Monthly Archives: May 2014

Home truths the Morrissey way

The other night I went to see Morrissey and the ticket only cost $38. I repeat, I went to see MORRISSEY and THE TICKET ONLY COST $38! My friend S from home sent me a message: “I believe you went to worship at the temple of Morrissey at the weekend. Very jealous… got to be worth a trailing spouse blog!”  My friend S from Louisiana and my neighbour S from DC both said, separately: “Who’s Morrissey?” (that temporarily deflated my excited retelling of the experience).

If you’re round about my age (48) and a Brit it’s inconceivable that you won’t know who he is.  Many, many more people than just those who share my demography will also know. But for the benefit of those of you who don’t, like my two pals, the American S’s, he was the lead singer of the seminal Manchester band of my youth, The Smiths. Arguably no band, or singer, since has quite matched the dark creamy depths conjured by the always lurching combination of bleak, painful, poignant, but oh-so-funny lyrics, the sweeping melodies and his honeyed Northern voice.  I don’t for one minute want to get into a best-band-ever argument or a then-versus-now debate. Apart from anything else, I’d lose, I’m just so not a musico, I don’t claim a wide knowledge or even massive interest; I never know who’s who from my sons’ repertoire of, admittedly often rather good, playlists [though as an irrelevant but amusing aside, I wouldn’t defend H (my daughter)’s dodgy music taste, which can be illustrated by F (middle son)’s recent comment to her: “listening to that stuff coming out of your iPod this morning just made me feel sorry for you”]; basically I like what I like. But, of course, The Smiths did provide the score to my late teens and early 20s, always a massive factor, don’t you think, in what resonates? Suffice to say, then, that there are lots of people who would concur in my opinion of them and him.

So, back to the recent night out. He is and always was a massive vegetarian (here, massive = fundamentalist). The Smiths album, Meat is Murder, aside from being marvellous musically, is quite simply enough to turn a meat eater off the flesh. It did me, for two years anyway (“how can I possibly be a Smiths fan and eat meat?” went my less than ethical thinking). Even now, all these years on, if I were to conjure up Morrissey and, say, a rump steak, together in one thought, I would feel a bit ashamed, a sham fan. He would absolutely not give me the time of day were we to bump into each other [ffs, listen to me!] and I told him the truth about my carnivorous habits. Obviously if and when our paths ever cross socially [can’t help imagining it, sorry!] I will lie.  His animal protectionism (Morrissey’s own terminology) is accompanied by an arsey-ness  that has led over the years to all sorts of public spats and cancelled gigs and controversial outbursts. This latest tour is mainly in small-town theatres which I think is because he won’t play anywhere that sells meat. I’m guessing the Toyota Centre in Houston told him to eff off, if it wanted to sell hot dogs on the night it would. Hence we Houstonians had to travel all the way to Beaumont, an hour and 40 minutes east and nearly in Louisiana, for the closest venue.

And travel we did, along with maybe 90% of the whole audience, from Houston. Beaumont, TX, doesn’t look or feel like the sort of place that would be able to fill more than 10% of a theatre, even the cosy smallish one we were at. You skirt alongside Beaumont when you drive to New Orleans, on the vast strip of concrete that is the I-10, the interstate freeway that can take you from Florida to California and back if you want. Beaumont slides by unnoticed behind the ubiquitous Chilis, Waffle Houses, Dennys and the rest, after you’ve just passed the miles of clanging metal and chimney stacks and pipelines and detergent smell that constitutes the refineries of Baytown. I’d put the price of a Morrissey ticket (and more, considering how cheap it was) on no-one I know ever having had cause or want to stop and take a look round there.

We – me and my fellow fans, the Scottish C and J – had, in our enthusiasm for the whole enticing caper, decided to make something of, if not a day then a late afternoon and evening of it, and head to Beaumont early to have a pre-show dinner. Which we wouldn’t have done if we’d ever been there before. Which, like everyone else in Houston, we hadn’t. So after some exploration on foot of the closed and deserted “downtown”, we headed back west along the I-10 to the ubiquitous Chilis etc, and settled for Carrabba’s.  It was heaving, clearly the place to be in Beaumont (or rather, nearly in Beaumont) on a Sunday night. There were definitely date nights going on, and family dinners, but also, we suspected, at least half the up and coming Morrissey audience from H-town. When we mentioned to the waiter why we were there, he quipped quick as a flash, “yes, I know, isn’t it funny that Beaumont is actually a place that people are coming to!”.

And that was not to be the only funny (in the same sense as Beaumont being a destination, funny odd, not funny ha ha) interlude of the trip. Morrissey, in his apparent current incarnation as this charming man passed his mic out to the audience and first up was someone from Derby. That’s Derby, small-town England, not Derby small-town Kansas, America. The same Derby, indeed, which also happens to be about eight miles from my home. Someone else from over there, standing right here with me, in Beaumont, Texas, of all the goddamn places!

Well Morrissey was brilliant, our mini road trip there and back so worth it, cheap tickets and all other things considered (and especially since Scottish J did all the driving with his foot down hard on the gas). And that’s it, the end of my little tale. I wanted to write this mainly to spread the Morrissey gospel to Morrissey virgins, but haven’t we all learnt some other lessons along the way? Like: the English and the Scots get on famously (so come on guys, in September don’t abandon us to a Tory England for ever more please); and, a small town is a small town is a small town and even small-town Texas can sometimes seem not so far from home, especially when Morrissey’s in it and singing Every Day Is Like Sunday (which he did). Home truths indeed.


RIP The Mighty Jagrafess

RIP MJAmongst those of us who trailed behind Mr N to Houston, our pet tortoise was not. Lots of my friends here have their dogs and cats along for the ride. Clearly they bring familiarity and continuity to dislocated lives, a sense of home really, which without them can take longer to build. Our only remaining family pet at the point of mobilisation, however, was a tortoise and we didn’t seriously consider bringing her with us. But now she’s dead and I feel sad that we haven’t seen her for two years and won’t, now, ever again. There we all were assuming she’d outlive us, or me and Mr N at the very least. So I feel the need to mark her life and her passing to assuage my (slight) guilt over leaving her behind.

She was MJ to us, though her full name was actually The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe. (It’s a monster from Doctor Who all you time travelling tardis ignorami. And obviously not named by anyone over the age of 10.)  We’d had her for six years by the time we left, and she was really just part of the furniture. We soon abandoned the vivarium that we’d been persuaded to buy to keep her in because she dug desperately and continually at the glass sliding door, tantalised by the world outside that she was caged from. So from an early age she was always out and about round the house and garden. Mainly, when indoors, she liked to find a corner and stay there (one of the reasons, to be frank, why it seemed such a bother to lug her all the way over the Atlantic).  She didn’t answer to her name, or come when she was called, and she didn’t even really get tempted by food, she’d get round to eating it just whenever she damn well pleased, and sometimes that was not for days. But we were all kind to her, talked to her, and stroked her now and again (sometimes she seemed to like this, other times if her snoozing was disturbed she would hiss, which is the only sound she ever made) and the kids used to give her a little swim in the washing up bowl now and again which we imagined she enjoyed but it was quite difficult to tell. And if she was in one of her sociable moods, she would eat dandelion leaves or tomatoes out of your hands. On occasion we had to clip her nails (always Mr N’s job).  When it was warm she liked to find a sunny spot and stick her neck right out to absorb the heat, which was cute.

Despite the lack of a noticeable two-way relationship that is, more usually, a large part of being a pet owner except when you’ve got fish, she was definitely majestic. I don’t know whether it was the almost prehistoric nature of her reptilian features: baggy and wrinkled skin, beak-like mouth, long tongue, deep dark eyes, and that shell, so cumbersome and, well, not a great design ergonomically if you think about it (until we made a ramp, she’d sometimes fall out of the back door where there was the smallest of steps and just have to lie on her back vulnerably until one of us noticed), but magnificently patterned and fluted around the edges. Possibly it was also to do with her gait, not quite so slow as you’d imagine, and though a bit clunky, measured at the same time. She might not have had much between her ears in reality, but her manner and ancient mould made her seem determined and proud and haughty.

I’m pleased to say that she did have some true excitement in her life. In the summer she lived outside during the day. At first we’d put her in the front garden, in the guinea pig run, with the final guinea pig while it was still alive (which with hindsight – read on – was not necessarily the safest thing to do, gps being rodents too, but luckily he took no notice of her at all nor she of him), and then on her own after his death. But, squeeze-into-a-corner-just-as-far-in-as-you-can-possibly-get-even-when-you’ve-got-an-inflexible-and-solid-shell as she was, she squoze herself out of the run which was a crappy lightweight balsa wood framed thing (handiwork: Mr N) that, it turned out, she could heave up. (Mighty indeed!) We came home one day to an empty run and no sign of MJ. We gingerly looked under the car, scared we’d crushed her without seeing her on the drive. No sign. We hardly dared but did look on the road leading from our drive. No broken shell, no bloody mess, nothing. She was missing for four days, by which time we were convinced she was dead, flattened and smashed under wheels somewhere nearby. Then a neighbour found her in his garden, happily scoffing his herbs!  It wasn’t evident how she’d got out from the run (it wasn’t overturned) so she escaped again before we worked it out. The second time she made it to a different neighbour’s house (still managing to walk along quite a stretch of road), where two enormous Great Danes also lived, and she was fed dog food (her first and last taste of it) before being returned to us. She might even have had a third adventure during her life with us, when she spent some time in my Mum’s garden while we were on holiday and apparently made it all the way from her back garden to the front of the house and up the shared driveway nearly to a much busier road than ours, but as my Mum was already a bit demented by then and this would have required her to climb up a huge step way bigger than she was I never quite believed that particular episode truly happened.

So, now, sadly, on to her demise. She’s been living with A and R these last two years, in much the same lifestyle to which she had already become accustomed, although with an altogether tastier and more diversely stimulating range of flowers, herbs, vegetables and other plants to explore in their garden.  And, for a tortoise who likes dark corners, absolutely the bees’ knees in decking to get under and angled into.  So that’s been her favoured slumber spot ever since she moved in with them. And that’s where the rat attacked her! A of course doesn’t exactly know when it happened, she just saw the deep gash on her leg when she emerged. She cleaned her up and bandaged her as best she could, then a bit of internet research confirmed that rat attacks are, in fact, quite common  apparently. (Who knew? Not A and R, and not us.) Same research also confirmed the seriousness of the wound and presented a detailed case study on one tortoise who had to have its leg amputated and a false one made of resin attached. What did we want to do, how far to go with treatment? Now, my regular readers will know that I’ve gone very far in the past for a five quid guinea pig that would’ve only lived another two years at most anyway.  But amputation?  Prosthetics? I told A to get the vet’s view and that we’d take it from there, but suggested she might want to raise the delicate option of death by injection if the vet didn’t, which in my experience they don’t, not even for a guinea pig worth less than a fiver.  A, who said she never would’ve thought she could get so fond of a reptile, was actually prepared to consider the false limb route, but there turned out to be a second wound which complicated things. Down, then, she was put.

Of course I don’t really regret not flying MJ to Houston with us. Apart from it being plain ludicrous, I’m not sure she would’ve survived the journey or even whether you can bring tortoises into the US. Anyway, we’ve got rats too. And this is Texas so they’re no doubt bigger. She had a good life with us, as far as we could tell, and possibly a better life at A and R’s (so thank you A for adopting her and seeing her through to the end). I think probably A is gonna miss her more than we will at two years’ distance, but now that she’s gone and I think of our Derbyshire home without her, I can see that in her funny old way she might have made this Houston one a home from home for us immediately we arrived had she come too. Ah well. RIP, then, The Mighty Jagrafess.

Don’t judge me!

Relatively speaking, I’m a newcomer to this expat life that I’m about to depart. What with that and being British, I’m not hugely looking forward to the prospect of selling the stuff we’ve accumulated that we’re not taking home. I feel quite awkward about assuming anyone might want the things that we don’t. And I find it very difficult to decide on a selling price. Is half price too much of a bargain or inappropriately high? What if it’s nearly new or never used – does that warrant an above half price tag? Does that make me look grasping? What if none of it gets sold, what will that say, quite publicly too, about our taste? Oh blimey, it’s like an objectified profile page and people will judge us. (Since I judge other people by what they sell, I know this to be true.) I find myself wondering whether I should justify our original purchases in my sales blurb (“had to get something cheap but cheerful in a rush”; “never really liked it much but it served its purpose”; “the kids made me buy it”).  And if the item doesn’t sell, how low should you go and how soon, without appearing desperate? We don’t mind being left with some stuff that can be given away, but there are one or two things – the piano for example – that I really don’t want to be leaving out on the driveway for the bin men on our final morning.

Now, some of you’ll know what’s to follow in this wee diversion… You do get some choice stuff kerbside round these parts of a Monday! I suspect it’s a combination of living in a wealthy area and the fact that this is America: seasonal home decor changes and a certain disregard for recycling means that what gets chucked can be top quality. On our start-the-week run a couple of months ago we passed a stack of two outdoor chairs, metal-framed, woven seats and backs, good and solid (oh, and heavy). “Ooh”, I mused aloud, “could do with some nicer chairs, maybe I’ll come back for a closer look …”, but M said, “It’s now or never, the garbage truck will be round before we’ve finished.” By which time J had already grabbed one side, so I grabbed the other and M took a photo for Facey-b (captioned ‘the things you find while out running’) as we staggered off under the weight, trying to maintain a pace, taking turns to carry. Still, it was worth it, they were (are!) indeed much nicer than my plastic ones. (The plastic ones were also free, from L with purchase of glass-topped table on her exit from Houston last Christmas, so I’m not complaining about them, L, honestly! And the new[ish] pair so go with the table, it’s uncanny!) The only shame of it was there weren’t four of them. Our earlier experience of, shall we call it trash scavenging?, was not so successful, mind you. Same J involved, saw a kid’s bike, “ideal” for her boy, looked in good nick, no flat tyres, not rusty, so we ran with it, J stooped low cumbersomely (not a word? should be), as the bin lorry appeared round the corner, just in time. We whooped with the audacity and luck of it, and ran on but the self-congratulatory mood apparently stopped as soon as J’s husband came home and gave it the once over – handlebars skew-whiff or something major that couldn’t be repaired and so on the sidewalk it found itself once more just one week later. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I don’t want to leave the piano out with the rubbish. Obviously it would be a terrible waste of a lovely instrument to end up crushed, and not even the intrepid M and J could heave their way home with it. So, at some point it – and the rest of the gear – must be put up for sale. And that means there’s nothing for it but to rejoin the local ‘marketplace’ Facebook group. Sigh.

You see, I had to leave it a few weeks ago. This is the reason: someone was trying to sell, for $150, a dusty case of lenses that she’d found lurking in her garage, abandoned by she knew not whom or how long ago; furthermore, and I quote exactly, “The case is not in good condition but it still closes. It has what appears to be velvet on the inside. It holds various lenses that an eye doctor would use to improve your vision. The glass has markings and some are tinted.”  WHAT APPEARS TO BE VELVET !?!  I ask you! Was it so dusty and mildewy and dank that its material was no longer obvious or was she just peering at it in the cobwebby corner of her garage from afar? (And aren’t eye doctors, by the way, called opticians or optometrists or other proper professional titles by everyone except small children?)  Who on earth did she think would even contemplate buying such a pile of shit, let alone cough up a hundred and fifty bucks? So I had to leave the group.

Since my exit, someone (I’ve been told) has tried to sell a burial plot. A who’s lived in India says she’s seen folks selling half empty Nurofen bottles and other complete crap. This, then, is not just a Houston thing, not even an American thing; so maybe it’s an expat thing.  Or perhaps I’m being unfair to expats (though, to generalise, it’s not a group of people to feel sorry for, so I don’t think it matters if I am). Because this life is so transient, there are always people buying and selling household goods and school uniforms and toys and cars and, well, most things you need in your daily life and these online markets are a fabulous, efficient way of doing this. Not everyone in the particular market I’m talking about is an expat of course, and anyway they exist all over the place, in and for more stable communities, but I can’t help thinking that this loopy loss of perspective from the nuttiest of the sellers must come most frequently from the expats, because there’s nothing quite like this lifestyle for tilting one’s frame of reference.

But anyway, needs must and I’m back in the group.  I’ve tentatively posted a few items, stuff that can go early, and even made a couple of quick sales already which suggests that, for these first few things at least, I’m not being considered greedy or in poor taste or weird (all things that are important to me, I like to be liked you know, I’m quite vain).  Now I need to take stock (literally), snaps, and balance my pricing vs. popularity strategy in readiness for the big June sell-off.

So then, what’s a fair price for a piano, and first dibs on it anyone?


Norway vs the Jungle

Imagine: it’s International Week at school and your small child’s been given Surinam (say) and a brief to turn up next Tuesday in national costume, with a typical dish of food and some fun facts.  Then imagine the same scenario and a recent move to another country.

Do I sometimes ache for the cute, malleable, full-of-love-for-me, innocent beans that my children once were? Yes. Do I miss the panicky, project-immersion parenting required of the cute blah blah beans by things like International Week? No. I am glad that I (we – Mr N took his fair share of the burden) no longer have the weight of middle class angst on my/our shoulders over what level of intervention/explanation is appropriate for a four/seven/ten year old. (Please don’t worry about us, we have plenty of other middle class angst issues on our shoulders.) Oh god, don’t we just want to do the best for them, but does best mean the hands-on design and build of a 1/20 scale model of the Arya Dewaker Temple, a hands-off oversight of a scuffed together, plagiarised compilation of facts and figures [“Surinam has a rich historical tradition of same-sex relationships and a distinctive culture has developed around them. The Mati are working class women who typically have children and engage in sexual relationships with men and with women, either consecutively or simultaneously… while others are only involved with women”. ! Who the hell knew that?] or something in between that at least has some educational and moral guidance?

We’ve done all three in our time. I left F to his own devices to draw up a Tudor family tree that, it turned out, actually became a tree with a brown trunk and green leaves, quite nicely painted but irrelevant, Tudor-wise, save for some pictures of, and random info about, Henry VIII and his six wives billowing out of the branches. I spent many days constructing and painting the Lighthouse of Alexandria, initially with R, but ultimately just for him when the realisation that there were very very very many windows that had to be blocked in hit home. And then there was the time that our whole family lived on war rations for a long weekend in the interests of H’s World War II project; all three of my children still remember how cross I got with them when they ate some sweets that wouldn’t have been available during the war while they were at nature club on Sunday morning  (I have no recollection of this particular bit of crossness). And then there was the dressing up. For book week, for birthday parties, for shows.

By the time our youngest was at nursery school, we’d lived in our Derbyshire town for about seven or eight years and our dressing up box was overflowing and resource bank of friends and friends of friends almost limitless. By the time we moved to Houston two years ago, our youngest was nearly 14 and our oldest was 18 and, amongst the things that we had to adjust to, slightly competitive school projects and themed parties and home shows no longer figured. But for some of my friends here this stuff does still figure, and/or – because unlike me they’re mainly not expat virgins – it has done in the past in new and different and unknown countries. How hard is that?  Well… really very, apparently, if you listen to M and J vying for the difficulty prize. M was in Norway for 12 years with her two girls going through these sorts of activity laden educational stages, and of course Norway is cold and expensive and, at least for Europe, remote and insular and, no denying it, Norwegian-speaking. All things that might, for example, make decorating an Easter bonnet with chocolate eggs and little chicks a bit tricky if you don’t know the word for yellow. But not as tricky as (do picture) creating a snow scene in the jungle. And J has not long come from the jungle with her nine year old and seven year old, and with, therefore, ever the winning line in martyrdom. Jungle vs. Norway? Jungle wins hands down. Just the word ‘jungle’ is exotic. M can’t compete.

Yet only last week, Emily, who’s five and belongs to S, got on the school bus in fabulous 70s flares, kitted out by J of the jungle, via her unknown (to us) friend ‘?’ who doesn’t live in America at all, let alone in Houston.  Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, but that village, it turns out, can be spread across continents, nestling in the cosy comfort of a little town in the East Midlands of England maybe, chilling in the cold fjords of Norway, or even, yes, in the sweat of the jungle too. Jungle vs. Norway. Houston vs. Belper. Belper vs. Norway. Houston vs. Jungle. It’s not really clear to me who’s the winner.