FINDING MY ZEN IN GLITTERY CARDBOARD

It’s November 29th and I’ve just posted all my international Christmas cards. You heard me. For the first time EVER, I’ve posted greeting cards in November. Why you ask? I’ll tell you why. ‘Tis the year 2021. That’s why.

Now, you may accuse me of a panic response to the latest breaking updates about a new COVID variant. I agree, I’ve always been a bit of an alarmist. Just ask my kids. Growing up, I provided a constant stream of advice each time they left the house about choosing clothing to save their lives during a blizzard (a tougher sell in June, but you never know), secret phone codes to identify themselves during a hostage situation (‘Mum, it’s the Fourth of July parade. I’m literally marching in front of the town police force.’) and what to do if a 747 Jumbo jet lands on the freeway in front of them (‘Mum, my friend lives on a farm down a single lane dirt track.’). Stampeding cows, then. Be on the lookout, kiddo. You’ll thank me.

For some reason, I’ve found it hard to instil in others a sense of urgency in many situations. Luckily, I’ve taught myself to stay awake all night and worry alone if necessary while others enjoy themselves. It’s a hard-earned skill. Anyway, this latest game-changing variant (how many is it now?) tickertaped across news broadcast feeds less than twenty-four hours before my husband flew out on his first business trip to the US in over a year. Yep. Only hours to disseminate the repercussions of staying versus going, of whether it’s the antigen test or the PCR test or both that should be booked at Heathrow on his return, or whether he should unpack the dressier clothing for the now unsure-it-will-happen business dinner at a nice New York restaurant. Those of you following along on the Gemmell relocation saga will remember Hubby spent 139 days in a hotel on his own after the visa offices shut down in the US and UK, making it impossible for him to enter the UK with me last year. Visions of more isolating months earning billions of Hilton points we can’t use due to everlasting travel bans flash through our heads. He didn’t even get the free breakfast during his last extended stay as they closed the hotel kitchens. I mean, no cinnamon pastry and sausage? What’s the point?

Long story short, he got on the plane last night with minutes to spare when the British Airways app locked him out and he couldn’t report the negative test he’d just taken to get on the flight. Stressed? Bet he wishes he’d learned to stay awake all night now. Wait, he did. Let’s hope he sleeps on the plane to New York, wrapped in plastic and breathing though the dive tank mask I made him take with him. You’re welcome, luvvie.

After a few deep breaths, I sat alone last night, mostly in the dark as the power went out due to the latest climate change-induced storm to hit the UK. By candlelight, (I always have plenty in stock for emergencies) I took control of the only thing I could control. I folded my Christmas letters as neatly as frozen fingers could and stuffed them in envelopes. I sent encouraging messages of love and support to family and friends I haven’t seen in almost two years due to travel restrictions. And I planned the Christmas Eve menu for eleven people in the hopes I’m not eating the whole lot by myself in holiday lockdown while video calling Hubby in his New York hotel because he can’t fly home. I picture him wearing the same shirt he’ll have been wearing for a month. Should have made him pack the Christmas sweater. Too late now.

I can think of all that can still go wrong in 2021 (none of which I can control), or I can just focus on the few things I can control. I can control the timing of sending my Christmas cards. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll find my zen in the glittery cardboard.

(If your card arrives tomorrow, just put it on the mantlepiece, unopened, until Christmas. Or at least until December. Thank you.)

View From The Bathroom

View from the bathroom: Title of a book? Podcast? Punk band tour? Horror film? Maybe not. Hardly catchy or warm and fuzzy or exciting. But this week, now all the boxes have been moved into my new home, ‘view from the bathroom’ is my favourite phrase. I had to make it the title of something.

‘Just going to check the view from the bathroom.’

‘Have you seen the view from the bathroom?’

‘Let’s take our drinks and look at the view from the bathroom again.’ And again.

Weird, right? You’ll have to forgive my excitement. My new home boasts a view of the Bristol Channel, but only from my bathroom window. It’s only a thin strip of water on the horizon, but enough to see the aquamarine or green or grey waters, the purple bruise of stormy skies whipping up the whitecaps, the chalky cliffs and intermittent sweeping glints from a Welsh lighthouse, guarding entry to the green hills. On a clear day I can see the mountains in Wales, too. It’s a delightful sight.

I’ve never had a view of water from my own home before. Oh, I’ve spent many lovely holidays by water, typically after many long hours flying over vast oceans. Bora Bora saw me living over the water in one of those huts on stilts. From California to New Zealand, from Scotland to Nicaragua and The Bahamas, I’ve spent plenty of time by the ocean, even working on luxury yachts many moons ago. But now, I stare, mesmerized, at the changing colours, the white caps in a stiff breeze, the flapping of sails and the wallowing progression of a ferry heading for Bristol, all from the bathroom window.

It’s a lifelong dream to be in my own home and see the water. Now, I hear you all saying, ‘view from the bathroom? Not exactly a Malibu mansion, is it, and wouldn’t that be weird, taking people up to the bathroom to see the view?’ Now you mention it, it is a bit weird but so far only a few family members and close friends have visited Bathtub Observation Point. They understand my excitement and have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning over the sink and kicking the bathmat out of the way to see the water over the Exmoor roof tops. I admit, it will be ‘socially tricky’ to show acquaintances the view. I mean, the new neighbours who’ve been so welcoming, do I invite them upstairs on their first visit? What about the gracious chimneysweep who taught me about the five vents in our new fireplace, or the lovely chaps who built the picket fence required to make the property fully Watson escape-proof? The delivery lady? Nah, probably not appropriate. But they’re missing out.

It’s a beautiful view. Would it be better from the kitchen or the sitting room or the patio? Of course, it would. But I have long, sweeping views up the wooded combes from those rooms and garden areas, and equally stunning they are. Autumn colours sweep towards me, rolling and waving in the stiff breezes like waters themselves. I love every inch of those combe views dearly. It’s just water. I crave water. So, if I must chat over prosecco in the shower stall while watching birds scuttle over the Bristol Channel, that’s what I’ll do. I just have to invite the right people to join me; those who understand what a long transatlantic journey of hiraeth it’s been to earn my view from the bathroom.

A Couchful of Hiraeth

Wrinkles add character to our old friend

This couch may not look like much now. It’s grubby and wrinkled and sunken in the middle. The cream colour is hardly reminiscent of anything you’d pour over your crumble. Even the dog struggles to clamber in and out. It’s like crawling into a very low-slung hammock after three decades of Gemmell duty. But in its day, oh, how proud we were of it. Today, we make the difficult decision to send it off to the recycling centre in the sky, and we don’t make that choice lightly. No man, child, dog or couch left behind was our mantra last year as we struggled to get all our lives on the ‘right’ side of the pond. But times change. Couches sag more and more. New rooms await with different styles and sizes. Some of us just no longer fit in the way we once did. But it still stings to say goodbye.

California, circa 1990. I remember meeting this couch next to its three-seater sibling, all shiny and pristine, in a Los Angeles showroom. Hubby and I had been married about a year and we’d just bought our first house in the Mojave desert. Yes, you heard me. We left the seafaring life we’d lead on the East Coast for the driest, hottest place I’d ever been. Or even heard of. What was I thinking? Goodness only knows, because the great adventure in the cactus strewn, tumbleweed blowin’, parched, sand-in-your-curtains Southwestern USA turned out to be … let’s just say, not my cup of tea. But the thought of those gleaming couches, nestled against the baby blue carpets in our brand-new Spanish-style home cleared the desert weed allergy-induced tears right out of my eyes. No kids, no dog, so no thought of how on earth you kept cream leather clean, and no other furniture in the house yet (except for a couple of wooden crates used for bedside tables and a futon mattress in one bedroom). Those couches arrived like manna from heaven, because, let’s face it, we should have gone for something cheaper. The credit cards groaned along with the backs of the delivery men.

New-born couches and babies

Our new-born son had his first photos taken with the couch. Four years later, with another child on the way, those two slightly less cream and slightly more wrinkled couches hopped in a moving van to the East Coast. They landed in a colonial house near Long Island Sound in the middle of a forest, the antithesis of their previous abode. Though stationed in the ‘best parlour’ away from the worst of the kid wetting and dog scraping and popcorn spilling and sibling wrestling, it still bore the brunt of various birthday parties and Christmas wine spillages. Uncomplaining and still the apple of its mother’s eye.

Eleven years later, it’s back on the van to snowy Wisconsin, where we discovered leather is quite chilly when you first sit on it and blankets slide off the back of it constantly which means the kids trample all over the wool and the dogs sleep on them, refusing to move as you try to pull the blanket over your freezing legs. But fourteen more years of films and Super Bowl parties and teary teenage breakups (and possibly makeups but I don’t like to think about that) pass with the now way past sell-by date cream couch. The wrinkles had turned to deep crevices full of life’s debris. It’s time for new. A functional brown sectional appeared like a grumpy aunt to take pride of place in front of the television. The three-seater sibling was trundled off to who knows where and the two-seater was relegated to fulltime dog bed, which thrilled the dogs, but may have hurt the couch’s feelings.

Birthday parties, all part of the couch service

And there the story should end. Who, in their right mind, would drag that murky old spoilt cream couch across the Atlantic? There are better ones sitting on most porches outside college campus housing. But you see, our huge new sectionals were never going to fit in our English home. It was the height of the Covid pandemic, so no furniture shops were open to buy new and no recycling centres were open to take the old, and well, we needed something smaller to sit on in our rental property until we found a new home. So there we were, wrapping the dingy grey with spots of intermittent cream couch for a voyage to where no Californian couch thought it would ever go: Exmoor.

Welcome to Exmoor!

The dog makes his own epic journey across the water only to discover his couch is no longer a dog bed. Possession now involves fights with grandma, aunties and friends. When the film starts, all pile over the back of the couch, fighting for pillow space and elbowing others for the only six-inch sweet spot that isn’t so collapsed it breaks your back as you sit skewwhiff.

And yet, the couch, uncomplaining as ever, stoically accepts its role in the Gemmell family, doing its best to accommodate needs and provide comfort. It doesn’t know that in two weeks’ time, when the Gemmells head down the road to their forever home, it will trundle off in a different van, to be eco-recycled: leather to one place, springs to another, metal frame to another, stuffing to another. Its spare parts may help other sickly couches back to health and for that I’m so proud of it. There may not be a dry eye in the house as this thirty-two-year relationship ends.

We’re going to need a bigger couch

The new couches ordered are neither leather nor cream, and they have big shoes to fill. Our old, curdled cream friend will never be forgotten, though hopefully the backache it induces will be. From smog-blanketed Los Angeles to heather-carpeted Exmoor, it has truly been an important part of our amazing transatlantic lives. So many memories – and so many loved ones no longer with us – are embedded in that couch. I’m feeling hiraeth for it. But onwards to new couches and new adventures we go.

From Wanderluster to Upcycling Homebody and Dove Whisperer

And just like that, the end of summer speeds at us like a tourist heading for the last table at an inundated cream tea shop. It’s been a weird old summer, hasn’t it: part supposedly post-pandemic, part not sure, part ‘no, we’re definitely not out of the woods yet’. I’m tilting towards the later so have stayed pretty close to home. A few restaurant visits, a few outdoor cream teas, one short trip to Suffolk, and a lot of hiking in the glorious isolation that is Exmoor (if you know where to go to avoid the visitors). My default setting of wanderlust mixed with a smidgin of hiraeth appears usurped by homebody vibes, which suggests I’m in the right place.

I’ve been home for long enough to have experienced all the seasons now and am enjoying the second go-around; the return of the blackberries along the Exmoor trails and the seep of vivid green to sage to yellow in the fern leaves. The Rowan trees are once more startling in their red jewellery, so bright you can see the berries from a significant distance.

There’s a delightful familiarity to local events, tentative though it all seems: the return of live music and village shows, all cancelled last year, some creeping back this year with all precautions in place – though the number of UK covid cases suggests ‘all precautions’ are proving somewhat inadequate. Delta was just a river mouth this time last year, it’s now the scourge of many a planning committee, from dog show to NHS budget conference. But this year I’m vaccinated, as are my husband, mother, sisters, and children. It’s a relief I couldn’t have imagined last year.

Onwards and upwards. Our move to our new home will happen in October so we’re busy searching for furniture. ‘Wait’, I hear you say. ‘Didn’t you have a container of goods shipped over?’ Why, yes we did. But we sold or donated all our larger furniture pieces before leaving the US. We thought we knew the house we were going to and the rooms weren’t big enough for most of our pieces. We all know how that plan turned out. Now we find ourselves the joyous owners of a home with larger rooms, we wish we’d kept those pieces. (Hindsight is such a pain.) So over the past weeks I’ve been masking up and scurrying through huge furniture warehouses, only to find I don’t connect with much modern furniture. Plan B finds me scrolling through buy and sell sites, looking for older, chunkier sideboards, tables, couches and dressers others have upcycled, or projects I can upcycle myself. Seriously, there are some very talented furniture restorers and decorators out there! And I, thanks to copious YouTube videos, now know how to use wood hardener and wood putty to reshape outdoor chairs full of rot. Just waiting for the topcoat seagrass-coloured paint to arrive and I’ll have four lovely excuses to sit longer outside in our garden.

Speaking of which, if you can’t find me, I’ll be weeding in our new garden. The beauty and tranquillity of that spot, the unexpected, delightful discovery of a new shrub wrestling towards sunlight through layers of ivy or clouds of geranium-gone-rogue, well, it leaves me speechless with gratitude at times. (And in need of a hot soak in Epsom salts at others.) I’m getting to know the locals, namely a pheasant who bolts from the undergrowth with a screech fit to wake the dead when you get too close. My favourite locals to date – apologies to all the human neighbours we’ve meet; you’re okay too just not as entertaining. Yet. – are the pair of mourning doves who ‘own’ the garden and have no problem making that clear. (They could be pigeons but a good definition of the differences is hard to find so I’m going with the more literary name.) Mr and Mrs Bobblenecker follow me around, perch on walls, trees and benches, bobbing their heads, preening and gossiping as I sweat over another bramble root. ‘What’s she doing?’, ‘Is she coming back?’, ‘Why would she cut that back or dig that up or fall over that?’ ‘Do you think she’s planning to stay because that’s where we usually sit in the afternoon?’ On and on they coo-cooooo, coo. I answer when I can, though they just laugh at my accent and poor dove grammar. The only phrase I really need to know in Dove is ‘Please stop dropping buddleia and thistle seeds everywhere.’ We’re set for a discussion about the removal of the birdfeeders if they don’t listen. Coo-coooo, coo that, Bobbleneckers!

And so, the world turns. New friends, old pandemic worries, upcycling projects, bulging garages full of stuff waiting for a permanent home. And me. A writer doing anything and everything but write most of the time, even though my editor is expecting a third novel by February. Another season into my epic journey and I’m just trying to be kind to myself. The stories will flow again, and I’ll be ready when they do. Covered in paint, mud and dove droppings, probably, but I’ll be ready. Hiraeth and wanderlust don’t remain dormant for long.

The Evolving COVID Staycation

Everyone’s talking about staycations during this never-ending pandemic. ‘Where are you going for your holidays this year?’ ‘Oh, I’m staycationing this year. Just heading up to the Lake District.’ Well, correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t leaving your house mean you’re NOT staycationing? Doesn’t taking a staycation mean a deck chair in the garden with a cup of tea out of your own teapot and possibly a curry delivered to your own front door followed by a Netflix binge? According to Wikipedia, a ‘staycation’ means you stay home or within day trip distance of home without overnight accommodation. But in 2021, that definition seems to have morphed. Apparently, now ‘staycation’ means much more than a potter around your garden with a Scotch egg in one hand repeatedly throwing the next door kids’ ball back with the other. Apparently, it now means you only pack one suitcase and you don’t need your passport, antidiarrhea meds, or proof of yellow fever vaccination. Oops. Now I’ve done it; opened the ‘vaccination passport’ debate. I’ve been carrying a ‘vaccination passport’ for years and just don’t get the hoo-ha about adding a new jab to the list. But I digress …

Staycations. Yes, I’m trying to work out if I’m going on one next week. I thought I wasn’t, seeing as I’m leaving not only my house, but the delightful county of Somerset. Surely that means I’m going on holiday, not taking a staycation? But as soon as I tell people I’m remaining solidly on English soil they mention a staycation. As one privileged enough to find it strange not to have travelled by air, sea or even bus yet this year, I fully understand this first world problem of defining ‘staycation’ may reek of triviality. It does. But this is my blog. I get to decide what’s important here.

This thirteen-month long pandemic ‘original definition’ staycation is the longest I’ve spent in one place for … well, I don’t even know how long. Luckily, I now live on Exmoor, with all the space and beauty and novelty of a divine vacation spot just outside my door. I have to admit, though, I’d like to experience a different view once in a while, if only to remind myself how lucky I am to live where I do. Hiraeth brought me back home but wanderlust never died.

I’ve always taken more international flights than domestic ones, wherever I’ve lived, so once upon a time, a trip to Suffolk wouldn’t have counted as a ‘real’ holiday for me. Fast forward to 2021 and I’m hopping from foot to foot excited about a trip along the M5 and the M4 … and after that I’m not sure what roads as I’ve never been to Suffolk. It’s east of here, I’m pretty certain. Why Suffolk, you ask, when I obviously know nothing about it? Well, back in March when we started thinking about holidays, Hubby and I were certain the pandemic would be over by now. We also assumed foreign travel would be a nightmare. The pressure of pent up vacationers hitting the airports and beaches of exotic locales like corks from a bottle of champagne at a NASCA rally wasn’t something we wanted to deal with. ‘Let’s explore England’, we said. After all, I’ve been away a long time and there are huge swaths of this green and pleasant land I know nothing about. I could direct you to the airport in Bora Bora more easily than to Canterbury Cathedral, for example. So we started looking in all the usual places: Lake District, Cornwall, Isle of Wight, figuring everyone would be somewhere requiring a flight.

Not so fast. Apparently, many others knew back in March airports wouldn’t be the happiest place on earth. We couldn’t find a hotel room in England for love nor money. Plenty of money, I hasten to add, as the price of hotels and B&Bs skyrocketed. No room at the inn: Devon-cation? Out. Derby-cation? Out. East, West, South Yorkshire-cation? Out, out and out. What the heck? Where’s left? I grab a map of England and start sticking pins anywhere that looks like dry land. Hey, Suffolk! ‘How do we feel about Suffolk, Hubby?’ ‘I feel great about Suffolk,’ he says, not knowing whether I’m talking about a dance step or a type of vegan pasty. Several clicks later, we have the last room at a hotel in Woodbridge. No idea where or what Woodbridge is but it has a hotel room and that’s good enough for us. Others tell us it’s a wonderful spot. So off we’ll trot on our ‘current era definition’ of staycation, that in any other time in history wouldn’t technically be a staycation.

Suffolk. Land of the I have no idea what, home of the I have no idea what. But I’m excited about it. All I have to do now is remember where I put the suitcases. They’ve never been stored away this long.

Here we come, Suffolk-ation! Wait, whaaaa? That’s doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as I’d hoped. Of all the counties …

Image: Google Maps

Aging – One Day at a Time

Tomorrow I age by a day. Just like any other day. Except tomorrow I also age by a decade, a staggering mental concept that sees all of us on the cusp of a new decade do one of two things:

  1. Tear out our hair at all the opportunities missed and the shortness of time left in which to pack an entire life of ‘Maybe I’ll do that next week/month/year’.
  2. Let a few things go, offering oneself up gracefully to the hard-won wisdom that some things probably aren’t going to happen now.

I must confess to a bit of the first option this past week or so. It is the easy option. Much easier to regret than to implement greater effort over the years. Not that I haven’t worked hard and achieved much. I left home at sixteen, financed my way around the world, married well (VERY well, my husband adds, reading over my shoulder), obtained a Bachelor’s then a Master’s degree while simultaneously raising two children, remained married for thirty-two years (though that streak may end if Hubby continues to harp on over my shoulder about how well I married) and published novels when many struggle to complete a Twitter post. All in all, I’ve done okay.

But I haven’t reached the giddy heights of some, like the Olympic gymnast, the Nobel Prize in Literature winner, the world-renowned expert in nanoplankton, the wine sommelier placing an exalted blessing on a new vineyard. The joy/curse of being born the same day as Princess Diana constantly reminds me some people influenced the world in a far shorter time than I’ve been alive and kicking. Reaching the stars may require getting up earlier, planning ahead, dressing better, putting myself out there more with the essential thick skin that requires. It all sounds so … exhausting.

The second option would seem less strenuous. A simple talking to oneself: ‘That’s never going to happen, Tracey, let it go.’ Less strenuous, yes. Easier? No. Admitting you’ve missed the boat sticks in the craw a bit.

But it’s also struck me that so many of the targets I now realise I’ve missed actually weren’t ambitions until the deadline passed. In all honesty, I feared the asymmetric bars at school (being afraid of heights didn’t help) but I see those twists and turns on television and now wonder … could I have? If I’d had access to that striking sequinned leotard instead of being forced into the awful school-sanctioned baggy gym shorts and sweaty, bottle green polo shirt ensemble, could I have ‘perfect-tenned’ it to glory? I’ve marvelled at Nobel Prize-winning books, never aspiring to write anything even close. And yet, every now and then I write a sentence that seems to me quite brilliant in its revelation of the quintessential human spirit and I wonder; only another hundred thousand of those sentences to go and I could be off to Oslo. I’m not a strong swimmer and get claustrophobic in a dive mask yet perhaps I could snorkel my way to wherever nanoplankton live and discover something that gets named after me. Surely, if wine didn’t now make me so tired I fall asleep after half a glass, I could learn to sniff loudly into a glass of something fruity and pinpoint the location and vintage? It’s not too late. Is it?

I think we all know the answer to that. So what’s still open to me as I pass into another decade on this planet? What’s NOT too late? The answer is, pretty much everything I’m doing now. Writing something funny and entertaining (IMHO), even if not earth-shattering in its brilliance. Checking off a few more bucket list destinations. Volunteering in ways that may change another person’s life – think tutoring a struggling young reader or opening a door for a refugee. Learning more about this marvellous world, even if not to a PhD level. There is ample time for all this. And I’m already doing it. Tomorrow will be no different.

So I choose to age only a day tomorrow. I determine to push forward and let go in equal measure. I decree July 1st, 2021 will be the first birthday of all the rest. Not the last birthday of all the others. I may even have a glass of wine. If I can stay awake.

Images: Pixabay

No Weddings and A Funeral. Or Two.

On May 31st, 2020 I crept through an empty international airport in Chicago. I sat alone, masked and gloved, on an almost empty jetliner and arrived at the ghost town that was Heathrow Airport in the early hours of June 1st. I thought those pandemic relocation experiences would the most surreal of my life. I was wrong. This last year, my first full year in England since the 1980s has rocked my – and everyone else’s – world like no other.

I arrived to an empty Exmoor property I’d had to rent sight unseen (and pay for long before we could fly over), to spend the next months alone as my husband waited for the visa offices in the United States to reopen. I borrowed a single mattress and a chair, as shipping companies couldn’t deliver our furniture. One pan, two plates, two knives, two forks, two spoons, brought over in my luggage. Two wine glasses, borrowed. As the United Kingdom went into deeper lockdown, a highlight: my son and daughter-in-law arrived to live with me in the empty house as their London jobs shut down. After weeks on the floor, never have three people been so happy to see a moving van carrying real beds and a couch.

Hubby finally arrived from the US in October, followed by our daughter and dog in November. After a brief reopening of restaurants, we plunged back into full lockdown at Christmas, now five adults and two dogs, all fighting for the two-seater couch. We completed more jigsaw puzzles, read more jokes off Penguin biscuit wrappers and walked more isolated miles over Exmoor than we ever imagined possible.

Then a dear friend died. I gave my first eulogy in an almost empty church, the echo of silent, hug-less loss making it all the worse. That I’d made it home in time to spend those last months with her was at least something to hold onto.

As Spring arrived, the kids returned to some semblance of their lives in London. Even though nothing was open, their jobs had made a partial comeback. Two adults and one dog now settled in to fighting for the two-seater couch. There was no point buying more furniture as the house we’d been waiting for would soon be ours. We’d furnish it once we moved in. It had belonged to our dear departed friend and she’d wanted us to live there after her passing. It was all arranged. We’d care for her cat and tend her flowers while making the place I’d considered my English home for forty years our own.

We get our first COVID vaccination and life is looking better.

May arrives. Another dear friend dies. Suddenly. We’d known each other since I was a teenager. We’d been through everything together and waved to each other across the field during lockdown. We’d planted hundreds of daffodils in her garden just months before. We made plans. On the same day she dies, an email arrives from solicitors. The beneficiaries of our dear departed friend weren’t going to honour her wishes that we should purchase her house. We’re thrown into a red-hot property market in England and Exmoor properties are few and far between. Our future is clouded by the prospect of having to look elsewhere. After thirty years of planning to make Exmoor home, our future is no longer safe here. A dark day, indeed. Hiraeth seeps out with the tears. Maybe home never really existed after all.

Plans. Worthless plans.

I struggle to compose another eulogy, no clue how I’ll get through it in church next week. But though many seats must still remain empty, we will at least be allowed to hug each other this time. In some weird way, writing my sad words brings gratitude. These two special friendships endured great distance and decades of long-distance phone calls, holiday visits and missed special events. That I got home just in time to see these friends in health before things took turns for the worse is miraculous. We had the chance to make new memories before committing them to eulogies; a reminder it can be too late to come home if you don’t grab the chance. Our pandemic relocation nightmares were dreams come true after all.

Then another dream. On the same day my friend died, and the email arrived from the solicitor, a local property came on the market. We view it the next day to cheer ourselves up, to pretend there’s somewhere else out there that will match the dreams of the home we just lost. One look and we’re in love with a house and a gorgeous garden, surrounded by a stone wall. A stone wall! I’ve loved stone walls all my life, the warmth they radiate, the tangled cover of of ivy and valerian softening edges. A sign, maybe? A stream, fruit trees, a swing seat, wisteria, clematis draped over old tree stumps and creeping vines around windows, an arbour seat with views of the wooded combes and the steeple of the church where we married thirty-two years ago. Another long-time friend lives almost next door. It’s everything an English country home should be.

But could it be? Could something good happen here? The thought recedes with the arrival of a Porsche to view the property after us. And another car, and another. We shrug our shoulders, wander around the garden for the last time.

What the heck. What have we got to lose? Let’s throw in our best offer so at least we can say we tried.

A day later, I’m helping my friend’s sister choose a casket when the call comes in.

OFFER. ACCEPTED.

Offer accepted? I can’t even immediately grasp what that means. I shake. It means we get to stay on Exmoor. It means we make new memories, meet new friends, plant new plants. Our new garden is so gorgeously stuffed in that quintessentially English way there’s barely room for another plant. But there’s always room for a new plant. Like new friends. Though established plants and friends will always be the best.

We fight now to complete contracts before the Stamp Duty Land Tax holiday ends in a few weeks. We hold our breath. Plans. They haven’t counted for much lately. Yet here we are, battered and bruised but still standing. And, hopefully, we’re finally home.

Permanently. Safely. Home.

Images: Author’s own.

This Is Exmoor Calling The Expat World

I’m archaic enough to still find the ability to communicate simultaneously and instantaneously with people on every continent somewhat of a miracle. When someone in Australia or Bangladesh comments on my social media post five seconds after I posted it, it still jolts me. How on earth does it all work? How can I be sitting in my little Exmoor village, calling the world? I’ll never understand but in a way I’m glad I still find it magical.

Anyway, non-techie, non-geek that I am, last week I used all my skills to host the @WeAreXpats Twitter feed. It’s a rotation curation (RoCur) page, meaning the curator changes each week to share insight on a topic. The Expatriate Archive Centre, which runs the initiative out of The Netherlands, kindly branched out and included me as a repat – a returning expat. (Last year I returned to England after thirty years in the USA.) I’m pretty sure I discovered as much about myself and my relocation as those reading my tweets. Condensing complex emotions and logistics into short messages clarifies thought. Picking a photo from hundreds – or if we’re talking cream tea photos, thousands – to epitomise that phase of your life or journey can be daunting. My novels will benefit from this clarifying experience.

The assignment provided an opportunity for me to analyse several aspects of my need to return home. Like, why now? (The 2016-2020 US administration, gun violence, missing British family as we all get older.) I identified what instantly felt like home, even after decades away: the monarchy (got some push-back on that one!), the antiquity of buildings and communities, familiar food brands, almost forgotten and now staple supplies (Birds custard, anyone?).

And then there’s the stuff that makes me feel I’ve landed on a foreign planet all over again: weight and measures in metric and who knows whether or not to take a coat when temperature is given in Celsius? I struggle to apply ‘worth’ to goods and services because I no longer know what’s normal in the UK, I’m relearning vocabulary like ‘lorry’ and remembering to pronounce ‘schedule’ like a Brit. It’s harder for me than my US-born husband on the language score. People cut him slack due to his accent. They smile at Hubby and think he’s unique and interesting. Me? I ask for ground beef at the butchers and get a confused stare and a ‘You mean minced beef?’ Apparently, I sound like I should know better. But I’m catching up. I can now ask for the toilet instead of the bathroom. This has reduced the ‘We don’t provide guest baths in this restaurant’ discussion.

Curating also provided an excuse to do a little research. With regards to expats:

  • 44% relocated for work and 62% vow never to return. (deVere Group poll, May 2020).
  • 30% of those who retire overseas return within three years. (PropertyInvestorToday.co.uk, August 2020, though that number is expected to rise due to Brexit)
  • In my own (very unscientific) poll of an expat Facebook group, 91 said they would return if money were no object, 41 said they would never return (45%).
  • A Knight Frank survey gives the four main reasons for returning home as better education opportunities, a better healthcare system, a new job offer, and being closer to family. (Article in The Financial Times by Liz Rowlinson, October 2020)

Do these four reasons explain why I came home? Not really. I already have a master’s degree, having spent way more time than I intended on my formal education. I had good healthcare insurance in the US. I’m self-employed as a novelist (not to be confused with making money as a novelist) and well, if you’d met my family you’d understand why I left England in the first place. (They receive this blog. Please read that bit quietly so they can’t hear you.) With the four main reasons for returning negated in my case, I’m back once again to I just wanted to come ‘home’. Home, that elusive concept; the not only where but when and why of home. The place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, (oh, the arrogance of quoting my own work, this one from ‘Dunster’s Calling’). But it’s true. You can’t quantify ‘home’. No one else will have the same rationale for deciding where it is, how long to be away, when to come back. No one else’s pros and cons list will include the same criteria as yours. It’s incredibly personal and not at all governed by facts and figures and what’s reasonable and predictable. I’m sure those reading my tweets last week were split between jealousy at my return home and thinking I’d lost my mind for returning home. It’s personal. All I can say is when I introduce people to the Celtic word, hiraeth, meaning an intense yearning for home, tinged with sadness that home may no longer exist, they understand the sentiment. Whether they want to return or not, they’ve pondered the new meaning of home. That comes with the territory (no pun intended) of living somewhere else.

My time curating the @WeAreXpats feed allowed me to add my stories to those of thousands of others searching for a place to call home, permanently or temporarily. Those stories shine a light on everything expats are: a collection of individual stories combining to make communities combining to make history. Many thanks to the Expatriate Archive Centre for including me in this project. It was an honour to share my corner of England with the world.

To find out more about the Expatriate Archive Centre, head to their website at  https://xpatarchive.com/ or follow them on Twitter @WeAreXpats

Image: flickr

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Travel for Pleasure.

As the United Kingdom begins the countdown to loosening lockdown restrictions, all eyes turn to the sky. Or the train tracks. Or the road. We’re chomping at the bit to get out of our houses, towns, countries after three months of this third confinement. But with new travel options comes the reality: this isn’t over yet. There are still COVID risks for, and from, tourists. We’ve also had the chance to look at the positive environmental impacts of NOT travelling, documented by photos of the Venice Canals looking bluer, more wildlife on urban streets, and reduced smog from Los Angeles to Beijing. Seems our enforced hiatus from hiatuses has produced positive environmental changes. Reason for pause over that ‘book now’ button, right? So here’s the question: Is it socially and environmentally acceptable to travel or is travel-shaming appropriate?

Our planet has always spun on the concept of travelling from one place to another. From nomadic prehistoric man packing a woolly mammoth-skin suitcase to more recent exploration, travellers have changed countries and lives, for better or worse. But travellers by choice – tourists – are facing more backlash post-COVID and post-environmental awareness then they ever have before. There’s the environmental side: planes/ships/cars belch carbon emissions, tourists leave tonnes of litter, plastic straws kill wildlife, resorts clear jungles. There’s the Ugh! Humans! side: one more tourist holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one more tourist illegally swimming with manatees, one more drunken tourist peeing over the edge of the Grand Canyon. And there’s the cultural side: do those Polynesian dancers benefit or suffer from what some will call a cultural event designed to educate and some a circus designed to belittle. All the Hot Places to be seen are now the Not Places to be seen, unless you want the ‘name and shame’ brigade on your tail as you Uber to the party on the beach.

As 2021 opens the start gates for travel, we add COVID concerns to the mix, the fear of being ‘that person’ who potentially brings a resort, or even an entire country, to a screeching halt. This is not the first pandemic, but let’s face it, there weren’t nearly as many tourists during the Spanish Flu outbreak. I doubt many soldiers shipping out for the battle fronts of WWI thought of themselves as travellers for pleasure. Arrogantly, many developed nations have considered modern pandemics the scourge of ‘other places’. Not London, surely? Not NYC, surely? Not Singapore or Tokyo, surely? Yet, here we are.

So, where do we go from here? How do we David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg and WHO our way to justifying leaving home turf to travel? Greater minds than mine provide complex calculations for and against. All I can add are a few personal anecdotes. And that’s all they are. Personal. Each one of us must draw our own line in the sand. Each one of us must decide whether dumping our rubbish on a beach is beneath us as human carers of Planet Earth. Each one of us must decide if we need our hotel towels and sheets washed before the end of our stay. (We wouldn’t wash them that frequently at home, after all.) I have never left a piece of litter behind. I always hang up my hotel towels to signify no new ones needed. I don’t use straws, even if the occasional lump of ice in a pina colada splashes up my nose. Is this enough? Can I travel, guiltless, for pleasure?

I have three thoughts on this. The first: does our behaviour during the forty-nine or fifty weeks of the year we DON’T travel make up for the two or three weeks we do? Can we make the case that what we do daily in our own homes has more impact on the planet than a few days or weeks away? If we aren’t recycling, if we are wasting food, walking around our overheated winter homes in a tee-shirt, driving when we could walk, buying every food item wrapped in plastic, eating strawberries from Morocco in January, ordering one item online each day, the delivery van rolling up to our door hourly, we are the problem. Are we fly-tipping when we remodel the bathroom because we’re tired of the colour of the tile? Buying knickknacks from all over the world, only to dump them back home during a decluttering binge? Our daily deeds are overwhelmingly negative for global welfare. We must do better at home if we hate those images of plastic oceans washing up on beautiful Thai beaches. That has little to do with whether we travel or not.

My second thought concerns the benefits of broadened travel experiences. I witnessed life ‘behind the iron curtain’ in Romania as a teenager. I could compare the lives of Romanian teenagers with my own and be grateful for what I had. I could relate stories as we learned about communism in school, putting forward the positive side shared by residents (when they were allowed to talk to us, that is). When the Romanian area I’d visited was hit by a devastating earthquake days after I left, I could collect coats and shoes for faces and conversations, for bus drivers and waiters, for school children I’d smiled at, not just for ‘those impacted by the earthquake’. I cared more because I’d been there.

I saw the poverty and beauty of Central America. Always an animal lover, I may have been guilty of chastising those owners you see in the charity ads on TV. You know the ones: their horses and dogs with their ribs sticking out and carrying heavy loads. Once you’ve witnessed first-hand that the adults and children are also thin and living in incredibly harsh conditions – and carrying heavy loads – you realise you can’t ask people to feed their animals better than they feed themselves. If you had to chose between feeding your dog and feeding your child, what would you do? I had to soften my approach to what I’d considered black and white issues prior to travel. (The ads are still upsetting, by the way.)

I’ve spent time in central coast California, seeing the hardships some of those isolated communities have experienced due to devastating Highway 1 landslides. I’ve worked with high-poverty populations in parts of the United States of America you’d never consider in the same sentence as third-world countries. Trust me. They belong in that sentence.

I was in Manaus, Brazil, a couple of years ago, a city surrounded by thousands of miles of Amazon rainforest. Manaus is now known as the centre of the Brazilian strain of COVID. That’s all Manaus is to many. To me, it’s friendly people and children in need of pencils. It’s the dichotomy between the beautiful opera house and the rundown housing minutes away. It’s the market stall holders selling fruit from their gardens and the indigenous villages on the banks of the Rio Nigro. I experienced the Amazon River in the pitch dark from a small skiff, surrounded by primordial sounds and stars so bright I reached out to touch them. Protecting the rainforest became personal in a way it never could from my seat on the couch watching a National Geographic special. Travel influences my decisions on a daily basis.

My third thought is this: What happens if we don’t travel? What about that Uber driver, that waiter, that souvenir seller, that B and B owner, that tour guide, that cruise ship entertainer? What about the economic devastation of non-travel? What does this do to cultures near and far? Will we Brits visit our own rural museums, our castle down the road? Will every Italian visit Rome, every Greek visit Athens, every Chinese visit the Forbidden city, every Brazilian visit the villages of the Amazon River? Will we appreciate our own heritage enough to preserve it? Will we all, in our own countries, purchase enough memorabilia/hotel stays/restaurant meals over and over again, year after year, to bring in enough funding to protect and preserve our own history and culture? Do we need foreign travellers to help with that? And, more importantly, will we see faces and conversations as we watch a natural, or manmade, disaster occurring somewhere in the world? Will we help as much if we’re not connected in some way to that place?

Another thought: will more of us get the vaccine if it’s required to travel? Does that somewhat selfish viewpoint lead to better global protection?

I’ve been fortunate to experience some remarkable sights around the world: the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, butterfly breeding programs in Belize, eco-hiking in New Zealand, swimming with pink dolphins in the Amazon, to name a few. And I won’t lie, I’ve really enjoyed luxury hotels and cruises: the extraordinary St. Regis resort in Bora Bora comes to mind, and the Viking Jupiter, a stunning cruise ship that transported me around the coast of South America to see glaciers and whales and penguin colonies and volcanoes. I was actually running through Buenos Aires Airport almost exactly a year ago, trying to get back into the US before they closed the borders to South America at the beginning of this COVID adventure. I wouldn’t trade a single experience. (Well, maybe the food poisoning in Nicaragua.) I wouldn’t want to spend my hard-earned money any other way than in exploring and storing parts of this remarkable world in my heart.

There are so many countries I haven’t experienced yet. So many places I don’t yet understand or appreciate for what they can teach me. Do I stop travelling now? Or do I find more ways to tread lightly as I gather and share knowledge? Am I being too simplistic here? I don’t know. Can I do more to protect and preserve? Yes. But I’m not sure yet that doing more means travelling less. It does mean thinking more about how I get there and how I behave once there, wherever ‘there’ is. It does mean I leave something positive about me there in return for taking the smiles and knowledge back home. If the beach litter is me and the wasted hotel food is me and the overuse of resources is me, then the places I go are better off if I stay home. If the wonder is me, the appreciation is me, the knowledge is me, the environmental consideration is me, the economic input is me, I should go. Yes? No? Maybe?

One of my favourite quotes comes from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I believe this. So when the skies open again, will I be there? Should I be there? What happens if I’m not there?

I’m working on unravelling the complexities of ethical travel. I’d love to hear what you think. All I know for certain is I’m taking a good, long look at my daily life to see how I impact health, communities, and environments. Let’s start there. Then we can progress to holidays.

Images: author’s own

Does Humorous Travel Fiction Still Matter?

New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!

*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.

The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…

2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.

COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.

I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.

We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)

As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.

Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.

Onwards to Provence!

In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.