Our Very Tuscan British Exmoor Funeral

It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!

Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …

I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.

Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.

‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.

I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.

I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.

Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.

We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.

In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.

Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.

If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.

Images: author’s own

No Weddings and A Funeral. Or Two.

On May 31st, 2020 I crept through an empty international airport in Chicago. I sat alone, masked and gloved, on an almost empty jetliner and arrived at the ghost town that was Heathrow Airport in the early hours of June 1st. I thought those pandemic relocation experiences would the most surreal of my life. I was wrong. This last year, my first full year in England since the 1980s has rocked my – and everyone else’s – world like no other.

I arrived to an empty Exmoor property I’d had to rent sight unseen (and pay for long before we could fly over), to spend the next months alone as my husband waited for the visa offices in the United States to reopen. I borrowed a single mattress and a chair, as shipping companies couldn’t deliver our furniture. One pan, two plates, two knives, two forks, two spoons, brought over in my luggage. Two wine glasses, borrowed. As the United Kingdom went into deeper lockdown, a highlight: my son and daughter-in-law arrived to live with me in the empty house as their London jobs shut down. After weeks on the floor, never have three people been so happy to see a moving van carrying real beds and a couch.

Hubby finally arrived from the US in October, followed by our daughter and dog in November. After a brief reopening of restaurants, we plunged back into full lockdown at Christmas, now five adults and two dogs, all fighting for the two-seater couch. We completed more jigsaw puzzles, read more jokes off Penguin biscuit wrappers and walked more isolated miles over Exmoor than we ever imagined possible.

Then a dear friend died. I gave my first eulogy in an almost empty church, the echo of silent, hug-less loss making it all the worse. That I’d made it home in time to spend those last months with her was at least something to hold onto.

As Spring arrived, the kids returned to some semblance of their lives in London. Even though nothing was open, their jobs had made a partial comeback. Two adults and one dog now settled in to fighting for the two-seater couch. There was no point buying more furniture as the house we’d been waiting for would soon be ours. We’d furnish it once we moved in. It had belonged to our dear departed friend and she’d wanted us to live there after her passing. It was all arranged. We’d care for her cat and tend her flowers while making the place I’d considered my English home for forty years our own.

We get our first COVID vaccination and life is looking better.

May arrives. Another dear friend dies. Suddenly. We’d known each other since I was a teenager. We’d been through everything together and waved to each other across the field during lockdown. We’d planted hundreds of daffodils in her garden just months before. We made plans. On the same day she dies, an email arrives from solicitors. The beneficiaries of our dear departed friend weren’t going to honour her wishes that we should purchase her house. We’re thrown into a red-hot property market in England and Exmoor properties are few and far between. Our future is clouded by the prospect of having to look elsewhere. After thirty years of planning to make Exmoor home, our future is no longer safe here. A dark day, indeed. Hiraeth seeps out with the tears. Maybe home never really existed after all.

Plans. Worthless plans.

I struggle to compose another eulogy, no clue how I’ll get through it in church next week. But though many seats must still remain empty, we will at least be allowed to hug each other this time. In some weird way, writing my sad words brings gratitude. These two special friendships endured great distance and decades of long-distance phone calls, holiday visits and missed special events. That I got home just in time to see these friends in health before things took turns for the worse is miraculous. We had the chance to make new memories before committing them to eulogies; a reminder it can be too late to come home if you don’t grab the chance. Our pandemic relocation nightmares were dreams come true after all.

Then another dream. On the same day my friend died, and the email arrived from the solicitor, a local property came on the market. We view it the next day to cheer ourselves up, to pretend there’s somewhere else out there that will match the dreams of the home we just lost. One look and we’re in love with a house and a gorgeous garden, surrounded by a stone wall. A stone wall! I’ve loved stone walls all my life, the warmth they radiate, the tangled cover of of ivy and valerian softening edges. A sign, maybe? A stream, fruit trees, a swing seat, wisteria, clematis draped over old tree stumps and creeping vines around windows, an arbour seat with views of the wooded combes and the steeple of the church where we married thirty-two years ago. Another long-time friend lives almost next door. It’s everything an English country home should be.

But could it be? Could something good happen here? The thought recedes with the arrival of a Porsche to view the property after us. And another car, and another. We shrug our shoulders, wander around the garden for the last time.

What the heck. What have we got to lose? Let’s throw in our best offer so at least we can say we tried.

A day later, I’m helping my friend’s sister choose a casket when the call comes in.

OFFER. ACCEPTED.

Offer accepted? I can’t even immediately grasp what that means. I shake. It means we get to stay on Exmoor. It means we make new memories, meet new friends, plant new plants. Our new garden is so gorgeously stuffed in that quintessentially English way there’s barely room for another plant. But there’s always room for a new plant. Like new friends. Though established plants and friends will always be the best.

We fight now to complete contracts before the Stamp Duty Land Tax holiday ends in a few weeks. We hold our breath. Plans. They haven’t counted for much lately. Yet here we are, battered and bruised but still standing. And, hopefully, we’re finally home.

Permanently. Safely. Home.

Images: Author’s own.

Does Humorous Travel Fiction Still Matter?

New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!

*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.

The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…

2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.

COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.

I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.

We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)

As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.

Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.

Onwards to Provence!

In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.

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.