Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘It happens to an Expat’ Category

Something I Miss:

The chemist’s shop (pharmacy) in the little town where I lived in the UK was a step back in time, and delightful and frustrating for it in equal measure.  If it had disabled access, I was unaware — all I know is that it had a narrow doorway and an awkward step that was incredibly difficult to manoeuvre with a heavy pushchair.  The hours were posted on the door: Monday – Saturday, 9-5; closed for lunch from 1-2; half-day closing on Wednesdays.

Once inside, there was an old glass-and-wood counter on the right from which you could buy magazines, cigarettes, wine and whiskey, or sweets.  To the left was a rabbit’s warren of shelving units — packed so close that the pushchair only just fit through — offering a dizzying array of almost anything a person living in a small town might want.  The carpet was trodden to a manky brown-grey by a thousand muddy boots, and jarred with the sleek and brightly lit cosmetics displays.  The place smelled musty, always, as if what it really needed was for someone to throw open the windows and let the wind blow through.

At the far end of the shop stood the chemist’s counter, with the traditional set-up of the cashier’s till at the ground level where the customers were, but the chemist (pharmacist) work up high on a raised dais.  The chemist popped down regularly to answer questions and give advice any sort of ailment that was presented — in the traditional role of a sort-of doctor’s stand-in — but then went back up to the solitude and privacy of the mezzanine to work in peace.

The cashiers knew our names — it was a small town, after all.  They saved my favourite magazines for me.  And the prescriptions — every one and every time — cost £7.20.

Something I Love:

Here in the US, the girl’s doctor asks me which pharmacy we use, as she peers squinty-eyed at her computer screen.  I tell her and she taps in the prescription.  “Are you going straight there?  They’ll have it ready in about 20 minutes.”

When we pull up, the girls are asleep, exhausted from the adrenaline kick that a visit to the doctor’s always brings, so I go round the back to the drive-thru.  The cashier doesn’t know us, but she checks our insurance card and, as promised, the prescription is ready, all packaged up in its paper bag and waiting for us to collect it.  There are two more refills, and the pharmacy will hold those on file until I ring next month to say I am ready to drive-thru and pick those up as well.

And the girls sleep on — undisturbed and unaware — and I marvel at how easy this is.

Read Full Post »

When I heard the snap, I wondered if that was the sound of my bone breaking…  though I quickly realised it might have been the sound of the chair that I fell onto, or the door it slid into, or the stair-gate that took part of my fall.  The pain in my ankle was so intense that I just couldn’t tell, and sat there on the floor instead, unable to speak and taking in great gulps of air and letting them out in silent, open-mouthed, chest-wracking sobs until M finally realised that I’d really, really hurt myself and came rushing over.

He thought it was only a sprain, but he wasn’t sure either.  He pressed gently there… and then there… and I squealed, squirmed.  Eventually, I worked up the courage to try to move my toes: pain shot fresh up the leg, but the toes moved.

“It’s probably a sprain,” he announced, and then paused… and wavered.  “But perhaps we ought to go have it scanned, just in case…”

We’ve not really used our health insurance much, he and I.  We’ve used the girls’ insurance plenty of times in the past two years so I know how it works, but we’ve hardly touched ours and I’m not totally confident about what’s covered or how.  “I… don’t know what our copay would be for a hospital visit,” I said.  I looked at my ankle, considered wiggling the toes again…  “Grab your insurance card, would you?”   It listed the copay amounts for a doctor’s or specialist’s visit but, maddeningly, not for a trip to ER.  What it did point out, right at the top of the card, that we were covered for ER trips for “life-threatening and emergency” situations but would have to pay extra costs for anything else.  And I wondered, did a broken ankle count?  If it turned out to be a sprain, would the insurance company accept that there was a chance it might not have been?   Simply put, would they pay?  I wasn’t sure.

I handed the card back to him.  “Let’s wait awhile and… well, let’s just  see how it goes.”

Time seemed to confirm our decision.  A massive goose egg appeared and, eventually, I could put a bit of weight on it…  gingerly… gingerly… and make it as far as the loo — a good sign, though it left me exhausted and shaking.    We agreed that couldn’t have been done on a break or a fracture, and both felt a bit better about the decision to stay home.

M rang my mum and arranged for her to come round tomorrow and take care of the girls.  Thank goodness for my mum.  9am?  No, 8am, please — the girls do sleep late, but one or the other  always wakes early and asks for the loo and I can’t move at all.  How about 8.30?  No, 8… please.

When he got off the phone, he came and sat next to me, took my hands in his, looked a bit sheepish.  “I’m sorry I can’t take the day off tomorrow.  You know I would…”  I know, I told him.  But we can’t afford a day without pay.  Between the economy, all this bad weather, and his operation, we are on our ninth week of below-subsistence pay — we most definitely cannot afford a day without pay, and we both know it.  And then I thanked God it was my ankle swelling up and not his.

“If we were in Britain, I’d take the day off.  You know that, right?  I’d take a couple of days off!”   He felt really bad about this, I could see.

“I know.”  My injury, his injury, pain, illness, family emergency…  there is no room for error — no matter what, his job must go on.

He pulled a tight smile, rueful, and looked away over my shoulder.  “If we were home,” he continued, “we’d have gone to hospital, had you checked out…”

“I know.”   A medical decision based on cost, a chance for early treatment lost to financial constraint — it’s how it goes.

And the moral of the story?  The lesson to take away?  It could be about the system, but that’s all been said before. Today, the lesson is a personal one: do not climb up on your daughter’s rocking-balance toy to demonstrate how she can pretend to snowboard along with the Olympians on the telly.  Because you’re staring down the barrel of 40, my dear, and when you take a mis-step getting back down… well, your body just doesn’t bounce back the way it used to!

Read Full Post »

My husband is a pretty straightforward guy.  He gets up before the birds start singing, he is on time for everything and, if you ask him a question, he’ll answer you honestly.  And, as such, he has a habit of telling the truth when people ask how he likes living in the US.  Every time, he replies that it’s ok, it’s good, but that he’s left his two older kids in the UK and that’s been hard.  Just like that.  And it’s always more than the questioner was expecting — more detail than they wanted to know, more personal than they were expecting to hear.  And more than I wanted him to tell them.  They’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, he is… he’s just him, answering the question the only way he knows how.

“Oh!” they always say, a little shocked, a little concerned, but trying to hide it.  “How old are they?”  They’re expecting to hear that his other two children are in their early 20s and so it’s all ok, really.  When the reply comes that they’re in their early-mid teens, they are shocked all over again.  “OH!”, like clockwork.  And I feel all the accusations that I believe are suddenly running through their minds: He left his children!… How could anyone do that?!?… He left them for her!… Did she make him do it?!?…
The truth is that he didn’t leave them for me, and we tried everything we could think of to stayNeither one of us wanted to leave Britain, but we were between a financial rock and a hard place and we honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it work, no matter how we reworked the numbers.  Leaving Britain — leaving them — is something we both regretted at the time, and more and more with every day we’ve been here.  And we will put it right, just as soon as we possibly can.

But the people asking a casual question of two foreigners they’ve just met… they don’t know that.  They have too much information, but not enough information…  enough to condemn, but not enough to understand.  And in that moment — the moment after they say, “Oh!” and then nothing more — everything becomes very uncomfortable, everything slows down, and we all stand — hesitant, expectant — in the silence.  And then someone, us or them, breaks it with some lighthearted comment about how it will all surely turn out alright in the end and, gosh!, such a hard economy in which to make a move like that!  We all smile, tightly instead of genuinely, and carry on…

It happened again today, at a bagel shop we go to, with a Greek lady we’d just met.  We all followed the script perfectly.  But this time, when we smiled and carried on, I broke from the usual dialogue and mentioned that we’d been thinking of having M’s son maybe come and live with us for six months (or is it three months? however long a visa will allow…).  It’s not something we’ve shared with anyone before, let alone a complete stranger, but we’ve been talking about it for a while.  It’d give the two of them the kind of day-after-day time together that they haven’t had since his son was starting primary school, and it’d give his son a wonderful opportunity to experience America in a way most Brits never do.  I was surprised to hear myself speaking the words and giving life to the idea like that but, as soon as I did, it felt good.  And the Greek lady’s face lit up.

“Yes! YES!” — she grasped at the positive spin — “It would be so good for him!  And you could get him involved with something to do with kids his own age…  He could make friends!”  We were all smiling now.

I had already mentioned my parents — it’s my standard answer to why we’ve moved here: the grandparents, the grandchildren…! And they always emailed with so many opportunities…! I don’t mention the rock or the hard place — no one really wants to know that in casual conversation.  But the Greek lady began waxing on about the good of our situation — such a rare response given M’s unnerving honesty — and now she brought up my parents.  She said, “It is good for you to be able to be near your parents for a while,” and then looked right at me.  I could see that she meant it — this wasn’t some sugar-coated babble to smooth over the uncomfortableness.  She had lived abroad for twenty years, away from her family…  she got it, how tough it is for everyone, the balance needed on both sides.

It is good to be near my parents.  For as much as I complain that they drive me nuts, it is good.  And they won’t be around forever — they’re not young anymore — and even though I know they won’t be around forever, I don’t think I’d really thought about it that way until today, in that bagel shop.  My parents are here now, lively and young  enough to enjoy having us so nearby, to know and enjoy their grandchildren.

There is no relationship with as much responsibility as that of a parent to a child: M’s relationship with his kids trumps my need to see my parents or their need to see the girls — absolutely, hands down.  We need to go back to Britain for their sake, and we never should have left in the first place.  But I have family that I’ve been away from for 15 years, and I have missed them, and now I am getting the chance to have some little time to be near them, while I still can — and there’s a certain validity to that.   Talking to this Greek lady, I think she was the first person to hear the news of M’s children, to be shocked by it, and then to still go on and take the whole situation into consideration, to acknowledge that there are two people in this partnership and that we both have been away from the people we love.  No one can ever doubt that his kids have the higher priority but… well, it felt good to be part of the equation.

Read Full Post »

That I am an American has never been in question.  I need only open my mouth and — if you are a Brit — you will recognise the fact immediately.  If you are an American… well, twenty years ago you would have known right away — these days, you might be a wee bit confused.  But I was born here and grew up here, and — though I know am fully British as well (not half-and-half, but whole-and-whole) — my Americanness is not in question.

And yet my being American is just an accident of birth.  My parents, both Brits, were here only temporarily when I was born, working in the States for a few years — so the plan went — before moving back.  My father’s sudden death turned all that on its head and I ended up growing here… ended up an American.  And yet, if we had stayed in the UK and hadn’t moved back to the US last year, that fact would have become only an anomalous blip in a long and continuous line of Britishness: my parents and grandparents and all my ancestors completely British, my children and all my decedents just as British as well.  Indeed, when we go back to the UK, that will be the case again.  Pulling back and looking at it from afar, these two quick forays into America will become mere  interludes in a long line — generations — of  otherwise unbroken Britishness.

And that feels so very strange to me, because my Americanness is such a big part — such a real part — of who I am.    It’s really quite startling to think of it as an accident, as a blip…

We are going back — that is decided.  We knew it the morning before we left.  We both agreed on it a few months after we moved here.  We have been looking forward to it, and I have waxed lyrical here on my blog about it.  We are both quite settled.  We will all be Brits once again.

Imagine my surprise then when…  well, let me explain…

I was watching one of my favourite telly programmes — this was a couple of weeks ago, M had just got home from his trip to England.  It’s a property programme, a bit of eye candy, in which two experts guide househunters to their dream home.  I always watch it with a mix of excitement, jealousy, despair, and irritation.  The houses are interesting — the voyeurism is too — but the prices are ever eye-watering.  The house we bought here in the US would cost us five times as much in the UK.  And yet, their budget is always astronomical.  Where do these people get their money?!? It intrigues me, frustrates me — I can’t help but watch.

But as I watched it the other week, the sensation was strange, less voyeur and more uncomfortable than usual.  I was thinking about going home, thinking too much.  How will we ever move back? The figures never add up — even a two-up, two-down terrace in a questionable area of town seems beyond our means, and it always depresses me.  But there was more to it today… the sensation was strange…

And then the surprise, a quiet voice in my head: I don’t want to go back.

I stopped dead at that — every thought stopped as my brain tried to comprehend what it had just heard.  It had not been expected, not even suspected.  Had I really said that…?   Why would I not want to go back…?!?  I know I want to!  I didn’t believe it… it’s not true!  And yet… and yet…  I knew right away that it is true, at least in a little.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, rolling that quiet statement around in my mind and trying to make it balance with all the other feelings I hold.  And I think I understand.  Our first year here was rough — we were fighting fires almost from the moment we arrived and we had hardly a moment to draw breath.  But, though we are still fighting a few fires even now, things have begun to slow down considerably.  There’s been a bit more time to to sit and relax, to enjoy the warm air of the summer, to go out and see a bit of the world…  to see a bit of America.

And I am beginning to remember what is wonderful about America.  We have been to fibre festivals, and driven through mountains and farmland and small towns to get there.  We have gone to lovely state parks, with deep woods and vast lakes, and sat in the sun watching the light dance across the water.  We have had dinner at grand and historic inns that sing out the vibrant history of the country.  We went to Gettysburg, and the place affected me profoundly, stopped my heart.  These past few months, I have seen the America that I had remembered, the America that I had hoped for.  These past few months, I have begun to fall in love.

But the problem is that when I say “we”, I mean my mother and I, with the girls.  The fibre festivals were daytrips during the week; the state park was a Tuesday with some old family friends;  Gettysburg was a quick break while M was in England.  My mother is so excited to have her daughter and grandchildren nearby, and she delights in taking us away like that.  M and I don’t have the money for getaways or dinner on our own — he toils away at work all week, and sees the same city neighbourhoods day after day, and then our weekends are spent at home, busy with domestic chores and conserving our pennies.  In the year-and-a-half that we’ve lived here, he’s got away for one weekend: it was a fibre festival that, yes, was set in some beautiful countryside but, to be honest, it’s quite possible he was too bored to notice it.

So we’ve been going on separate emotional journeys, he and I.  I have been discovering what there is to love — and loving it.  And he has been seeing exactly the same thing he’s seen since the day he arrived: the same dirty city from the same van, doing the same dirty jobs in the same dodgy neighbourhoods.  He is not much impressed and wants to go home;  I am being a surprised by that quiet voice in my head.

I’ve been honest with him about: told him about the voice, told him my feelings.  “We need to make sure we go on the same journey,” I said.  “When it comes time to go home, we need to have shared this, so we understand each other’s feelings.”  He agreed with a grunt.  But so far, we haven’t.  This weekend, I will take E1 to her tennis lesson while M works on the furnace.   Next weekend, he is working.  Perhaps in October…  I want so much to take him to Gettysburg…  and there’s another festival in New York, through some beautiful Pennsylvania countryside.  Oh, but the money… the money!

Money or not, I have to make this happen.  He has to get away — heaven knows he needs the break, and he needs to see America too.  But most of all, he and I must — absolutely must — go on this journey together, the same emotional journey.  Because when we do move back to the UK, and I do say goodbye to America… my America…  I will need him to understand what I am leaving.

Read Full Post »

What I didn’t tell you, in that last post, was that, as M was looking up at the ceiling and crying in the dark after leaving his kids again, he suddenly muttered, “Oh, this is ridiculous!”

I was careful. “What…  err… what is ridiculous?”

“I tear up every day.  Like this.  Every day.”

I paused, calculating what he might mean exactly.  Then asked, “Every day since…  you’ve been back?”

“No.”  He sighed, a slow heavy breath that wavered a bit under the weight of it.  “No… every day.”

I was shocked.  Quickly rolling up onto my elbow to look at his face in the moonlight, I blurted out,  “But… but I never see this!”

“It’s usually on my way to work,”  resignation heavy in his voice.

I paused on my elbow for a moment while I tried to think what to say, and then gave up and rolled back onto my back and stared up at the ceiling too, and we laid side by side in silence for a few minutes while I let this bombshell sink in.  He has welled up with tears every single day for the past 20 months. And I have had no idea.  He’s never told me.

Days later, I am still feeling the shock.  And it is so clear that this changes everything.  What I was thinking of as our decision to go back to the UK is nothing of the sort.  There is no decision, because there is no choice.  There is only what must be done.

Read Full Post »

We had both known this trip would be difficult.  We knew it the whole time, and we thought we’d prepared for it.  But, really, there is no preparation — like so many things in life, there is only the getting through it.  And now that he is home, we are going through it.

The night before he flew back to the US — and the first night of the trip that his son didn’t stay in the same house — he couldn’t sleep for panic.  His panics come to him when something in his life is terribly wrong, his mind’s inadequate way of coping with the overwhelming.  And leaving his kids again — all over again — is overwhelming.

The night after he arrived back, he didn’t sleep either.  I woke to find him staring up at the ceiling in the dark, and saw glistening lines running from the corners of his eyes down to his ears.

“Are you alright?”

“No.”  His voice wavered.

“I know.”

“It’s just…” He stopped to steady his breath and then let it all out in a rush.  “It’s so hard to leave them.”  I shut my eyes hard, instinctively trying to block out his words, because I knew… I knew, but I just didn’t want it to be so hard for him.  And  I had nothing useful to offer, so I gave him the only words that came to me…

“I know.”

We carried on talking in the dark, awkwardly and to no purpose, and eventually I faded back to sleep.  When I woke again at 5am, he was still staring at the ceiling.  I tried again to say something useful, but I suspect I managed nothing more than to mumble half-slurred, half-slumbered nonsense before succumbing to unconsciousness and leaving him alone, again, with the overwhelming.

The next day, I sat down with a cup of tea to peruse leisurely the local newspapers he’d brought back for me.  I wanted to read news of the recent agricultural show, check out the pictures of kids going back to school, and sympathise with the locals’ frustration at incoming Londoners.  But instead, I found myself skipping past all that and going straight to the back of the paper, to scan the estate agents’ ads and then the jobs pages with a sense urgency that made my stomach suddenly flip-flop.  I was hoping to find something miraculous, some wild change from the situation we’d left 18 months ago, but I found exactly what I’d known would be there: houses that were half the size at twice the price, and jobs with salaries so low that my heart just sank at the sight of them.  No miracles.  And no idea how to make those conflicting numbers add up.

Suddenly, the panic rose up inside me too — up from my guts and into my chest —  and I had to push the paper away hastily.  How am I going to make this work?  How am I going to fix this? I stared at the table, at the spot where the paper had been.  My heart raced and I ran one hand up through my hair.  He needs me and I have no idea what to do.  What am I going to do?  How am I going to fix this?!? How am I going to fix this?!? How? How…? HowamIhowamIhowamIgoingtofixthis?

We thought we had prepared for M’s trip home.  We’d talked about it, talked through it.   We’d remembered the battles he’d fought when he got back last year, and tried to learn from them.  But the truth is that all the preparation in the world is inadequate to the reality.   And… time had passed and those battlefields had fallen quiet… the casualties buried in their shallow graves, and the ground above them going to seed and turning into peaceful meadows.

We had been fooled by the wildflowers.

Read Full Post »

My husband does not often give me compliments — it’s not his way.  I can make a huge effort to get all dolled up for a night on the tiles and come downstairs looking better than he’s seen me in years, and he won’t say a word (…until I clear my throat).  I have to remind him to give me a kiss when he gets home from work.  And I know that something’s going really quite wrong in his world when he suddenly looks up and tells me he loves me.

And yet, I don’t worry — I know he loves me.  I don’t know how I know, because the outward signs come so few and far between, but I do know.  It’s an inexplicable sense of security, a feeling of stability that I’ve never known with anyone but him.

By the time you read this, he will be back here with us after spending the past fortnight in Britain — a trip we were all going to take together, but that the present economy and that voice in the back of my head told us would be better made on his own again this year.  And so I’ve been unable to lend much support as he’s gone about the bittersweet business of visiting with old friends, his mother, his brother and sister, and, most importantly, his two older children.  Speaking to him on the phone each night, he never says much — again, it’s not his way — but his silence spoke volumes.  The first week of the trip, it crackled with excitement and, as the second week has rushed away, that crackle has gone and the silence has simply grown heavy and… more silent.  He does not want to come back.

But we are here and he loves us.  And so until I (or he… or we…) can figure out a way to get back to the UK, he will come back to us here.  Because we are a pair, he and I.  And though he drives me mad, and though I wonder regularly how on earth we ever got together, I do honestly believe we will never be apart.

As I drove him to the airport a fortnight ago, I knew he was a mess of mixed emotions — nervous and excited and afraid of the upcoming reunions, all at the same time.  And almost on cue, all those swirling feelings boiled over and he erupted into one of those rare emotional outpourings — he looked at me for a long moment, and then said. “You look nice.”

It had surprised me, but I kept my gaze ahead out the windscreen, and smiled only a little.  “Thanks.”

But he didn’t look away, and I realised there was more.  I turned, smiling amusedly now, and looked at him still looking at me.  The morning sun was ahead of us and I could feel its rays falling golden — and, I thought, conveniently flatteringly — onto my face.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at my face intently, his eyes moving over my cheeks, my eyes, my forehead, assessing me as he might a prize horse.  “You look nice.  I think you’re aging well.”

I laughed out loud at that.  As compliments go, it wasn’t much.  And yet it was — it was a wonderful compliment — and honest too.  As honest as he is, as honest as the way we feel about each other.  I grinned at him, and he reached over and grabbed my hand, and gave it a squeeze.

It’s as much affection as he’d shown in days.  If I’m honest, I wish he were more affectionate — I’d like outpourings of love to flow around us like water, to be as regular and numerous as they were when I was growing up.  But that is not his way.  He is who he is, and I love him.  I cannot ask for anything more.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »