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.


For Margot

Here goes.

As I keep on having a good time, relishing my return (at least for now, though today has been relentlessly steely grey and sodden, as befits an English August bank holiday Monday and may signal the start of dank reality for me), and H, our 20 year old just arrived back from her African travels, and yesterday we revelled at our very good friend, Dr M’s 50th birthday, so M makes plans for the end of her life. It therefore seems wrong to be celebrating and enjoying and happy, but I do and I am.

It is, however, a tribute to M and her openness, strength of spirit, love of life and sheer determination that I’m able to write this knowing that she herself might read it, and others who know her well almost certainly will. I appear to have resorted to clichés, for which I’m sorry but cannot improve upon, because M has been an inspiration, another cliché, but truly true. I haven’t known her the longest or deepest, I mean to stake no claim. Indeed, I have never known her without cancer. Yet her illness has not defined her (though her approach to it partly has). We met shortly after I moved to Houston two years ago. She started off as my son F’s gorgeous girlfriend’s mum and ended up as my friend. And though she’s needed help and support, it’s definitely not been all one way – she’s taken me out, provided advice and company to me, given Dutch language and cultural education (!) plus many times a temporary home to F, and decent meals for both my boys while I’ve been “out of town” (that would be holidaying, according to Mr N). And, lest anyone should forget, alongside the other two Ms, she has been an integral member of the mighty 3M tennis team, always good to partner rather than face, and ever patient with my lesser skills and foul mouth. It has to go on record that I have never once beaten her. (I acknowledge that that could just indicate that I am crap, but I assure you M is not.)

Now, she is leaving Houston to return home, which is the Netherlands, in painful circumstances. She has stopped treatment and wants to be with her family. Her goodbyes this week will be final.

When she and I said goodbye eight weeks ago, I hoped and believed we’d see each other again, but that may not happen. This, then, could be my farewell. And here’s the nub of what I was trying to articulate when I said it’s a tribute to her that I can write this: it’s shit that this is happening; shit for her, for H, for their three kids and the whole family. Even in the worst of circumstances, M says it how it is; she lets you know how she feels, what she needs, and the things for which she hopes. So when she’s combative (not just on the tennis court) and positive, you know it’s not false, she really is fighting and forceful. You know where you are with M. And her honesty has made me brave.

I don’t want this to be a eulogy, too late. I want M to know (maybe someone will tell her for me if she’s not able to read this first hand) that I think about her so often. I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling like this – dumbstruck and inadequate and helpless but still bloody caring – and of course M herself is not alone in facing terrible illness. And that’s sort of my point – though badly made so far, it’s so hard to be clear – here we all, mostly, are, going to parties, drinking, seeing new places, making new friends, meeting old friends, moaning about or enjoying the weather, wearing no slap, chucking ice cold water over each other, pretending to engage with the deep but really only engaging with the trivial and posting about it all too, me as profoundly guilty as anyone, yet all the while we know people who are sad, suffering, ill, in pain, and dying and – despite our trifles and mundanities – wish so very much they weren’t. It feels at best insensitive and at worst a betrayal to carry on as normal, but carry on as normal we [we: those of us moved by the empathetic constriction of sadness and anticipated hollowness of loss but who nevertheless will not be fundamentally, organically floored, which is no-one’s fault] do. I don’t want M, or anyone close to her, to think I don’t really give a toss because according to my Facebook status I’m annoyed about the Scottish independence debate and I’m cold today, that’s all.

This all sounds a bit self indulgent, and I know that if M were to be scanning Fb she’d be generous spirited enough to be slightly amused or diverted. Because life, in its corny old usually boring way, rolls on, and that’s the horrible, stark reality for those who have to contemplate its end before they should have to, but also, eventually, the comfort for those who have to carry on. That’s the tragedy. If only it wasn’t so, for M, and for others like her. Simply then, before it’s too late, I want M – Margot – to know I really like her, she has brought Dutch courage into my life, and she has made a difference.

Publicly positive but still just as pissed off privately

I am as guilty as the next person of posting uber positively on Facebook. For example, recently I concentrated on the excitement of swimming in the river and jumping off a bridge, with a video to illustrate. We cycled there and back, 35 miles, and I omitted to mention my sore fanny (yep, UK not US fanny), post pint nausea up the steep hill right after we left the pub and as we started for home, and my general slowness and whingeing because my cleatless trainers kept sliding off the clip-in pedals, my proper cycling shoes still being in a box on the Atlantic. It was fun, but mainly only during the swimmy bit and then again when it was all over.

I don’t think I, or most people, do this deliberately to beat the Joneses or present life through a rose-tinted hue (though both of these things can be the outcome). Life is not always peachy, and I am capable of admitting when it’s not. But for me, Fb is not the right place to get all down or to bleat. No, for that I want committed, in-the-flesh empathy and consolation, please. And there are only some people who need to know I’m needy. But patently, not everyone would agree with me.  I find rants about bad behaviour or perceived injustices are awkward to read. Those “So angry!…”-ask-me-what-about-so-I-can-say-so-publically-without-appearing-to-have-wanted-to proclamations are, frankly in my view, irritating – better just to rant in full in the first place, awks though it may be. It can be an appropriate place, though not mine, to share bad news and for people who aren’t physically close by to console or be consoled. It’s quite good for fund-raising, and it’s dreadful for public private chats and reminiscences (though oddly compelling in this regard). Some folks hardly post but when they do, it’s surprising (surely eating that slice of cake can’t have been the only thing worth showing off about in the last year?). Others are constantly status-updating, of the mundane as well as exciting, maybe too much (could be me, after all no-one thinks they themselves post boringly or too often, do they?), but that’s ok,  with me at least: there becomes a pleasantly familiar backdrop to checking what’s changed and it’s easy to scoot over the stuff that doesn’t interest you. [Mr N, on the other hand, doesn’t display such equanimity. He’s a lurker and a blocker, but not even an upfront one, doing it, as he does, on my profile. I do my best to unblock whenever I notice.]  Personally, I don’t go for the schmalz; I adore my kids, I really do, but can’t bring myself to repost if I’ll hold them in my heart forever or agree with the claptrap about them having beautiful souls, when such beauty is most apparent when they want something and a lot of the time they’re idle and good for nothing or asleep. But I love lots of people who do go for the goo and am content to be in the minority ignoring it. Fb has taken over from the birthday card and it’s helpful to be reminded to wish people happy birthday (even if you prefer to send a card) and to be wished back, though – as with the ‘like’ dilemma – there’s a certain pressure to join in with the felicitations, though, admittedly, that clearly doesn’t require any kind of debilitating psychological debate.  And, of course, Facey-b is, now, definitely a bastion of us middle-aged and older.

All of this I don’t care about. I love Facebook because a) it’s become my go-to photo album-cum-diary – a funny, colourful, pictorial and captioned record of what we’ve been up to; b) when I left England for America it felt like – and actually was – the easiest (though not only) of lifelines to and from my friends and family, and c) despite my initial cynicism, it became a way to get to know people and further connect once they became actual, really-going-out-with friends – in this context, it is the middle-agers’ equivalent of the school gate, back in the day when we took and met our little ones and made plans for the week ahead in the playground. We use it – or not – howsoever we choose, but in the space of two years it’s forged a role in my life that, even now my circumstances have changed, feels impossible to ignore. My new friends are a long way away and my old friends are just around the corner, and what I need and want from it has switched in direct line with my geographical transfer.  Fundamentally, though, it still keeps me up to date, in touch, and in public, on my terms.

We can block or unfriend or be bemused or entertained or simply ignore.  So, each to our own, let’s all carry on doing or not doing what we do on Facebook. And if, for me, that means being mainly positive in public, don’t worry about it, I can still do pissed off in private.

Forgetting Gran

One of the impalpable things that some of us leave behind when we move abroad is the immediate (and, therefore, actual) responsibility for dealing with elderlies. In my case, my mother, aka Gran, lived alone but just around our corner, and two years ago as we prepared to depart for Houston, she finally lost her mind after many months of anxious, forgetful, self-denying, delusional decline. In a very brief space of time, I – bullyingingly, bluntly and deviously, in her eyes – forced her out of her own home into a “mad house” (ironically, her words)  of a hospital assessment centre, from where she would eventually be moved (round about the same time we were winging our luxurious way in business class whilst quaffing Champagne over the Atlantic towards our sunny new life) unceremoniously into her new but not so sunny life, in a dementia care home.  The timing couldn’t have been crueller.

She didn’t  know, and never will, that H and F, her two oldest grandchildren, and I, found for her simply the perfect place – newly opened, purpose designed with cosy living spaces, snug bedrooms, and a high ratio of focussed and kind and dedicated staff, well trained at all levels to understand the terrors of these bewildered old-lady-children; staff who “enter their world” rather than expecting them to carry on coping with ours. Gran is, without doubt, in the best surroundings she could be.

But she most certainly didn’t believe that two years ago. Her rage was visceral, and it was directed at me, of course, because I was the one who physically walked her out of her house for the last time and drove her away from it forever. While the memory of the actual, awful event slid out of her grasp within days, the emotional memory – how it made her feel – was etched, in that bizarre way that dementia can work: while almost everything gets forgotten, some things stick, in a groove, in a distinctly ungroovy manner.

So there she went and off we went too, each to our oh so very different new lives. And on they (our lives) then moved.

All this time we’ve been away, doing our ex-pat thang, so too has Gran, like a mute shadow faded in the very background of our everydays, while still declining, been silently, steadily (with an unsteady gait), unceremoniously, crossly and confusedly, but all the while undeliberately and, in her mindless way, stoically, doing her thing. Being. Her rage has gone, she no longer blames or cares, exactly, and she’s calm. But she has become a foreign creature, snappy or smiling or silent or sleepy, whichever way impossible to read, some flashes of recognition (of names, of a face, of a kink of memory linked to a photo or a song or a voice) rippling occasionally out of the murky mellow softness of dreamy oblivion. We did all that stuff and here she still sits. And around her, sit we, back down to earth.

I am not the first, the last, or indeed the nicest to have had to deal with such a situation. The truth is (for me, at least) that, over the pond, there was not a huge amount of reality to deal with. Yes, there were practicalities, financial arrangements, a house to sell, blah blah, but – unable to contemplate the confusion, horror, and, dare I say it, the raw flesh of even a Skype call – emotionally and empathetically, I was let off the hook. The circumstance of distance allowed me the acceptable option to forget about her for the most part, while she carried on forgetting about her too. A bit poignant, a bit sad, but just the way it was and had to be, both of us forgetting Gran in our separate ways. But I don’t have that careless luxury any longer. Welcome back to reality, do I hear?

Finding our place

First impressions: In baggage reclaim at Heathrow T2, on the loo, and it’s private! No gaps round these restroom doors!  Second thing: local accents – albeit varied – surround us and, “ooh,” I think, “they’re British” before I come to and clock that , of course, they all are now.  Third: slightly clichéd but nevertheless as it happened, it’s a little bit grey (not gray) and chilly.  Then the tiredness kicks in and I snooze in and out on the last leg of our demob from Houston to Belper, the three hour car journey up the M1. Our driver is silent and we four are all silent back. I can’t speak for Mr N and the boys, but, inbetween sleeps I feel a bit numb and not chatty.  As we skirt Derby – our nearest city and ten miles from home – we catch a glimpse of the new velodrome; mid-morning, the sky is now streaky blue and my image of it is spikey and modern and burnt orange (this could just be the light) and I feel a shiver of something different to the physical and emotional weariness that has so far engulfed my return to England – a spark of surprise.

Then we’re there. At our house. H is here, opening the front door (good job, neither Mr N or I could find our keys). We live at the end of a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill on what, in its lower section, is quite a narrow road, and on repatriation from Texas, seems way too thin, and made stupidly more so by the full line of parked cars from bottom to top. I breathe in as we make our way up.

Snapshot reaction: it looks very similar but not exactly home. If you have ever been friends with one identical twin without knowing the other, this is analagous. When you eventually meet them it’s unnerving because the friendship claim you feel is yours becomes a little less secure in the (literally) face of this other person that you don’t know but who is undeniably almost the same; you feel a bit antagonistic towards the unfamiliar twin, almost as though they are an imposter. It’s ridiculous (and possibly just me, anyway, who has this reaction – it’s happened to me twice) but anyway, in the instant of arrival, that is how I felt about my house. It was clearly ours and fundamentally the same, yet different too just at that moment. Plants were larger and sprawled in places they didn’t previously; a flick of the eye either side revealed a frame of newness – overhanging trees, a slightly crumbling wall to one side; a Bassett Hound up on its hind legs peering over the fence to the other. And in the middle, not-quite-yet-again-our house. Like the unknown twin, undeniably almost the same but unsettling even so.

Measured response: Now it’s been 12 days and it feels like we’ve never been away. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Dr M said to me last night at Book Club (the very same one that I started up 11 years ago and never really left even while in Houston, thank you Skype) that he thought it was a good thing. Here, now, this morning with my beautiful bedroom view back, I feel it’s true. Already I’ve lost count of the new encounters with old faces: my hairdresser; the butcher; an ex-colleague in the Co-Op; mums and dads of kids who, like ours, have trawled and still are trawling up through the local schools; the kids themselves, some barely recognisable but many much the same give or take an inch or few and hair happenings. F, R and I keep spotting Houston people, briefly – Bev and Roseanna have been particularly ubiquitous for some reason – before remembering where we are and looking more closely. That says something about not feeling out of place I suppose. And it’s funny! So we’re still laughing.

And we’re relishing the busy-ness of our little town. There’s life outside our very doorstep. People chat and kids shout and everone’s walking. The high street is milling, admittedly at the moment with quite a lot of old people and weirdos who don’t – won’t or can’t – work because school’s still not out here (this dynamic will change from tomorrow when the summer hols kick in). But still, old and weird it may be but it’s life being lived on a human scale. We have cycled, run and walked up into the hills and to the shops and down the pub and round to friends’ from our front door. The trek in the car for just a loaf of bread in Houston is once again seeming a little ludicrous, not normal, as indeed it really is. That is, so quickly, no longer what we’re used to.

How I’ve enjoyed, as well, our quick-boiling kettle, fast-browning toaster, furiously hot hair straighteners and powerful hairdryer. Oh what superior voltage! I’m not sorry to have left behind that weakly stream of American electrons. I am, though, missing my massive fridge (mainly for the ice) and top loading washing machine, vicious with the clothes and unenvironmentally friendly it may have been. The fridge, along with a whole new kitchen to surround it, will have to change. The washer and dryer situation, I fear, will not.

I suppose it’s time to get back in the habit of hanging out the washing, come rain or shine. That’s just what we do here, isn’t it? But I haven’t done so.  And I don’t quite, so far, feel that I’m living my real life. The upstairs half of the house looks like it’s being inhabited by hoarders, and we’re in the middle of approximately 17 different jobs – painting, decorating, clearing out, sorting through, swapping bedrooms, putting stuff away (like the humans in this house, the objects don’t yet have a final place), gardening, kitchen planning, blah blah – all of which have been started but not finished.  And we don’t have broadband at home! Still! With two days to go to the promised connection date (“C-day”), we continue to fight over access to smart phones, and pitching up with pals, laptops in tow, is our new normal.

It’s indeed disturbing to be wifi-restricted but probably what is the most unsettling is that no-one is at school or work. [Well, the noble Mr N is, of course, but that’s way away over in Oz, and the charmed H is too, but neither are currently living in this house.]  There is plenty to do – as well as the 17 afore-mentioned jobs on the go there are an estimated 346 still to be started. So that’s not the issue; no, for me, it’s that statusless thing again – and now, I’m not even a proper trailing spouse. I’ve trailed, there and back.  What now?



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.

A tangle of technology

IMG_1776 IMG_1775Back in the day we used to take the mickey out of our parents for being so useless at working their video recorders (I did, anyway).  Before BBC i-player and all the other channel equivalents, before Hulu and YouTube and Netflix and Apple TV and the rest of the stuff that’s out there now that I don’t even know about, we used to have to rely on VCRs [still don’t know what that ‘C’ in the middle stands for?] to record the telly we didn’t want to miss because we were out for the night or away. Do you remember that there was once a time when you could only set your video to record one programme? So, if you went on holiday for a couple of weeks in the middle of a gripping drama series on one channel and, say, had a regular soap habit on another, you had to get a relay of friends and family to tape them for you. And you had to ensure the tape was rewound to the beginning, and it wasn’t the one that had your favourite film on it. If they messed up, which our parents inevitably did, it was just tough shit. We didn’t have computers or anything more sophisticated than a Sony Walkman to listen to music on, but if we had I’m sure we’d’ve been equally disdainful about their technophobia in these things too.

Well. Now I kind of know how they must’ve felt. My techy ineptitude is not in the field of recording (only because we don’t need to be able to do that these days, you can just find what you missed any old place, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally).  No, my incompetence lies in the interweb of, not the information superhighway, no!, but of leads and chargers and plugs and USBs and all this connectivity paraphernalia.

We are packing our house up, ready to move from Houston back to England. I have to decide what we don’t need at all anymore, what we need but can do without for six weeks while it’s bobbing over the Atlantic, and what we absolutely can’t do without in the meantime.

The meantime includes time in the States plus time in the UK. Hot here. Changeable there. Can do Houston Summer and English Summer clothing, easily. But, iPods here, iPods there?  iPads here, iPads there? MacBooks here, MacBooks there?  Samsung here, Samsung there? Garmin here, Garmin there? Canon camera here, Canon camera there? Kindle here, Kindle there. And on and on and on. All this? C’est compliqué!

Even without the move I have massive connectivity issues.  All those different chargers! Some look like they’re going to fit, they’re the same colour (black or white) and appear to be the right size, but no, they’re not quite. Some work with multiple devices. “WHERE’S MY BLOODY PHONE CHARGER?” is not an unusual thing to hear bellowing from me around our house, because it works for R’s iPod too so, apparently, it’s ok to just take it away when he’s mislaid his.  Occasionally it’s wherever I last was charging my own phone [there is, admittedly, the occasional senior moment ingredient on my part, along with the need for readers, of course, which are never where you left them, possibly part of the seniority problem, and which you must have to look more closely at said charger to see if it fits your phone]. But, in the main, it’s actually not us (the parents), it’s them (the kids). We have a drawerful of leads, blocky piles of USBs into plugs into adaptors, quite a range of cables hanging out of the back of the desk-top, a whole other sub-section of car connectivity kit – for the sat nav, for the iPods, to charge the phones. A weave of wires which they can’t keep neatly, and they mix and match incessantly yet somehow seamlessly.

And then, with the move, there are the same connectivity issues PLUS adaptors and transformers and the freaking iTunes account.  Add to the mix a glass of wine in hand as the final evening before the packers descend draws ever closer to its end, and my flitting between the major task in hand to Wimbledon on the screen to sitting here writing this, and there’s potentially a dangerous tangle of technology looming.

The desk-top is going in the freight while pretty much all the rest of the computer-y stuff is sticking right with us. And that means, I have decided, so is everything in sight that’s on the end of a lead or could be (apart from the neighbours’ dog). There might well be a tangle, and I’m fairly sure I won’t be able to unravel it, but I’m not gonna be the one responsible for the early 21st century equivalent of video recording malfunction and the subsequent offspring disdain.

“So”, I will say to my darlings, “when you’ve found what you’re looking for, will you just……. well, y’know, connect me too? Just while you’re at it? Oh! Need a lead? It’s in that zip-loc bag right there, definitely, somewhere.”

Just off right this minute to make sure that zip-loc is in the ‘DON’T PACK’ pile…


It’s logistics not luxury

iahThis morning I was at the airport in Houston for the 52nd time since April 2012 when I first touched down for a flying visit to look at schools and houses.  By the time we leave for good in less than three weeks, that will have nudged up to 57 times.  That’s 57 times in 28 months, which is an average of almost once a fortnight. Now despite what Mr N would have you believe, this isn’t because I’ve had a holiday every two weeks or so (although, depending on one’s definition, I could be considered to have been on a permanent holiday for two years). I do acknowledge that 14 of the 57 will have been for holiday flights that have involved me. As these figures include both departures and arrivals, that’s seven holidays in 28 months which equates to one every four months. Possibly a little excessive, maybe, but four of these have been long weekends on cheap last sorts of deals, more like mini breaks than full blown vacations really, so ignore these and that’s three holidays in a bit over two years. (I’m not going to go down the road trip route today – don’t mind the pun – which are, well, arduous, driving-wise, not what everyone would typically define as a holiday and honestly quite certainly not restful.) So anyway, that means that 43 of these trips, predominantly to George Bush Intercontinental but also including William P Hobby, have not been for my holidays.  Rather, they have been, mainly, to pick up or drop off other people who have been coming here to see us, or to drop off and then pick up people who normally live here who have been going visiting somewhere else.

The point that I have rather laboriously been coming to is this: as an ex-pat, life revolves around airports and aeroplanes, and as an ex-pat in the US, where exploring the country means either getting cosy with your car for many hours on the road or flying because it’s vast and doesn’t really do trains, then it’s extra aero-centric.

Firstly, while Mr N can be a bit sniffy about my holiday habit (his terminology), back home in England we were not averse to regular weekends away in London and Edinburgh, say, as a family, or trips to the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Wales (north and south), holidays in Devon and Cornwall and Norfolk and the Highlands of Scotland, and further afield and for longer in Europe, and I had my fair share of girls’ weekends, most recently to Bath and Oxford and London and Anglesey.  The kids, too, had trips away – with school and, H and F at least, with friends and to festivals. We sometimes flew, but usually didn’t need to. Within America, more often than not we have flown, and that has included school trips – no puking on coaches for our little darlings out here! If you want to see places and visit people, air travel tends to be necessary. Now admittedly that’s “necessary” in the top-end terms of my first world privileged lifestyle, but in the context of home (UK) and here (US) and making the most of  these specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, I think I can just about justify use of the word necessary.

Secondly, we are a holiday destination!  In a period of 18 months we had 22 visitors in 11 separate visits.  Undeniably this visitation rate has noticeably diminished over the course of Year Two, after all it’s expensive to get here, a bit of a schlepp, it’s not New York, few people are gonna come twice (put your hand up the marvellous Mildred for that one!), and, of course, we’re coming home now so everyone can see us for free. Nevertheless, it’s a fact of peripatetic life that folks will want to come and stay with you and enjoy the country you’re in while they’ve got the chance. And being visited means airport pick-ups and drop-offs as well as mini-trips with the guests squashed into the itinerary: you’ve gotta give ‘em a good time, right?

Then there’s the reason you’re here in the first place – work. Actually Mr N has travelled less while here than he used to in his previous non-ex-pat job, but he’s had a few jollies as well as his 2014 exile to Oz that have required airport trips (I always take him and pick him up, he seems to have an aversion to taxis even though they’re on expenses. How good a wife am I? Thank you). Very many of my fellow trailing spouses’ spouses spend a lot of time in the air. It kind of comes with the territory.

Fourth, there’s the daughter thing. H is at university in England. She is by no means hard done by. We give her a very generous student allowance. She always seems to land on her feet (in the words of Grandma, “she could fall in a bog and come up smelling of roses”). She’s working in Italy right now. She has another job back in England in a few weeks. With the proceeds of both, she’s planning a trip to South Africa. She almost doesn’t need us (almost is the key word here). Frankly, it’s often fraught and sometimes edgy and always shouty when she’s here. But. She’s our daughter and she’s usually 5,000 miles away. I cannot, and do not want to, deny her opportunities to come to Houston to be with us. Mr N and I miss her, her brothers miss her (they might deny it but they do), she misses them (she might deny it but she does). Why be four when we can be five like we used to be? The only answer to that is why not?

It’s been a case of logistics over luxury, without a doubt.  However, very soon, visit number 57 will kick-start our final journey home and my relationship with the airports of Houston will be over. As it’s our “demobilisation” flight we get to go business class so the luxury, temporarily, is going to take over. But it’s the logistics that win, and right now I’m wishing they weren’t being quite so final.

Shifting and sliding on by (life, that is)

If life is a journey, we’re crossing a boundary and moving into a new place. And I don’t say that because we are, literally, moving (house, from Houston to the UK). Rather, there’s a rumbling shift in our family dynamics. It’s that time of our lives and, adding to the mood, it’s that irregular time of year. I’m all out of sorts with my days. On Tuesday this week it felt like Friday, so much so (that’s my excuse anyway) I had a 5pm poolside gin and tonic with ice and a slice. Nice.

Our school’s not yet out, but the local American ones are, so some friends are already off and away for the start of their Summer hols. For anyone still in school, it’s exam time. When he has no exams, R is allowed to be at home, so he’s been abnormally present. F finished his final IB exams and so his school career over two weeks ago and is on holiday with gorgeous girlfriend, so evenings are quieter (deadly quiet if R’s out). H doesn’t even live in the same country as us at the moment. And to cap the lack of routine, Mr N, of course, is Down Under. Still.

Much to R’s chagrin, he has benefited from no lie-ins from his exam timetable, with not one single free morning scheduled. From my perspective this is good. Normal. We have to get up. There’s a reason. R has to have breakfast, shower and be out of the door at 7.20am to get on the school bus. That means I, too, keep running/swimming/dog walking/playing tennis from the bus stop. Without this, I suspect my 5pm poolside gin and tonic would have become more than just the fake mistake one-off of Tuesday evening.

Life has just changed gear. The cliché is that it whizzes by and before you know it your babies have left home. This does seem to happen, which is why, like all clichés, it resonates. But along the way, and in-between the major milestones, there are switches  and vacillations; the changing down from third to second, sliding into the fast lane, slowing gently kind of stuff that carries us along, not the emergency stops, reverse gear, foot down 0-60 acceleration moments that stop and shock us.

For me and Mr N, we’re two-thirds of the way through our child-rearing. Now I suppose that, until (and if) we reach the point that they start to look after us, it’s probably never really going to be over while we’re alive, but legally at least, if we wanted to we could wash our hands of H and F, since they’re 20 and 18.  R (15) is our sole charge now. It didn’t just happen, it’s two years and four months since H turned 18, and seven months since F’s big day. But they were the way-markers, while now it feels more like just some flutterings-by, but flutterings that nevertheless are part of our continual repositioning as a family. Living in the house right at this moment, two not five. We’re in four different places, three different continents. Two adult children, one on an American road trip, one flying to Italy for a summer job. One part-boy-part-man, a lazy teen who can’t converse before noon or go to sleep before midnight but knows his own mind, is sharp and sensitive and funny and is old enough for study leave.  Mr N home in two weeks, didgeridoo in hand to add to the trumpets. Me, well, adjusting.

So, two down, one to go; it’s really real.

I think I’ve just nudged into cruise control.

G&T anyone?


The boy, the Beagle, Diesel and me

the boy, the beagle, diesel and meTwice this last week I have had to look after a little spotty boy (chicken pox). Well, ‘have had to’ is not true, I offered, willingly. And ‘I’ should read ‘we’ as it became a joint effort, both times  veritable cluck-fests of mother hens round chick. So the title of this piece should really be ‘The boy, the Beagle, Diesel and us’ but it didn’t have quite the cadence.

First morning, I picked up little spotty boy from home, along with bag (swimmers, towel, water, ice for pox, iPad in case of need for emergency game of Paw something-or-other, pet poo bags, sun cream), Diesel (the chocolate Lab) and the Beagle. Little spotty boy’s mum, S, is dog-sitting the Beagle whilst also incapacitated by an ACL repair knee op and, latterly, dealing with her son’s varicella virus. And Diesel is theirs too. So it was really the least I could do to offer to have them all for a couple of hours while she had physio. I, of course, have nothing more pressing on my calendar, which is full but feeble: the long run could wait (and anyway, it’s getting way too hot and humid at 30º and 98% humidity at 7.30am); the nearest deadline for my freelance work – already half done – not for two more days; moving home and country jobs all on the to-do list and getting ticked off at an ahead-of-schedule pace; lunch plans unaffected. Plus, F’s at home now he’s finished school for ever, and therefore able to be my Kroger-walla/ sous-chef/ maths tutor for R and general keep-the-house-clean slave.

Truth be told, I was quite excited by the thought of a morning’s dog- and child-minding, especially in the company of friends. The evening before, the i-Messenger-sphere over our little corner of Houston was aswirl with entertainment plans – swimming, cakes, ice creams, toys, meet here, stop off there, finish elsewhere. Too many middle-aged women with husbands away, J dryly pointed out. But my, we clucked!

So me and the boy and the Beagle and Diesel met up first with M, dropped the bag off at my house, picked up J, shared the poo pick ups (M and me, not little spotty boy or J, both refusers), pit-stopped at J’s for lollies (80% fruit), walked the lake loop, perfectly timed our snack-stop at J2’s for banana cake hot out of the oven, coffee, juice, chocolate ice cream (little spotty boy), a dip in her pool (Diesel), some patio chalking (little spotty boy), and lots of snaps. We finished up at our house, in the pool (little spotty boy and me), still there when S got back. No time for the Paws-whatsit game on the iPad.

Second time, two days later, we met at the neighbourhood pool, did some proper swimming (M and I had a front crawl race, which M won – of course I’d never have challenged her if I’d thought that would be the result; V did 70 lengths; J did a few less than that; little spotty boy did some good arms) then mozied down the road for lemon drizzle cake, coffee and sticker books.

Never did a kid have such fun with chicken pox! But then never did I have such fun looking after a kid with chicken pox. When F then H, my two oldest, had it one immediately after the other, I was seven months pregnant with R, the youngest, and recovering from a chest infection, working, knackered and massive, and then one of H’s pox became infected. When R got it as a baby it meant keeping inside with him and juggling the other two to and from school and nursery. All three times Mr N was away. So it basically boiled down to stress added to stress on top of not enough sleep. Which is, of course, what it’s like having small children. But just as with the searing, measureless, primeval pain that is childbirth, you forget.  My children’s toddlerhood was for me, I think, a combination of hassle, exhaustion, tedium and exasperation punctuated by cuteness, hilarity, pride, awe and the warmth of the rumbling roots of lifelong friendships, both theirs and mine.  But the good bits, at the time, whilst not exactly out-weighed by the bad bits, are often overwhelmed by them, so it’s only at the end of the day when they’re in bed and limbs-flung-wide asleep and you’ve got a glass of wine in your hand and your bloke home that you can laugh and enjoy. And, actually, sometimes you still can’t even laugh then because you’re asleep yourself.

Being in charge, temporarily, of little spotty boy, was, therefore, pure, unadulterated joy. We struggled with the Beagle’s bungee lead, dawdled along the shady sidewalks, dilly-dallied with the dogs as they stopped and sniffed and wee-ed. He started off quiet and ended up chatty. We made the same jokes over and over (“It’s your job to pick up the poo, mummy said so!”). We pointed out squirrels and turtles and red cardinal birds. We tried to give interesting and simple but educational answers to blunt questions (“What is a spot?”). We admired his hopping. We ruffled his hair and put ice on his itches. We sang him a song about sharks (well, J did). He sat on my knee and gave us all cuddles. He even had a tumble and a scraped, bloody knee so I had tears to wipe and chase away, and briefly had to carry him, the bag, and hold on to the two dogs, bungee lead not helping, under the hot sun. But we made it home all smiles, him asking for a band-aid not a plaster after a distracting discussion about the different words in American and English.

So thanks to the boy, the Beagle and Diesel, I’ve had a delicious taste of the past, all too often unappreciated and not thought about. And now, little spotty boy is spotty no more and back at nursery school. Sigh.