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The long answer

imageWe’re living in the same house that we lived in before we moved to Houston, the one in which our three kids grew up. A few things have changed in the last two months – a bedroom switchover, a slap of paint, garden clear out, belongings’ cull – but fundamentally it’s as it was. People keep asking whether it feels like we’ve never been away, and the short answer is: yes and no. But the long answer is that although the act of coming home has apparently compressed the two years we were away so that packing up and leaving England appears not so very much further back in time than packing up and leaving Houston, yet our Houston/US experiences remain vivid and absolute and axiomatic, albeit elsewhere. So, over in Houston, where we no longer live but did just a snap of an instant ago, everyone’s back at school, while R (my youngest and the only one left going to school in this house) still has a weekend and two more days off. “Isn’t it weird to think that P is on the school bus, heading home, right now?” he said last night at 10 o’clock. And yes, frankly, he was right. No matter how certain you are (as certain as the world is round, even) that you’re six hours’ ahead, still, when it’s night time and dark it’s tricky to really imagine it being daytime and light anywhere else. Likewise, when you’re hot you can’t feel cold, and when you’re shivering it seems absurd that anyone else could be sweaty.

All of this is disconnecting and saddening, because I know it works the other way round too and I have a wish to be missed, as if that will maybe make it all more reachable and real. I don’t actually want C, J, M and S to have fun – or even hell – on their runs without me. But they will. Their private jokes will no longer be mine and J2 will take my place as they step up their winter training for the Houston half. I don’t want that book club crowd to keep enjoying the chunter or the ‘ritas. But they will. They’ll carry right on reading and agreeing and disagreeing. I don’t want my ex-fellow volunteers to keep on serving up their smiles and solace and salads and sack lunches and sausages and all the other stuff that doesn’t start with ‘s’. But they will. With the banter undiminished. I don’t want all the As (minus this one) and a few more besides to bike the bayous and bond over coffee in Beans. But they will. I know, because they already have. I don’t want the Ks to like their new neighbours more than they liked us, or even, if I’m honest, to have new neighbours at all. But they will. And someone else will enjoy the charming Swedish-American hospitality that really should be ours. I don’t want V to keep ordering dim sum for everyone, in Chinese in Chinatown, if everyone doesn’t include me. But she will. She did it before I ever turned up and won’t be stopping in my absence. This is all utterly vain and futile and selfish: I felt exactly the same about leaving my friends and family here, and at the same time, I can’t but help make the most of being here now.

That’s life. And that’s the real sadness of saying goodbye: everybody knows it to be so. Me without them, them without me. We’ll all carry on. Move on. And we have.

The other day a didgeridoo arrived from Australia, sent by Mr N. I posted a picture of H, our 20 year old, making some noise on it, on Facebook where L, one of her friends – they go all the way back together to nursery school – commented that she was “so glad to see the height chart still there”. I’d taken the shot in the kitchen, inadvertently framed by the doorway we’ve used to track the growth of H, F, R and their friends and relations for the last two decades. L’s got two notches of her own somewhere there. It’s a messy, organic marker of our family’s relationship with this place. R’s now taller than F, his latest notch is higher, and there’s a gap of two years where that happened elsewhere. But it happened, definitely!

I suppose then, the long answer’s up on that door.


Of no fixed abode

I composed what follows on the plane as we flew home from Houston for good. We’ve been here now for 24 hours and remain wifi-less. I’m writing this on my phone. The impression of dislocation remains as strong as it was up in the air…


The goodbyes are done, the final road trip a bank of photos and memories so vivid and orangey that the photos don’t do them justice, the Houston house is empty of our stuff, not ours or of us any more, and here we are – me, Mr N, F and R – on a 767 to Heathrow.

We’re no longer residents of the US, just plain old travellers now and tourists next time we visit. I find myself sad about that:  it was fun to live somewhere that wasn’t home and cool to answer “Houston”  to the (frequently asked) “where are you from?”. No one much is going to be asking any more, and if they do there’ll be no surprise or real interest in the answer.

We’ve had a week spent effectively homeless (in our very first world bubble), between handing over the keys to our rented house and actually departing, or ‘demobilising’ in the lingo of the trailing spouse that I only just still am. We sandwiched a concluding three-state fling with a night at the K’s, our neighbours, and two nights in a local hotel – seeing friends, running errands, tying up loose ends and, actually, relaxing; sort of a mini Houston holiday in itself.  But the time spent in our neighbourhood was disconcertingly coloured by it being ours yet not ours, familiar yet already distanced by the closing of the old front door, an invisible barrier drawn between belonging and visiting and made tangible by now having to ask to get in to the estate (subdivision), our gate clicker having been returned with the house.

I’ve been back before to places where I used to live, an onlooker from the outside remembering an inside that no longer exists and it’s a strange feeling  this, the physicality of the confrontation between past and present. Yet, odd as it may be revisiting one’s past, the past it undeniably is.  For us this last week, it’s been more like being in limbo: neither living right there nor indeed exactly visiting. As we drove by the house that was but isn’t ours, we let out a collective sigh, a communally wordless expression of that difficult to define nostalgia for what has not quite gone.

In the end, it felt time to go. The emotional build up to leaving over the final few weeks has been draining. R didn’t want to leave at all and F had to wrench himself from gorgeous girlfriend. While I counted down the days until Mr N’s return from Oz exile, a parallel count was ratcheting up all too quickly.  The last month has been hectic for all of us, not just socially (though the partying and lunching and drinking ramped up exponentionally as the time remaining diminished), but occupationally too as the to-do list lengthened and got urgent. Fundamentally though, we were getting on with living our lives, albeit more manically, as we span towards d-day.

And then click, that door shut and we stopped. Stopped living there but not living elsewhere quite yet. Adrift not moored. Of no fixed abode.  So yep, sadly, in the end it was time to go.

Making the most of it: here’s five ways how

My friend J (that’s the J in Houston not the J in Derbyshire) has got this ex-pat thing, well, off-pat.  She’s lived in about 10 countries in 15 years (I exaggerate, but not much) and she knows the deal. So, because all oil and gas roads lead to Houston at some point, she already had loads of friends before she’d even set foot back in the place (she’s lived here before, like every other person I’ve met) and had armies of them sorting her life out for her from afar – helping her choose which house she should buy, that kind of inconsequential thing – and within weeks of arriving at the end of Summer, she had the pool dug out, the landscapers in, the kitchen remodelled, and the house redecorated and furnished to her – it has to be said – exquisite taste. Gob-smacking, really.  We, in contrast, who have been here now for 18 months, live in a farrago of landlord-owned, rented and Ikea furniture, accessories and decor, none of which is particularly nice and some of which – the excess ofIMG_1288 occasional tables and the shield and swords fixed abidingly to the wall in the alcove in the hallway (see for yourself, right) particularly spring to mind – are downright horrible. Obviously, although I do like her, J can never be allowed to set foot in my house.

Her ferocious but fantastic home-making has, however, set me thinking about how to make the most of your time in a place and frankly, there’s no getting away from it, you need to make a bit of an effort.  Of course J is not the only one who’s bought (or even rented) a house and made a lovely home out of it, because that’s a really solid, anchor-dropping way to get started with your new life.  But there are other important things too.

If number one is nesting, then I would put getting out of your comfort zone at number two. For the kids and the working spouse, that sort of happens automatically –  they have to hit the ground running in a new school / new workplace with strangers for friends and colleagues. For those of us trailing in the wake, the easy thing to do is schlepp around with like-minded people and lunch out a lot, but getting a job yourself or volunteering takes you to situations in the company of folk that you wouldn’t otherwise readily reach.  Personally, I have had one or two of the funniest as well as eye-opening as well as scariest experiences (think big fat security man who has loaded gun in holster in plain view of a desperate, down-on-their-luck, hungry and possibly out-of-their-minds clientele, and who couldn’t possibly run fast or react quickly if someone who was, just say, pissed off or paranoid, jumped on him) while helping out at Search. I’ve also made two good friends from there, one of whom owns four guns, is a raging Republican, who has twice lent us her waterside Lake Livingston house (and speed boat!!) for the weekend, and whose wedding I’m invited to. Not bad at all.

Number three in my book is socialising with the locals. Whether that’s with Susie, above, or the bunco belles, or our nextdoor neighbours, I’ve done a bit of that, though it’s not so easy to meld in when your kids go to an international school so I only get half a tick for this one.  Pals with kids at American schools get pulled into the social whirl of sports and play dates and holiday cook-outs more easily, and there’s nothing like it for getting under the skin of your community. I’m a bit envious.

Next would be, I think, embracing the culture. Undoubtedly, meeting and getting along with your  kids’ [American] school friends’ families is a great way to get going. But for those of us without easy opportunities to do this, then we’ve just got to bravely take a bite – literally and metaphorically. Here in Houston, you could just about stick with fish and chips if you wanted to, but with the world’s cuisine at every possible price and quality range available, why would you? And even if you don’t much like brisket and steak and bbq and Tex-Mex, and brunch with bacon and maple syrup options, you gotta try eating it out and cooking it at home. Oh yes, and the Velveeta and Miracle Whip and Twinkies and a corn dog (retch) at least once. And then there’s the sport (high school, college, national) you can watch, the live music scene, the galleries and museums, theatre, cinema, church/temple/synagogue (doesn’t matter if you don’t believe, in fact I would say it’s probably better that way) and – here in Houston at least – a bit of two-stepping, dance, opera, and a full-blown symphony orchestra.  We’ve done some of these things, but in particular as a family have developed a serious cinema habit – because we can eat a meal and drink beer and wine at our seats, and not only that, we can delight in the very American and unselfconscious out-loud oohs and ahs and exclamations and applause  that doesn’t quite happen in the same way at home.  Same films, different reactions.  I guess I should lump in TV  and radio here with getting culturally submerged, too, but have to admit that  we’ve been a bit crap when it comes to US telly (of course, excepting all the fabulous stuff we already watched and/or can get on DVD or Netflix like Madmen and the consummate Breaking Bad). Although we pay the equivalent of a mortgage for our Comcast ‘bundle’, I still can’t find my way round all the channels without the help of F and R and, when I did find the latest series of Madmen, any smug enjoyment I got from being on it a full series and six months ahead of Sky in the UK was quickly killed by the hideous intrusion of the adverts.  We’re a bit better about the radio now I’ve found the Houston NPR station (talk radio, nearest equivalent to Radio 4) but we’re mainly hooked up to our vpn and our beloved BBC and nothing else can compare.  [Sorry, hands over ears, la la la la la, not listening to anyone who says otherwise; in this opinion I’m blinkered and unmoving.]

On to my number five, then: take part in an event. Between us, we’ve kayaked in the Buffalo Bayou Regatta, cycled several road races and two big fundraisers, and run in two half marathons, one five-miler and one relay.  We haven’t necessarily performed at our peak (I speak for myself at least) but my, my we’ve shelled out in entry fees and sponsorship, witnessed first-hand the flag-waving, chest-thumping, Star-Spangled-Banner-belting patriotism, warmed to the generous and open crowd-cheering support [“good jarb”], felt the weight and quality of our finishers’ medals and t-shirts, and been amazed at the slickness, style, swirl and scale of the organisation. This is what Americans do well! (In the UK, no-one gives a monkeys how you’ll get you/your bike/your boat back home, your medal’s lightweight and plastic, your t-shirt’s baggy, cotton and only good for wearing in bed, and you most certainly don’t get beer a mile before the end and an ice-cream sandwich at the finish line.)

So that’s it, my get-along-in-Houston philosophy: to make the most of a place you’ve got to embrace the difference; to embrace the difference you’ve got to know the difference; to know the difference you’ve got to get off your lazy arse and find it.  But then when you’re done, you’ve got to be able to come home in it, whether home is yours and perfect, or borrowed and imperfect. We might not quite have managed to do that bit so well as others (a load of books and board games, a few photos, pictures and knick-knacks which came with us alongside a couple of new prints, a chess set and a funky glass fruit bowl – which, frankly, is actually very nice – doesn’t quite wash) but the BBC helps with our homeliness and we’ve ticked or half-ticked some of the other boxes so it feels like we’re getting on ok, to me. But that doesn’t mean J can cross my threshold yet.