When Life Gives You 2020…

Seven thirty on a Sunday morning and I’m in the woods between Porlock and Porlock Weir on the Somerset coast. Steep combes reach up toward the blue skies, the smooth waters of the Bristol Channel pave the way to Wales. After days of rain sunlight dapples the muddy trails. Spontaneous streams gurgle through the undergrowth. Soggy blackberries glisten, like tiny strobe lights. They’re prolific, dotted along prickly branches that snag my trousers and claw at my fingers. Berries burst as I pick them, bloated with moisture or furry-white with mould from the incessant dampness of the last week. But there are still multitudes of perfect ones; dark burgundy orbs conjuring up warm ovens and oaty toppings. They promise friendly visits and glasses of wine for Sunday lunches – once social distancing becomes social history.

Motor memory controls my fingers, resurrecting sisterly outings of decades past along the childhood lanes, mouths covered in red stains, one for the basket, three for the instant gratification. No washing, just a wipe on the jeans or a rub of a thumb. Once home, we dunked the berries in tubs of water and watched the creepy crawlies float to the surface before Mum baked the fruit into pies or crumbles.

I didn’t gather these foraging memories in the US. I picked blackberries only in England, teaching my children the skills (and the maths of one in the basket and three in the stomach without washing or worrying) during visits home. You can pick berries in the US of course, but in the areas I lived, it was pay-to-play, organized, rule-driven, commercial. Back on Exmoor now, I wander the free smorgasbord of fruit, alone except for a solitary bird. I can’t identify the cry, a croak almost, not a pheasant or a pigeon or any of the little fellas I see on my birdfeeder. I search for a glimpse of the bird, but the trees are too thick to allow more than the one-sided conversation to penetrate the greenery. Still, it’s nice to know I have company.

I’d expected to be showing my US husband the charms of blackberrying – yes, it’s a verb in England – by now. He should have been here months ago. But I’m alone. So is he. Still. The immigration systems in both the US and the UK seem coldly detached from the immigrant/emigrant’s needs. It’s bizarre that we can go to restaurants, schools and shops but visa applicants still struggle to get a one-on-one meeting with an immigration officer. Why is it not safe to send passports and paperwork into someone who could easily be isolated at a computer terminal? It’s easy to harbour thoughts of darker forces interfering with the immigration process. Easy to think that certain powers are conspiring against the sharing of ideas and ideals, of relocation and residency variation. Against joining families together and reuniting citizens of all nations in the country of their choice. Against the joys – nay, the necessities – of adding new ingredients to the global stew pot. If we can rally on the White House lawn, we can carefully tiptoe though travel hubs and follow quarantine rules dictated by scientific data.

I push the darker thoughts aside and let the sunlight play on the fruits in my own berry pot. Here in the woods I feel part of my homeland. Reaching, picking, the plop of the berry in the pot, and the sounds of Exmoor remind me why I’ve fought so hard to return home. I’ll wind my way back along the trail to Porlock, peel a few apples, wash the blackberries, stir the crumble topping and wait for warm scents to fill the house. Hopefully, next autumn’s crop of berries will be harvested by my entire family. Settled, safe – and home. But for now, when life gives me 2020, I’ll make blackberry and apple crumble.

End of A Transatlantic Era

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This is it. My last blog from the United States of America on my last day as a resident. I envisioned a graceful exit after thirty years. A swan-like glide out of the USA and a pirouette into the glorious English countryside. I’d swish my Austen-esque skirts through the spring dew of a cottage garden as the frantic pace of the US faded to black. I’d sip tea from cup and saucer rather than a mug, nibble on scones and high tea petit fours from a tiered cake stand. Partake of a country pub sherry in the evenings. All surrounded by family and friends. The church bells would ring and the English sparrows chirp …

This is where I insert the sound of a car crash. (Not being tech-oriented, you’ll have to add that yourselves.) Suffice it to say, my transatlantic relocation has turned into anything but a swan-like glide; more a belly flop from the highest diving board onto a frozen puddle. The scones turned to stale hotel vending machine crackers, the sherry replaced by Pepto-Bismol. A global pandemic means the only fabric-swishing going on comes from the homemade masks my US friends hand me at our goodbye get-togethers – which dissolve from fun, though teary, events to waves from a distance across parking lots and driveways. Friends shuffle forward, place bags or cards on the floor. They move back. I shuffle forward to collect. Then move back. More like a hostage transfer between alien planets on an episode of Star Trek than a goodbye between friends I’ve shared graduations and weddings and baby births with. We air-hug, blow kisses, and that’s that. Never how I saw this going down.

I’m in a hotel today, this last day, having sold our house at the first inklings of social distancing and lockdowns. The closing date came before transatlantic flights were more consistently available for bookings. Before a small window of opportunity opened at the end of May to fly out of Chicago. An inflatable mattress, a pillow, a blanket and a shower mat wrap around two knives, forks, spoons and a tin opener in my suitcase. Oatmeal, teabags and granola bars make up the rest of my baggage allowance, in case of emergency delays or rerouting or cancellation of flights. I pack multiple masks in my carry-on. It’s been the most surreal packing experience of my long and varied travel history.

I check the websites every few minutes to make sure flights are leaving. Best not to breathe until the flight takes off as so many are cancelled last minute. There’s only one day to go. Surely nothing else can happen that would prevent me traveling?

There’ll be no one at Heathrow to meet me. I’ll drive alone from London to an empty rental house rather than a purchased home, due to restrictions on viewings. I’ll draw the curtains and hide myself from the inhabitants of Exmoor. I won’t risk the trust of new neighbours before I’ve even said hello. Isolate here I come, no matter what government regulations say at the time of my arrival.

My furniture has shipped across the pond, but it can’t leave Southampton Docks until moving companies are allowed to deliver it. No idea when that will be. I’ll be camping in the house; a couple of chairs and a table, some china and a microwave rustled up from kind friends. These items await my arrival, already in place so the friends limit contact with me. Luckily, a small village has its advantages. Porlock knows I’m coming home. The local shops have arranged deliveries of basic household items and food. I thank them all.

I remain hopeful I’ll depart this land of the not-so-free on May 29th. I remain hopeful the visa offices will open soon so my US citizen husband can join me. With as cheerful a smile as I can manage, unseen behind my new collection of masks, I’ll clutch my first one-way ticket in thirty years, destination London, and board that flight. I’ll appreciate being allowed to carry a whole 12 oz bottle of hand sanitiser into the aircraft cabin, along with several sandwiches in case all airport restaurants are closed. I’ll wave a grateful thanks to the America I knew until it became unrecognizable to me over the past few years. I hope it finds its way back. Just as I have. Hiraeth and all.

I’ll get through this, and I know it will all be worthwhile.

Just to be home again.

My Worthless Emergency Supply Kit

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I thought March 2020 would go down in history as the most bizarre month of my life. Running through airports in Buenos Aires to beat border shutdowns, selling my house in the US only to find I couldn’t get to England to buy another, tying a bandana around my face using elastic bands that threaten my eyesight every time they snap. It’s all too surreal to be true. Surely next month will find me laughing at the craziness of it all as I sip coffee in public places with friends? But then comes April…

It begins with the Wisconsin State primary election. All other States postpone their elections to keep citizens safe from the pandemic, Wisconsinites are forced to the polls. I fire off an angry tweet at those responsible for this reprehensible disregard for human safety. I never expect anything to happen. The tweet goes viral, viewed over 1.1 million times, tens of thousands of likes, retweets and comments. It’s included in a podcast featuring the Arizona Secretary of State, and on lists of tweets that sum up the electoral mess. It reminds me one voice matters, and how we frame our thoughts matters. A stranger comments that my short tweet demonstrated I was obviously a writer – a highlight of my lockdown experience so far. Well, along with the neighbour leaving cookies on my doorstep the other day. But I digress …

April continues, everyday a fight to carve a simple transatlantic relocation out of a pandemic cliff face. I try selling furniture from my garage, but there are few takers. I can’t even donate it as all donation centres are closed. I explain to the new owners some larger pieces, like the pool table, will still be here when they move in next month. They understand, luckily.

I battle to arrange shipping to the UK for my dog. It’s moving forward until all responses to questions I send to the airlines suddenly stop. I assume those helping me have been furloughed or laid off. Watson will now be staying in the US with my daughter. This is great as they love each other, but awful as I’m leaving them both behind at a terribly worrying time to be a mother to anything or anyone. But I have nowhere to live after May 14th so must move somewhere.

My husband and I find a rental house on Exmoor online and sign contracts, sight-unseen, because we need an address in the UK before the shippers can transport our furniture. We must have a utility bill before we can fill out the customs forms. We have no choice but to pay rent in the UK for a place we can’t move to yet. My US citizen husband can’t even file his UK spousal visa application as all the offices are closed. We find a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, that will allow us to sign a three-month lease. It’s not much but it’s a roof and a rented bed. We’re now paying rent on two continents with no idea how long we’ll be doing that for. Awesome! (*checks book sale royalties* Not so awesome.)

I’m interviewed by BBC Somerset about my adventures trying to get back to Exmoor. It’s hard to know what to say. There’s no information to share about how to do it. No one has a plan or even a prediction as to what will happen. I can only say, ‘What a mess’ so many times.

Everything in the last two months has been strange and unpredictable. But if I had to mark the most singular reminder we’re living in extraordinary times, it would be finding my emergency supply kit stashed in the back of the basement.

Living in England, my idea of an emergency kit was a couple of Band-Aids in my back pocket. Maybe a backup corkscrew. That was it. But when I moved to the United States, I realised much of the country was virtually uninhabitable, and an emergency of some kind practically guaranteed. Earthquakes to the west, hurricanes to the east, blizzards to the north, wildfires everywhere. I’ve lived in all these locations over the past thirty years. My neighbours in California encouraged me to reconsider my back pocket emergency kit. A large trashcan-on-wheels was mentioned. What?!

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The thinking is – was – any kind of emergency required you to leave your house. You should plan on being gone for at least 72-hours. You must stuff your trashcan-on-wheels with plastic sheeting and string for making a simple lean-to shelter. A camping stove, thermal blankets to protect you from exposure. A penknife, dried stew mix, headlamps so your hands are free to set up your lean-to in the dark. A tin opener. Rain ponchos. A big stick to protect your supplies from others (the less prepared) walking the earthquake-savaged roads of Los Angeles or the tornado-damaged neighbourhoods of the Midwest. To defend your boat, now sitting inland two miles after a hurricane in New England.

I’ve been through major earthquakes and hurricanes and tornado warnings with nary a scratch. But as I stare at my emergency kit in the COVID-19 era, packed inside its bright blue trashcan-on-wheels, I realise something: it’s all worthless. What good’s a lean-to against a virus? What good’s my headlamp (unless it could light up contaminated surfaces) and my tin opener? That fancy wound kit, full of finger splints and ankle wraps? Useless. Miles of string. For what? Tying the doors shut so I don’t go out?  (Oh, look! Two rolls of toilet paper squashed in the bottom of the trashcan. Now, THAT’S useful.)

No one ever suggested I prepare for a pandemic. Not at the individual, state, national or global level. Even though we’d had warnings. The year 1918 springs to mind. So I’ve spent the last few days thinking about all the things I wish I had in my emergency kit now. They would be considered non-essential in a different time, and I can’t justify going out to shop for them now. You won’t find my list printed on any Red Cross, FEMA or WHO website. But you can bet I’ll always have them handy from this time forward.

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Games, books, greetings cards for every occasion and the stamps to mail them. Hair dye, hairbands. Aged whisky. Prosecco. (I rarely drink but that may change soon.) Noise-cancelling headphones; protection from the home-schooled kids next door. Colouring books to throw over the fence at the kids next door, like hamburger to a barking dog. Graduation/birthday party decorations, even though no one else can come to the party. Birthday candles, sidewalk chalk, noise makers for the heroic handclaps, bubble blowers – entertaining at any age. Dog treats, as pets are fenced in too. Did I mention hair dye? A mechanical robot hand grabber thingy for curb-side pickup. Slingshot for quieting the kids next door. Megaphone for communicating with the mailman. Hundreds of thank you cards for all the small acts of kindness shown by so many in countless ways. A million dollars in tens and fives for tipping everyone who’s still going to work at a hospital, care home, janitorial service, take-out restaurant, delivery company, emergency service or grocery store. EAR PLUGS! Those viral videos of the neighbour singing opera from his kitchen window? Funny. Once. Not so funny when he decides to make it his new revenue stream. A remote control with an extra-large mute button to stop You Know Who from invading my space with ridiculous ‘news’ briefings. I may have mentioned hair dye before.

It’s clear I’m going to need a bigger trashcan.

Emergency kit aside, here’s what I wished I done before the world changed: hugged everyone I knew, every time I saw them. Every. Single. Time. Breathed in the scent of them, stored their laughter in my memory. Learned to use Zoom in split screen. Had my hair cut shorter than necessary, every single visit to the hairdresser. And practiced cutting my family’s hair, while there was still a hairdresser available to fix failed attempts. I wish I’d never postponed a visit to the eye doctor or dentist. Wish I’d taken a frail neighbour out to dinner. Wish I’d returned to England last year.

If wishes were horses …

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My plan to return home this spring has dissolved into chaos and confusion. There’s no point lamenting this. Too many others are fighting far worse battles than a mere transatlantic relocation delay. It’s life and death out there, folks. Let’s not forget that. But I allow myself disappointment and anxiety without guilt. I’ve been working so hard on this move for six months. The delay is frustrating and expensive. I focus on taking a small step forward every day. The basement is finally cleared. The worthless emergency kit, re-evaluated. I’ll work on restocking it with what’s really essential as soon as possible. When I do, I’ll focus as much on mental well-being and staying connected as as I will on physical survival.

Take care of yourselves. I’d hug you if I could. xx

When Was The Last Time You Did Something For The First Time?

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‘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.

The Firsts:

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.

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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.

Wrong Time Zone. Right Book Zone.

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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:

I’ve never been a big fan of autobiographies but Casey Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here and Damian Barr’s Maggie And Me cured me of that.

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.)

Nonfiction has been on the backburner for a while. It moved to the front of the stove with To End A Presidency (Lawrence Tribe and Joshua Matz), Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending, John McFarland’s The Wild Places, and Jane Friedman’s The Business Of Being A Writer. All fascinating and informative.

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?

Happy reading and/or house-hunting to you all.

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From Y2K to Brexit

'The Sky is Falling'

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.

Image: Lauri Vain, Flickr

So, A Veggie Platter Walks into A Courthouse …

I assisted at a US citizenship oath ceremony last week, held at the District Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. By ‘assist’ I mean I crinkle cut vast quantities of veggies and lugged a cooler through courthouse security. No mean feat, actually, as the handle of the cooler wouldn’t fit through the scanner. Therefore, umpteen gallon-size baggies full of carrots, celery, peppers, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and cauliflower florets had to be hand-screened by three guards wearing earpieces. Can just imagine the conversation with the control room:

‘Sir, she says she cut all these herself using the neighbour’s Pampered Chef crinkle cutter.’

‘No one’s crazy enough to cut that many vegetables by hand.’

‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’

‘I see. Let her in but keep an eye on her.’

I, of course, had wanted to go all out roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, gravy, trifle, treacle tart and custard. Greater minds prevailed and it was suggested I just go for the veggie platter. Good job, too. Can you imagine the trifle after the hand-screening?

Anyway, security cleared, I waited for the other volunteers to arrive. Soon, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, cheese platters, sheet cake, and baklava were trundling out the back of the security scanner on the conveyer belt. This isn’t what typically comes through the court’s doors. But this ceremony was unique. Open Doors For Refugees – the organization I volunteer with – arranged a special ceremony to be held in Madison. Court officials had to travel from Milwaukee to Madison. The least we could do was feed them.

To be honest, the food was mainly for the oath takers and their families (though we fed everyone – including the security guards). Naturalized citizens – like me – and immigrant organization leaders, including former refugees, provided a welcome lunch for the new citizens once they were sworn in. This is the third year Open Doors For Refugees has held this ceremony in Madison. Apparently, the judges are fighting over who gets to administer the oath. It’s a bright light in what can be a dark world in the district courts. Every other case posted on the courtroom door sounded, let’s say, less upbeat.

Finding myself back in court only a few months after my own Milwaukee induction into US citizenry, it seemed strange to watch it from the other side. Oath takers arrived, nervous, dressed-up, clutching paperwork. Family members followed, excited and proud. For so many it had been a long and arduous journey. If you haven’t been through it, it’s a bit like being the bride: months of prep, of stress, of dress fittings and venue food testing and sweating the cocktail napkin colour choices. When the day arrives, you’re too tired to care if the tiny ring-bearer hurled the cushion into the koi pond or the groom forgot his vows.

Only it’s more than that. It’s many more years of preparation. It’s an even bigger – in many senses -commitment than marriage. It’s loss, or at least change, of one’s long-held concept of home. One of the guest speakers, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke of the changes in terms of grief and the notion that things will never be the same. She spoke of the underlying battle to process who you really are now and how others will view you. What to hang on to and what to leave behind. I found it moving in a way I hadn’t expected. It was my first time holding my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the US flag. It centred attention on divided loyalty and homesickness and pride and yes, grief; of being separated from one world while stepping through a door into another. I did it by choice when I married an American and it was still difficult for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for those who had fled their beloved homes and would choose to still be in those homes if not for war, violence, fear, or persecution.

Some oath-takers brushed away tears through the whole ceremony. What did those tears represent? Regret, homesickness, gratitude, honour, a sense of loss, or a sense of gain? Another gentleman held his right hand so high while taking the oath, I worried he’d lose all feeling in his fingers. It’s a long oath. But his great pride was front and centre. Some spoke fluent English, some struggled to keep up as they read the oath. Some smiled at family, some appeared alone. Some waved American flags, some stared at their flags with looks of confusion. What does it mean to wave this flag now after a lifetime of waving other colours?

It’s a process, this citizenship thing. And I don’t mean just a complex, confusing paperwork process. It’s a process of moving on, of hoping to be accepted while questioning what you’re being accepted into as immigrants at this particular time in American history.

The judge shook my hand and thanked me for all I do for our local immigrant populations. I do so little, wrist brace notwithstanding. I just tutor families in the English language and help with childcare while mothers take classes. Many do so much more. I was embarrassed by the judge’s kind words. But he reminds me these little things send ripples across oceans and influence generations.

It felt good. To belong. To welcome. To feel part of something so much bigger than myself. As this country struggles to redefine itself as part of a global community, I know, wherever I live, I’ll continue to reach out to those from somewhere else.

Welcome, new citizens. Hope you enjoyed the veggies – and that you get the chance to welcome others yourselves soon. Thank you, Open Doors For Refugees, for this opportunity to serve.

This event was part of Welcoming Week 2019, one of 2,000 events held across the US designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in a welcome for all.

For more information on Open Doors For Refugees, go to  http://www.opendoorsforrefugees.org/

Celebrating 30 Years with Tanks and Pie

 

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July has been a big month in the Gemmell household, two newsworthy events occurring within days of each other.

First, after decades of dithering about citizenship, I celebrated my first Fourth of July as a US citizen. I know, right? Hell froze over despite climate change. In honour of the occasion, America decided to forgo the usual focus on picnics, hotdogs and apple pie to celebrate the event with a militaristic show of force. Tanks roamed the streets of Washington DC, the President acted as MC for the airshow, and ‘bombs bursting in air’ threatened to revert to its original interpretation, rather than signify a pretty firework display.

Was my new citizenship status the provocation for this change or could it just have been coincidence? I mean, the British were coming long before I married into the colonial clan. First to collect taxes and demand better treatment for tea. Later as voice-over artists for Jaguar car commercials and, in my case, to provided accent modification services to a population that seriously needed it. Or not, depending on you view of the appropriateness of ‘France’ being a three-syllable word. (Fu-Ra-Yuns echoing down the Champs-Élysées endears you to no one, America. Just saying.) Anyway, my formal dunking in the melting pot hardly seemed cause for lining up the troops.

But I’m greater cause for suspicion this July and tanks are necessary. Apparently. You could argue it’s not just me. USCIS naturalized 756,800 people in fiscal 2018, a five-year high, according to a USCIS report, and there’s a backlog of a million applications for citizenship and permanent residency according to government statistics (reported in the Washington Post, June 3rd, 2019). The wait time for approval has jumped from four or five months to close to a year under the current administration (reported on NPR, September 1st, 2018). So, all these new and potential new voters may have played a role in the rolling tanks. But I choose to keep the focus on me. I commit now to bringing more apple pie to next year’s Fourth of July party.

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The second event occurred four days after the tanks decimated the National Parks budget: my 30th wedding anniversary. This occasion annihilated my theory that only old people can be married for thirty years. Turns out you can be very young and reach this milestone; in my case, due to the fact I was betrothed at birth to my US husband in a ceremony dedicated to cementing the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. No, really. It was attended by Margaret Thatcher and Bush 41. They used one of those new-fangled fax machines to share the news with my parents. I still have the smudged documents. Anyway, my husband sweetly maintains he got the better end of entente cordiale. I sweetly agree with him. As much as I miss home and as much as hireth nibbles at the corners of my conscious 24/7, I wouldn’t have missed this American man for anything.

July 2019 goes down in history. I hope you found many reasons to celebrate. Hopefully all your reasons included pie.

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Relocation Countdown: Transatlantic Hireth and Abandoned Plants

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I’m fortunate to have citizenship in two countries: The United Kingdom and the United States of America. But it’s not lost on me that ‘United’ appears in both nations’ titles when ‘united’ currently seems a strained concept in either place. Pick your poison: the bedlam of Brexit or the trauma of Trump. You can be supporters or detractors of either and still wonder how we got to this place in history.

Neither issue impacts my resolve to return to the UK permanently. This was a decision made years ago, during a gallop on horseback across Porlock Hill and during a cream tea in a sleepy village. It was made beside a gurgling steam in Horner and while hanging onto my sandwich during a gale on Dunkery Beacon. Politics, current events, head-scratching choices – in the whole scheme of things, they don’t matter. England is home and that’s that.

However, current US policies have coalesced my family’s energy around leaving the US sooner rather than later. Soooo … you heard it here first folks, next year is the year! Yep, by the end of 2020, my husband and I plan to be living in England. The wheels are in motion, the list-making has begun. And, boy, is that list intimidating.

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There’s all the usual rigamarole associated with any kind of move, whether it’s down the road or across continents and oceans: Prepping the house to sell, worrying how best to transport the dog (he does ‘down the road’ but may prove resistant to crossing oceans) and of course the stuff of nightmares – The Clear Out. Is it more cost-effective to leave everything and buy new in England or transport everything via container ship? Evaluating each piece of furniture, each knickknack, each cupboard full of memories, it’s daunting.  What to take, what to sell, what to destroy in a fire in the back garden because that wooden crate, snatched from a party in college and still used to hold the stereo (yes, stereo. It’s that old.) is too humiliating to post on the local Buy and Sell site. Do I take the custom-made couches that, let’s face it, were designed twenty years ago for a dreamed-of cottage in England but in a size more suitable for the larger colonial house in Connecticut? Do I take all the framed posters of global vacations that hang in my current huge basement but couldn’t possibly fit in a downsized UK house? And then there’s the issue of the books. Hundreds of books. But … but my books!

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And don’t get me started on the garden. My trees, shrubs and perennials are all well-loved members of my family. There’s a story behind each one. The lilac was a gift to memorialise my mother-in-law, the white rose for my father-in-law. There’s a beautiful hydrangea, a gift from a student for fixing her ‘Howwible R’, (her words – before treatment), when I was a speech-language pathologist. A large potted rosemary commemorates Basil, our dearly departed Golden Retriever. I’ve nurtured them all through transplant shock, bug infestations, puppy-chewing, polar vortexes, and scorching summers. How can I possibly explain to these plants they’re being left behind through no fault of their own but because customs won’t let them into the UK? (And because the realtor seems to think a stripped-bare patch of earth full of tell-tale holes will impact price.) Parting from human friends is hard but they can visit me in England. My maples, silver birch, ornamental plums, blue spruces, spiraea, red- and yellow twig dogwoods, clethra, peonies and hydrangeas are bound to this place. Is it so unreasonable to demand, as part of the sales contract, the new owners send yearly updates and photos of the irises and oriental lilies?

My relocation situation includes the complication of visa applications for my husband. Having just been through the citizenship grinder – and my American daughter-in-law’s UK visa application – the thought of all the months of confusing and contradictory instructions, expense, and nail-biting waits for approval is intimidating. But needs must. I need to – and must – return home. It’s time to commence countdown. But first, I must go outside and sit with my climbing roses. They’ll require careful explanation of the situation if I’m to expect them to bloom next spring during the house showings. Think I’ll avoid any conversation about current politics on either side of the Atlantic, though. No one could explain any of it to anyone.

Not Your Grandparents’ Tea Room

To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.

A chilly autumn mist lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy. I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks. I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?

I open the gate to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong, the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.

Clematis Cottage greets me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious reminds me I have an appointment.

I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.

Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.

With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.

There’s new colour here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.

There’s music too, coming from sophisticated elec-trickery (remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?) flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos), egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!

Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.

It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.

I’m honoured to be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.

Paul Gibbs and David Pollard in Writers Corner

Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.

Bringing his ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.

Their love and excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone duty.

I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.

For more information, check out: https://periwinkletearooms.co.uk/clematis-cottage-gift-shop-gallery/

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