Monthly Archives: January 2015

Number 27

Mr N has gone back to Australia for ten weeks. It might seem a long time, but it’s his last stint away on this project and he’s already excited about all the things we can do when he’s home for good. We’re playing a Whatsapp game, taking turns to build a list and so far we’re up to number 26. Some of these things are quite mundane, like ‘go to see Gran’ (he hasn’t seen her since before he moved to Houston, now over three years ago); some are things he/we used to do, like brewing beer, orienteering, and walking up hills; some are plans we’ve long harboured, like cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats or getting the Eurostar to Paris; you get the idea, I’m sure. Lots involve other people, friends and family. They’re not all local or even UK based, but there’s definitely a home theme.  When you’re away, it does focus your mind on what you can’t have.

I’m sure this applies to most people. I love Britain, and more specifically England, not because I believe it’s the best place in the world but because I understand it, I slot in and it’s mine. When you go somewhere new, you see it with alien eyes, without this rooted context. While living in Houston, I wrote a couple of these blogs on the subject of the weird things about America that Americans don’t see (bloody massive flags everywhere, for one thing). I could’ve written about 15 more blogs on this subject alone. For me, perhaps the weirdest things about the US were: a) the irony of the Communist-feeling aura around the overt patriotism (school kids chanting daily allegiance to the flag, grown adults singing the Star-Spangled Banner with genuinely proud fists on hearts at any opportunity) and the rigidly conventional, collective teen dating rituals around Homecoming balls, football games and horror movies in a country in which being an actual commie is an anathema, and the term ‘socialist’ is an insult; and b) the depth to which religion permeates society: not just that “I’m blessed” is the usual and undeniably earnest reply to the question “how are you?” even from the homeless that I used to serve breakfast and lunch to who so clearly weren’t favoured or fortunate, nor just in the simple fact that I didn’t meet a single American who didn’t believe in god, but also in the sorrowful reaction of those to whom I ever did admit my atheism; there are plenty of religious people in the UK, but they’re never surprised to meet someone who isn’t. I don’t pretend to understand this, but I can see that these are ingrained cultural behaviours and beliefs which provide comfort and grounding and connection to something very deep.

So, there, in Texas, I missed, particularly, the feeling of home which, now here, in England, is succour to the soul, but it’s not easy to pinpoint. The weather’s often shit, but I share the obsession with it and like the sense of ‘what the hell, no-one’s to blame’ that its uncertainty brings, both to what you’re going to do with your day and, in a bigger sense, to one’s outlook on life; we Brits are good at shrugging our shoulders and accepting that it’s raining so we’re going to get wet. That doesn’t sound so great, I know, but when we do get a perfect day (and we do!), we don’t half make the most of it: there’s nowt like camping in Derbyshire (no.10 on our list) by a river when the sun shines till ten at night. It’s not quite the same as taking pleasure from banging your head against the wall just to enjoy not having pain when you stop, but you get the gist.

This is, of course, about making the most of it. And I don’t mean just the weather. I did indeed pine for home at times, but mainly I didn’t and another year or two in the States would’ve been fabulous. Now I often dream of being there, with the friends I made, enjoying the lifestyle, the bigness, the easy charm of the people, and more. Mr N, while undoubtedly missing us, appreciates the idyll that is Perth in full Summer. And I’d jump at the chance to do it again (who wouldn’t?).

But, and it’s a big but, the UK belongs to me and us, and America doesn’t. It’s a part of us that is more than just fond memories and fun and adventure; it’s roots and it’s culture and it’s temperament and it’s nurture, and it’s memories that are not all fond. So here, I’m no fan of Farage and his ilk, but I get why some people are. Not only can I vote, but I comprehend the issues I’m voting on. I might not actually be so sure who I want to vote for, yet, but I know why I’m not so sure. I can engage with the debate, have an opinion that’s valid, agree or disagree, understand more than just the headlines, and maybe even make a tiny little bit of difference.  It’s my place to do so and it’s the only place I can do it. That feeling then, I suppose, is about ownership and belonging, and it sort of doesn’t matter whether I actually prefer it here or not. Maybe it takes more than two years away, or maybe, for me, it would never change, I don’t know.

I guess, though, that’s our number 27 sorted: walk down the road together in May to Green Lane polling station to vote in the General Election.

Here’s to the blinking mundane!

IMG_3223Hello! Happy New Year and all that.  My washing machine is on the blink. Literally, it’s blinking. I suspect that we will have to buy a new one very soon, but so far I’ve seen it as a challenge and one that I’ve met every time – this has been going on since the Summer with increasing difficulty, and takes some patience (not really my forte), absolutely no slamming the load in and pressing the button and running out of the door in any sort of hurry. And particularly not so this morning [20 minutes and counting trying to switch it on, now taking a break]. Luckily I’m already up and over and down the other side of the massive post-holiday washing mountain: H, oldest, has gone back to university weighed down with her whole wardrobe washed; F, in the middle, is also back at university fully laden with his laundered stuff; all the once sweaty ski wear is once again fresh; even those of us currently left at home – me, Mr N and youngest R – have a full set of clean clothes.  We’re just onto the peripherals now, towels, tea towels, stray pants and socks. All, quite honestly, thanks to my superhuman levels of equanimity in the face of the blinking machine.

We’ve just been skiing, hence the particularly onerous pile of laundry. We drove to the French Alps and back, via Nantes and la famille DW for Christmas. It was everything that a family holiday should be – expensive, sociable, stressful, knackering, bad-tempered, squashed, expensive, entertaining, argumentative, funny, unhealthy (a lot of coughing), divisive, inclusive, weepy, laughy, expensive, and a little bit scary. Oh, and did I mention that it was expensive?

Our drive east across France should’ve taken eight hours which is quite long enough. But it took us 15, through a combination of unfortunate factors.

1) We were journeying on an official “black” day on the French road calendar along with every other French, and seemingly British, family, all of us heading the same way;

2) French Easy Jet employees were on strike, thereby forcing even more people onto the roads to the mountains than had been foreseen;

3) The main motorway, the A40, was closed between three junctions, our side, because of an accident, causing standstill traffic both on it and off it on the diversion;

4) There was a heavy snow dump, on the mountain roads, just as we hit the mountain roads;

5) We had ignored many many many people’s advice to practise putting on snow chains in the calm and comfort of our own driveway.  This last element introduced the fear factor to the list of familial vacational emotions.

12 and a half hours in to our journey, and less than 20 miles from our destination, as we crawled up into the Alps, passing lines of cars at the side of the road all chaining-up, we at first considered ourselves superior – a whole, concordant conversation was had about us not being sheep and panicking just because some people were putting on their snow chains when clearly the conditions weren’t that bad and the road was wet and the snow wasn’t sticking. We drove on, higher. Next we were amused at how many of said sheep appeared to be struggling in the dark to read the instructions. We drove on, higher. Then we collectively comforted ourselves by all agreeing that we’d driven, chainless, in much worse back home. And we drove on, higher. Then we went a bit quiet as all eyes flicked between the road and heavy snow outside and the miles to go on the sat nav inside: just seven miles left. And we drove on, higher. Then we skidded. Oh shit. So we pulled over, finally giving in, opened the boot to retrieve the snow chains, and out fell a bag full of wine, beer and calvados, smashing to the ground. I busied myself removing the glass out of the tracks of future travellers while first Mr N, then F, then all of us, flustered and flitted around, trying to put the chains on the two front tyres. Until that very moment, that dark, snowy, -3º, at the side of a mountain road moment, we had not looked at the instructions which, it turned out, were contained, cutely, in three small diagrams on the front of the box with some even smaller captions, in French. The chains, for the first time out of the box, were a tangle of, well, chains. We didn’t even have gloves to hand. Mr N, raging, absolutely forbad me to ask for help. I did anyway, but no-one else in that layby right then knew what the bloody hell they were doing either. There was a black edge of hysteria in the air.  A snow plough forged by. FOLLOW IT came the cry! We threw everything and ourselves back into the car and skidded off up. We clocked another two miles and came to a small town which seemed a safer place to stop. At least if we got stranded we could knock on a few doors (Mr N’s pride permitting, of course). Long story short, we managed (F and me, in the final instance, I would like to point out) to get one chain on and decided that would have to do. It did. We navigated the final five miles safely and in relative composure, beating hearts slowing and food and wine and warmth looming once again as possibilities. We went straight to a restaurant, ordered steak and chips, and sat, all five of us, slack-jawed, shocked and silent, and slugged back the first of many vins chauds.

Anyway, we skiied with two-thirds of the S family (who’d had their own private  nightmare getting there from Sheffield which, the day they left had more snow than the Alps). E, the last third, who is scared when skiing and has never gone fast enough to fall over, made sure we had fabulous fizz and fondue on New Year’s Eve and we clinked midnight in (albeit on Middle Eastern time, being completely exhausted and having to be up and on the piste too bright and early for our lesson the next morning) and wished S a happy 50th.

So now we’re home and back to normal-ish. (Not quite Mr N though who has two more weeks off before a final last ten week stint away Down Under. He has jobs to do while I’m at work which are only slowly being ticked off in between the trumpet playing, long baths and reading in bed but I don’t really begrudge him this r&r – I mean, how can I after my two years with the tables turned? But as usual I’m digressing.) Though we did all learn to ski (and really quite competently too despite a couple of frozen-in-fear-on-an-icy-steep-slope tableaux from me and H), I’m not entirely sure we’ve completely recovered from that journey and there’s still the washing machine to tackle.

But hey, the mesmerising, the momentous and the mundane, from such things are collective memories made. So that was our 2014/2015 changeover. And here’s wishing the mesmerising, the momentous and, yes, a good dose of the blinking mundane, to everyone! X