didn’t do. (Except paint the wall behind the toilet red. That I did.) Why have these irritating household fixes now popped from bottom to top of the URGENT to-do list? Why is the loose trim under the cabinet in the bathroom keeping me awake, even if you can’t see it unless you’re on your hands and knees with one ear on the floor? And the crayon marks on the woodwork from the previous owner’s kids? Still there. Only now those marks glow like an Elizabethan ‘The Armada’s coming!’ beacon on a hilltop, guiding the eye to the rainbow stains. And then there’s the red paint wall behind the toilet that seemed like a good idea thirteen years ago but never really worked and I’ve lived with it because, well, admitting your husband was right all along is never going to happen except the realtor agrees with him and now I’m stuck with a smirk on hubby’s face. (He needs to remember who’s sponsoring his relocation to the UK. One word from me at Heathrow immigration and he’s expat toast. Just saying.)

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And there’s the retaining wall in one of the flower beds. It’s completely covered in mature shrubs. I planted them years ago to hide the one wobbly boulder. Which they do, by the way. Completely. But suddenly that unlevel boulder seems such an eyesore it’s visible from space and most certainly will be picked up by the realtor’s drone during the photo shoot.

See what I mean? I have bigger issues than retirement fund instability, my husband getting stuck in a camp set up in a field where the third Heathrow Airport runway is destined to be built, and the price of bread eclipsing the price of cars.

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Is it possible I’m fixating on the red paint and the garden wall to take my mind off Brexit backstops and Trumpianism? Surely not. Well, maybe. Okay, it’s highly likely. Suppose I just need to hope the whole ‘Which is worse, Brexit or Trump?’ thing gets sorted out soon.

But, let’s face it, for me it’s never been about which country’s winning the bet on who’s confusing world order more. It’s always been about a strong sense of where home is and where it isn’t. At least there’s no confusion in my mind on that score.

Celebrating 30 Years with Tanks and Pie

 

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July has been a big month in the Gemmell household, two newsworthy events occurring within days of each other.

First, after decades of dithering about citizenship, I celebrated my first Fourth of July as a US citizen. I know, right? Hell froze over despite climate change. In honour of the occasion, America decided to forgo the usual focus on picnics, hotdogs and apple pie to celebrate the event with a militaristic show of force. Tanks roamed the streets of Washington DC, the President acted as MC for the airshow, and ‘bombs bursting in air’ threatened to revert to its original interpretation, rather than signify a pretty firework display.

Was my new citizenship status the provocation for this change or could it just have been coincidence? I mean, the British were coming long before I married into the colonial clan. First to collect taxes and demand better treatment for tea. Later as voice-over artists for Jaguar car commercials and, in my case, to provided accent modification services to a population that seriously needed it. Or not, depending on you view of the appropriateness of ‘France’ being a three-syllable word. (Fu-Ra-Yuns echoing down the Champs-Élysées endears you to no one, America. Just saying.) Anyway, my formal dunking in the melting pot hardly seemed cause for lining up the troops.

But I’m greater cause for suspicion this July and tanks are necessary. Apparently. You could argue it’s not just me. USCIS naturalized 756,800 people in fiscal 2018, a five-year high, according to a USCIS report, and there’s a backlog of a million applications for citizenship and permanent residency according to government statistics (reported in the Washington Post, June 3rd, 2019). The wait time for approval has jumped from four or five months to close to a year under the current administration (reported on NPR, September 1st, 2018). So, all these new and potential new voters may have played a role in the rolling tanks. But I choose to keep the focus on me. I commit now to bringing more apple pie to next year’s Fourth of July party.

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The second event occurred four days after the tanks decimated the National Parks budget: my 30th wedding anniversary. This occasion annihilated my theory that only old people can be married for thirty years. Turns out you can be very young and reach this milestone; in my case, due to the fact I was betrothed at birth to my US husband in a ceremony dedicated to cementing the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. No, really. It was attended by Margaret Thatcher and Bush 41. They used one of those new-fangled fax machines to share the news with my parents. I still have the smudged documents. Anyway, my husband sweetly maintains he got the better end of entente cordiale. I sweetly agree with him. As much as I miss home and as much as hireth nibbles at the corners of my conscious 24/7, I wouldn’t have missed this American man for anything.

July 2019 goes down in history. I hope you found many reasons to celebrate. Hopefully all your reasons included pie.

Website: www.traceygemmell.com

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Picnic image: Pixabay

Relocation Countdown: Transatlantic Hireth and Abandoned Plants

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I’m fortunate to have citizenship in two countries: The United Kingdom and the United States of America. But it’s not lost on me that ‘United’ appears in both nations’ titles when ‘united’ currently seems a strained concept in either place. Pick your poison: the bedlam of Brexit or the trauma of Trump. You can be supporters or detractors of either and still wonder how we got to this place in history.

Neither issue impacts my resolve to return to the UK permanently. This was a decision made years ago, during a gallop on horseback across Porlock Hill and during a cream tea in a sleepy village. It was made beside a gurgling steam in Horner and while hanging onto my sandwich during a gale on Dunkery Beacon. Politics, current events, head-scratching choices – in the whole scheme of things, they don’t matter. England is home and that’s that.

However, current US policies have coalesced my family’s energy around leaving the US sooner rather than later. Soooo … you heard it here first folks, next year is the year! Yep, by the end of 2020, my husband and I plan to be living in England. The wheels are in motion, the list-making has begun. And, boy, is that list intimidating.

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There’s all the usual rigamarole associated with any kind of move, whether it’s down the road or across continents and oceans: Prepping the house to sell, worrying how best to transport the dog (he does ‘down the road’ but may prove resistant to crossing oceans) and of course the stuff of nightmares – The Clear Out. Is it more cost-effective to leave everything and buy new in England or transport everything via container ship? Evaluating each piece of furniture, each knickknack, each cupboard full of memories, it’s daunting.  What to take, what to sell, what to destroy in a fire in the back garden because that wooden crate, snatched from a party in college and still used to hold the stereo (yes, stereo. It’s that old.) is too humiliating to post on the local Buy and Sell site. Do I take the custom-made couches that, let’s face it, were designed twenty years ago for a dreamed-of cottage in England but in a size more suitable for the larger colonial house in Connecticut? Do I take all the framed posters of global vacations that hang in my current huge basement but couldn’t possibly fit in a downsized UK house? And then there’s the issue of the books. Hundreds of books. But … but my books!

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And don’t get me started on the garden. My trees, shrubs and perennials are all well-loved members of my family. There’s a story behind each one. The lilac was a gift to memorialise my mother-in-law, the white rose for my father-in-law. There’s a beautiful hydrangea, a gift from a student for fixing her ‘Howwible R’, (her words – before treatment), when I was a speech-language pathologist. A large potted rosemary commemorates Basil, our dearly departed Golden Retriever. I’ve nurtured them all through transplant shock, bug infestations, puppy-chewing, polar vortexes, and scorching summers. How can I possibly explain to these plants they’re being left behind through no fault of their own but because customs won’t let them into the UK? (And because the realtor seems to think a stripped-bare patch of earth full of tell-tale holes will impact price.) Parting from human friends is hard but they can visit me in England. My maples, silver birch, ornamental plums, blue spruces, spiraea, red- and yellow twig dogwoods, clethra, peonies and hydrangeas are bound to this place. Is it so unreasonable to demand, as part of the sales contract, the new owners send yearly updates and photos of the irises and oriental lilies?

My relocation situation includes the complication of visa applications for my husband. Having just been through the citizenship grinder – and my American daughter-in-law’s UK visa application – the thought of all the months of confusing and contradictory instructions, expense, and nail-biting waits for approval is intimidating. But needs must. I need to – and must – return home. It’s time to commence countdown. But first, I must go outside and sit with my climbing roses. They’ll require careful explanation of the situation if I’m to expect them to bloom next spring during the house showings. Think I’ll avoid any conversation about current politics on either side of the Atlantic, though. No one could explain any of it to anyone.