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LIBBY’S LIFE #63: A post from Melissa

Kate:  We’ve heard a lot about Libby and Oliver’s landlady, but only from Libby’s biased point of view. In today’s episode, the woman herself, Melissa Harvey Connor, takes the stage. 

Can she redeem her reputation after everything Libby’s told us about her? 

Melissa:  Life has a way of sorting itself out. It doesn’t matter what happens, or what kind of bad shit goes down, it’ll all work out in the end. If it’s not worked out, it’s not the end, and the fat lady hasn’t done her number yet.

I read that somewhere on Pinterest, but it’s a good philosophy, right? I’ve always thought so, anyway. Even now, at the age of 44 — I mean 32 — whenever things aren’t going to plan, I try to hang on to the idea that good things happen to those who wait.

Like, within reason. I can’t stay 32 forever, irregardless* of what that doctor who shoots me up with Botox says. A girl can wait only so long for the good times to roll around, especially if she’s being driven insane by her husband Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Connor. How in God’s name did someone like me wind up with someone like him, you ask?

I’ll tell you how. It was his cute British accent. Like Sean Connery’s James Bond. Very English. I’m a sucker for guys with British accents. They’re so much classier than your average Joe’s accent round here.

Jeffrey and his wife at the time, Shelley, ended up renting my house after I moved to a new condo. One thing led to another — I’d collect the rent check from Jeffrey on evenings when Shelley was out at book group, and pretty soon we were making jokes about me being the highest paid call girl in Woodhaven. Or rather, he’d be making jokes about call girls in that classy accent of his — he said it was an Essex accent, but whatever, he sounded like Sean Connery to me — and I’d be all, “Say something else! Talk to me some more!”

After four years of it, though, I had to call timeout.  By that stage I’d realized his accent was more like Russell Brand’s than Sean Connery’s, and the jokes about call girls were so not funny any more.  Four years is a long time  for anyone — Patsy Traynor said I deserved a medal — though I guess it was less if you don’t count the year he was still living with that boring wife of his.

The weird thing is, I hated Shelley at the time, but now I just think, you poor woman. I’d had Jeffrey for four years, but she’d had him for ten, and he’s gone back for more. Jeffrey, I discovered, is boring, and boring is contagious, so no wonder Shelley bored the pants off of everyone she met. I might have found out Jeffrey was boring too, if I’d listened to what he was saying instead of drooling over the accent he was saying it in.

I found out soon enough when we were married, though.Twenty-four hours after we stood in front of the minister in that Vegas chapel — getting a five-minute wedding in Vegas was probably the most exciting thing Jeffrey had ever done — he suggested that we drive to see the Grand Canyon.

What the hell? Drive 300 miles to see a big ditch, when we could have been playing blackjack in the Bellagio? Or even, dare I suggest it, having sex in our hotel room? This weekend away had turned into a honeymoon, after all, and that’s what you’re supposed to do on honeymoon. What you’re not supposed to do is drive 300 miles in a beige Ford Taurus to see a hole in the ground. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d rented the Porsche or the Corvette at the airport’s Avis place, or hell, even the Mustang, and we could have driven those 300 miles in a little style. But no, Jeffrey was all “Oh no, honey, I can’t afford that. Not with maintenance payments for the kids as well.” And I was like, “Well, Jeffrey, you should have thought of that yesterday before you got yourself a trophy wife!”

I know. Trophy wives are usually younger than the husbands, and  technically Jeffrey is nine years younger than me. But at the time I said I was 28, so that makes me a trophy in my book. Plus I was a successful realtor with two houses and no kids — well, I have two of those as well, actually, but they’re with their father in North Dakota. They never come here, and obviously I never go there, because who in their right mind visits North Dakota?

Anyway, as I stood on the south rim of this big ditch in the middle of Noplace, Arizona, while Jeffrey took gazillions of photos of sky and rocks and things, I thought, Oh. My. God. What have I done?

Then I thought, Come on Melissa. You know things usually turn out good in the end. This happened for a reason.

So I waited for the reason and for things to turn out good, but you know what? They kept on getting worse. I was just dying of boredom, and I got to thinking that if it didn’t kill me soon, I’d help it along some with some Prozac and a few Jack Daniels chasers.

But then, this time last year, everything changed.

We’d had a big winter storm that cut the power to all the houses in town, and I was worried about my tenants, Libby and Oliver, so I went to see if they were all right. There was no reply when I rang the doorbell, so I let myself in with the spare key. You hear bad stuff about people dying of carbon dioxide poisoning** and landlords getting sued, and I thought I’d better check no one was lying dead in the bath tub or anything.

So there I am, walking around upstairs with a flashlight, and I trip over a sweater on the floor and nearly fall over the railings to the floor below. At this point, Mrs Libby High-Horse Patrick walks in the house as if she owns the place — which she doesn’t, because I do — and orders me out of my house because, she says, I’m invading her privacy and sniffing her husband’s sweatshirt.

Sniffing her husband’s sweatshirt? Puh-leese! Oliver’s cute and all, and I don’t mind admitting I used to have a little crush on him when he and Libby first moved in, but she made me sound like I was a bunny-boiling stalker. Which I’m not. But I was prepared to forget what she said, so I went round a few days later, and you know what? The bitch had gotten the locks changed so my key didn’t work.

Of course, I went to complain to the HR department where Oliver and Jeffrey work, because they’re the people who pay me Oliver’s rent. I told them I wanted the Patricks out of my house because they’d changed the locks and brought a dog to live in the place without permission. And the snotty guy in HR read over the lease and said they were perfectly within their rights to do both those things, and maybe I should have a proper lawyer draw up a lease next time if I didn’t like it, because as long as I was getting my rent on time, I didn’t have a leg to stand on.

So we had a yelling match right there in the office, and I guess I must have been too loud, because another guy walks in and wants to know what it’s all about. I tell him, at length and in detail, and halfway through, the guy from the HR department rolls his eyes and leaves the room. These Brits are so rude. But I keep on ranting at the second guy, because he seems to be listening carefully, and I think I may get somewhere. Besides, he’s kinda cute.

“And let me tell you,” I say at the end, when I’ve run out of things to say, “no one messes with Melissa Harvey Connor in this town!”

“You’re Jeffrey Connor’s wife?” he says. He’s got this awesome accent. Hugh Grant! I think. Older than Hugh Grant, though. Think George Clooney before he went gray.

I nod. “Technically,” I say, as he takes me by the elbow and leads me into a very classy office with a window and a view over the River.  He closes the door behind him, pulls out a chair at his desk for me to sit on.

On his desk there’s a brass nameplate. Terry Michaels, President, American Operations.

I’ve heard Jeffrey talk about him. The boss of the company on this side of the Atlantic, no less. And let’s face it, who cares about the other side anyway?

“Why don’t we talk about it some more?” he asks. “Are you free for lunch? I’m sure we can sort things out to everyone’s satisfaction.”

*  *  *

And that was how I met the real love of my life, Terry. His wife Caroline is a nut job and he’s thinking of divorcing her, so no one must know about us, he told me. If she knew about us, she could get very nasty, and Terry has no intention of living in poverty so that Caroline can max out her cards at Tiffany.

So we were careful, and for a long time, no one suspected a thing. Then the housing market plummeted, Jeffrey finally got the message that I wasn’t that into him so he went back to his ex-wife, but not before he got me a job in his office, working for Oliver of all people. It was a great cover story — I flirted nonstop with Oliver, and let the rumors fly. Terry said he’d heard from Caroline that the gossip among the English wives was that Oliver and I were having a passionate fling. Too funny, right? I hoped it would get back to Libby. Serve her right for changing my goddamn locks.

Then in August, Oliver queried some overtime I’d done. Nine hours in one week. “Of course I did it,” I said. “Ask Mr. Michaels. He asked me to stay behind to help him.” And so he did, although of course it wasn’t filing he’d had in mind.

Oliver stared at me for a long time. “I’m sure he did,” he said, and walked away.

“He knows,” I told Terry later.

Terry told me not to worry, that he could sort Oliver out. “He’s due for a pay rise,” he said. “Now that Jeffrey’s left, we could do some restructuring. I’ll have a chat, man to man. If the job offer is good enough, he’ll see sense.”

But that was nearly a month ago, and Oliver still hasn’t taken any promotion.

*  *  *

 * Kate (and everyone else) knows ‘irregardless’ is not a word. Melissa, however, back in the day, paid less attention to her high school English teacher than was advisable, and doesn’t take kindly to helpful editing suggestions. Sorry.

** She didn’t pay much attention in Chemistry, either.

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Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #64 – Shades of red (2, not 50)

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #62 – Private investigations

A note for Libby addicts: Check out Woodhaven Happenings, where from time to time you will find more posts from other characters.  Want to remind yourself of Who’s Who in Woodhaven? Click here for the cast list!

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

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Stay tuned for our next post!

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Img: Map of the World – Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

LIBBY’S LIFE: Oliver’s side of the story

A note from Kate: After the last episode, I thought Oliver should be given a chance to explain things, so this episode is told by the man himself. 

In the last episode, Libby waited up for Oliver, wanting to confront him about her recent discovery. Before she could make her presence known in the darkened house, she heard him on the phone making murmured plans with someone she could only assume was another woman. 

Here he is, at the other woman’s house.

*  *  *

I ring the doorbell, and after a couple of seconds the door opens.

“You took your time,” she says. “It doesn’t take fifteen minutes to get here.”

“Diversion to the liquor store.” I hold out a bottle of Pinot Grigio. “For you.”

I know how to get round women. A good bottle of white never fails.

She takes it from me. “We’ll open that later.”

I follow her along the hall and into the kitchen.

“And Libby doesn’t know you’re here?” she asks. She opens the fridge and puts the wine inside.

“She was asleep. The house was dark. She doesn’t even know I came home.”

“That makes things easier.”

She reaches into a cabinet and gets out two wine glasses, ready for later in the evening.

“Have you eaten tonight?” she asks.

I try to think. To be honest, I’m not sure when I last ate. I tell her this.

She shoots me a disapproving look. “You need to look after yourself, a young strapping man like you. I was about to have a tuna sandwich. Care to join me?”

I hate fish.

“Perfect,” I say.

She starts rattling baking trays and tin openers around, and I lean against the doorjamb, watching her.

“How long have you lived here?” I ask.

She stops banging stuff around long enough to think about the question. “In this house? A couple of years. In Woodhaven? Pretty much since 1976, give or take.”

She opens a tin of tuna and mashes it with mayonnaise. When she finishes with it, it looks like cat food.

“I’m going to make tea,” she says. “Could you get me one of those teapots from that shelf?”

I cross the kitchen and reach up to the high shelf above the window over the sink. “Any particular one?”

“The ginger tabby.”

The shelf is crammed with teapots shaped like cats. I’ve never seen anything so hideous.

“What’s the story with the cats?” I ask. “That’s quite an impressive collection you’ve got there. You must have an eye for antiques.”

Wrong thing to say. She’s not fooled for a minute.

“You’re so full of it,” she says. “They’re awful and you know it.”

She gives me a stern look that makes me feel as if I’m back in my junior school headmistress’s office, hauled onto the carpet for dipping Cheryl Atwood’s ponytail in red paint during art class.

“You’re not going to charm your way into my good books that easily,” Maggie says.

* * *

Oh, come on. Give me some credit. You didn’t think I was going out to meet some fancy woman tonight, did you? I saw Maggie this morning while I was out early walking the dog, and she asked me to come here tonight. Said she had something to tell me, but not to say anything to Libby.

If it was any other old biddy, I’d have told her to keep her nose out, but this is Maggie, and she’s not someone you can just say No to like that. Besides, she’s been good to Libs, so I supposed I owed her this much. And I thought I might get some decent food. Wrong again.

Now I wish I’d gone with my first instincts and told her to mind her own business. I’ve got a feeling that all she wants to do is give me a bollocking.

Can’t blame her, either, to be quite honest. If I’d been a fly on the wall of this house these last couple of months, I’d be thinking, “Oliver, you bastard” too. Any reasonable bloke would just sit down with the wife and try to sort things out, right?

But it’s not as simple as that.

Things never are.

* * *

“About this morning, when I saw you walking Fergus,” Maggie says, when we sit down in her living room, a plate of tuna sandwiches between us on the coffee table.

“What about it?” I ask. The smell of the fish makes me want to throw up.

“I asked you to come round here tonight because Libby told me something that I think you should know.”

I wonder what it could be. Perhaps Libby’s arranged an entire family reunion party at the Holiday Inn.

“And the thing is,” Maggie says, “it’s difficult for me to tell you because I promised her mother I wouldn’t interfere.”

I can’t help it. I snort, although I manage to turn it into a kind of sneeze. Again, Maggie isn’t fooled, and she fixes me with another of her headmistressy stares.

I straighten my face.

“As I was saying,” she continues after a pause, “I did promise her mother I wouldn’t interfere. But it seems that her mother, by not interfering herself, is just as much to blame for the circumstances you and Libby are currently in.”

She puts down her old-lady china plate decorated with gaudy red and orange roses, and starts to pour two cups of tea.

My headmistress never gave me tea after I’d dyed Cheryl’s ponytail.

Maggie passes a cup to me. “More sugar?” she asks.

I sip, then shake my head. This situation is bizarre. I wonder when she’s going to get the cane out. If Maggie ever needs a bit of extra income, she could always go in for private S&M sessions. She’s one scary lady.

She smiles at me. “Good.”

Sips her tea.

“She knows all about it, Oliver.”

The room, still warm from the heat of the day, suddenly feels icy cold.

“Knows what?” I ask, although it’s a rhetorical question. I’m only playing for time, putting off the moment.

“You know what,” Maggie says.

* * *

“I wanted to tell her,” I say after a few minutes have passed. Maggie’s a master in the art of silence, and eventually I had to break it. “But you see…that would have meant breaking a promise to my mother.”

“Tell me.”

“She made me promise I would never tell anyone about what really happened to my father. As far as anyone else was concerned, he ran off with a librarian when I was five.”

“Is your wife ‘anyone else’?”

I open my mouth to answer, “Of course she isn’t” and then stop.

Because if I haven’t told her what really happened to her father-in-law, then that’s what she is, right?

* * *

Most married men have two women in their lives. A wife and a mother. Some manage the two together without any problem.

The others have to make a choice. I thought I’d made my choice the first time I met Libs. She literally took my breath away. Every time I saw her, I had difficulty breathing. She’s the one, I thought.

Now, as Maggie tells me every last thing that Libby has found out from our hitherto unplayed wedding video, I realise I’ve been fooling myself for the last ten years.

More to the point, I’ve been fooling Libby.

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This was originally published on July 8 at the Woodhaven Happenings site, a blog where you can find extra posts by other Libby’s Life characters. Need reminding of the characters? Check out the Who’s Who.

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Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #56 – Falling up

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #55 – Dark Secrets

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Stay tuned Monday’s guest post by Matt Krause, author of “A Tight Wide-open Space”!

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Img: Map of the World – Salvatore Vuono

Me and my shadow: LIBBY’S LIFE #50 – Home again

Oh, thank the lord and all his angels. I am on my way back to England, after an extended stay with the Patricks.

How extended, exactly? Two weeks, two months, two years? Who knows?

Time expands to encompass the drama available.

~

Never have I wanted to be somewhere else so badly as on the evening that Tania Patrick appeared on Libby’s doorstep and refused to leave. She wanted to meet her big brother, come what may — and never mind the collateral damage to his family.

The awkwardness, the embarrassment, the toe-curling please-God-get-me-out-of-here-ness of that meeting. The sister seemed oblivious to our shuffling feet, the nervous coughs, and our collective intake of breath as we heard Oliver’s car pull onto the driveway.

“Oliver!” Tania Patrick cooed, as she elbowed Libby out of the way, opened the front door, and and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek.

While she’s not unattractive, she’s never going to feature in a Pirelli calendar either, and Oliver’s not the touchy-feely type without a good reason for being so.

“Do I know you?” he asked, leaning back to avoid her embrace.

Libby, meanwhile, watching the scene as intently as her husband would watch a penalty shootout between Arsenal and Spurs, couldn’t bear the suspense. It occurred to me afterwards that she could have exonerated herself by blaming the sister for tracking Oliver down, but, guileless as she is, she blurted out her version of the truth.

“Oliver, this is Tania. She’s your sister. We met online after I emailed her.”

I couldn’t help but cover my face with my hands, shaking my head. Libby would not only have shaken hands with her executioner but apologised for treading on his foot on the way across the scaffold.

Oliver sidled through the front door into the house, pressing himself against the walls so he didn’t have to touch the visitor.

“And you didn’t think to tell me at the time?” he asked Libby.

“Well…” She floundered. “I mean, I didn’t tell her where we lived or anything, so I didn’t think she’d come here.”

“Took a bit of detective work to find you!” Tania’s voice was raspy. A recently ex-smoker’s cough. “Dad never talks about you, but my grandma told me once I had a brother somewhere.”

“Did she.” Oliver’s question dropped at the end to become a statement. “I bet he doesn’t know you’re here now.”

For the first time, Tania seemed unsure of herself.

“He doesn’t, no.”

Oliver nodded.

“Keep it that way,” he said, opening the front door wide, and indicating to his newly-discovered and quickly-abandoned sister that this particular game of Happy Families was over.

~

I wasn’t sure what happened between Libby and Oliver after that. They disappeared into their room with the twins, and every now and then I heard the sound of raised voices, followed by one of the twins’ wailing.

Jane and I put Jack to bed, and had a whispered conversation while his bath was running.

“It will blow over,” Jane said, sounding more certain than she looked. “It has to. She meant no harm.”

“Things will look better in the morning,” I said.

~

They didn’t, of course.

They looked worse.

And the morning after that, too. Every day was worse than the last.

Libby put on a brave face and bright smiles during the day — while Oliver was out — and for minutes at a time we would forget anything was wrong. The babies always knew something was wrong, though, and cried alternately with hunger and colic. On Day Three, Libby abandoned her principles and gave them formula milk.

When Oliver came home in the evenings, the atmosphere changed in the house. Jane and I would scurry for cover in the basement, pretending that we were keeping Jack entertained and out of the way.

Bad enough to bear were the frozen silences whenever Libby and Oliver were in the same room together. When Jane and I prepared dinner in the kitchen, we whispered, as if by whispering we could dissipate the cloud of anger and resentment that billowed forth from Oliver.

Worst of all, though were the nights. When everyone was in bed, we could hear — although we pretended not to — the increasing volume of Oliver’s voice, as the same argument was rehashed again and again.

“You had no right! None of your business!”

An inaudible murmur from Libby. More raging from Oliver.

“How would you like it if I invited a whole bunch of your long lost, naff relatives to barge into our life and turn it upside down? You wouldn’t, would you?”

Another murmur from Libby, this time louder so the quaver in her voice is detectable.

“I don’t care how good your intentions were. I’ve spent my entire life trying to forget that bastard ever existed, and now I have to deal with him and a TOWIE half-sister, thanks to your good intentions. If those are your good intentions, God help us all when you have bad ones.”

And so on. Every night. Libby looked shattered — a normal look for a mother with new twins, but this was exhaustion on a different plane.

~

Sunday arrived, and I had to leave. I wished I could take Libby as well.

She had refused to talk about what had happened. Perhaps she felt that ignoring the problem would make it go away.

“I’ll be all right,” she said, as she said goodbye to me. “Mum’s still here, at least.”

Jane had stepped up her game in the last few days. If she previously thought Libby was confident, and felt inadequate around her, this was no longer the case. A mother is always a mother, no matter how old her children are.

“You’ve got to talk to someone, Libs,” I said. “You can’t bottle it up like this.”

She shook her head. “Can’t,” she said, pressing her lips together in a thin line. “You have no idea what a Pandora’s Box I’ve opened.”

I had an idea. “Then write. Get it out of your system that way.”

She nodded slightly. “I’ll think about it.”

“I can’t do your blog next week,” I said. Actually, I could, but this would be good therapy for Libs.

“I’ll think about it,” she repeated. She sniffed, straightened up, and put her shoulders back. “You’d better go. The traffic will be awful if you leave it any later. The Red Sox are playing at home today.”

I sat in the car, put it in reverse, and backed out of the driveway. As I stopped at the end of Juniper Drive, I looked in the rearview mirror. Libby was standing by her mailbox, still waving.

Even from this distance, I could see she was crying.

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Next: LIBBY’S LIFE #51 – On a cliff edge

Previous: LIBBY’S LIFE #49- An unwelcome blast from the past

Stay tuned for Friday’s Displaced Q testing your ability in another aspect of La Dolce Vita!

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Img: Map of the World – Salvatore Vuono

Me and my shadow: LIBBY’S LIFE #49 – An unwelcome blast from the past

Well, here I am again. Kate, that is, not Libby.

Not sure when Libby will have enough free time to write her journal herself, so you’ll have to put up with me this week, and possibly next week as well. After that, who knows? Maybe Libs can persuade Maggie to fire off a bulletin for you. Or perhaps her mother could do it…now that would be interesting.

~ ~ ~

Having changed my flight,  I’m going home rather later than I intended, so am now snugly ensconced Chez Patrick where I have agreed to stay for the next two weeks.

A somewhat rash decision, in retrospect. Might have been wiser to stay in the local Motel 6 and commute to my temporary job as Mother’s Help.

It’s not that Libby’s accommodation isn’t wonderful. I’m sleeping on a big sofa-bed in Oliver’s home office. It’s warm, cosy, and has free wifi with a strong signal. Being here means that Oliver can’t use his office much, because the contents of my suitcase are draped all over his swivel chair, but that doesn’t matter. He spends most of his time ten miles away at his workplace.

Yes, Oliver is back at work already. No paid paternity leave for him, but I suspect that is merely an excuse for his absence.

The real problem, for both Oliver and me, is his mother-in-law.

Oliver and Jane aren’t a good mix. We’re not talking chalk and cheese or even oil and water here. Think chemistry class, think sodium and water, think fiery explosions on calm water, and you’re on the right track.

“I thought you said they used to get on well together?” I said to Libby on Oliver’s first day back at work, when the twins were barely a week old. He had stomped out of the house before seven a.m. while Jane tagged after him, swiping ineffectually at his back with a clothes brush. This morning, just before he slammed the door on his way out to the garage, Jane asked him if he’d got a clean hankie in his pocket.

“They did,” she replied, wriggling around on the couch, a baby in each arm. “When I first started going out with Oliver, she pandered to him the way she panders to my father, and he lapped it up. Every argument we ever had, his trump card was ‘Your mother would never say that to your dad.'”

“So what’s his problem now?”

“Ah, well, everything’s got a flip side, hasn’t it? The reason she panders is because she thinks men are useless in the home. According to her, Oliver’s totally incompetent and shouldn’t be allowed near one newborn, let alone two.”

“Ah.”

“I don’t blame her in the case of my Dad. I mean — he is useless, although I sometimes wonder if she makes him that way. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that. But Oliver’s quite capable of rustling up some bottles of formula and cooking dinner.”

“Not that you need to do any cooking for weeks.” The freezer was chock full of homemade, ready-to-reheat meals, courtesy of the Coffee Morning Posse. Every day, Charlie, Anita or Julia would turn up with more Tupperware boxes, labelled “Chicken a la King” or “Chilli Con Carne” or “Swedish Meatballs”. I’d got to the point where I was considering another pregnancy myself, just for the Meals-On-Wheels benefits.

“Just as well, isn’t it, if I had to rely on my Mum to feed me? She claims Oliver’s incompetent, but then she can’t get past the American-English differences. The other week she decided to make some scones, but couldn’t find the plain flour. It’s called all-purpose flour over here, right, but the leap of imagination to translate was beyond her. All I heard was, Ooh, it’s not the same as what I get in Sainsbury’s.”

“Did you get your scones?”

“Are you kidding? She walked to the gas station up the road and bought some Twinkies. Jack ate four, and he was awake until midnight. I used to take the mick out of Sandra because she once gave Jack some Red Bull, but this was actually worse.”

One of the twins started to cry, so I took the non-crying one from Libby. I think it was Beth. Or maybe it was George. Both twins wore green footie pyjamas, so I couldn’t tell which was which from the outside.

I rested Tweedledum over my left shoulder, absent-mindedly patting its back. Libby handed me an old towel, and I tucked it underneath the baby’s chin.

“I didn’t bring any babyproof clothes with me,” I said. “Mostly business work clothes, and I’m running out of things to wear.”

I’d forgotten the trick of keeping an old cloth on your shoulder when burping babies, and all day yesterday I had the sensation that a piece of ripe Camembert was following me everywhere, until Jane pointed out the trail of curdled milk on the back of my favourite white shirt. The local dry cleaners’ profits would skyrocket when I got home.

“Raid my closet,” Libby suggested. “Take some home with you. I’ll never fit into half of my clothes ever again.”

She’s sweet, but — no. Even at ten days postpartum, she’s thinner than I am now.

If I didn’t like her so much, I’d hate her.

“Or you could go to the mall for some more things,” Libby went on. “Take Jack and Mum with you, and I’ll have some quiet time with the twins.”

That didn’t seem like a bad idea. I’d take Jane, tire Jack out on the little indoor playground there, and when they got home they’d both be ready for bed.

“It’s got possibilities,” I said, and went in search of Libby’s mother and first-born.

*  *  *

Once you get Jane out of the house, she’s different. She even opened up a little to me.

“It’s not that I don’t want to help,” she confessed. “It’s just that I feel very inadequate around Libby, as if I’m going to get everything wrong no matter how hard I try. She’s not the same person who went away a year ago. She’s so much more…confident.”

“She’s not expecting you to be Superwoman,” I said. “Just her mum. And by that I don’t mean Oliver’s mum as well. He can work out himself if he needs a clean hankie or not.”

She had the grace to look a bit ashamed.

As well as going clothes shopping for me, I dragged her and Jack into a supermarket and a craft store. It’s Jack’s fourth birthday in just over a week, and I’m pretty sure Libby won’t have got her act together enough to do anything really special. Between the three of us, we picked out birthday napkins, party favours, and all the stuff Jane needed to make a 3D Lightning McQueen cake.

“I do hope Libby won’t mind me doing this,” she kept saying. “I don’t want to end up being more of a hindrance than a help.”

I told her that she had a long way to go before she attained Oliver’s mum’s standards  of “helping” and that her birthday cake was unlikely to put Libby and Jack into hospital.

She seemed mull this over, and by the time we got in the car to drive home, was the perkiest I’d seen her all week.

When we arrived at the house, a strange car was parked in the driveway.

“Another food delivery from Libby’s friends, I expect,” I said to Jane as we hauled the shopping bags into the hallway.

“Libs?” I called. “We’re home. We’ve got everything sorted out for Jack’s bir–Libs? Are you OK?”

Libby walked unsteadily towards us from the living room. Her face was pale. Following behind her was a woman: tall, fair-skinned, with sparse, sandy-coloured hair. Another of the Coffee Morning Posse, I presumed.

“I’m fine,” Libby said, giving me a too-bright smile that pronounced her a fibber. “Did you get what you need?”

“Yes,” I said, holding up a Macy’s bag in one hand and a Stop and Shop carrier in the other. “Your mum’s going to make Jack’s birthday cake.”

The woman behind Libby spoke to Jack who, at the sight of the stranger, had hidden himself behind his Granny Jane.

“It’s your birthday soon? When’s your birthday, darlin’?”

An English accent. Definitely one of the Coffee Morning Posse.

“Thirteenth of May.”  Libby replied for him after a pause.

“Aww. He’s shy.” The woman put her head on one side. “Just like our Damian.”

Silence from Libby as she looked down at her bare feet. The silence grew until it filled the two-storey room.

“Is Damian a friend of Jack’s?” I asked.

The woman laughed.

“I hope he will be,” she said.

In the living room, one of the twins began to whimper. Normally this would have Libby running to see what the fuss was about, but she didn’t look up from studying her toes.

“This is my mother Jane and my friend Kate,” she said sideways, in the general direction of the stranger. “They’re both staying here, so you can see that it’s not really feasible for you to stay as well.”

“No problem at all. You’ve got your hands full, I can see that. But I’d love to stay and see Oliver.”

“Well, as I explained, Oliver’s on a business trip for three weeks, and that’s why these two wonderful ladies are helping me out–”

Oliver? Business trip? First I’d heard of it, but Libby must have a good reason for telling such a whopper, so I went along with it.

“That’s right.” I nodded, and looked across at Jane to make sure she was going along with whatever plan Libby was hatching.

She wasn’t.

“But –” she said, in a tone of bewilderment. “But Oliver left this morning and said nothing about being away for three weeks. In fact, I heard him say he’d be home in time to cook dinner.”

The woman called Tania folded her arms. “You know, I thought something didn’t sound right. What kind of man leaves his wife on her own with newborn twins, for heavens’ sake?”

She shot a look of triumph at Libby.

“Not my brother, that’s for sure.” She held her hand out to me.

“Tania Patrick,” she said. “Oliver’s long-lost sister. Pleased to meet you.”

Next: LIBBY’S LIFE #50 – Home again

Previous: Me and my shadow: LIBBY’S LIFE #48 – Hospital visiting hours 

Stay tuned for Friday’s Displaced Q!

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Me and my shadow: LIBBY’S LIFE #48 – Hospital visiting hours

Kate here. Sorry. No journal entry from Libby today, so I’m writing it for her — but I think you’ll agree she has a good excuse.

Three days ago on Monday, April 23rd, at 2:02pm and 2:11pm, Libby’s twins entered the world.

Understandably, Libby has been a little preoccupied  since then.

~ ~ ~

It’s a little over a year since I first met Libby. We were both browsing in Waterstones last March — or rather, I was browsing and she was buying self-help books by the truckload, desperately trying to make the best of her enforced expatriation. Over a couple of Danish pastries, I gave her the idea of writing this blog, and I’ve been surprised by her doggedness in the endeavour.

Admittedly, I’ve also been taken aback by her candid accounts of life in small town America. Presumably her landlady and husband don’t read the blog. Not to mention her mother-in-law.

As it happened, I’ve been in Albany on business this month, crossing my fingers that my time here would coincide with the birth of Libby’s twins. When I got a text from her on Tuesday, announcing their arrival the previous day, I was thrilled. She’d beaten the system and had the twins before her scheduled C-section.

“Twins r here! Overjoyed! Visit us!” her first text said, exuding that post-birth hormonal high. I remembered it well.

The next text, twelve hours later, was less high. It said: “Pls bring Boston Cremes and decaf iced coffee. Or normal coffee but don’t tell nurse at desk.”

I duly arrived at the maternity ward — “Family Birth Center” — clutching a box of the requested doughnuts and clandestine joe, and was given lots of suspicious looks by a nurse who appeared to have been trained by the TSA.  When I’d convinced her that I was here to see a friend and her new babies, that I wasn’t going to abduct said babies, that I hadn’t imported TB from Europe, and hinted that it was none of her damned business if I intended to stuff six Boston Cremes down my throat in front of my friend, she grudgingly allowed me to knock on Libby’s door.

The rooms in American hospitals compared with English hospital wards are…Well. Think “Waldorf Astoria.” Then think “Youth hostel.”

Libby’s room contained two beds, and she sat on one with her back to me, chatting on the phone. She seemed to be the only occupant, which is just as well because the spare half of the room was taken up with a flock of helium balloons and the contents of the local garden centre. I felt rather silly with my modest pot of one pink and one blue hyacinth, but took consolation at the sight of an empty Dunkin Donuts cup by the wastepaper basket, which indicated my food offering would be more welcome.

She heard me enter and turned around. “Just a minute,” she mouthed at me before plastering a fake smile on her face.

“No, Mum,” I heard her say. “You put maple syrup on pancakes, and peanut butter on toast. No, not the other way round. Yes, I’m sure. Marmite is fine on American bread, Jack will eat that too — he didn’t? That’s unusual…Oh. Well, I suppose Marmite doesn’t taste too good on cinnamon toast, so — look, just give him a banana now, and Oliver will sort him out later. Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. I’ll be home tomorrow. Hang in there, OK?”

Libby clicked the Off button on the phone. The fake smile disappeared.

“Jesus wept!” she shouted. “I leave the house at 9:30 on Monday morning to give birth to twins five hours later — without an epidural, I’ll have you know — and she can’t even cope with the correct topping for cinnamon toast?”

She breathed in deeply, then let it out slowly. Five times she did this. She’d obviously had lots of practice at this quite recently — whether in labour or while trying to cope with her mother, I couldn’t tell.

“Anyway,” she said eventually, this time with a genuine smile. “You came to see us! That’s lovely.”

“I brought these.” I set the flowers and coffee on one of the bedside tables, and fished around in my tote bag. “Baby clothes. M&S.”

“How cute is that!” She’d adopted some of the American vernacular since our last meeting, I noticed. “They’ll look very sweet in these little vests, won’t you, my babies?” she cooed in the direction of the balloons.

I glanced around the room, peering into the depths of the flowers and balloons for evidence of cribs and newborns.

“Libs? Where are the babies?”

She looked alarmed for a moment, then relaxed. “Oh! That’s right, they’re not here. They’re in the nursery. The nurses keep running off with them when they haven’t got enough to do, which is quite often. There’s only me and two other women in the unit at the moment. Quite surprising, when you consider the circumstances of the conception. Then again, I suppose I was early.”

I was confused for a moment, then remembered. Hurricane Irene. Not much else in the way of entertainment when the electricity is out for a week. In a couple of weeks, this place would be a lot fuller.

“And how are Sam and Megan doing?” I asked.

She tilted her head on one side. “Who?”

I frowned, wondering if the old saying about losing your brain cells in the maternity ward was doubly applicable when you had twins.

“The bay-bies?” I said, enunciating slowly.

Libby laughed.

“Didn’t I tell you? They’re not Sam and Megan any more. They’re George and Elizabeth. They were born on Saint George’s Day,” she explained, “so Oliver and I thought that something more English, more regal, might be in order. And of course Elizabeth is my real name, but we’re going to call her Beth — Oh, look! Here they are!”

Two nurses wheeled two trolleys topped with clear plastic cribs. In each little crib — bassinet, I think they call them here — lay a tightly wrapped bundle with a stripy hat perched on one end.

One pink hat, one blue.

Libby sighed. “They’re hungry again. Especially George. George is always hungry.”

She shuffled around on the bed, twiddling with controls that raised the head into a backrest. One of the nurses propped a couple of pillows in front of her and handed her a baby. Libby tucked it under her left arm, and then tucked the other baby under her right. She nodded at the two nurses, and they left the room.

The babies fed, their eyes closed. One of them  — the pink hat; Beth, I assumed — worked a fist loose from the swaddling and waved it around. The fist bashed the owner’s face, and she stopped feeding and howled at the unprovoked attack by a strange flying object.

“Silly baby,” Libby murmured affectionately.

Beth twisted her head from side to side, looking for the food source again. Libby helped her find it.

“You’re very pro at this already,” I said, impressed. Feeding two babies at once; one had seemed complicated enough, as I remembered. But Libby seemed a different person from the uncertain little mouse I’d met a year ago. This Libby was confident, efficient…

I’d spoken too soon.

Libby’s eyes filled with tears, which ran down her cheeks unchecked because both her hands were occupied, holding the twins.

I stood up, plucked a tissue from the box by the bed, and wiped her face.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.

She shook her head and sniffed.

“It’s nothing. The baby blues — remember those?”

I nodded. They’re not easily forgotten, those third-day blues.

“Remember wondering how you’re going to cope at home on your own?”

I pondered. As I recalled, I was overjoyed to leave the noisy NHS hospital, where six mothers in the same ward insisted on “rooming in” with their squawking babes.

“I was glad to get home for some sleep.”

“But it’s different here! They wait on you, hand, foot and finger! I don’t have to do a thing — not even change nappies! And tomorrow I’m going to go home, and my mother will want nursemaiding because she doesn’t understand how the shower works or something, and I’m going to be all…alone!”

She wailed, and one of the babies — Blue Hat — lifted its head and wailed in sympathy. Pink Hat followed suit. All three Patricks wailed together.

“Can’t you stay?” she pleaded.

“I thought I’d stay a couple of hours — ”

“No. I mean, stay with me. At our house. Just for a few days. My mother is useless, and I’ve asked too much of Maggie already, and Oliver means well, but… We have internet, you could work from Oliver’s den. It would mean so much to me, just to have someone sane and female around the house until I get my act together.”

I thought. I only had one more meeting tomorrow morning, and would be working at home in Milton Keynes after that for a week. It would make no difference to anyone else if Home was MK or Woodhaven.

“I can probably change my flight,” I said, although it did occur to me that perhaps Oliver might not be overjoyed at this arrangement.

Libby leaned back against the headrest, and sighed shakily.

“Thank you so much.”

Then she sat up again.

“And guess what! You can write my blog again next week!”

.

Next: LIBBY’S LIFE #49: An unwelcome blast from the past

Previous: LIBBY’S LIFE #47 – Showered with affection

Stay tuned for Friday’s celebration of Obscura Day!

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Is there a common theme — or better yet meme — for the expat life?

After writing, planning, commissioning, and editing posts for this site for just over a year — many of which were centered on the keyword “expat” — I have become rather fixated on that word of late.

Yes, we’re back to that old chestnut, but kindly indulge me while I rake it over the coals again and crack it open to take another look.

Back when I myself could have been considered an expat — first in England and then in Japan — I assiduously avoided describing myself in that way. It made me think of the kinds of people who go into a siege mentality, circle the wagons and say: “Right, it’s just us now.” I’m sure you know the kind of expats I mean, the ones who live in a colony or compound, or socialize as if they do. They hang out at the pool drinking G&Ts, exuding a sense of cultural superiority — along with great pride in having remained unassimilated.

After all, if you’re an expat, it means you come from the richer part of the world; otherwise, you’d be an immigrant.

Nowadays, I’m an American living in America, but I simply tell people that I used to live abroad. If I use the word “expat” at all to refer to myself, it’s in inverted commas: “Yes, I suppose I was an ‘expat’ for all those years. And now I’m a ‘repat.’ Hahaha…”

What about you? If you are reading this, chances are you are (or have been) someone who has ventured across borders to travel and/or live. How do you refer to your predicament? (BTW, my choice of “predicament” is the result of cultivating a British sense of humor over many years of living on that sceptered isle — no, not as an expat, but as an international resident!!!)

Maybe unlike me, you don’t have any hang-ups about calling yourself an expat — and think that people of my sort are inverse snobs for rejecting the label?

As the blogger Tabitha Carvan (The City That Never Sleeps In) has written:

To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.

So is it fair to say we’re all “displaced”?

One of the other founders of The Displaced Nation, Kate Allison, is an Englishwoman who has lived in the United States for more than 15 years. I sometimes think of her as an immigrant, except that she tells me she keeps a foot on each side of the Atlantic.

Strangely, I did not wince at all when Kate Allison proposed the word “displaced” as a descriptor for our common situation, when she and I were first chatting about starting up this site.

Well, perhaps I winced just slightly. I know from my studies of international affairs that “displaced” is often used for people who are forcibly removed from their homes by natural disaster, famine, civil wars and other tragedies.

In this narrow sense, “displaced” in no way applies to me, Kate or others of our ilk, who have led privileged lives.

But in a broader sense, I had to agree with Kate that “displaced” seems a good fit. As the Italian poet Cesare Pavese once said:

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky — all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

If there is any common theme that applies to all of us, surely it’s that sense of being “constantly off balance,” as Pavese so aptly puts it. By trotting off to investigate — and live in — far-flung corners of the globe, we are casting off the balance of our lives and choosing a life where, for a while, the only things we have in common with anyone else are the basics: air, sea, sky, sleep, dreams — a life of displacement, in other words…

And in some cases — Kate’s would be an example — we are trailing others who have made this choice on our behalf, or on behalf of family and kids. (See her “Libby’s Life” series.)

Always look on the bright side of life!

In an article last month for the FT, Edwin Heathcote had this to say about what he called “a life less ordinary”:

The expat experience combines a cocktail of the thrill of the new and the ennui of global alienation, of displacement and dislocation.

Readers may wonder why the founders of The Displaced Nation have chosen to emphasize the negative ingredients of this cocktail. After all, the meaning of “displaced” is only a shade or two away from “misplaced” or “out of place.”

Why not look at the bright side instead — the allure and the thrill of a life overseas?

Well, the fact is, the founders of The Displaced Nation don’t necessarily see displacement as a negative. As shown in numerous ways on this site over the past 12 months, it’s a necessary first step in making the leap beyond the known to the unknown — to feeding what for many of us is, or soon becomes, an insatiable hunger for new ways to knowledge.

By becoming displaced, we open up our minds to new forms of

Now if that isn’t the bright side, we don’t know what is!

Keep ’em laughing as you go

As far as our site stats go, readers have most enjoyed the series of posts where we’ve explored the good and the bad, the yin and the yang, of the displaced life, with a large helping of humor thrown into the mix.

1. Alice in Wonderland

Top of the charts is the month that we dedicated to the “curious, unreal” aspects of the displaced life with the help of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

When you stop to think of it, barging into other people’s countries is rather like falling down a rabbit hole: full of adventure but also misadventure, of curious — and sometimes scary (because so incomprehensible) — encounters.

Kate Allison produced two brilliant posts illustrating just how unreal things can sometimes get: “5 lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice,” and “How many of these 5 expat Alice characters do you recognize?”

Meanwhile, Guest blogger Carole Hallett Mobbs kept us in stitches when describing the scenes of young adults dressed up in furry romper suits, “doormice folk,” and flying potatoes that formed the backdrop to her everyday life in Japan.

2. Pocahontas

Readers also appreciated the month when we recruited the legendary Pocahontas to help us understand, from a native’s point of view, what it’s like to be bombarded with clueless nomads.

In particular, we focused on the cases when displaced types befriend, or even marry, the natives, causing them to lead displaced lives (sometimes to tragic effect — I’m thinking not so much of Pocahontas, but of her tribe!).

I weighed in with a post that was partly based on my own experiences: “Cross-cultural marriage: Four good reasons not to rush into it.” Somewhat to my bemusement, the post proved extremely popular — that is, until it was surpassed by new TDN writer Tony James Slater’s hilarious (but with a hard kernel of truth) “Does love conquer all, even language barriers?”

Counterbalancing Tony’s and my cautious take on such matters was a two-part interview series with two cross-cultural couples — all of whom seemed to find their situation “no big deal.”

That blasé sentiment would later be echoed by Wendy Williams, author of the new work, The Globalisation of Love. In a guest post in honor of Valentine’s Day, she pointed out that in an era of increased international travel, multicultural unions are an inevitability — and even deserve their own label: “GloLo.”

3. Global philanthropy

Another monthly theme that earned high marks from readers was “global philanthropy” — the idea of displacing oneself on behalf of the forcibly displaced.

Readers responded with high praise for Kate Allison’s interview of Robin Wiszowaty, who immersed herself in Maasai culture and now runs development programs in Kenya on behalf of the Canada-based charity Free the Children.

Also popular was a feature on international aid worker and consultant Jennifer Lentfer. (Lentfer has received the most hits of any of the 40 Random Nomads who’ve been featured in the site’s first year.)

But even when covering this seemingly sacrosanct topic, we were hard pressed to prevent a note of skepticism, verging on irreverence, from creeping into the site. Guest blogger Lawrence Hunt stirred things up with his well-received post making fun of gap-year students who think they can save the world in just six months. And I wasn’t far behind with this one, still getting many hits: “7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls.” (Hey, the current generation isn’t the first to perform good works on behalf of those less fortunate!)

But is it a meme?

First, what is a meme exactly? My dictionary tells me it’s an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Memes are the cultural analogues to genes that get selected and then self-replicate.

Is the kind of “displacement” we talk about on this site a meme? Not in the Internet sense — it hasn’t spread like wild fire throughout social media.

But has it been a meme within our community? You tell us — does “displaced” work for you, or is there some other organizing principle we should be using on this site? Expat, perhaps? (Groan…)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a roundup of recent displaced reads by Kate Allison.

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LIBBY’S LIFE — A technical malfunction

LIBBY:

Well, this week I fully intended to tell you about my battle with certain tiger-mums, a three-hour glucose tolerance test, a suspected case of galloping dandruff caused by the dry weather, and how all that fits into the context of a Valentine’s Day party for three-year-olds. And I shall still do that — next week.

But here’s the thing: just as I was sitting down to write this week’s episode, Oliver comes home early from work, and says, “Come on, Libs — get packed. I’m taking you away for a couple of nights. Then throw some stuff in a bag for Jack, because Maggie’s having him while we’re gone.”

It’s just so easy when a bloke puts it like that, isn’t it? “Throw some stuff in a bag for Jack” indeed. I mean, I hadn’t done the laundry or anything…and then I look in Jack’s chest of drawers, and found that someone had done the laundry. We have a laundry fairy I didn’t know about!

“Maggie,” Oliver said. He looked all smug.

“Did you ask her to do it?”

“Well…no,” he admitted. “But when I asked her if she’d have Jack because I was planning a romantic surprise weekend, she said something about surprises being one thing, and nasty shocks being quite another, especially in your condition, so I’d better give her a spare door key if I didn’t want another surprise trip to the hospital.”

So there we are. If you remember, Oliver promised me a trip to a spa as compensation for his mother putting me in hospital before Christmas, so that’s where we are going.

“Do they have seaweed wraps?” I asked him, thinking about Caroline’s bony ankles and comparing them to my somewhat waterlogged ones.

He looked puzzled.

“They have white towelling dressing-gowns, from what I can tell from the brochure. Or do you mean wraps like those crispy chicken ones from McDonald’s?”

Ah, bless him. He tries so hard. I’m sure we’ll have a lovely time.

I’ll tell you all about it week after next.

KATE:

Libby is being far too nice and neglecting to mention that I was writing her diary this week, not her — as she said, it was about her “battle with certain tiger-mums, a three-hour glucose tolerance test, a suspected case of galloping dandruff caused by the dry weather, and how all that fits into the context of a Valentine’s Day party for three-year-olds.”

It was a really interesting episode, too.

Such a shame that something malfunctioned somewhere in the bowels of my computer, and despite having saved many times, I lost 2200 words of the episode just when I was about to click Publish.

Oh well. When I’ve finished banging my head against any convenient hard surface, I’m sure it will seem very funny in retrospect.

See you next week. :-/

Meanwhile, here are some links to my own favorite episodes:

#34:  Shadows on a screen – I wrote this one because a good friend who’s a Libby fan wanted to hear more about the pregnancy. When she asked me to do this, I didn’t know at the time that Libby was expecting twins. It was a surprise for everyone.

#11: Neither more nor less than a pig This episode introduces Carla Gianni. The pig thing, while a surprise, was not entirely unexpected. I’ve known Carla, Frankie, and the Maxwell Plum for a long time. They all came into existence in my half-written novel, which has the working title of “Back to the Green.” Billy Joel fans among you may be able to read something into that — also, why there’s a village green in Woodhaven, an Italian restaurant, and why there are so many flashbacks to the past in Libby.

#5: Decaffeinated sherry to toast a Royal Wedding Written in a befuddled, sleep-deprived state on the morning of April 29 last year, having got myself up at an unholy hour to tweet about the wedding with ML and Anthony. It was the first time I’d met Sandra, the mother-in-law. I blame Princess Beatrice’s hat for the way she turned out.

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Me and my shadow – My life with Libby

I’ve been writing Libby’s Life for about six months, and at first it was serialized on my own blog, Marmite and Fluff (now sadly neglected). When The Displaced Nation went live, it became part of this Website instead.

While I could go into navel-gazing details of how I came up with Libby, Oliver, Sandra, et al, it wouldn’t be very interesting for anyone. For example, the short answer to how I came up with Sandra, the mother-in-law from hell, is easy: a deadline-induced state of adrenalized panic.

As for the fictitious town of Woodhaven, Massachusetts, well, I’m very familiar with the place. It’s the setting of my work-in-progress novel (which at the moment seems very far from anything resembling in-progress) and some of the characters from that manuscript have already appeared in Libby’s Life. Melissa Harvey — now Melissa Harvey Connor — is the girl I love to hate. Frankie Gianni, of the Maxwell Plum restaurant, is also an old friend of mine, along with his pig-toting mother, Carla. Poor Carla. She’s had a lot to cope with over the years. She wasn’t always the sad figure you met in Episode 11.

More characters will come along in due course, as Libby settles into life in this northern town.

For now, though, I’m going to tell you a bit more about our plucky little heroine. It’s easy to dismiss her as “just a housewife” but as anyone can see if they have read the last episode, she’s a fighter.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Libby.

I first met Libby in March this year. I was visiting friends in Milton Keynes, and had run out of reading material, so headed for a book shop. Libby was there at the same time, with her two-year-old, Jack — an adorable little thing, clutching a stuffed red car — and she struck me as a woman who had lost her way in life. Lost her identity, you could say, among the shelves of Pampers and Johnson’s baby products.

You can tell a lot about people from the books they buy. Although Libby and I met in the chick lit section, she already had three self-help books in her shopping basket. “Finding yourself after motherhood.” “How to be who you want to be.” “Living and Working in America.”

“Are you moving to America?” I asked.

To my discomfort, her eyes filled with tears. “I haven’t any choice,” she said.

In my experience, there is only one cure for the moving upheaval blues — coffee and lots of chocolate croissants. I took the books from her.

“We’ll come back later for those. Today’s your lucky day. You’ve met the right person to talk to.”

We went to Starbucks and, over a large vanilla latte and Danish pastry, Libby started to open up. Perhaps she was rather too open, considering we had only just met, but sometimes it’s easier to confide in a stranger than in your closest friend.

Her life had been turned upside down, she said.

She admitted that she was tired of being just a wife, just a mother, just a daughter. She had been a stay at home mother for three years, and in that time had felt her personality slowly being leached away.

Oliver had strongly encouraged her to stay home with Jack — Oliver wanted Jack to have the family life his own mother had never given him — but now Libby needed something else. Something for herself, beside finger painting and Play-doh.

She had just put the wheels in motion by talking to her old boss about returning to work when Oliver dropped the bombshell.

“I get my life in order again, and this happens. Massachusetts!” If Libby had said “Guantanamo Bay” she couldn’t have said it with more distaste. “This summer! Yes, I wanted a change in my life, but not like this. This is Oliver’s choice, not mine, but I don’t feel as if I have any right to object. Do you think he’s having a midlife crisis, even though he’s only thirty-three?”

I watched her stuff a piece of Danish pastry in Jack’s mouth. Libby has dainty hands that she waves about a lot, so you’re always half-reaching to move drinks cups out of her way. Her hair is in a mousy blonde pixie cut, and she has big blue eyes that make her look like a Disney cartoon animal. She’s Tinkerbell, without the attitude problem.

Personally, I thought her husband was not so much having a midlife crisis as taking advantage of a temporary imbalance of relationship power that, at the moment, favoured him.

The balance would shift one day, because pendulums of all kinds swing, but I knew it was pointless to tell Libby that her day of power would come.

“Massachusetts is a nice place,” I said. “It feels a lot like England, in many ways. You want my advice? Go. Enjoy the experience. Think of it as a door opening, not one closing. Besides –” she had already told me a little about Oliver’s mother “–wouldn’t it be a good thing to move away from your mother-in-law? The view from 3000 miles has to be an improvement.”

Libby nodded. I could see her watching the proverbial glass become half full, not half empty.

“But what will I do with my time there?” she asked. “Jack will be off to nursery school soon.”

I hadn’t the heart to tell her that most women I’d seen in her situation seemed to fill their time with serial pregnancies, so instead, I said, “You could start a blog.”

“A blog,” she repeated. “Yes, I could.” She thought a little more, gazing out of the window of the traffic.

“I’ll call it Libby’s Life,” she said. “I like the sound of that.”

Stay tuned for another Return Trip post tomorrow.

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Img: Map of the World – Salvatore Vuono

The Displaced Nation’s monthly themes — witty, wacky, wise, all or none of the above?

Before drawing up the charter, as it were, for The Displaced Nation in April, the site’s two Founding Mothers — Kate Allison and myself — and its one Founding Father, Anthony Windram, engaged in some vigorous debate over what the site’s “categories” should be.

We had met through our blogs. What topics did we all have in common?

One of them was easy: cultural discombobulation, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Windram’s blog title. Except we had now come up with a new term: displacement.

Now what do we mean by “displacement” in the context of global travel and residency? My favorite analogy is to an old-fashioned fruit slot machine — but where each fruit is assigned a national identity. I suspect, for instance, that my two colleagues, both of whom are Brits who are living in the U.S., sometimes have days when they spin the reels and get two gooseberries (British fruit) and one cranberry (American fruit) — meaning they’re feeling a lot more British than American. Whereas for me — an American who has lived in both the UK and Japan — I’ll often get one cranberry, one gooseberry and one mikan (Japanese fruit), an outcome that makes my head spin, as I simply don’t know where or who I am. That, btw, is what’s known as hitting the jackpot in our displaced world!

Thus the category What a Displaced World was born, the default category for most of our articles.

Speaking of fruits, food was another obvious category. It was something that had drawn the three of us together in the first place. Indeed, Kate Allison’s blog — Marmite & Fluff — even has food (two of her favorites) in its title.

For this category, we came up with It’s Food! — which, if less than original, we hope does the job thanks to the exclamation mark.

Around the time we spoke about starting this blog, Kate was beginning to serialize a fictional account of a trailing spouse, Libby, on her blog. She proposed moving Libby’s Life to the new site, and we came up with the category It’s Fiction! Libby now shares that real estate with our posts consisting of interviews with novelists who’ve written about the expat life or travel.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and the category Random Nomads sprung out of our decision to have me continue the interviews with expats and repats I’d started on my blog, Seen the Elephant. If “nomad” was obvious, the three of us felt that “random” worked well with it, since we’re constantly bumping into — actually as well as virtually — the kind of people who strike us as being interesting because of their displacement.

As for the Displaced Hall of Fame, this came about because of Anthony Windram’s desire to explore the writings of famous people who’ve been displaced both in centuries past and our own time. While he has a bent for the classics — and has chosen to feature literary giants such as Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce in his posts — Kate and I have occasionally expanded the category to include celebrity types, ranging from the actress Mia Wasikowska (a Third Culture Kid) to the model India Hicks to the chef Jamie Oliver.

The “monthly theme” idea

But then once the blog got underway, we decided that in addition to these categories, we enjoyed organizing our posts around monthly themes, rather like a magazine (the fashion issue, the cheap eats issue, the summer issue, etc.).

This came about rather by accident as Kate Middleton and Prince William’s nuptials took place around the time we launched, prompting us to do a series of Royal Wedding posts focusing on what a global event this quintessentially British occasion had become.

Other initial themes were:

  • Domestic expats — the idea that you didn’t have to go abroad to feel displaced (apt in these economically troubled times), anchored by Kate Allison’s The domestic expat.

But then something (we’re not quite clear what) happened, and our thinking morphed again. We started exploring themes based on particular characters, historical and literary, that have inspired us, as well as books:

And September will be — wait for it! — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance month, a series of posts inspired by Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 philosophical novel.

Some say they like the way we cover themes, while we suspect others find it rather zany.

How about you, what do you think? And if you’re pro-theme, can you suggest any you might like us to cover?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on films and TV series that take vacations to other lands.

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Is The Displaced Nation for expats, travelers — or both?

When we started up The Displaced Nation on April Fool’s Day, many people wondered: is it a site for fools, be they expats, travelers, or both?

From the perspective of outsiders — people who aren’t in the biz — that distinction may seem frivolous. After all, many travelers become expats and many expats travel.

But from the inside, it’s very clear who the travelers and expats are. Both are interested in viewing the world’s rich tapestry firsthand — but expats tend to focus on the intricacies of particular patterns, whereas global travelers want to take in as much of the picture as they can, including the tattered bits.

So, who is more displaced — the expats or the travelers?

The answer is neither. Feeling displaced is a state of mind. To continue the tapestry metaphor, part of you identifies with the new patterns you’re looking at, while another part thinks it’s a confused mess compared to the patterns you’re used to.

Not all global residents feel displaced; same for global travelers. And there are even cases where a person has never traveled except in an armchair — but has ended up feeling displaced by what they’ve read.

As a student of Shakespeare, I’m often reminded of the King Lear line:

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” – William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4.230

Except that King Lear felt this way at the end of his life; many of us global voyagers get there rather earlier. Is it any wonder we feel like fools?!

Now, if you’ve noticed that our site tends to be expat-centric, it’s because two of our writers are expats and the other one (me), a former expat.

Reflecting this imbalance, I’ve started commissioning guest posts by writers — switching metaphors here, but only slightly — who can spin the kind of travel yarn that focuses on the ways travel can make you feel misplaced, displaced, out of place — and, in the process, challenge who you are as a person.

Thus far we’ve featured three such yarns:

1) My first flirtation with the lawlessness of global travel: 4 painful lessons, by Lara Sterling
Sterling has done it all, from round-the-world trips to expat stints. In this article she reports on the shock/horror she experienced after falling in love with a German traveler and following him all the way to war-torn Guatemala — only to discover he was engaged in criminal activities. Part of her was with him, fascinated — they were in a lawless land, so was there any reason to abide by the laws back home? But another part of her was repelled, and couldn’t wait to get back to the United States.

2) In search of 007th heaven, a travel yarn in three parts, by Sebastian Doggart
Doggart — a Brit who lives in New York City and blogs for the Daily Telegraph‘s expat site — tells of the pilgrimage he made to Goldeneye, the Jamaican coastal retreat where Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels. As a Bond fan, he had fun identifying the sights that made it into Fleming’s stories and films. But he also felt alienated that Goldeneye had become GoldeneEye, a playground of the rich and famous — sensing that Fleming, who wrote for the masses, would not approve.

3) How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts, by Joy Richards
Richards lives in her native England and travels whenever she can. Here she describes her first foray into Fez, Morocco, which was also her first time in an Arab country. She decided to go with the flow, finding that she could relate to the Moroccan sense of shame through her parents’ values, didn’t mind “covering up” (is it any worse than being urged by the Western media to put your body on display?), and had a knack for bargaining. But the flow stopped as soon as she became aware of corrupt police tactics along with some cracks in the society’s facade.

* * *

As The Displaced Nation assumes its normal schedule next month, we hope to feature still more travel yarns.

Meanwhile, can you kindly do us a favor by answering these questions:
1) Would you like to see travel play an even bigger part in our article mix?
2) If so, can you suggest any candidates for guest posts, as well as countries/regions you’d like to hear more about?

Much obliged, as always, for your input!

 

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on the less-than-enchanting challenges of vacationing with family.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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