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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images: author’s own

Stay Strong, Bubble Blowers of the World!

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!

Stay safe. Stay well.

Images: Prosecco, Pixabay, Dog, PickPik

When Life Gives You 2020…

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.

New Problems: Rubbish Police and Wardrobe Woes

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.

My Extraordinary, Mundane Transatlantic Relocation

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.

End of A Transatlantic Era

Face masks_HDR

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.

Just to be home again.

The Perils of Peeing Solo

Pixabay

There are certain joys in traveling alone. No debate about which museum to visit. The ability to stare at the waves for hours without someone reminding you it’s past dinner time. Ah, yes. Freedom. Independence. The Solo Open Road.

Unless you need to pee. Then solo is not your friend. The following is a true story. Weak of heart? Look away.

A public toilet at a train station in England; the public toilet charging 50p, that doesn’t say it charges 50p at the top of the long flight of stairs down into the dark basement. There’s a turnstile gate at the entrance to the toilets with a torn sign. It informs you of the need for correct change. You have no change, having just arrived in the country and in possession of only large bills because the ATM failed to predict your need for coins. The sign also informs you the change machine is back up the stairs you just came down. You reclimb the stairs, dragging your suitcase, get the change and make your way back down the stairs to the turnstiles gate.

You look around. There’s nowhere to push your suitcase through the turnstile to the other side. You ask yourself, aren’t you at a major train station in a major tourist city where the probability of travellers having a suitcase is pretty high? A polite ‘ahem’ from behind. The line is backing up.

You help three elderly ladies lift their cases over the turnstile. You fumble with your money before dropping a coin out of reach the other side of the barrier. Luckily, one of the elderly travellers sees your distress and kicks the 20p back to you because she can’t bend over to pick it up. You gingerly retrieve the coin from the dust bunnies and god knows what bacteria piled up in the corner, using only your finger nail tips, vowing to wash your hands before you use the toilet. You feed the money into the slot. Three times. On the fourth attempt, the machine recognises the currency.

Wrestling your suitcase to waist level, you’re reminded of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo gun race. Super-human teams of soldiers ‒ young, ultra-fit soldiers ‒ dismantle a huge cannon, run the enormous wheels, wooden trestles and iron gun barrels down an obstacle course, heave it over a twelve-foot wall, run to the end and reassemble the cannon in less than a minute. Only your suitcase is heavier than the cannon because, well, you need a change of shoes to go with each outfit, and you prefer ‘real’ books to e-readers and you happen to read very fast so a book a day for two weeks isn’t unreasonable. Using every available body part, including your chin, you manoeuvre the suitcase. It drops like a super tanker anchor the toilet side of the gate and you’re in. You seriously need to pee now.

You attempt to wash your hands because the thought of the hand that touched the coin that touched the Ebola-laden dust bunnies is never going to touch the toilet paper that touches .. well, you know. But neither the automated faucet, the soap dispenser, nor the dryer recognise your existence; like you’re some kind of vampire, only you can see your reflection in the scratched, graffiti-covered metal plate passing for a mirror and no one’s waving garlic in your face so you must exist. The lady next to you gets her water to run just fine so you wait patiently and move to her sink. You remain undetectable to that sink’s gremlins also. Did I mention you need to pee?

Wiping your still bacteria-laden hands on your jeans, you approach a cubicle. It’s narrower than the airplane seat you spent the night in. The door opens inwards. You have a suitcase.

You have two choices: leave the suitcase outside and pray it will be there when you come out. But … the books! Or pee with the toilet door open, leaning forward at a 90-degree angle with at least ‒ hopefully ‒ half your backside over the toilet, holding onto your suitcase handle while trying to remember what the fine for indecent exposure is in London.

‘Don’t worry, luv. I’ll watch your bag.’

You look around for the voice and a large woman in standing next to you, arms folded, no suitcase of her own in sight. You have questions about her character: is she an avid reader? And her physical attributes: does she wear the same-sized shoe as you?

But I need to pee.

Then risks must be taken.

Maybe she does this for a living? Spends all day in the toilet watching bags that disappear while desperate travellers pee.

Look. Do you need to pee or not?

‘Er. Thank you.’ The door slams and you fiddle with the broken lock, deciding the only thing for it is to jam one foot against the door once you’ve sat down.
Pixaby

And for one brief moment, all is right with the world. The relief! Sun shines into your underground cubby. You’re in a meadow strewn with flowers. Is that birdsong you hear? For the first time since Heathrow, you take a deep cleansing breath. Never repeated because the lady next door is having obvious … difficulties. Remembering where you are and that your books are in jeopardy, you snap out of it.

Are the shoes you can barely see under the door the same ones the bag-watching lady was wearing when you first entered your WC coffin? Damn it! Should have taken a photo of them for the police report later. Now, you have one foot jammed against the door while bent double at the waist trying to keep an eye on the shoes. You feel you’re participating in some kind of warmup routine for the Royal Ballet. Your ham strings scream and your hip pops ominously. Using the toilet paper holder for support, you manage to hoist yourself back upright and zip your jeans faster than an atom heads around the CERN particle accelerator.

You fling the door open. There is a god! Your bag is there! The lady who watched it is still wearing the size thirteen pink moccasins she was wearing before and she’s not reading anything but her wrist.

‘Got to run,’ She says, looking at her watch. ‘Mum’s waiting upstairs with the suitcases.’

I want my Mummy! Please say that wasn’t out loud.

You wave hands, body, feet in front of every faucet, soap dispenser and dryer again, to no avail, while watching a steady stream of women successfully complete the task. You lug your suitcase back over the turnstile and up the stairs, exhausted, beaten down, sweating. But at least you no longer need to pee. You watch others gather their bags from friends and family waiting at the top of the stairs. You’d complain to your travel buddy but you’re travelling solo. You wipe your hands on your jeans and vow never to travel alone again. And to pack only one pair of shoes. And to get an e-reader. A backpack would have fit through the turnstile and inside that cubicle just fine.

I leave for London in a couple of weeks. Planning to stop all fluid intake the week before.

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Images: Pixabay