Our Very Tuscan British Exmoor Funeral

It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!

Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …

I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.

Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.

‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.

I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.

I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.

Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.

We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.

In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.

Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.

If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.

Images: author’s own

Writing Home Takes on New Meaning Every Day

I’ve experienced the concept of ‘home’ in so many varied ways recently I’m starting to think my ‘Write Home’ brand may be taking over my life. Not in the ‘writing a new novel every six months’ kind of way; more in the ‘Will I ever finish a novel again because, well, life’ kind of way. I blame three major August events…

Domestic home front: My mother turned ninety at the beginning of the month. This deserved a family holiday in Cornwall so Mum, three of her daughters and two long-suffering partners set off for a week under one roof. This has never happened before. Someone was always in a different country, on a different shift, unavailable. Out of sync. To have us all together, with nothing to do but chat and reacquaint ourselves with who took which kind of milk in tea, who remembered that time our childhood pony bolted down the high street, or who got the most ‘O’ Levels (ahem… not me), felt strange yet comforting. This family time was, after all, much of the reason I returned to England after so long away. How many major events have I missed over the expat decades? Too many to count, so being able to participate in this milestone will remain a treasured memory. It will also serve as a reminder not to book trips during the school summer holidays. Cornwall is jamming y’all!

International home front: ‘Home’ hit me again as I waved goodbye to my son and daughter-in-law. They’re returning to the USA for a couple of years to pursue graduate degrees. (I’m fine. No, really, I’m fine. Well, not fine but I’m told at the age of thirty our kids get to make their own decisions. Mothers be damned.) My son grew up in the US and his wife is American but when they moved over to the UK a year before I came back, I thought I had them locked in here. Because … well, because I’m gratefully locked in here. During the countdown to them returning to Seattle, I kept thinking England is home to me so surely it’s home to my children too. Why on earth would they choose to go anywhere else? They say they’ll be back, but will they? I only left England for a six-month trip. It turned into thirty-six years. Will the same happen to the next generation? Where is home for them? Do they know yet? Will they spend as much time searching as I did or will it fall into place quicker for them? Their leaving was more of a wrench than I even imagined it would be – and I imagined a lot. But really, I’m fine, though my chocolate consumption may have increased. Unrelated, I’m sure.

Refugee home front: Our Ukrainian refugee family arrived on Exmoor a few days ago. After driving for five days and crossing territory they never dreamed they’d see, heading to a place they never imagined they’d have to consider ‘home’, here they are. Exhausted, stressed, emotional yet so kind and funny and giving. Every inch of their car needed to carry as much of their lives as it possibly could. As they unpacked baking tins, a sewing machine, a skateboard, a ukulele, and a large stack of books, all indicating the life they hoped to rekindle here, I was so touched when they handed me four bars of Ukrainian chocolate. They made room for kindness and they have already turned my orchard apples into apple cake, warming my kitchen and my heart. How do you translate all these emotions? I don’t care how good your language app is, there are words not yet invented and sentence structures not yet complex enough, to convey what it is to lose a home, offer a home, reinvent a home. We will muddle through with hugs and smiles and hope that this new ‘home’ keeps us safe and strong. Together.

Constantly experiencing my ‘Write Home’ brand up close and personal hasn’t quite translated into written pages yet. Once again, the writing has been relegated to the back burner, or more like, a tiny camping stove spluttering out the last drop of gas on a windy mountain top. It’s been so long since my third novel returned from the editor, that drawer writers are supposed to hide the manuscript in for a few months to ‘marinate’ may now be rusted shut. However, the other day, while thinking about how tough it must be to leave everything you know behind, pack only the essentials in your car, and drive off into an uncertain future, that manuscript began whispering to me again. It was fully formed before COVID and before war, but its universal themes of hiraeth and starting over when life feels completely at the whim of others still feels timely. The half-written fourth novel also tiptoed out of the past to tap me on the shoulder with a ‘Hey! Remember me?’. And I did remember it. I mentally fixed a plot hole and experienced the flicker in the belly that signals the writing game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Maybe it’s time to break the lock on the manuscript drawer.

I’m not going to lie, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events almost daily is tiring. The thought of writing again is tiring. The adrenaline keeps me upright but maybe I should be switching to an alternative source of power. That said, adrenaline may be the cheapest energy in England during this fuel crisis – and crisis it is – so I should probably stick with it. I don’t have an adrenaline metre but I’m pretty sure the tank needs topping up. As luck would have it, a trip to Tuscany is just around the corner, planned long before war sent a new family our way. We’ll go anyway. Can’t let the Powers that Be mess up every single part of our lives. As fun as the trip will be, I know returning home will be the icing on the cake.

I hope the birthday celebrations, the family partings, and the arrival of new friends see you all through the tough months ahead. As Sam in ‘Dunster’s Calling’ says, may we all find the place we sleep the best and breathe the deepest’; whether it’s Cornwall, Seattle, Exmoor or anywhere free of bombs and bullets.

Queens, Jubilees and Bunting: The Joys of Home

Today is the second anniversary of my leaving the United States for the last time to return home to England. I’ll be spending the day, in fact the whole week, excitedly preparing for my neighbourhood Jubilee party. For those of you living under a rock, the British Commonwealth is celebrating the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign with a four-day special holiday. I’m hosting a garden party on Saturday, which some find odd seeing as my household contains one of the only Americans living in my village. Hubby isn’t known for his monarchist sensibilities. How could he be, given the rigmarole his forebearers went through to get rid of King George III? But here Hubby is, unpacking boxes of bunting, streamers, balloons and flags and wondering why on earth his typically non-baking wife has ordered 180 Union Jack cupcake cases. He’s being a good sport about it. So far. (Wait until he finds out about the full-sized replica of Her Majesty he needs to put together so she can stand at the gate to welcome more than forty guests.) Luckily, Hubby finds it possible to question the place of a monarchy in this century and still have tremendous admiration for someone who has navigated the royal waters for 70 years with aplomb. He agrees with me that anyone who’s kept a job for 70 years deserves respect.

I’ve always loved the pomp and pageantry of the British monarchy. I’ve watched Trooping of the Colour in person and followed the Household Cavalry parade down The Mall. I love the bands and the way crowds of people (who’ve complained all year about everything British from the weather to the price of petrol to the latest football loss to the VAT on biscuits) appear for the Queen’s official birthday celebration decked out in red, white and blue sunglasses and Union Jack capes singing ‘Rule Britannia’ – or some slightly drunken version of it. As a figurehead, Queen Elizabeth still works, thought the intent behind ‘Rule Britannia’ may not.  

Hubby and I watched Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen on the BBC. It contained never-before-seen footage of Queen Elizabeth’s life from birth up to scenes from her coronation when she was twenty-five. Twenty-five??!! At twenty-five I doubt I could have been consistently responsible for a goldfish let alone greeting dignitaries from around the world without causing an international incident. Could I have demonstrated such interest in teapot making, or four-year-olds drawing stick queen figures, or a demonstration of the latest battery technology without stifling a yawn or cutting short the official visit to attend a Eurythmics concert instead? Doubtful. Maybe the Queen would have preferred a concert too. It’s not like she was asked if she wanted to take on her royal role. Her Uncle, the abdicating King Edward VIII, made it impossible for her to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to it all. To remain so poised and filtered, when she wasn’t born to be queen, takes great discipline, determination, and dedication. That can be admired, even by an American.

Having spent thirty years or so in the USA, hiraeth (a longing for home overlaid with sadness that home may not exist anymore, or perhaps never did) was a constant during my American life. I decided to return to my birthplace for many reasons but one hope was to return while Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne. Her presence has been a stabilizing factor throughout my life; a reminder of my British-ness. Maybe you must spend a long time away from familiar rituals and traditions in order to appreciate them. Once they disappear from your daily life, and no mention is made of them in your adopted homeland, there’s a hole. No Superbowl, no presidential inauguration (certainly not the last few!), no Fourth of July or Thanksgiving can fill that hole. When you’re required to explain your traditions to others, you begin to clarify what they mean to you personally, as opposed to them just ‘being there’. I ask myself why I cry every time I hear Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, the coronation anthem. What does that magnificent piece of music about a biblical figure, played during the religious anointing of a British king or queen, stir in me? I wasn’t exactly raised in the church. But the moment I hear that music and they place that crown on Elizabeth’s head, I tear up. I tear up when those around her curtsey. I sniffle when I watch her young face in that golden coach stare out at the crowds of subjects, who, for a moment, come together in unity and pride at something so quintessentially British. This is patriotism I suppose. That feeling, however brief, that you are on top of the world. The only ones who can do this particular thing well. And we Brits certainly do a parade well, don’t we?

So here’s to another string of bunting across the swing seat. To another batch of cupcakes with Jubilee toppers. Here’s to keeping the cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth dry from the forecasted rain showers and making sure only respectful photos are taken of her. Here’s to being back home in England during this never-before-achieved milestone event. And most especially, here’s to Queen Elizabeth II. Job well done, Ma’am.

One last thing: here’s to Hubby not mentioning Boston Harbor or Paul Revere. At least for this weekend.

Images: Pixabay, Wikimedia, pxhere

View From The Bathroom

View from the bathroom: Title of a book? Podcast? Punk band tour? Horror film? Maybe not. Hardly catchy or warm and fuzzy or exciting. But this week, now all the boxes have been moved into my new home, ‘view from the bathroom’ is my favourite phrase. I had to make it the title of something.

‘Just going to check the view from the bathroom.’

‘Have you seen the view from the bathroom?’

‘Let’s take our drinks and look at the view from the bathroom again.’ And again.

Weird, right? You’ll have to forgive my excitement. My new home boasts a view of the Bristol Channel, but only from my bathroom window. It’s only a thin strip of water on the horizon, but enough to see the aquamarine or green or grey waters, the purple bruise of stormy skies whipping up the whitecaps, the chalky cliffs and intermittent sweeping glints from a Welsh lighthouse, guarding entry to the green hills. On a clear day I can see the mountains in Wales, too. It’s a delightful sight.

I’ve never had a view of water from my own home before. Oh, I’ve spent many lovely holidays by water, typically after many long hours flying over vast oceans. Bora Bora saw me living over the water in one of those huts on stilts. From California to New Zealand, from Scotland to Nicaragua and The Bahamas, I’ve spent plenty of time by the ocean, even working on luxury yachts many moons ago. But now, I stare, mesmerized, at the changing colours, the white caps in a stiff breeze, the flapping of sails and the wallowing progression of a ferry heading for Bristol, all from the bathroom window.

It’s a lifelong dream to be in my own home and see the water. Now, I hear you all saying, ‘view from the bathroom? Not exactly a Malibu mansion, is it, and wouldn’t that be weird, taking people up to the bathroom to see the view?’ Now you mention it, it is a bit weird but so far only a few family members and close friends have visited Bathtub Observation Point. They understand my excitement and have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning over the sink and kicking the bathmat out of the way to see the water over the Exmoor roof tops. I admit, it will be ‘socially tricky’ to show acquaintances the view. I mean, the new neighbours who’ve been so welcoming, do I invite them upstairs on their first visit? What about the gracious chimneysweep who taught me about the five vents in our new fireplace, or the lovely chaps who built the picket fence required to make the property fully Watson escape-proof? The delivery lady? Nah, probably not appropriate. But they’re missing out.

It’s a beautiful view. Would it be better from the kitchen or the sitting room or the patio? Of course, it would. But I have long, sweeping views up the wooded combes from those rooms and garden areas, and equally stunning they are. Autumn colours sweep towards me, rolling and waving in the stiff breezes like waters themselves. I love every inch of those combe views dearly. It’s just water. I crave water. So, if I must chat over prosecco in the shower stall while watching birds scuttle over the Bristol Channel, that’s what I’ll do. I just have to invite the right people to join me; those who understand what a long transatlantic journey of hiraeth it’s been to earn my view from the bathroom.

A Couchful of Hiraeth

Wrinkles add character to our old friend

This couch may not look like much now. It’s grubby and wrinkled and sunken in the middle. The cream colour is hardly reminiscent of anything you’d pour over your crumble. Even the dog struggles to clamber in and out. It’s like crawling into a very low-slung hammock after three decades of Gemmell duty. But in its day, oh, how proud we were of it. Today, we make the difficult decision to send it off to the recycling centre in the sky, and we don’t make that choice lightly. No man, child, dog or couch left behind was our mantra last year as we struggled to get all our lives on the ‘right’ side of the pond. But times change. Couches sag more and more. New rooms await with different styles and sizes. Some of us just no longer fit in the way we once did. But it still stings to say goodbye.

California, circa 1990. I remember meeting this couch next to its three-seater sibling, all shiny and pristine, in a Los Angeles showroom. Hubby and I had been married about a year and we’d just bought our first house in the Mojave desert. Yes, you heard me. We left the seafaring life we’d lead on the East Coast for the driest, hottest place I’d ever been. Or even heard of. What was I thinking? Goodness only knows, because the great adventure in the cactus strewn, tumbleweed blowin’, parched, sand-in-your-curtains Southwestern USA turned out to be … let’s just say, not my cup of tea. But the thought of those gleaming couches, nestled against the baby blue carpets in our brand-new Spanish-style home cleared the desert weed allergy-induced tears right out of my eyes. No kids, no dog, so no thought of how on earth you kept cream leather clean, and no other furniture in the house yet (except for a couple of wooden crates used for bedside tables and a futon mattress in one bedroom). Those couches arrived like manna from heaven, because, let’s face it, we should have gone for something cheaper. The credit cards groaned along with the backs of the delivery men.

New-born couches and babies

Our new-born son had his first photos taken with the couch. Four years later, with another child on the way, those two slightly less cream and slightly more wrinkled couches hopped in a moving van to the East Coast. They landed in a colonial house near Long Island Sound in the middle of a forest, the antithesis of their previous abode. Though stationed in the ‘best parlour’ away from the worst of the kid wetting and dog scraping and popcorn spilling and sibling wrestling, it still bore the brunt of various birthday parties and Christmas wine spillages. Uncomplaining and still the apple of its mother’s eye.

Eleven years later, it’s back on the van to snowy Wisconsin, where we discovered leather is quite chilly when you first sit on it and blankets slide off the back of it constantly which means the kids trample all over the wool and the dogs sleep on them, refusing to move as you try to pull the blanket over your freezing legs. But fourteen more years of films and Super Bowl parties and teary teenage breakups (and possibly makeups but I don’t like to think about that) pass with the now way past sell-by date cream couch. The wrinkles had turned to deep crevices full of life’s debris. It’s time for new. A functional brown sectional appeared like a grumpy aunt to take pride of place in front of the television. The three-seater sibling was trundled off to who knows where and the two-seater was relegated to fulltime dog bed, which thrilled the dogs, but may have hurt the couch’s feelings.

Birthday parties, all part of the couch service

And there the story should end. Who, in their right mind, would drag that murky old spoilt cream couch across the Atlantic? There are better ones sitting on most porches outside college campus housing. But you see, our huge new sectionals were never going to fit in our English home. It was the height of the Covid pandemic, so no furniture shops were open to buy new and no recycling centres were open to take the old, and well, we needed something smaller to sit on in our rental property until we found a new home. So there we were, wrapping the dingy grey with spots of intermittent cream couch for a voyage to where no Californian couch thought it would ever go: Exmoor.

Welcome to Exmoor!

The dog makes his own epic journey across the water only to discover his couch is no longer a dog bed. Possession now involves fights with grandma, aunties and friends. When the film starts, all pile over the back of the couch, fighting for pillow space and elbowing others for the only six-inch sweet spot that isn’t so collapsed it breaks your back as you sit skewwhiff.

And yet, the couch, uncomplaining as ever, stoically accepts its role in the Gemmell family, doing its best to accommodate needs and provide comfort. It doesn’t know that in two weeks’ time, when the Gemmells head down the road to their forever home, it will trundle off in a different van, to be eco-recycled: leather to one place, springs to another, metal frame to another, stuffing to another. Its spare parts may help other sickly couches back to health and for that I’m so proud of it. There may not be a dry eye in the house as this thirty-two-year relationship ends.

We’re going to need a bigger couch

The new couches ordered are neither leather nor cream, and they have big shoes to fill. Our old, curdled cream friend will never be forgotten, though hopefully the backache it induces will be. From smog-blanketed Los Angeles to heather-carpeted Exmoor, it has truly been an important part of our amazing transatlantic lives. So many memories – and so many loved ones no longer with us – are embedded in that couch. I’m feeling hiraeth for it. But onwards to new couches and new adventures we go.

From Wanderluster to Upcycling Homebody and Dove Whisperer

And just like that, the end of summer speeds at us like a tourist heading for the last table at an inundated cream tea shop. It’s been a weird old summer, hasn’t it: part supposedly post-pandemic, part not sure, part ‘no, we’re definitely not out of the woods yet’. I’m tilting towards the later so have stayed pretty close to home. A few restaurant visits, a few outdoor cream teas, one short trip to Suffolk, and a lot of hiking in the glorious isolation that is Exmoor (if you know where to go to avoid the visitors). My default setting of wanderlust mixed with a smidgin of hiraeth appears usurped by homebody vibes, which suggests I’m in the right place.

I’ve been home for long enough to have experienced all the seasons now and am enjoying the second go-around; the return of the blackberries along the Exmoor trails and the seep of vivid green to sage to yellow in the fern leaves. The Rowan trees are once more startling in their red jewellery, so bright you can see the berries from a significant distance.

There’s a delightful familiarity to local events, tentative though it all seems: the return of live music and village shows, all cancelled last year, some creeping back this year with all precautions in place – though the number of UK covid cases suggests ‘all precautions’ are proving somewhat inadequate. Delta was just a river mouth this time last year, it’s now the scourge of many a planning committee, from dog show to NHS budget conference. But this year I’m vaccinated, as are my husband, mother, sisters, and children. It’s a relief I couldn’t have imagined last year.

Onwards and upwards. Our move to our new home will happen in October so we’re busy searching for furniture. ‘Wait’, I hear you say. ‘Didn’t you have a container of goods shipped over?’ Why, yes we did. But we sold or donated all our larger furniture pieces before leaving the US. We thought we knew the house we were going to and the rooms weren’t big enough for most of our pieces. We all know how that plan turned out. Now we find ourselves the joyous owners of a home with larger rooms, we wish we’d kept those pieces. (Hindsight is such a pain.) So over the past weeks I’ve been masking up and scurrying through huge furniture warehouses, only to find I don’t connect with much modern furniture. Plan B finds me scrolling through buy and sell sites, looking for older, chunkier sideboards, tables, couches and dressers others have upcycled, or projects I can upcycle myself. Seriously, there are some very talented furniture restorers and decorators out there! And I, thanks to copious YouTube videos, now know how to use wood hardener and wood putty to reshape outdoor chairs full of rot. Just waiting for the topcoat seagrass-coloured paint to arrive and I’ll have four lovely excuses to sit longer outside in our garden.

Speaking of which, if you can’t find me, I’ll be weeding in our new garden. The beauty and tranquillity of that spot, the unexpected, delightful discovery of a new shrub wrestling towards sunlight through layers of ivy or clouds of geranium-gone-rogue, well, it leaves me speechless with gratitude at times. (And in need of a hot soak in Epsom salts at others.) I’m getting to know the locals, namely a pheasant who bolts from the undergrowth with a screech fit to wake the dead when you get too close. My favourite locals to date – apologies to all the human neighbours we’ve meet; you’re okay too just not as entertaining. Yet. – are the pair of mourning doves who ‘own’ the garden and have no problem making that clear. (They could be pigeons but a good definition of the differences is hard to find so I’m going with the more literary name.) Mr and Mrs Bobblenecker follow me around, perch on walls, trees and benches, bobbing their heads, preening and gossiping as I sweat over another bramble root. ‘What’s she doing?’, ‘Is she coming back?’, ‘Why would she cut that back or dig that up or fall over that?’ ‘Do you think she’s planning to stay because that’s where we usually sit in the afternoon?’ On and on they coo-cooooo, coo. I answer when I can, though they just laugh at my accent and poor dove grammar. The only phrase I really need to know in Dove is ‘Please stop dropping buddleia and thistle seeds everywhere.’ We’re set for a discussion about the removal of the birdfeeders if they don’t listen. Coo-coooo, coo that, Bobbleneckers!

And so, the world turns. New friends, old pandemic worries, upcycling projects, bulging garages full of stuff waiting for a permanent home. And me. A writer doing anything and everything but write most of the time, even though my editor is expecting a third novel by February. Another season into my epic journey and I’m just trying to be kind to myself. The stories will flow again, and I’ll be ready when they do. Covered in paint, mud and dove droppings, probably, but I’ll be ready. Hiraeth and wanderlust don’t remain dormant for long.

The Evolving COVID Staycation

Everyone’s talking about staycations during this never-ending pandemic. ‘Where are you going for your holidays this year?’ ‘Oh, I’m staycationing this year. Just heading up to the Lake District.’ Well, correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t leaving your house mean you’re NOT staycationing? Doesn’t taking a staycation mean a deck chair in the garden with a cup of tea out of your own teapot and possibly a curry delivered to your own front door followed by a Netflix binge? According to Wikipedia, a ‘staycation’ means you stay home or within day trip distance of home without overnight accommodation. But in 2021, that definition seems to have morphed. Apparently, now ‘staycation’ means much more than a potter around your garden with a Scotch egg in one hand repeatedly throwing the next door kids’ ball back with the other. Apparently, it now means you only pack one suitcase and you don’t need your passport, antidiarrhea meds, or proof of yellow fever vaccination. Oops. Now I’ve done it; opened the ‘vaccination passport’ debate. I’ve been carrying a ‘vaccination passport’ for years and just don’t get the hoo-ha about adding a new jab to the list. But I digress …

Staycations. Yes, I’m trying to work out if I’m going on one next week. I thought I wasn’t, seeing as I’m leaving not only my house, but the delightful county of Somerset. Surely that means I’m going on holiday, not taking a staycation? But as soon as I tell people I’m remaining solidly on English soil they mention a staycation. As one privileged enough to find it strange not to have travelled by air, sea or even bus yet this year, I fully understand this first world problem of defining ‘staycation’ may reek of triviality. It does. But this is my blog. I get to decide what’s important here.

This thirteen-month long pandemic ‘original definition’ staycation is the longest I’ve spent in one place for … well, I don’t even know how long. Luckily, I now live on Exmoor, with all the space and beauty and novelty of a divine vacation spot just outside my door. I have to admit, though, I’d like to experience a different view once in a while, if only to remind myself how lucky I am to live where I do. Hiraeth brought me back home but wanderlust never died.

I’ve always taken more international flights than domestic ones, wherever I’ve lived, so once upon a time, a trip to Suffolk wouldn’t have counted as a ‘real’ holiday for me. Fast forward to 2021 and I’m hopping from foot to foot excited about a trip along the M5 and the M4 … and after that I’m not sure what roads as I’ve never been to Suffolk. It’s east of here, I’m pretty certain. Why Suffolk, you ask, when I obviously know nothing about it? Well, back in March when we started thinking about holidays, Hubby and I were certain the pandemic would be over by now. We also assumed foreign travel would be a nightmare. The pressure of pent up vacationers hitting the airports and beaches of exotic locales like corks from a bottle of champagne at a NASCA rally wasn’t something we wanted to deal with. ‘Let’s explore England’, we said. After all, I’ve been away a long time and there are huge swaths of this green and pleasant land I know nothing about. I could direct you to the airport in Bora Bora more easily than to Canterbury Cathedral, for example. So we started looking in all the usual places: Lake District, Cornwall, Isle of Wight, figuring everyone would be somewhere requiring a flight.

Not so fast. Apparently, many others knew back in March airports wouldn’t be the happiest place on earth. We couldn’t find a hotel room in England for love nor money. Plenty of money, I hasten to add, as the price of hotels and B&Bs skyrocketed. No room at the inn: Devon-cation? Out. Derby-cation? Out. East, West, South Yorkshire-cation? Out, out and out. What the heck? Where’s left? I grab a map of England and start sticking pins anywhere that looks like dry land. Hey, Suffolk! ‘How do we feel about Suffolk, Hubby?’ ‘I feel great about Suffolk,’ he says, not knowing whether I’m talking about a dance step or a type of vegan pasty. Several clicks later, we have the last room at a hotel in Woodbridge. No idea where or what Woodbridge is but it has a hotel room and that’s good enough for us. Others tell us it’s a wonderful spot. So off we’ll trot on our ‘current era definition’ of staycation, that in any other time in history wouldn’t technically be a staycation.

Suffolk. Land of the I have no idea what, home of the I have no idea what. But I’m excited about it. All I have to do now is remember where I put the suitcases. They’ve never been stored away this long.

Here we come, Suffolk-ation! Wait, whaaaa? That’s doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as I’d hoped. Of all the counties …

Image: Google Maps

No Weddings and A Funeral. Or Two.

On May 31st, 2020 I crept through an empty international airport in Chicago. I sat alone, masked and gloved, on an almost empty jetliner and arrived at the ghost town that was Heathrow Airport in the early hours of June 1st. I thought those pandemic relocation experiences would the most surreal of my life. I was wrong. This last year, my first full year in England since the 1980s has rocked my – and everyone else’s – world like no other.

I arrived to an empty Exmoor property I’d had to rent sight unseen (and pay for long before we could fly over), to spend the next months alone as my husband waited for the visa offices in the United States to reopen. I borrowed a single mattress and a chair, as shipping companies couldn’t deliver our furniture. One pan, two plates, two knives, two forks, two spoons, brought over in my luggage. Two wine glasses, borrowed. As the United Kingdom went into deeper lockdown, a highlight: my son and daughter-in-law arrived to live with me in the empty house as their London jobs shut down. After weeks on the floor, never have three people been so happy to see a moving van carrying real beds and a couch.

Hubby finally arrived from the US in October, followed by our daughter and dog in November. After a brief reopening of restaurants, we plunged back into full lockdown at Christmas, now five adults and two dogs, all fighting for the two-seater couch. We completed more jigsaw puzzles, read more jokes off Penguin biscuit wrappers and walked more isolated miles over Exmoor than we ever imagined possible.

Then a dear friend died. I gave my first eulogy in an almost empty church, the echo of silent, hug-less loss making it all the worse. That I’d made it home in time to spend those last months with her was at least something to hold onto.

As Spring arrived, the kids returned to some semblance of their lives in London. Even though nothing was open, their jobs had made a partial comeback. Two adults and one dog now settled in to fighting for the two-seater couch. There was no point buying more furniture as the house we’d been waiting for would soon be ours. We’d furnish it once we moved in. It had belonged to our dear departed friend and she’d wanted us to live there after her passing. It was all arranged. We’d care for her cat and tend her flowers while making the place I’d considered my English home for forty years our own.

We get our first COVID vaccination and life is looking better.

May arrives. Another dear friend dies. Suddenly. We’d known each other since I was a teenager. We’d been through everything together and waved to each other across the field during lockdown. We’d planted hundreds of daffodils in her garden just months before. We made plans. On the same day she dies, an email arrives from solicitors. The beneficiaries of our dear departed friend weren’t going to honour her wishes that we should purchase her house. We’re thrown into a red-hot property market in England and Exmoor properties are few and far between. Our future is clouded by the prospect of having to look elsewhere. After thirty years of planning to make Exmoor home, our future is no longer safe here. A dark day, indeed. Hiraeth seeps out with the tears. Maybe home never really existed after all.

Plans. Worthless plans.

I struggle to compose another eulogy, no clue how I’ll get through it in church next week. But though many seats must still remain empty, we will at least be allowed to hug each other this time. In some weird way, writing my sad words brings gratitude. These two special friendships endured great distance and decades of long-distance phone calls, holiday visits and missed special events. That I got home just in time to see these friends in health before things took turns for the worse is miraculous. We had the chance to make new memories before committing them to eulogies; a reminder it can be too late to come home if you don’t grab the chance. Our pandemic relocation nightmares were dreams come true after all.

Then another dream. On the same day my friend died, and the email arrived from the solicitor, a local property came on the market. We view it the next day to cheer ourselves up, to pretend there’s somewhere else out there that will match the dreams of the home we just lost. One look and we’re in love with a house and a gorgeous garden, surrounded by a stone wall. A stone wall! I’ve loved stone walls all my life, the warmth they radiate, the tangled cover of of ivy and valerian softening edges. A sign, maybe? A stream, fruit trees, a swing seat, wisteria, clematis draped over old tree stumps and creeping vines around windows, an arbour seat with views of the wooded combes and the steeple of the church where we married thirty-two years ago. Another long-time friend lives almost next door. It’s everything an English country home should be.

But could it be? Could something good happen here? The thought recedes with the arrival of a Porsche to view the property after us. And another car, and another. We shrug our shoulders, wander around the garden for the last time.

What the heck. What have we got to lose? Let’s throw in our best offer so at least we can say we tried.

A day later, I’m helping my friend’s sister choose a casket when the call comes in.

OFFER. ACCEPTED.

Offer accepted? I can’t even immediately grasp what that means. I shake. It means we get to stay on Exmoor. It means we make new memories, meet new friends, plant new plants. Our new garden is so gorgeously stuffed in that quintessentially English way there’s barely room for another plant. But there’s always room for a new plant. Like new friends. Though established plants and friends will always be the best.

We fight now to complete contracts before the Stamp Duty Land Tax holiday ends in a few weeks. We hold our breath. Plans. They haven’t counted for much lately. Yet here we are, battered and bruised but still standing. And, hopefully, we’re finally home.

Permanently. Safely. Home.

Images: Author’s own.

This Is Exmoor Calling The Expat World

I’m archaic enough to still find the ability to communicate simultaneously and instantaneously with people on every continent somewhat of a miracle. When someone in Australia or Bangladesh comments on my social media post five seconds after I posted it, it still jolts me. How on earth does it all work? How can I be sitting in my little Exmoor village, calling the world? I’ll never understand but in a way I’m glad I still find it magical.

Anyway, non-techie, non-geek that I am, last week I used all my skills to host the @WeAreXpats Twitter feed. It’s a rotation curation (RoCur) page, meaning the curator changes each week to share insight on a topic. The Expatriate Archive Centre, which runs the initiative out of The Netherlands, kindly branched out and included me as a repat – a returning expat. (Last year I returned to England after thirty years in the USA.) I’m pretty sure I discovered as much about myself and my relocation as those reading my tweets. Condensing complex emotions and logistics into short messages clarifies thought. Picking a photo from hundreds – or if we’re talking cream tea photos, thousands – to epitomise that phase of your life or journey can be daunting. My novels will benefit from this clarifying experience.

The assignment provided an opportunity for me to analyse several aspects of my need to return home. Like, why now? (The 2016-2020 US administration, gun violence, missing British family as we all get older.) I identified what instantly felt like home, even after decades away: the monarchy (got some push-back on that one!), the antiquity of buildings and communities, familiar food brands, almost forgotten and now staple supplies (Birds custard, anyone?).

And then there’s the stuff that makes me feel I’ve landed on a foreign planet all over again: weight and measures in metric and who knows whether or not to take a coat when temperature is given in Celsius? I struggle to apply ‘worth’ to goods and services because I no longer know what’s normal in the UK, I’m relearning vocabulary like ‘lorry’ and remembering to pronounce ‘schedule’ like a Brit. It’s harder for me than my US-born husband on the language score. People cut him slack due to his accent. They smile at Hubby and think he’s unique and interesting. Me? I ask for ground beef at the butchers and get a confused stare and a ‘You mean minced beef?’ Apparently, I sound like I should know better. But I’m catching up. I can now ask for the toilet instead of the bathroom. This has reduced the ‘We don’t provide guest baths in this restaurant’ discussion.

Curating also provided an excuse to do a little research. With regards to expats:

  • 44% relocated for work and 62% vow never to return. (deVere Group poll, May 2020).
  • 30% of those who retire overseas return within three years. (PropertyInvestorToday.co.uk, August 2020, though that number is expected to rise due to Brexit)
  • In my own (very unscientific) poll of an expat Facebook group, 91 said they would return if money were no object, 41 said they would never return (45%).
  • A Knight Frank survey gives the four main reasons for returning home as better education opportunities, a better healthcare system, a new job offer, and being closer to family. (Article in The Financial Times by Liz Rowlinson, October 2020)

Do these four reasons explain why I came home? Not really. I already have a master’s degree, having spent way more time than I intended on my formal education. I had good healthcare insurance in the US. I’m self-employed as a novelist (not to be confused with making money as a novelist) and well, if you’d met my family you’d understand why I left England in the first place. (They receive this blog. Please read that bit quietly so they can’t hear you.) With the four main reasons for returning negated in my case, I’m back once again to I just wanted to come ‘home’. Home, that elusive concept; the not only where but when and why of home. The place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, (oh, the arrogance of quoting my own work, this one from ‘Dunster’s Calling’). But it’s true. You can’t quantify ‘home’. No one else will have the same rationale for deciding where it is, how long to be away, when to come back. No one else’s pros and cons list will include the same criteria as yours. It’s incredibly personal and not at all governed by facts and figures and what’s reasonable and predictable. I’m sure those reading my tweets last week were split between jealousy at my return home and thinking I’d lost my mind for returning home. It’s personal. All I can say is when I introduce people to the Celtic word, hiraeth, meaning an intense yearning for home, tinged with sadness that home may no longer exist, they understand the sentiment. Whether they want to return or not, they’ve pondered the new meaning of home. That comes with the territory (no pun intended) of living somewhere else.

My time curating the @WeAreXpats feed allowed me to add my stories to those of thousands of others searching for a place to call home, permanently or temporarily. Those stories shine a light on everything expats are: a collection of individual stories combining to make communities combining to make history. Many thanks to the Expatriate Archive Centre for including me in this project. It was an honour to share my corner of England with the world.

To find out more about the Expatriate Archive Centre, head to their website at  https://xpatarchive.com/ or follow them on Twitter @WeAreXpats

Image: flickr

Does Humorous Travel Fiction Still Matter?

New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!

*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.

The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…

2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.

COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.

I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.

We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)

As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.

Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.

Onwards to Provence!

In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.