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.
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.
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?!
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.
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 …
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
‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ John C. Maxwell
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We spend so much of our lives repeating the same limited array of actions; the routine so ingrained we don’t even miss what we’re not doing. Oh, I know, we sometimes look up from the alarm clock, the grocery cart, the housework, the dog in need of a grooming, the editing, the writing, the rewriting, to say, ‘I should do that’. But don’t.
This past year, though, I’ve broken out of my personal routine. I’ve committed to doing something I’ve been just talking about for years. Yep. Going home. Back to the United Kingdom. Back to fish and chips, egg cups, dog-friendly pubs, good chocolate and exorbitantly high petrol prices. And the National Health Service and BBC license fees and Trooping of the Colour and stunning national parks and Brexit. Leaving behind endless snowy US winters, stunning national parks, two-year-long election campaigns (Do they ever really end in the US?), school shootings (Will these ever end? Seriously, America?), uber-convenience (think warm cookies delivered to your door, 24/7) and extra sugar in everything, including bread and possibly soap.
With this dramatic change on my horizon, there’ve been a lot of first and a lot of lasts lately.
Searched for a house to purchase on Exmoor. Signed contract on a house on Exmoor. Retracted said contract when things fell apart. Continued search for a house.
Researched shipping a dog from the US to the UK. It’s not cheap, is it? And it’s stressful, for all of us but Watson. He’s none the wiser at the moment but that will change when he sees the crate. Which, unfortunately, must be ordered in ‘Woolly Mammoth’ size due to Watson’s mixed heritage including a large dose of Great Pyrenees.
Got US citizenship. (I know, I know. Why, you ask if I’m going back to the UK? It’s the travel restrictions on green card holders. Have to be free, man.) Attended my own citizenship oath swearing ceremony and assisted at another for refugees.
Travelled on a US passport. The only thing I enjoyed about this was the photo on my new US passport is much nicer that on my old UK passport. Now it’s not such an ego-bruising occurrence as the immigration officer sniggers behind his screen.
Lost European Union citizenship. I think. Not sure of the exact date that happened/happens. Was it January 31st or is it the end of 2020? Who knows?
Published a second novel. That can never happen again. So is it a first or a last? Luckily, publishing a third can happen for the first and last time also. It can also happen wherever I am in the world.
Paid off our thirty-year mortgage. That felt good! Can now afford the Woolly Mammoth crate.
Witnessed my youngest graduate university.
The Lasts. (At least, I think they are…)
My youngest graduated university, which means no more payments, or summer jobs, or ‘Can I borrow the car?’, or ‘Send food parcels, please’, or sweating grades. It’s been a jolt to realise I no longer have a dependent child. Luckily, I still have a dependent hubby and dog. Or maybe I’m the dependent there. Depends on the day.
Celebrated last Christmas and New Year in the US.
Spent six hours in one day shovelling a massive amount of snow from my driveway. (Should this happen in my new English home, I’ll be upset. Seriously upset. But packing one snow shovel, just in case.)
Applied for citizenship in a foreign country. At least I hope that was the last time. The paperwork was mind-boggling! The emotional toll was also greater than I expected.
Filed taxes for last full year of earnings solely in the US. 2020 will see filings in both the US and the UK. Can’t wait.
Condensed photo collection from what seemed like a hundred boxes, envelopes, drawers and albums into five photo storage boxes. While I enjoyed the sentimental journey from my own childhood through my children’s childhoods (went digital in 2006 – thank goodness!) it was a massive task I hope never to repeat. I hear you saying, ‘If she’d been more organized through the years, it wouldn’t have come to this.’ I don’t need this from you, thanks very much. But come over and I’ll show you Every. Single. Photo. You’re welcome.
Weighed – literally – the value of items based on nostalgia. Does that child’s tent, book, box of baby clothes, wedding dress, favourite leather chair, china serving dish I’ve never used but was given to me by a favourite person, etc., warrant the expense of shipping?
Bought my last roundtrip ticket from the US to the UK and back. Next time I travel, it will be roundtrip from the UK to the US and back. This may not seem a big deal to you, unless you’ve spent thirty years away from the place you consider home. The roundtrip starting point becomes a huge deal. A Woolly Mammoth deal.
So much still to learn and organize before the move. So much still to experience here in the US before saying goodbye. So if you ask me, ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’, I can say, ‘Oh, about lunchtime.’
Wishing you every success with your own firsts and lasts.
The last decade ended with great excitement. I thought I’d purchased my first house in England, ready to move home after thirty years in the US. This new decade began with great disappointment. The purchase fell through. Hand wringing, lamenting, and yelling ‘A pox on all your houses!’ didn’t seem to accomplish much. A change in tactics now finds me waking at 4:30 a.m. to peruse real estate websites and badger all my Exmoor friends to be on the lookout for suitable properties. Many have stopped answering my calls and it’s only … still January. Anyone would think they feared my return. Fear not, brave allies! I shall return in all hast to force copious amounts of clotted cream on you. In the meantime, I remain in the wrong time zone.
As a distraction from lamenting and house-poxing, I turn to books. Not my own as I’m too distracted. Haven’t written or rewritten or edited a word in a couple of months. Luckily, other authors are filling the void and I’ve read some awesome works, many outside my comfort zone. Out of necessity, I spend a lot of time reading within my genre. I need comparative titles for agents, a current view of the publishing landscape, a familiarity with like authors, what’s working and what’s not. Reading is certainly pleasurable but it’s also work. I used to read everything and there’s no reason to stop just because I’m now a writer in a certain genre, right? In fact, every reason to broaden my horizons. So, 2019 was the year I stepped back outside my humorous fiction cave and blinked in the light of forgotten categories.
I found some of my 2019 reads through PBS’s Now Read This (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/now-read-this/), and still others at my new favourite hangout, the reviewer’s copy table at Barnes and Noble: new releases at discounted prices. Some of my reads are brand new releases, others are old classics. I’ve linked to reviews rather than sellers where possible as I know you have your own purchasing preferences. I hope the links work wherever you are. I’d love to hear your recommendations from your own reading adventures. Here goes:
Spy thrillers became a favourite genre after meeting Tom Clancy at a book signing, then marrying a US Naval Officer. But that was years ago and I’d let the spy work go. Daniel Silva’s The English Girl brough me back with a vengeance. (Though I could never write this. Here’s why.)
Everyone should top up their classics reading each year. (Tracey, that means you.) My choices were I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, American Gods, Neil Gaiman, and Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). How could I never have read Rebecca before now! It’s awesome! But most of you knew that already, I suppose.
The flip side of the classics is to take a chance on a debut author. Beneath the Flames by Gregory Lee Renz is a great place to start. I met Greg at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute and, boy, can this former firefighter tell a story.
War and violence are topics I steer clear of if I can. There’s just too much going on in the world for me to find the awful things we do to each other entertaining. But A Woman Among Warlords, Malalia Joya, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri, are eye-openers. I’ve started 2020 with Olga Grjasnowa’s City Of Jasmine, about the refugee crisis brought about by the war in Syria. Foreign translations haven’t been on my radar for a while, yet City Of Jasmine, translated from German, reminds me to look outside my native language. It’s a fantastic book. Never will images of boats full of soaked people leave my consciousness. I volunteer with refugee populations, but I need these non-fiction and fictional accounts of prior lives and journeys to help fill my knowledge gaps.
I didn’t abandon the lighter-hearted, fun read. Far from it. I read many. A favourite was Rules For Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. Maybe it was the timing of my own hopes to reconnect with old friends in England (those still taking my calls) that deepened the meaning of this tale. Or maybe it was the protagonist’s job, her world filled with plants and flowers. Either way, I enjoyed it.
I read my first Stephen King, Duma Key. The author has the potential to do quite well. You heard it here first.
Some 2019 reads I didn’t fully appreciate and one in particular was downright awful (mentioning no names), but each one sharpened my senses for what kind of writer I hope to be. Stephen King (an up-and-coming author I’ve mentioned before) says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ I believe him. Here’s to taking my open genre mind into 2020 – and into my own writing.
One more thing: I’ve decided not to participate in the Goodreads 2020 Book Challenge, where readers are encouraged to set a goal for number of books they’ll read in a given year. I’m too numbers-oriented for this. I find myself focusing on book count, finishing books I’d rather put side, choosing a shorter book over longer just to chase an arbitrary target. Which I missed. Two years in a row. Dropping that stressor (I need to save all that dopamine and epinephrine for house-buying) means I’ll read exactly what I want, when I want.
I’ll still write reviews of everything I read, of course, as reviews are the lifeblood of any author. If you’ve enjoyed my novels, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble. Then go and read something outside your comfort zone – and review it. Your new favourite authors will thank you. Hey, even Stephen King needs validation every now and then. Wonder if he’s tried to buy a house lately?
How can it possibly be twenty years since the whole Y2K thing? Remember all that ‘Your laptop will explode at midnight because it won’t be able to tell the time’ or some such nonsense? Well, nothing happened to my laptop or the oven clock. My car didn’t swerve off the road because the radio malfunctioned and here we all are. Twenty years wiser and about to start the clock on the next decade.
And here I am, shaky and nervous and pondering the next ‘Will the sky fall?’ scenario. You, see, in my infinite wisdom, I’ve chosen the era of Brexit, – nay, the very month of Brexit – to return to the United Kingdom after thirty plus years in the United States. Well done me. But how was I to know my US ties to a mortgage and college payments would end, my homesickness would increase, and the fiasco that is US politics would all collide at the stroke of midnight New Years Eve, 2019? Well, not exactly at midnight but you get the idea.
Chaos and the unknown aside, my mind’s made up. I’m going home. It’s not about perfect timing as there’s no such thing, in my opinion. It’s about making the time fit your needs. In preparation for departure, I’ve spent the last two months emptying out my house of all the detritus of a lifetime – and yes, so much of what we hoard and shift from place to place is detritus. Seriously, a popsicle stick with a red pompom nose and just the glue left where the eyes used to be that may or may not have been made by my child (but which one?). The cracked orange dressing table dish that a cousin (or friend, or business colleague or who remembers?) gave me in 1979 after their trip to Asia – a place I’ve never been? I’ve been dragging this from coast to coast and attic to attic for all these decades? And now I’m downsizing by about 75% in square footage, where exactly is the cracked orange dish going to go? Toss it! But wait. Maybe it was special and I just don’t remember. I’ll put it over here and decide later. Next to the popsicle stick, because what if one day a child (but which one?) says, ‘Mum, remember that popsicle stick reindeer I gave you that I was so proud of? I’d like to show it to my own child now. Where is it?’
Clearing the detritus, that turns out not be detritus but is in fact little pieces of my soul, is emotionally draining. But the dream moves closer, the purchase of my first ever English house moves closer …
As I get to the very last box of photos from 1989, as I sell the last string of Christmas lights and the childhood puzzles, that house sale turns shaky. No one’s fault, just a kink in the housing chain that throws everyone off balance. But it’s really thrown me. From certain where my boxes were going, to visions of looking for a different house ‘just in case’, all happened in the space of days. And I’m back to wondering if the sky is falling, my laptop will explode, planes will be grounded, the earth will swallow my dreams of returning to England in January right at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, 2019. But I’ll make it work. It must work. The clock’s ticking. It’s time.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year, wherever you are, whatever your dreams.