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Archive for December, 2007

It’s 11.30 on New Year’s Eve, and I am sitting at the computer in a panic, while other people party on telly behind me (currently, it’s Lulu yelling huskily and shaking her backside — saints preserve me!). M has gone down to the pub with promises to be home before midnight, and the girls are fast asleep. It feels like any other night of the year — I actually forgot completely that it was New Year’s Eve, until a friend emailed to ask if I had special plans and I wondered what she was on about… I don’t mind at all M going out without me — in fact, I encourage it, I think it’s good for him — but I do mind that being a mama-with-no-babysitter has turned me into such a homebody that I actually forgot what tonight is. I used to go to the pub too — all tarted up, little skirt, heels, face done, nice glass of smooth warming whisky, neat. Not so long ago, but such a long way away.

I am panicking because I can’t seem to find any insurance company who will give us short-term health cover while we wait for M’s company policy to kick in. Every company I speak to has a “residency requirement” before they will cover us — we have to have lived in the US for 6-24 months, depending on the company. I rang one broker and, upon finding that that not one policy from any of their companies could cover us, the bloke ended our conversation by saying, “Ring us back when you’ve been here for six months!” as if this delay was nothing at all.  Then he added, “And have a nice day!”

I am kicking myself because I thought I had this sorted — I spoke to an insurance broker in November who found a good policy which looked just right for us, and she assured me that there was no rush because they could cover us within 24 hours of our applying — and so I have left it until now to finalise. I rang her today and, as we went through the application details… lo! She discovered we have to have lived in the US for two years in order to be eligible. Poof! There goes the insurance I thought I’d sorted out. So, I’ve been ringing companies all evening and trying to get a hold of brokers. The brokers are shut and the companies all say they can’t help because we’re not living there, and the panic has been rising from the pit of my stomach.

The way these companies react when I explain that we are moving from abroad, you’d think we were trying to do something really suspect and weird. It’s so disheartening. Surely they have heard that there are people living in other countries? They have heard of the rest of the world, haven’t they? Well, we are just four of those people, and we are moving to the US, and we’d like to buy some short-term health cover. We only need 41 days’ cover before the company policy kicks in, and here’s our money… No? No?

I am uncomfortable with the option of gambling with no insurance for me and DH, but I am absolutely unwilling to gamble with my daughters’ health (particularly when you consider that we’ll be learning to drive on the the other side of the road in the freezing conditions of February). Y’know, even the state CHIP program requires the children to have been resident and uninsured for 6 months. That actually makes me feel sick. But I’ve rung so many people tonight and looked at so many websites and all I’m hitting is brick walls.

M will be home very soon, so I will stop thinking about this and try to stop panicking.  We will drink warm ale and ring in the new year, here in the house, with the telly and my comfortable shoes. Here’s to 2008. Here’s to solutions. And then, when this is sorted, here’s to new adventures, new possibilities, and lots and lots of calm courage.

I wish you all the best for the New Year.

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I sat on the couch today with tears in my eyes. I have been reading Homeward Bound : A Spouse’s Guide to Repatriation by Robin Pascoe and, while it’s a good read and quite helpful, sometimes I hate it because it deals with issues I don’t want to think about and then the reality of it all washes over me and I start to cry.

So, there I was, feeding the baby, the book slumped against my leg, and hot tears brimming in my eyes when M walked in. He asked me what it was — as if he had to ask. I told him I didn’t want to go, and he nodded and said, “So what shall we do?”

“What can we do?” I replied, with resignation. “It’s just… it’s just that I don’t want to go home like this. I don’t want to go home in failure. I never wanted to go home unless it was on my own terms.”

When I split with my ex-husband — a lifetime ago — it seemed likely that I would have to go home then, but I fought tooth and nail to make it possible to stay. I sold every unnecessary item and emptied every possible piggy bank in order to fund myself until I could get back on my feet. At one point I think I was probably £10 away from being penniless, but I did it — I managed to stay, and I got back on my feet. I wasn’t going to go home in failure.

And now, here I am in the same situation: going home because I have to, not because I want to. There aren’t enough piggy banks to save me this time. I make myself feel better about it by telling myself that I am choosing to do it for the sake of our daughters, so they don’t have to go into daycare 40 hours a week in order for me to make enough money for us to stand still. It does help to think of it that way — I get some comfort from the knowledge that this move serves a noble purpose — but I still feel, down deep in my gut, that I am coming home in failure. This noble purpose could have been served in the UK if only I’d done better. If only I’d succeeded. Hence, the tears.

M knelt down next to me. And then my very grumpy, very English, very glass-half-empty husband said, “It’s not failure. Staying here and sinking would be failure. We’re not going to do that and we’re not going to fail. We’re just taking the next step on our journey.”

I was so shocked, you could have knocked me over just by blowing on me. My mind sat there stunned, but my heart heard his words and rose back up out of the pit of my stomach.

He never says things like that. God blessed me today.

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We’ve spent most of the past few days packing — an emotionally draining way to spend the holidays. Actually, we’ve mostly been throwing out. I joked to M that by the time we’ve thrown out all the collected junk that fills every available space around here, we’ll discover that this house is big enough for us after all and we can stay!

It’s been a bittersweet job — I have come across photos and letters that span my years here in England, and it has overwhelmed me with nostalgia. I don’t want to look at them — just want them to stay tucked up in their cupboards, preserved and safe — but I have to look through them in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. And so I must endure this walk though the memories of my years here, sweet and painful.

I find it overpowering. I am exhausted after only a short while, and there is so much left to do, so much to pack, so much to throw away. I want to stop. I want to make myself a nice hot cup of tea, sit down on the couch, and pretend this move never has to happen. But I can’t do that — must plough on. And, I find, the only way to do that is to think positive and keep my eyes focused on the things to look forward to in the States…

Electricity outlets in bathrooms They’re illegal here because the electrical current is so much stronger. And, while I understand the safety principles involved are quite sensible, it does drive me nuts not to be able to dry my hair in the bathroom. More than that, it is a big problem in this house because there is no heat in the bathroom at all, and stripping off to crouch in a cold cast-iron bathtub for a semi-shower in a freezing cold bathroom — literally freezing cold — with badly fitting 100-year-old sash windows at 6am in January is a truly miserable experience. If this weren’t a public blog on the world-wide web, I might suggest that I’ve run an extension cord into the bathroom in order to power an electric fire but, as that would clearly be illegal, I won’t even entertain such an idea!

Doors Hung the Right Way Doors in the UK tend to open into the room, instead of toward the wall. I have no earthly idea why and it is annoying in the extreme. It effectively reduces the usable space in any given room by at least six square feet, because you have to allow enough space to walk around the door in order to enter the room. And given that the rooms in the UK are generally pretty small to begin with, this is no small inconvenience. Such a minor detail… yet, such a big deal.

Window Screens They don’t have them because they generally don’t need them. There are very few biting bugs in England. You can sit with the doors and windows wide open all summer and not get a single mosquito bite. But you do get flies. And depending where your neighbour has positioned his rubbish bins or how smelly the cat’s food is, you may get a lot of flies. So while I do love having the breeze flow freely from one wide open window to another, sometimes it would be nice to have the option — just simply the option — of window screens.

Mixer Taps In most British bathrooms, the hot water comes scalding out of a tap on the left side of the sink and the cold water comes freezing from a different tap on the right. If you want warm water, you have to either fill the sink up with a bit of both, or cup your hands under the cold and then transfer it over to the hot to get a mix of the two. Amazing as it may seem, mixer taps — although hardly cutting edge technology — are as rare as hens’ teeth over here. And here’s what’s more amazing: most Brits seem to prefer it this way! Well, here’s where my much-sung Britishness comes to a screeching halt — I like mixer taps. I look forward to the simple joys of warm water.

Raccoons, Opossums, Chipmunks, Fireflies, the Sound of Crickets, and the Distant Smell of Skunk None of these is particularly important — and I could certainly understand if you raised your eyebrows a bit in disbelief when you read the last one — but they take on an importance when they aren’t there anymore. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed chipmunks much, or possums, or raccoons… but they don’t exist here, and I kind of miss them. And beautiful summer evenings are just a little incomplete without a gentle chrrr-chrrr of a chorus of crickets and a twinkling display of fireflies. As for the smell of skunk… I don’t really know how to explain this, but I’ve missed it — that slightly repulsive yet strangely attractive scent drifting on the wind from the far distance while I’m out on a summer’s drive. M has no concept of that smell at all, and that is amazing to me.

Mailboxes I am looking forward to having my mail deposited into a metal box at the end of the driveway. I am looking forward to having to put on shoes, get my keys, and trudge out in the rain, snow, cold, and/or scorching heat to collect it. Here in the UK, the postman puts your post through a flap cut into your front door — the letterbox — and it falls neatly onto the doormat in your front hall. It’s a lovely little luxury to have your post delivered right into your house without ever having to set foot outside but… I have always found it unsettling to have a hole right there in my front door. Anyone can — and sometimes they do — bend down, push it open, and peer in. I have walked past my front door in my dressing gown to see a hand protruding from the gap and a pair of eyes suddenly locking onto mine — it was my neighbour telling me that the doorbell didn’t appear to be working, but it stopped my heart nonetheless. And once, when I was living in Norfolk, some of the rougher inhabitants enacted their midnight revenge on someone by pouring petrol through the letterbox and then following it with a lit match. The day-to-day practicalities of the letterbox are lovely, but I’d just prefer for my house not to have a hole in it that anyone can open and shove through anything they like. I will curse myself for saying this on some cold, rainy morning, but I do like mailboxes.

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I learned something about myself in the past few days: I finally understand one of the driving forces that has shaped my entire life. After years of not knowing, I realise what brought me to Britain, and why it has been so important to me to be here, and why I am finding it so very painful to leave.

It started when M said with surprise, “My daughters are going to be… American.” It’s quite a strange concept for a father to get his head around: that his own children, born of his own flesh, will grow up with an identity that is foreign to his. This started us on a conversation about what it is that makes a person British or American, or any nationality really. Is it where they were born? Is it the culture they were brought up in? Is it the country stamped on their passport? What will our daughters be? What am I?

I have struggled with my identity, in terms of nationality, all my life. I was born in the United States to two British parents and was raised in a close expat community for the first 6 years (or so) of my life. When I was very young, the idea was that we would live in the US for a few years and then return to the UK, and so our identity was clear: we were all British, and the United Kingdom was home. The fact that I was a dual-national by accident of birth didn’t alter that I was, like my parents, a Brit who would soon return home. Then my father died suddenly, just after my first birthday, which threw all the plans into chaos. My mother stayed in the US during the aftermath of his death — perhaps we would return home later, but a move like that would have been too much when she was so newly bereaved — and she still thought of herself and her daughter as completely British.

But everything changed a few years later when she fell in love with an American — my second dad. They had a whirlwind romance and were married within months (and, I am happy to report, are still madly in love three decades on). Overnight, the plan changed: we weren’t moving back to the UK. We were staying in the US, and my mother was going to become an American citizen. Britain wasn’t the “home” we were returning to anymore — America was home now.

The concept of home is an important one to a child. The need to belong runs deep — it is rooted in the survival mechanisms that are instinctive in small children. I think my mother was probably able to process this change of plan well — it was her choice and it was driven by love — but it was much, much harder for me. I knew I was British — I’d been told so all my life, my grandparents and cousins were British, we went back every summer.  It was simply what was. I was British — except now I… wasn’t.

And what’s more, lots of people were telling me I wasn’t British. I can remember people telling me, in an incredibly patronising way, “Yes, yes, but… you’re American really.” Sometimes (and, sadly not that uncommonly) people had an almost hostile reaction, as if the idea that someone who had two nationalities wouldn’t automatically cherish their American nationality above the other was offensive, or unpatriotic or ungrateful. I remember once being told I was being pretentious, and going home and asking my mother what “pretentious” meant, and wasn’t I really British? But my mother was also one of those people who was now telling me that I was “American really“, though for all the right reasons and entirely out of love — she was hoping to help me adjust to changes in our lives, and did it by trying to rewrite my identity for me.

I think that as soon as Britain ceased to be home, it took on a certain mystique in my mind. The more that people tried to push me into changing my identity, the more I felt I needed to hold onto it. After time, of course, it ceased to be on my mind so much but, looking back now, I can see it never left my subconscious, and that it solidified into a longing in a way that it never did for my other dual-national friends. As time went on, I got more used to the changes that had happened in my life — I grew up as an typical American kid and I was happy in that — but I always held dearly onto my dual-nationality. I knew I wasn’t one or the other, British or American. I wasn’t even half-and-half — I was completely both, a 2-for-1 bargain. And in my heart, I continued to hold a deep-seated need to validate that by returning to Britain.

And that need ended up shaping the course of my whole adult life: as soon as I graduated from university — as soon as my life was under my control — I went. I shed my life in the States — my possessions, my contacts, my career prospects — and moved to the UK. I took a job that was far, far beneath my skill level and which had no prospects, but enabled me to be where I wanted to be. I was finally able to feed that need which had been growling hungrily inside me all my life. I was able, at last, after two decades, to validate the identity that was once mine and which was taken from me very abruptly.

I have often wondered what it was that made me come to Britain — I’ve thought about it a lot, my mother and I discussed it many times, M and I have talked it over… and I simply never had an answer. It’s only been this past week that it has finally come clear to me. And it’s made me understand a little better why I am so troubled about moving back to the US: there is a part of me — a large part, a deep part — which worries that I am going to lose this hard-won identity all over again. That by going back, I will become “American really” again, pretentious to think of myself as British as well. There is a part of me that knows that, although we think of ourselves as a British family with strong American connection, overnight we will become, in the eyes of everyone around us, an American family with one British member. Having gone to such lengths to validate the identity I always thought I had, I am loathe to go through a process that will strip it away from me again.

I’ve talked this over with quite a few people. Some of them think I am silly to be so worried, and maybe I am. I am looking at it as I remember from my childhood, but I am not 5 anymore and the experience I will have this time as an adult will be very different from the experiences I had as a child. And I know that what matters is the identity I hold for myself, not what others want to assign to me. It’s about the way my husband and I see ourselves, the atmosphere we create in our home, the dual-national identities we foster in our daughters.

But that’s easier said than done. This move is big and frightening — it is leaving everything that has been familiar about my life for the last 15 years. It makes me feel scared and small… small like a child. I have loved living here — I have been very settled — and a lot of that has been because it has fulfilled a need I have carried all my life.

And now I am going to stop feeding that need, and I just don’t know how that is going to feel.

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Every night, I think, tonight might be the night!  And every night, I am disappointed.

The baby wakes me up every three hours to feed — sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes it’s four, sometimes it’s one.  It’s been nearly a year and she is still calling for me again and again, every night.  I can count the number of times I’ve had more than four hours’ sleep together on two hands.  I can count the number of times I’ve slept more than six hours together on one hand.

I am tired all the time.  I am strung out; I ache; I have trouble concentrating; I don’t handle change or complexity nearly as well as I used to.  I looked at myself in the mirror tonight: I look older — older than I should in a year.  I look tired.

I am tired.

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The other side of looking forward to things in the States is realising how much I will miss about Britain. I find myself missing places I haven’t even left yet and pining for things that are still all around me. I feel it’s only right to face head-on this sadder side of my feelings about our move, so I will list them out…

Castles, Historic houses, Neolithic ruins, and Roman ruins — we’re surrounded by them, and even though we’ve had to pull in our belts and let the memberships to EH and NT lapse, and even though I never have the energy to drag both girls and the pushchair out to see castles and Roman villas, I do like seeing them, driving past them… even just knowing they are there. A glimpse of a stone-age fort on the top of a ridge as I am driving to a routine doctor’s appointment — that’s magical!

Walking into town — it’s not the biggest town and it’s not the best, but it’s got what I need and it’s a 5 minute walk. I love being able to just step out of my front door and walk somewhere. (The good news is that the house we are initially moving into in the States is in a very walkable area as well. Walkscore gives it a rating of 51 out of 100!).

Shopping in Bath and Salisbury — they are our nearest proper shopping towns, and what wonderful places they are! It is an utter delight to do your shopping in places of such history, significance, and beauty. It turns a normal Saturday shopping trip into a multidimensional experience. And no matter how many times I go, or how mundane an object I am shopping for, the loveliness of Bath and Salisbury never ceases to amaze me.

The ability to pop over to the Continent easily and quickly any time we like. A weekend in Paris by Eurostar; a quick trip to Italy; a week in Spain for as little as £200 each; popping over to Germany for the Christmas Markets. (Except… to be fair, when was the last time we were able to get away? Our last trip to the Continent was our honeymoon to Rome four years ago, and before that… I think it was Paris seven years ago. It’s a lovely thought, being so close, but it doesn’t make any real difference if you’re always to skint actually able to go.).

Reading local books — a lot of great literature has been set right here where I live. Thomas Hardy set his novels all around this area: scenes in several of his novels took place in the very town I live in, and he raised one of his most famous characters in the village we were married in. Jane Austen described Bath in great detail as the backdrop for Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. And Sarum is all about the landscape surrounding Salisbury. It’s been a real joy to be able to read these novels whilst living in their very settings. My only regret is that I haven’t read them all, and when I do someday get to the ones I’ve missed, I will have to conjure these settings from memory, instead of being able to explore them in person as I do now.

Church Bells — British churches have real bells, rung by real people every Sunday, at every wedding, and usually one evening a week as well, for practice (in our case, Monday nights). There is nothing so magical as the sound of real, ancient, booming church bells. I love to open the windows and just let the sound roll through the house.

The Country Pub — there is nothing in the US like it, and probably not anywhere in the world either. It’s laid back, it’s slow, it’s local, it’s been in business — on that spot with that name — for hundreds and hundreds of years. It welcomes dogs. It’s filled with happy, slightly squishy drunks. Its beer is warm and tasty. Its chairs are weary. Its publican is welcoming, but can hold his own when he needs to. It is home from home.

Green — the country is green. Greener than you realise if you’ve never been. Green in winter, and greener in summer. When you live here, you forget. And then you return, and you suddenly realise. It’s a beautiful, lush, rolling greenness that stretches out in front on you, as far as the eye can see.

English Robins — which are completely unlike American robins, and follow you around the garden, singing their ever-changing song and waiting for you to dig them up some worms.

Dorset Blue Vinney — heaven, especially in a salad or with a sharp pear chutney.

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My daughter’s two favourite activities are 1) breastfeeding and 2) changing nappies. That is, she breastfeeds her bears and she changes her bears’ nappies. She does both with remarkable realism.

For the former, she puts the Boppy cushion on her lap (“Boppy cushion, Bear!”), arranges a blanket under his head (“Blan-kenet, Bear!”) and, pressing Bear to her t-shirt, she then looks off into the middle distance and adopts that slightly bored, pensive look so common to breastfeeding mothers.

For the latter, she goes through every step with incredible care: “Legs up, Bear!… Wipe… Wipe… Nappy in the bin! New nappy… Legs down, Bear!” Sometimes she includes a “Shjuuuuu…” — this is the hair dryer on Bear’s bum which, we’ve discovered, is a wonderful fix for nappy rash. Every step is a mirror image of what I do, executed to perfection.

Of course, she does a whole range of other little-girl activities — dancing, running, cleaning, playing with her blocks, and reading books — but she comes back to these two time and time again. Children imitate most what they observe most. She is holding a mirror up to me — and showing me a surprising, sobering, familiar reflection of my own life.

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