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.