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.
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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

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Tilting At Towers

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I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa since childhood. Its scary, yet giggle-inducing, tilt just seemed like something I should witness before its inevitable collapse ‒ not so inevitable, as it turns out. Much more inevitable was getting trampled by the crowds. And being bonked on the head by a selfie stick. Or poked in the eye as hundreds of tourists threw their hands out in a hilarious (sigh) attempt to capture the moment they held the tower up. Or knocked it down. Or got squashed under it. Seriously, the overwhelming memory of my recent visit to Pisa will be of an off-kilter tower surrounded by floating hands.

Yet, steps away from the errant tower, sights existed of which I was previously completely unaware. Miraculous sights, hence the name: ‘The Field of Miracles’. This ‘field’ contained structures of such stunning architecture, I was struck dumb. Those who know me realise this is a big deal. I’m never speechless. But the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Monumental Cemetery, even the ancient entry gate and the surrounding walls, were all breath-takingly beautiful. And … no one trying to hold them up!

(Full disclaimer: these other buildings are not perfectly straight either due to the uneven ground in the area. But compared to the tower, the lean’s not nearly so obvious. But I digress …)

How had I gone through life unaware of these other spectacular structures? I must have seen at least part of them in photos of the tower, right? Apparently not. Which begs the question: why had I ‒ and the rest of the world seemingly, based on crowd patterns ‒ focused all attention on the glaring ‘mistake’? The structure most likely to fail?

As I beat off another selfie stick assault to move away from the tower towards the Duomo, I wondered: was this unhealthy preoccupation with failure whilst filtering out success a metaphor for my life? The answer may be, yes. I can write 100,000 words and wake in a sweat over one typo. I can remember a mistaken action from decades ago yet struggle to recall the good deed of yesterday. I can still cringe at the heartless comment I made in high school and forget the kind word shared today. I know I’m not alone in that. We seem to hold onto failure more tightly than success.

Maybe the roiling crowds around the Leaning Tower of Pisa are a tilted reminder: success is not synonymous with perfection or lack of error. Fail. Get up. Try again. And sometimes let your imperfection show. It may be your imperfection that leads to your greatest success. Just ask Mr. Pisano, credited with designing the tower.

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Image: author’s own.

The Day I Missed the Mark

Watson

The Day I Missed the Mark.

The best piece of author branding advice I’ve received to date was to be myself in my social media interactions. So that’s what I am; an oddball mix of England, America, dogs, horses, gardens, world travels, cream teas, books, epic fails and homesickness all bundled up in self-deprecating humour. And, it seems, I’m slowly finding my tribe online.

But one day I missed the mark. I shared me on a bad day.

The US administration began separating children from their families at the border. That should have been a bad day for all of us. But I took it very hard. After all, I write about finding home, about separation from home, about missing home. I’m also an immigrant and a mother. I couldn’t imagine losing my children in exchange for a shot at a safe home. I. Just. Couldn’t.

So, I posted the following on Instagram and Twitter on June 20th, along with a photo of one of my dogs staring up into the camera: ‘Not feeling very funny today. I’ll be making a long journey with this face soon. If he’s taken away at immigration, I’ll die. And he’s just a dog!’ I hash tagged ‘children first’, ‘immigration’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘no separation’.

Within a few hours, I lost five percent of my Instagram followers.

Now, I’m no JK Rowling with millions hanging on my every word. Five percent can hardly be defined as a mass exodus in my case. But to me it was significant. We indie authors compete for attention against millions of other voices and I treasure each follower on my social media platforms. I’m honoured you’d want to spend a few seconds of your day with me. Losing you hurts.

I asked myself why I lost followers. Was the subject matter unexpected, coming from goofy old me? Was it taken as politically biased? I didn’t mean it to be. I figured every affiliation would be struck dumb by the cruelty. Were followers just jaded by the barrage of negativity? Possibly. I know I was exhausted by it. Maybe you were all bots and got booted at that particular moment. Truth is, I don’t know what happened. But, slowly, over the next few days, I came to this conclusion: I don’t care what happened. If you look back at the list of criteria for being me, you won’t find ‘cruel’. And I won’t let ‘cruel’ be added to that list by default because I didn’t speak up.

As I write this, an effort is underway to reunite families. That’s good. It’s a better day. But what about the next bad day? Will my followers tolerate me sharing my bad days? Guess what? That’s the last time I’ll ask that question. Because if you want me to be myself ‒ and I hope you do ‒ you’ll need to add ‘not cruel’ to the list of fun facts about me.

Note to self: being you is not going to please everyone. Be you anyway.

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The Birthday Present

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Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?

This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.

Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?

Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.

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My Foreign Native Language

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I enjoy discovering new words (well, new to me), especially those evocative of home or homesickness. Hireth and coddiwomple are two favourites. I recently heard another: hygge, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’. Translated as ‘cosiness’ once it leaves Danish waters, hygge means more than an evening in sheepskin slippers with a hot chocolate. In Denmark, it’s an entire lifestyle of living in the moment and forgetting life’s worries in tranquil, informal spaces. It’s about warmth and candlelight.

I discovered hygge in a BBC article, dated October 2015. It said the Danish concept had invaded the United Kingdom—but I’d never heard of it. And we all know reclusive authors are the first to hear of new fads and trends. By the way, there’s this Canadian singer called Justin Bieber about to hit the airwaves …

Anyway, turns out I missed hygge completely. In the United Kingdom, the word is already passé. The furniture stores advertising hygge sofas and designers touting hygge room layouts have moved on. The restaurants dolloping hygge comfort food onto rustic plates are serving something else. According to Ideal Home, the Swedish word lagom, meaning ‘just the right amount’ replaced hygge in 2017 in the UK.

But I feel cheated. I miss hygge. I want to be part of the hygge phenomenon, to prove I’m ‘current’ on the goings on in my native culture and language. I know, I know—Danish isn’t my native language, but try and keep up here. The point is, something else has come and gone in my homeland that I was completely unaware of. So, does a lack of hygge knowledge make me less British?

Think I’ll make some hot chocolate, light a candle, and ponder that for a while.

Final Boarding Call

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I recently got that awful phone call: my father had passed away, four thousand miles from where I stood. The news was a shock, though not a surprise. Dad was almost ninety-one years old. A long life, lived on his terms.

No matter whether you live next door or across the world, this is a tough time. But as an expat, one of the first people you talk to after hearing the news is an airline representative. Before you’ve had time to even begin to process events, you must find the resolve to make complex travel arrangements. It’s a good job you can do it in your sleep after so many years abroad. The logistics would otherwise be overwhelming: the first available flight to the United Kingdom, a ferry across the English Channel, a drive of several hours to the small French village Dad called home for the past fourteen years.

Yes, he was an expat too; putting down new roots in a foreign country in his 70s. He didn’t seem to feel hireth as I do. He also never felt the need to learn the language of his host country. In typical English language arrogant fashion, he just gestured and ‘s’il vous plait’d’ his way through daily transactions and social gatherings, leaving it up to the French around him to learn English. Now, there’s a confident man. And a very gracious host nation.

Though I speak reasonable French—due to a former life as a groom for horses in France— I don’t speak the language of funeral directors and condolences. I don’t speak ‘French florist’, as I found out as I tried to obtain a wreath for the casket. I think I told the poor lady behind the counter something like, ‘Father dead. Need flowers for box.’ She may have thought the English rather disrespectful at that moment. She nevertheless produced a lovely arrangement. But the confusion cemented the notion that I was different in a place where Dad was different too. I spun from grief to guilt to regret for all the time we’d spent apart and for how foreign I felt going to see him one last time.

We chose this expat world; Dad and I. We undertook our travels in the full knowledge that connecting grandfathers and grandchildren would be hard, expensive, and exhausting; that birthday parties would be missed and Christmases shared only via phone calls. And we knew a long, drawn-out illness would be impossible to manage with so much distance between us. So, my father and I are grateful for the speed at which the final boarding call came.

It’s not easy, this expat life. But neither my father nor I would have missed our foreign adventures for anything. Having spent time last week at Dad’s funeral, having wandered through his beautiful French village, having met up with my step-mum’s family—themselves from all over the world—having listened to stories from Dad’s ‘new’ friends and neighbours and watched them shed tears for him, I know my father had found home. For that, I’m very grateful.

Bon Voyage, Dad. Fair winds and following seas.

Something Old, Something New

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When you live far from home, you tend to spend your holidays going … well, home. There’s Mum to see, and Dad to see, and sisters and cousins and friends to see. You want your children to live the other half of their heritage and your non-British spouse to understand your weird jokes about cricket and suet pudding. You want to be part of weddings and funerals and family reunions. So, you go home as often as you can. Your friends in your adopted country think it’s exotic, asking, ‘Are you off to Paris/London/Timbuktu? Lucky you.’

Well, yes and no. A funeral, anywhere in the world, is definitely not exotic. That family reunion? Comes with the same baggage, whether it’s across the planet or down the road. Uncle Albert’s just as you remember him—unfortunately. But you need to be there, so you go. Then, one day, your children look at you and ask, ‘Do we have to go to Paris/London/Timbuktu again?’ And you wonder. Do we? Should we? Have the same lucky forces that made our children dual citizens and/or frequent flyers restricted them in the variety of places they go?

As spoiled as it may sound, as ‘First World Problem’ as it is, when you start recognizing the flight crews, you feel maybe it’s time to reassess your destination. When was the last time you scrolled through the TripAdvisor website looking for a new world to explore? French Polynesia looks so cool!  But what excuse will you come up with when you tell Dad your holiday won’t be spent at home? Of course, your family won’t make a fuss. They’ll understand.

But then it hits you. One day your children will be finding excuses not to visit you. You have a decision to make …

‘Hi, Jackie. Yes, we’re going home again. Looks like a full flight today. How are your kids? Captain Mike okay? Good. Yes, we’ll have the chicken. Same as last time.’

 (Image: Pixabay)

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‘Foreign’ Isn’t A Place

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I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to be ‘foreign’. It’s hard to know how to answer because most days I’m not foreign. I’m like everyone around me, complaining about the weather, politics, cost of car repairs, or trials of parenthood. I share my plans for the weekend, the home remodel, the upcoming family celebration. The common ground overrides the accent or the physical attributes.

But then there are days I can’t work out for the life of me how I landed on this alien turf—the days I feel like a complete stranger. It’s the look I get when someone says, ‘You remember the show “Welcome Home, Kotter”?’ Er, no. No, I don’t. It’s when I use a simple phrase like ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ I may as well have spoken Klingon. It’s wondering if the Schwan’s Guy they’re talking about is some new sit-com actor, only to find out he delivers food to your doorstep. Everyone knows the Schwan’s Guy; he’s part of everyone’s childhood. No. No, he’s not.

But if you’ve never had those moments, of getting in the passenger’s side door and trying to drive the car, of having no idea what that road sign means, of offending without meaning to offend, of just not getting the joke, how does one describe being foreign?

Here’s my explanation. If you look up ‘foreign’ in a dictionary, some synonyms are ‘distant’, ‘far-off’, ‘external’. You can feel all those things without leaving your backyard. It’s not your geography that makes you foreign. It’s the context that makes you foreign.

It’s that first day of college as a ‘mature’ student. You may as well have stepped outside the Apollo capsule. That cocktail party your spouse couldn’t attend, where you stood with the pasted-on smile and laughed too loud, struggled to find a common interest, tried an ice breaker that remained an iceberg.

It’s the changing room at Victoria’s Secret. Who was that person in the mirror? Was she even the same species as the long-legged, huge-breasted, pert-nosed aliens pictured in the catalogue?

Maybe Macy’s (the outerwear section) will feel more like home. But you tried to emulate the latest fashion trend and ended up slinking down the street in something that made you look like a ripe squash of some variety. High fashion is a foreign land. Four-inch heels are a foreign land.  

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Sitting in the doctor’s office-slash-spaceship being told you have cancer or your loved one has dementia. The sense of ‘this isn’t me, this isn’t my life or where I belong’ is universal—whether you’re four thousand miles from home or in the surgery a mile from where you went to high school.

So, what is foreign? Not an accent, or a passport. It’s a feeling. A context. We’ve all been foreign. In the land of our birth. In our homes. In our heads. In our lives.

Now, when I’m asked what it’s like to be foreign, I provide a few of the examples above. And everyone understands. All heads nod.

What does it feel like to be foreign? It feels like being you, when you’re in a Victoria’s Secret changing room.

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