When Life Gives You 2020…

Seven thirty on a Sunday morning and I’m in the woods between Porlock and Porlock Weir on the Somerset coast. Steep combes reach up toward the blue skies, the smooth waters of the Bristol Channel pave the way to Wales. After days of rain sunlight dapples the muddy trails. Spontaneous streams gurgle through the undergrowth. Soggy blackberries glisten, like tiny strobe lights. They’re prolific, dotted along prickly branches that snag my trousers and claw at my fingers. Berries burst as I pick them, bloated with moisture or furry-white with mould from the incessant dampness of the last week. But there are still multitudes of perfect ones; dark burgundy orbs conjuring up warm ovens and oaty toppings. They promise friendly visits and glasses of wine for Sunday lunches – once social distancing becomes social history.

Motor memory controls my fingers, resurrecting sisterly outings of decades past along the childhood lanes, mouths covered in red stains, one for the basket, three for the instant gratification. No washing, just a wipe on the jeans or a rub of a thumb. Once home, we dunked the berries in tubs of water and watched the creepy crawlies float to the surface before Mum baked the fruit into pies or crumbles.

I didn’t gather these foraging memories in the US. I picked blackberries only in England, teaching my children the skills (and the maths of one in the basket and three in the stomach without washing or worrying) during visits home. You can pick berries in the US of course, but in the areas I lived, it was pay-to-play, organized, rule-driven, commercial. Back on Exmoor now, I wander the free smorgasbord of fruit, alone except for a solitary bird. I can’t identify the cry, a croak almost, not a pheasant or a pigeon or any of the little fellas I see on my birdfeeder. I search for a glimpse of the bird, but the trees are too thick to allow more than the one-sided conversation to penetrate the greenery. Still, it’s nice to know I have company.

I’d expected to be showing my US husband the charms of blackberrying – yes, it’s a verb in England – by now. He should have been here months ago. But I’m alone. So is he. Still. The immigration systems in both the US and the UK seem coldly detached from the immigrant/emigrant’s needs. It’s bizarre that we can go to restaurants, schools and shops but visa applicants still struggle to get a one-on-one meeting with an immigration officer. Why is it not safe to send passports and paperwork into someone who could easily be isolated at a computer terminal? It’s easy to harbour thoughts of darker forces interfering with the immigration process. Easy to think that certain powers are conspiring against the sharing of ideas and ideals, of relocation and residency variation. Against joining families together and reuniting citizens of all nations in the country of their choice. Against the joys – nay, the necessities – of adding new ingredients to the global stew pot. If we can rally on the White House lawn, we can carefully tiptoe though travel hubs and follow quarantine rules dictated by scientific data.

I push the darker thoughts aside and let the sunlight play on the fruits in my own berry pot. Here in the woods I feel part of my homeland. Reaching, picking, the plop of the berry in the pot, and the sounds of Exmoor remind me why I’ve fought so hard to return home. I’ll wind my way back along the trail to Porlock, peel a few apples, wash the blackberries, stir the crumble topping and wait for warm scents to fill the house. Hopefully, next autumn’s crop of berries will be harvested by my entire family. Settled, safe – and home. But for now, when life gives me 2020, I’ll make blackberry and apple crumble.

New Problems: Rubbish Police and Wardrobe Woes

My second month in England has passed without major incident. In this crazy world, ‘without major incident’ counts as a win, surely? (I’m touching a piece of wood as I speak. It is 2020 after all.) I just wish there were a bit more ‘winning’ come out of the US. News from there is disturbing, to say the least. I worry tremendously about my husband and daughter who are still over there. I can’t control the pandemic or the civil unrest or the closed immigration services. I’ve tried to set my goals lower but it would seem I can’t control rubbish and wardrobes, either. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the good news.

Hiking over Exmoor is thrilling and my fitness level for hills has improved significantly. I have more photos than my camera can store; a throwback to when I had to leave and needed to take pieces of Exmoor with me. I wonder if the novelty of no return flight to the US on the calendar will ever fade. I’m in awe of my views of Bossington Hill from the house. Exquisite walks from my doorstep are all I ever dreamed of and a cheeky Wagtail keeps me company during morning tea breaks.

But these joys are tempered by an absent Hubby. Visa applications, or lack thereof, are still in a state of complete chaos in the US and the UK. We have no idea when that will change. Hubby sits in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, watching the clock. Reacquainting myself with many friends and family members is also on hold. Garden get-togethers are weather-contingent or not possible at all if loved ones are sheltering. Gaining a foothold in my new community is stymied by restrictions and precautions.

Speaking of restrictions, I found a warning note on my rubbish bin for not following procedures. The rules for what belongs in recycle, what belongs in regular rubbish and what fits nowhere at all seem to vary from village to village. Rubbish is certainly more regulated than in the US, which is a good thing. I’ve received advice from friends and they all say something different, depending on their location in England. I now have four different containers: general rubbish, food waste, glass/paper and cardboard/plastic. You may be surprised to learn there is much that doesn’t fit into these categories. Plastic only means bottles, glass only means certain types, junk mail isn’t paper if it has a plastic film window in the envelope, and so on and so forth. So many nuances. Having received a warning, I’m afraid to fail again. I don’t know what the punishment is, or even the location of my local lockup. Who’ll water the new plant cuttings if I get hauled in front of the judge? To play it safe, I now have a shed full of stuff I thought was general rubbish or recycle but isn’t. Transatlantic relocation comes with packing materials and new purchases, unfortunately. The shed looks like that scene from Breaking Bad where Skyler White opens the storage locker to reveal a huge pile of cash. She has no idea what to do with it after laundering it though the carwash books. I have no idea what to do with my pile. I considered the Lucille Ball approach, where she stuffs chocolates from a conveyer belt into her mouth in an attempt to keep up. Should I eat the plastic food tray and the polystyrene packaging that came with the microwave? Luckily, new information just came to light. Apparently, even with four different containers at my house, I still get to load the car with ‘noncategorized’ rubbish and drive it to the local collection centre. I wish I had a better grip on what constitutes ‘noncategorized’ rubbish. Could I be arrested at the collection centre? It’s a steep and dangerous learning curve.

Speaking of learning curves, I’ve known for a while (my whole life) construction isn’t my thing. I’ve rediscovered construction isn’t my thing this week. I set out to find a wardrobe before Hubby gets here. I thought I’d downsized my clothing inventory but apparently not. Looking at the available space for Hubby’s clothing, it seems I’m being a bit … selfish. Overflowing dressers, full closets, and I’ve even taken all the underbed space. The least I can do is have a ‘his’ wardrobe ready for his arrival. (Though by the time he receives permission to fly over, brilliant minds may have discovered a way to store excess clothing in The Cloud. That would be awesome – except I often forget my access passwords so could potentially lose all my clothing as well as that best seller.)

Anyway, aware I’m in temporary accommodation and having no idea what my future needs for storage will be, I found a used wardrobe for sale on Facebook. It’s perfect. Cottagey. Pine. Nice iron hinges and handles. But in a million pieces. Not so perfect. (It was the only way the seller could get it down his stairs.) I wrestled the pieces into my car – including an intimidatingly heavy container full of screws, washers, dowels and nails – and set off with visions of space in the bedroom closet for Hubby’s stuff. How hard could reconstructing a wardrobe be, even without written instructions or a YouTube video? After all, I have a Master of Science degree and use wardrobes all over the world. Sliding doors, folding doors, swing doors, I’ve mastered them all. No-brainer.

Four days later, I’m here to tell you it takes a lot of brain – and coordination. Holding a door and a shelf in place with a foot and an elbow while simultaneously trying to screw them into the frame that’s threatening to fold in on itself even though it’s lying on the floor isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m armed only with Hubby’s toolbox; a pandora’s box of complex gadgets. I rarely peek inside this box because it’s usually attached to Hubby. I try wedging the wardrobe door open with a chair and lying inside the box frame, inducing an uncomfortably realistic sense of coffin-phobia, but things still aren’t going well. The screw holes don’t match up, there are bits of wood left over that are surely important, and when I finally manage to lift the entire structure upright, it’s wobbly with a disturbing right lean. My ancestors built Stonehenge, for crying out loud! (Though I admit some of those stones also lean.) Get a grip, woman! Or failing that, get a neighbour.

In normal times, you’d call over the fence to your neighbour and over a cup of tea you’d work it out, with a good laugh and maybe a few bruises. But this is wardrobe construction in COVID World. That call to arms is not simple. My new neighbours are lovely. We’ve shared tea in the garden and deliveries of cake have brightened my day more than once. But I don’t know them well enough to ask them to enter my house and break social distancing rules. (The wardrobe isn’t two meters wide.) If I ask for help, will they feel they have to say yes, and then hold the risk against me for the rest of my born days?

I decide to go it alone. At the time of writing, I’ve eaten an entire family-sized (if ‘family’ is defined as you on a diet and a pet ant) packet of chocolate Minstrels just sitting on the bed looking at all the parts. All I’ve got to show for it is piles of wood all over the guest room carpet. Who knows how much chocolate it will take to finish the project.

COVID 19 has a lot to answer for. No Hubby. No wardrobe. No joke. And to cap it all, the lights on the fridge have started flashing in an alarming manner. I have visons of spoilt milk and defrosted Tesco’s cottage pie leading to more containers piled up in the shed. Typically, electrical warning lights warrant a call over the shoulder: ‘Hubby, electrical issue in the kitchen! Stat!’ Now it’s a google search for tutorials related to flashing lights on electronics. I’ll work it out, if only because I’m afraid of the rubbish police.

There may not have been a major incident yet but all these minor incidents are stacking up. I’m going to need a bigger bag of Minstrels.

My Extraordinary, Mundane Transatlantic Relocation

It’s been one month since I arrived back in England after a thirty-year visit to America. If you’d asked me a year ago what vocabulary I’d be using to describe my feelings at my return home, I’d have said relief, comfort, joy. And those feelings apply. But they’re mixed with other feelings, like weird and anxious. So much about my transatlantic relocation during a pandemic has proved incredibly stressful. The empty airport terminals, the empty plane, the masked flight attendants, my homemade peanut butter sandwiches in place of the cancelled inflight dining service, along with the deserted arrivals area at Heathrow were powerful reminders I’m doing all this during a historic, and unsettling, time. So much about this last month could never have been predicted. The fact my husband is stuck in the USA waiting for the visa offices to open again, with the daunting possibility of travellers from the US not being allowed to travel to Europe at all, keeps us both awake at night. But global issues aside, the little things are proving more challenging than I’d anticipated.

I dropped my laptop for the first time ever, smashing the screen and bending the keyboard. I had no idea where to go to get it fixed. There were no laptops in my life when I left Exmoor all those years ago. My watch stopped. I broke my prescription sunglasses (another first). It’s weird, completing the mundane tasks of fixing things and finding watch batteries and researching how to pay council taxes. It’s weird learning a new grocery store layout (even without the one-way system in place in my local Tescos) and trying to remember what demerara sugar is. I used to translate UK to US: caster sugar is baking sugar, minced beef is ground beef. Now, I’m reverse-translating, US to UK: confectioners sugar is icing sugar, eggplant is aubergine. Goodness knows what a kilogram is in pounds and will I ever get the hang of Celsius versus Fahrenheit? As a visitor, I didn’t have to complete these kinds of tasks. Now I need to relearn my native language and find the places that cater to my mundane needs rather than my holiday needs. It’s strange to feel strange in one’s homeland. It’s weird to go through the motions of normality in a not normal world. It’s impossible to tell how much weirdness can be blamed on COVID 19 and how much on my extended absence. Maybe it doesn’t matter. My return would feel weird not matter the difficulties of trying to set up a new life when everything is shut down. Do I need to delineate between what’s normal relocation crazy and what’s pandemic crazy?

Luckily, there are plenty of joys to counterbalance the mental taxations of translations and conversions and all-around weirdness. My fourteen-day quarantine flew by in my rental property with gorgeous views of Porlock Bay and Bossington Hill, even though I had little furniture and couldn’t give anyone a hug. I no longer need to calculate time zones when calling family. I got to celebrate my sister’s birthday in person – in her garden as social distancing was still in effect – for the first time in decades. (That was counterbalanced by the guilt of having to celebrate my husband’s birthday with him via WhatsApp.) My son and daughter-in-law have joined me for an extended stay while they’re furloughed from their jobs in London. I’m delighted to share the joys of my new home with them. I get to wander the Exmoor countryside without counting down the days to leaving again. I look over the gates at the closed cream tea shops, knowing they will reopen someday, and I’ll be back to planning my hikes around their welcome cups of tea and slabs of cake. Even the rain feels cosy after years of brutal storms that threaten life and limb in the snowbelt of the USA. This gentle drizzle cossets rather than scares; though ask me again in a few years how I feel about English rain and I’m sure I’ll have a different outlook. Or will I? Will the novelty of walking outside in January and February ever wear off? In Wisconsin that’s indoor season due to bitter cold and feet of snow. Surely it will be awhile before I complain about British weather. We’ll see. We’ll also see if hiraeth is really a thing. Can you go home again? Does the home in my memory still exist? Were the broken sunglasses a prelude to broken rose-tinted glasses? Watch this space …

I survived the first month, thanks to the kindness of old friends and new neighbours. Without them I really would have been lost. My furniture just arrived so I have no excuse not to get back to writing now. Except for needing a new laptop, that is. Wish me luck.

End of A Transatlantic Era

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This is it. My last blog from the United States of America on my last day as a resident. I envisioned a graceful exit after thirty years. A swan-like glide out of the USA and a pirouette into the glorious English countryside. I’d swish my Austen-esque skirts through the spring dew of a cottage garden as the frantic pace of the US faded to black. I’d sip tea from cup and saucer rather than a mug, nibble on scones and high tea petit fours from a tiered cake stand. Partake of a country pub sherry in the evenings. All surrounded by family and friends. The church bells would ring and the English sparrows chirp …

This is where I insert the sound of a car crash. (Not being tech-oriented, you’ll have to add that yourselves.) Suffice it to say, my transatlantic relocation has turned into anything but a swan-like glide; more a belly flop from the highest diving board onto a frozen puddle. The scones turned to stale hotel vending machine crackers, the sherry replaced by Pepto-Bismol. A global pandemic means the only fabric-swishing going on comes from the homemade masks my US friends hand me at our goodbye get-togethers – which dissolve from fun, though teary, events to waves from a distance across parking lots and driveways. Friends shuffle forward, place bags or cards on the floor. They move back. I shuffle forward to collect. Then move back. More like a hostage transfer between alien planets on an episode of Star Trek than a goodbye between friends I’ve shared graduations and weddings and baby births with. We air-hug, blow kisses, and that’s that. Never how I saw this going down.

I’m in a hotel today, this last day, having sold our house at the first inklings of social distancing and lockdowns. The closing date came before transatlantic flights were more consistently available for bookings. Before a small window of opportunity opened at the end of May to fly out of Chicago. An inflatable mattress, a pillow, a blanket and a shower mat wrap around two knives, forks, spoons and a tin opener in my suitcase. Oatmeal, teabags and granola bars make up the rest of my baggage allowance, in case of emergency delays or rerouting or cancellation of flights. I pack multiple masks in my carry-on. It’s been the most surreal packing experience of my long and varied travel history.

I check the websites every few minutes to make sure flights are leaving. Best not to breathe until the flight takes off as so many are cancelled last minute. There’s only one day to go. Surely nothing else can happen that would prevent me traveling?

There’ll be no one at Heathrow to meet me. I’ll drive alone from London to an empty rental house rather than a purchased home, due to restrictions on viewings. I’ll draw the curtains and hide myself from the inhabitants of Exmoor. I won’t risk the trust of new neighbours before I’ve even said hello. Isolate here I come, no matter what government regulations say at the time of my arrival.

My furniture has shipped across the pond, but it can’t leave Southampton Docks until moving companies are allowed to deliver it. No idea when that will be. I’ll be camping in the house; a couple of chairs and a table, some china and a microwave rustled up from kind friends. These items await my arrival, already in place so the friends limit contact with me. Luckily, a small village has its advantages. Porlock knows I’m coming home. The local shops have arranged deliveries of basic household items and food. I thank them all.

I remain hopeful I’ll depart this land of the not-so-free on May 29th. I remain hopeful the visa offices will open soon so my US citizen husband can join me. With as cheerful a smile as I can manage, unseen behind my new collection of masks, I’ll clutch my first one-way ticket in thirty years, destination London, and board that flight. I’ll appreciate being allowed to carry a whole 12 oz bottle of hand sanitiser into the aircraft cabin, along with several sandwiches in case all airport restaurants are closed. I’ll wave a grateful thanks to the America I knew until it became unrecognizable to me over the past few years. I hope it finds its way back. Just as I have. Hiraeth and all.

I’ll get through this, and I know it will all be worthwhile.

Just to be home again.

My Worthless Emergency Supply Kit

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I thought March 2020 would go down in history as the most bizarre month of my life. Running through airports in Buenos Aires to beat border shutdowns, selling my house in the US only to find I couldn’t get to England to buy another, tying a bandana around my face using elastic bands that threaten my eyesight every time they snap. It’s all too surreal to be true. Surely next month will find me laughing at the craziness of it all as I sip coffee in public places with friends? But then comes April…

It begins with the Wisconsin State primary election. All other States postpone their elections to keep citizens safe from the pandemic, Wisconsinites are forced to the polls. I fire off an angry tweet at those responsible for this reprehensible disregard for human safety. I never expect anything to happen. The tweet goes viral, viewed over 1.1 million times, tens of thousands of likes, retweets and comments. It’s included in a podcast featuring the Arizona Secretary of State, and on lists of tweets that sum up the electoral mess. It reminds me one voice matters, and how we frame our thoughts matters. A stranger comments that my short tweet demonstrated I was obviously a writer – a highlight of my lockdown experience so far. Well, along with the neighbour leaving cookies on my doorstep the other day. But I digress …

April continues, everyday a fight to carve a simple transatlantic relocation out of a pandemic cliff face. I try selling furniture from my garage, but there are few takers. I can’t even donate it as all donation centres are closed. I explain to the new owners some larger pieces, like the pool table, will still be here when they move in next month. They understand, luckily.

I battle to arrange shipping to the UK for my dog. It’s moving forward until all responses to questions I send to the airlines suddenly stop. I assume those helping me have been furloughed or laid off. Watson will now be staying in the US with my daughter. This is great as they love each other, but awful as I’m leaving them both behind at a terribly worrying time to be a mother to anything or anyone. But I have nowhere to live after May 14th so must move somewhere.

My husband and I find a rental house on Exmoor online and sign contracts, sight-unseen, because we need an address in the UK before the shippers can transport our furniture. We must have a utility bill before we can fill out the customs forms. We have no choice but to pay rent in the UK for a place we can’t move to yet. My US citizen husband can’t even file his UK spousal visa application as all the offices are closed. We find a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, that will allow us to sign a three-month lease. It’s not much but it’s a roof and a rented bed. We’re now paying rent on two continents with no idea how long we’ll be doing that for. Awesome! (*checks book sale royalties* Not so awesome.)

I’m interviewed by BBC Somerset about my adventures trying to get back to Exmoor. It’s hard to know what to say. There’s no information to share about how to do it. No one has a plan or even a prediction as to what will happen. I can only say, ‘What a mess’ so many times.

Everything in the last two months has been strange and unpredictable. But if I had to mark the most singular reminder we’re living in extraordinary times, it would be finding my emergency supply kit stashed in the back of the basement.

Living in England, my idea of an emergency kit was a couple of Band-Aids in my back pocket. Maybe a backup corkscrew. That was it. But when I moved to the United States, I realised much of the country was virtually uninhabitable, and an emergency of some kind practically guaranteed. Earthquakes to the west, hurricanes to the east, blizzards to the north, wildfires everywhere. I’ve lived in all these locations over the past thirty years. My neighbours in California encouraged me to reconsider my back pocket emergency kit. A large trashcan-on-wheels was mentioned. What?!

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The thinking is – was – any kind of emergency required you to leave your house. You should plan on being gone for at least 72-hours. You must stuff your trashcan-on-wheels with plastic sheeting and string for making a simple lean-to shelter. A camping stove, thermal blankets to protect you from exposure. A penknife, dried stew mix, headlamps so your hands are free to set up your lean-to in the dark. A tin opener. Rain ponchos. A big stick to protect your supplies from others (the less prepared) walking the earthquake-savaged roads of Los Angeles or the tornado-damaged neighbourhoods of the Midwest. To defend your boat, now sitting inland two miles after a hurricane in New England.

I’ve been through major earthquakes and hurricanes and tornado warnings with nary a scratch. But as I stare at my emergency kit in the COVID-19 era, packed inside its bright blue trashcan-on-wheels, I realise something: it’s all worthless. What good’s a lean-to against a virus? What good’s my headlamp (unless it could light up contaminated surfaces) and my tin opener? That fancy wound kit, full of finger splints and ankle wraps? Useless. Miles of string. For what? Tying the doors shut so I don’t go out?  (Oh, look! Two rolls of toilet paper squashed in the bottom of the trashcan. Now, THAT’S useful.)

No one ever suggested I prepare for a pandemic. Not at the individual, state, national or global level. Even though we’d had warnings. The year 1918 springs to mind. So I’ve spent the last few days thinking about all the things I wish I had in my emergency kit now. They would be considered non-essential in a different time, and I can’t justify going out to shop for them now. You won’t find my list printed on any Red Cross, FEMA or WHO website. But you can bet I’ll always have them handy from this time forward.

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Games, books, greetings cards for every occasion and the stamps to mail them. Hair dye, hairbands. Aged whisky. Prosecco. (I rarely drink but that may change soon.) Noise-cancelling headphones; protection from the home-schooled kids next door. Colouring books to throw over the fence at the kids next door, like hamburger to a barking dog. Graduation/birthday party decorations, even though no one else can come to the party. Birthday candles, sidewalk chalk, noise makers for the heroic handclaps, bubble blowers – entertaining at any age. Dog treats, as pets are fenced in too. Did I mention hair dye? A mechanical robot hand grabber thingy for curb-side pickup. Slingshot for quieting the kids next door. Megaphone for communicating with the mailman. Hundreds of thank you cards for all the small acts of kindness shown by so many in countless ways. A million dollars in tens and fives for tipping everyone who’s still going to work at a hospital, care home, janitorial service, take-out restaurant, delivery company, emergency service or grocery store. EAR PLUGS! Those viral videos of the neighbour singing opera from his kitchen window? Funny. Once. Not so funny when he decides to make it his new revenue stream. A remote control with an extra-large mute button to stop You Know Who from invading my space with ridiculous ‘news’ briefings. I may have mentioned hair dye before.

It’s clear I’m going to need a bigger trashcan.

Emergency kit aside, here’s what I wished I done before the world changed: hugged everyone I knew, every time I saw them. Every. Single. Time. Breathed in the scent of them, stored their laughter in my memory. Learned to use Zoom in split screen. Had my hair cut shorter than necessary, every single visit to the hairdresser. And practiced cutting my family’s hair, while there was still a hairdresser available to fix failed attempts. I wish I’d never postponed a visit to the eye doctor or dentist. Wish I’d taken a frail neighbour out to dinner. Wish I’d returned to England last year.

If wishes were horses …

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My plan to return home this spring has dissolved into chaos and confusion. There’s no point lamenting this. Too many others are fighting far worse battles than a mere transatlantic relocation delay. It’s life and death out there, folks. Let’s not forget that. But I allow myself disappointment and anxiety without guilt. I’ve been working so hard on this move for six months. The delay is frustrating and expensive. I focus on taking a small step forward every day. The basement is finally cleared. The worthless emergency kit, re-evaluated. I’ll work on restocking it with what’s really essential as soon as possible. When I do, I’ll focus as much on mental well-being and staying connected as as I will on physical survival.

Take care of yourselves. I’d hug you if I could. xx

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 other 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 keeps 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 britches! She has two interested parties offering ‘sight unseen’ bids above listing price. Are we interested? As a matter of fact, we are! We can move to England sooner than we thought! We high five the bartender and I plan on three desserts for dinner. We accept a bid, electronically 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 members 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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