Excuse Not to Write #46: Transatlantic Distractions and Dance Parties

I admit it. I’m distracted. Which doesn’t bode well for a writer. A recent trip to England, a house search while over there, a million things to contemplate about relocation across the pond, and, well, it’s all spinning in my head and any kind of writing gets side-tracked.

Today, I determined to plonk myself down in the chair and at least write my monthly blog. After all, so many of you wait with bated breath for my confused confessions of an author who feels she’s living in the wrong country. (Note to self: do something more interesting that requires confession. It may increase sales. But I digress …)

With my blogging brain in full rebellion, I vow to write about the first story I see on the internet this morning. With everything in the news right now, I admit it’s a risky strategy. I don’t know enough about Syria, Brexit, the 25th Amendment or the college admissions scandal to educate or entertain you with my analysis. But today I luck out. The first story I see is that Mike Posner has completed his coast-to-coast walk across America. The image is of him rejoicing as he reaches the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who don’t know Mike Posner, he’s a singer-songwriter famous for his ‘Cooler Than Me’ and ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ chart-topping hits. Oh, wait! I may have something to confess. I absolutely must dance to these songs. I defy anyone not to. They pound in your head and whoosh through your system, your shoulders, hips and feet soon in full party mode. I’m always close to getting a speeding ticket if they come on the car radio. I jack up the volume to an unseemly level for a woman of my … maturity. The arresting officer would say, ‘Aren’t you a bit old for this kind of music and do your children know you listen to songs with four-letter words in them?’ In my defence, the lyrics are rather poignant if you listen to the acoustic versions without the techno-pop-rock beat. And there’s only one swear word in ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’. That I bleep out when I sing along. (I’m playing ‘Cooler Than Me’ as I write this. Thank goodness for a standing desk as I rock my moves. No, there’s no video of me dancing. There will never be video of me dancing. You’re welcome.)

But how does Mr Posner’s six-month walk across America relate to me? Well, in all the coverage of his journey, he states he is not the same person as when he left the East Coast of the United States several months ago. A snake bite requiring hospitalization may have something to do with this. But I put to you that no one is the same after travel. Plane, train, automobile and sneaker travel changes you. The people you meet change you. The scenery, the food, the effort, the politics, and yes, even the music, changes you. On Posner’s website, he states one of his goals is ‘Enjoy where I am in the journey. Don’t waste time obsessing about getting to the end.’ His mantra throughout the journey was ‘Keep Going’. And that’s what struck me. Keep Going. As I gear up for the fights ahead with transatlantic property financing, shipping containers, what to leave/sell/donate/destroy, and how to say goodbye to America, I’ll keep Mr Posner’s words close: Keep Going. I’ll get to England eventually. I just needed this reminder to appreciate every step of the journey.

Soon enough, I’ll get back to writing and editing the two novels I’m working on, too. Wish me luck.

Next month, Pauline Wiles, author of the Saffron Sweeting anglophile novels, will be guest blogging about her own transatlantic journey from England to the sunshine of California. Join us!

(Image: Mark Morgan, Flickr)

So, A Veggie Platter Walks into A Courthouse …

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

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

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

‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Chaos, Transatlantic Relocation – and Painting the Bunker Red

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I’m gearing up to sell my house in the spring. If all goes according to plan, it will be my last house sale in the USA in preparation for my first house purchase in the UK. With me so far? Plan – move – UK? You have questions, you say? Oh. You mean why are my American husband and I relocating across the Pond when we have no clue how Brexit will impact the UK or how Trump will continue to influence the US? When all rational thought suggests we hunker down in a bunker stocked with tinned mandarin oranges. (Are there tariffs on those? Maybe the tins, you think, not the orange segments? No, I have no idea either. Hard to plan what to stockpile, isn’t it.) But I digress …

Obviously, you’re right to be confused as to my relocation timing. I agree to a little apprehension myself. Confusing times lead to confused decisions.

But enough of politics and world chaos. Here’s what really confuses me: All those things I said I’d do to this house when I moved in thirteen years ago and didn’t do. (Except paint the wall behind the toilet red. That I did.) Why have these irritating household fixes now popped from bottom to top of the URGENT to-do list? Why is the loose trim under the cabinet in the bathroom keeping me awake, even if you can’t see it unless you’re on your hands and knees with one ear on the floor? And the crayon marks on the woodwork from the previous owner’s kids? Still there. Only now those marks glow like an Elizabethan ‘The Armada’s coming!’ beacon on a hilltop, guiding the eye to the rainbow stains. And then there’s the red paint wall behind the toilet that seemed like a good idea thirteen years ago but never really worked and I’ve lived with it because, well, admitting your husband was right all along is never going to happen except the realtor agrees with him and now I’m stuck with a smirk on hubby’s face. (He needs to remember who’s sponsoring his relocation to the UK. One word from me at Heathrow immigration and he’s expat toast. Just saying.)

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And there’s the retaining wall in one of the flower beds. It’s completely covered in mature shrubs. I planted them years ago to hide the one wobbly boulder. Which they do, by the way. Completely. But suddenly that unlevel boulder seems such an eyesore it’s visible from space and most certainly will be picked up by the realtor’s drone during the photo shoot.

See what I mean? I have bigger issues than retirement fund instability, my husband getting stuck in a camp set up in a field where the third Heathrow Airport runway is destined to be built, and the price of bread eclipsing the price of cars.

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Is it possible I’m fixating on the red paint and the garden wall to take my mind off Brexit backstops and Trumpianism? Surely not. Well, maybe. Okay, it’s highly likely. Suppose I just need to hope the whole ‘Which is worse, Brexit or Trump?’ thing gets sorted out soon.

But, let’s face it, for me it’s never been about which country’s winning the bet on who’s confusing world order more. It’s always been about a strong sense of where home is and where it isn’t. At least there’s no confusion in my mind on that score.

Celebrating 30 Years with Tanks and Pie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website: www.traceygemmell.com

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Picnic image: Pixabay

Relocation Countdown: Transatlantic Hireth and Abandoned Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Insanely Expect When You Write A Book

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Oh, the joys of parenthood, the wonder of bonding with a tiny soul, the bliss of cradling a new-born in your arms! As a mother of two, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. I just thought two children were enough for me. I never dreamed I’d be doing it again at my age! After all, book birth hurts like the dickens.

Yes, I’m in the book delivery room, all bloated and cranky and just an all-around pain to be with. Because, just like with my firstborns, I’m nervous that I’ll fail. That my best won’t be good enough and somewhere along the line, someone will steal my baby and raise it better than I could. But why should I worry? I’ve paid my dues in blood, sweat and tears. I’ve survived the author gestation period – which is longer than an elephant’s, sometimes years, by the way. For those asking why I’m so irritable and how it can possibly take so long to birth a book, well, there’s more to it than you think.

As soon as the idea for your novel baby takes seed, you grab your copy of What to Insanely Expect When You Write A Book. You devour its pages and quickly conclude you don’t know enough yet. You sign up for writing and publishing Lamaze classes, held in a hotel ballroom at a writers’ conference. The instructors run you though your paces: Birth canal blocked? Do this. Labour too long? Try this. Word bloat mean your dressing gown’s the only thing that fits? Read this. Contractions – or hyphens or semi-colons – keeping you awake? Fix this. And listen up, writers! Never numb publication pain with a paid review-boutique publisher-no editor-no proofreader C-Section. That’ll cost you in the end. Breathe! I said, BREATHE!

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Staggering under the weight of your over-flowing writer’s toolbox, you knuckle down to growing your book. Morning sickness, swollen ankles, indigestion, acne – it’s all there. Usually from a poor diet, too much sitting, and no direct sunlight, but it’s all there. The seasons change outside your window and still you grow and grow until the wordcount interferes with lung function and your hard drive crashes due to the 52-terabyte monster it’s trying to incubate.

You shed chapters and characters and secondary story threads – and adverbs – like clothing during hot flashes. Just when you think this 900th rewrite will never end, you reach a wordcount the right size for a 1.5-centimetre book spine rather than the width of one of Stonehenge’s supporting monoliths. Now it’s time to purchase the baby clothes.

So many designers to choose from! Their outfits are gorgeous, and you want them all for your book cover. You test a thousand colours, images, and taglines. You pick the perfect font, only to find it can’t be used without coughing up an extra hundred bucks for commercial use. You pick again and send final cover blurb to designer, only to find it’s not the final blurb because you can’t use the term GPS, according to the lawyers. You haven’t budgeted for a lawsuit. Change to ‘naBigational satellite system’. Correct spelling to ‘navigational’. Now the cover’s final. Or would be if you could decide whether to use the author photo taken during the heady days of virgin authorhood or the one taken today in the delivery room. Greasy hair, panicked expression, coke-bottle glasses, required after writing a novel on your phone hanging over the side of the bed to shield the light from hubby because the only good ideas come at 2 a.m. when your journal is down two flights of stairs on the washing machine in the basement. Decide on the first-choice photo. Now the cover’s final. Unfortunately, the cover designer isn’t speaking to you anymore.

You look around your office, now free of the million scrapes of paper on which you’d written disjointed ideas. You’re almost there. The first inklings of satisfaction twinkle in your reddened eyes – just into time for the steamroller that is procrastination to squirt any joy out of your ears onto the “Upload your manuscript” publishing website. You vaguely remember you told everyone your publication date was in three months, but now it’s … NOT IN THREE MONTHS! Can you change your mind – walk away to find a less stressful way to procreate? Perhaps hand-feeding pregnant crocodiles?

It’s too late! Labour’s started – meaning your mum called to say the neighbours want to know why they can’t find your book online yet and does this mean your mum was making up the whole story about you being an author? Mum’s not happy. The pain! Oh, the pain! Waves of doubt, regret, foul language directed at your editor, publisher, beta readers, anyone within earshot of your desk. You can’t take it any longer. You beg for the anaesthesiologist. Epidural! Stat!! Doc arrives with chocolate and vodka. You swig straight from the bottle you cleverly disguised by wrapping it in last week’s ‘Publishers Weekly’. Somehow the meds get your through the uploads. Just when you think you’re about to meet your new baby, the website rejects your book cover because you uploaded the wrong format and the margins are all messed up and the retail price you entered doesn’t match the price you need to cover costs by, oh, about … Well, best not think about it. Regardless, the paperback proof copy is on its way. No stopping this train now.

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Finally, finally, you lift from the cardboard box delivery crib this creation, this marvel of courage over doubt. Weighing in at 1.2 lbs, 9 inches long, cream interior, full bleed cover, parentage stamped in MV Boli font on the front cover, it’s everything you hoped it would be. If you squint, you can even recognise a semblance of yourself in its reflection. You gaze, count the wiggling interior pages, brush fingertips across the baby bottom-soft cover, whisper its name, More Or Less Annie, over and over in baptismal welcome.

‘A solid two stars!’ yells your book baby’s Grandma, who so hoped to be delivered herself of a Charlotte Bronte decades ago. She smiles bravely at the Tracey she was handed by a white-coated publisher. The publisher who then took a pass on buying Grandma’s Super 8 home movie rights.

Even after all this, deep down you know you did something amazing. Something organic, a part of you delivered to the world, slapped on the spine and swaddled in words that fought to survive through hesitation and jealousy and regret and epiphanies. Through ‘What do you do – I mean for a living?’ and ‘Yes, but what’s your book about?’ and … all that crap. Your book lives. You wave it off into its life outside you, realising it breathes life into you as much as you breathe life into it. Forever inseparable. So proud. So fearful.

You outstay your welcome at book clubs and writers groups and grocery store checkout lines showing anyone with a pulse photos of your baby’s sales rankings. You think you’re done with the delivery room. But what’s this? Stirrings, rumblings, clocks ticking? Another? You want another?! Within a week of release, you start all over again. Chapter One …

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I dedicate this blog, with gratitude and incredulous admiration, to all book parents. We did it! May those who survived multiple births over long careers to remain in the readers’ hearts forever – I’m looking at you Anita Shreve, Nora Ephron, Tom Clancy – smile down on us and the new-borns nestled in our loving arms.

More Or Less Annie born May 18th, 2019. Baby’s fine. Mother’s a mess.

Not Your Grandparents’ Tea Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Gibbs and David Pollard in Writers Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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Hugged Your House Today?

Hugged Your House Today?

In Wisconsin, the last two days witnessed savage war: Man against the Elements. With air temperatures of negative 26F and wind chills in the negative 50F range, surviving the coldest polar vortex in a generation was all I could hope for. I was home alone; my husband delaying his return from a business trip as travel in these conditions was too dangerous. It was me against the world. But I had an ally. My house.

Home had to become more than a peaceful, cosy sanctuary. It had to morph into an escape pod, a foxhole, a superhero friend in the worst of times. As the winds picked up, the snow churned and the world turned to black of night, my survival depended on my house. Would it stand up to temperatures it was never tested to withstand? Would the windows fail, the pipes burst, the roof cave in? This all crossed my mind during the vortex days and the long, long vortex nights.

I helped as much as I could: opened all the bathroom cabinet doors to let heat in around the pipes, covered curtain-less windows, turned lights on in the garage because if I’d tried to do it once the temperatures plummeted, the bulbs could explode.

But I could do little. My house took the brunt of it. It suffered for me. I listened to it scream. Cryoseisms ‒ known as frost quakes ‒ occurred all through the day and night. The boom and pop shook the house as the foundations fought against the freezing ground. The siding contracted in bursts like exploding vinyl popcorn, the windows bowed against the wind. Those windows! I hurt for those windows. As the snow piled up on them and the glass oozed ice, both inside and out, they wept real tears during their herculean efforts to protect me. I soothed them as best I could, wiping their eyes with soft towels and whispering to them to hold on, stay with me now. Just a little longer. But I had to leave them to check on the commander of the battle: the furnace. Would it hold out? Would the fuel line rupture as the ground froze deeper than ever before? If the furnace lost the battle, the war was over. I turned the light on for it so it wouldn’t fight valiantly alone in the dark. It needed to know its efforts were appreciated. That someone cared about its survival. I cared. My dog, Watson, cared. My photo albums, my computers, my artwork, my books, my indoor rosemary plant – we all cared. Fight on, brave furnace! Wisconsin Forever!

It held! My house held! The bricks and the glass and the wood and the concrete and the wiring and the gas line and the furnace held! I could cry with gratitude! I hug the walls and kiss the patio doors, aware some houses didn’t hold. Rooves caved in from the snow, fires erupted from broken power lines, houses drowned in waterpipe breaks. Those houses tried, too. But these were times for extraordinary houses. Mine was one of them.

How do I thank it? For holding off the onslaught, for protecting me against a frigid Armageddon? New coat of paint? Not nearly enough. So I hereby award my house a title. An honourable title.

Arise, High Commander of Highland Drive. Long live the King!

 Note: I’m fully aware there were others in this battle with me: power company workers, water main fixers, snow plough drivers, emergency personnel, construction workers, fuel delivery drivers, architects, to name a few. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. And my biggest thanks of all goes to those working to keep the homeless safe. You are true heroes.

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How Long Before a Tree Becomes a Friend?

How Long Before a Tree Becomes a Friend?

There are pros to life as a rolling stone: a global perspective, varied opportunities, a trail of diverse friendships, strong adaptive skills. Cons: an outsider’s perspective, constant regrouping, new rules. (Did you know you can display the Union Jack instead of a licence plate on the front of your car in Connecticut, but not in Wisconsin? ‘Officer, I didn’t know that. Thanks for informing me in front of everyone with blue lights flashing and your hand on your gun.’ Some relocation lessons are hard-earned, but for the most part they add zest to life.

Despite my wanderlust, I find myself envious of those who’ve remained in an area long enough to pull back the curtain; to know all the workings of a place. As I build momentum for a move back to England, I thought it may be helpful to find someone who knows Exmoor like that.

Enter Nigel Hester.

Nigel journeyed to Exmoor via Hampshire, Nottingham, and London. He’s worked for the National Trust for forty years ‒ mostly on Exmoor ‒ currently as the Projects and Grants Manager for the Holnicote Estate. (From the ochre-tinted cottages of Selworthy to the peak of Dunkery Beacon, the Holnicote Estate comprises most of what I call home.) Nigel’s bio says he’s ‘passionate about the countryside, wildlife, music and cooking good food!’ Sounds like someone I should meet.

We shake hands in the car park at Horner, a tiny hamlet at the foot of Horner Wood ‒ an 800-acre section of the Holnicote Estate. Blue skies greet us after days of rain. We head off into what Nigel calls his ‘favourite temperate rainforest’. This is one of my favourite spots too. Horner Water burbles through the predominantly sessile oak woodlands. Cloutsham Ball sits at the top of the steep combe, presiding over dramatic views of Hurlstone and beyond. Dunkery Beacon towers over all. On horseback or on foot, I feel cosily cocooned here. It’s the location of one of my favourite benches in the world.

I thought I knew this place quite well. Turns out I knew little but the trails. Nigel knows every turn in the river, every plant, every historical detail, including the locations of at least two Iron Age hill forts near by. He points to a raised earthen berm topped with mature trees, a testament to the Tudor Age men who rerouted the river to facilitate their iron ore industry. Yes, they moved the river. I didn’t know that. We cross it via a small bridge. Nigel explains the bridge timbers were replaced by iron railway lines, recycled from the West Somerset Railway. He shows me pollarded trees, a pruning technique used for encouraging young growth for fencing and ship-building. I’d never noticed their unusual shape. As we climb, we pass a storm-ravaged oak, its trunk fractured into a stunning natural sculpture. Nigel tells me the year it happened. He conveys an unspoken understanding it is worthy of note, as though the tree is a friend. Oaks here can be upwards of seven hundred years old. I feel a need to spend a few respectful moments with the mangled tree.

As we admire the view across to Wales, I comment on the amount of holly covering the slopes. I don’t remember there being this much of it in the undergrowth. Nigel see it as a rather pesky plant. Since the reduction of sheep grazing in the National Park ‒ a result of agri-environment grants to reduce the impact of trampling and damage to heather moorland ‒ holly has taken over. During research, I discover “Holnicote” may trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxon word for holly ‒ holegn. Therefore, its dominance here may be well established.

I remember more mistletoe. I saw so much of it from the saddle years ago. Nigel tells me there’s less now, but still some near Timberscombe. Anything I notice Nigel can explain, whether it be acidic soil, resulting in fewer native flowering plants, or policy change and its impact on vegetation. He shares more: Greater than 440 species of large fungi can be found in Horner Wood. It’s considered by some the most important woodland for fungi after Windsor Great Park and the New Forest. Horner Wood is also one of the richest bat sites in the United Kingdom, boosting fourteen of the seventeen UK breeding species, including the rare Barbastelle. This may explain how busy Liz Bradshaw is, Nigel’s wife. She’s an expert, regularly consulting on all things bat.

We come to a monitoring station on the banks of the river. I can’t imagine what it’s doing out here. Of course, Nigel knows. He’s part of a research project called the Multi-Objective Flood Management Demonstration Scheme. The equipment at the station collects water flow data every five minutes. Using this information, flooding in the Bossington area ‒ where Horner Water enters the Bristol Channel ‒ has been significantly reduced. Modern science buried deep in the ancient forest. Who knew? I wonder what Tudor Man would think of this technology and if it would have impacted decisions to move the river. Maybe Horner folk considered Bossington folk too far away to worry about.  

What’s it like to know a place so well, to be so acutely attuned to its strengths and weaknesses? It comes at a cost, Nigel feels. Not all is smooth sailing in Camelot. His job sees him sharing information with Exmoor residents on controversial and divisive topics, such as Brexit and the banning of hunting. It hasn’t always made him popular. Exmoor, as seemingly remote from Parliament and Europe and US politics as anywhere, still exists alongside current issues. That’s a good wakeup call for me. Escaping world complexities is not what Exmoor is all about.

We discuss the biggest changes over the thirty years I’ve been away. Nigel feels the number of visitors, the extension of the tourist season, and the purposes for which they visit can be viewed as blessings and curses. They change the special qualities of Exmoor. Landscape and wildlife pay a price for successful Exmoor businesses, such as adventure tours, hotels and shops. “Erosion, with its inherent soil loss and water run-off is becoming a real problem,” Nigel says. This translates into a decline in upland wildlife. He continues, “Curlew, ring ouzel, merlin, whinchat, stonechat, grasshopper warbler – all disappeared or rapidly disappearing from Exmoor.” It’s a familiar dilemma in areas of outstanding beauty: the very businesses necessary to sustain an area can damage it. Nigel feels strongly about this. “National Parks should not put recreation above biodiversity.” I promise to remember this.

We pass moss-covered stone walls and the quintessential wooden pathway signs. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful to me. I ask about other places Nigel enjoys. Apparently, Badachro, in Wester Ross, Scotland speaks to him of home as I define it: the place you sleep the best and breathe the deepest. “It reminds me of Exmoor thirty years ago,” he says. “A wild, untamed, wildlife-rich landscape that excites me every time I visit.” Recently announcing his retirement, Nigel plans to spend more time in Scotland. As my face falls – but we haven’t got to the ‘cooking good food’ part of your bio yet! – he assures me Exmoor will still feature prominently in his life. Its diversity of landscapes and wildlife, its cultural richness, including archaeological evidence of 5000-year-old communities, its wild appeal and remoteness ‒ while only two hours from Bristol and Exeter ‒ all keep him passionate about Exmoor.

We exit the trees just above the old watermill and head back to the cars. I cherish a whole new appreciation for Horner Wood, but Nigel makes me realize just how much I don’t know about my ‘home’. Or anywhere for that matter – the curse of the constantly rolling stone. I can tell you Bora Bora is surrounded by surreal turquoise waters, the central California coast, though ravaged by fire and landslides, is still beautiful, that the brutal winter storms of Wisconsin produce stunning natural snow sculptures. I can tell you Bahamian sea water is too warm in August, your feet will get wet in Venice, and New Zealand’s volcanic and glacial topography never fails to impress. I can tell you where they serve a great tres leches cake in Costa Rica and that the Brazilian rainforest is vast. What I can’t give you is depth. I can’t express a connection forged by time. But I want to know Exmoor; to pull back the curtain and learn to greet a tree like an old friend. It will take a while. And that’s okay.

Many thanks, Nigel, for sharing your knowledge, and for your commitment to Exmoor.

For more information on the Holnicote Estate: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/holnicote-estate

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Jingle All The Way Home

If you caught yesterday’s blog, you’ll know I paid a visit to the West Somerset Morris dancers as part of my ongoing effort to reconnect with my English roots. It was a success. I left the session feeling more English than when I arrived, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. Witnessing part of something so intrinsically English is bound to stir the old DNA. But something did surprise me. I hadn’t expected to meet so many kindred spirits. Several WSM members recognized and understood the pull of home. They had also left their birth places before connecting in Somerset. I found out more about them during the tea break …

Apparently, they didn’t used to serve tea during practice ‒ until women joined WSM in 2015. Thank goodness for women, I say. As the kettle boils, I get to corner a few of the members to ask: why Morris dancing and why Somerset?

For several WSM members, Somerset is where they were born. Mitch, Reg, Dudley, Peter, Joe, Edmund and Ray have called Minehead, Watchet, Taunton or Bishops Lydeard home forever. Other members followed somewhat more circuitous routes to Somerset. Like Kathy and Andrew, husband and wife, who lived for several years in New Zealand. Retiring in Yorkshire, their desire to be active members of a Morris led them to Somerset. Though a passion for the dance attracted them to the Southwest, they happily report considering the area home now.

After a four-year stint in Africa, Nicky explored the rest of the world with her husband, Malcolm. It was a trip to visit the in-laws in Porlock that led to permanent residency on Exmoor. Nicky’s always enjoyed Morris music and as soon as women were invited to join WSM, she jumped in. Or is that cross-hopped in? ‘Dancing with the Morris is such an uplifting experience,’ Nicky says. ‘The men are hilarious, as you may have noticed.’ Yes. I have noticed.

Anne moved to Somerset seven years ago. She was delighted when the West Somerset Morris asked ladies to join. In her opinion, the WSM is the best thing about Somerset. Barbara was born in London, moving to Somerset thirty years ago. She didn’t hesitate to join WSM as soon as women were allowed. She tells me the group makes everyone so welcome, it’s like family to her now. I’m starting to get that sense after only an hour in the group’s company.

Edwin, who plays the concertina, was born in Watford, near my birthplace in Hertfordshire. He studied Classics at Oxford and came to Somerset ‒ via a stint in Manchester ‒ to be closer to his wife’s family. This is Edwin’s fiftieth year as a musician for WSM. He requires no sheet music, just the name of the dance and he’s off ‒ foot tapping, eyes half closed, lost in the moment. He tells me it’s the people here that make Somerset home. As I witness the jovial comradery in this village hall, I believe him.

Steve washes the mugs while I dry. His story is unique. Having spent his life in Oxfordshire, he dabbled in genealogy after retiring. Unbeknownst to him, five generations of his family were out of Watchet, a Somerset coastal community. Upon discovering this, he felt drawn back to his ancestral lands and here he is now: a Somersetian.

It’s an interesting mix of experiences: those who remained settled in one place and those who found home later in life. Both groups feel it’s important to perpetuate the traditions of Somerset and Exmoor. I’m shown memorabilia saved from each public display. Photos and flyers preserve happy faces outside pubs and on village greens and at Christmas celebrations. All proceeds from displays go to charity. This year WSM are supporting Halway Manor Library, The Air Ambulance and Southwest Children’s Hospice. Good fun and good citizenship. Win-win.

I ask Squire Joe if he considers Morris a re-enactment of the past or whether it is, in fact, forging ahead, making new traditions. He thinks it’s both. Times change: women join, tea breaks are added, and they don’t drink as much alcohol during displays anymore ‒ that’s what Joe tells me anyway. When asked about the main draw to join the Morris, Joe feels it’s a fun hobby that encourages members to connect to place, time and each other.

Sounds good to me ‒ ancient dance woven into the fabric of society. Dance aside, I see a pattern here: people searching for connection and home. Whether through ancestry or fluke, there’s a shared desire to be part of traditions that both precede and outlive us. I vow to weave myself back into England as soon as possible.

I wish you home for the holidays, wherever that is for you.

I heartily thank the West Somerset Morris for their kind welcome. The hilarity was a bonus!

For more information about West Somerset Morris: http://www.westsomersetmorris.co.uk/

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