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Posts Tagged ‘Moving’

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.

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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.

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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.

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I’ve come to an uncomfortable conclusion.  It turns out that… well… I’m quite boring.  I always had some suspicions  of this but I’d had enough social success to be able to brush those concerns under a convenient nearby carpet.  But just lately, that’s not worked and I’ve got to admit what I’m quickly realising to be true: I’m just not that interesting to talk to.

The problem starts with the fact that I am naturally very introverted.  And while I’m perfectly fine with old friends and people I’ve gotten comfortable with, I become only more introverted when I am in social situations which are new or unfamiliar — and that’s pretty much what they all are after you’ve just up and moved to another country.  So, being outgoing and interesting under those circumstances was always going to be a challenge for me, but… well, I thought I could get past that.  After all, I’ve moved before.  Hell, I’ve moved countries before!

Y’know, I used to have interesting things to talk about.  I used to know what’s going on in the world, have opinions, have angles on stuff.  Now… I’m a stay-at-home mum to two kids, one with allergies that have severely shrunk our social options, and I spend most of my week cleaning messes, keeping the household running, and interacting with only two other adults — one of whom is so exhausted at the end of the day that he’s often asleep within 30 minutes of finishing dinner.

And so, when I finally break free and get the opportunity to out for a while in the company of Other People, I  suddenly find that I just don’t have that much of interest to talk about.  My daughters dominate my conversation in much the same way they dominate my life, and I find myself going on and on about them regardless of whether my listeners are likely to be interested.  And then, without realising it, I find I’ve turned the conversation to the allergies because… well, they overshadow my day-t0-day  life so much that it’s as if my mind can’t shake free from them even for a few minutes.  Is the other person interested in the difficulties of avoiding our laundry list of allergens?  Probably not at all, but still I can’t seem to stop myself, even as it begins to dawn on me that I’m boring my listeners.

And so I abruptly try to change subjects but, to my dismay, I realise the cupboard is bare.  As I stand there trying to think of something — anything — to talk about, I draw a complete blank.  I’ve nothing to offer.  Even turning the conversation toward the other person and asking questions instead — that time-honoured short cut to being a good conversationalist — can only go so far before it starts to feel a bit stalker-ish.

And then I’m done for.  I’m outta tricks.  And one of two things happens: either the conversation grinds to an uncomfortable halt and we both start looking around for someone else to slink away to or… or…  I suddenly try to save the situation by overcompensating and going back to my standard subjects (the girls, allergies) and just running wild with it, talking a mile a minute, trying to fill up the air with words and words and words.  It’s not good.

One more thing: I’ve realised I’m just out of step with the whole rhythm of social conversation over here.  The rules I follow are British (specifically rural working-class British) and they just don’t work here.  What is PC there is most certainly not PC here.  What comes quite naturally out my mouth doesn’t work at all — it’s all too risqué or too straight or too lewd or too dour.  So I fall back on humour — a last ditch, gut reaction attempt to save a dying situation — and being humour with that extra u, I find to my horror that what seems hilarious to me suddenly falls completely flat.  I go home berating myself.  Why did I say that?  Why did I open my mouth? And what happened to all the stuff I used to talk about?

And when did I become so boring?!?

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I walked out onto the front porch tonight, just for a moment, as the sun was setting.  It had been a hot and sweaty day, with the kind of direct bright sunshine that I’ve never liked, but the evening had begun to mellow all that.  And though it had threatened rain all day, it never come true on the promise, and yet the smell of  an impending storm hung in the air.

I was only dashing out for a moment to grab something that had been left outside — the children still needed to be fed and bathed and put to bed — but I found myself paused there on the porch.  It was just too seductive — so balmy, and quiet, the sunset golden pink…  I didn’t want to leave it.  It was utterly enchanting.

I have always loved English summers, with their cool freshness, their faint mildewy-ness, the warmish days and chilly evenings.  But they were all the forgotten — the last 15 years melted away — as I was transported to back to the summers I grew up with.  And I stood unmoving, frozen in place for a few moments, to drink it in.

English summers are blues and greens, gentle, and tender.  American summers are dusty golden yellow, harsh, and brash.

And beautiful, beautiful…   beautiful.

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I hit a real milestone in our repatting adventure the other day, one I wasn’t expecting at all.  Indeed, I hadn’t even given it a thought before.

Growing up in the US with an English mother, I was used to way people treated her because of her accent.  In shops, salespeople would sometimes just follow her about, ignoring other customers and hanging on every word she said — sometimes she appreciated the personal service, sometimes she disliked the intrusion.  A realtor once took her to see a $1million house, under the mistaken impression that we must be loaded just because she sounded posh to him.  And often, people would reply to her in an attempted English accent — I always noticed her slight flinch, but I never really understood it.  To me, their attempts were charming, flattering, funny, and usually, I thought, pretty good.

When I moved to the UK all those years ago, I had a perfectly American accent.  In reality, if you listened very closely, you’d be able to hear a tell-tale lilt that revealed there was something different in my background, but most people didn’t catch it.  Certainly the Brits I lived and worked with didn’t — to them, my accent was as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.

And, apparently, my accent was just too tempting as well — at least once a week, and sometimes more often, someone tried to imitate me.  I’d say something perfectly innocuous and what I’d hear back would come as a complete shock.  What were they saying?  What were they doing?  That strange sound!…  OH! It’s… it’s… it’s supposed to be me?!?  This is what they think I sound like?!?!?

And I’d smile… or wince — I was never quite sure which expression my face pulled — but no matter how I looked outwardly, on the inside I was always cringing.  They never, ever got it right.  No matter how many attempts at an American accent I endured, week after week, year after year, not one of them was anywhere near as good as the imitator thought it was, and every one was painful to hear.  Ah… at last, I understood why my mother’s face always registered that barely noticeable flinch.

But now, we are back home and I should blend smoothly back into the crowd.  Except that after years and years abroad, I don’t sound so very apple pie any more — most Americans, in fact, hear my now mixed accent and assume that I am a Brit born and bred.  It’s confusing to them — and amusing to me — when I explain that, actually, I was born just down the road.

So I should have been expecting it, but I wasn’t.  I was chatting away quite cordially with my neighbour yesterday when her voice suddenly jacked up an octave and she began speaking peculiarly, mangling her vowels and sounding a bit like the Queen being strangled.  For a moment, I didn’t get it.  And then she did it again, and I realised… she was trying to imitate me! And it was awful… awful.  That familiar feeling came over me, and I cringed inside.  But I tried very, very hard to be smiley on the outside while I quickly brought the conversation to a close.

And as I took the girls’ hands and walked back to the house I realised with a sigh that I’d reached, again, that most dubious of expat milestones.  And then I realised with surprise that I’d one-upped my mum… Oh, lucky me — I get it from both sides now!

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When I woke yesterday and sat up in bed, I had to stop for a moment and think where I was.  It just felt like England.  Something… something… I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was giving me the most intense feeling of being home…  What was it?

I got out of bed and padded downstairs, barefoot and in only my PJ top and knickers, to check that the gas stove hadn’t been left on — the smell of a gas cooker always takes me straight back to my grandmother’s house in Yorkshire — but, no, the knobs were all set firmly to “OFF”.

Perhaps it was a new soap?  Something M had opened that morning that smelt as quintessentially British as English Leather…?  I checked, but no new soap.

And then I suddenly sussed it.  Our house in Britain didn’t have central heat, just the two gas fires downstairs, meaning it was entirely unheated whenever we went out and each night while we slept.  This prospect had struck fear in my heart when I first moved into the house, but when I demanded the landlord put in gas radiators, he refused and suggested instead that I “try it for one winter” and see how I got on.  With no bargaining chip to call on, I gulped hard and gave it a go — and found that, except for a few bone-chilling weeks in February when I was forced to spend the night on the couch in front of the fire — it was surprisingly bearable.  The fires were actually quite amazing in the way they could heat the house from cold-soaked to toasty in a matter of minutes, and I came to love the way they gave the house a warm focal point — albeit dressed in some serious 1950’s ugliness.

But though the heat would radiate quickly from the living and dining rooms into the kitchen and then up the stairs to the bathroom and back bedroom, it never really managed to travel all the way into the front bedroom — my room.  All year round, that room stayed cool at best and downright freezing in winter.  It helped enormously when I married a man who himself puts out 20,000 BTUs/hour, and I could sleep so much more comfortably smooshed up against him.  But even he was no match for the dead of winter, when the wind howled through the cracks in the old sash window frames and blew the curtains about, and ice would form on the glass.  Those nights, we’d strip off as fast as we possibly could, breathing heavily — visibly — as the cold shocked our naked bodies like a hard slap, and then we’d pull on PJs, cardigans, bedsocks, and — yes — nightcaps with blinding speed before diving under two duvets and tensing ourselves against the icy-cold sheets until they finally, slowly, began to warm around us.  Those nights, we fell asleep watching frosty white columns rise up with each breath, and trying to keep our noses covered with the duvet.  Those were the nights when I wondered why I ever bloody agreed to “just give it a go”.

But most of the year was not like that.  Most of the year, the bedroom was just slightly chilly — a little unpleasant, but not unbearable.  And it was hardly worth noticing — it lasted only a few moments, only as long as it took to get from the safe haven of the duvet to the back of the door and to grab a dressing gown, and then hop downstairs and turn on that lovely fire.  Tick tick tick whoosh. Arms outstretched, goosebumps receding, fingers and toes warm in no time.

The day before yesterday had been beautifully sunny and warm, and I had opened every window in the house to enjoy the fresh spring air.  When the furnace misunderstood my intentions and burst into life, I had turned the thermostat as low as it would go — and then forgot to reset it when we closed the windows and went to bed.  The house had cooled all night, until it finally settled to a more… a more natural temperature.  And so, as I stood there in the hallway outside the bathroom yesterday morning, and looked down at my goosebump-covered legs, I realised why this particular morning felt so strangely familiar.

I’d woken up chilly.  And it felt oddly nice.  Don’t get me wrong, I love having central heat and I wouldn’t want to go back to freezing nights without it.  But for that moment, waking up to that fresh chill… it just felt like home to me.

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