Mission: Identify twelve search keywords that would lead others to find you online. Go.
It’s okay, I’ll wait. Am waiting… Okay, two keywords. Can you come up with two?
I know, right? It’s really hard. But that’s what I have to do as part of a website redesign project I’m currently undertaking. If I want to be found online by those who don’t know my name (and there are a few of you), I must condense my online ramblings, posts, writing topics, and areas of specialized interest or expertise into a dozen keywords. These words can’t be too general like ‘traveller’ or ‘expat’ because I’ll never compete with Condé Nast Traveller Magazine or the billion other hits you’ll get under those search terms. They can’t include the vague term ‘writer’ because Poe, Rowling, Hemingway, and King seem to pip me to the post. I can’t be too specific either, like using the word ‘hiraeth’, because although hiraeth – meaning ‘intense longing for home with a sense of loss’- is ingrained in my very soul after so many years of geographical searching, it’s not a word many others know. Or can spell. Searches may be limited, therefore, to the one person on the planet who wakes up and says, ‘Today I’ll search the word “hiraeth” to see if anyone out there has written a novel about it. Oh, and let’s hope said novel also includes Exmoor ponies.’ A bit too niche, don’t you think? Another favourite word of mine is coddiwomple – ‘to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination’. It defines both my own life’s journey and the novels I write. But is it a good keyword? Hands up if you’ve ever searched coddiwomple. Anyone? I thought not.
What to do. What to do. I blog, pay dues for a website, and scroll endlessly through millions of other people’s social media posts, (forgetting to mention my books on my own accounts), but marketing guru, I am not. By the way, if you search ‘marketing guru’, Seth Godin pops up. He’s everywhere. Well done, Seth. Admittedly, I’m not on every social media platform. I stick to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram mainly because I’m not expected to dance on those. Or at least I don’t think I am. And I’m not expected to use a filter that turns my face into a rabbit or gives me horns or transforms my voice into that of a robot on helium. I mean, who the heck would look for me, humorous fiction writer of a ‘certain age’, on TikTok and what would I be doing there if they did? Jamming to Uptown Funk while making my morning porridge or filming myself typing ‘The End’ on my latest novel in slow motion while my dog plays the accordion in the background? I have a feeling that last bit just shows I have no idea what TikTok does or even is. Which would be true. I bet Seth’s on TikTok. But I digress…
I should have a better handle by now on Who I Am. Professionally that is. I’ve given up trying to answer that question on a personal level, much to my family’s relief. So let’s get back to who’s looking for me online. And why. (Between you and me, I’m a bit afraid to ask, because what if the only one looking for me is that guy serving two years for pirating copies of independent novels? Or that kid I rolled down a steep hill on a dustbin lid when I was eight? Oh, come on! He wasn’t even hurt and Mum made me apologize and that’s all in the past and can we just move on now, please? This approach works in politics. Until it doesn’t.)
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the question isn’t, ‘Who’s looking for me?’. The question is, ‘Who’s NOT looking for me but will learn to love me if I can only identify the right keywords to get myself on their radar?’. Fear of discovery shouldn’t play a part in this. I love writing and I’m so grateful for the positive feedback I receive from readers. I need to put myself out there more and I’ve found a great professional design team to help with that.
I must march onwards in my search for search terms that improve my searchability in search engines. It’s like my perpetual search for home only without frequent flyer points or jetlag. I vow to spend the rest of the week soul-searching in order to produce my twelve terms that depict my core essence. This task will provide the perfect excuse for not getting back to editing my current work-in-progress. Procrastinator! That could be one of my search terms! I just know I’ll come up as number one in that. I’ll check it out. Later.
Happy googling to all of you reading this. Delighted you found me.
(PS Tim Urban’s funny TED Talk about procrastination comes up if you search that word. I’m not mentioned. At all. Which is good news. I think.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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? 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.
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
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.
Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpower treason and plot. We see no reason, Why gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot.
The Fifth of November, aka Guy Fawkes Night, was one of my favourite childhood celebrations, if ‘celebration’ is the right word for remembering an attempt at mass murder of government officials. Slightly disturbing history aside, I loved eating baked potatoes, cooked in the bonfire in the back garden while Dad nailed Catherine wheels to a pole and let off rockets at steady intervals within feet of small children. All the neighbours came over for cocoa and bonfire toffee. The kids ran around with sparklers that imprinted swirly shapes on the retina for hours afterwards. Good times. I was looking forward to this November, my first year back after decades away from my homeland. My family and I would find a community firework display and I’d explain what this quirky British tradition all meant. If I had only known what this November 5th would entail …
Guy Fawkes Night 2020 will go down in infamy as a race against the clock. A holding of breath, an ‘If-this-fails-I-have-no-idea-what-we’ll-do’ sleepless night of tossing and turning. A foreboding sense that we had to get our daughter out of the US before election results, due to the incendiary rhetoric coming out of ‘leadership’ positions. It’s been like watching a Third World country go to the polls and wondering where the UN Peacekeepers are. And our daughter, though a young adult, was in the US alone. Well, not completely alone. Watson, our faithful family dog, was with her. Thank goodness. Maybe all those non-returned calls from pet shipping airlines earlier in the year were for the best. At least my child would have canine protection when the fighting started.
But as a mother, that wasn’t nearly enough consolation. Maybe I was being paranoid. This was America, for goodness sake! America protected democracy around the world, for goodness sake! How could anyone buy into the claims spouted off by one unstable family? How could experienced senators and knowledgeable US citizens allow this to happen? But the reality was, major US cities were boarding up store fronts and some citizens were answering the call to form ‘militias’ to protect (read intimidate) voters. November 3rd was shaping up to be like no other election day in US history. But I can’t worry about that. I focus on getting my dog and my daughter out of harm’s way. It’s no bed of roses in the UK right now either but at least there’s no imminent threat of insurgency to add to the pandemic woes. And at least in the UK we’d all be together as a family.
When I relocated back to the United Kingdom in May, Kerry wasn’t sure she was relocating too. And there were no options for flying Watson. We’d started the process in February, with new microchips and rabies shots, detailed timelines for when each vet check, wormer and certification needed to be complete. Then nothing. Shipping companies stopped calling us back. Airlines weren’t flying pets. If a window opened up, the flight was cancelled last minute. Months and months of fighting ensued to get our dog, and subsequently our daughter, over to the UK. (Because she can’t fly until our dog can or who will play him spa music and massage his temples during the Fourth of July fireworks – which he hates! – and generally spoil him rotten until he can join us?) After much effort, in early November, we think we have Watson’s journey finalised. Until Frankfurt shuts down for pet cargo. Watson is supposed to fly through Frankfurt on his way to Heathrow. His travel date is moved back two weeks, then three, then no one is sure. But the US election is bearing down on us and we want our family out. Like, NOW.
A phone call and a glimmer of hope. Would we consider a flight to Amsterdam, then a pet transport service driving Watson over to England? Initially we’d said we’d only fly Watson if we were on the same flight and it had to be non-stop to Heathrow to reduce his stress levels. Now, we’re about to commit to a flight, a train ride through the Channel Tunnel and a van driven by strangers! Poor, poor Watson! But what are our choices? None. We grab the November 6th flight, just four days ahead and confirm our daughter’s flight for the day after. She’ll fly once we know Watson’s in the air. We can’t risk having him left alone in the event of another cancellation.
For the next few days we live in hope. We fluff up the dog bed that’s been in storage and fluff up the pillows in our daughter’s room. But COVID isn’t done with us yet. The UK government announces a national lockdown, starting November 5th. Panic again. Will a driver be allowed to travel to Amsterdam to pick up Watson? We’re assured commercial transport will continue, but details are sketchy. Watson’s exact arrival time and pickup point isn’t confirmed and we’ll only have a few hours’ notice. We live a 3.5-hour drive from Heathrow. Can we get a hotel near the airport? Few hotels take large dogs. We finally find one (though Watson’s weight has to decrease significantly on the phone). We’re interrogated by the receptionist as to whether or not our travel is essential. They’re only accepting business travellers. Hubby and I feel like Mary and Joseph knocking on doors, only with Guy Fawkes trailing behind, threatening to blow all our best laid plans to bits.
The election is looming. The current administration continues to incite discord, with threats of violence in pre-emptive strikes against the democratic process. Plans for civil unrest are in the works. My daughter lives in a major city in a swing state. The same state where COVID-19 numbers are out of control and the courts are upholding challenges against measures to control said numbers. The US seems to have abandoned all rationality at a time calm heads, science, and community are needed more than ever. My heart pounds in my chest with every news report. It’s hard to believe it’s come to this. The America I thought I knew is fading into the mist, but my daughter and my dog are the only things I care about right now. Each day of waiting is torture.
Election Day comes and goes, with all the chaos promised us. But it turns out, a non-concession, no matter how absurd, helps us. There’s no rioting in the streets, just turmoil on our TV screens. The hours creep by until November 5th, the day Watson is to fly. We check the KLM flight schedule every hour. All airlines are cancelling flights with little notice. At last, a positive sign: a text from our daughter to say Watson has just been picked up from her apartment for the drive to Chicago O’Hare Airport. Then, a few photos arrive in my inbox, showing Watson on a walk around the tarmac before boarding the night flight. At last! Wheels up! He’s in the air! My euphoria is quickly replaced by gut-wrenching guilt that he’s going through this alone. I had promised him I’d be on the same flight. He remembers these things. He bears a grudge. He’s like a cat in that regard.
We won’t hear more of Watson’s progress until he lands in Amsterdam during the early morning hours on Friday 6th November. I focus on the next step. Kerry is on the way to the airport herself now. Step by step, we’re moving forward. But it’s 2020. How tightly, and for how long, can one’s fingers remain crossed?
Somehow I manage to sleep while Watson swoops over the Atlantic. We wake to the news he’s landed safe and sound. At least he’s only hours away now. But the thought of him on his own, going through customs and vet checks and wondering where his family is, well, it’s a lot to ask of your canine bestie, isn’t it? The shipping company does a great job of keeping us up to date. He’s cleared customs, he’s on his way to Calais with his driver. He’s having a nice walk and a stretch while waiting for the train to whisk him under the English Channel.
As we set off from Exmoor to the hotel, we check Kerry’s flight. It’s still reporting on-time departure Friday night. We relax, we almost swagger to the car with the dog’s bed and treats. We got this whole transatlantic relocation during a pandemic thing! No probs, peeps!
Five hundred yards down the road from our house, there’s a loud pop and a wobble. Pulling into a gateway, Hubby leaps out of the passenger seat, leaps back in: ‘Drive home! NOW!’ What? ‘Punctured tyre! Quick, before it completely deflates!’ No swagger now. We only purchased this car a couple of days ago. Like most new cars these days, it has no spare tyre, just a weird inflation contraption that was never designed to deal with a slashed tyre. We skid into our driveway, just as the last air gasps out. It’s been about thirty years since I’ve had a flat tyre. Why now?! Oh, right. 2020. We fling our gear into Hubby’s company car (not supposed to be full of dog hair when meeting customers) and creep past the spot of the flat, never seeing anything that could have caused so much damage. But we’re on our way. Barely! Hanging by a thread to our sanity. But on our way.
The UK is in national lockdown. We prepare our speech in case the police pull us over. ‘Essential travel. Dog needs us. He’s gonna be mad if we’re late. You don’t want to make him mad. He pouts. Refuses to eat. Sheds shaggy hair at a rate you must see to believe. And we’re in the company car. No dog hair allowed. You understand, officer?’ Luckily, we don’t need the speech.
At a service station, somewhere on the M4, we get word: Watson’s in England! He’s on his way to a farm near Heathrow Airport. We can pick him up around 8:30 tonight. Hallelujah! We find our hotel but every local eating option is closed due to lockdown. Back in the car. Back on the motorway, then winding through dark lanes, knowing Watson’s only minutes away. We spot the van parked on the side of the road and pull in behind it. The doors open and there’s Watson, tail wagging so hard he can barely stand up in his crate! I can’t stop telling him how brave he is and how proud I am of him. I’m not crying. You’re crying.
At that moment, the only fireworks we’d seen all night kick off. Watson’s terrified of them. Poor chap, sees the door of his crate open, sees his Mum for the first time in five months, and BOOM, CRASH, FLARE! He must think he’s landed in a war zone. ‘Green and pleasant land, my foot!’, he mutters. He’s scooped into yet another car, at least this time with room to stretch out, his Mum scratching his ears and telling him he’s the bravest dog in the history of pandemic doggie travel. She tries to explain the whole Guy Fawkes thing but Watson’s having none of it. He’s bundled from the car into the hotel room between star-bursting rockets, (via an elevator which doesn’t exactly endear the whole evening to him) where we all collapse in a heap of tangled nerves.
No time to rest. We check our phones every five seconds. Is our daughter boarding her flight yet? Will it be cancelled last minute? Will a delay allow time for the US or the UK to impose tighter sanctions on travel and our window close to get her out? Will the US election be called for Joe Biden (which, let’s face it, in any other year would have happened days ago) and kick off the expected aftermath? Where’s that plane?!
We’re exhausted. But we can’t let our guard down because Watson’s decided the hotel couch is where he needs to be and that’s not allowed and we can’t afford to get thrown out of the only hotel in the area allowing pets. He grumbles and gives us the steely-eye of distain as we drag him off the couch. Again. Where’s Kerry’s plane?!
More heart-pounding as the British Airways flight just before Kerry’s is cancelled. Tick tock. Tick tock. Shouts and hugs! She’s boarded her plane! Doors closed and cross-checked! She’s in the air, arriving tomorrow morning! Watson’s about had it and leaps on the couch during the happy dance, only to be thrown off again. We finally get to eat the sandwiches we bought at the motorway service station. We get ready for bed and I come to the conclusion the only option is for me to sleep on the couch to keep Watson off it. He’s decided he hates England, with all its fireworks and hotel rules and even the water tastes funny. He curls his nose at it. He decides at 3:30am he needs to pee. Because jetlag and time zones and Mum won’t let me sleep on the couch so she’s not sleeping on it either.
An early start to Heathrow the next morning but of course there are road works on the M4 so we’re almost late to meet Kerry’s flight. She reports via WhatsApp there’s no one at immigration and no one at customs and before we know it, she and her luggage trolley are sailing towards us. It’s a joyful reunion with Watson who seems to have forgiven her for bundling him into a crate so many hours and adventures ago. The clan is back together and heading down the motorway to Exmoor. It’s a dream after a long, long nightmare.
In your face, 2020! (Only not really because it’s 2020, there’s over a month to go, and all rational bets are off.) We’ll take nothing for granted, ever again. Especially not a sleeping dog on a mat by the fire. Or the chance to spend extended time with an adult daughter while she settles into her new life in a country she’s part of genetically as a UK citizen, but new to experientially. We settle into a 14-day quarantine. We hope for peace and the democratic process in the US. We hope for peace and health in the UK. We have much to be thankful for. Most of all, family; two-legged and four. And sleep. Definitely, sleep.
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.