Tilting At Towers

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I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa since childhood. Its scary, yet giggle-inducing, tilt just seemed like something I should witness before its inevitable collapse ‒ not so inevitable, as it turns out. Much more inevitable was getting trampled by the crowds. And being bonked on the head by a selfie stick. Or poked in the eye as hundreds of tourists threw their hands out in a hilarious (sigh) attempt to capture the moment they held the tower up. Or knocked it down. Or got squashed under it. Seriously, the overwhelming memory of my recent visit to Pisa will be of an off-kilter tower surrounded by floating hands.

Yet, steps away from the errant tower, sights existed of which I was previously completely unaware. Miraculous sights, hence the name: ‘The Field of Miracles’. This ‘field’ contained structures of such stunning architecture, I was struck dumb. Those who know me realise this is a big deal. I’m never speechless. But the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Monumental Cemetery, even the ancient entry gate and the surrounding walls, were all breath-takingly beautiful. And … no one trying to hold them up!

(Full disclaimer: these other buildings are not perfectly straight either due to the uneven ground in the area. But compared to the tower, the lean’s not nearly so obvious. But I digress …)

How had I gone through life unaware of these other spectacular structures? I must have seen at least part of them in photos of the tower, right? Apparently not. Which begs the question: why had I ‒ and the rest of the world seemingly, based on crowd patterns ‒ focused all attention on the glaring ‘mistake’? The structure most likely to fail?

As I beat off another selfie stick assault to move away from the tower towards the Duomo, I wondered: was this unhealthy preoccupation with failure whilst filtering out success a metaphor for my life? The answer may be, yes. I can write 100,000 words and wake in a sweat over one typo. I can remember a mistaken action from decades ago yet struggle to recall the good deed of yesterday. I can still cringe at the heartless comment I made in high school and forget the kind word shared today. I know I’m not alone in that. We seem to hold onto failure more tightly than success.

Maybe the roiling crowds around the Leaning Tower of Pisa are a tilted reminder: success is not synonymous with perfection or lack of error. Fail. Get up. Try again. And sometimes let your imperfection show. It may be your imperfection that leads to your greatest success. Just ask Mr. Pisano, credited with designing the tower.

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Tuscany: To Gallop or Not to Gallop?

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Tuscany: To Gallop or Not to Gallop?

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

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

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

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

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

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The Birthday Present

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

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

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

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

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Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dinosaur Christmases and Hireth

Christmas_fossils Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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… The Other is Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Foreign Native Language

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

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

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

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

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

Apostrophobia and Expat Fears

apostrophobia Haroldsplanet.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it! I hate apostrophes.

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Hireth-Tinted Glasses

Rose tinted glasses Derek Gavey

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

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

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

But enough about husbands. What about me?

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

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

Montacute Gardens Geograph

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

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

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

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

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