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.

From Silver Partings To Silver Linings

Yes, there have been silver linings to this – what’s the word? – execrable? frightful? odious? insalubrious? (trying to avoid the ‘sh*#!’ word here. Help me out!) year. Some of those linings I dug deep to find (the Hilton points accrued during Hubby’s 139 days in a hotel waiting for a visa came at high cost), some seemed more superficial (first name terms with all the delivery people). But one that started as superficial turned out to be somewhat more momentous. My hair colour. That front-and-centre, in your face (around your face?) crowning definition of age and status morphed from accessory to my own personal meme to 2020.

I’ve been a dark brunette for decades. The first few of those, I served at the whim of nature. The last few, well, I served at the whim of beauty salon schedules and vanity combined with societal dictates as the tinsel on my head overwhelmed the natural tree, so to speak. But 2020 saw long months with no access to a hairdresser, first on the US side of my relocation and later on the UK side. I’ve never attempted the DIY bottled colours. I can barely operate a hair dryer. And me with even a simple mascara wand is recipe for disaster. (Think Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice.) A vat of dye? Not happening. I just don’t do hair and makeup. So pandemic dilemmas included whether to override my natural inability to embellish myself or override my intense fear of letting the world know I hadn’t been a brunette in a long time. There was only one option. I bit the silver bullet.

Luckily, the stars aligned for the Great COVID Grow Out. Millions of others were in the same boat. From Paul McCartney to several neighbours, we all took the plunge. Even Mona Lisa was photographed with that white skunk stripe down the centre of her head. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to the newly silver sisterhood. Its membership increased manyfold over the course of 2020. Countless of us felt forced to make a transition we weren’t ready for, hadn’t even considered before lockdown. It terrified us. What would people think? Co-workers? Family? Even our kids? Societies worldwide – and more importantly ourselves judged us harshly for our pigment deficits. Entire industries profited from our desire to maintain membership in a world painted using the 20-something colour palette. It took the shock of a COVID world that no longer looked, felt, acted like the status quo to make us realise we didn’t need conformity either.

We of the Skunk Stripe Tribe became each other’s ‘call a friend’ when that siren call of the Clairol root touch up aisle threatened progress. We supported and lamented as we pondered whether to cut short, add lowlights/highlights, listen to loved ones, ignore loved ones, change our minds altogether and run back to the familiar comfort of the Redken bottle. There was no right or wrong answer. We had our careers and families and histories and people who loved us, no matter the colour of our hair. We focused on the upsides as the roots continued their downslide: we saved a fortune on colour treatments, and newly considered our impact on both the environment and our own health. We noted that rather than washing us out, the silver, in many cases, matched our views of ourselves better than the false narrative we’d been perpetuating.

I, personally, was grateful for the fortuitous coincidence of the grey hair trend that seemed to spring up last year. Youngsters were getting their blond/brown/black hair either streaked with grey or entirely greyed. As I walked past a teenager with her long, silver stream rippling in the breeze, I couldn’t help but think she’d look back at photos in a decade or two and realise she was now colouring to hide the grey she’d coveted back in 2020. Or maybe not. No matter. I smiled at her and wondered if she worried that the old lady in the street may have mistaken her for an Aging Ally rather than what she was going for: Instagram Influencer.

Anyway, the Great COVID Grow Out has been a challenge. Walking past a mirror and wondering when exactly grandma arrived, proved excruciating. Watching that silver parting become a silver sidewalk, then a blindingly white silver highway was jaw-droppingly disconcerting. Hats, headbands, scarves, not typically my thing, became the biggest fashion decisions of my day, beating which sweatpants to wear to greet the postman (from a distance) as lockdown dragged on. During a brief respite, when US salons opened in May, I succumbed to a few highlights to blur the stark rigid line between silver and brunette. It helped. A little. Well, not much, truth be told. The temptation to colour again intensified, the addiction strengthened. But I knew access to salon colour could disappear again anytime. I was on a plane to the UK in a few days. I’d be in quarantine, unable to see friends, meet new people, promote my books or attend functions. Didn’t that make this the perfect time to revert to nature? To appreciate what was important in self-care (handwashing, mask-wearing, self-isolation) and what wasn’t (camouflaging the aging process when so many were losing lives way too young)? I dug deep and vowed to keep growing. I’d come so far and would have to start all over again at some point if I gave up now. The good news: the transatlantic flight was nearly empty. The bad news: not a silver stripe to be seen on any of the flight attendants.

Arriving in England, I discovered the silver wave had carried like a tsunami across the Atlantic with me. The white caps breaking on the heads of many others was of some comfort. Make that a tiny bit of comfort. Awareness of silver regrowth is not the same as gnawing awareness you’re a generation older than when you started colouring your hair back in the nineties. I was lucky. I didn’t get pushback from family during Zoom calls as some making the transition did. My mother’s ‘It doesn’t look as bad a I thought it would’ raised a smile rather than heckles. Encouraging comments from my adult children were gratifying. Which brings me to my brightest, shiniest, tinseliest silver lining of the year 2020 …

… the opportunity to spend extended time with my adult children.

My son and daughter were eighteen years old the last time I spent prolonged periods around them. They headed off to college, one ten years ago, the other six years ago. They transitioned to fully-fledged adults during brief summer holidays and phone calls. Upon graduation, they moved away. One married. Hubby and I assumed our time with them would be short and infrequent as we all bopped around the world and followed our own paths. Then … COVID. My son and daughter-in-law were already living in London when I relocated back to England in May. My daughter decided to move over here a few months after I arrived. Between furloughs, unemployment and work-from-home restrictions, we decided to form one household for the foreseeable future. While I hate the reason we had to do this, I marvel at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it affords me.

The kids brought their boutique coffee brands and brewing equipment with them, which clutter the counters and make digging out my store brand teabags harder. They have favourite Malbecs and Cabs and even champagnes.  Champagnes? My Christmas Prosecco sits in the garage, untouched. Here I am, telling my kids back in the day we drank BabyCham and thought ourselves sophisticated. Books by authors I’ve never heard of on subjects I’ve never considered cover the coffee table. New documentaries, series, and stand-up comedians beam into the house via the Amazon Prime membership they bring with them. (I never signed up.) A whole new world.

I’m learning about the adults they’ve become while they learn about our new role as parents of adults; the role that no longer includes doing their laundry, cleaning their hair out of the shower drain, shoving coasters under their drinks or changing the toilet roll. (I hope they’re reading this.) My daughter pulls me out of the road to avoid a car and cooks exotic meals and tells me why I should be listening to such and such a politician because she’s got great ideas about such and such. The last time we lived together she was watching the Kardashians (I refuse to take the blame for this epic parenting fail) and wearing all the boys’ high school football jerseys. I listen to my son on the phone with bosses, co-workers, vendors while he gives presentations and justifies enormous budgets. He moves things, creates things, solves things at lightning speed. He used to take a whole day to empty the dishwasher. My daughter-in-law pushes her company to advocate harder for transition-to-work opportunities for prison populations. Together, these new (to me) adults research apartments and interview for jobs and discuss credit card bills and politics and have oh such strong opinions on subjects I’ve never considered in places I’ve never heard of and it astounds me. These are the joys of months spent with your adult children. You learn a whole new culture through eyes you created but that you lost the ability to see through years ago.

The switch came while I was colouring my hair.

How can I remain preoccupied with pigment when I earned every grey hair creating and raising these amazing human beings? If ‘non-brunette’ is the price I pay, so be it. Here, under this single roof, in a new beginning for us all, I marvel at what we’ve all become. COVID gave me that. 2020 won’t have been a complete loss. In fact, it may go down as one of the greatest family years yet, if we all stay healthy, that is. Let’s face it, nothing matters but that. No silver roots. No aging a generation in ten months. No nothing.

As the vaccine approaches and the light at the end of the tunnel moves from a tiny star-like dot to streetlight-sized orb and finally to a full-fledged beacon of relief, I’ll take these silver linings with me into 2021. I may arrive at midnight a generation older and with a lot of stress hormones under my belt, but I’ll arrive there grateful for good health, my family all together in my homeland, and a renewed impulse to tell stories full of silver linings.

Wishing you health, happiness and your own silver linings from this day forth. By the way, I love your hair. No matter the colour.

Photo credit: Kerry Gemmell

Stay Strong, Bubble Blowers of the World!

Bubbles used to be fun, didn’t they? My dog, Basil, certainly thought so. He’d leap around the garden, snapping at them as they bobbed on the breeze. He’d look through crossed eyes in shock when they popped on his nose, like it had never happened before. He’d stamp on the ones he couldn’t eat, then spin around and laser-focus on the wand in my hand, begging for the next batch. I’m guessing Doggy Heaven has a 24/7 bubble machine at the end of Basil’s bed. (Which is placed right next to a mud bath full of frolicking squirrels who also blow bubbles as they run.)

During my days as a speech-language pathologist, working with young children, I may have used bubbles as much for my benefit as the child’s. The simplicity, rainbow reflections, effortless flight and spontaneous, spectacular pop never got old. The joy in a child’s face, maybe a vocalization from a little one with language delays, well, it just convinced me bubbles were indeed magic. Who among us has not imagined taking flight in one, nose pushed against the transparent porthole on the world?

And just putting this here for anyone who needs it today: Prosecco bubbles. *sigh*

But here we are, 2020. Bubbles have taken on new meaning in COVID World.  They conjure up less free-spirited flight and more prison-like restrictions. Though possibly containing some loved ones, they also lock out other cherished family and friends, forcing uncomforting choices. They clunk along rather than float, changing shape and size on a governmental whim or the flip of a statistical coin. They seal closed rather than burst open.

I managed to make it over the Atlantic back in May to my Exmoor home and a new bubble. But half my family is still locked out of my personal bubble by thousands of transatlantic miles and enough red tape to ground a Zeppelin-sized balloon, I’m not even sure where my bubble begins and ends anymore. Even those family members within the UK are at a loss as to whether we can see each other. A cousin allowed to visit here; a son not allowed to visit there. A discounted restaurant voucher this week, verboten behaviour next week. The flight path of my bubble echoes a cartoon balloon, popped by Wile E. Coyote with a needle, now zipping erratically across the sky. Will it ever land on solid ground?

This bubble-wrangling’s exhausting. But raise that glass of Prosecco! May our bubbles become a symbol of free spiritedness soon. May we see them as protective, fortifying, miniature globes again. May they hold the promise of floating away to unexplored, exotic places. Cherish your bubble. Protect your bubble. Wait for the pop with a sparkle of stars. Be ready to float in happy suspension at a moment’s notice. We’ve got this. Stay strong, Bubble Blowers of the World!

Stay safe. Stay well.

Images: Prosecco, Pixabay, Dog, PickPik

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.

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. Isolation 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