The Birthday Present

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Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?

This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.

Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?

Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.

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Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

Wedding Cake and Role Reversal

Cake IMG_20180519_122901Today I watch the royal wedding with billions of others around the world. The joyous scenes of castles and bunting and English flowers and beautiful veils and adorable bridesmaids never gets old for me. But I can usually watch these occasions with a sense of separation; that this vision of life is not part of my world. Today is different.

Today I watch the lovely Meghan become an expat and I understand the consequences of that decision. For all she gains, she will have time over the years to reflect on the joys and anguishes of exchanging a birthplace for a different culture.

Meghan and I reverse roles. I ‒ a Brit through and through, never dreaming I would ever give up my life in England ‒ married an American. The 1989 ceremony was held in an ancient church on Exmoor. English tradition and bridesmaids in Wedgwood blue dresses all spoke to me of my homeland. The heavy wedding fruitcake, standard fare in the UK, was a novel experience for my husband. He tapped his slice of cake on the side of his plate to see if he could chip the china with the icing. He assumed there’d be something vanilla sponge-like under a thick layer of buttercream, apparently. (He should have married Meghan. She’s having that kind of cake.) Turned out our cake was only the first of many surprises as my husband learned about British culture through my eyes ‒ and stomach. It’s been a fascinating journey for us both and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That said, it’s not always easy to live as an expat and days like today are the hardest.

I enjoy every moment of the wedding and marvel at the sunshine and the glory of Windsor Castle. I hold my homesickness at bay. Until the bells.

It’s the church bells that break the teary flood gates. That quintessential English peal of wedding bells from an ancient tower moves me like nothing else. I can’t pretend I listen to them from inside a church very often, but they stir memories of Sunday evenings, birdsong, cobbled lanes, hedgerow flowers, teaspoons tapping gently on china tea cups, cottages and … home.

I wish Harry and Meghan all the best. I hope they find home together, wherever that is. I hope they discover the best in every culture, as I’ve tried to do. But those church bells – they call me back to England. It’s time. Luckily my husband understands and is ready for our own role reversal. We’ll make the journey together, as he becomes the expat.

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Expat No Longer

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Up to this point, my traveller’s life has involved ping-ponging across the Atlantic ‒ except for a few southerly dips to places like New Zealand and Bora Bora. But last week I added a third continent to my travels: South America. Brazil, to be exact.

I’d picked the rainforest mainly to check a bucket list box about seeing flocks of parrots fly in the wild. You don’t see these birds on Exmoor in England, or in the snow drifts of Wisconsin. But as I lived this long-awaited ‘parrot moment’, I found the most moving experience wasn’t the parrots at all. It was finding myself deep inside two million square miles of ancient forest.

I never got too excited about North American history. So much had been written over in order to fit what the early European settlers needed this continent to be; a blank slate. European history wasn’t my ‘thing’ either. I got an F grade in ‘O’ Level history. (Keep that to yourselves. My mother doesn’t know yet.) However, the older I get the more I appreciate ancient castles and abbeys, Roman ruins and Iron Age settlements; an attempt to understand one’s place in the world before leaving it, perhaps? That said, a few thousand years was the extent of my limited historical understanding.

That all changed in a split second in the Amazon rainforest.

I was on a small skiff, deep into a narrow tributary of the Rio Negro. Night was falling fast. The captain cut the engine. I sat, surrounded by the hums, cracks, buzzes, howls, screeches of the jungle. I became primordial, part of millions of years of history, evolution happening right in front of my face. Trees adapting to life in sunken status ‒ full of secret compounds and potions. Caiman staring from the waters, straight out of Jurassic Park. Tapirs – the likes of which I’d only pictured posed next to wax figures of early Man in museums – picking their way through the trees. As I stared in awed silence, I became a million-year-old tree frog, a pink-nosed Boto, a squirrel monkey, a seed pod so advanced it put NASA to shame. I mingled with the stars, the night so dark I reached up and pulled a planet into my lap. I asked it questions about its origins as it sparkled and nodded to its forest acquaintances. Or maybe I was just suffering the effects of the anti-malaria pills, known to give one strange dreams. No matter. The impact of that experience will rewrite my own history.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’m now hyperaware of how small I am, how much I don’t know, how an indigenous child understands more about life than I ever will, how pathetic the current US political situation is ‒ well, maybe I was already aware of that last one, but you get the idea.

Most importantly, I finally understand the line from ‘Desiderata’:

‘You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.’

I am changed. In this alien rainforest, the likes of which I’ve never seen, I realised something: I may still be an expat in a superficial, border-controlled manner. But as a being on this planet, I am home.

Image: author’s own

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It Takes More Than a Cheap Ticket

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I recently heard a fellow expat say they couldn’t afford to renew their passport; therefore, they couldn’t go home for a family funeral. This struck me as sad on so many levels. Of course one should be able to attend a loved one’s funeral. Of course a passport should be an affordable document. Then I asked myself, why do we have to pay for a passport at all?

I did a little research. A United States passport costs $110. It costs $450 to renew a green card ‒ which needs to be done every ten years ‒ and a whopping $680 to get US citizenship once you qualify. A United Kingdom passport costs £72, more if you apply while in a different country. And you’d better sit down for the next one. It will set you back £1282 to get British citizenship once you qualify. That’s right, £1282 for one person. Can you imagine the cost for a family? And, that’s if there are no complications requiring legal assistance. Then there are the notarized copies of birth certificate fees, travel costs to interviews, photos of yourself fees … Well, I could go on and on.

Passport control Flickr

I know we have to save up for airline tickets and hotels and other travel expenses. These are luxuries I don’t take for granted. The financial ability to travel, or lack thereof, is something that will never be equitable. But if you are eligible for a document that proves you are who you are and entitled to live where you live, or entitled to travel across a border and back again, shouldn’t that document be accessible to all, regardless of income level?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Traveling and Settling

If you’ve been with me long, you know I love to travel ‒ to places both familiar and new. But you’ll also know I struggle to settle anywhere. Wherever I am, I’m planning to be somewhere else. This causes some friction in the Gemmell household. My nomadic tendencies appear to be both my joy and my sorrow.

To alleviate this friction, I decided to focus all my attention this year on my creative writing home, rather than my physical space. No sooner had I made this decision, travel opportunities arose en masse. So many, in fact, that 2017 turned out to be the greatest travel year of my life! Funny how that happens; you finally decide to dictate to Life and Life just laughs at you and says ‘Look, lady, this is what’s actually going to happen here …’

Anyway, I found myself in Hawaii, England (twice), France, the South Pacific Islands and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Fabulous trips, all. But in amongst the luggage, airports, hotel rooms, and about a billion digital photos (no selfies ‒ there will never be selfies), I found myself deep inside that creative writing space I can truly call home. That home just happens to involve multiple locations.

I don’t think I could ever write about places I haven’t been as I need to feel a setting in my heart before I can see it on a page. So, I end the year with three photos from my creative world, all places that have grabbed my heart with their beauty, but more importantly, their welcoming vibe. Maybe that’s why they keep spilling out across the page, dictating my writing, just as Life dictates to me.

 ex-porlock-bay National Parks UK

‘Dunster’s Calling’, my first novel, is based on Exmoor in England. This tiny corner of the world is still the brightest flame to my moth. Glorious scenery, steeped in history, and of course, enhanced by the exquisite Exmoor pony. There is nowhere like Exmoor.

 Arenal Volcano Flickr wallygrom

My second novel, ‘More or Less Annie’, complete and working its way through the publishing channels, is set in stunning Costa Rica. Beautiful beaches and volcanic topography are only a part of the magic. The eco-friendliness is just as big an attraction.

 Valensole Provence Flickr Matheus Swanson

My novel-in-progress features the splendorous lavender fields of Provence, France. I find myself almost trance-like in this part of the world, drinking in its Roman legacy and its Medieval chateaux; not to mention spending more than a little time in its vineyards and lavender fields. This may have to be a looooong novel. Leaving will be hard.

I may still be predominantly a traveller more than a settler, but my creative endeavours have seen me delightfully ensconced in a sense of home. My friction leads to fiction. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to express my feelings for being able to do what I do. And I’m enormously grateful to you, too, for taking this journey with me. Let’s see where we end up next year, shall we?

 Image credits:

Porlock Bay, Exmoor: National Parks, UK

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica: wallygrom

Valensole, Provence: Matheus Swanson

 

 

Dinosaur Christmases and Hireth

Christmas_fossils Wikimedia Commons

As an expat, it’s typical to feel hireth during the holidays. But what exactly am I homesick for? Do I even remember?

Am I missing my childhood Christmases? Missing enough chocolate and sweeties to kill my current self, and fighting with my siblings over who accidently – or intentionally –  did the first picture in my paint-with-water colouring book? I remember when applying a little water to a black and white page and watching it turn to colour seemed like magic. Makes me sound like a complete dinosaur. Now it’s all amazing colouring apps, that not only change hue based on your mood, but glow in the dark and automatically email your picture to Grandma after analysing which famous artist you colour most like. Yep. I’m a dinosaur.

Surely, I can’t miss making paper chains – those ubiquitous red and green links stuck together with disgusting-tasting glue you had to lick, that cut your tongue and detached from the ceiling above your bed in the middle of the night, prompting screams and a groggy parental search for the push pin that must be in your bed somewhere. I can’t miss pulling Christmas crackers – then pulling dangerously small plastic toys out of the gravy while trying to keep the tissue paper hat from slipping over my eyes.

Do I really miss my young adult Christmases, typically spent working? Horses don’t have an ‘I’m out of the stables for Christmas, so please leave a message’ setting. As an instructor at a large equitation centre, I was often on duty. Christmas smelled of straw and warm horse breath, cooked barley to add to the winter feeds. In fact, it smelled and felt like every other day of the equine year – which could be translated as every day with a horse is like Christmas.

So, it would seem I remember every detail: every song, every whiff of brandy-soaked Christmas pudding, every favourite film, every Christmas horsy hug. Maybe I do know what I’m homesick for.

Oops! I almost forgot Thanksgiving! Though I’ve celebrated more Thanksgivings in America than Christmases in England, holiday traditions, apparently, must start young to be ingrained in the psyche. But I wish all my American readers a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Whichever holiday you’re celebrating, wherever you are in the world, may your festivities replicate your fondest memories.

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Changed, But the Same

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Old friends are like favourite books. You can read them over and over again and never get bored with the plot or the characters. When you move around a lot, as I do, those friends take on even deeper meaning. They’re not only entertainment during the good times and a shoulder during the bad, they ground you somehow in a way your unfamiliar location can’t. They remain a constant in your ever-changing time-space continuum.

I just got back from a nostalgic trip to England with two friends I first met in 1978, while training with horses on Exmoor. We’ve remained firm friends, though live thousands of miles apart. They are both from the United States and one hasn’t been back to England in thirty-nine years. We visited our old haunts, reacquainted ourselves with the local cuisine—that would be cream teas—and brushed off the cobwebs of vague memories. Was that hill so steep back then? Oh, what was her name? Are you sure this was the place? Remember when …?

We attempted to relive our glory days on horses. We used to be able to ride fancy dressage moves and fly over fences. Let’s just say those days are gone. Despite the aching muscles and weary bones, it was still great fun. On our last day in England, we met up with another student from the old days; one who’d gone on to great success in the equestrian field. We were jealous as we wondered around his beautiful stables and stroked the noses of majestic horses.

What if? What if the three of us had stayed with horses? What if we’d stayed in England and stayed young and stayed …? Just stayed. Doesn’t matter. We didn’t, and we all gained new lives and interests and homes and families and friends. It all turned out as it should. But, boy, do we miss the old us at times.

Our worlds collided on Exmoor, then we splintered off into space. We got one delightful chance to reconnect almost forty years later in a place that will remain in our souls for life.

Exmoor and us. Changed, but the same.

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My Foreign Native Language

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I enjoy discovering new words (well, new to me), especially those evocative of home or homesickness. Hireth and coddiwomple are two favourites. I recently heard another: hygge, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’. Translated as ‘cosiness’ once it leaves Danish waters, hygge means more than an evening in sheepskin slippers with a hot chocolate. In Denmark, it’s an entire lifestyle of living in the moment and forgetting life’s worries in tranquil, informal spaces. It’s about warmth and candlelight.

I discovered hygge in a BBC article, dated October 2015. It said the Danish concept had invaded the United Kingdom—but I’d never heard of it. And we all know reclusive authors are the first to hear of new fads and trends. By the way, there’s this Canadian singer called Justin Bieber about to hit the airwaves …

Anyway, turns out I missed hygge completely. In the United Kingdom, the word is already passé. The furniture stores advertising hygge sofas and designers touting hygge room layouts have moved on. The restaurants dolloping hygge comfort food onto rustic plates are serving something else. According to Ideal Home, the Swedish word lagom, meaning ‘just the right amount’ replaced hygge in 2017 in the UK.

But I feel cheated. I miss hygge. I want to be part of the hygge phenomenon, to prove I’m ‘current’ on the goings on in my native culture and language. I know, I know—Danish isn’t my native language, but try and keep up here. The point is, something else has come and gone in my homeland that I was completely unaware of. So, does a lack of hygge knowledge make me less British?

Think I’ll make some hot chocolate, light a candle, and ponder that for a while.

Final Boarding Call

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I recently got that awful phone call: my father had passed away, four thousand miles from where I stood. The news was a shock, though not a surprise. Dad was almost ninety-one years old. A long life, lived on his terms.

No matter whether you live next door or across the world, this is a tough time. But as an expat, one of the first people you talk to after hearing the news is an airline representative. Before you’ve had time to even begin to process events, you must find the resolve to make complex travel arrangements. It’s a good job you can do it in your sleep after so many years abroad. The logistics would otherwise be overwhelming: the first available flight to the United Kingdom, a ferry across the English Channel, a drive of several hours to the small French village Dad called home for the past fourteen years.

Yes, he was an expat too; putting down new roots in a foreign country in his 70s. He didn’t seem to feel hireth as I do. He also never felt the need to learn the language of his host country. In typical English language arrogant fashion, he just gestured and ‘s’il vous plait’d’ his way through daily transactions and social gatherings, leaving it up to the French around him to learn English. Now, there’s a confident man. And a very gracious host nation.

Though I speak reasonable French—due to a former life as a groom for horses in France— I don’t speak the language of funeral directors and condolences. I don’t speak ‘French florist’, as I found out as I tried to obtain a wreath for the casket. I think I told the poor lady behind the counter something like, ‘Father dead. Need flowers for box.’ She may have thought the English rather disrespectful at that moment. She nevertheless produced a lovely arrangement. But the confusion cemented the notion that I was different in a place where Dad was different too. I spun from grief to guilt to regret for all the time we’d spent apart and for how foreign I felt going to see him one last time.

We chose this expat world; Dad and I. We undertook our travels in the full knowledge that connecting grandfathers and grandchildren would be hard, expensive, and exhausting; that birthday parties would be missed and Christmases shared only via phone calls. And we knew a long, drawn-out illness would be impossible to manage with so much distance between us. So, my father and I are grateful for the speed at which the final boarding call came.

It’s not easy, this expat life. But neither my father nor I would have missed our foreign adventures for anything. Having spent time last week at Dad’s funeral, having wandered through his beautiful French village, having met up with my step-mum’s family—themselves from all over the world—having listened to stories from Dad’s ‘new’ friends and neighbours and watched them shed tears for him, I know my father had found home. For that, I’m very grateful.

Bon Voyage, Dad. Fair winds and following seas.

Apostrophobia and Expat Fears

apostrophobia Haroldsplanet.com

Perfection. It doesn’t exist. You know that, right? Not in a single geographical location. Not in writing. There’ll always be a compromise, an error, room for improvement.

Much of my week has been spent pondering an apostrophe. You see, it’s in the wrong place. On the first page of my book, ‘Dunster’s Calling’. How many times have I read that line and not seen the error? How many other people have seen it? How many have since told me not to worry, as they didn’t notice it either? Are they just being kind? Should I recall every book? Refund every purchase? Are the goods so damaged as to negate the entire purpose of the book?

Just stop it, Tracey! It’s an apostrophe, for crying out loud! Look at what’s going on in the world. Should I really be spending another single minute worrying about an apostrophe?

Yes, actually. Because that’s what I do. I write, and there are rules for writing. And I know the rules for apostrophe usage. An errant apostrophe means I have no street cred. I failed.

Now I’m questioning everything. Confidence has fragile wings. If I can’t get the small stuff right, can I be trusted with the big stuff, like where I live? Am I not really suffering from hireth? Is Exmoor not really the perfect fit for me? Have I missed a thousand geographical apostrophes that, if I’d noticed them, would have directed me to consider moving somewhere other than Exmoor? Should I just maintain my expat status here in the US?

flickr jk rowling

J.K. Rowling saves me. She tells me I can fail and still be okay. I can move back to England and if it’s a mistake, I can go somewhere else. I can miss typos—okay, not too many—and still be a writer. I can try again, fail better, live as an expat, or not, in the liberating knowledge that a perfect decision doesn’t exist.

But imperfection still stings. After all, it’s my name on the cover of the book, or on the relocation decision. The Buck Stop’s Here.

Damn it! I hate apostrophes.

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