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.
Yes, there have been silver linings to this – what’s the word? – execrable? frightful? odious? insalubrious? (trying to avoid the ‘sh*#!’ word here. Help me out!) year. Some of those linings I dug deep to find (the Hilton points accrued during Hubby’s 139 days in a hotel waiting for a visa came at high cost), some seemed more superficial (first name terms with all the delivery people). But one that started as superficial turned out to be somewhat more momentous. My hair colour. That front-and-centre, in your face (around your face?) crowning definition of age and status morphed from accessory to my own personal meme to 2020.
I’ve been a dark brunette for decades. The first few of those, I served at the whim of nature. The last few, well, I served at the whim of beauty salon schedules and vanity combined with societal dictates as the tinsel on my head overwhelmed the natural tree, so to speak. But 2020 saw long months with no access to a hairdresser, first on the US side of my relocation and later on the UK side. I’ve never attempted the DIY bottled colours. I can barely operate a hair dryer. And me with even a simple mascara wand is recipe for disaster. (Think Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice.) A vat of dye? Not happening. I just don’t do hair and makeup. So pandemic dilemmas included whether to override my natural inability to embellish myself or override my intense fear of letting the world know I hadn’t been a brunette in a long time. There was only one option. I bit the silver bullet.
Luckily, the stars aligned for the Great COVID Grow Out. Millions of others were in the same boat. From Paul McCartney to several neighbours, we all took the plunge. Even Mona Lisa was photographed with that white skunk stripe down the centre of her head. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to the newly silver sisterhood. Its membership increased manyfold over the course of 2020. Countless of us felt forced to make a transition we weren’t ready for, hadn’t even considered before lockdown. It terrified us. What would people think? Co-workers? Family? Even our kids? Societies worldwide – and more importantly ourselves – judged us harshly for our pigment deficits. Entire industries profited from our desire to maintain membership in a world painted using the 20-something colour palette. It took the shock of a COVID world that no longer looked, felt, acted like the status quo to make us realise we didn’t need conformity either.
We of the Skunk Stripe Tribe became each other’s ‘call a friend’ when that siren call of the Clairol root touch up aisle threatened progress. We supported and lamented as we pondered whether to cut short, add lowlights/highlights, listen to loved ones, ignore loved ones, change our minds altogether and run back to the familiar comfort of the Redken bottle. There was no right or wrong answer. We had our careers and families and histories and people who loved us, no matter the colour of our hair. We focused on the upsides as the roots continued their downslide: we saved a fortune on colour treatments, and newly considered our impact on both the environment and our own health. We noted that rather than washing us out, the silver, in many cases, matched our views of ourselves better than the false narrative we’d been perpetuating.
I, personally, was grateful for the fortuitous coincidence of the grey hair trend that seemed to spring up last year. Youngsters were getting their blond/brown/black hair either streaked with grey or entirely greyed. As I walked past a teenager with her long, silver stream rippling in the breeze, I couldn’t help but think she’d look back at photos in a decade or two and realise she was now colouring to hide the grey she’d coveted back in 2020. Or maybe not. No matter. I smiled at her and wondered if she worried that the old lady in the street may have mistaken her for an Aging Ally rather than what she was going for: Instagram Influencer.
Anyway, the Great COVID Grow Out has been a challenge. Walking past a mirror and wondering when exactly grandma arrived, proved excruciating. Watching that silver parting become a silver sidewalk, then a blindingly white silver highway was jaw-droppingly disconcerting. Hats, headbands, scarves, not typically my thing, became the biggest fashion decisions of my day, beating which sweatpants to wear to greet the postman (from a distance) as lockdown dragged on. During a brief respite, when US salons opened in May, I succumbed to a few highlights to blur the stark rigid line between silver and brunette. It helped. A little. Well, not much, truth be told. The temptation to colour again intensified, the addiction strengthened. But I knew access to salon colour could disappear again anytime. I was on a plane to the UK in a few days. I’d be in quarantine, unable to see friends, meet new people, promote my books or attend functions. Didn’t that make this the perfect time to revert to nature? To appreciate what was important in self-care (handwashing, mask-wearing, self-isolation) and what wasn’t (camouflaging the aging process when so many were losing lives way too young)? I dug deep and vowed to keep growing. I’d come so far and would have to start all over again at some point if I gave up now. The good news: the transatlantic flight was nearly empty. The bad news: not a silver stripe to be seen on any of the flight attendants.
Arriving in England, I discovered the silver wave had carried like a tsunami across the Atlantic with me. The white caps breaking on the heads of many others was of some comfort. Make that a tiny bit of comfort. Awareness of silver regrowth is not the same as gnawing awareness you’re a generation older than when you started colouring your hair back in the nineties. I was lucky. I didn’t get pushback from family during Zoom calls as some making the transition did. My mother’s ‘It doesn’t look as bad a I thought it would’ raised a smile rather than heckles. Encouraging comments from my adult children were gratifying. Which brings me to my brightest, shiniest, tinseliest silver lining of the year 2020 …
… the opportunity to spend extended time with my adult children.
My son and daughter were eighteen years old the last time I spent prolonged periods around them. They headed off to college, one ten years ago, the other six years ago. They transitioned to fully-fledged adults during brief summer holidays and phone calls. Upon graduation, they moved away. One married. Hubby and I assumed our time with them would be short and infrequent as we all bopped around the world and followed our own paths. Then … COVID. My son and daughter-in-law were already living in London when I relocated back to England in May. My daughter decided to move over here a few months after I arrived. Between furloughs, unemployment and work-from-home restrictions, we decided to form one household for the foreseeable future. While I hate the reason we had to do this, I marvel at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it affords me.
The kids brought their boutique coffee brands and brewing equipment with them, which clutter the counters and make digging out my store brand teabags harder. They have favourite Malbecs and Cabs and even champagnes. Champagnes? My Christmas Prosecco sits in the garage, untouched. Here I am, telling my kids back in the day we drank BabyCham and thought ourselves sophisticated. Books by authors I’ve never heard of on subjects I’ve never considered cover the coffee table. New documentaries, series, and stand-up comedians beam into the house via the Amazon Prime membership they bring with them. (I never signed up.) A whole new world.
I’m learning about the adults they’ve become while they learn about our new role as parents of adults; the role that no longer includes doing their laundry, cleaning their hair out of the shower drain, shoving coasters under their drinks or changing the toilet roll. (I hope they’re reading this.) My daughter pulls me out of the road to avoid a car and cooks exotic meals and tells me why I should be listening to such and such a politician because she’s got great ideas about such and such. The last time we lived together she was watching the Kardashians (I refuse to take the blame for this epic parenting fail) and wearing all the boys’ high school football jerseys. I listen to my son on the phone with bosses, co-workers, vendors while he gives presentations and justifies enormous budgets. He moves things, creates things, solves things at lightning speed. He used to take a whole day to empty the dishwasher. My daughter-in-law pushes her company to advocate harder for transition-to-work opportunities for prison populations. Together, these new (to me) adults research apartments and interview for jobs and discuss credit card bills and politics and have oh such strong opinions on subjects I’ve never considered in places I’ve never heard of and it astounds me. These are the joys of months spent with your adult children. You learn a whole new culture through eyes you created but that you lost the ability to see through years ago.
The switch came while I was colouring my hair.
How can I remain preoccupied with pigment when I earned every grey hair creating and raising these amazing human beings? If ‘non-brunette’ is the price I pay, so be it. Here, under this single roof, in a new beginning for us all, I marvel at what we’ve all become. COVID gave me that. 2020 won’t have been a complete loss. In fact, it may go down as one of the greatest family years yet, if we all stay healthy, that is. Let’s face it, nothing matters but that. No silver roots. No aging a generation in ten months. No nothing.
As the vaccine approaches and the light at the end of the tunnel moves from a tiny star-like dot to streetlight-sized orb and finally to a full-fledged beacon of relief, I’ll take these silver linings with me into 2021. I may arrive at midnight a generation older and with a lot of stress hormones under my belt, but I’ll arrive there grateful for good health, my family all together in my homeland, and a renewed impulse to tell stories full of silver linings.
Wishing you health, happiness and your own silver linings from this day forth. By the way, I love your hair. No matter the colour.
Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpower treason and plot. We see no reason, Why gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot.
The Fifth of November, aka Guy Fawkes Night, was one of my favourite childhood celebrations, if ‘celebration’ is the right word for remembering an attempt at mass murder of government officials. Slightly disturbing history aside, I loved eating baked potatoes, cooked in the bonfire in the back garden while Dad nailed Catherine wheels to a pole and let off rockets at steady intervals within feet of small children. All the neighbours came over for cocoa and bonfire toffee. The kids ran around with sparklers that imprinted swirly shapes on the retina for hours afterwards. Good times. I was looking forward to this November, my first year back after decades away from my homeland. My family and I would find a community firework display and I’d explain what this quirky British tradition all meant. If I had only known what this November 5th would entail …
Guy Fawkes Night 2020 will go down in infamy as a race against the clock. A holding of breath, an ‘If-this-fails-I-have-no-idea-what-we’ll-do’ sleepless night of tossing and turning. A foreboding sense that we had to get our daughter out of the US before election results, due to the incendiary rhetoric coming out of ‘leadership’ positions. It’s been like watching a Third World country go to the polls and wondering where the UN Peacekeepers are. And our daughter, though a young adult, was in the US alone. Well, not completely alone. Watson, our faithful family dog, was with her. Thank goodness. Maybe all those non-returned calls from pet shipping airlines earlier in the year were for the best. At least my child would have canine protection when the fighting started.
But as a mother, that wasn’t nearly enough consolation. Maybe I was being paranoid. This was America, for goodness sake! America protected democracy around the world, for goodness sake! How could anyone buy into the claims spouted off by one unstable family? How could experienced senators and knowledgeable US citizens allow this to happen? But the reality was, major US cities were boarding up store fronts and some citizens were answering the call to form ‘militias’ to protect (read intimidate) voters. November 3rd was shaping up to be like no other election day in US history. But I can’t worry about that. I focus on getting my dog and my daughter out of harm’s way. It’s no bed of roses in the UK right now either but at least there’s no imminent threat of insurgency to add to the pandemic woes. And at least in the UK we’d all be together as a family.
When I relocated back to the United Kingdom in May, Kerry wasn’t sure she was relocating too. And there were no options for flying Watson. We’d started the process in February, with new microchips and rabies shots, detailed timelines for when each vet check, wormer and certification needed to be complete. Then nothing. Shipping companies stopped calling us back. Airlines weren’t flying pets. If a window opened up, the flight was cancelled last minute. Months and months of fighting ensued to get our dog, and subsequently our daughter, over to the UK. (Because she can’t fly until our dog can or who will play him spa music and massage his temples during the Fourth of July fireworks – which he hates! – and generally spoil him rotten until he can join us?) After much effort, in early November, we think we have Watson’s journey finalised. Until Frankfurt shuts down for pet cargo. Watson is supposed to fly through Frankfurt on his way to Heathrow. His travel date is moved back two weeks, then three, then no one is sure. But the US election is bearing down on us and we want our family out. Like, NOW.
A phone call and a glimmer of hope. Would we consider a flight to Amsterdam, then a pet transport service driving Watson over to England? Initially we’d said we’d only fly Watson if we were on the same flight and it had to be non-stop to Heathrow to reduce his stress levels. Now, we’re about to commit to a flight, a train ride through the Channel Tunnel and a van driven by strangers! Poor, poor Watson! But what are our choices? None. We grab the November 6th flight, just four days ahead and confirm our daughter’s flight for the day after. She’ll fly once we know Watson’s in the air. We can’t risk having him left alone in the event of another cancellation.
For the next few days we live in hope. We fluff up the dog bed that’s been in storage and fluff up the pillows in our daughter’s room. But COVID isn’t done with us yet. The UK government announces a national lockdown, starting November 5th. Panic again. Will a driver be allowed to travel to Amsterdam to pick up Watson? We’re assured commercial transport will continue, but details are sketchy. Watson’s exact arrival time and pickup point isn’t confirmed and we’ll only have a few hours’ notice. We live a 3.5-hour drive from Heathrow. Can we get a hotel near the airport? Few hotels take large dogs. We finally find one (though Watson’s weight has to decrease significantly on the phone). We’re interrogated by the receptionist as to whether or not our travel is essential. They’re only accepting business travellers. Hubby and I feel like Mary and Joseph knocking on doors, only with Guy Fawkes trailing behind, threatening to blow all our best laid plans to bits.
The election is looming. The current administration continues to incite discord, with threats of violence in pre-emptive strikes against the democratic process. Plans for civil unrest are in the works. My daughter lives in a major city in a swing state. The same state where COVID-19 numbers are out of control and the courts are upholding challenges against measures to control said numbers. The US seems to have abandoned all rationality at a time calm heads, science, and community are needed more than ever. My heart pounds in my chest with every news report. It’s hard to believe it’s come to this. The America I thought I knew is fading into the mist, but my daughter and my dog are the only things I care about right now. Each day of waiting is torture.
Election Day comes and goes, with all the chaos promised us. But it turns out, a non-concession, no matter how absurd, helps us. There’s no rioting in the streets, just turmoil on our TV screens. The hours creep by until November 5th, the day Watson is to fly. We check the KLM flight schedule every hour. All airlines are cancelling flights with little notice. At last, a positive sign: a text from our daughter to say Watson has just been picked up from her apartment for the drive to Chicago O’Hare Airport. Then, a few photos arrive in my inbox, showing Watson on a walk around the tarmac before boarding the night flight. At last! Wheels up! He’s in the air! My euphoria is quickly replaced by gut-wrenching guilt that he’s going through this alone. I had promised him I’d be on the same flight. He remembers these things. He bears a grudge. He’s like a cat in that regard.
We won’t hear more of Watson’s progress until he lands in Amsterdam during the early morning hours on Friday 6th November. I focus on the next step. Kerry is on the way to the airport herself now. Step by step, we’re moving forward. But it’s 2020. How tightly, and for how long, can one’s fingers remain crossed?
Somehow I manage to sleep while Watson swoops over the Atlantic. We wake to the news he’s landed safe and sound. At least he’s only hours away now. But the thought of him on his own, going through customs and vet checks and wondering where his family is, well, it’s a lot to ask of your canine bestie, isn’t it? The shipping company does a great job of keeping us up to date. He’s cleared customs, he’s on his way to Calais with his driver. He’s having a nice walk and a stretch while waiting for the train to whisk him under the English Channel.
As we set off from Exmoor to the hotel, we check Kerry’s flight. It’s still reporting on-time departure Friday night. We relax, we almost swagger to the car with the dog’s bed and treats. We got this whole transatlantic relocation during a pandemic thing! No probs, peeps!
Five hundred yards down the road from our house, there’s a loud pop and a wobble. Pulling into a gateway, Hubby leaps out of the passenger seat, leaps back in: ‘Drive home! NOW!’ What? ‘Punctured tyre! Quick, before it completely deflates!’ No swagger now. We only purchased this car a couple of days ago. Like most new cars these days, it has no spare tyre, just a weird inflation contraption that was never designed to deal with a slashed tyre. We skid into our driveway, just as the last air gasps out. It’s been about thirty years since I’ve had a flat tyre. Why now?! Oh, right. 2020. We fling our gear into Hubby’s company car (not supposed to be full of dog hair when meeting customers) and creep past the spot of the flat, never seeing anything that could have caused so much damage. But we’re on our way. Barely! Hanging by a thread to our sanity. But on our way.
The UK is in national lockdown. We prepare our speech in case the police pull us over. ‘Essential travel. Dog needs us. He’s gonna be mad if we’re late. You don’t want to make him mad. He pouts. Refuses to eat. Sheds shaggy hair at a rate you must see to believe. And we’re in the company car. No dog hair allowed. You understand, officer?’ Luckily, we don’t need the speech.
At a service station, somewhere on the M4, we get word: Watson’s in England! He’s on his way to a farm near Heathrow Airport. We can pick him up around 8:30 tonight. Hallelujah! We find our hotel but every local eating option is closed due to lockdown. Back in the car. Back on the motorway, then winding through dark lanes, knowing Watson’s only minutes away. We spot the van parked on the side of the road and pull in behind it. The doors open and there’s Watson, tail wagging so hard he can barely stand up in his crate! I can’t stop telling him how brave he is and how proud I am of him. I’m not crying. You’re crying.
At that moment, the only fireworks we’d seen all night kick off. Watson’s terrified of them. Poor chap, sees the door of his crate open, sees his Mum for the first time in five months, and BOOM, CRASH, FLARE! He must think he’s landed in a war zone. ‘Green and pleasant land, my foot!’, he mutters. He’s scooped into yet another car, at least this time with room to stretch out, his Mum scratching his ears and telling him he’s the bravest dog in the history of pandemic doggie travel. She tries to explain the whole Guy Fawkes thing but Watson’s having none of it. He’s bundled from the car into the hotel room between star-bursting rockets, (via an elevator which doesn’t exactly endear the whole evening to him) where we all collapse in a heap of tangled nerves.
No time to rest. We check our phones every five seconds. Is our daughter boarding her flight yet? Will it be cancelled last minute? Will a delay allow time for the US or the UK to impose tighter sanctions on travel and our window close to get her out? Will the US election be called for Joe Biden (which, let’s face it, in any other year would have happened days ago) and kick off the expected aftermath? Where’s that plane?!
We’re exhausted. But we can’t let our guard down because Watson’s decided the hotel couch is where he needs to be and that’s not allowed and we can’t afford to get thrown out of the only hotel in the area allowing pets. He grumbles and gives us the steely-eye of distain as we drag him off the couch. Again. Where’s Kerry’s plane?!
More heart-pounding as the British Airways flight just before Kerry’s is cancelled. Tick tock. Tick tock. Shouts and hugs! She’s boarded her plane! Doors closed and cross-checked! She’s in the air, arriving tomorrow morning! Watson’s about had it and leaps on the couch during the happy dance, only to be thrown off again. We finally get to eat the sandwiches we bought at the motorway service station. We get ready for bed and I come to the conclusion the only option is for me to sleep on the couch to keep Watson off it. He’s decided he hates England, with all its fireworks and hotel rules and even the water tastes funny. He curls his nose at it. He decides at 3:30am he needs to pee. Because jetlag and time zones and Mum won’t let me sleep on the couch so she’s not sleeping on it either.
An early start to Heathrow the next morning but of course there are road works on the M4 so we’re almost late to meet Kerry’s flight. She reports via WhatsApp there’s no one at immigration and no one at customs and before we know it, she and her luggage trolley are sailing towards us. It’s a joyful reunion with Watson who seems to have forgiven her for bundling him into a crate so many hours and adventures ago. The clan is back together and heading down the motorway to Exmoor. It’s a dream after a long, long nightmare.
In your face, 2020! (Only not really because it’s 2020, there’s over a month to go, and all rational bets are off.) We’ll take nothing for granted, ever again. Especially not a sleeping dog on a mat by the fire. Or the chance to spend extended time with an adult daughter while she settles into her new life in a country she’s part of genetically as a UK citizen, but new to experientially. We settle into a 14-day quarantine. We hope for peace and the democratic process in the US. We hope for peace and health in the UK. We have much to be thankful for. Most of all, family; two-legged and four. And sleep. Definitely, sleep.
Bubbles used to be fun, didn’t they? My dog, Basil, certainly thought so. He’d leap around the garden, snapping at them as they bobbed on the breeze. He’d look through crossed eyes in shock when they popped on his nose, like it had never happened before. He’d stamp on the ones he couldn’t eat, then spin around and laser-focus on the wand in my hand, begging for the next batch. I’m guessing Doggy Heaven has a 24/7 bubble machine at the end of Basil’s bed. (Which is placed right next to a mud bath full of frolicking squirrels who also blow bubbles as they run.)
During my days as a speech-language pathologist, working with young children, I may have used bubbles as much for my benefit as the child’s. The simplicity, rainbow reflections, effortless flight and spontaneous, spectacular pop never got old. The joy in a child’s face, maybe a vocalization from a little one with language delays, well, it just convinced me bubbles were indeed magic. Who among us has not imagined taking flight in one, nose pushed against the transparent porthole on the world?
And just putting this here for anyone who needs it today: Prosecco bubbles. *sigh*
But here we are, 2020. Bubbles have taken on new meaning in COVID World. They conjure up less free-spirited flight and more prison-like restrictions. Though possibly containing some loved ones, they also lock out other cherished family and friends, forcing uncomforting choices. They clunk along rather than float, changing shape and size on a governmental whim or the flip of a statistical coin. They seal closed rather than burst open.
I managed to make it over the Atlantic back in May to my Exmoor home and a new bubble. But half my family is still locked out of my personal bubble by thousands of transatlantic miles and enough red tape to ground a Zeppelin-sized balloon, I’m not even sure where my bubble begins and ends anymore. Even those family members within the UK are at a loss as to whether we can see each other. A cousin allowed to visit here; a son not allowed to visit there. A discounted restaurant voucher this week, verboten behaviour next week. The flight path of my bubble echoes a cartoon balloon, popped by Wile E. Coyote with a needle, now zipping erratically across the sky. Will it ever land on solid ground?
This bubble-wrangling’s exhausting. But raise that glass of Prosecco! May our bubbles become a symbol of free spiritedness soon. May we see them as protective, fortifying, miniature globes again. May they hold the promise of floating away to unexplored, exotic places. Cherish your bubble. Protect your bubble. Wait for the pop with a sparkle of stars. Be ready to float in happy suspension at a moment’s notice. We’ve got this. Stay strong, Bubble Blowers of the World!
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.
My second month in England has passed without major incident. In this crazy world, ‘without major incident’ counts as a win, surely? (I’m touching a piece of wood as I speak. It is 2020 after all.) I just wish there were a bit more ‘winning’ come out of the US. News from there is disturbing, to say the least. I worry tremendously about my husband and daughter who are still over there. I can’t control the pandemic or the civil unrest or the closed immigration services. I’ve tried to set my goals lower but it would seem I can’t control rubbish and wardrobes, either. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the good news.
Hiking over Exmoor is thrilling and my fitness level for hills has improved significantly. I have more photos than my camera can store; a throwback to when I had to leave and needed to take pieces of Exmoor with me. I wonder if the novelty of no return flight to the US on the calendar will ever fade. I’m in awe of my views of Bossington Hill from the house. Exquisite walks from my doorstep are all I ever dreamed of and a cheeky Wagtail keeps me company during morning tea breaks.
But these joys are tempered by an absent Hubby. Visa applications, or lack thereof, are still in a state of complete chaos in the US and the UK. We have no idea when that will change. Hubby sits in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, watching the clock. Reacquainting myself with many friends and family members is also on hold. Garden get-togethers are weather-contingent or not possible at all if loved ones are sheltering. Gaining a foothold in my new community is stymied by restrictions and precautions.
Speaking of restrictions, I found a warning note on my rubbish bin for not following procedures. The rules for what belongs in recycle, what belongs in regular rubbish and what fits nowhere at all seem to vary from village to village. Rubbish is certainly more regulated than in the US, which is a good thing. I’ve received advice from friends and they all say something different, depending on their location in England. I now have four different containers: general rubbish, food waste, glass/paper and cardboard/plastic. You may be surprised to learn there is much that doesn’t fit into these categories. Plastic only means bottles, glass only means certain types, junk mail isn’t paper if it has a plastic film window in the envelope, and so on and so forth. So many nuances. Having received a warning, I’m afraid to fail again. I don’t know what the punishment is, or even the location of my local lockup. Who’ll water the new plant cuttings if I get hauled in front of the judge? To play it safe, I now have a shed full of stuff I thought was general rubbish or recycle but isn’t. Transatlantic relocation comes with packing materials and new purchases, unfortunately. The shed looks like that scene from Breaking Bad where Skyler White opens the storage locker to reveal a huge pile of cash. She has no idea what to do with it after laundering it though the carwash books. I have no idea what to do with my pile. I considered the Lucille Ball approach, where she stuffs chocolates from a conveyer belt into her mouth in an attempt to keep up. Should I eat the plastic food tray and the polystyrene packaging that came with the microwave? Luckily, new information just came to light. Apparently, even with four different containers at my house, I still get to load the car with ‘noncategorized’ rubbish and drive it to the local collection centre. I wish I had a better grip on what constitutes ‘noncategorized’ rubbish. Could I be arrested at the collection centre? It’s a steep and dangerous learning curve.
Speaking of learning curves, I’ve known for a while (my whole life) construction isn’t my thing. I’ve rediscovered construction isn’t my thing this week. I set out to find a wardrobe before Hubby gets here. I thought I’d downsized my clothing inventory but apparently not. Looking at the available space for Hubby’s clothing, it seems I’m being a bit … selfish. Overflowing dressers, full closets, and I’ve even taken all the underbed space. The least I can do is have a ‘his’ wardrobe ready for his arrival. (Though by the time he receives permission to fly over, brilliant minds may have discovered a way to store excess clothing in The Cloud. That would be awesome – except I often forget my access passwords so could potentially lose all my clothing as well as that best seller.)
Anyway, aware I’m in temporary accommodation and having no idea what my future needs for storage will be, I found a used wardrobe for sale on Facebook. It’s perfect. Cottagey. Pine. Nice iron hinges and handles. But in a million pieces. Not so perfect. (It was the only way the seller could get it down his stairs.) I wrestled the pieces into my car – including an intimidatingly heavy container full of screws, washers, dowels and nails – and set off with visions of space in the bedroom closet for Hubby’s stuff. How hard could reconstructing a wardrobe be, even without written instructions or a YouTube video? After all, I have a Master of Science degree and use wardrobes all over the world. Sliding doors, folding doors, swing doors, I’ve mastered them all. No-brainer.
Four days later, I’m here to tell you it takes a lot of brain – and coordination. Holding a door and a shelf in place with a foot and an elbow while simultaneously trying to screw them into the frame that’s threatening to fold in on itself even though it’s lying on the floor isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m armed only with Hubby’s toolbox; a pandora’s box of complex gadgets. I rarely peek inside this box because it’s usually attached to Hubby. I try wedging the wardrobe door open with a chair and lying inside the box frame, inducing an uncomfortably realistic sense of coffin-phobia, but things still aren’t going well. The screw holes don’t match up, there are bits of wood left over that are surely important, and when I finally manage to lift the entire structure upright, it’s wobbly with a disturbing right lean. My ancestors built Stonehenge, for crying out loud! (Though I admit some of those stones also lean.) Get a grip, woman! Or failing that, get a neighbour.
In normal times, you’d call over the fence to your neighbour and over a cup of tea you’d work it out, with a good laugh and maybe a few bruises. But this is wardrobe construction in COVID World. That call to arms is not simple. My new neighbours are lovely. We’ve shared tea in the garden and deliveries of cake have brightened my day more than once. But I don’t know them well enough to ask them to enter my house and break social distancing rules. (The wardrobe isn’t two meters wide.) If I ask for help, will they feel they have to say yes, and then hold the risk against me for the rest of my born days?
I decide to go it alone. At the time of writing, I’ve eaten an entire family-sized (if ‘family’ is defined as you on a diet and a pet ant) packet of chocolate Minstrels just sitting on the bed looking at all the parts. All I’ve got to show for it is piles of wood all over the guest room carpet. Who knows how much chocolate it will take to finish the project.
COVID 19 has a lot to answer for. No Hubby. No wardrobe. No joke. And to cap it all, the lights on the fridge have started flashing in an alarming manner. I have visons of spoilt milk and defrosted Tesco’s cottage pie leading to more containers piled up in the shed. Typically, electrical warning lights warrant a call over the shoulder: ‘Hubby, electrical issue in the kitchen! Stat!’ Now it’s a google search for tutorials related to flashing lights on electronics. I’ll work it out, if only because I’m afraid of the rubbish police.
There may not have been a major incident yet but all these minor incidents are stacking up. I’m going to need a bigger bag of Minstrels.
It’s been one month since I arrived back in England after a thirty-year visit to America. If you’d asked me a year ago what vocabulary I’d be using to describe my feelings at my return home, I’d have said relief, comfort, joy. And those feelings apply. But they’re mixed with other feelings, like weird and anxious. So much about my transatlantic relocation during a pandemic has proved incredibly stressful. The empty airport terminals, the empty plane, the masked flight attendants, my homemade peanut butter sandwiches in place of the cancelled inflight dining service, along with the deserted arrivals area at Heathrow were powerful reminders I’m doing all this during a historic, and unsettling, time. So much about this last month could never have been predicted. The fact my husband is stuck in the USA waiting for the visa offices to open again, with the daunting possibility of travellers from the US not being allowed to travel to Europe at all, keeps us both awake at night. But global issues aside, the little things are proving more challenging than I’d anticipated.
I dropped my laptop for the first time ever, smashing the screen and bending the keyboard. I had no idea where to go to get it fixed. There were no laptops in my life when I left Exmoor all those years ago. My watch stopped. I broke my prescription sunglasses (another first). It’s weird, completing the mundane tasks of fixing things and finding watch batteries and researching how to pay council taxes. It’s weird learning a new grocery store layout (even without the one-way system in place in my local Tescos) and trying to remember what demerara sugar is. I used to translate UK to US: caster sugar is baking sugar, minced beef is ground beef. Now, I’m reverse-translating, US to UK: confectioners sugar is icing sugar, eggplant is aubergine. Goodness knows what a kilogram is in pounds and will I ever get the hang of Celsius versus Fahrenheit? As a visitor, I didn’t have to complete these kinds of tasks. Now I need to relearn my native language and find the places that cater to my mundane needs rather than my holiday needs. It’s strange to feel strange in one’s homeland. It’s weird to go through the motions of normality in a not normal world. It’s impossible to tell how much weirdness can be blamed on COVID 19 and how much on my extended absence. Maybe it doesn’t matter. My return would feel weird not matter the difficulties of trying to set up a new life when everything is shut down. Do I need to delineate between what’s normal relocation crazy and what’s pandemic crazy?
Luckily, there are plenty of joys to counterbalance the mental taxations of translations and conversions and all-around weirdness. My fourteen-day quarantine flew by in my rental property with gorgeous views of Porlock Bay and Bossington Hill, even though I had little furniture and couldn’t give anyone a hug. I no longer need to calculate time zones when calling family. I got to celebrate my sister’s birthday in person – in her garden as social distancing was still in effect – for the first time in decades. (That was counterbalanced by the guilt of having to celebrate my husband’s birthday with him via WhatsApp.) My son and daughter-in-law have joined me for an extended stay while they’re furloughed from their jobs in London. I’m delighted to share the joys of my new home with them. I get to wander the Exmoor countryside without counting down the days to leaving again. I look over the gates at the closed cream tea shops, knowing they will reopen someday, and I’ll be back to planning my hikes around their welcome cups of tea and slabs of cake. Even the rain feels cosy after years of brutal storms that threaten life and limb in the snowbelt of the USA. This gentle drizzle cossets rather than scares; though ask me again in a few years how I feel about English rain and I’m sure I’ll have a different outlook. Or will I? Will the novelty of walking outside in January and February ever wear off? In Wisconsin that’s indoor season due to bitter cold and feet of snow. Surely it will be awhile before I complain about British weather. We’ll see. We’ll also see if hiraeth is really a thing. Can you go home again? Does the home in my memory still exist? Were the broken sunglasses a prelude to broken rose-tinted glasses? Watch this space …
I survived the first month, thanks to the kindness of old friends and new neighbours. Without them I really would have been lost. My furniture just arrived so I have no excuse not to get back to writing now. Except for needing a new laptop, that is. Wish me luck.
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.