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.

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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.

US Citizenship: Head Versus Heart

British Head and Heart are watching the evening news – never a good idea, no matter which side of the Atlantic anyone resides. Tonight, Head’s had enough.

“Right,” says Head. “Heart, we must get US citizenship. We don’t have the right to complain about politics if we haven’t taken the steps necessary to participate in the process.”

“But … But,” says Heart, “we vowed to remain British and only British. You said you’d rather take a beating than have it any other way. Besides, we’re going back to England permanently one day.”

“Well, Heart,” says Head, “we don’t know when that day will come. And you’re taking a beating with all this anti-immigrant nonsense anyway so what’s one more bashing? Get citizenship, participate in the next election and let’s see if you feel better.” Head pats itself on the … head.

Heart sits in a corner, grizzling. “But I don’t want to get US citizenship!”

“Take heart, Heart,” says Head. “There’s an advantage beyond voting. As green card holders, we can only leave the US for six months at a time. With one of our kids now living in England and one in the US, dual citizenship allows us to be with each for as long as we please. Yay!” Head nudges Heart out of the corner and hands it a tissue.

Now for the hard bit, Head thinks. Getting Heart to fill in the paperwork. Copious amounts of paperwork, including every flight taken since the invention of the aeroplane, tax records the likes of which no US president must show, and family tree dating back to 1066 – only anno domini, thank goodness.

Heart bleeds all over the forms. “I. Don’t. Wanna!”

“Stop it, Heart. This is exactly why I’m above you.”

“Oh yeah? This is exactly why I control your blood supply.”

“Shut up! Fill in the damn paperwork.”

Head and Heart get in the car, off to the biometrics appointment, fighting about who should sit in the passenger seat and whether they should stop at the rest area to hit the vending machine for a chocolate bar. At the United States Customs and Immigration Enforcement office, the staff take finger prints. And photos.

Heart fights for a retake. “We can’t stick that face on a document that will haunt us the rest of our lives!”

Head replies,’ “If you’d just cheer up, the photos wouldn’t look like they’d been taken by a mortician, would they now.” Heart picks up the pen and check boxes as to eye and hair colour – after a spirited discussion about the ethics of not mentioning natural hair colour. The car ride home is … frosty.

Waiting for the citizenship interview is tough on Head. “We need this done quickly and efficiently.”

Heart disagrees. ‘No hurry. Happy as I am, thanks.”

Regardless, the official letter arrives. Citizenship interview date set for March 20th, 2019. “Plenty of time to learn the answers to all 100 historical, geographical, and political questions for the citizenship test,” says Head.

“What test?” says Heart, before entering cardiac arrest territory on viewing the enormous book of questions that came with the letter.

Studying isn’t made any easier by the fact not a single US citizen known to Head and Heart can answer any question on the test except “What colour is the White House?” and “When is the Fourth of July?”

“Pathetic,” says Head.

“I’m not alone!” says Heart.

Back in the car on March 20th – no stop at the vending machine because both Head and Heart are somewhat nauseous – the mood is sombre. Authors of Federalist Papers, names of longest rivers in the US, dates of the Constitution Convention swirl in Head’s head. Heart’s too busy practicing saying “Yes” when asked if it’s taking US citizenship sound of mind and free of coercion.

“Well, she was nice, wasn’t she?” says Heart on the way out of the interview.

“Easy for you to say,” says Head. “You didn’t answer a single question, except the last one.”

Heart frolics to the car, thrilled it said “Yes” in the right place. “Are we done now? Can we vote and travel?”

“No. Got to take the oath.”

“What oath?”

This one: ‘I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.’

“Holy heart attack, Head! Can I cross my arteries while I say it?”

“No. But luckily the United Kingdom decrees you don’t really mean to renounce UK citizenship when you take the oath. We can still celebrate the Queen’s birthday as dual US/UK citizens.”

Heart’s heart sings. “Excellent. So we’re lying under oath but it’s government sanctioned.”

“Shut up.” Head’s got a headache.

Another month’s wait and it’s off to the oath ceremony at the Federal Courthouse, bypassing the vending machine because family’s taking Head and Heart to lunch afterwards. If Heart behaves.

Heart bounces through security and gasps at the beauty of the ceremonial courtroom. “Look at all these hearts! So many emotions wrapped in colourful packages from all over the world! How pretty!”

“Yep. Heads full of all kinds of rationales from thirty-five nations. Now, shhh. Listen to the judge. Oh, she’s good. Welcoming, kind, articulate, respectful of all homelands – and an immigrant herself!”

Heart leaps up and yells, “She just said United Kingdom! That’s us! WOO HOO!”

Head reads the oath. Heart aches, all hireth-y, but remains respectful. The flames of Notre Dame rain sad ash over mono-citizenship ties to Europe, but Head and Heart smile.

The judge says, “Welcome, new citizens of the United States of America!”

Head and Heart hug. “I’m not crying. You’re crying,” says Head.

“I cry all the time,” says Heart. “It’s often my job. But, Head, I’m glad you made me come today. It was the right thing to do.”

“I know,” says Head. “But that didn’t make it easy.”

“Let’s get lunch with the family,” says Heart. “I’m having a high-cholesterol dessert.”

“Me too,” says Head. “But before we leave the courthouse, let’s register to vote.”

Write An Expat Spy Thriller? Not Likely.

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I’m Just Not Spy Material

There are two schools of thought in writing: write what you know or write what you can imagine. Doesn’t leave much off the table, does it? I, however, know my limitations. Writing a spy thriller is out of the question. I just couldn’t compensate on the written page for my natural deficiencies. I recently read Daniel Silva’s The English Girl. Boy! I thought my characters traveled a lot, but this international spy thriller left my head spinning. All that global rushing about, all that memorization of files and faces and contact info, all that being hunted down with no nice embassy official coming to help if things got messy. Seriously? Does anyone have this kind of energy? This kind of memory? This strong a nerve? As Olivia Colman would say, it’s all quite stressful. I began thinking about all the ways I’d let Daniel Silva down if I were one of his characters. The list is long and ugly.

To start with, I can’t remember a single name of anyone I’ve ever met. This is not a new thing. And facial recognition could be an issue. I once asked my own son, “Can I help you, Sir?” He’d arrived home with a beard after a semester abroad.

The ability to manage multiple passports, visas and identities is far beyond my skill set. I never have the right paperwork ready at the airport. Is it just the passport they want? The passport and green card? The passport and boarding pass? The form I filled in on the plane? Seriously, what the hell do they want now?

Nerves of steel under interrogation? Nuh-uh. Arriving at any international airport, I panic when asked my name. My only name. My real name. The name that’s never been in trouble anywhere in the world. My profession? What? Reason for visit? Er? You’d think, as I sweat through the 30-second encounter with an immigration officer, I had a kidnapped member of the royal family in my luggage. I would fail a polygraph test if they asked whether I wanted a glass of water.

My navigational “difficulties” have led to more marital discord than anything else. I’ve never known north from south, east from west. I barely know right from left under pressure, as hubby will tell you after many an almost collision. If you’re giving me directions using complex terminology like “Head south-east on Rue de l’Espionage then turn west on Avenue Ouest,” well, let me tell you, me being there before you kill the hostage? Just. Not. Happening.

That whole chasing the bad guys across time zones thing? I have an unnatural need for ten hours of sleep a night – which I never get, by the way. Most of the time I’m not functioning well enough to let the dog out. But mess with my circadian rhythms and all hell breaks loose. If you need me in Istanbul on Wednesday, you’d better mean the second Wednesday of next month. I’ll need at least a week to get over the jet lag before I’m good for anything.

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Finally, there’s the whole creature comfort thing. Crouched in a ditch in the cold for two days, drinking water out of my socks, wearing leafy camouflage (which would itch, by the way) waiting for a target to come outside so I can hit him between the eyes at 1000 yards? I’d have set solid, my back out and my feet asleep since … a day and a half ago. The hunger growls would be so loud those listening in via satellite would have to turn the volume down.

I met Tom Clancy once, the ultimate spy thriller novelist, at a book signing. He made small talk with me about beer. I don’t drink beer. But should I reveal that? Was this a test? Should I lie or remain stony-faced silent until he broke eye contact, looking elsewhere for a softer target? I felt quite uneasy about it all. What a relief when he finished signing my book and I could leave via the back door. (A real spy wouldn’t have screamed when the alarm sounded.) Mr Clancy probably knew about my beer aversion anyway. From my file at Langley.

I shouldn’t have read that spy thriller. Shouldn’t ever write one, either. My nerves are all ajangle, just in time for my US citizenship interview tomorrow. I fear it’s not going to end well. It’s been nice knowing you

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The Day I Missed the Mark

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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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It Takes More Than a Cheap Ticket

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I recently heard a fellow expat say they couldn’t afford to renew their passport; therefore, they couldn’t go home for a family funeral. This struck me as sad on so many levels. Of course one should be able to attend a loved one’s funeral. Of course a passport should be an affordable document. Then I asked myself, why do we have to pay for a passport at all?

I did a little research. A United States passport costs $110. It costs $450 to renew a green card ‒ which needs to be done every ten years ‒ and a whopping $680 to get US citizenship once you qualify. A United Kingdom passport costs £72, more if you apply while in a different country. And you’d better sit down for the next one. It will set you back £1282 to get British citizenship once you qualify. That’s right, £1282 for one person. Can you imagine the cost for a family? And, that’s if there are no complications requiring legal assistance. Then there are the notarized copies of birth certificate fees, travel costs to interviews, photos of yourself fees … Well, I could go on and on.

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I know we have to save up for airline tickets and hotels and other travel expenses. These are luxuries I don’t take for granted. The financial ability to travel, or lack thereof, is something that will never be equitable. But if you are eligible for a document that proves you are who you are and entitled to live where you live, or entitled to travel across a border and back again, shouldn’t that document be accessible to all, regardless of income level?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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And the Good Citizen Award goes to …

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Immigrants. Emigrants. They’ve been around forever. Just part of living on a planet whose inhabitants are capable of inventing trains, planes, and wooden canoes. But in both the United States and the European Union, it seems immigration is the number one topic of 2016. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s welcome? Who’s not? Almost makes you miss the Kardashians, doesn’t it?

So, here we are, sorting through the implications of the Brexit vote and the recent US presidential election. And though both these events are only partially defined by immigration, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what makes a good citizen, regardless of country of residence or country of birth. I ask myself: What Would Dunster Think? (If you haven’t read Dunster’s Calling, Dunster is an Exmoor pony who’s so much smarter than most of us. And he wouldn’t care where you were from, as long as you brought sugar lumps with you. But I digress …)

Good citizens can surely be defined. They behave in a civilized manner (even when Santa’s not watching), pay taxes, follow the law, and make a concerted effort to respect others’ opinions. They educate themselves, donate to charity when they can, contribute time and talent to their communities. Pick up litter. Help any living creature: neighbours, dogs, hedgehogs, Kardashians. They only laugh at others if they accept that others can laugh at them.

But is all that enough to be a good citizen? Apparently not.

To be a fully-fledged, able-to-vote, good citizen, you see, one needs a piece of paper. One needs a document that states said person has raised a hand and sworn allegiance. Oh, and paid an exorbitant fee. Take a look at the oath one is required to take to become a US citizen:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” (Source: uscis.gov)

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But where are the hedgehogs? The neighbors? The conflicting opinions? Where’s the charity, the contribution, in anything other than a military sense? Where’s the kindness, the love for one’s fellow man? Where’s the commitment to laugh at the Joe Biden memes, no matter who you voted for? Where’s the agreement not to complain if you have your piece of paper but didn’t vote?

I’ve struggled with this rather myopic official concept of citizenship for twenty-five years. I’ve met many others who also struggle. We ask ourselves: are we fully-fledged good citizens even though, on paper, we are only permanent residents? Are we allowed to question, cry and laugh, even share those memes, if we don’t have that citizenship document but abide by all the other criteria of citizenship?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Whether you’re a citizen or not.

(Image credit: clipartbest.com)

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