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LIBBY’S LIFE #84 – Stages of youth

 

“No. For the last time, she can’t come to school with us,” I say to Jack, as I lock the front door behind us and start to hustle the three children into the car. “We’re already late. You want to meet your teacher today, ready for when school starts tomorrow, don’t you?”

Jack pouts. “But she wants to. M says she’ll be lonely if I go without her. She says she’ll break something in the house if we leave her on her own.”

You know, I’ve had just about enough of Jack’s overactive imagination and this pretend friend.

“M” has been an invisible fixture in the house for the last six weeks, and she’s a demanding little sod — worse than my own three, live, already demanding children. I have to lay an extra place for her at every mealtime, and recently I’ve been evicted from my favourite spot on the recliner chair in the living room because Jack says that M is already sitting there.

Now the brat is ready to smash my china if she doesn’t get her own way.

I could just play along with the game and say, “Of course M can come with us”, but that would precipitate the need for an extra car seat because M is not old enough to sit in the front seat, Jack says.

And the name. What sort of name for a girl is “M”, for crying out loud, unless you happen to be Judi Dench in a Bond film?

“She’s very upset,” Jack says, with the air of someone washing his hands of all blame for the consequences. “You’re going to be sorry.”

“I hope you’re not threatening me,” I say, as I make sure his seat belt is fastened properly. “Otherwise it won’t be me who is sorry. I promise you that.”

Jack is unrepentant.

“I was just telling you what she said.”

Thank goodness school starts properly tomorrow, is all I can say, when Jack will (I hope) make new, human friends and forget about the fictitious girl in our house. The same girl who now has the nerve to  threaten vandalism if I don’t allow her to come along to kindergarten orientation with us.  I mean, it’s obvious she can’t come. She isn’t even enrolled at the sch–

Oh, this is ridiculous.

It’s got to the point where I almost believe in her myself.

*  *  *

Before I take Jack to meet his new teacher, I drive to Maggie’s house on our old street. Maggie is looking after the twins while Jack and I go to school for the morning.

“So it’s not Jack’s first proper day of school today?” she asks. “It’s just a meet and greet with the teacher, find out where the sand box is, that kind of thing?”

“Breaking them in gently, that’s right.”

“Didn’t happen in my day,” a Southern, male voice chips in from Maggie’s armchair. “My mother stayed in bed and let me walk to school with the neighbour’s kid on my first day.”

Derek. Maggie’s ex who, if I’m not mistaken – and I hope to God I am mistaken — will shortly be her ex-ex.

He arrived in Boston with her on the flight from Miami nearly three weeks ago, and seems in no hurry to return to his home in Virginia, or Maryland, or Delaware, or whichever state he comes from. We met on the second day of his visit, and took an immediate dislike to each other.

“We Northerners must be made of softer stuff than you tough Southerners,” Maggie says in a sugary voice that’s quite unlike the acid tone this comment would elicit from her had it been made by anyone else.

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was starting to become prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Maggie’s my best friend, and I don’t want to see her hurt. But what can I do?

*  *  *

At the elementary school, Dr Felix Roth, the Principal,  is in his element as he greets all the parents in the foyer.

I tell a lie. He doesn’t greet all the parents. He greets the parents who know him well enough to call him by his first name because they’re on the PTA, and he gives a weak smile down his nose to all the others. I get my own back by pretending not to know who he is, and Jack and I make our way to Room 43, where Jack will be spending the next year with his kindergarten teacher, Mrs Healy. My friend Willow tells me that Mrs Healy is a plump, cosy, grandmotherly type, close to retirement age.  A lucky class placement for Jack, says Willow.

Room 43 is heaving with babies, toddlers, and five-year-old children. Jack pushes his way into a group of boys who are playing in a nylon igloo tent, and I look around the room to see if I recognise anyone.

With a sigh and feeling of déjà vu, I see Jodee Addison, mother of Jack’s Valentine crush this year, Crystal. Then, to my absolute dismay, I see Caroline Michaels.

Caroline, the wife of Oliver’s boss, whose son Dominic was the catalyst for Jack’s defection from Patsy Traynor’s nursery school. I’d heard on the grapevine that Caroline was going back to England and divorcing her boss husband after the fiasco at the Christmas party last year, but her presence in the classroom suggests that she prefers the expat-married-to-a-slimeball lifestyle to the divorced-and-living-in-Milton Keynes version.

As the teacher doesn’t seem to have arrived yet, I move closer to Jodee and Caroline, who are venting their opinions on something, and eavesdrop shamelessly.

“It’s too bad,” Jodee is saying loudly. ” You’d think someone in her position of trust would look after her health better instead of eating saturated fat all day. Such a bad example for the children.”

“It’s not just her suffering because of her bad health choices,” Caroline says, her lips pursed self-righteously.  “I mean, a heart attack? Really? Only herself to blame. Thoughtless, I call it.”

Jodee nods vigorously.

Wow. Some woman has had a heart attack and this is the sympathy these witches give her. I wonder who they’re talking about. Poor soul.

Caroline says: “There should be mandatory six-monthly physicals for teachers, and they should be made to diet down to an acceptable weight or lose their jobs. Having a heart attack in your late 50s, when it’s entirely preventable, is nothing short of selfish. And now our children have to suffer.”

Wait. Is she talking about Mrs Healy?

I’m about to turn and ask the mother next to me, who is also listening, jaw on the floor, to Caroline and Jodee, when the Principal enters the room.

In his high, squeaky voice, he tells the gathered parents that, as some of us may already know — here, Jodee and Caroline look smugly at each other — Mrs Healy sadly had a heart attack two days ago, and is still in the ICU at St Whatsit’s Hospital. Her condition is stable but critical, and she will not be coming back for the foreseeable future. With school starting tomorrow, parents will appreciate that time was of the essence, he says, and the school is extremely fortunate to have found a longterm substitute teacher with much experience, who comes with glowing recommendations.

“Someone who is probably known to many of you from pre-school,” he adds, with a smile that can only be described as arch. “May I introduce to you — “ he looks behind him, out into the corridor, and beckons to someone with his arm “– Mrs Patsy Traynor, who will be taking over the captain’s wheel of your child’s kindergarten ship until Mrs Healy is able to return to work.”

Patsy looks over the classroom, sees Jodee and Caroline, and beams broadly at them.

Then she sees me.

I wonder how easy it is for Jack to be transferred to another school.

*  *  *

Two hours later, back home, I unlock the front door and Jack races into the dining room.

“M! I’m back!” he shouts.

And then: “Mummy, I told you she wouldn’t like it if I went out.”

On the dining room floor, in shattered pieces, is the despised Dresden shepherdess that my mother’s aunt gave Oliver and me on our wedding day.

Well, I reflect with a shiver, as I sweep up the bits before Beth and George can toddle over them in their bare feet – everything is clear now.

And I suppose that,  if we have to have a poltergeist in the house, at least this one appears to share my taste in internal decor.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #85

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #83 – Letters from afar

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigialPhotos.net; “Suitcase” © Tiff20 at Dreamstime.com – used under license; portrait from MorgueFile

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LIBBY’S LIFE #83 – Letters from afar

Libby logo blueFrom: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 1, 2013

Hi Maggie!

Sorry to interrupt your holiday – or should I say “vacation”? – but I thought I’d better drop you an email. Fergus wasn’t very well last week, not eating, looking very sorry for himself, and I took him to the vet. The vet says it’s nothing to worry about, probably just the heatwave getting him down.  So I have to make sure he stays hydrated, and I’ve got a huge horse-tablet supplement that I squash up and hide in his food. Which, of course, he won’t eat.

It might help if the stupid dog came into the house instead of staying outside in the heat on hunger strike, but he won’t. Pining, I suppose. Such a drama queen.

How’s Florida? Has your ex arrived yet? (!)

Love, Libs

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 2, 2013 

Hello my dear

Not to worry, I’m sure Fergus will be fine. It will take more than a bit of outdoor sulking to finish him off.  If you’re passing by my house, there’s an unopened bag of those organic treats he loves in the pantry. Just keep them away from Jack and any of his little lady friends 😉

Florida is very hot.  Well, naturally. It is August. On balance, though, I prefer unbearable Florida heat to unbearable Massachusetts cold. At least you don’t have to shovel ninety-five degrees of sunshine from your driveway.

Derek isn’t here yet. He arrives tomorrow. I have deliberately not cleaned the apartment, because I wouldn’t like him to think I’ve changed in our years apart and am now the perfect housewife. I am not, and never will be, a replacement for his dear, departed, oh-so-perfect second wife, Cassie.

I try not to speak ill of the dead, but since I spoke only ill of the woman while she was alive, a death certificate with barely dry ink shouldn’t make any difference.

Much love, Maggie

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 4, 2013

Ouch! Well, no one can ever accuse you of being a hypocrite 😀

I got the treats from your pantry, as you suggested, but to be honest, Fergus seems fine as long as I don’t force him to come in the house. So – I can’t believe I did this for the ungrateful hound — I’ve set his bed up in the children’s Fisher-Price playhouse, in the back garden. Jack plays in his bedroom or the uber-air-conditioned dining room most of the time, so it’s not a problem.

Did I tell you that Jack has a new imaginary girlfriend? Her name is M, he says. Just M.  She was born in England like him, he says, and her dad is in the army, and she’s lonely. I’m always amazed at children’s imaginations, but I’m not convinced his obsession with “M” is entirely healthy. We even have to set an extra place at the dinner table for her.

Hopefully, this nonsense will stop in September when he goes to kindergarten and makes some real friends.

How’s Derek? Are you playing nicely together, or is he turning out to be an imaginary friend also?

Libs

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 7, 2013 

Sorry I didn’t answer right away. (That’s the difference between emails and old-fashioned letters – no one expected an immediate answer in the good old days of first class stamps and duck egg blue Basildon Bond.)

Derek has been here four days now. I must confess that when I offered him the chance to spend two weeks in the Keys with me, I was a) feeling sorry for him and b) drunk on our daughter’s wedding champagne. Sadly, he can hold his drink better than I, and therefore remembered my offer the next morning. I could have argued, but Sara and her new husband were witnesses.

Will explain more later, but I have to go now. Derek and I are heading off for a catamaran cruise this afternoon. All the years I have been coming to the Keys on vacation, and I have never been on one before — isn’t that strange?

M x

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 11, 2013

When you said you would explain more later, I was expecting another email from you the minute you got back from your cruise. Don’t leave me in suspense like that!

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013 

So sorry, Libby!  I should have said — the catamaran involved was in South Beach, Miami, and instead of coming back immediately, we decided to stay a few days. Neither of us had been before, and it’s a wonderful place. Very romantic, if you’re that way inclined. Which, obviously, having acrimoniously divorced forty years ago, we are not.

M

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe

Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013

Acrimoniously divorced people don’t generally vacation together. There is nothing obvious about your situation at all.

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 14, 2013 

Back in the Keys now.

By the way, don’t let Jack’s imaginary girlfriend bother you.  It’s a phase a lot of children go through.  I remember Chuck when he was small, living in the same house — he had an imaginary friend, too. Cathy was quite worried about it, but as you can see, Chuck turned out fine.

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe

Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 15, 2013

It must be nearly time for Derek to go home now, am I right? Are you sorry or glad?

L.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe

Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 19, 2013

Maggie? Are you there?

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 20, 2013

Sorry! It’s been a busy and surprising few days. Spontaneity – the zest of life, I find.

I keep meaning to ask – did you ever get round to looking through the folder of old papers about the house, the one that Chuck left for you? And dare I ask if you’ve checked out the basement?

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe

Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 21, 2013

I did indeed. There’s quite a history. The house as it stands now is not the original. There was an older building on the grounds before it, built before the Revolutionary War. Someone kept meticulous records, and even the names of some of the family members are there. Funny to think there were children Jack’s age running around the place two hundred and fifty years ago.

Have I been in the basement? You have to be kidding me.

I take it that Derek has gone back to Virginia and you’re on your own again. Remind me which day you’re coming home? Do you need me to pick you up from the airport?

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 23, 2013

Tomorrow, August 24th. We’ll get a taxi from Logan, so don’t worry.

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe

Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 24, 2013

Wait — “We”?

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #84 – Stages of youth

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #82 – A chilly reception

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

NEW VS OLDE WORLDS: The “expat ten” can work both ways!

Libby Collage New&OldEvery two weeks, the Displaced Nation publishes an episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, by Kate Allison, is replete with observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the subtle yet powerful differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today Bobbi Leder, an American trailing spouse, responds to Claire Bolden’s post of two weeks ago, in which she claimed that a tour in the United States inevitably entails a ten-pound weight gain. Turns out, it goes both ways!

—ML Awanohara

* * *

Bobbi with sausage and friesMexico has just surpassed the United States as the fattest country in the world, according to new UN figures released last month.

It’s an honor another country can have as far as I’m concerned, but when America was the fattest in the land I was truly perplexed.

Yes, you heard that right: perplexed. Now I know there’s a lot of unhealthy food in the States (e.g., BBQ ribs, deep-fried everything-you-can-possibly-think-of, junk food galore) and many Americans are addicted to their sugar, fat and salt. But conversely there’s also a lot of very healthy food available in the States.

At the end of the day, it’s about making a choice.

When I expatriated to the UK over a decade ago—I moved from the Washington, D.C., metro area to Southampton, on the south coast of England—I didn’t have many healthy choices. Over a decade ago, that part of England simply didn’t have health food stores, nor were there restaurants catering to those of us who sought out low-fat, low-salt meals. As for vegetarian dishes, these were practically non-existent.

It was impossible to find a sandwich where the bread wasn’t smothered in butter or the fillings weren’t loaded with fatty meats or (full fat) mayonnaise. I found it very difficult to eat well because the food options I was used to simply weren’t available.

Cheery bye to Size 2!

Before moving to England I was thin, some would even say skinny at a size 2 (an American size 2 that is); but after living in Southampton for a few months, my weight crept up on me like a burglar in the night, and before I knew it, I was two sizes heavier.

And if you think I was binging on fish and chips, think again. I never touched any of the stereotypical British foods because they loaded with saturated fat. I still remember never being able to eat breakfast at the Southampton airport because all they served was the greasy English breakfast. The sight of a full English breakfast made me nauseous: back bacon, sausages, beans, two fried eggs, mushrooms, and fried bread, all cooked in grease—and they say America is the capital of fried food?

There was a reason why we went out for Thai food every Friday. It was the only place we could find that didn’t serve fatty meals and they’d alter any dish to suit their customers. Forget about trying to find a healthy item on the typical pub menu or in the food court of the local mall.

Even in the supermarkets I couldn’t find the healthy choices I was used to, like veggie burgers, soy cheese, and low-calorie bread.

Before moving to Southampton, I’d eaten a mostly ovo-vegetarian diet, with the occasional lean poultry and fish. When I wanted “junk food,” I would buy lower calorie options like baked potato chips.

After the move, I felt as if I had no choice but to start eating ingredients I never would have eaten otherwise including pork, beef and cheese. And food prices were higher compared to the States, which made grocery shopping a challenge—even at Asda, a British supermarket chain owned by Walmart. The produce was often not up to par, and grocery costs were higher than we’d budgeted for.

So I found myself eating things that made me gain weight—despite going to the gym four times a week, and either walking or biking to most places—and I wasn’t happy about it.

New diet, new regimen

After receiving an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in the States, I knew I had to lose weight in just a few months, so I did something I never had the time to do before: I learned how to cook.

I looked for low-fat recipes online that included ingredients I could realistically obtain. I took charge of what I was eating despite my location and its limitations.

Eventually, the weight came off, and after living in Southampton for a year and a half, we moved to London, where healthier food choices were more readily available.

I even took my cooking to the next level after watching British culinary shows—I knew the Brits could make healthy food—and began to make gourmet meals that were not only tasty but low in calories and fat.

After London we moved to Wales and wound up being in the United Kingdom for six years. Not once during that time did I have:

I did, however, have one British staple: the Sunday roast, which consists of roasted vegetables, potatoes and lean beef or chicken.

It was actually one of my favorite meals.

My cup of tea

Today, after moving a few more times (ah, the life of a trailing spouse!), I live in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I’m fortunate that the times have changed and health food as well as vegetarian options are the norm in most supermarkets and restaurants.

I have no idea if Southampton now offers healthier choices in their restaurants and supermarkets—one can only hope so for the sake of the university students who make up a large population of its city.

The moral of my story is that even though you might move to a country (or an area of that country) where fatty food is the staple, it doesn’t mean you have to eat it.

Looking back, I’m grateful for my experience in Southampton because even though I saw beef and cheese as the enemy when I first moved there, I still eat both today (just in moderation alongside my usual healthy diet), which makes life so much easier when dining out and moving around the globe as an expat.

* * *

Thanks, Bobbi, for making us realize that America is not the only country that fosters weight gain. Readers, what do you make of her observations? Are we global nomads destined to balloon in size as we move around the globe—has that been your experience? Do tell! (A good thing Bobbi hasn’t ended up in Mexico yet, that’s all I can say…)

Bobbi Leder, 43, is originally from New York and grew up in New Jersey. She has moved at least 11 times (she lost count after the fifth move) in the last 18 years thanks to her husband’s job in the oil and gas industry. Leder is a freelance writer and the author of the children’s book, The Secret Police-Dog, but her most important roles are those of cocker mom (to her very high maintenance English cocker spaniel or just cocker spaniel to everyone outside of North America) and wife to her workaholic husband. Leder still exercises several times a week, eats well most of the time—hey, a gal has to treat herself every now and then—and does something British daily: she drinks tea.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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img: Bobbi Leder enjoying(?!) a sausage and fries during a trip to Germany while living in the UK.

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

LIBBY’S LIFE #82 – A chilly reception

Well, here we are.

After all the trials, tribulations, tears, and tantrums, Oliver and I — and Jack, George, and Beth, of course — are finally in Our House.

Our house.  How wonderful to be able to say that again.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of being in a house that we own, or at least pay a mortgage on, rather than being in a house owned by a sociopathic landlady with the hots for Oliver.

It’s not perfect, of course. These last few days, the northeast of the country has been sweltering in ninety-five degree constant sunshine, with no cooling thunderstorms to break the heatwave. When you live in an old, cedar house such as ours — Ours! That word again! — air-conditioning under such circumstances is a good idea. Working air-conditioning, that is: the kind that kicks in when the thermostat reaches a certain level and cools the air down again. While the AC unit we have makes a big deal about kicking in, with lots of vibrations and shaking of the foundations, it doesn’t pay much attention to the part of the process where it’s supposed to pump cold air through the house. There’s only one room where it works, and that’s the dining room with the French windows at the back of the house. In fact, the room seems to be a cold air terminus, getting all the cold air while the rest of the house has none. We alternate sitting in that room to cool down, and sitting in all the others to warm up again.

So “Replace AC Unit before next summer” figures pretty highly on the house-repair list, which is growing at an average rate of four items per day.

“I can’t see it getting any smaller,” I say to Maggie, who has popped round for one last morning coffee before she disappears to the Keys for a month. At the moment she and I are in the Cooling Stage, sitting in armchairs in the icy dining room.

“It will,” she says. “It might never disappear completely, but I’m sure the list will shrink.”

I don’t find this as comforting as she probably intends it to be.

“It was in tip-top condition when Cathy had all her faculties,” she goes on. “She was always having something or other done to it. Which reminds me…” She delves into her tote bag, and pulls out a bulging manila file. “Here’s the paperwork from Chuck.”

I take the file from her and look at a few of the most recent papers on top. There are receipts for repairs to the central heating — we’ve yet to see how the house stands up to the frigid chill of a Massachusetts winter, and the number of repair bills here doesn’t look encouraging — and yellowed instruction booklets for kitchen appliances that were state of the art in 1975. Nothing that seems relevant to the immediate tasks of unpacking our belongings from Sonoma wine boxes and cleaning every room in the house. And goodness me, there are a lot of rooms.

“I’ll go through that properly later,” I say, then ask, “Did you bring Fergus? I haven’t seen him.”

“Jack took him to play in the back yard.”

I look through the glass of the French window and nod, satisfied. That’s the other great thing about living here. Despite the house having twelve acres to its name, there’s a fenced yard that the children can safely play in. Just like the back garden at home in Acacia Drive, only twenty times the size.

“I’ll miss Fergus while I’m away,” Maggie says.

Call me slow, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Fergus wouldn’t be jaunting off to Key Largo with his new owner.

“Who’s looking after him?” I ask. “Anna?”

Maggie shakes her head. “The Pooch Hotel. I’m dropping him off this afternoon. It’s very nice, they look after the dogs well, I’m sure he’ll be fine—”

“But it’s for a month! Kennels for a month will cost you a fortune!” I’m horrified that the dog I persuaded her to take off my hands is eating into her retirement fund like this. “Why on earth didn’t you ask me to have him for you?”

Maggie wriggles in her seat. “Moving house and everything? I couldn’t possibly impose upon you at such a time.”

I smile at her, feeling a rush of affection for her that, God help me, I rarely feel for my own mother without being quickly overridden by irritation.

“You could never impose,” I tell her. “Not on me. Call the kennels this minute and cancel Fergus’s booking. Any cancellation fee will be cheaper than paying for the full month.”

She looks relieved, I think, but still goes through the ritual of “No-I-couldn’t-possibly-Are-you-sure-Well-all-right-then.”

“Of course I’m sure,” I say. “Who better to look after him than his previous owners? Jack will be thrilled. Go get his things right now, before you change your mind.”

*  *  *

I’ve been dying to hear more about Maggie’s holiday plans, ever since she told me that she was vacationing with her newly rediscovered ex-husband, Derek. But Maggie’s a private person, and there’s no point trying to wangle information out of her if she’s not ready to give it.

Today though, perhaps as a quid pro quo for me looking after Fergus for a month, she’s ready to spill the beans.

“Derek won’t be in Florida with me all the time,” she says, once she’s returned with Fergus’s basket, personalised dishes, and a mound of dog toys. She spoils him, and I hope he’s not expecting the same five-star treatment at the Patrick Pooch Hotel. “He’s only visiting for the middle two weeks. He was going to get a hotel room, but I told him that was silly, I’ve got an apartment with plenty of space.”

She sets Fergus’s dishes on the floor of the mud room — we’ve moved back into the non-airconditioned part of the house to get warm again — then straightens up.

“I only hope I won’t regret this. Forty years ago, I was ready to kill him after five minutes in his company, and here I am now, offering him two weeks in my spare bedroom.”

I’m relieved to hear he’s in the spare bedroom, given Maggie’s racy reputation of her younger days.

“I felt sorry for him, though,” she continues. “At Sara’s wedding, I mean. He’d lost his wife, Cassie, only four months before, and he seemed utterly lost. It was such a long time since I’d seen him and I was reminded of the very first time we met. In my wilder days,” she says, and laughs.

I’m standing at the sink in the mud room, washing dishes that are covered with ink from the newspaper we packed them in. I hold my breath, hoping she will tell me more and not stop with a story half told, as she so often does.

“It was quite the whirlwind romance,” Maggie says, staring out the window at the garden, although her eyes are unfocused and I can tell she’s not really watching Jack and Fergus playing on the lawn. “I was visiting the States for the first time, hitchhiking my way down the east coast. One young man stopped to give me a lift in his Corvette, then foolishly gave in to my nagging and let me drive it. Derek pulled me over for speeding.”

I cough. “Derek was a cop?”

“A state trooper. He gave me a warning, then insisted I come sit with him in his police cruiser. I thought he was going to drive me to the station and have me deported or something. Instead, he asked me out to dinner. We were married a few weeks later, and I never used my return ticket back to England. In the years after, though, I often wished I had.”

Yet here she is today, planning a holiday with her ex.

“What’s changed?” I ask.

Maggie doesn’t answer for a while.

“I suppose,” she says at last, “I’m hoping that our thirty-odd years apart have been more helpful than our five years together.”

*  *  *

When Maggie has said goodbye and gone to finish getting ready for her trip tomorrow, I call Jack and Fergus in from the garden in a futile attempt to disprove the theory that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Jack runs himself a glass of water from the fridge then takes it into the dining room, shouting at Fergus to follow him.

“Fergus is thirsty too, Jack. He’ll be with you in a minute.”

I fill Fergus’s water bowl, and he drinks for a long time. Then he trots across the kitchen and stops at the doorway that leads into the cool dining room, where Jack is brandishing a Matchbox car at Beth and repeatedly asking her if she knows what sort of car it is. (Beth, it appears, to Jack’s disgust, does not.)

“Go on,” I say to Fergus. “Go to Jack.”

But Fergus just sits on the kitchen floor and whines.

And even when the temperature on the kitchen thermometer hits 85 degrees, he still won’t enter the beautiful — if rather chilly — dining room.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #83 – Letters from afar

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigialPhotos.net; “Suitcase” © Tiff20 at Dreamstime.com – used under license; portrait from MorgueFile

NEW VS OLDE WORLDS: How not to be a victim of the 10-pound Tour, aka the Expat 10

Libby Collage New&OldRegular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, by Kate Allison, is replete with observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the subtle yet powerful differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from a new contributor, Claire Bolden, a Brit who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and blogs regularly on such matters. She is also a fitness expert, which, as you will see, explains a lot!

—ML Awanohara

* * *

We Brits call it the “Ten Pound Tour.” You’re here in the United States for three years; expect to gain ten pounds, that’s what they say.

I’m in the USA for three years; how is this possible? Well, let me tell you…pull up a chair and grab a cup of tea (hot is preferable—none of that iced nonsense) and a biscuit (that is a BISCUIT, not a cookie or any other sweet treat, which will be pumped full of sugar and additives).

Firstly, I’m British, so our culinary delights are much to be sniffed at. Especially boiled cabbage, I find. We’re partial to fish and chips, but it has to be soaked in vinegar and wrapped in yesterday’s news (not fake newspaper, like a fake British pub in the USA deigned to provide me with recently) and curries.

Yes, yes, I know curries are not traditional British fare, but they’ve become so ingrained in our eating out and eating in culture, that I think they are now a fully-fledged, ghee-butter-infused part of the British diet.

Claire B CollageJust thinking of growing fat…

In the USA…hmm, what culinary delights was I to chance upon? Pulled pork. I’ll have some of that.

Corn dogs…sigh, this batter-wrapped-sausage-thing-on-a-stick filled me first with joy, then dread, then Zantac.

Less a feast on a stick; more a beast on a stick. A beast of untold gastronomic consequences.

But the real devil in disguise is hidden away, tucked and folded and processed beyond belief into many, many of the foods in the Land of the Free. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

This is not, as I understand it, part of the UK diet. Then what on earth is it doing being fed to millions of Americans? And how did I chance upon it?

The American version of “sweetbread”

Here’s the tale:

“There is sugar in bread,” a friend told me whilst I was chomping on a sandwich.

“Surely not,” I replied.

“There bloody well is,” she confirmed with vigour (she’s British, hence the “bloody” and the “u” in “vigour”).

She’s right, don’t you know. I looked more closely at the contents…

In a normal UK loaf there is stuff and nonsense, of course there is. But no sugar.

By comparison, an American grocery store’s loaf of bread ingredients will wrack up a whole host on unpronounceable allsorts, with the dearly beloved HFCS topping out as Ingredient No. 3!

And the blighter is everywhere!

HFCS has reared its nasty, cavity-making, gut-increasing syrupy head since I’ve been in the USA, and I’m not liking it too much…

What is it? Basically, HFCS goes in processed foods and is said to rot your teeth. It causes many health and obesity issues in the USA.

And so, to the cupboard to see what’s what in the food I have obtained since being in the USA. Yes, it is true, this sweetener is in all sorts of stuff.

“Out, damn HFCS. Be gone!” I’ve gone all Lady Macbeth about it

So, I see now why an expat stint in the USA has been christened the “Ten Pound Tour”—Americans might like to think of it as the “Expat 10,” after their expression the “Freshman 10” (actually it’s now the Freshman 15 as most freshmen put on at least 15 pounds during their first year of college).

Food glorious food: don’t care what it looks like!

Add to this the food porn issue. When I first heard of “food porn,” I thought it might refer to food that:
a) is so big it would make your eyes water,
b) is difficult to swallow, and/or
c) is indecent to look at, let alone put in one’s mouth.

But as my first encounter with The Cheesecake Factory (this place tops the list for calorie content) proved—it is all about the size, and, to set the record straight, size does matter.

We all know American portions are large, but in this restaurant chain, they are HUGE. My Asian chicken salad was the size of my husband’s head AND his sideburns AND his fluffy hair after he’s been swimming. That is V V V large.

Everyone eats as much as they can stuff their faces with and then takes the rest home in take-out boxes, because there is enough left for three more meals and you could potentially invite the neighbors, if they’re not already drowning in their own quagmire of take-out food porn and HFCS-infused products themselves.

So, take the food porn home. Indulge in the privacy of your own home—go on, no one’s watching…

Our senses go reeling…

As already mentioned, we’re no angels in the UK with our food and eating habits. On the healthier side, I crave a roast dinner now and then…roast lamb with all the trimmings.

Food is so much an inherent part of our cultures. It helps define us, but as expats we have to sample and pig out on what’s available in the country in which we reside.

That’s only right, is it not?

If I were in China, I’d certainly want to take advantage of the cuisine on offer there. Now, I wonder if they call it “Ten Pound Tour” in Bejing…?

American food and the custom of eating out makes the previous fortnightly little treat in the UK of a Value Meal curry for two from Tesco’s seem a right measly affair.

But maybe one day, when I return to my homeland, I will savour stabbing that plastic cover of the curry before I microwave it and pouring the egg cup-sized portion of “meat” into a dish and spooning in some hard-as-nails rice and enjoy every mouthful.

Just maybe…

* * *

Thanks, Claire, for reminding us about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, which is lurking inside so many American foods! Readers, do you have anything to add to Claire’s observations? Also, is 10 pounds really enoughisn’t it more like 20 these days?

Claire, 38, left the UK shores a year ago in August and is living with her husband and son near Washington, D.C. They will be there for three years and have a bucket list of things to do and see in the USA during that time. Though a Brit, Claire is a flip-flop-wearing, cowboy-hat-totin’ sun worshipper who has already sampled a lot of US cuisine, including corn dogs and crab, but she still enjoys a Rich Tea biscuit with a cuppa. She spends her time talking to Americans and confusing them with her British colloquialisms, as well as writing her blog ukdesperatehousewifeusa, which takes a light-hearted look at the cultural differences between the USA and the UK.

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Images (from left): Claire enjoying a corn dog; an all-American breakfast of pancakes and grits; a sinful dessert at The Cheesecake Factory.

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing

The best thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

And the worst thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

Chuck, you see, nice, reasonable man that he is, has given Maggie the keys to his mother’s house and told us to move our stuff in before the official handover date. “Make things easy for yourself,” he said.

Fantastic — or so Oliver and I thought at first. We could take our time and move everything in stages, starting with the least critical items. But after a couple of days of wrapping china in newspaper and getting our hands and clothes covered in printer’s ink, we began to see why most sensible people fork out a big pile of dollar bills and pay someone else to do it.

We used cardboard wine crates from the local liquor store to pack everything in, then, after only four trips over to the house with the car filled with Napa Valley Cabernet Shiraz boxes, Oliver announced he was leaving for a business trip to Vancouver.

“I’ll be back on the eleventh,” he said. “That gives us four days to get everything together. No problem! Piece of cake!”

What, pray, does Oliver know about cake? About as much as he knows about packing, I’d say.

Before he went, we’d barely made a dent in it — packing, not cake — and now, with less than a week to go before we hand the keys back to Melissa, it’s all down to me to pack the rest up and move it across town. Not the big important pieces like bed, chests, tables, or sofas, you understand, but the fiddly, inconsequential things like clothes, toys, non-perishable food, ornaments, books, CDs, Oliver’s extensive collection of rocks and dead beetles that he catalogued when he was twelve and can’t bear to throw away…

Piece of cake. Right.

“I’ll help,” Maggie said to me, after she saw Oliver trundling his carry-on case towards the taxi marked Airport Shuttle Service.

I protested out of politeness, but not enough for her to change her mind.

“No, I insist,” she said. “It will take you twice as long on your own to transport the boxes, because you will have to take the children with you. This way, I can stay with the children while you drive over to the house on your own.”

Well, when she puts it like that… Sometimes a girl has to take whatever kind of me-time she can get.

* * *

Maggie sits on the floor of our living room and wraps up a Dresden china figurine in the sports section of the Boston Globe. I don’t like the ornament, and one part of me is hoping that it will get broken in the move, “accidentally”, of course. My mother’s aunt gave it to us for a wedding present, and while it was very kind of her, Dresden china isn’t our style. Great Aunt Esther might as well have given us a set of antimacassars or an aspidistra.

“Chuck left me a big folder of paperwork relating to the house, to give to you.” Maggie carefully places the Dresden in a cardboard crate and moves onto the next item — a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks from my grandmother. “Old paperwork. Old deeds, plans, that kind of thing.”

“Oh yes?”

I confess, I’m not paying too much attention to Maggie. I’ve just found Oliver’s badminton racquet case with the stuffed tiger in it, and I can’t help but remember the awful chain of events it precipitated last year, shortly after the twins were born.

“Mmm. I haven’t looked at it, because the house will be yours, not mine, but it could be interesting. For example, while the official date of the house is 1830, I remember Cathy saying that she thought there might have been another building there before. Something to do with the basement being only a few feet high and her not being able to stand upright in it. I’m not sure what her reasoning was, but maybe you’ll find the answer in the folder.”

I jam the badminton racquet and all its emotional baggage in a suitcase.

“Your friend Cathy must have been very tall, then,” I say. “The basement’s like any other. Dark, creepy, and full of noisy machinery. I can stand upright in it, no problem.”

“No, not that part. I mean the part behind the furnace.”

Maggie falls silent, and at first I think she’s admiring Granny’s Wedgwood candlesticks, but then I realize she’s been distracted by the packing paper and is reading about the dramatic arrest of a New England Patriots player accused of murder.

I think hard about the basement in the house we’re buying. I remember the furnace, because it was surprisingly new in such an old place. But it was next to a wall. There was no more basement space behind it.

I tell Maggie this, and she tears herself away from the gory details of local sports scandals.

“Oh no, you can’t see it now. Cathy had some work done on the house, back in the late seventies. Had the basement sealed off behind the furnace, because it was neither use nor ornament since you had to bend over double to get in there.” She places the Boston Globe-wrapped candlesticks in the box with the Dresden shepherdess. “Or at least, that’s what she… Goodness me, are these your wedding photos?”

She holds up a cream suede album.

“May I look?” she asks.

I wave my hand graciously. “Be my guest.”

I’ll have to put her in charge of the mugs and glasses. She’s too easily distracted. Still, this has reminded me of something.

“You never showed me the photos of your daughter’s wedding at Christmas,” I say, and wait as she slowly turns the pages of our album. She’s stalling for time, I think. “You promised you would, and then forgot. And we won’t have time next week what with moving, and the week after that you go to the Keys for a month.”

She looks up from the photos. She’s on the page where Oliver and I have our hands on the knife, ready to cut the wedding cake. It was a traditional, heavy fruit cake, and I recall thinking at the time that a circular saw would have been more useful than that dinky, ivory-handled cake knife.

“After we’ve finished packing for the day, how’s that?”

She sounds rather strange, I think. And I’d bet a lot of money, or at least a Dresden shepherdess and a couple of candlesticks, that she’s hoping I’ll have forgotten by the end of the day.

* * *

I make five trips to the house on Main Street, and by the end of the fourth, the sun is bobbing along behind the trees, and the children are getting cranky. To make it easier for Maggie, who is also looking tired and cranky, I decide to take Jack along with me for the last trip. He’s very excited at seeing the new house again, and wants Fergus to come along too, so we have a little family outing — me, Jack, and Fergus — which makes me feel strangely nostalgic, because it’s how we used to be in Milton Keynes, before America and before the twins were even thought of.

At the new house, I dump the boxes with all the others in the living room while Jack and Fergus play in the back garden, then I walk down the hallway to the dining room at the back of the house. The room has French windows that open out into the garden — or at least, they should open out but they’re stuck together with many layers of paint. I knock on one of the small panes at Jack, and beckon him to come back in the house.

After a few seconds I hear his running footsteps on the wooden floor, and he bumps into me as I’m closing the dining room door. He’s alone.

“Where’s Fergus?” I ask. Fergus, now that he no longer lives with us, slavishly and perversely follows Jack around whenever they’re together.

Jack points. “He’s tired.”

Fergus is lying down next to the open front door at the other end of the hallway.

“Fergus! Here, boy!”

He sits up and whines softly, but doesn’t move any nearer.

“Guess that’s a hint that he’s had enough house-moving for today,” I say to Jack. “You know what? I know exactly how he feels.”

* * *

Back at Juniper Street, I deliver Fergus to Maggie, and she murmurs something about turning in for the evening, but I’m not letting her off that easily. I remind her of her promise to show me Sara’s wedding photos and how she’s off to Florida for a month, so she trots over to her house to get them.

When she returns, I have to stop myself from snatching the album out of her hands. I’ve heard so many rumours about Sara Sharpe, this mystery woman of Woodhaven, that I’m dying to see what she looks like. A femme fatale, I imagine… The sultry looks of Nigella Lawson and the seductiveness of Greta Garbo.

I’m disappointed. She’s serious-looking, her hair dark and smooth, as severe as a ballerina’s. On most of the photos, she wears a little frown as if she’s thinking very hard about what she’s doing — and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to think hard about a wedding on a beach in the Seychelles. She looks absolutely nothing like Maggie.

“No,” Maggie says. “She’s the image of her father, that’s what she is.” She points at a man in the photo. “Him. Derek. My ex-husband, whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years until that day.”

“That must have been awkward,” I say. I try to imagine meeting Oliver for the first time in thirty years at Jack’s wedding, and fail utterly. “I suppose that’s one advantage of Sara being an only child. You won’t have to meet him again.”

I hand the photos back to Maggie, and I see that her face has turned pink.

“Are you OK?” I ask. “Do you want me to turn the air conditioning up?”

She shakes her head.

“No, I’m fine.” She throws her pashmina around her shoulders and stuffs the photos into her handbag. “It was, as you say, a little awkward meeting Derek again.”

She looks down, fiddling with the clasp on the bag. “He’s widowed now, poor man. I never liked my replacement, but he obviously did. I felt sorry for him.”

“Not your problem any more, though, right?”

Her face goes a bit pinker.

“I might as well tell you, Libby. My vacation in Florida — I’m spending it with Derek. My ex-husband whom I divorced in 1976.”

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #82  – A chilly reception

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

NEW VS OLDE WORLDS: Would you rather chat about weather with a rugged Aussie or a whingeing Brit?

Libby Collage New&OldRegular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, by Kate Allison, is replete with observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the subtle yet powerful differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from an occasional contributor, Kym Hamer, whose thoughts on the topic immediately drifted to the ten winters she has spent in her adopted home of London. Hmm…is that because her native Melbourne now has highs of 8°C, or 46°F (and overnight lows of -1°C, or 30°F)?

—ML Awanohara

Kym Outdoor Entertaining Australia Day 2008As an Australian who moved to the UK in 2004 and who continues to make London her home almost ten years on, I can’t really afford to have any quarrel with the weather.

It is one of the quintessential British-isms, this obsession with weather, and it is the question I find myself in the midst of most debate aboutalways at the first meeting and often well into several years of cross-cultural friendship.

The stereotype of Australia’s big blue skies, fresh-faced outdoorsy-ness and neighbourly games of cul-de-sac cricket prevails so strongly in the British psyche, that any suggestion that all is not what it appears Down Under comes across as churlish, un-conversational and bordering on arrogant ungraciousness.

It’s not worth arguing: the Brits like to be right about this.

But what has struck me most about these conversations is that they usually occur in overheated pubs, lounge-rooms, Tube carriages and lifts with the protagonists sitting or standing around in their shirtsleeves complaining about the cold.

I have never met a nation so unwilling to put a jumper on.

(Which reminds me of a rather bad joke: what do you get when you cross a kangaroo and a sheep? A woolly jumper!)

Wrap up warm, but not too warm

I’ve been caught out myself, rugging up [putting on lots of clothes in anticipation of going somewhere bl**dy freezing] upon leaving the house on a chilly morning. Silently congratulating myself on my toasty (sometimes even thermal) attire, I find myself wishing I could dispense with three quarters of it half an hour later.

And let me tell you, it’s a royal pain to carry around a heavy winter coat and quite embarrassing to sit sweating profusely in a job interview because everything you could have possibly taken offand still remain decent, let alone remotely “put together”has been shed.

So I’ve learnt to avoid the thermal underwear and to dress in layers. More or less like a pass the parcel parcel.

Tuning into the daily weather forecast on the radio as I open one sleepy eye each morning, I’ve learnt that it pays to double check that the light spring coat hanging at the ready should not be replaced by something more…or less.

Accessorize!

But the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is this: it’s the extremities that matter and the right hat, scarf and gloves can make all the difference.

As the temperature and wind chill factor pas de deux through London during any given month, the right “weight” of this essential triumvirate can have me either swanning about in a state of slightly disheveled fabulous-ness or looking as though I’ve been dragged through a damp hedge backwards.

As such I have acquired:

  • several right “hats”
  • a range of pashminas—from warm woolly to just to keep the chill off on a “summer” evening
  • many suitable scarves (they are defined by being more slender in shape than a pashmina)
  • not one but two perfect pairs of gloves—a heavy-duty, super-warm pair and a lightweight purple leather set.

Which reminds me how hacked off I was to lose one of the heavy duty duo in January—and must make a note to myself to buy the perfect replacement pair. I’ve learnt that’s harder than it sounds. Who knew such things would become so important to me?

And then there’s the bag. My handbag grew exponentially into a “tote” during my first few years in London, becoming big enough to stuff in one or any combination of this trio as I climbed up/down Tube escalators, entered offices and interview rooms, got on and off buses and hugged friends in the doorways of their toasty digs.

Thank goodness other essentialsphones, umbrellas, (e)bookshave gotten smaller.

“Bring something warm—if it’s dry we’ll be sitting outside!”

But when I am at home and the climate is just my own again, slippers and cozy throws abound, whether I’m curled up on the couch in the lounge room, cooking up a frenzy in the kitchen or tucked under the duvet in my bedroom. The heating does get turned on but only when a jumper just isn’t enough.

I am famous (or infamous?) for invitations tagged with “bring something warmif it’s dry we’ll be sitting outside.” Guests laugh knowingly and remark about taking the girl out of Australia and all of that.

But baby, when it’s cold outside, quite frankly you should already know the drill:

Put a bl**dy jumper on!

* * *

Thanks, Kym, for that impassioned account of what it’s like for an Aussie to live in the midst of limeys who’d prefer to moan about the cold instead of taking practical measures. And speaking of whingeing limeys, you’ve given us Yanks yet another reason to feel pleased that we declared our independence from Britain on this day 237 years ago!

Born and raised in Melbourne, Kym Hamer has worked in London in sales and marketing for nearly ten years. She writes the popular blog Gidday from the UK. Also follow Kym on Twitter: @giddayfromtheuk.

STAY TUNED for next week’s series of posts—and a Happy 4th of July Weekend, meanwhile, to US-based readers!

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Img: Photo of Kym Hamer entertaining outdoors, glass of wine in hand, in honor of Australia Day (January 26).

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Melissa stands in our hallway and jabs at her clipboard with a purple pen. I feel my upper lip curl into a sneer; I don’t trust anyone who uses purple ink.

“So,” she says, prodding the clipboard and tapping her high-heeled foot in a staccato rhythm. All she needs is a washboard and bells and she could be a one man band. “So. The scratches on the floors in the foyer –”

“I keep telling you, they were there when we moved in! Fergus and the kids had nothing to do with those. More likely you caused them with your stupid shoes.”

She smirks. “Prove it.”

I can’t, of course. When we moved in, it didn’t occur to us to take photographs of every floorboard, every rug, or every kitchen cupboard.

“The scratches,” she continues. “The stain on the master bedroom carpet –”

“Caused by the disrepair of the skylight, which was your responsibility.”

She waits patiently for me to finish, then says, “Replacement of locks, permanent marker on kitchen cabinet, scratched hardwoods, and stained carpets. I’ll get a quote for repairs but it won’t be less than $600. Professional cleaning, $400. Landscaping outside because you let it get overgrown…another $400 or so.”

I swear, she makes this stuff up as she goes along. The garden is no more overgrown than it ever was, but again — we don’t have photographs to prove it. And professional cleaning? Really? I’m perfectly capable of coming in myself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, and frankly, if the professional cleaner is the same one who came before Oliver and I moved in, I’ll do a better job. Just give me the fee.

After a quick calculation, I say, “That leaves $200 to come back from our security deposit, correct?”

She frowns. “Oh, and I nearly forgot — the deck needs power-washing because you let it get splashed with grease while you were barbecuing. So that will be…”

Let me guess. $200 to clean the deck.

“…another $200. Looks like you won’t be getting any of your security deposit back, Libby!”

*  *  *

“Where are you moving to?” she asks as she pokes through the closet in the hall; looking for something else to bill us for, I suppose. Her oily voice suggests she knows exactly where we are going to live, but I tell her anyway.

“The apartments near the mall, until we find a house we are able to buy.” I choose my words carefully. Are able to buy doesn’t mean the same as can afford.

“Have you looked at the new houses in Banbury? They’re very nice.”

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Seeing as she’s the selling realtor and her new boyfriend built them.

“Yes,” I say, unable to keep my temper any longer. “We’ve looked at them, but frankly I’d rather live in a cardboard box in the middle of the road than line your boyfriend’s pockets by buying one of those crammed-on little hen-houses.”

An error of judgment to let my temper show. Melissa emerges from the closet and announces that there’s a cracked floor tile that needs replacing, which will cost another —

OK. That’s it. I’ve had enough of Melissa Harvey Connor and her real estate bullshit.

“Of course,” I interrupt, “we really wanted to buy that old house on Main Street. The antique. But the owner didn’t accept our offer, and we weren’t willing to offer more because it needs such a lot doing to it.”

I watch her. She’s avoiding my eye and has a fixed smile on her face, the one she always has when she’s trying to hide something.

“That’s right,” she says. ” I talked to the owner and gave him your offer, but to be honest, he was insulted. It’s priced very reasonably as it is.”

Actually, it isn’t. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done some investigating, and although the price might have been OK a year ago, if at the top end of the range, house prices in this area have taken a nose dive since then. It’s now way overpriced. All right, so our offer might have been cheekily low, but seeing as no one else had bought it, you’d think the seller would be willing to enter negotiations.

And anyway, how did she talk to the owner? Maggie has been trying to get in touch with him for two weeks with no luck.

“You’d think the seller would have made a counter offer, though,” I say to Melissa, fishing for more clues. “If you were talking to him on the phone, I’m assuming you tried to actually, you know, sell the house for him.”

She opens and shuts her mouth a couple of times, looking like a surprised trout that I’ve caught and am slowly reeling in.

“He was much too insulted,” she says eventually. “He said he’d rather burn the place to the ground than sell it to someone who offers such a stupid price.”

Lies, all lies. I know when Melissa is lying, and I’ve seen “Melissa’s patented excuse” expression before. While she might fancy herself as an actress, she’s not going to give Meryl Streep any sleepless nights.

“Seriously,” Melissa says, trying to look serious but failing, “you should look again at those houses in Banbury. They’re really cute. I don’t know what you’ve got against them, they’re ready to move into, they’re brand new, not like that dusty old barn on Main Street. Who would want to buy that old shack?

“I can think of someone.”

Melissa and I both jump, and we turn towards the voice at the front door. While we’ve been arguing, Maggie has quietly let herself in with the spare key I gave her for emergencies.

“Maybe one person who would like to buy it is the selling realtor,” she says. “The one who has done her best to keep the ‘old shack’ for herself until she can get rid of her tenants and sell the house she’s been renting out. Then she can buy the ‘old shack’ and sell it to her property developer boyfriend for a little more profit. But he still gets a good deal because he’s going to parcel up the 12 wooded acres it’s built on, apply for planning permission, and put a couple of dozen cookie-cutter houses there instead. Of course,” Maggie adds, “it would help if more people would buy his latest batch of cookie-cutters in Banbury because right now he doesn’t have the means to buy the ‘old shack’ himself, which is why Melissa here is trying to get it for a good price by feeding the seller of the house a lot of lies about how no one is interested in it.”

Melissa puts her hands on her hips. She’s put weight on recently. She has a lot more hip than hand.

“I could sue you for that,” she says. “That’s libel.”

“Only libel if it’s in writing, although you’ve given me an idea. My contact at the Woodhaven Observer might be interested in a little investigative journalism. By the way,” Maggie gestures to a tall figure stepping into the hallway, stomping his wet shoes on the doormat, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”

The man finishes wiping his feet and nods at me and Melissa.

“Who is this?” Melissa demands. “Are we having a party here or something that I didn’t know about? I came here for a professional visit, and you just barge in with your boyfriend and your spare key –”

The man turns to Maggie. “Yep. I see what you mean about her.”

“Melissa.” Maggie’s voice is soft. Dangerously so. “If we’re going to talk about professionalism, I’d be careful what I said, if I were you.”

She smiles brightly at me and Melissa. “As I was saying. This is a friend of mine. Or more accurately, the son of a dear, deceased friend of mine. I believe Melissa has corresponded with him on occasion.” She emphasises the last word. “And this,” she says to him, “is my very good friend Libby.”

The man steps forward and holds out his hand to me.

“Chuck Morande,” he says. “A pleasure to meet you, Libby. I hear you’re interested in buying my mother’s house. If I hadn’t had a phone call from Maggie here, I would never have known, so I thought a trip to my hometown was in order to take care of things properly. Woodhaven realtors today aren’t the professionals they were in my day, it seems.”

And however much I regretted not having a camera at the ready to take photos of this house two years ago, it was nothing compared to the regret I felt at being without a camera now to take a picture of Melissa’s face.

*  *  *

“A toast, I think.” Maggie takes a bottle from her fridge and pours out four glasses of sparkling wine for the adults, and three plastic cups of cranberry juice for the children. We decided to come back to Maggie’s house for celebrations; the air in our own was still too thick with the atmosphere of accusations and Melissa’s defeat. “To Chuck — for making the trip from Montana when a telephone call would have sufficed.”

Maggie, Oliver and I raise our glasses. “To Chuck.”

Chuck sips at his wine and looks faintly embarrassed. “It was only an airplane ticket.”

“Ah, but without that ticket, Libby here would have to live fifteen miles away near the mall, and I wouldn’t see her anymore.” Maggie smiles at me. “I’d be quite lonely without Libby in Woodhaven. As it is, she will be living in Cathy’s old house just five minutes away.”

“I wouldn’t have sold my mother’s house to that realtor anyway.” Chuck drains his glass and holds it out to Maggie, who refills it. “My own toast now — to Libby and Oliver. I hope you’ll be as happy in that house as my parents were.”

Oliver and I exchange glances. Chuck had been more than willing to accept our “insulting” low offer, and had even offered another reduction to help us with our closing costs. He was just pleased that his mother’s property was going to a family who loved it for what it was and who wouldn’t turn it into twelve acres of McMansions.

“I’m sure we will,” Oliver says, “thanks to you. In a few weeks, we’ll be in a place of our own again.”

He clinked his glass against mine.

“We’ve missed that, haven’t we, Libs?”

I nod, barely able to speak for the lump in my throat.

A place of our own. Yes.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing

 Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #79 – Gladiator games

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

LIBBY’S LIFE #79 – Gladiator games

June.

Summertime. Crickets, cicadas. Long evenings, hot days.

Or, back on Planet Earth in 2013: June. Thunderstorms. Hailstones, lightning. Flood warnings, incessant rain. Central heating returning for another encore, and cabin fever causing small children to ricochet off walls and demand opportunities to test the effectiveness of recently purchased wellington boots.

Rain or no rain, after several days cooped up inside, we are going for a walk this afternoon.

It’s a slow process, though, I’m discovering. It’s taken nearly five minutes to get Jack, plus the twins in their double pushchair, from the front door to the other side of our street, because the very puddles I need to avoid with the pushchair are those in which Jack wants to jump with his new, camo-patterned rainboots.

As the children and I bicker and squelch past the entrance to Maggie’s long gravel drive, I spot Maggie trotting from her house towards us, holding a black and red golfing umbrella above her head and squinting into the driving rain.

“You do know,” she shouts, “that if someone who is not English sees you out in this downpour, they will call child protection services? Or at the very least, they’ll call the men in white coats?”

We laugh. The Woodhaveners’ attitude to rain is a private joke between me and Maggie. Woodhaveners will happily cope with two feet of snow and an ice storm, but send them a bit of rain and they flap around, panicking about damp basements and aquaplaning cars.

I explain about the cabin fever and Jack’s new wellies. “What’s your excuse for going out in it?” I ask.

“Checking the mail for Montana-postmarked letters,” she says, and I groan softly.

Maggie’s been waiting for a letter from Montana for about a week now. A letter from Chuck, the current owner of the house I want to buy. Chuck is strangely inaccessible by modern communication. After our liquid lunch in the Maxwell Plum, Maggie phoned the emergency number he gave her a few years ago — his neighbours’ number — and left a message.

The message was that Maggie thought he should know that someone (me) was interested in buying his mother’s house, and Maggie had reason to believe he might not know this (because we think Melissa, his real estate agent, hadn’t told him we’d put in an offer) so would he please call Maggie back ASAP.

After two days with no response, she phoned again. Chuck’s neighbours sounded slightly annoyed and told her they’d most certainly passed on the message to Chuck, who had said he would write a letter to Maggie. Yes, they told her, a real letter. On paper, in an envelope, with a stamp, with her address on it. Surely she had heard of such an invention in Massachusetts?

“More to the point, hasn’t he heard of Facebook in Montana?” I asked. “Who writes letters on real paper these days, for goodness’ sake?”

“People who live in the middle of nowhere and communicate mainly with horses, apparently,” Maggie said.

Now, as Maggie opens her mailbox and I see that it contains only this week’s issue of the Woodhaven Observer, I’m starting to think that he’d decided to bypass the postal system and deliver it himself. On horseback.

I voice this theory to Maggie, who looks at me sympathetically.

“At least you’ve got somewhere to live in July now,” she says. “You won’t be homeless.”

This is true. Oliver, via his company’s HR contacts, has managed to get a three-bedroomed apartment near the mall, in the same complex we stayed when we first arrived in America, two years ago. So, no, we won’t be homeless —  but the apartment faces the freeway, it’s noisy with the heavy traffic, and I’m not counting on many undisturbed nights from the twins. It’s most irritating, because they’d both just started sleeping through the night.

We looked at some new houses in Banbury, two towns away. The houses that Melissa’s new boyfriend built. This detail would have been enough to put me off buying one, if the cost hadn’t already done so. The base prices of the houses seemed reasonable enough, but once you started adding in the cost of options, the real prices zoomed vertically, because the “options” weren’t terribly optional. The houses don’t come with decks, for example; not a big problem, you might think, until you realise that the French windows (or French doors, as they call them here) leading out into the back garden have a five foot drop to the ground when you open them.

Both Oliver and I want, more than ever, to stay in Woodhaven, in the magical old house that used to belong to Maggie’s friend, Cathy.  Oliver even calls it “our house” whenever we drive past it.

If only we could speak with Chuck, the actual seller, instead of having to go through real estate agents who have their own unscrupulous agendas. Because Maggie, Oliver, and I are absolutely convinced that Melissa has her own agenda in all this. It’s no coincidence that a house with a lot of acreage and a need for fixing up isn’t selling if she’s a) representing the seller and b) dating a local builder/property tycoon.

But without Chuck’s side of the story, we have no proof.

As we all stand in the rain, a black Escalade tears up the street and drives through the water-filled pothole next to us in the road, sweeping a wave of muddy rainwater onto the sidewalk and all over our little group. Beth and George are safe behind their clear plastic rainshield, but Jack, who was nearest the road, is drenched. He bursts into tears, and sobs that his new rainboots are broken because they’re filled with water.

“No, they’re not broken. They just don’t work when the puddles come from above,” I say, mopping his face as best I can with a tissue that is similarly damp. “We’d better get you home and dried off. Honestly, some drivers, no common courtesy or even common sense…”

“That’s our Melissa, all right,” Maggie murmurs.

I look up. The black Escalade is now parked on the driveway of my house and, sure enough, Melissa Harvey Connor is getting out of it.

“What’s she doing here?” Maggie asks.

“Beats me. Can we disappear up your driveway and hide until she goes away?”

Too late. She’s already seen us and is gesturing furiously.

“I suppose I’d better see what she wants. You wouldn’t like to come with me for moral support, would you?”

“Much as I love a nice bit of gladiatorial entertainment with my afternoon tea,” Maggie says, “I’m expecting a parcel delivery, so I’d better not. Good luck,” she adds, as she starts to wade up her driveway towards her house.

Who is the gladiator and who is the lion?  She doesn’t say.

I look across the street at Melissa, who has seemingly forgotten I changed the locks on her house eighteen months ago and is trying to open the front door with a key that doesn’t work.

When I eventually reach the door, I get my own key out of my purse and Melissa steps aside.

“I’m here to inspect the house for damage,” she says, and my heart sinks. Three children, two adults, and a dog have lived in this house in the last two years. “You know, for things that have to be put right before you move out, that you have to pay for.”

She holds up her useless key.

“New lock system, for example.” She smiles, baring sharp canine teeth. Or perhaps feline.  I’m the gladiator, it turns out; the one facing a big cat. “Cost to you: $300. And that’s before we even get inside the house, Libby.”

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #78 – Trust no agent

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

NEW VS OLDE WORLDS: British husband and Brazilian wife swap cultural allegiances

Libby Collage New&OldThanks to Kate Allison, regular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, is replete with rich observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the often subtle, yet powerful, differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from one of our regular contributors, Andy Martin. Those who caught Andy’s Random Nomad interview at the start of the year will remember that he’s a British social worker and football geek who followed his Brazilian spouse back to her native São Paulo.

—ML Awanohara

AndyMartininUK_pmA few weeks ago I made my first trip home to the UK since moving to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, in February 2012.

Prior to leaving I started to ponder how I’d feel once I touched down in London.

After such an extended period of time, I guess it’s only natural to feel this somewhat apprehensive. Yet another reason for my intrigue was the number of times over the past year a Brazilian had asked:

Você tem saudades de Londres?

There is no direct translation for “saudades“—which probably says a lot about how us English speakers struggle to express our feelings. Broadly it translates as something like:

having a deep sense of nostalgia or longing for something or someone*

To such beautifully expressed enquiries of my sentiments about home, my typical response has been some muttered utterance like “Na verdade, não,” which basically means: “No, not really.”

What did I say above about us English speakers being expressive?

Or perhaps that’s just me.

Delighted to be in the new world…

Yet, on the whole those two words do sum up my thoughts about home. Sure, I miss friends and family—but the place? As I said, “Na verdade, não.”

I’ve lived in London, walked its streets and drank in its pubs for most of my life, so why would I be so desperate to go back?

Perhaps it is because I know that we’re likely go back to settle there eventually.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s not that I don’t miss London, more that I am happy with my lot here in São Paulo.

Which I am.

…while my wife is attached to the old one!

Ironically, it is actually my wife who is the one who most wants to return “home” to London after she finishes her degree at the end of this year**. This surprises most people, who assume that my Brazilian wife is the one who wants us to stay in Brazil, when it’s actually the opposite.

Why?

Part of it, I guess, can be put down to the opportunity each of us has to explore the unknown.

When I traveled around South America in 2007, I had never before left Europe. Likewise, until she went to Buenos Aires in 2008 (where we met), she had never left Brazil.

Both of us had only really ever known one way of life.

Now, with my wife having spent three years in London and us now having spent almost 18 months in São Paulo, we both seem to have come to appreciate and adore the things about each other’s countries that the other takes for granted or even dislikes.

The predictability, and quaintness, of London

For my wife São Paulo is a stressful city, with its inadequate infrastructure having a tendency to make life more complicated than it needs to be.

On top of this it’s a place that for her, because of the fear of crime, constantly leaves her feeling on edge.

Conversely, London is a place where she says she feels safe and where life is made easier by things working as they should—even if it that isn’t always the case.

For example, it still amazes her that a train can be scheduled to arrive at, say, 10:27 a.m. and then on the whole it actually arrives and departs at 10:27 a.m.

Additionally, coming from a land that was “discovered” as recently as 1500 by the Portuguese, she finds Europe’s long history fascinating—the fact that there are buildings in London older than the country of Brazil itself being a prime example.

I’ll be honest, in some ways I probably felt the same when I first arrived in Brazil. My initial posts on my own blog, The Book is on the table, whilst written with my tongue firmly in cheek, could possibly also be seen as me just being another gringo moaning about stuff—the subtext being that “everything back home is much better.”

As time went on, I realized that I didn’t want to be or become one of those moaning expats. Of course, it is natural to compare things when you move or go abroad. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong being critical if it’s fair and balanced.

But to make a habit of it isn’t good for one’s mental health. It ends up making you bitter and unhappy with your new environment. It’s also the quickest way to feeling homesick.

Even worse, such comparisons can easily drift into self-righteous rants asserting one’s cultural superiority—a throwback to the attitudes of our colonialist ancestors that did no one any good back then and will do no one any good now.

The unpredictability, and beauty, of Brazil

Around the time I realized that moaning and comparing are pointless enterprises, I started to feel a genuine affection for Brazil, something that has been reflected in my blog posts over the past 6-9 months.

Firstly, it would be hard not adore a country and continent that shares my passion for futebol.

Additionally, I found it easy to get used to a relaxed, slower pace of life in this part of world, which is not hard to complain about when it’s touching 30°C (86°F) for most of the year.

We have a swimming pool in our apartment block, something that is unthinkable in the UK, and there’s 4,500 miles of stunning coastline to pick from to go to on holiday.

Then, there’s the fact that if I want to go out for a beer or meal I know the bar or restaurant won’t be shut by midnight, as they so often are in London. If I want to stay out sipping a beer until 4:00 a.m., I can.

I’m also enjoying, although also a little frustrated by, the challenge of learning Portuguese, and as someone who studied Sociology and Social Anthropology and then later worked with migrants as a social worker, living in Brazil provides the perfect opportunity to explore South America, its indigenous history and the legacy of immigration after its colonization.

Additionally, the continent’s history of revolution and resistance against oppression also matches my own rebellious tendencies and political values—something I didn’t always have an outlet for in the UK.

Finally, it might sound a little condescending but I’ve now come to embrace some of the things I once moaned about. Living in London is great, and I appreciate my wife’s perception of the quality of life, but all the things I mentioned above provide an alternative quality of life. In other words, there’s more to life than just functioning public services.

Brazil may be frustrating sometimes, but it certainly makes life just a little bit more interesting—though my wife is yet to be convinced by that argument.

Maybe at some point I’ll change my mind and the novelty of life in Brazil will wear off—there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that might be the case. However, for the time being, whenever a Brazilian affectionately ask about my longing for home, I’ll continue to mutter: “Na verdade, não.”

*It’s extremely convenient in these situations having a translator as your wife.
**As a compromise I’ve so far managed to negotiate us staying until at least the end of the World Cup next year, using these two strong arguments: 1) I love football; and 2) Living in São Paulo meant we missed the Olympics in London.

* * *

Speaking of the Olympics, the handing over of the torch to Brazil at the end of the London Olympics certainly showed you the contrast between old and new worlds! Readers, can you relate to this couple’s frequent twists and turns in their cultural allegiances?

STAY TUNED for next week’s series of posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Img: Photo of Andy Martin taken during his recent trip to the UK, at a wedding.

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

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